Coal Tattoo


Candidates, from left, Don Blankenship, of Williamson, Bo Copley, of Delbarton; U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., of Huntington, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, of Charles Town, Jack Newbrough, of Weirton, and Tom Willis, of Martinsburg, participate in a debate in Wheeling, W.Va., Monday, April 23, 2018.  AP photo.

If you are among those who get a lot of your news from Facebook, you have probably seen a lot of people who aren’t fans of Don Blankenship calling the former Massey Energy CEO a “felon.” Heck, if you are a consumer of a lot of political news from major outlets, you probably saw the word used there a few times as well.

But the fact is that Blankenship, while he is a lot of things, is most certainly not a felon.  No, the charge he was convicted of — conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards — is a misdemeanor. That’s because the underlying crime he was found by a jury to have conspired to commit — violating those standards — is a misdemeanor.

The difference is important.  Not only does it mean that the most time Blankenship could have done in prison for that conviction was one year, but also it means that, really, our society considers what he did to be a minor crime.

As West Virginians go to the polls, though, it’s worth thinking about this a little bit more. Especially so since Attorney General Patrick Morrisey decided, just two days before the primary, that it was time to go after Blankenship for his criminal conviction.

Many of the questions at yesterday’s Morrisey campaign press conference focused on the sort of insider stuff that political reporting thrives on:  Why now? Was this some indication Morrisey believed Blankenship was surging in the polls? What if Blankenship wins the primary? Would Blankenship support him against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in the fall?

Buried in there was a question that was actually about what kind of position Attorney General Morrisey would take on a piece of legislation that’s pending in the United States Senate. Here’s the exchange:


Joe Manchin has had a bill out that would actually advance the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards. Do you support that idea?


So I actually would support a law if you knew that there was very clear intent on the part of an executive or on the part of an individual. It’s a very, very serious issue when you’re talking about conspiracy to violate mining standards or things that led to death, that I would be very open to making that a felony. But I think it’s really important to make sure that you have very clear intent in terms of the specifics of the allegation, and so I’d want to take a look at that language. But it’s clear to me that everyone must be accountable within the corporate channels.

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What politicians could say when coal miners die



It’s been 12 years since that early morning explosion in Upshur County. Twelve years since the Sago Mine Disaster. A year for each of the families who lost someone they loved.

But what I can’t stop thinking about is a much more recent coal-mining death. The one that happened on Friday, just a few days after Christmas and a few days before New Year’s Day. As the Gazette-Mail’s Erin Beck reported:

“Preliminary information indicates Thurman A. Watts of Harts, WV, died when a dozer he was operating traveled over the high wall,” the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training said in a prepared statement Friday. Watts died at about 1 a.m. at the Revelation Energy, LLC, Revelation S7 mine in Fayette County.

“I don’t have any information on the surface conditions at the time of the incident,” Samantha Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said in an email. “MHS&T is conducting an investigation.
Exactly one minute after the state mine safety office email dropped into my inbox on Friday, the standard statement came in from Gov. Jim Justice:

“Cathy and I are deeply saddened today after learning of the death of one of our coal miners in Fayette County. It’s heartbreaking when we hear that one of our coal miners has lost their life while on the job. Please join us in praying for the family, friends, and co-workers of Thurman A. Watts and all of our hard working and dedicated coal miners in West Virginia.”

About a half-hour later came the statement from Sen. Joe Manchin:

“All of West Virginia is heartbroken to learn of the loss of Thurman A. Watts today. Yet again, we are reminded of the incredible sacrifices our coal miners and their families make every day. Gayle and I join the entire state in sending our thoughts and prayers to the Watts family during this difficult time.

It’s a lot like the tweet that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito sent out today marking the Sago anniversary:


These deaths are tragic. They should remind us of the sacrifices coal miners make. Personally, I think praying for their families is a fine idea.

But coming from political leaders — people with power and authority to ensure coal miners are given a better chance of going home each day — these words are pretty hollow without even the smallest bit of policy or promise of action. Here’s what political leaders who really care about coal miners could say when a miner is killed on the job:

This is another senseless and preventable death in our nation’s mines. We owe it to our coal miners — and the families of those who have suffered these deaths — to redouble our efforts to reach the only goal we should all have: Zero mining deaths and injuries. We know how to keep coal miners safe and there’s no excuse for not doing it.

