New Somerset County coal mine in midst of political, economic debate




JENNERSTOWN — It’s a vast canyon dug 120 feet into the ground, set among the rolling green farmland and cattle farms of Somerset County.

But on Thursday, the new coal mine’s significance was larger than even the immensity of the moved earth, the raw minerals underground and the nearly 100 jobs it is expected to create.

The Acosta Mine’s grand opening media event, hosted by mine developer Corsa Coal, quickly became the symbol of a debate that divides Western Pennsylvania and, more recently, has spilled out across the country and around the world. President Donald J. Trump, who last week called out the Acosta Mine as a reason to pull out of the Paris climate agreement, sent along his well wishes in a pre-recorded video.

“I told you it was gonna happen,” Mr. Trump said, referring to the creation of coal jobs. “To the miners in Somerset today, I want you to know … as long as I’m the president of your great country, each and every day, I’m fighting for you.”

To dozens of people crowded beneath a tent above the mine, the excavation is a sure marker of the coal industry’s turnaround.

Cheap natural gas and a spate of environmental regulations enacted during the Obama administration have been blamed for ushering in years of decline that have pushed American coal companies into bankruptcy and cut U.S. coal jobs nearly in half since 2011.

“Anyone who’s read the news of this event knows it’s garnered national headlines,” said George Dethlefsen, chief executive of Corsa Coal, based in Canonsburg. “The opening of this mine signals a new chapter in the coal mining tradition. Today marks a great turnaround for our industry and our company.”

But a coalition of environmental groups denounced the event, which attracted Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who has defended the Paris climate agreement and has pushed for clean energy production statewide.

Throughout the hourlong ceremony, protesters gathered at a home about 300 feet away and shouted chants directed at the governor and Corsa, disrupting some speeches with chants of, “Would you want to live here?” and, “King Coal is a dirty old soul.”

“Our message to Gov. Wolf today is that Pennsylvania needs a transition to sustainable jobs based on tourism, mine reclamation, agriculture, clean energy, and energy efficiency,” Ashley Funk, a community organizer with the Mountain Watershed Association, said in a written statement. “We cannot continue to prop up the mining industry at the expense of residents living with the harms of extraction.”

 

Corsa Coal received a $3 million grant from the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, money that was crucial to finish the $15 million development that spans 3,000 acres in Jenners Township. Though the plan received a mining permit in 2013, market conditions had prevented it from going forward, company officials said.

“Our market is at an all-time high, and economic prospects are bullish,” Mr. Dethlefsen said. “We could not have picked a better time to start this project.”

Corsa expects to double coal sales this year to 2 million tons, projecting $200 million in revenue. Corsa also expects to double production again over the next 2½ years, possibly with two or three other mines.

“We’re just getting started,” Mr. Dethlefsen said. “We’re in the first inning.”

Mr. Wolf spoke of the importance of reaping the state’s natural resources for economic growth — not just at the mine but for other industries that depend on coal, too.

“Our God-given resources have always kept Pennsylvania at the top of the pack in providing needed materials,” Mr. Wolf said. “In the past, we’ve not always capitalized on our standing as one of the world’s leaders in these resources. But we’re changing that.”

Most of the coal from the Acosta Mine, Mr. Dethlefsen said, will not stay in Pennsylvania. About 85 percent of Corsa’s coal is shipped to steelmakers in India, Korea, Argentina, Europe and the Middle East. The rest is sold to steel producers in the Mon Valley, Ohio and Chicago, he said.

A rebound in the global steel market has been the central reason for optimism at Corsa Coal, which focuses on mining metallurgical coal for steel mills, Joe Bello, the company’s senior vice president, said in an interview.

Corsa Coal expects the Acosta Mine to extract 400,000 tons of metallurgical coal each year, joining the company’s two other underground mines: the Quecreek Mine, also in Somerset County — and the site of a dramatic mine rescue in 2002 — and the Casselman mine in Grantsville, Md.

In May, the company reported its metallurgical coal prices increased 53 percent over the year to $156.12 a ton in the first fiscal quarter of 2017. During the quarter, the company’s net income was $10 million, up 222 percent from the same period the year before.

Thermal coal, which is shipped to power plants and burned to produce electricity, sat at $43.23 a ton, the company reported.

As he left, Mr. Wolf was asked about the optics of the whole event, including sitting by while the video of Mr. Trump touted his decision to leave the Paris agreement. “I’m happy to be a part of creating real jobs in Pennsylvania,” the governor said, declining to answer any further questions.

Scott Wagner, a Republican state senator seeking to unseat Mr. Wolf in the gubernatorial election next year, was in the audience but did not speak. In an interview afterward, he said the governor was trying to take credit for helping an industry that he has opposed.

“He’s here trying to get credit for this, but really the credit belongs with George” Dethlefsen and the company, Mr. Wagner said. He would like to see the state, particularly the Department of Environmental Protection, loosen regulations. “There’s a resource in the ground, and we have an opportunity to capitalize on it.”

That message was echoed by Mr. Trump and his promise to “bring back” coal jobs by rolling back government regulations.

Mr. Trump last week moved to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate pact. In his pre-recorded video Thursday, Mr. Trump called the Paris agreement “horrendous” and “something that would have put our country back decades and decades.”

It remains to be seen to what extent the coal industry can rebound. American coal companies have added 1,300 jobs since Mr. Trump’s election in November, a 3 percent increase to 51,000 jobs total. But the industry will continue to contend with cheap natural gas and clean energy.

On Route 601, not one mile from the Acosta Mine, dozens of wind turbines can be seen lining the ridges in the distance. In 2015, the District of Columbia municipal government purchased the entire 46-megawatt output of a wind farm near Uniontown, a deal that spans the next 20 years.

But for the next 15 years, coal will be dug once more.

Daniel Moore: dmoore@post-gazette.com, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

First Published June 8, 2017 2:02 PM

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