By VICKI SMITH
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) â¿¿ U.S. coal mining employment the past two years was the highest it's been in 15 years, despite claims that President Barack Obama is waging war on the industry, an environmental group that studied federal data said Tuesday.
Appalachian Voices also said the average number of jobs was 15 percent higher under Obama's first four years than under the eight years Republican George W. Bush was president.
In a press release touting an improvement in safety at U.S. mines earlier this week, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration noted similar parallels. It said the number of coal miners working last year was the second-highest since 1994, even with the loss of about 6,000 jobs between 2011 and 2012.
MSHA said the number of mines operating fell from 1,973 to 1,865 during that period, while coal production dropped from about 1.1 billion tons in 2011 and to about 1 billion tons last year.
The number of working miners dropped to 137,361.
Appalachian Voices released the numbers to defuse attacks expected Thursday at the confirmation hearing for Gina McCarthy, Obama's nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Director of Programs Matt Wasson called the industry's "war on coal" rhetoric an "utter fabrication."
Wasson said several factors are contributing to the employment figures â¿¿ an increase in coal exports and a decrease in the amount of coal mined per worker. As operators move away from surface mining, he said, they also create jobs in more labor-intensive underground operations.
But the West Virginia Coal Association dismissed what vice president Chris Hamilton called "a very shoddy analysis" by a "well-known environmental extremist group."
Hamilton said he can't predict whether there will be opposition to McCarthy but noted her hearing "provides a forum to talk about this agency's anti-mining bias and its efforts to slow or stop mining in certain parts of the country."