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W.Va. mine operators hope demand for steel can boost coal industry

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Operators in West Virginia’s mining industry say they believe infrastructure needs throughout the country will create a high demand for coal.

“If you’re going to build gas lines, bridges and railroads, then it’s all got to be made out of American steel — then you’ll have a demand to make American coal. Coal is what makes that American steel,” said Andrew Jordon, president of Pritchard Mining Company.

Jordon was at the West Virginia Coal Association’s 44th Annual Mining Symposium on Wednesday. The event runs through Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center.

The Symposium brings together coal-producing members, associate member suppliers and experts, national and state officials and elected representatives from across West Virginia. This year, members are talking about the future of coal, especially with President Donald Trump in the White House.

“I think he’ll do all he can for us, but we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got a lot of battles to fight and there is still a lot of opposition,” said James Bunn, operator of Coal River Energy. His business, which is currently down, used to operate out of Boone, Lincoln and Kanawha counties.

More than a decade ago, U.S. coal production hit an all-time high. In recent years, operators have had to lay off hundreds of employees.

“I’ve layed off 437,” Bunn said. “It was very serious.”

Pritchard Mining used to have about 180 employees. Now, Jordon said, “We have about 90. We’re about half way back. The hardest thing I’ve every had to do is lay off people that worked for me since Day 1, for 25-30 years.”

Jordon said coal has made a slight comeback, specifically with metallurgical coal.

“The demand for electricity has increased about 6 percent since (Trump) has been elected. There’s been a major upswing in the metallurgical markets, but that’s taken place before he was elected,” he said.

Bunn agreed, but said he doesn’t believe the industry will fully return to what it used to be.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “Technology is a great thing, but can be your worst enemy as well for individuals needing jobs.”

Last year, Jordon said his company struggled to produce 80 million tons of coal in West Virginia. Before President Barack Obama took office in 2008, Pritchard produced 170 million tons.

“It’s a big difference, so if we stabilize somewhere over the next couple of years, around 100 million tons annual production in West Virginia, I think that would be a start,” Jordon said.

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