WJAC-TV Investigates Local Impact of Coal Industry, EPA Regulations

CLEARFIELD – Coal industry advocates have been vocal in recent months, as they express concerns about the economic hardships that their industry has been facing.

During December of 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) signed law that reduces emissions of toxic air pollutants from power plants. Coal-fired power plants were affected the most by the new EPA regulations.

WJAC-TV reporter Brittany Boyer interviewed several mine operators and workers to see if and how they have been affected.

“Nobody really understands what it is until you come in,” said Rosebud Mining operator, Matt Elensky. “This is what it’s like 400 feet underground, and more than one-mile from civilization.

“Everybody has this idea. They think it’s just this little hole in the ground that you crawl around,” Elensky said.

Miners are crawling around in the Harmony deep mine in LaJose. They only have 39 inches of head room. It’s the equivalent of working underneath your kitchen table eight hours per day and five days per week.

“It’s hard on your body. Once you get adjusted to it, it’s not bad. Starting out it’s hard getting your muscles used to it,” Elensky said.

Elensky has been a mine operator for 26 years. For him and his co-workers at Rosebud Mining, underground work is their way of life.

Rosebud Mining is just one of about 100 mine operators in the area. The coal industry has a heavy presence in Clearfield and Somerset counties.

“I do not think the country could survive without the coal industry as part of the electrical generation,” said Kenneth Stossel, general superintendent at P&N Coal Co. Inc.

P&N Coal Co. Inc. has been a surface mine operator in the region since 1946. The company has about 55 employees, and according to company leaders, most have been in the coal industry for more than 30 years.

In Pennsylvania, less than 1 percent of the workforce consists of workers mining coal. According to the National Mining Association, in 2011 there were 63,000 people working in the industry in Pennsylvania.

In 2012, industry workers expect that number to decrease.

“With all the regulations the EPA is putting on the power plants and that, people are starting to get scared off,” said Rosebud Mining general superintendent, Brian Burkett.

“They’ve eliminated a lot of jobs. They’re going to make the generation of electricity more expensive in this state,” said Alan Walker, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development.

The EPA said the new regulations are targeted toward coal-fired power plants, which emit high mercury levels into the air.

WJAC-TV attempted to contact the EPA on multiple occasions to see if the new regulations will add jobs. Calls were never returned by the EPA.

According to the EPA Web site, it’s expected that retail electricity prices will increase throughout the United States by an average of 3.1 percent by 2015. When it comes to jobs, the EPA said that the regulations will generate tens of thousands of jobs for Americans. The EPA believes the regulations will help add 46,000 short-term construction jobs and 8,000 long-term utility jobs.

A person doesn’t realize what coal is actually used for. They just think of the dirty power plants,” said Rosebud Mining foreman Troy Johnston.

According to the EPA, coal-fired power plants have caused premature deaths and thousands of respiratory illnesses.

The tougher regulations mean power plants generating 25 megawatts or more have to cut back on emitting mercury by 2015.

Studies show this will affect 1,100 coal units.

The EPA is hoping to reduce mercury emissions by 90 percent.

“There’s a station close to here it’s called Shawville. Most of the coal from here goes to that operation,” said president of P&N Coal Co. Inc. John Prushnok.

The 58-year-old power plant is just one of five coal-fired power plants that will be closing in Pennsylvania.

GenOn Energy Inc. has plans to close these power plants: Elrama, Portland, New Castle, Shawville and the Titus generating stations. All five are expected to go offline by April of 2015.

Eighty workers at the Shawville Generating Station in Clearfield County will be unemployed.

“I don’t understand at this time with a state of high unemployment,” Stossel said.

Some industry leaders agree. The unemployment is high, but it’s not just because of the regulations.

“There’s not as much demand. It isn’t as much price as it is nothing is moving,” said RES Coal LLC. President Mitch Harvey.

Since July at least six mines in the region have closed. They are based out of Jefferson and Somerset counties. Those mines are the Dora 8 Mine, Horning Deep Mine, Friedens Surface Mine, Berwind Lohr Mine, Rhodes II Surface Mine and Hart Surface Mine.

The mines were operated by AMFIRE and PBS Coals. Both companies said the decisions were based upon market conditions and increased pressure from the EPA.

“Our state regulatories, the Department of Environmental Protection, do more than an adequate job already,” said Stossel.

According to the EPA, the new regulations will benefit 27 states and the 240 million Americans living in states that are believed to be polluted from coal-fired power plants.

For workers in the industry, they understand the need to protect the environment. However, they do not want to become one of the 530,000 unemployed people in Pennsylvania.

“I think there are a lot of people who aren’t sure they’re going to be able to retire from this industry. It’s a shame, it really is. That’s just the way it is now,” said Johnston

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