Merry Christmas from Coal Tattoo

Climate Change EPA Rally


A supporter of coal-fired power plants sits in the stands at Highmark Stadium during a rally to support American energy and jobs in the coal and related industries in downtown Pittsburgh, Wednesday, July 30, 2014.  (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

There’s a flurry of stories out this week about some changes that Gov. Jim Justice is making to the Tomblin administration’s signature coalfield economic development project: The industrial park at the Hobet mountaintop removal mine site along the Boone-Lincoln County border.

The headlines are things like “Justice puts brakes on Rock Creek development plans” and “Rock Creek pivot: Hoyer says site has great potential for military training.” Oddly, the headline on the governor’s press release was, “Gov. Justice says Immediate Economic Activity to Begin at Former Hobet Mine Site.”

Really, though, the headline for any of these stories should have been: Lax regulation of mountaintop removal continues to hinder coalfield economic development.

The basics of the news this week is this, as our Gazette-Mail story explained:

Gov. Jim Justice confirmed Monday that he is putting the brakes on one of his predecessor’s loftiest proposals, to convert a 12,000-acre strip mine site in Boone and Lincoln counties into West Virginia’s largest multiuse development park.

Justice announced that he is canceling, for now, a proposed $100 million four-lane highway to link the Rock Creek Development Park with Corridor G north of Danville, opting instead for a $30 million upgrade of the existing mine haul road.

… Justice said his administration will initially emphasize the site’s use by the West Virginia National Guard as a primary mobility training site, “teaching driving techniques in various military vehicles on a variety of terrains.”

But to understand the underlying issues here, you need to go back to our investigation of mountaintop removal mining way back in 1998. As we explained at the time:

Across the Southern West Virginia coalfields, mountaintop removal mining is turning tens of thousands of acres of rugged hills and hollows – nobody knows how many – into flat pastures and rolling hayfields. A new coal industry advertising campaign declares that mine operators who lop off mountaintops are building “West Virginia’s Own Field of Dreams.”

“Like the Iowa farmer in the movie, ‘Field of Dreams,’ if we build the sites, they will come,” the industry ads say. “And when they come, they will bring with them better jobs, housing, schools, recreation facilities, and a better life for all West Virginians.”

A continuing Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation has found that these predictions have not come true and that, without major regulatory changes, they aren’t likely to come true anytime soon. Coal industry backers point to a few small mountaintop removal jobs that were turned into homes for the new state prison, a high school and an air strip. But most coal companies plan to leave giant mountaintop removal mines as flattened-out fields … 

Now, there have always been some significant questions about former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s proposal for the Hobet site. And maybe given where things stand now, State Adjutant General Jim Hoyer is right about the direction the project should be heading.

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Mine Explosion Congress


Taft, California, is a long way from the Mingo County coalfields where Don Blankenship grew up. And Vegas is certainly a long way from Montcoal, West Virginia, where 29 coal miners died on April 5, 2010, in an explosion at a mine run by Blankenship’s old company, Massey Energy.

So maybe we should be generous and forgive the former Massey CEO and his career campaign consultants if they get a few details confused in the advertising campaign they hope will win Blankenship a seat in the U.S. Senate — or at least deny re-election to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, or maybe just confuse for the sake of history what happened at Upper Big Branch..

Maybe Blankenship really believes the ads. Maybe he really wants to be a Senator. Maybe he just wants to settle old scores.

Whichever the case, Blankenship and his consultants are really asking the wrong question about Upper Big Branch. If you ask the right question, the answer here — as it is with most industrial disasters — is that there is plenty of blame to go around for the 29 deaths at UBB.

The other evening, I was thinking about this as I read through the piece that the good folks at PolitiFact published about Blankenship’s ad campaign. They rated his statement — that the Obama administration’s internal review of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s role in a deadly mine explosion was ‘fixed'” — as “pants on fire.” In the world of PolitiFact’s “Truth-O-Meter,” this means: “The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.”

(By way of full disclosure, the PolitiFact folks are partnering with the Gazette-Mail on some fact-checking in West Virginia politics, and their piece on Blankenship credited me with “additional reporting.” All that really means is that I talked to the reporter who wrote the piece, pointed out some of the relevant public records and provided a bunch of links to previous coverage of the issues.)

