From the Herald Dispatch

State’s energy industries dip as coal declines and natural gas boom slow to start

HUNTINGTON Several factors federal regulations, extraction difficulties and a sluggish economy to name a few have wreaked havoc on the foundation of West Virginia’s economy: coal.

The low price of natural gas has also had an effect on coal and has hampered the growth of the gas industry in the Mountain State.

Several organizations are making efforts to combat the downturn of the coal industry by offering miners a way to diversify their education and experience while coal companies scramble to find ways coal can be used as an alternative fuel.

Coal’s past

It was 1742 in what is now Boone County, West Virginia, when Peter Salley discovered underground deposits of a combustible black rock consisting mainly of carbonized plant matter, and the state’s coal industry was born.

“The coal industry has played a major leadership role in the state’s economic, political and social history,” Dr. Stuart McGehee wrote in “A History of Coal in West Virginia.” “The industry has also been a center of controversy and the brunt of unfounded criticism, giving rise to battles in the arenas of labor, environment and safety.”

West Virginia has historically ranked near the top among coal exports and underground coal production. The state also sets the pace for the rest of the industry in reclamation and environmental protection, according to McGehee’s article.

“It was coal that transformed West Virginia from a frontier state to an industrial state,” McGehee said. “Coal (is) in 62 recoverable seams in 43 of the state’s 55 counties. Knowledge of the coal reserves in western Virginia predated the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson reported in his Notes on the State of Virginia that coal underlay most of the trans-Allegheny Ohio Valley.”

Widespread use of West Virginia coal began when the saltworks along the Kanawha River expanded before the Civil War, McGehee wrote, and coal was used to heat the brine pumped from salt beds underneath the river.

“That modest use soon was dwarfed by the demands of a growing nation that looked to coal to heat its homes, power its factories and fuel its locomotives and steamships,” he said. “When the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania no longer could provide the tonnage needed, American industrialists discovered the massive coalfields of West Virginia. Large-scale investment soon opened the remote valleys along the New, Bluestone, Tug, Monongahela and Guyandotte rivers.”

The development of ancillary businesses began soon thereafter with the Chesapeake & Ohio, Norfolk & Western and later the Virginian and Baltimore and Ohio railroads being built to aid the coalfields, according to McGehee.

“In those days, coal mining was highly labor intensive, but only a few rugged mountaineers lived in the remote, isolated hills and hollows where the operations developed,”McGehee said. “Thus, operators recruited much of their labor from two human migrations underway around 1900 African-Americans fleeing discrimination and segregation (and leaving) the Deep South, (and) European immigrants seeking a better life in America.

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