2 weeks ago

Greg Reed: ‘God put’ coal on earth for a reason; Alabama’s miners have strong ‘sense of pride’

JASPER — Yellowhammer News on Thursday held the fourth of its 2019 News Shapers events: “West Alabama and the coal industry.”

Hosted at Musgrove Country Club, top stakeholders from industry, government and academia came together to discuss the coal industry’s impact on Alabama.

Yellowhammer co-owner Tim Howe moderated the forum, which featured Alabama Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper); Philip Saunders, vice president of engineering for Warrior Met Coal; Ken Russell, director of workforce solutions for Bevill State Community College; Judith Adams, vice president of marketing for the Alabama State Port Authority; and Brett Bussman, senior vice president and general manager for Tractor & Equipment Company.

Areas of focus included analysis on the past, present and future of the industry, highlighting the industry’s state and regional impacts, related workforce development efforts and community influence.

‘For me to represent those folks — it’s important’

Reed was the first panelist to speak and kicked things off by emphasizing how much the coal industry has meant to West Alabama historically — and how that special importance remains today.

He said the impressive standing room only crowd, which included a bevy of state legislators, local elected officials and representatives from various state agencies, was a tribute to the continuing impact coal has throughout the Yellowhammer State.

“Some of you have heard me say this before, but I pride myself on saying that I’m ‘the coal senator.’ And it’s because I represent Walker, Winston, Fayette, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson Counties,” Reed said. “If you look at the numbers, those are the top coal-producing counties in the state of Alabama.”

“But you go a long way back — I’m 54 years old and I grew up in Cordova, Alabama, down on the Warrior River in south Walker County,” he continued. “And just about everybody was involved in some way with the coal industry… It’s just a fiber of who I am. My wife Mitsy is with me tonight. Her grandfather was a coal miner. Her daddy was a coal miner. Both my grandfathers were retired coal miners. So, the roots run deep in this community in regards to the significance of coal.”

“And the reality is God put something in the ground, and he gave men and women the intellect to know how to extract it, be able to then use it to produce all kinds of fantastic things that are so important to our lives. So, there is a certain sense of pride in knowing that’s who you are and what you do. For me to represent those folks — it’s important.”

Reed then said while Alabama’s coal industry has experienced “ups and downs,” the present state of affairs looks relatively good.

“[T]hings are back, and they’re positive,” he advised. “They’re exciting.”

However, that has not always been the case, recent times certainly included.

Reed outlined, “We’ve had some difficult times, too. I remember — you may know (Alabama Secretary of Labor) Fitzgerald Washington … this was only, during my tenure in the Alabama Senate, only about five or six years ago. We had an event at the Jasper Civic Center that was a job fair for coal miners (who were unemployed). At that time, I had about 1,000 men and women in my district that were out of work. And the coal industry had run on tough times. That day, we signed up 1,100 men and women that were standing in there with their resume, waiting for an opportunity to ask somebody for a job when they had spent their whole life being a coal miner. The good news is most all those folks have gone back to work (in the coal industry since then). And we’ve got folks that are on the panel with me here and those of you that are sitting out there (in the crowd) that know that the industry has hired hundreds and hundreds of new folks that are making big money doing what they enjoy doing and love doing, which is a great benefit to our community.”

Jobs, jobs, jobs

Bussman then spoke about the steam/thermal coal (which is burned for power generation) industry, explaining the high startup costs that these surface miners in the state face. He said a fleet of equipment alone would easily run someone $15 million off the bat.

Not only is this equipment supporting indirect jobs in Alabama, but so is maintaining the equipment. Whether that means highly skilled mechanics or giant specialty tires for the trucks, this is still big business. Additionally, there are tools and resources needed that have provided many secondary jobs from the industry, including the mining explosives provided by companies such as Nelson Brothers. That is not even to mention the transportation jobs supported by coal, from trucking to rail to inland waterways.

Saunders built off of this in his remarks, explaining that the modern mining industry is now what people perceive it as.

Using pictures to make his point, Saunders said that long gone are the days when coal mining entailed miners using pickaxes picking out rocks out of stores of mined coal by hand.

Now, the equipment is massive, high tech and, yes, very expensive.

However, high tech equipment also calls for highly trained workers to operate and maintain them.

This is why miners at Warrior Met Coal are also highly paid, with starting annual salaries of $80,000.

Through the company’s unique collaboration with Bevill State, Saunders and Russell outlined that Warrior Met Coal has trained 600 new miners this year alone.

