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Mining their own business

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Coal ‘keeping the lights on,’ fueling job growth as new operation sets to launch

By Brent Schanding

STINKING CREEK—Dew glistens in the early-morning hours across a bucolic field that’s home to deer, rabbits and other furry wildlife. A small bridge crosses a nearby creek bed that looks like the perfect place to skip stones on a fall day. 

It’s part of a 30-acre reclaimed, 1970s surface-mining coal site that could today be featured in a movie scene for an Appalachian-mountainside retreat. 

But listen closely and you’ll hear humming in the distance — exhaust fans from the miles-deep underground mine that’s again expected to be bustling with activity within the next two weeks. 

Operators say between 11-24 miners and others will be working here by the end of the year to excavate coal from deep within the earth. That employment base is projected to mushroom during the operation’s approximately 20-year life span.

“We’ll eventually have close to 150 people employed,” said John Pyles, of the Canadian-based company NovaDx. “It will be good-paying jobs. We hope to get fired up and get going.”

The average salary at the mining operation will be $38,400, according to Pyles.  Those who work underground will earn more than those who work above ground, he said.  

And for each person employed at the Stinking Creek site, Pyles said there’s a financial trickle down effect to seven more, who ultimately reap economic benefits as family members, subcontractors and those who provide goods and services to the laborers.  

“It will be good for us,” Pyles said. “It will be good for the community.”

While it’s welcome news to many job seekers in Campbell County — a place where unemployment is hovering at 10 percent — Pyles says finding experienced local miners may prove more difficult than it has in the past. 

“We’ve lost a generation of miners on account of not having anything going on around here,” Pyles said. 

Since the 1970s, the once bustling local coal industry has continued to flatline because of declining domestic demands for coal, environmental concerns and tighter regulations from coal mining and safety inspectors. 

Less than four functioning coal mines operate in Campbell County now. 

“We’re mining more coal [in the U.S.] than we did in the 80s, but its location has shifted,” Pyles said.

Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota and western states have been emerging in recent years as the nation’s top coal producers — replacing states like Tennessee, which used to be among the kings of coal.

That’s partly because coal is easier to mine elsewhere and federal permit processes in other states are less restrictive than here. 

Tennessee is one of just two states that face the harshest scrutiny and bureaucratic red tape from federal mine and environmental regulators, according to state Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro. 

“We have to go through Washington to get a permit to mine,” Powers said. “We’re trying to change that.”

Less than 10 miles north of the Stinking Creek site, Pyles said Kentucky coal operators can launch new mining operations in less than a year.  

“The federal people are very thorough in their review,” Pyles said. “In Tennessee it’s at least two years. We’re not opposed to regulation, but it’s like everything — there are operators who are more diligent than others.” 

There are other obstacles in the industry as well — namely, finding nearby buyers for the product so companies don’t lose profits shipping products to overseas markets in China and elsewhere. 

Knoxville-based Tennessee Valley Authority — electric supplier to millions in the region — purchases most of its coal from producers in Western Kentucky these days.  

“Why can we mine coal here and ship it to China, but TVA won’t buy our coal?” Powers asked. 

It’s mostly because the coal produced locally is high in sulphur and less desirable for energy produces who are also heavily regulated. 

“But in the grand scheme of things, it could be mixed and burned with other coal and they wouldn’t know a difference,” Pyles contended. “There’s no real reason more coal couldn’t be mined here and sold to TVA.”

However, coal-powered energy plants seem to be obsolete as lingering environmental concerns about the facilities have shifted the focus to more cleaner, renewable energy sources. 

In addition to atmospheric pollution, coal burning produces hundreds of millions of tons of solid waste products annually — including fly ash, bottom ash and flue-gas desulfurization sludge that contain mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic and other heavy metals. 

According to the reports issued by the World Health Organization in 2008 and by environmental groups in 2004, coal particulates pollution is estimated to shorten approximately 1 million lives annually worldwide —including nearly 24,000 lives a year in the United States —mostly in proximities near coal-fueled plants. 

“Coal is in the spotlight  because we’ve been here the longest,” said Pyles. “If you want electricity, you’ll either have to have coal, nuclear or natural gas.”

Despite claims by coal opponents, the natural resource still more abundant and cost efficient than other sources of local energy, said Pyles. That’s not factoring in potential future costs associated with environmental concerns.   

“Everything comes with a cost,” he said. “Climate change is a better word than global warming. But who knows?”

Besides, coal proponents say most industry officials have adapted to ever-changing environmental policies. 

In the 1960s, most of the debris from surface mining would be pushed into valleys, streams and rivers — polluting water sources for everyone that lived downstream. 

“Used to, people would strip mine and blow the tops off mountains and leave,” Powers said. 

That rarely happens anymore, he said. 

Since the 1970s and 80s, environmental safeguards have gradually improved.

Money is devoted to reclaim sites ravaged by blasting and mining. 

Indian Mountain State Park — a 213-acre public space in Jellico —is actually a reclaimed mining site and now home to trails, lakes and other recreational amenities.  

And officials say any damage done at the Stinking Creek site will also be reclaimed to its previous pristine nature.