Danielle Elkins: Coal’s congressional allies | CraigDailyPress.com

Danielle Elkins: Coal’s congressional allies

Danielle Elkins

Last week, I shared with readers details of the decline of the coal industry in Southwest Virginia and discussed the urgency felt by coal communities across the nation for balance between the need for jobs and the EPA's emissions regulations that directly affect coal.

This week, I was given the opportunity to speak with United States Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Virginia, currently serving Virginia's 9th District, about the current state of the Southwest Virginia economy and efforts to make improvements.

In reference to coal jobs lost in the area in recent years, the number 2,500 gets thrown around often. But it is difficult to calculate exactly how many jobs in the area have been lost due to the decline of coal because when a large corporation lays off hundreds of employees, there is usually a press release reporting those numbers. However, when a smaller company lays off around 45 employees, for example, those numbers are harder to keep track of, Griffith said.

Looking at the loss of coal jobs in three tiers puts into perspective the "domino effect" that is taking place on jobs in Southwest Virginia. Griffith said that he hopes the job losses at tier one — consisting of coal miners and others on the "front lines" of coal mining — are finally over.

However, Southwest Virginia appears to be in the middle of layoffs at tier two — the companies that provide mining equipment such as roof bolts and machinery. Carter Machinery, for example, has been experiencing layoffs in the area throughout this year, citing declining coal prices and the tightening of EPA regulations as reasons for the layoffs. Carter is a dealer for mining equipment, among other types of machinery, serving Virginia and West Virginia.

Tier three consists of the local businesses, or "mom and pops," that rely on the many employed by the coal industry to spend money in their establishments. From what I've seen in Southwest Virginia, many such businesses have already closed their doors.

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A light at the end of the tunnel could be the fact that Kentucky-based company Ramaco Development announced this month that it has completed a $90 million deal with two private equity firms to open two new coal mines, one of which will be located in Buchanan County in Southwest Virginia. The new Ramaco mines will create 400 jobs between the two locations.

In regard to current efforts to diversify the Southwest Virginia economy and to bring back jobs lost in the decline of the local coal industry, Griffith mentioned the POWER+ Plan, which is a "$10 billion initiative to assist communities struggling with the decline of the coal industry in growing and diversifying their economies" proposed in Pres. Barack Obama's 2016 fiscal year budget, according to powerplusplan.orgpowerplusplan.org. .

powerplusplan.org.

Additionally, the RECLAIM Act: Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More — bipartisan legislation introduced this year by US Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Kentucky, and co-sponsored by Griffith, along with several other Appalachian lawmakers — would expedite disbursement of $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund, which would be in addition to annual allotments from the AML fund that are already going into Southwest Virginia for the purpose of mine reclamation.

With such funds coming in to aid in reclamation, it is now possible to take abandoned mine lands, restore them back to the way they were before being mined and promote economic endeavors in those areas, Griffith said.

Economic development is an obvious priority in the area right now. During the Southwest Virginia Economic Forum held at the University of Virginia's College at Wise in May, Matt Erskine of the Federal Economic Development Administration discussed the urgency in moving things forward in the area. Erskine said that he believes the tech sector will be the next major foray for Southwest Virginia's economy.

In addition to reclamation efforts and economic development, several cleanup initiatives are in progress for Southwest Virginia.

One such effort is that of Gobco, LLC of Abingdon, Virginia and Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center (VCHEC). The two have joined together in waste cleanup along Hurricane Creek, which feeds into the Clinch River, a water source in Southwest Virginia that houses an abundance of endangered species.

Gobco transports much of the century-old waste coal — or "gob"— that has been dumped in piles along streams and creeks by local mines that didn't have a use for it, to VCHEC. There, the gob is burned using special circulating fluidized bed technology, according to the Dominion Virginia Power website. After the coal is either properly disposed of or transported to VCHEC, Gobco works toward restoring the land.

Although that cleanup effort is finishing up, the website says that Dominion will be working with Gobco and the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy in coming months to evaluate other major gob piles in the Clinch River watershed and plan for their reclamation.

With much uncertainty still surrounding the coal industry, it's reassuring to see efforts being made to generate economic growth and diversity, clean up damage done by old mining practices and restore lost jobs.

If there's one thing that I know for sure, it's that coal-reliant communities across the nation, Craig included, are full of fighters who will continue to find new ways to prosper while also fighting for their heritage — coal.

Danielle Elkins is a senior at Old Dominion University, which is based in Norfolk, Virginia. She's completing her bachelor's degree in communications through online courses. She will be interning at the Craig Daily Press through December.Danielle Elkins is a senior at Old Dominion University, which is based in Norfolk, Virginia. She’s completing her bachelor’s degree in communications through online courses. She will be interning at the Craig Daily Press through December.Danielle Elkins is a senior at Old Dominion University, which is based in Norfolk, Virginia. She's completing her bachelor's degree in communications through online courses. She will be interning at the Craig Daily Press through December.