Hard times are expected to continue in Southern West Virginia and the rest of the Appalachian region that was once the heart of the nation's coal production, according to a new report.
From 2001 to 2011, demand for coal from 14 southern West Virginia counties dropped by 34.5 million tons, according to government data compiled in a report by Morgantown-based Downstream Strategies.
Production in those counties shrank by 31.4 million tons, down 25 percent during the same time span.
The document released Tuesday, titled "The Continuing Decline in Demand for Central Appalachian Coal: Market and Regulatory Influences," said the region's production is being squeezed by economics, government regulations and even its own geology.
"Since we released our 2010 report, the decline of the region's coal industry has been publicly acknowledged by both industry leaders and state policymakers," said Evan Hansen, president of environmental consulting group. Kanawha County's coal production dropped 43 percent, from 16.2 million tons to 9.3 million tons. It was the second steepest decline for counties examined in West Virginia that produced more than 10 million tons of coal in 2001.
Mingo County saw the biggest slump: production slid 64 percent, from 22.1 million tons to 8 million tons. Production in Boone County fell from 32.7 million tons to 22.2 million tons. Clay, Lincoln, McDowell, Nicholas, Raleigh, Wayne and Wyoming counties also produced less coal.
Logan County was one of the few areas to enjoy an increase in coal output. The county yielded 17 millions tons in 2011, a 64 percent increase from the 10.4 million tons it provided in 2001. Fayette, Greenbrier and Mercer counties increased production as well.
Less demand from the electric utility sector accounted for almost 80 percent of the drop in demand for coal from Southern West Virginia during the 10-year period, according to the report. Labor productivity dropped from 5.5 tons per miner hour to 2.5 tons per miner hour.
The report projects production in Central Appalachia will fall from 185 million tons in 2011 to 128 million tons by 2020, a 31 percent drop. Along with Southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky and, the region also includes lower producing mines in Tennessee and Virginia.
The region reached a production peak of 294 million tons in 1990 and 291 million tons in 1997. But much of the region's easy-to-reach coal seams have been mined out, meaning it takes more workers to keep production levels up, translating to higher labor costs, the report said.
And electric utilities, traditionally the region's best customers, are retiring coal-fired plants or upgrading plants to burn cheaper natural gas, a trend the report says will continue into the future.
The area is home to a longsimmering battle between the industry and environmentalists over a mining practice known as mountaintop removal. Government agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency under the Obama administration have taken aim at the mining method, which uses blasting and heavy machinery to scrape away layers of rock and earth, drastically altering the landscape.