West Virginia legislators have announced a work group to come up with proposals to economically revitalize struggling coal communities across the state — doing so the same day that the operator of a Monongalia County coal mine gave notice that it will be closing the mine and laying off 180 workers there later this year.
State House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, announced Tuesday the creation of an informal coal community work group consisting of fellow delegates to help communities across West Virginia reeling from coal plant and mine closures.
Skaff is the president of HD Media, parent company of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Hanshaw has appointed Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo, to lead the work group.
“We want to get legislation started to help the coal communities,” Dean said.
Dean said that the group has made plans to visit Logan, Welch, Moundsville, Montgomery, Morgantown and Beckley, where they will disperse into breakout groups to discuss topics related to revitalizing coal communities this fall. He said members of the group hope to announce the dates for those meetings in September.
Dean noted one example of remedies that legislators intend to consider: lake system development in line with a law the Legislature passed in 2020 that approved a study of the feasibility of constructing lakes in Southern West Virginia to foster tourism and economic growth in the region.
Other work group members include: Delegates Jordan Bridges, R-Logan; Nathan Brown, D-Mingo; Ed Evans, D-McDowell; Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio; Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia; Austin Haynes, R-Fayette; Josh Holstein, R-Boone; Margitta Mazzocchi, R-Logan; Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming; Charlie Reynolds, R-Marshall; Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha; Skaff; Christopher Toney, R-Raleigh; and Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall.
“These members will now have the authority and the flexibility to go into communities, communicate with officials at all levels, and really determine what our coal communities need to succeed so they can come back to us with solid recommendations and then drive those solutions home to the full Legislature when we come back next session,” Hanshaw said.
“We’ll be going on a listening tour of coal communities, including Morgantown, so that the people most affected by the decline in coal production can have a voice in what’s needed to diversify our economies and create jobs,” Hansen said in a statement Wednesday.
Tuesday brought not only the House’s work group announcement but the filing of a notice from Monongalia County Resources Inc. that it will permanently lay off 180 workers at its mine along West Virginia’s border with Greene County, Pennsylvania.
The layoffs will happen in two stages — the first lasting from Aug. 9 to Aug. 23 and the second from Sept. 7 to Sept. 21, according to a notice filed with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry in compliance with the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act requiring most employers with 100 or more employees to provide notification 60 calendar days in advance of plant closings and mass layoffs.
The Monongalia County Resources mine site is mostly located in Blacksville but has a Brave, Pennsylvania, mailing address, prompting the Pennsylvania filing.
Monongalia County Resources is a subsidiary of St. Clairsville, Ohio-based underground coal mining company American Consolidated Natural Resources.
“It’s especially fitting that the Coal Community Workgroup got started just when the [Monongalia County Resources] mine announced that it would shut down,” Hansen said in his statement.
The House work group announcement comes two months after the dramatic failure of an amendment designed to help communities devastated by the coal industry’s decline on the last day of the state’s 2021 legislative session. Hansen was the lead sponsor of a bill that stalled during the 2021 legislative session that would have similarly established an advisory committee to come up with a “Coal Community Comeback Plan.”
A previous version of the bill passed the House unanimously in the 2020 legislative session before dying in the Senate.
Hansen’s measure, House Bill 3198, inspired Evans to introduce an amendment that was adopted by the House in a 49-48 vote on the next to last day of the session in April that would have directed the West Virginia Public Service Commission to facilitate creating a plan mandated to revitalize communities affected by coal-fired plant closures.
The plan would have aimed to create opportunities to increase jobs in coal and other industries, defining affected communities as counties in which a coal mine or coal-fired plant has closed since 2000 and caused a loss of at least 200 jobs.
“The underlying bill is a cry for help to save jobs in the communities that rely on coal mines and for power plants that rely on those jobs,” Evans said on the House floor prior to House adoption of his amendment. “The amendment recognizes the cry for help.”
But the Senate rejected Evans’ amendment, voting 21-13 to send the bill back to the House for its approval of the bill without the amendment. The House obliged, and the resulting bill signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice requiring coal-fired power plants owned by public electric utilities to keep at least 30 days of coal supply under contract for the lifespan of those plants became law.
The United Mine Workers union and community advocates condemned the Legislature for failing to pass the amendment.
“I knew we could break this apart from the bill and do it without creating a new law,” Hanshaw said of the new work group in a statement.
Hanshaw voted against adopting Evans’ amendment in April, as did Bridges and Mazzocchi among the new coal community work group members.
“I think there was more support for the idea of this legislation than there was for amendment to the bill,” said Dean, who voted for Evans’ amendment.
Dean says the group will meet with state agencies in July to take stock of economic revitalization efforts it can pull together.
“We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Dean said.