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The head of Cecil I. Walker Machinery Co. said eight employees have been laid off and more could be let go if a March ruling by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers isn't overturned.

Steve Walker, president of Walker Machinery, claimed Chambers' ruling could eventually shut down southern West Virginia's coalfields.

He charged the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia with "making up the law," being "anti-coal" and "over-reaching." He also criticized the state's Democratic leadership for not being more supportive of the coal industry.

Walker Machinery sells and refurbishes heavy equipment used by the coal and construction industries. Walker has 775 employees and a $40 million annual payroll. George Hohmann
Daily Mail business editor

Wednesday October 24, 2007

The head of Cecil I. Walker Machinery Co. said eight employees have been laid off and more could be let go if a March ruling by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers isn't overturned.

Steve Walker, president of Walker Machinery, claimed Chambers' ruling could eventually shut down southern West Virginia's coalfields.

He charged the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia with "making up the law," being "anti-coal" and "over-reaching." He also criticized the state's Democratic leadership for not being more supportive of the coal industry.

Walker Machinery sells and refurbishes heavy equipment used by the coal and construction industries. Walker has 775 employees and a $40 million annual payroll.

The company was in the national spotlight in 2002, when President George W. Bush spoke at the company's Belle plant. Bush told employees, "We have to make sure this nation has an energy policy," and, "We need to use coal because we have a lot of it." The workers responded with deafening cheers and standing ovations.

Chambers ruled in March that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated federal law by issuing valley fill permits for mountaintop removal mines without conducting extensive environmental reviews. He rescinded permits issued to four Massey Energy mines. He later said Massey could resume using valley fills at three of the mines because most of the environmental damage alleged in the lawsuit already had been done.

Massey said in April that it had laid off 66 miners at its Camp Branch Mine because of the ruling. Massey spokesman Jeff Gillenwater said today that the company expected the ruling to result in the layoff of 55 additional workers at the end of April at other mines covered by the lawsuit.

But because Chambers issued a stay, "we don't currently have anyone laid off as a result of his ruling on these four permits," Gillenwater said.

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy filed the lawsuit that led to Chambers' ruling. Massey has appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Walker said that when he first read Chambers' ruling he thought, "‘This is going to hurt, because it takes a long time to wind through the appeals process.' If no new permits are going to be issued, then as the coal extraction process on respective jobs continues and a particular segment of that job is exhausted, then less coal is going to be mined. And with no new permits, you take that to its logical extent, there will be no coal industry in southern West Virginia."

Chambers' ruling "has already put a chill in this business in southern West Virginia," Walker said. He said customers are having equipment repaired but aren't buying new equipment as could otherwise be expected.

"We came off great years in 2005 and 2006 because our customers felt confident enough to invest in this industry," he said. "Walker Machinery sells equipment from $500,000 to $3 million to the surface mining part of the business. It's very expensive for a coal company to go through the permitting process, train employees, buy equipment, buy explosives, conduct safety training and pay for oil and fuel. It takes a lot of money, a lot of infrastructure. Like any business, if you feel there's an uncertainty about whether you'll be in business, the investment will stop."

Walker said his company already lost one employee over the uncertainty. The West Virginia native had returned for a job at the company but left after 30 days because of the layoff that occurred Friday. "He said he's going back to North Carolina," Walker said.

"This is the third or fourth time there's been a decision revolving around the same issues," Walker said. "(The late U.S. District Court) Judge (Charles) Hayden was overturned once or twice. Judge (Joseph) Goodwin was overturned once on similar issues. Hopefully Judge Chambers will be overturned, once it gets to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"When Congress passed the 1977 surface mining act and all of the regulations that went with it, there was a clear intent for mining to go on," he said. "I think making up logic out of the Clean Water Act and other sources of federal legislation to contradict the intent of Congress has not been correct.

"I can understand why people may not like to look at a surface mine in operation, but it looks to me and a lot of people just like a highway being built," Walker said. "A lot of reclamation work goes back in. We take people by helicopter all of the time and show them reclamation. It takes a while -- sometimes 10, 20 years, but it's like farming, like harvesting crops. We harvest a natural resource.

"The modern coal industry does it right, sometimes not perfect, but they adhere to the law. It costs them too much to not do it correctly. The best environmental engineers in this state work in the coal industry."

Coal's opponents range "from uninformed citizens to eco-terrorists," Walker said.

"I keep reading about people glad to see coal go," he said. "What do we have, gambling, to replace it? Is that what we have reduced ourselves to? Tourism is great and tourism has grown in pretty much the same proportion as the coal industry in the last couple of years. But jobs in the tourism industry are minimum wage or a little above while ours are $20 to $25 an hour plus benefits.

"It's sad we've allowed ourselves to get a very negative bias in the media," he said. "I don't know what these people want. There's a religion now of global warming, that man has caused everything. It's hard to understand where all of this has come from in the last several years. The water coming off these mines today, going into rivers, is cleaner, almost completely cleaner than the water that's already there. The government chose not to enforce water rules against citizens, states. But it's by law we the industry can't pollute. Judge Chambers is saying valley fills, which act like sponges, and the ponds below them, are illegal. That's stupid.

"A stream has to run for six months" to be covered by the law, Walker said. ""The United States Supreme Court stated that. He (Chambers) keeps saying we're burying streams.

"If this anti-coal Southern U.S. District Court continues and this is not overturned, we're out of business," Walker said. "If you can't disturb the land -- it'll affect any disturbance of land, not just in mining, but in the construction business. I don't think you'll be able to build a house. The intention may be good but it is extremely misguided. It's going to kill the West Virginia economy because there's nothing to replace it."

Walker said he fears that if Chamber's ruling isn't overturned, "the world will go on around us" and get coal from the Powder River Basin and other sources. He said this year's coal production in southern West Virginia is down about 2 percent compared to the same period a year ago.

"I don't see our Congressional delegation or our state leadership pounding the stump every day saying, ‘This is hurtful,' ‘We need to change the law,' or ‘The judge is wrong.' They only talk about carbon sequestration, which is years away, or coal-to-liquid plants, which are being fought because there's coal in it," he said.

"We don't have an energy policy -- it's all based on perception and politics. It's sad. I don't see our government leadership fighting for West Virginia. I see the Democratic Party being very anti-West Virginia because the policies they're pushing are going to kill the energy business in West Virginia.

"We still have a basis to build an industry around if the state would let us," he said. "The state is putting more emphasis behind gambling than what brought them to the dance."

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