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When we last left Rep. Alex Mooney, the West Virginia Republican was voting with the state’s other House members in favor of a budget cut for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Today, Rep. Mooney is set to be pushing another mine safety measure — this one aimed at eliminating the requirement that publicly traded mining companies report certain mine safety information when they file financial disclosures with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Rep. Mooney is the lead sponsor of H.R. 4289, which was introduced just a week ago, but it on the fast track with a markup scheduled this morning in the House Financial Services Committee. It’s on a long list of nearly two dozen bills the committee plans to take up today.

It doesn’t appear that Rep. Mooney issued a press release to announce this legislation, and so far a spokesman hasn’t provided any answers to my questions about the bill.   UPDATE: See below for some answers from a spokeman for Rep. Mooney. (I did get an emailed statement in which Talley Sergent, a candidate in the Democratic primary for Rep. Mooney’s seat, criticized the legislation as an effort “to repeal crucial mine safety measures” and the congressman “a hypocrite” who “tweets condolences to deceased coal miners and then betrays their memory by repealing mine safety measures”).

Some readers may recall that these safety reporting requirements were added to mandated SEC disclosures back in 2010, after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, in a move by then-Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and as one of the last legislative actions by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

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Supreme Court declines to hear Blankenship’s appeal

Mine Explosion Congress


This news just in:

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s criminal mine safety conviction.

Here’s the mention of the case — under the heading “CERTIORARI DENIED” — on an order list released this morning by the Court:

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Another U.S. coal miner dies on the job

Mine Explosion


Sad news today out of the coalfields of Wyoming. The Star-Tribune reports:

A worker at Bridger underground mine in southwest Wyoming died Thursday after a slab of coal fell on him.

Jaime Olivas was moving mining equipment at about 4 p.m. when the slab came loose and struck him, according to an announcement from Bridger Coal Company and Rocky Mountain Power officials.

Co-workers provided first-aid to Olivas, a mining equipment operator, and he was conscious and talking when he was brought from the mine, according to the announcement. However, he died while being taken by ambulance to a Rock Springs hospital.

That makes 13 U.S. coal-mining deaths so far this year.

FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a home care worker during a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles. Calling for a “new college compact,” Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, Aug. 10, will unveil a $350 billion plan aimed at making college more affordable and reducing the crushing burden of student debt. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)


We certainly wrote a lot about it at the time she said it. That quote from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that was so taken out of context by the coal industry, Trump supporters and West Virginia political leaders (see here, here, here, here and here).

Now, more than 10 months after the general election, Clinton herself has a few things to say about that comment. There’s a whole chapter about it in her new book, “What Happened.” She called the chapter, “Country Roads” and said that it was the campaign comment that she regrets the most from the entire race:

Stripped of context, my words sounded heartless. Republican operatives made sure the clip was replayed virtually nonstop on Facebook feeds, local radio and television coverage, and campaign ads across Appalachian for months.

… The point I had wanted to make was the exact opposite of how it came out.

As Clinton recounts, she was answering a question about how she would win support from working-class whites who normally vote Republican. Here’s the full answer:

Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around politics that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim? [That’s Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who was in the audience]

And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.

In the book, she explains:

If you listened to the full answer and not just that one garbled sentence pulled out of it, my meaning comes through reasonably well. Coal employment had been going down in Appalachia for decades, stemming from changes in mining technology, competition from lower-sulfur Wyoming coal, and cheaper and cleaner natural gas and renewable energy, and a drop in the global demand for coal.

I was intensely concerned about the impact on families and communities that had depended on coal jobs for generations. That’s why I proposed a comprehensive $30 billion plan to help revitalize and diversify the region’s economy. But most people never heard that. They heard a snippet that gave the impression that I was looking forward to hurting miners and their families.

The book does a lot of blaming the media for all of this, and anyone who reads my blog (see here and here  especially) knows I don’t really disagree with that basic point.

But perhaps another reason that most people didn’t hear about the Clinton plan to save the coalfields is that she didn’t really talk about it that much. And, of course, others in her party — I’m looking at you, Sen. Joe Manchin — want to just keep talking about coal, coal coal, as if the next boom is right around the corner. And Clinton is wrong to try to rewrite history to suggest that Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t propose his own coalfield rescue plan (see here). President Obama had such a plan, of course, but as we’ve discussed before, it was really too little and too late and wasn’t promoted nearly enough by Obama or any Democrats.

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Water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)


The first thing Monday morning, as we were all still trying to grasp what has been happening on the Gulf Coast of Texas, the press release came from Gov. Jim Justice:

Governor Jim Justice announced Monday that the Mountain State is prepared to send resources including West Virginia National Guard assets and personnel as needed in areas deluged by what has become Tropical Storm Harvey.

