Consol laying off workers over permit issue - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Consol laying off workers over permit issue

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Consol Energy said a hold up in permitting a surface mine Mingo County will result in the layoff of 145 southern West Virginia workers.

The layoffs were announced Oct. 30, and workers were told the layoffs would take place over a 14-day period starting on Dec. 30. Operations impacted include the company's Wiley Surface Mine, Wiley Creek Surface Mine, Minway Surface Mine, Minway Preparation Plant and Miller Creek administration group, all located in Mingo County. Underground miners are not to be affected.

"The decision to idle our Miller Creek surface operations is a difficult one for several reasons," said Nicholas J. DeIuliis, president of Consol Energy. "The facility has operated without a lost-time accident since 1986, an exemplary safety record for the mining industry, and it is unfortunate that they will not be afforded the opportunity to extend that record. The failure to obtain timely permits despite our efforts in planning and cooperating with multiple agencies of jurisdiction is frustrating and is having a direct impact not only on these employees and their families, but on all state residents."

While plenty of politicians have blamed coalfield layoffs at the feet of the Obama administration, companies have tended to point the finger at market conditions in their investor statements. This announcement from Consol was different in that it directly connects layoffs with EPA action.

The EPA's Alisha Johnson responded to Consol placing blame on the EPA. She said the agency notified West Virginia that concerns regarding the state's draft Clean Water Act Section 402 permit were resolved. The state had provided new clarifying information to the EPA, "as recently as this October." 

"EPA is not aware of any outstanding permitting issues for the mine in Miller Creek watershed, where CONSOL Energy has announced that layoffs are occurring," Johnson wrote. "Review of the company's Buffalo Mountain mining project is a high-priority for EPA. The Agency is actively working with the State of West Virginia and CONSOL, and with its partner federal agencies, to assess impacts on water quality from mining, and is meeting with CONSOL to review its mining plans."

According to Johnson, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continue to review the proposed Buffalo Mountain mining project. Johnson said the agency is continuing to complete preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement on the project.

"EPA will work with our federal and state agency partners to complete the CWA and NEPA processes for the Buffalo Mountain project and associated King Coal Highway," Johnson wrote. "Review under the Clean Water Act and NEPA will help ensure that the overall project protects water quality and the environment, and safeguards public health, while providing valuable economic benefits."

In Consol's financial report released last week, the company posted a net loss of $11 million as a result of planned and unplanned coal mine idlings. A broken conveyor belt was responsible for the idling of four Consol longwall operations in July and those operations continue to operate at about 60 percent capacity.

"CONSOL is serious about maintaining market discipline," commented J. Brett Harvey, chairman and CEO in a release Oct. 25. "Our premium low-vol coal is a scarce resource. When temporary market imbalances occur as they did this quarter with our overseas customers, we choose to idle our mine rather than force tons into the market."

According to DeIuliss, Consol has be working under a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state Departments of Highway, Department of Environmental Protection and the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority since 2007. The collaborative effort to secure permits for the Buffalo Mountain mine would have allowed the construction of King Coal Highway as a post-mine land use.

"It was there we were planning to reassign our work force once the area in which they were mining was completed," DeIuliss said. "The combined mine and highway project, in addition to providing much needed jobs, would have a total statewide economic impact of $484.7 million dollars."

Consol said the EPA alerted the company on Oct. 29 that it objected to one of two of the company's permits. Consol said one permit is not enough to proceed operation.

The company says it ultimately believes it will be successful in obtaining the approvals necessary to move forward with the project.

The Miller Creek complex produced more than 1.55 million tons of coal already this year with an estimated economic impact of about $161.6 million annually.

"Consol Energy attributed the idling of its Miller Creek operations to a sequence of permit delays that has prevented the company from securing all of the necessary environmental permits required to continue mining as identified in the company's mine plan," a release from the company states.

The King Coal Highway is a proposed 90-mile stretch of highway running from Williamson to Bluefield, connecting an area currently facing few transportation options. Much of the road is being built through public-private partnerships with coal mining companies.

West Virginia's Democratic Congressional delegation, joined by Democrat Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, released a joint statement blasting the EPA for its permit objection.

"As a West Virginian, I watched this project come together one partnership at a time for the past two decades," Sen. Joe Manchin said. "As governor, I made sure that the state supported the project's permitting and funding requests. Now, as senator, I am incensed and infuriated that the EPA would intentionally delay the needed permit for a public-private project that would bring so many good jobs and valuable infrastructure to communities that so desperately need them."

Manchin said the land would be put to good use if only the EPA would approve the permit. Additionally, Manchin said, a wastewater treatment plant to clean up millions of gallons of water in the Pigeon Creek Watershed would be build as part of the project.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller said the federal government should be helping people, without delay and uncertainty.

"We are talking about real people and real paychecks that provide food and shelter for real families," Rockefeller said. "I want to be sure that these hard working miners don't get caught in the middle of bureaucracy and delay. There is simply too much at stake. Both sides must come together to get this resolved for Mingo County and throughout southern West Virginia."

Rep. Nick Rahall said the project is one of the perfect examples of the kind that diversifies the state's economy by providing for post-mined use. He said the government should be promoting, not "putting off" such a project.

Tomblin vowed to fight alongside Consol to "make this project a reality."

"Once again the EPA has stepped in the way of a great project here in West Virginia," he said. "The EPA has been delaying this project for far too long. Even after losing all of these court battles, the EPA cannot seem to understand the big picture and the true scope of its authority. Instead of stalling and creating unnecessary impediments, we should be working together to put people to work, develop our infrastructure, and provide the low-priced energy that our country needs."

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