TRIADELPHIA - As natural gas drilling rigs populate Ohio County's surface, some residents may not recall the Tunnel Ridge underground longwall mining system will grind out about 3 million tons of coal this year.
This production estimate, provided by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, shows an increase from the 2 million tons mined at Tunnel Ridge in 2012. Estimates show coal production at the mine that originally opened in 2010 could be increasing rapidly.
"Our production will increase next year as Tunnel Ridge is currently expected to produce approximately 5.5 million tons in 2014," said Joseph Craft, president and CEO of Tulsa, Okla.-based Alliance Resource Partners, which owns the Ohio County mine. "As we look forward, Alliance Resource Partners is poised for more growth in 2014."
If Tunnel Ridge reaches Craft's goal for the new year, the mine would exceed the 5.3 million tons of coal produced in 2012 by the former Consol Energy Shoemaker mine, according to MSHA statistics.
That facility, with its Benwood-based prep plant, is now known as the "Ohio County Coal Co.'s Ohio County Mine" following its purchase by Murray Energy Corp. as part of Murray's $3.5 billion deal with Consol Energy.
In October, Consol officials announced they would sell Shoemaker, McElroy (now the "Marshall County Coal Co.'s Marshall County Mine") and three additional West Virginia mines to Murray Energy, which already operates the Century Mine near Beallsville and the Powhatan No. 6 mine near Alledonia.
Completion of the deal makes Murray Energy the owner of every active underground coal mining operation in the Upper Ohio Valley, with the exception of Tunnel Ridge.
The most visible portion of the Tunnel Ridge mine consists of the three silos that tower above W.Va. 2 about 2 miles north of the Warwood section of Wheeling as part of the company's barge loading facility.
The mine shaft and administrative offices are located on Battle Run Road.
The mine's reserves contain an estimated 100 million tons of coal beneath 9,400 acres located in Ohio County and Washington County, Pa., according to the company's website.
Although officials with Tunnel Ridge and Alliance did not return calls seeking further comment, recent statistics provided by the West Virginia Department of Commerce list 353 coal miners working in Ohio County.
Alliance Resource Partners began in 1971 as MAPCO Coal Inc. After a 1996 management buyout, the company went public in 1999 under its current name. According to its website, it operates mines in areas it refers to as the Illinois Basin, Central Appalachia and Northern Appalachia.
"The high performance of our teams and continued focus on expanding Alliance Resource Partners' presence in the Illinois Basin and Northern Appalachian markets has allowed us to succeed in the current challenging market environment," Craft said. "Alliance Resource Partners remains on track to deliver its 13th consecutive year of record financial and operating results in 2013."
Although environmental restrictions on coal burning in the U.S. could eventually reduce domestic demand for the mineral, a local financial professional who deals with the coal industry believes the global market will remain strong.
"Foreign markets for coal are increasing because of the expansion of power plants, especially in China and India where there are plans to build even more plants," said Thomas Morrison, associate vice president of Wheeling-based Hazlett, Burt & Watson.