* Nearly 500 workers at the two mines affected
* Consol blames environmentalists’ lawsuits
* Critics urge company to follow law
* Consol stock slips .78 pct (Recasts, adds environmentalist quotes, byline, stock down)
By Steve James
NEW YORK, Dec 8 (Reuters) - Coal miner Consol Energy Inc (CNX.N) launched an attack on environmentalists on Tuesday, blaming ecological “activism” for forcing it to idle two mines in West Virginia that employ nearly 500 workers.
“It is unfortunate, at a time when reliable and affordable energy is so desperately needed to reinvigorate our economy, that the nation’s energy industries are coming under repeated assault from nuisance lawsuits and appeals of environmental regulations,” said Chief Operating Officer Nicholas DeIuliis.
“It is challenging enough to operate our coal and gas assets in the current economic downturn without having to contend with a constant stream of activism in rehashing and reinterpreting permit applications that have already been approved,” he said.
His comments came in a press release announcing that about 104 workers at the Little Eagle Coal Co mine and 378 at the Fola Coal Co mine, near Bickmore, W. Va., might have to be laid off starting next Feb 7.
Consol attributed the Fola idling to an appeal brought under clean water and other laws, by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), against mining permits which have already been approved.
As a result of the OVEC appeal, a federal judge issued an order suspending Fola Coal Co’s Clean Water Act permit for the Ike Fork portions of Fola operations.
“Without this permit, neither Fola Coal Company nor Little Eagle Coal Company can satisfy the required specifications of its coal sales contracts,” Consol said in its release.
“To put it into human terms, we are talking about the jobs of nearly 500 of our employees at the Fola Operations, and the impact such legal interpretations will have on their quality of life and that of their families,” DeIuliis said.
OVEC said it too was concerned about jobs in West Virginia, whose economy relies heavily on the mining industry, but placed the blame for the mine idling squarely on Consol.
“Anger towards us is misplaced, the miners should be asking the companies to follow the law,” Janet Keating, OVEC’s executive director told Reuters.
She said it was not the group’s policy to challenge every mining permit in the state, but only ones, like Fola, which were “particularly egregious.”
She noted the court had ruled for the environmentalists’ challenge on the basis that the Army Corps of Engineers had not carried out a full survey of the implications of mining on water sources in the area.
“We need to find out if the permit is in the public interest and without public input, the process is incomplete,” said Keating, acknowledging that a series of public inquiries and surveys could drag out the process for years.
Between them, the two Fola operations to be idled produced just under 2 million tons of coal in 2007 out of Consol’s total production of about 65 million tons.
Consol’s stock fell 34 cents to $43.34 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
Reporting by Steve James, editing by Dave Zimmeman and Gunna Dickson