WAYNESBURG, Pa. — Among the rolling hills and in the small towns of rural Greene County, where coal long has been king, the news brought shock waves.
Emerald Mine near Waynesburg is closing.
Coal producer Alpha Natural Resources said Wednesday that about 500 workers will lose their jobs. A spokesman cited diminishing reserves, sluggish markets and restrictive federal Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
At least one businessman in the borough some 50 miles south of Pittsburgh believes he knows where to place the blame.
“The new government controls on the coal industry are costing thousands and thousands of jobs that are not going to be replaced anytime soon,” Waynesburg insurance agency owner Paul Braddock said. “Not to mention the economy of everyone involved. The trickle-down effect of somebody losing their job affects everybody.”
Mr. Braddock said residents “are very insulted with the regime that’s causing this to happen,” a reference to President Barack Obama.
“We need to become energy independent of the Middle East,” Mr. Braddock said. “And to do that, we need to take care of our own resources.”
There are other reasons, however.
Demand for electricity dropped after the recession and still has not rebounded to pre-2008 levels, putting a squeeze on some generation sources.
In addition, natural gas now competes with coal as the cheapest electricity source in much of the country. Companies that have closed coal-powered plants have blamed their decisions on a combination of economic and regulatory factors.
Alpha Natural Resources said in a news release that it may be able to hire about a fifth of Emerald’s workers at its Cumberland mine in Whiteley, south of Waynesburg.
The company said it is “pursuing initiatives at the Cumberland mine to increase volumes and broaden market exposure, which should make up some of the margin loss from the higher cost Emerald longwall mine.”
The Emerald Mine shutdown will occur in the second half of 2015.
State Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, and Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, issued a joint statement on the closure, saying the area will overcome the loss of jobs.
“The closing of the mine will create hardship for 500 workers and their families in Greene County,” Mr. Solobay said.
“No stone will be left unturned in the effort to reduce the despair faced by workers and their families and mitigate the economic stress on the local economy from the closing.”
Ms. Snyder said it will take “hard work, cooperation and resources to enable Greene County to not only overcome this setback but to emerge stronger from it.”
Archie Trader, Republican vice chairman of the Greene County board of commissioners, said officials will work closely with the legislators “on things we might be able to do … we might be able to train those miners who are unable to receive a job at this point at Cumberland. I understand there’s going to be a few of them retiring, so the impact might not be as bad as we think.”
Jackie Lehman, a Brownsville resident who works in Mr. Braddock’s office, said the aftershock of the mine closure will be widespread.
“It’s going to affect many counties, not just Greene County. It’s going to affect all the surrounding counties, Washington, Fayette … they lose their jobs, and guess what? Everybody’s going to suffer in any business you have. People aren’t going to spend, people aren’t going to buy, they’re going to move out of the area.”
“It’s going to have a ripple effect,” Mr. Trader said. “There’s no question about that.”
John Bruno, who runs Mickey’s Men’s Store along High Street in Waynesburg, said for as long as his store has been operating, “coal miners are an important part of our business, but mining has been on the wane.”
The surge of Marcellus Shale gas workers in the region “has helped us out a lot. If it wasn’t for the oil and gas, we probably would be in dire straits.”
Artist Jim Winegar, who with his wife, Linda, owns the Art Beat gallery next to the Greene County Courthouse, said the job loss “certainly reflects on any business, our business in particular. I couldn’t state the percentage, but certainly there is a prevalence of people who come in who are associated with the mining industry.”
Mr. Winegar expressed some optimism based on the abilities of the soon-to-be unemployed workers, suggesting that other employers, particularly the oil and gas industry, might want to take a look.
“The people all have skills, whether they’re mechanics or whatever they might be able to apply,” he said.
“I would hope that the powers that be would put some things into place in terms of job training or entrepreneurship … and these people, in my mind, are pretty brave in terms of going down underground.”
Former Post-Gazette online editor Pete Zapadka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @pzapadka.