Coal Tattoo

Trump dumps and delays key coal-mine safety rules

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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.”

Continue reading…

UMWA raises more concerns about MSHA program

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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The United Mine Workers of America just issued a statement about the latest U.S. coal-mining death that occurred on Monday in Alabama, saying:

The entire UMWA family is mourning the loss of our brother miner, Marius Shepherd, 33, a member of UMWA Local Union 2133, who was killed at the Seneca Coal Resources Oak Grove mine in Hueytown, Ala., on Monday. Our hearts and prayers go out to his family and we stand ready to assist them at this terrible time. 

Brother Shepherd died as a result of injuries sustained after leaping from a runaway locomotive underground. Our safety representatives have been on the site since immediately after the incident and are participating in the investigation along with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. 

UMWA President Cecil Roberts went on to say:

This is the ninth fatality in U.S. coal mines this year, one more than all of last year. All stakeholders in the mining industry – employers, government safety agencies, and the workers – need to take steps to stop this deadly trend.

And, remarking on the latest move by the Trump administration’s MSHA (see here and here), Roberts said:

I note that the Mine Safety and Health Administration has instituted a ‘compliance assistance’ program to address this. The UMWA is not and never has been in favor of so-called ‘compliance assistance’ programs, and this one is no different. MSHA is giving the operators leeway to select who can participate in this program and who cannot. To be effective, MSHA’s program must be training everyone receives. And, despite our 127-year history of dealing with mine safety issues and developing solutions to those issues, MSHA failed to reach out to us at all with respect to developing this program. 

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Coal mining deaths continue

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Photo from U.S. MSHA / On May 18, a miner was killed at the Pinnacle Mine in Wyoming County when his head hit the mine roof and/or a roof support.

While I was out of pocket last week, another West Virginia coal miner was killed on the job.

The cryptic statement from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training provided little insight into what happened:

The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training confirms a fatal incident occurred Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at 8:47 p.m., at the Rockwell Mining LLC, Gateway Eagle Mine in Boone County. Preliminary information indicates Rodney S. Osborne of Artie, WV, was operating a continuous miner at the time of the incident.  Mr. Osborne was a continuous miner operator at the mine; he was 32 years old.

Inspectors from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training have started their investigation. The mine is idle at this time. 

Officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration were more helpful, reporting that Osborne was “fatally injured when he was pinned between the cutter head of a remote-controlled continuous mining machine and the coal rib. The victim was backing the continuous mining machine from the working face when the accident occurred.

The on Monday, down in Alabama, another coal miner was killed on the job.  Local media identified him as Marius Shepherd of Jasper. The preliminary information from MSHA described what happened at the Oak Grove Mine this way:

Two locomotives were transporting supplies into the mine on three rail cars.  While traveling in an inby direction, the locomotives lost control of the load.  The victim was riding on the front locomotive along with a motorman.  The victim was thrown from or jumped from the locomotive and suffered fatal injuries.  An inspector was at the mine when the accident occurred and …  the investigation is ongoing.

Continue reading…

Happy West Virginia Day

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ap_17152713058825

Well, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., was the first into my email inbox with a statement praising President Donald Trump for abandoning any global leadership by the United States in fighting the climate crisis. Here’s what the congressman had to say:

President Trump’s decision to withdraw is a bold statement that he will put America first even in the face of intense international pressure. The Paris Climate Agreement is a flawed deal that puts America’s energy needs and economic growth on the back burner, while transferring money and power to unelected international bureaucrats.

Moving forward, the best way to lead on this issue is to prioritize energy research and promote new technologies that will allow countries around the world to use all their resources – including fossil fuels – in the cleanest and most efficient manner.

I urge President Trump to seize this opportunity and champion technology to provide affordable, efficient and reliable energy. This alternative approach will not only benefit America, but will help the billions around the globe who remain in energy poverty.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wasn’t far behind with this statement:

While I believe that the United States and the world should continue to pursue a cleaner energy future, I do not believe that the Paris Agreement ensures a balance between our environment and the economy.  To find that balance, we should seek agreements that prioritize the protection of the American consumer as well as energy-producing states like West Virginia, while also incentivizing the development of advanced fossil energy technologies.

