As announcements of coal mine layoffs small and large pile up this election season, the rhetoric is piling even higher.
References have appeared recently to "more than 2,000" and "more than 2,500" coal-industry layoffs in the state in 2012 — often with overt blaming of Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and President Obama — and last Thursday it even went to "about 3,000."
But any attempt to verify these figures runs up against some probably unavoidable squishiness in the data.
The "more than 2,500" number traces, ultimately, to WorkForce West Virginia, which gets it from two places.
One is Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, or WARN, layoff notices issued by companies to employees. That's not a complete list of layoffs: companies generally only have to issue those notices if they employ more than 100 and are laying off more than 50 at a single facility, and if there are no extenuating circumstances. In addition, companies don't have to notify WorkForce later if they don't carry out all of the WARNed layoffs. So the WARN list misses some layoffs and may include some that never take place.
WorkForce can come closer to the real number because it also can find out how many people apply for unemployment compensation at its field offices across the state and where they were laid off from.
When WorkForce added up all of its coal-industry WARN numbers and its coal-industry unemployment applicants for 2012 recently, it got a total of 2,646 through mid-September.
That's the source of the "more than 2,500" figure.
However, the method is not precise. A State Journal review of that list totaling 2,646 easily found one instance of double counting and one instance of layoffs that were WARNed did not appear on the list.
When asked about those discrepancies, WorkForce adjusted its total to 2,592 but did not say it had checked the remaining figures. The office also indicated that it stands by its methods and does not intend to change them or to stop reporting numbers derived in this way.
WorkForce's numbers are ballpark at best.
That also misses a larger point.
Recall that, even with losses of coal mining jobs in the first and second quarters of this year, mining employment in the state as of June was still higher than in 30 of the past 37 quarters — far higher than most of the past decade.
Yet little is said about the mines opening or increasing production in this election year. Maybe, with a reasonable fear of drawing attention to itself, the industry keeps quiet about new sites and expansions.
Twenty-nine West Virginia coal mines reported their first production to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2011 or 2012. Those new mines reported a combined production in the second quarter of 2012 of more than 900,000 tons and combined employment — miners, not including administrative support staff — of 1,038.
Affinity Coal Co.'s Affinity underground mine in Raleigh County, for example, ramped up from its start in early 2011 to produce 54,000 tons in the second quarter of 2012 with 125 miners.
Consol of Kentucky's MT-13/500 surface mine in Mingo County increased production from nothing in the first quarter of 2011 to 106,000 tons in the second quarter of 2012, with 27 miners.
Highland Mining Co. launched production at its Salyer Surface Mine in Logan County in the second quarter of 2012 with 88 miners and 159,000 tons.
And Tunnel Ridge LLC's Tunnel Ridge underground mine in Ohio County has employed more miners in each quarter of the past two years; 259 miners produced 294,000 tons there in the second quarter of 2012.
The only good data are quarterly
It's true, as those who use the numbers of coal industry layoffs as evidence of a "war on coal," that EPA attention has held up mine permits in the state.
But that doesn't explain the layoffs, because coal prices aren't up, as they would be if supply were short. They're down.
The fact is, the state's industry is challenged by a lagging economy, by competition from persistently cheap natural gas and by its own geology. Mines that are marginal — because of depletion or distance from market or poor management or whatever reason — are streamlining, idling and closing.
At the same time, new mines are opening, and any talk of layoffs has to also take that into account.
The best snapshot we can get of the employment picture is MSHA's quarterly numbers on employment mine by mine, available six weeks after the end of every quarter. These numbers, summed across the state, show net employment change, hires and layoffs together.
About 24,700 people worked in the industry in the last quarter of 2011, according to MSHA. That number dropped to about 24,600 in the first quarter of this year, as power plant stockpiles grew with the warm winter, and took a plunge to 23,300 in the second quarter as natural gas prices bottomed out.
Layoffs have taken place since then, and mines have hired as well. We won't have a clear picture of what's happened this quarter until new numbers come out in mid-November.