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Most Industry Doing Well in Ohio Valley

February 21, 2011

WHEELING - From glass and steelmaking to coal mining and production of oil, gas and chemicals, the economy of the Upper Ohio Valley has revolved around industry for nearly two centuries.

Some of those enterprises continue to thrive today, while others appear to be on their last legs. Energy extraction and generation are on the rise as demand for fuel and electricity remains high. Orders for locally produced steel products have declined, though, leaving some once-booming steel mills shuttered and many skilled laborers without a job.

And while companies infiltrating the area in search of natural gas reserves have dominated headlines in the past year, the region's well-established coal industry remains a staple of the Ohio Valley economy.

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According to the National Mining Association, nearly 26,000 West Virginia jobs can be attributed to the state's 413 coal mines. The annual production value of the coal mined in the Mountain State was $5.2 billion in 2004, the latest year for which the association made figures available.

The bulk of that coal is burned to produce electricity, with 35.9 million tons being consumed for that purpose. Another 1.4 million tons has other uses, such as home heating.

But coal has been used for these purposes for decades - and the world and its technology are changing. So what does the future hold for the coal industry?

Fact Box

What's the current state of industry in the Upper Ohio Valley?

Very good, as coal production is strong, natural gas production is on the rise and companies such as Ormet Corp. are making a comeback. Steel remains the area's depressed industry, though, as about 1,500 workers currently are employed at ArcelorMittal Weirton and Severstal Wheeling, down from about 20,000 workers in the industry in the mid-1980s.

Wheeling Jesuit University's J. Davitt McAteer, who directed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration, said speed and productivity are increasing in West Virginia underground coal mines, making them more viable for the future.

"Technology for coal production has been, in the last 15-20 years, sort of revolutionized ... ," said McAteer, vice president of Sponsored Programs at WJU. "The technology out there now has been extremely successful in increasing efficiency and speed of the mining process, which is terribly important from the standpoint of productivity. The down side is, this brings some potential harms to safety and health issues.

"The continuous miner now has basically combined the longwall machine with the roof bolting machine - it is remarkable," he added. "This combination of machines has effectively increased the speed of recovery by decreasing a complicated cycle into one systematic approach."

The burgeoning natural gas industry also will impact Mountain State coal mines, McAteer said, as the demand for fossil fuels pushes drilling sites and mines to overlap.

"A hundred years ago when mining was booming in our region, we had equally booming natural gas fields - but they were typically removed one from the other, any overlap was incidental," he said. "Now we have energy production in multiple ways laying one of top of the other. That means producers have to take into account other energy sources and means of production.

"Sago had natural gas wells around it. Upper Big Branch had natural gas formations and wells very much around that," McAteer said of West Virginia mines where lives were lost to explosions in 2006 and 2010, respectively. "At other sites, we have gas wells above and below mines - it's a new phenomenon in the last 15-20 years, having multiple energy production systems overlaying one another. Now we have to look at the consequences of that."

McAteer also pointed out that those developing new mines and drilling operations in the Mountain State must look carefully at the geology of their sites, since very little "virgin territory" remains. He said companies must consider they are operating on mined land and take into account any effects the old voids might have on new operations.

He also noted it is unclear how the hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," process used in natural gas drilling may impact coal mining.

"The shale underlying the coal is broken to release the natural gas," he said. "What happens to the residue? Does it seep through seams and get into coal mines? We don't know, quite frankly, so we've got multiple considerations.

"I would suggest both the natural gas, oil and coal industries have got to think a new way in terms of safety and health so we don't have (byproducts and hazards) bleeding off into one another."

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