Consol may idle Washington County mine, lay off 260

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Consol Energy Inc. could lay off all 260 miners from its 84 Mine in Washington County because of the sluggish economy, company officials said yesterday. The mine could be idled by the end of March.

On Friday, Consol posted a notice required under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act notifying employees that layoffs could begin within 60 days. The company then would have two weeks to lay off workers, after which it would idle the mine until the economy rebounds, according to company spokesman Tom Hoffman.

The mine, which produces low-sulfur coal used for making coke for smelting steel, needs orders from steel companies to keep the mine open, said Mr. Hoffman. So far, he said, steel companies haven't indicated if they plan to keep production going, and, given the state of the economy, it is unlikely they will.

"It's prudent on our part," he said. "If the steel mills are saying they're not going to produce steel, we're not going to produce coal -- we're going to match what they're doing so we don't end up with a lot of inventory on the ground."

The company, based in Cecil, laid off 66 workers on Tuesday as part of its transition from a longwall to a continuous mining system, he said.

In the fall, coal produced by the 84 Mine could be sold to make coke for $150 a ton, according to Mr. Hoffman. Now, he said, it can't be sold at all; no one is buying.

But workers at the mine are skeptical of the company's claims of financial distress, especially after it has committed to spending millions for the naming rights to the new Penguins arena in Pittsburgh, according to longtime miner Roy Larimer.

"They spend money left and right on everything else," said Mr. Larimer, a Bentleyville councilman who has worked the 84 Mine seam since 1973.

While the company has said idling the mine would be temporary, workers there think the cutbacks are part of a plan to phase out the operation because it is unionized, said Mr. Larimer.

For now, the company's nonunion workers get paid nearly $30 an hour at the top rate -- $3 or $4 an hour more than its union workers to keep unions from gaining ground, he said.

"But once the union mines are gone, then we'll see what they pay them," Mr. Larimer said.

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith can be reached at 412-263-1122 or .


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