Grove Mine in Somerset County - Grove_mine.jpg

The Grove Surface Mine in Somerset County is shown in this photo taken in January.

For Tim Berkey, wrestling coal from the ground is natural.

“Some things in mining haven’t changed,” he says. “It’s still work.”

He spends nine-hour shifts underground and on his knees working in a space as short as the area beneath many kitchen tables. It suits some and makes others crazy. There isn’t an in-between.

“Some guys get in there and are gone in a week,” he said.

“If you didn’t like it, you wouldn’t do it. You can’t not like your job in this field.”

Once considered a dying breed, local miners say business is on the upswing.

Those in the industry are noting increasing demands for coal. Companies are recruiting new miners and filing more permit applications to strip or deep mine new coal seams in Somerset County.

“It’s a good market,” said George Ellis, Pennsylvania Coal Association president.

Countries such as China and India now are gobbling coal from the United States. In the United States, electric companies – already coal’s biggest customers – are buying more coal as electricity gains an upper hand on natural gas as a heating source, Ellis said.

“Four or five years ago, people were infatuated with natural gas,” he said. But natural gas prices are on the rise, he said.

“It’s good from our perspective,” he said.

The coal industry is nothing new to the area – many towns in Somerset and Cambria counties were built around mines – but many of the issues haven’t changed, either.

To some, coal equals jobs and prosperity.

Hank Parke, director of business development for PBS Coals Inc., said PBS directly employs about 450, but that hardly can address the number of jobs created as a result of coal mining.

Workers in truck production and maintenance, truck driving, blasting, tire service and the railroad industries all benefit from mining.

“There is a major spin-off from mining,” Parke said. “It’s not something you can easily put your finger on.”

Parke said the company has a number of permit applications under review.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection is receiving more surface mining permit applications than last year for Somerset County, said Tim Kania, technical services section chief for the department’s Cambria District office.

There are three proposed mines in Cambria County and 10 in Somerset County that are under review, he said.

“Cambria has been steady,” Kania said. “This year, so far, we’ve seen some increase (in Somerset County).”

Though its no stranger, some residents are hesitant to see more mining. To them, it means orange water, bony piles, noisy trucks and decreased property values.

Careful to say she appreciates the jobs mining has created, Boswell resident Renna Flanagan spoke up at a DEP hearing Tuesday for a proposed strip mine near Jerome that would include more than 85 acres.

She wanted to make sure the Quemahoning Watershed wouldn’t be contaminated from the operation.

Others aren’t so cautious to praise the industry while voicing concerns.

Patty Yarbinitz said that’s because blasting will be happening near her Jerome home. The company will have to take down the line of trees she sees from her house. She’s afraid her concrete pool will crack and her home will flood with more rain-water runoff.

“What’s my house going to be worth?” she said. “I’m getting my granddaughter to come out and take pictures of how it is now, because things won’t look like this afterward.”

Even under strict state restrictions, residents worry about mining’s effect on the land. DEP requires coal companies to present and follow reclamation plans.

Len Lichvar, who works at the Somerset County Conservation Office, said reclamation problems now often supersede tainted water woes.

“Most of the problems from the past were deep mines,” he said. The majority of Somerset County’s current mining operations are above-ground. “With the surface mines, that’s really not a factor. The real concern is reclamation, especially in forested areas.”

For miners, the state and federal government are mandating increased safety measures.

Berkey, a 15-year veteran of deep mines, said inspections can be grueling.

“It’s a lot tighter now than it was, even a year ago,” he said. “It can make things miserable. I never felt unsafe before.”

Fewer and fewer miners in the region are members of unions, especially in Somerset County.

Companies are recruiting for the next crop of miners, said Tim McCartney, a Boswell man who works on surface mines for Latrobe-based Amfire Mining Co. LLC.

“When mining was slow, people got away from it,” he said.

“Now, there’s a gap of sorts.”

McCartney, who started mining 26 years ago when he was 18, said today’s coal companies are more environmentally conscious. That is, in part, because the state requires it. But Amfire also has helped clean sites that other coal companies had long-since abandoned, he said.

“There’s a lot of good in it,” he said.

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