“West Virginia stands ready, willing and able to provide first responders to assist our fellow Americans in Texas and in other areas along the Gulf Coast as they continue to deal with the massive flooding and devastating damage being caused by Tropical Storm Harvey,” Governor Justice said. “I encourage all West Virginians to join Cathy and I as we pray for their safety and well-being.”

It was hard not to think about another quote from Gov. Justice, the one where he was commenting on what a nice, warm day it was when he took the oath of office back in January:

You know, it’s phenomenal to think about it. How could we have weather like this on this day?

Gosh, Governor. How could we possibly have had weather like that in January? Then, as now, Gov. Justice doesn’t have it in him to confront — or even admit — one of the most daunting challenges facing humanity. He’s not alone.

As there usually is when a coal miner dies a completely preventable death in West Virginia’s mines, there’s a lot of prayer going on among our state’s political leaders:


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UMWA: Leadership changes at MSHA ‘troubling’

FILE - In this Sunday, May 1, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to a song during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)


There’s been a lot of buzz this week over leadership changes by the Trump administration at the U.S. Department of Labor and the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The first report I saw from Politico (subscription required) indicated this:

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta shuffled his top staff this morning, moving chief of staff Wayne Palmer to the Mine Safety and Health Administration and replacing him with Acting Solicitor of Labor Nicholas Geale.

Palmer will now serve as assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health, the top spot at MSHA. Geale will temporarily serve dual roles as chief of staff and solicitor of labor.

Geale, in a statement through a spokeswoman, said Palmer’s “role at MSHA is something that’s been in the works for a while. He’s from Pennsylvania and mining is in his family’s background. His leadership as Acting Assistant Secretary will be critical as we work to ensure the safety of our nation’s miners and address some of the challenges that MSHA has had.”

The next day, there was this:

Geale said in a written statement that Palmer’s “role at MSHA is something that’s been in the works for a while,” noting that Palmer had roots in Pennsylvania and that mining was in his family’s background. “His leadership as acting assistant secretary will be critical as we work to ensure the safety of our nation’s miners and address some of the challenges that MSHA has had.” No word yet on who Trump will nominate for the assistant secretary position; a White House spokesman declined to comment. 

Then last evening, the United Mine Workers of America weighed in, with this statement from UMWA President Cecil Roberts:

The appointment of Mr. Wayne Palmer as Acting Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health is a matter of great concern to us. At a time when fatalities and serious injuries are on the rise again, after having fallen for six consecutive years, the appointment of someone with absolutely no apparent experience in mine safety and health to this position is troubling, to say the least.

Mr. Palmer may be a fine man and has experience working in the government. But what does he know about float coal dust and its dangers? What does he know about mine inspections and why they are important? What does he know about the need for ventilation, roof control, rock dusting, and a hundred other things that the person in charge of keeping our miners safe and secure needs to know?

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Here’s the statement just issued by the National Academy of Sciences:

In an August 18 letter, the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement informed the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that it should cease all work on a study of the potential health risks for people living near surface coal mine sites in Central Appalachia.  The letter states that the Department has begun an agency-wide review of its grants and cooperative agreements in excess of $100,000, largely as a result of the Department’s changing budget situation. 

The National Academies will go forward with previously scheduled meetings for this project in Kentucky on August 21-23 — which are allowed to proceed according to the letter — and encourages the public to attend open meetings in Hazard and Lexington on August 21 and 22.  The National Academies believes this is an important study and we stand ready to resume it as soon as the Department of the Interior review is completed.  We are grateful to our committee members for their dedication to carrying forward with this study.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  They operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.

President Donald Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. Justice, a Democrat, announced that he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)


President Donald Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. Justice, a Democrat, announced that he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Here in West Virginia, the big political story over the last week has obviously been Gov. Jim Justice’s return to the Republican party.

Some of the media are of course very interested in promoting one of the governor’s reasons — this pretty far-out idea that the federal government is going to start subsidizing Appalachian steam coal production to the tune of $15 a ton.

There’s also a lot of interest in continuing to promote the sort of pandering that Gov. Justice (not to mention President Trump) are pushing that there’s a huge coal boom just around the corner. This is a comforting thought, both to state political leaders and to many of our fellow West Virginians. Just look at the last of those silly “Jim was right” press releases that Gov. Justice’s press office put out back while he was still a Democrat.

