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Coal's once dominant role in Indiana County shrinks further with Consol's closing of complexes employing nearly 1,000

Sunday, November 21, 1999

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Her preacher says it's not right to hate, so Vickie Parks struggles to find another way to express the bitterness she feels toward Consol Energy.

Coal miner Gary Parks and his wife, Vickie Parks, stand in front of the Keystone Generating Station near Shelocta, where about 1,000 miners, including Gary, will lose their jobs by the end of the year. (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

"I don't know how they sleep at night," she said of the coal executives who decided to close two mining complexes in Indiana County by year's end, a move Consol says is necessary because it's cheaper to mine coal elsewhere. "How could they possibly do that to 1,000 miners and their families?"

This month, Upper St. Clair-based Consol will shut down its Keystone complex -- three mines about an hour's drive from Pittsburgh. Workers believe the last coal will be produced from the Emilie Mine, Plumcreek Mine and Urling No. 1 on Wednesday, Thanksgiving eve.

By December's end, Consol will begin idling a second set of three mines and a coal preparation plant known as the Helvetia complex, near Homer City. That closing includes two deep mines and a surface mine operated by Consol's Kent Mining Co.

When the last coal comes out of the Emilie mine, three members of Vickie Parks' family will lose their jobs -- her husband, Gary; his brother, Darl Parks; and a brother-in-law, David Kirkpatrick.

"We are coal-mining people. It's been our life," Parks said before letting slip the words she had been trying to avoid. "I really hate this company."

The shutdowns, by Consol's count, will eliminate 560 jobs at Keystone and 295 at Helvetia. The United Mine Workers of America puts it at 1,000, including nonunion workers, and says the closures may cost just as many jobs in trucking, mining equipment and other support industries in Indiana County and neighboring Armstrong County.

No matter who's counting, the layoffs will deal a serious blow to the area's economy and mark another depressing milestone in central Pennsylvania's bituminous coal fields, where mining jobs have steadily declined over the years.

Indiana County alone has lost about 4,000 coal jobs since 1982, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry. That's a big hit for a largely rural county that employs roughly 30,000.

Coal employment in the county has averaged 2,100 each month this year, accounting for about one in every 14 jobs. That's down from 3,500 a decade ago, when the coal fields were directly responsible for one in every nine jobs, and down from roughly 6,000 in 1982, when one in every five workers in the county were miners.

Robert Marcus, chairman of the Indiana County Chamber of Commerce, predicts the shutdowns and spinoff effects may double the county's unemployment rate, which stood at 5.5 percent in September.

"The impact on the local economy could be devastating," said Marcus, who derided Consol as King Coal, a reference to the days when coal firms ran company towns with an iron fist. "They're not concerned with the community, and they're going to do what they want."

  Ron Airhart, executive board member of the United Mine Workers of America District 2, talks about the loss of nearly 1,000 mining jobs. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

On a brighter side, Marcus notes that Indiana County has been getting used to life without coal in recent years through a diversified economy that includes higher education, health care, finance and light manufacturing. So he hopes that the laid-off miners eventually will find other work, though he concedes that the big problem is that it's unlikely their new jobs will pay as much. To Consol, the decision is a matter of economics in an industry that is being turned upside down by deregulation, a movement that has freed businesses and consumers in Pennsylvania to shop around for the lowest prices and purchase power from outside suppliers.

Consol contends that larger and more mechanized mines can provide cheaper coal to the power plants that Keystone and Helvetia served. By shifting to the larger mines, Consol also can make more money.

"Although the coal will be sold at lower prices, the improvement in margins resulting from the move to larger, more efficient mines is expected to be significant," Chief Executive Officer J. Brett Harvey said in Consol's most recent quarterly report.

This is difficult for some Keystone miners to accept. After all, the coal they dig in the Emilie Mine couldn't be any closer to the 1,700-megawatt Keystone Steam Electric Station, near Shelocta.

From a distance, the mine and power plant appear to be the same facility. The coal moves by conveyor belt from the mine to a cleaning plant and into the boilers. The new supply, to come from unspecified Consol mines elsewhere in Pennsylvania, will arrive by train and require more handling.

"Our coal comes right out of the dock and into the burner," said Ron Airhart, a local UMW leader. He contends that there is enough coal in the ground to keep his members working for a long time. "There are 450 million tons of recoverable reserves all within 20 miles of the Keystone generating station," he said.

Helvetia also is captive to a power plant. Its coal has been dedicated to the 1,884-megawatt Homer City power plant, near Blairsville, which was sold in 1998 to Edison Mission Energy of Irvine, Calif. Edison Mission, one of the big players in the electric industry's current consolidation wave, paid New Jersey-based GPU Inc. $1.8 billion for the station.

