A Western Kentucky coal company that has provided an economic lifeline for some laid-off Eastern Kentucky miners has announced potential large layoffs itself.
Patriot Coal Corp. gave notice Friday that it might make significant job cuts at its Highland and Dodge Hill underground mines in Union County.
The two mines employ 670 workers. The company gave federally required notice of potential layoffs to all employees, according to a news release from the company.
That doesn't mean all the employees will be laid off, but the company said it was looking at ways to deal with a downturn in demand that might mean "substantial work force reductions" in the next 60 days.
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Patriot took part in four job fairs in Eastern Kentucky to take applications for jobs at the Highland Mine and had hired 151 miners, according to Michael Cornett of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program. The program sponsored the events.
"It's bad news at a bad time of year," Cornett said of the Patriot announcement.
Coal production in Western Kentucky has held relatively steady as the industry declined sharply in Eastern Kentucky since early 2012, resulting in thousands of miners in the eastern coalfield losing their jobs. Companies generally can produce coal at a lower cost per ton in Western Kentucky.
The two Patriot mines covered by the federal layoff notice produced a total of 3.9 million tons in 2013.
The company said in its news release that a combination of low prices for natural gas — which competes with coal as a fuel for electricity generation — and federal environmental regulations continue to drive down prices for coal, resulting in operating losses for many companies.
Patriot, which had emerged from bankruptcy last year, closed some of its other mines in the region earlier.
Union County Judge-Executive Jody Jenkins said uncertainty in the Western Kentucky coal industry in recent years had been an ordeal.
"I hate it for every family involved," he said of the Patriot announcement. "It's Christmastime, and they're all our family and friends and church members. It just makes you sick.
"The last two years we've gone through the bankruptcy reorganization, the pension ordeal with the retirees and now this. It just continues to be a burden."