CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - New government data shows employment in the Appalachian mining industry is at a 14-year high.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration says the total number of coal jobs nationwide is at its highest level since 1996, with 90,354 jobs in 2011.
In Appalachia, the 59,059 jobs reported were the most since 1997. In miner-heavy West Virginia, coal employment reached its highest level since 1992, with 23,353 jobs.
Growth in employment in the coal industry comes despite increased scrutiny and regulatory changes aimed at reduce the environmental impacts of mining. Republican congressional leaders, meanwhile, have blocked new mine-safety legislation and are working against proposed MSHA rules aimed at ending black lung disease.
President Barack Obama's administration has sought to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, and has expressed serious concerns about the growing body of science linking the practice to a variety of adverse health effects for nearby residents. But Obama himself blocked the EPA from implementing tougher new smog standards that would have reduced pollution from coal-fired power plants.
"There is evidence that strictly regulated coal mining is producing more jobs while protecting the environment," West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley told a subcommittee of the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on Friday.
The number of coal jobs in the region has increased by 10 percent since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began a crackdown on mountaintop-removal mining in June 2009, Matt Wasson, director of programs for the group Appalachian Voices, said his review of the MSHA data.
"In other words, the idea of a 'permitorium' on coal mine permitting that House Republicans are pushing out is completely and demonstrably false," Wasson said. "The hysterical reaction of coal companies to any and all regulations to protect the safety of workers and communities near their mines is about profits, not jobs."
At the same time, the United Mine Workers union has praised Obama for putting former union safety director Joe Main in charge of MSHA and increasing enforcement efforts since the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in April 2010 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia.
However, the current increase in jobs comes amid government projections that coal production in central Appalachia will decline rapidly through the rest of the decade.