Consol, in announcing both the Keystone and Helvetia closings, said the decision was driven by the simple fact that the "economically mineable reserves [at the two complexes] have been depleted." Put another way, there may be plenty of coal left in the ground, but it costs too much to take out.

Consol acquired both Keystone and Helvetia in 1998 as part of its $150 million purchase of the Rochester & Pittsburgh Coal Co., once a Fortune 500 company based in Indiana. Since then, according to its own reports, Consol has spent no money on the mines for machinery or other capital expenditures.

Geography is one inescapable reason that the Keystone and Helvetia mines lost the competition with Consol's mix of union and nonunion mines that work the Pittsburgh coal seam, a huge continuous seam outcropping in Mt. Washington and running south to West Virginia and west to Ohio. Helvetia and Keystone work the thinner Upper Freeport and Upper Kittanning seams of coal, which are not as suited to modern extraction techniques.

Consol's Pittsburgh seam mines use longwall machines that shear coal in huge volumes from the face of the seam through a series of panels that can be 1,000 feet wide and close to two miles long. The rock overhead collapses as the machine -- which resembles a huge meat slicer -- moves forward.

Longwall mining is more efficient and profitable than the traditional room-and-pillar method employed at Keystone and Helvetia. In those mines, honeycombs of smaller rooms, perhaps 30 feet wide, are cut from the coal with continuous mining machines, which look something like earth movers equipped with toothed rotating drums.

Consol's Pittsburgh seam operations are successful in part because of the very uniform conditions of the coal they mine, said company spokesman Thomas Hoffman. Those mines also have a well developed transportation infrastructure to move coal to markets all over the world.

The coal that is cheapest to extract has already been taken from Helvetia and Keystone, Hoffman contends. "The seams are getting thinner and thinner. Compared with other options, it's no longer economical to continue," he added.

Consol's Enlow Fork and Bailey mines in Greene County, for example, last year together produced more than 17 million tons of coal and have 400 million tons of accessible reserves. The three mines in the Keystone complex produced 2 million tons of coal last year. Helvetia brought up 1.7 million tons.

Given mining economics, Ed Yankovich, president of the UMW's District 2 in Western Pennsylvania, thinks government aid is necessary to revive the coal industry in and around Indiana County.

Yankovich said he supported government assistance for new stadiums, an expanded convention center and a maintenance facility for US Airways in Pittsburgh. He approves of the state assistance that has gone to stadiums and a shipyard in Philadelphia too.

"Why can't we do the same thing for Indiana County and Armstrong County to keep good-paying coal jobs?" he asked.

Yankovich has approached elected officials, Consol and others in the business community about the idea. He said tax money would be used one way or another, either in unemployment benefits or industrial incentives.

"You've got to realize that this is not an unreasonable request given the devastation that these jobs will have to the school districts, to the county taxes and to the state taxes," Yankovich said.

Consol is opposed, as a matter of policy, to such intervention, spokesman Hoffman said. The company lobbied against legislation enacted in Ohio this summer that gave mines in that state a $3 per ton tax credit on the grounds that it threatened the viability of its Shoemaker Mine near Moundsville, W.Va.

"We're simply in favor of letting the marketplace work," Hoffman said.

While that debate gets going, the UMW is seeking millions of dollars worth of federal assistance for the soon-to-be displaced miners, whose average age is in the mid- to late 40s.

Clemmy F. Allen Jr., an assistant to UMW President Cecil Roberts, runs the union's nonprofit career centers. He hopes to secure up to $6 million in funding to provide training and other help.

"When they close the mines down and the company takes the last filing cabinet out of the mining office, the union is the only thing left for these folks," he said. "Somehow, some way the union is going to get money for these people. You can take that to the bank."

But many miners are reluctant to leave either the industry they have worked in for decades or the rural communities that they call home. They worry about finding jobs in a changing economy or living on early retirement benefits.

"We have friends, families, homes. We don't want to relocate," said Mike Warmus, 53, a miner who has worked in coal for 30 years, including seven at the Emilie mine.

His co-worker, Greg Zeglen, 48, said his future might include a return to school after 25 years working underground. "But what do you go to school for?" he asked. "There are just no jobs around this area. That's the bottom line."

To Gary Parks, 45, Vickie's husband, the closures break a compact made among utility companies, coal suppliers and the community in the 1960s when the two generating stations were built.

He said residents accepted the plants in return for the jobs mining coal and running the generation facilities.

"We lost the land. We lost roads and everything else," Parks said. "The big payoff was supposed to be that the people in this area would have jobs forever. That was the idea. It was supposed to be here forever."

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