A huge coal boom would mean none of us would have to do the really hard work of building other kinds of economies in our coalfield communities — at least not right now. And it’s true that there has been an increase in coal jobs in West Virginia over the last three quarters. Taylor Kuykendall, the go-to guy among the media for these kind of numbers, explained last week:

Coal jobs in West Virginia are up 18.3% year over year in the second quarter, according to a new S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis of federal data, and up about 12.2% compared to the fourth quarter of 2016. The year-over-year increase represents about 2,132 jobs, while the increase from the final quarter of 2016 represents about 1,493 jobs.

But keep in mind, if you go back further than the last few quarters, or a year-over-year comparison, the increase in jobs doesn’t come anywhere close to rebuilding the sort of coal-based economy that politicians would have you believe is going to reappear.  Data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration shows that West Virginia lost 13,000 coal jobs between the post-2000 high mark in the 4th quarter of 2011 and the low point in the 3rd quarter of 2016. Our state lost half of its coal-mining jobs in just that five-year period. We’ve only gained back a fraction of those. And the projections don’t suggest the jobs are going to keep coming back.

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Five things about President Trump and coal


FILE- In this May 5, 2016 photo, Coal miners wave signs as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Trump's election could signal the end of many of President Barack Obama's signature environmental initiatives. Trump has said he loathes regulation and wants to use more coal and expand offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)


This evening’s visit to Huntington by President Donald Trump will undoubtedly involve the president talking up the coal industry and touting what he continues to insist is a major rebound that will only keep growing.

But here are some things to remember about President Trump and coal:

1.   Be wary of assertions or predictions (like this remarkably misleading boasting by Gov. Jim Justice) that another huge coal boom is underway or is just around the corner. Production actually dropped somewhat in the second quarter of this year. And while jobs are up a bit, much of this is in the highly volatile steel-making coal market, and most experts see little evidence that this is going to drive the sort of turnaround that many folks in the coalfields dream is coming.

2. While professing to just absolutely love coal miners, President Trump is overseeing what could be the start of a significant dismantling of many important safety and health protections for coal miners. His Labor Department is working out a settlement of an industry challenge to an important rule that toughened enforcement in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and the recently announced regulatory agenda for the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration delays or drops some key rulemaking initiatives.

3. Coal mining deaths are up so far under the Trump administration. As of this morning, there have been 10 reported coal-mining deaths nationwide in 2017. That’s more than the eight mining deaths that occurred in all of 2016.  Meanwhile, the only new effort by MSHA to respond to this is one of those voluntary compliance assistance programs, a program that is drawing criticism from the United Mine Workers union.  And not for nothing, but the president still hasn’t appointed anyone to serve as assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health.

UPDATED:  MSHA has confirmed this afternoon that another coal miner was killed on the job last evening in Colorado, pushing the number of fatalities this year to 11.

4. While the science continues to show serious environmental damage from coal-mining (and potentially grave threats to public health), the Trump administration is working hard to dismantle new standards aimed at reducing the impacts.  Getting rid of the Interior Department’s stream protection rule wasn’t enough, though. Just this week, as the administration prepared for the president’s trip to West Virginia, Interior was touting a move to streamline processing of new mining permits.

5. Black lung is a real worker health crisis in Appalachia.  NPR’s Howard Berkes continues to document this disaster (see here and here), but there is little response from policy makers and certainly not from the president who claims to care so much about coal miners.



Earlier today, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was tweeting about how this is the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. DEP even included a link to the remarks at the signing ceremony.

Not long after those tweets, though, the Citizens Coal Council issued a press release to mark the anniversary. Among other things, the group noted:

“In the 40 years since enactment of this law, what has happened to these promises – the promises codified into SMCRA as the purposes of the Act and reflected in its long arduous legislative history?” questioned Aimee Erickson, Executive Director of the Citizens Coal Council. “In substantial measure, as experienced by coalfield citizens and coalfield communities all across the country, these promises have not been honored.”  Rather, they have been “honored in breach,” as some might say – that is, ignored, compromised, and twisted in their implementation and interpretation.

“The 40th anniversary of the enactment of SMCRA is not a time of celebration of achievement, but rather, a somber reminder that after 40 years of implementation, and fully sixty or more years after grassroots efforts to see enacted a national program for controlling surface coal mining operations, the promises made by Congress to the people of the coalfields remain largely unkept,” noted Tom FitzGerald, director of the Kentucky Resources Council.