Saunders stressed that this public-private workforce development effort is integral to the company’s ability to thrive and grow, which in turn is crucial to the surrounding community.

This past legislative session, Bevill State’s groundbreaking mine training facility was given another major boost via an approximately $1 million grant for longwall mining training. Reed spearheaded this effort, according to the Alabama Coal Association.

A major theme from the industry and academia panelists on Thursday was that the state’s support of workforce development initiatives and infrastructure investments are crucial to the coal industry, as well as many other jobs juggernauts in Alabama.

Adams said this especially included the Rebuild Alabama Act, which will make possible the deepening and widening of the Port of Mobile’s ship channel in order to compete at the highest level of international trade.

In fact, the met coal (coal used for coke, which is a necessary component in steel and iron making) industry is by far the port’s biggest commodity exporter– and Warrior Met Coal is the port’s largest single customer by tonnage. Overall, coal accounts for 50% of the port’s total business.

Looking forward, Adams predicted that deepening the ship channel will allow Alabama’s coal exports to make a significantly increased dent in Asian markets especially.

Saunders advised that Australian met coal producers are currently Warrior’s biggest international competitor, and the Rebuild Alabama Act’s effects are expected to make the state’s met coal industry even more of a player on the worldwide stage.

Adams hailed state leaders, such as Governor Kay Ivey and the Alabama Legislature, for the infrastructure package and especially singled out the stalwart efforts of Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) for his support of the port improvements.

“We see the money that’s being invested and what that means for these shippers. And this industry up here (coal), they’re going to be able to load more coal,” she said. “They’re going to be able to put 20/30,000 tons more per ship, and for the first time, we think we’re going to have a competitive edge in the Asian market. We already serve Latin America and Europe… We’re excited about it.”

While things look up from this perspective, Saunders also advised that Warrior Met Coal was seriously looking into another expansion.

He said that its Blue Creek Mine has been identified as one of the largest untapped coal reserves in America. The company is studying the economic feasibility of the project, with a decision to likely come near the end of this year or early 2020.

If Warrior Met Coal does move forward with this expansion, it would probably mean another 450-700 high-paying jobs in the area.

‘This is a big deal’

This type of industry optimism can continue, with the support of the state and federal governments, Reed said.

“We’re proud of the fact that we are a pro-business state,” Reed emphasized. “We are looking for ways … minimize regulatory requirements that would cause us to not be able to see the kind of investment and growth that we have.”

He then recounted a story a vendor told him this past session that provides powerful perspective into the impact of Alabama’s coal industry across the globe and back here at home.

Met coal mined in the state is being shipped by barge down to the Port of Mobile and then shipped out to European steelmakers. Some of that steel is then sent back through the Port of Mobile to Mercedes-Benz’s manufacturing facility in Tuscaloosa, and those automobiles are enjoyed worldwide, thanks, in part, to the contributions of hardworking, proud Yellowhammer State coal miners.

“For West Alabama, this is a big deal,” Reed concluded. “And I’m just excited to be a part of it.”

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

29 mins ago

Limestone County sheriff’s attorney blasts ‘draconian’ ethics act after indictment

After it was announced on Thursday that longtime Limestone County Sheriff Michael Anthony “Mike” Blakely has been indicted on 13 state ethics counts, separate press conferences featuring his personal attorneys and the spokesperson for the sheriff’s department pumped the breaks on those looking to equate Blakely merely being charged with actually being guilty.

First, Mark McDaniel, the lead attorney for Blakely’s defense, emphasized that the sheriff would be entering in a plea of “not guilty” on all counts and looks forward to trying the case in a court of his peers.

WHNT carried McDaniel’s comments to the media, in which he emphasized that a large part of the defense will be challenging the constitutionality of Alabama’s ethics statute.

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“Virtually anything you do as a public servant now under that act is illegal, so we’ll be contesting the constitutionality of the ethics act also,” McDaniel said.

He called the ethics act “draconian” and added he will file a motion asking the court to strike it down.

Asked what about the ethics act they will be challenging, McDaniel responded, “A lot of things.”

McDaniel specified that one of those things will be how overly “broad” the statute is.

“You don’t even know what you’ve done [wrong],” he added, saying that the public should stay tuned to see their motions “attacking” the ethics act’s issues.

In a press conference shortly afterwards, Limestone County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Stephen Young stressed that Blakely continues to serve as the sheriff and that the department’s operations will not be affected by the ongoing legal situation.

