CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — From Boone County banker Lee Milam's experience, each round of coal mine layoffs that hits southern West Virginia stifles his community's already-fragile economy.
Thursday's news was especially bitter. Coal giant Alpha Natural Resources revealed plans to shed 1,100 workers at 11 West Virginia surface mines and related operations by mid-October. In Boone, where about 2,400 people work in coal mining, two mines employing 462 people could be shuttered.
Potentially, that's 462 fewer folks, averaging a salary of nearly $85,000, spending money around town.
"If you own a restaurant, you're a coal miner and you just don't know it," said Milam, president of Whitesville State Bank. "If you're a banker, you're a coal miner. They're your neighbors and your friends."
For the many Appalachian critics of President Barack Obama's energy policies, Alpha's timing Thursday sparked a rallying cry. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency kicked off long-awaited public meetings on proposed limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, part of the administration's plan to stem global warming.
But bigger, systematic challenges facing Appalachian coal have been percolating for years, including less-expensive natural gas, lousy markets and dwindling reserves.
National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich said Alpha's plans are just "the opening shot" of the EPA rule's impact on coal. States have until June 2016 to submit carbon-reducing plans and could have to comply in 2017, or 2018 if they partner with other states.
When Alpha partly laid blame on EPA regulation for layoff plans, it set off a chain reaction of political finger-pointing in West Virginia. Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said the state's fears over EPA rules became reality. Several GOP congressional candidates heightened attacks against Democratic foes for being on the same side as Obama.
Outcry against Obama by West Virginia Democrats and Republicans alike is nothing new. He lost badly twice in the state, and his emissions rules have only made him more vilified.
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