TRIADELPHIA - Natural gas has the spotlight now as the Ohio Valley's newest energy source, but it's not the only local commodity providing an uptick to the economy.
Beneath the rolling hills around Short Creek and Battle Run, the gnashing teeth of a continuous miner gradually bore through Ohio County's last known coal reserve at the Tunnel Ridge Coal Mine.
With about 270,000 tons of coal produced since the first cut on March 26, 2010, operations - and employment levels - at Tunnel Ridge are picking up steam.
File photo by Ian Hicks
The mine employs more than 100 salary and hourly employees and will continue hiring as it approaches peak production levels, according to Dwight Kreiser, vice president of operations at Tunnel Ridge, which is a subsidiary of Tulsa, Okla.-based Alliance Coal Co.
That number should reach 232 employees later this year, when mine officials plan to begin shearing the first full longwall "panel" from Alliance's 103-million-ton reserve that reaches across state lines into Washington County, Pa. Kreiser said Tunnel Ridge's work force could top 340 when the mine reaches full production in the coming years.
Construction of the mine, which began in 2009, represents a $304 million capital investment by Alliance and will generate an estimated $489 million in coal severance tax money for West Virginia when at peak production. Valley Camp Coal formerly owned and operated the mine.
Though production has been slow to date, mine spokesman Jody Theriot said the continuous miner is producing coal as it makes its way to the main reserve. With peak production levels projected at about 5 million tons annually, Alliance officials expect the mine to be operational well into the 2030s.
Though the shaft and administrative offices are located on Battle Run Road, Tunnel Ridge's activity is quite visible elsewhere in the area. From Walker Slope, an overland belt hauler system carries the mined coal about 8,300 feet to its surface preparation plant, which filters rocks out of the coal, and from there another 2 miles or so to the refurbished, 12,000-ton silo and barge loading facility on the Ohio River along W.Va. 2 north of Wheeling.
Tunnel Ridge is Alliance's 10th coal mining operation, with others in Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana and western Maryland. Tunnel Ridge is the company's first mine in the Ohio Valley.
Kreiser said the company wants to get to know the community and pointed out Tunnel Ridge's support of projects like the Warwood Redbirds baseball field and the Miracle Field of the Ohio Valley for baseball players with special needs.
"We want to be a good neighbor," he said.