Young also cautioned people about utilizing indictments as indicators of guilt.

“A grand jury indictment is not a conviction,” Young advised. “In fact, it’s the process typically used when an agency cannot obtain enough probable cause to obtain its own warrant. As Sheriff Blakely once told me, ‘You can indict a ham sandwich.’”

Watch:

Blakely served in the U.S. Marine Corps and as an Alabama State Trooper before becoming the county sheriff in 1983. He has also served as an officer in the Alabama National Guard.

McDaniel said it is an “honor” to represent the sheriff and that he is “proud” to defend Blakely against the charges.

The attorney noted that Blakely “absolutely” intended to continue serving. The sheriff was back at work immediately after posting bond on Thursday.

A Democrat, Blakely is the longest-serving sheriff in state history. He won the statewide “Bobby Timmons Sheriff of the Year Award” as recently as 2017.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 hours ago

Alabama postpones 50th anniversary tour over singer’s health

Country band Alabama says it is postponing the remainder of its 50th anniversary tour as lead singer Randy Owen battles health complications.

The group announced Wednesday that the 69-year-old Owen is suffering from migraines and vertigo, and doctors say he needs more time to recover.

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The news comes after a string of already-canceled shows due to the singer’s health.

Bass player and vocalist Teddy Gentry wrote in a statement that though he and the rest of the band are disappointed, Owen’s recovery is the priority.

The 50-city tour was scheduled through Nov. 23, where it would have ended in Salisbury, Maryland.

Rescheduled dates will be released in the coming weeks.
(Associated Press, copyright 2019)

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How Alabama’s Iron Tribe Fitness sets the standard for group workouts

Iron Tribe Fitness, founded in Birmingham, Alabama, is leading the way for workout programs across the nation. Ranked as one of the top five workouts in the nation, this 45-minute HIIT group workout class offers participants exciting and effective workouts in a time frame that works with any kind of schedule.

Recently, the gym hosted Coach 201, a weekend training session for their instructors in their downtown Birmingham corporate location. This session brought together all of Iron Tribe’s local coaching staff to review training guidelines and program goals.

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In hosting this training, Iron Tribe is living out their core value of delivering a consistent experience. Forrest Walden, Iron Tribe’s founder and CEO says this training session taps into the heart of what the program does — which is creating communities that change lives.

“It’s always great to see the entire team come together to fellowship and dive deep into why we do what we do every day,” Walden said.

During the training, Iron Tribe coaches were given the opportunity to learn more about the classes they teach and strengthen their relationships with each other. As a result, the coaches are empowered to return to their home gyms and lead their athletes with renewed skills and confidence.

“Kyle Sottung, our director of product development, is extremely thorough and talented at what he does. To see him lead our Birmingham coaches is always such a blessing. Our coaches are more empowered now than ever to pour into the Birmingham community,” Walden stated.

According to Walden, Iron Tribe is successful because the program is more than just a workout, but a way to strengthen the communities they serve.

“Iron Tribe stands on a list off essential core beliefs. These beliefs steer what we do every day, both inside and outside the gym. It’s our hope that by continuing to develop ourselves that we can be exceptional coaches and role models within our communities,” Walden said.

Ready to get in the best shape of your life? Learn more by visiting irontribefitness.com.

3 hours ago

Limestone County sheriff indicted, arrested on 13 financial theft, ethics charges

Attorney General Steve Marshall on Thursday announced that Limestone County Sheriff Michael Anthony Blakely has been indicted and arrested on several ethics charges.

Blakely, 68, surrendered to authorities and was later released on a $49,000 bond, according to the attorney general’s office.

The indictment includes 13 charges that cover a range of conduct over multiple years.

“Public officials are entrusted to perform their duties honestly and above reproach,” Marshall said in a statement. “When that bond of trust is broken, our society suffers undue harm. My office—working with our federal and state partners—is committed to ensuring that the violators of the public trust be held accountable under the law.”

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Specifically, the first four counts charge Blakely with four separate thefts from his campaign account that total $11,000.

Counts five through 10 charge him with theft or ethics charges stemming from his illegally taking money from Limestone County funds, including from the Sheriff’s Law Enforcement Fund.

Count 11 charges Blakely with soliciting a $1,000 wire transfer from a subordinate other than in the ordinary course of business.