The press release continued:

Congress committed to coalfield communities that they would be protected from harm, that mining would be a temporary use of land, and that reclamation would closely follow the mining of coal. Though Congress intended that the choice of technology would follow, rather than dictate, environmental protection, the coal industry has over the decades systematically replaced the workforce with larger machines more indiscriminate to the terrain, and key concepts in the law have been weakened by regulatory interpretations in order to accommodate this shift.

Despite the earnest efforts by line workers for the agency over these decades, the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) has failed to take effective action to address some of the most glaring deficiencies in the state implementation of the Act’s requirements.  The passage of SMCRA held out the hope that coalfield citizens would no longer have to sacrifice their fundamental rights to a safe and healthy environment in order to feed a nation’s desire for “cheap” energy.

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Trump dumps and delays key coal-mine safety rules

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)


Of course, we’re still waiting for President Donald Trump to let us know who he wants to have running the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

But we have seen a little taste of MSHA under Trump with this new voluntary initiative in response to the uptick in coal-mining deaths. And amid the journalism that’s focused on some of the administration’s efforts to dismantle the regulatory safety net in our country (one of the best stories was this one from ProPublica and The New York Times), this story we did at the Gazette-Mail hasn’t gotten enough attention:

The Trump administration is negotiating to settle legal challenges brought by Murray Energy and a collection of industry trade associations over a rule change meant to toughen federal coal mine safety enforcement following the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster in 2010.

A federal magistrate judge in Ohio has put two similar cases — one brought by Murray Energy and the other by coal associations in Ohio and Kentucky — on hold following a joint motion by the industry plaintiffs and the U.S. Department of Justice, representing federal mine safety regulators. The joint motion indicated the parties believe they can work out a deal that would resolve mining company objections to an Obama administration rule meant to beef up enforcement against repeat violators of standards meant to protect the nation’s miners.

“Rather than concurrently litigating and negotiating a possible settlement of the dispute, the parties are open to negotiating a mutually agreeable resolution that could avoid further litigation,” said the joint motion, filed earlier this month in U.S. District Court in Columbus.

The joint filing indicated that lawyers for the industry and the government had met on May 1 and agreed that settlement negotiations “were sufficiently promising to warrant a stay of this litigation.”

“The parties have since discussed their commitment to a structured series of conferences to consider a negotiated resolution,’ the joint filing said.

And now,  with this week’s somewhat late release of the spring update of the Labor Department’s regulatory agenda, we can get a look at what the Trump administration is going to do with some other important MSHA rules (for a broader examination government-wide at Trump’s regulatory agenda, read this story from The Washington Post).

First, the most important thing to note — that is, important if you care about the black lung crisis that is killing our coal miners — is the MSHA rule concerning Respirable Crystalline Silica.  Last year, the Obama administration indicated that MSHA would publish a proposed rule this April.  Now, though, the Trump administration has moved this project to its list of “long-term actions” and listed the next action is “undetermined.”

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UMWA raises more concerns about MSHA program

Labor Day PIcnic Cecil Roberts


We’ve had a Gazette-Mail story and a Coal Tattoo blog post about the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s new voluntary training initiative, a program launched in response to a troubling uptick in coal-mining deaths this year, especially in West Virginia.

Now, the United Mine Workers of America union is continuing its criticism of the MSHA program.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts sent this letter earlier this month to Acting MSHA chief Pat Silvey.

Among other things, the union is concerned that MSHA is not going to allow agency staffers who visit mines as part of this program to actually write violations and that official miners’ representatives would not be included in these “compliance assistance” visits to mining operations.



Earlier this week, former West Virginia University researcher Michael Hendryx was explaining the findings of his many studies of mountaintop removal’s public health impacts to a National Academy of Sciences panel examining the issue … but this week also saw the publication of yet another report that details the environmental impacts of large-scale strip mining.

The latest study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology, reports that mountaintop removal mining causes many streams and rivers in Appalachia to run consistently saltier for up to 80 percent of the year. The scientists, from the University of Wyoming and Duke University, examined water quality in four watersheds that flow into the Mud River basin, the site of extensive mountaintop removal over several decades.

Fabian Nippgen, assistant professor of ecosystem science and management at the University of Wyoming, explained:

Over time, alkaline salts and other contaminants from the coal residue and crushed rocks in these valley fills leach into nearby streams and rivers, degrading water quality and causing dramatic increases in salinity that are harmful to downstream ecosystems.

