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After 29 years, coal runs out at Western Maryland mine

The Baltimore Sun

OAKLAND -- A half-century ago, Darrell Welch's father pried coal out of the Appalachian Mountains with pick and shovel.

Welch, now 46, followed his father into the mines to pursue a noisy, dirty and at times dangerous living - though one that pays far better than almost any other job in rural Garrett County. For the past two decades, he has worked as foreman at the Mettiki coal mine 15 miles south of here.

Mining has changed since Welch's father's day. Coal is extracted by huge, computer-driven machinery, with far fewer miners needed. But one thing hasn't altered: Sooner or later, the coal runs out.

After nearly 30 years of ripping coal from the bowels of Backbone Mountain, Mettiki, Maryland's largest mine, is set to pull its last ton next week and cease operations by the end of next month. The company opened a new deep mine last year in West Virginia and plans to shift all its miners and mining operations there.

For Welch and more than 100 other Western Maryland miners, the closing will basically mean a longer commute. Instead of driving 15 to 30 minutes from their homes in Garrett County to the Mettiki mine, they'll need to drive up to an hour to the Mountain View mine in West Virginia.

"I'll be driving double the amount of time I drive now," said Welch. "But that's the way it is. When you mine coal, you know there's only so much to mine. When it runs out, you've got to move on."

The Mettiki mine's closing comes after several years in which coal mining enjoyed a resurgence in mountainous Western Maryland - though the number of mines and the people they employ have paled in comparison to when the industry was at its peak a century ago.

The state's three operating deep mines and 26 surface mines extracted a record 5.8 million tons of coal last year, surpassing the industry's production in its early 20th-century heyday, according to state figures. The Mettiki mine accounted for about 2.5 million tons of last year's total.

Maryland's production is dwarfed, though, by that of other historically coal-producing states such as West Virginia, where 277 mines last year yielded more than 153 million tons.

"Many years ago, coal mining was huge in Maryland," said Adrienne Ottaviani, executive director of the Maryland Coal Association in Frostburg. "Now we're one of the smallest states."

Mettiki has been mining the Upper Freeport seam in Garrett County's southwestern corner since 1977. Miners carved out a 12,000-acre grid of tunnels and shafts some 300 to 700 feet beneath the surface. Seven miners lost their lives at Mettiki over the years, the most recent in February.

Once the last "panel," or rectangular block of coal and rock, is removed next week, miners will begin dismantling the "longwall," a giant mechanized shearing machine that is used to slice layers of coal out of the bedrock.

After the longwall mining equipment is gone, crews will pull out the electrical cables, conveyor belts that ferry the coal to the surface and other machinery. By the end of next month, managers say, they expect to seal the mine's entrance with concrete.

Mettiki plans to shift the rest of their 162 miners to the West Virginia mine, which opened in July last year. About 82 work there now. No company employees will lose their jobs, though some or all of the 30 miners now working under contract at Mettiki may be laid off, said Alan B. Smith, manager of underground operations.

The company will maintain its offices and its coal processing plant beside the Mettiki mine entrance, where 24 people now work, to wash and separate the fuel from other rocks extracted. And it will still send most of the coal it mines to the Mount Storm power plant nearby in West Virginia to generate electricity.

"I don't see anything changing at all in our relationship to the community," said Frank Schad, manager of administration and planning.

Garrett County officials say they do not expect the mine's closure to put much of a dent in the local economy. About 60 percent of Mettiki's 242 employees live in Maryland, and company managers say they doubt that many will move to West Virginia. "I don't think it's going to have a big economic impact," said James Hinebaugh, the county's economic development director.

Though one of the county's top employers, Mettiki ranks behind the school system, a mine services company, Garrett County Memorial Hospital and Wal-Mart, among others. But the mine jobs pay better than almost any other in the county. Welch, for instance, says he earned about $77,000 last year.

"For around here, it's one of the better jobs if you only have a high school education," he said while relaxing in a plastic chair on the porch of the vinyl-sided ranch house that he shares with his wife, two children and dog. His home boasts a swimming pool and wide green lawn.

Monty Pagenhardt, Garrett County's administrator, said that for years Mettiki was "the place to work. People left jobs as school teachers, social workers and other jobs because of the fine benefits package and wages."

Pagenhardt worked at Mettiki in its administrative offices for 12 years, until he was let go in one of the company's periodic downsizings. The mine employed more than 600 people in the early 1980s, but mechanization shrank the work force.

At the mine yesterday, trucks rumbled out of the parking lot near a low-slung blue metal building. Old rusty machinery lay scattered near a huge mound of coal waste.

Al Smith, the underground operations manager, pulled off his helmet and ran his fingers through his dusty, disheveled hair. Now 58, he has been working 29 years at Mettiki, since it opened.

"My father and grandfather were both miners," he said. "It's a nonrenewable resource. It takes 250 million years to make coal. When you get it all out of there, it's gone."

Not everyone is sorry to see the mine close. Michael Bentley, 37, a woodworker, said the longwall mining machine dug under his ranch house in June last year, cutting off his family's water supply and cracking their walls.

"When they dug under our house, you could hear the cinder blocks popping and cracking," he said, pointing to large cracks in the walls of his basement. "The whole house made creaking and cracking noises."

On his porch sit three large plastic jugs of water that Mettiki has supplied to his family, and in his backyard is a trailer with a large tank for his washing machine and shower.

About a dozen other homes in the area are also without well water, said Alan V. Hooker, chief of permits for the state Department of the Environment. The company is trucking water to them and is required to fix their foundations. It is negotiating with the county to pay for extending a water line, he said.

The company will also be required to monitor the mine for several years after it closes to ensure that it is not leaking acidic water, Hooker said.

Miner Darrell Welch said he's looking forward to job security, even if it means less time at home. "Hopefully, this new mine I'll be working at won't run out until I retire."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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