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Eighty-Four miners laid off, Consol digs in

Thursday, September 24, 1998

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The speedy merger of Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Co. into Consol Coal Group, the nation's largest underground coal company, has left hundreds of coal miners worried about an uncertain future.

  Miner Randy Puskarich, one of many laid off by the Eighty-Four Mining Co., leaves after his last shift yesterday. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

Within hours after the merger's completion on Tuesday, Consol temporarily shut down R&P's biggest and most troublesome venture, Eighty-Four Mining Co. in Washington County.

"It's depressing because we were told that this mine was going to last - that we could retire here," miner David Weiland said yesterday at a meeting of United Mine Workers Local 1197 at the Bentleyville Fire Hall.

But Consol yesterday said the shutdown was just a way to evaluate the mine and said it planned to bring back employees over the next few months and to operate the money-losing mine at a profit.

"We didn't buy the mine to shut it down," Consol spokesman Tom Hoffman said. "We think it's got a lot of potential."

Five other mines operated by R&P in Indiana County to supply electric power plants continued operations, Hoffman said. Those mines together produced about 5 million tons of coal last year.

Consol yesterday permanently closed R&P's general offices in Indiana, Pa., and notified about 60 employees that they would lose their jobs. Some employees left immediately with the promise of 60 days pay. Others will continue working to close out the company's books.

  A worker walks toward Mine No. 84 at the Eighty-Four Mining Co. in Washington County. (Robert J. Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

Eighty-Four was to reopen today with a much smaller staff. Consol said it would lay off about 425 of the mine's 690 union production employees for up to six months as its management team reviews and reconfigures the operation.

"We knew something about the mine from the tire-kicking that you do when you consider a purchase, but until you get in and see how the equipment is performing, what the mining conditions are, it's not always clear where the optimum staffing and production configuration should be," he said.

Union officials told miners at yesterday's meeting that they had few details about what Consol intended to do. Mine employees were advised to sign up for unemployment benefits.

"We never expected that they would lay off 425 people," said veteran miner Paul Andredas, of North Bethlehem, Washington County. "But we accept it. That's the industry that we are working in. No one is crying. No one forced us to get into mining."

R&P, a fixture in Pennsylvania's mining industry since 1881, was for many years the largest employer in Indiana County. "R&P was our Fortune 500 company," said Chamber of Commerce President Dana Henry, whose parents both worked for the concern, his mother as a switchboard operator and his father as a miner.

Consol's challenge is to turn around operations at Eighty-Four, which is estimated to contain 175 million salable tons of quality Pittsburgh seam steam and metallurgical coal. About 800,000 tons of coal are stockpiled at the mine site.

Hoffman said employment will steadily rise as Consol puts its plans in place. But he could not predict when or if employment will rise to pre-merger levels.

UMW members yesterday were concerned that Consol would try to operate the mine without the union. Hoffman, however, said that was not the company's intention. Consol operates both union and non-union mines.

Much of R&P's $6 million loss last year was blamed on the Eighty-Four mine, which was purchased in 1992 from Bethlehem Steel Corp.

R&P bet heavily on Eighty-Four but was unable to develop the complex fast enough to make money. It invested more than $160 million in equity and loans into the mine, including its $53.6 million purchase price, and in government filings estimated that additional funding was needed.

Local union officials said the mine was on course to become one of the most productive in the nation. They said it produced 4 million clean tons of coal in the four months preceding September.

"We needed 200,000 more tons to be the most productive coal mine in the United States," said UMW Local 1197 President Mike Karaba.

In its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, R&P said it ran into trouble advancing continuous miners, machines used to prepare a block or panel of coal for longwall mining.

R&P began using the first of two longwall miners in the third quarter of 1995 and began using the second one in late 1997. Together they are capable of mining 7 million tons of coal a year, according to R&P disclosures.

Hoffman said Consol, which is based in Upper St.Clair and operates 24 mine complexes in the United States and Canada, would put its recognized expertise in longwall mining to good use.

Consol is likely to at least initially operate only one longwall mining machine with the operation of the second to depend on how well the first one does. Two can be useful in blending coals with different sulfur content underground.

Miners were hopeful that they would be recalled to work or qualify for early retirement benefits.

"All we can do is try to bring back as many people as we can," said Keith Barnhart, UMW Local 1197 chairman.

Post-Gazette staff writer David Templeton and free-lance writer Rhonda Jaquay contributed to this report.

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