Virginia coal piers continue to dump Appalachia's bounty into foreign ships at near-record levels, despite a short-term decline in world demand that has reduced the number of vessels waiting here to load coal.
Just 16 months ago, more than 160 colliers were anchored at Norfolk waiting to load coal. Last week, only seven ships were docked there. And now many of the cottage industries that had sprung up on the harbor to cater to the floating city that once numbered more than 4,000 seamen are floundering.
But in spite of the decreased market's effect on smaller businesses, a lot of coal is still moving and port officials are optimistic that the harbor's overall economy will not be crippled.
For 1982, Hampton Roads coal interests expect to ship 50 percent of an estimated U.S. export total of 105 million tons, a volume comparable to 1980 and 1981 totals, when exports increased because of labor unrest and coal strikes in Poland and Australia, two of the United States' major competitors, and because of speculative buying in anticipation of the 1981 coal miners' strike here.
"We expect a pretty good year after an excellent spring," said Bill Bales, coal traffic manager at Norfolk & Western Railway, the port's largest coal hauler. "The Gulf and Southern ports aren't loading much coal, but we expect steady business despite a worldwide depression and lessened demand for coal."
Bales said N&W's Lamberts Point piers have shipped about 18 million tons this year, adding that he anticipated only a minor lag in the summer and fall. The railroad shipped 33 million tons last year.
Roy Edwards, spokesman for the Chessie System railroad, also is optimistic. His railroad has dumped about 10 million tons through piers in Newport News this year, compared with 16 million tons during all of 1981.
But no one in the business of mining or shipping coal seems willing to predict how the market will hold up past early 1983.
And despite the current optimism of coal shippers and haulers, the many local port businesses that were created to cater to last year's backlog of ships at Norfolk are falling on hard times. The lag in world demand and faster coal-loading methods that help eliminate the delays of ships in the harbor have reduced considerably the number of sailors looking for rides ashore to patronize local restaurants and shops.
The community of harbor pilots, shipping agents, ship suppliers, helicopter pilots and launch and taxi operators that only recently began to flourish is hurting now.
The drop in business at Lynnhaven Services, a local launch company, caused a layoff of 15 out of 35 employes. Last year, the business was realizing weekly gross revenues of up to $25,000 hauling sailors ashore. But those revenues are now as low as $5,000 per week, and half of the company's vessels are idle.
"I don't think anybody anticipated the line of ships would go down to what it has," said Joyce Young, Lynnhaven's operations manager.
Business is also bad at Cavalier Marine Supply Co.
"It was a boom time, and at some time it had to dissipate and fall off," said treasurer Jeff Littman. "I don't think we'll ever see it again."