Finally, counts 12 and 13 charge the sheriff with using his official position or office to acquire interest-free loans. Count 12 charges Blakely with using his official position or office to obtain interest-free loans in the form of a $50,000 cashier’s check and/or a $22,189.68 credit. Count 13 charges Blakely with using his official position or office to obtain interest-free loans by taking money from a safe that was used to store the Limestone County inmates’ personal funds.

“I would like to thank the Federal Bureau of Investigation for its investigative assistance in this case,” Marshall added. “Anyone with information regarding corrupt practices by public officials is encouraged to contact the Alabama Attorney General’s Office at reportcorruption@ago.state.al.us.”

The case is being prosecuted by the state attorney general’s Special Prosecutions Division.

“While the overwhelming majority of public officials serve honorably, those who corrupt the operations of government rob their communities—their friends and neighbors—of the fundamental right to honest government, and we must insist on absolute honesty, integrity and trustworthiness from everyone,” FBI Birmingham Special Agent in Charge Johnnie Sharp, Jr. commented.

“I want the citizens of north Alabama to know that if they have information about potential wrongdoing by a public official or law enforcement officer, the FBI wants to hear from you,” he advised. “If you have information, call my office’s Public Corruption Tip Line at (844) 404-TIPS, share what you know, and join in the fight against corruption.”

Blakely, as is the case with all indictments, is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

UPDATE 1:20 p.m.

Blakely’s attorneys held a press conference emphasizing that he will plead not guilty to all counts, per WHNT.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace: Talladega Superspeedway renovations ‘a whole different level’ — Expect to see other facilities follow its lead

On Wednesday at the Talladega Superspeedway, former NASCAR great Rusty Wallace, the 1989 champion of the sanctioning body’s premier series, took part in a tour with members of the media that showcased the finishing touches being put in the facility’s “Transformation” renovations with its October fall race weekend fast approaching.

The $50 million “Transformation” project comes as Talladega Superspeedway celebrates its 50th anniversary. Among the improved amenities are the Talladega Garage Experience, which is made up of the Open Air Club. Also included are a new Race Operations tower high above the track’s tri-oval and the new Pit Road Club that offers race fans a close-up view of team pit stops.

On Wednesday, Wallace appeared on Huntsville radio’s WVNN to discuss the facility’s overhaul and other changes to NASCAR over the past few decades.

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“These guys have taken it to a whole different level,” Wallace said. “I got there today, and we’re talking about all brand-new garage areas and they made it so all the fans can come down in the garage and stand literally three-foot in front of the race cars, watch the race cars pull in, watch the drivers get out, watch them run their motors, watch all the behind the scenes stuff. And that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen in our sport at all.”

“It adds some aspects to the new builds – the Daytona build, Phoenix, Ariz., Richmond, Va.,” he continued. “And those are fantastic. But Talladega is probably the best I’ve seen. I mean, you literally – you’re a fan. You can stand right in front of that car. It’s neat having that much access.”

When asked how it compared to another time in NASCAR when things were much more accessible, Wallace explained this offered an organization that that era did not provide.

“What it does is it organizes a lot better,” Wallace explained. “There’s places to watch. There are ways to watch. They’re even telling the pit crews where they can put their big toolboxes that they operate out of so it won’t obstruct the view of a fan that has come down there to see these cars.’

Wallace also touted the new 35,000-square foot Talladega Social Club with its 41-foot television and 71-foot wide bar, which was adjacent to the garage area.

The 1989 champion said he expected other NASCAR facilities around the country to follow Talladega’s lead.

“I think you’re going to see all these facilities around the country trying to keep up the facilities and make them the best you can,” he said. “If you ask Rusty Wallace, ‘Hey, do you want it hard or easy to sit inside of a race track,’ I’m going to tell them I want it easy. Do I want to go inside with the air conditioner when it is 100 degrees outside, I’m going to tell you yes. That’s the reason I like these new facilities they’ve got.”

Access to drivers and internet access also compliment the new facility, according to Wallace.

The track, along with its parent company, International Speedway Corporation, announced last year it’s “Transformation,” an approximate $50 million redevelopment that is part of ISC’s long-term capital allocation plan and reinvestment into its major motorsports complexes.

Full completion of the modernized project is anticipated for October. For ticket information for the 1000Bulbs.com 500 and Sugarlands Shine 250 doubleheader NASCAR Playoffs weekend, October 11-13, visit www.talladegasuperspeedway.com or call 855-518-RACE (7223).

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University, the editor of Breitbart TV and host of “The Jeff Poor Show” from 2-5 p.m. on WVNN in Huntsville.