These significant alterations are likely to lead to saltier and more perennial streamflows throughout Appalachia, where at least 7 percent of the land has already been disturbed by mountaintop-removal mining. It’s not just the mountains that are being changed.

FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2014 file photo, a mural of a coal miner stands in an empty storefront as signs advertising vacant apartments and stores hang in the windows along the main business street in Cumberland, Ky. The world’s biggest coal users - China, the United States and India - have boosted coal mining in 2017, in an abrupt departure from last year’s record global decline for the heavily polluting fuel and a setback to efforts to rein in climate change emissions.(AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

In this Oct. 17, 2014 file photo, a mural of a coal miner stands in an empty storefront as signs advertising vacant apartments and stores hang in the windows along the main business street in Cumberland, Ky. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

The Associated Press has a story out this morning about gains in coal production in the United States and in China:

The world’s biggest coal users — China, the United States and India — have boosted coal mining in 2017, in an abrupt departure from last year’s record global decline for the heavily polluting fuel and a setback to efforts to rein in climate change emissions.

Mining data reviewed by The Associated Press show that production through May is up by at least 121 million tons, or 6 percent, for the three countries compared to the same period last year. The change is most dramatic in the U.S., where coal mining rose 19 percent in the first five months of the year, according to U.S. Department of Energy data.

Coal’s fortunes had appeared to hit a new low less than two weeks ago, when British energy company BP reported that tonnage mined worldwide fell 6.5 percent in 2016, the largest drop on record. China and the U.S. accounted for almost all the decline, while India showed a slight increase.

The reasons for this year’s turnaround include policy shifts in China, changes in U.S. energy markets and India’s continued push to provide electricity to more of its poor, industry experts said. President Donald Trump’s role as coal’s booster-in-chief in the U.S. has played at most a minor role, they said.

Judging from the National Mining Association’s op-ed piece on the Daily Mail editorial page last week, this is just the kind of story the coal industry is looking for:

Coal has added about 2,000 direct jobs in the last year, with 1,700 just since December 2016. Mines are expanding and new ones are opening in Alabama, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia and here in West Virginia.

Year-to-date production is up about 50 million tons, rail loadings are climbing despite a relatively mild winter, and power sector coal consumption climbed almost 23 percent in March, year to date. Both prices and exports are now expected to tick upward this year.

The Trump administration deserves some credit for this revival.

But not so fast … West Virginians might want to be a little careful before they get too excited about the coal rebound that political leaders keep hinting to coalfield residents is just around the next corner.

Take for example, the report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest “Energy Today” blog post, aptly headlined, “Future Coal Production Depends on Resources and Technology, Not Just Policy Choices.

Continue reading…

Murray makes good on promise to sue John Oliver



As expected, Murray Energy and its CEO, Bob Murray, have filed a lawsuit against HBO and its Sunday night personality John Oliver over the blistering commentary on Murray and his company (watch it here).

You can read the lawsuit for yourself here, and this is how Murray Energy described it in the company’s press release:

The deceitful and damaging statements of Time Warner, HBO, and their operatives were clearly a deliberate attempt to assassinate the character of Mr. Robert E. Murray, a champion of the United States coal industry and patriotic American, and to destroy Murray Energy, a company which Mr. Murray founded nearly thirty years ago and built into the largest underground coal mining company in the United States. Allowing these false statements to stand unrefuted would be a disservice to the Company’s employees, who rely on Mr. Murray and Murray Energy for their continued livelihoods, and to the Company’s lenders, customers, and suppliers who depend on our integrity and performance.

The company continued:

The false and defamatory statements in this broadcast severely and destructively impact Mr. Murray, and all of Murray Energy, particularly our Mines in the State of West Virginia, where we are the largest coal mining employer in the State, as well as coal mining itself, one of the primary foundations of that State’s economy.

This suit comes after legal action by Murray last month against The New York Times over an editorial that paper published.  Lawyers for the Times have filed a motion to have that case dismissed, and here’s part of what they said in their legal brief on that issue:

In publishing the editorial, The New York Times and its editorial board were commenting on a significant issue of public importance and concern and acted properly. All of The New York Times’ conduct is fully protected by well-settled legal principles under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution … 

… The challenged statements in The New York Times’ editorial at issue are both true and expressions of opinion and commentary on a significant matter of public concern, not actionable under First Amendment precedent or applicable West Virginia law.