To be fair, though, I think Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s statement hit Twitter before I saw either of those emails:

Today’s announcement is a major victory for working West Virginia families. My mission is to continue to fight against unlawful regulations that pose a threat to jobs and the success of the Mountain State.

I’m sure other West Virginia political leaders will follow with similar political pandering about the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. And they can talk all they want about how this is going to help the coal industry, and throw around phrases like “prioritize energy research” and “incentivize the development of advanced fossil energy technologies.” But the fact is that the Trump administration wants to gut government spending needed to make “clean coal” — whatever that is, exactly — any sort of reality.

Tons of journalists and scientists — and business people — who are way smarter than me have provided lots of discussion about the very real dangers that this move by President Trump poses to our society (see here, here and here for example).  There are also indications from some that the clean energy revolution is far from over, and that all hope for dealing with climate change isn’t yet totally lost.

Continue reading…

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mtrphoto2

 

We had a story in this morning’s paper about the latest ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers to again confirm that mountaintop removal mining has had devastating impacts on water quality in West Virginia’s coalfields.  Meanwhile — in another case that was heard before Judge Chambers — the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was handing a defeat to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA has been fighting to block pending a full appeal a previous ruling by Judge Chambers in a suit in which citizen groups are trying to force federal and state officials to clean up streams that have been contaminated by mining pollution.

Judge Chambers had already refused to stay his own decision pending that appeal, and now the 4th Circuit has likewise refused to grant the Trump EPA a stay.

Continue reading…

Alpha unloading more W.Va. assets

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Here’s today’s news from Alpha Natural Resources:

Alpha Natural Resources (ANR, Inc.) announces the divestment of substantially all of the assets of two separate operations, a coal mining complex and a natural gas operation, both located in central West Virginia.

The Green Valley mining assets in Nicholas and Greenbrier Counties are being sold to Quinwood Coal Company. The divestiture includes the Number 1 preparation plant and related permits, which have been idle since the second quarter of 2014. In addition to the coal mining complex, the New River Energy natural gas operation is being sold to Kinzer Drilling. The divestiture includes 120 producing natural gas wells in five counties.

Alpha CEO David Stetson said the divestments represent another important step toward reducing Alpha’s footprint:

With these significant divestitures, we will transfer 28 mining-related permits, reduce surety bonding by approximately $3.5 million, eliminate future reclamation spending at these sites, and further reduce our annual holding cost for inactive and idle properties by approximately $1.1 million.  Additionally, $2.7 million in self bonding will be eliminated as part of these sales, which will assist ANR in meeting its obligations to the State of West Virginia.

Stetson added:

As with previous divestitures, Alpha has been able to enter into agreements with third parties that have indicated a desire to restart these operations and restore many jobs to the local community.

The press release added:

Stetson indicated that Alpha will continue to pursue sales of other non-strategic assets in the coming months. Terms of the transactions were not released.

Certainly an interesting announcement, considering some of the remarks in this recent  Taylor Kuykendall story for S&P Global Market Intelligence:

The notion that Contura was getting the crown jewels of the reorganization and that Alpha would remain in business primarily to fulfill duties toward reclaiming legacy coal mining properties, Stetson said, is a bit of a misconception … “We certainly were left with legacy properties, but the fact of the matter is we were left with the best metallurgical mines in the Central [Appalachian] region with significant production,” Stetson said in an interview at the company’s new Kingsport, Tenn., headquarters.

Miners get another week — then what?

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Lawmakers and UMWA members held another press conference at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.

UPDATE: HERE’S A STORY FROM THE GAZETTE-MAIL ABOUT FINAL ACTION BY CONGRESS ON THE UMW HEALTH-CARE BILL.

Word came out last night that the latest government funding bill does contain language to preserve health-care benefits for more than 22,000 retired United Mine Workers of American members and families … but this new “continuing resolution” would only protect those benefits for another week, through May 5, the term of the government funding resolution itself.

The press release from House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen , R-N.J., said:

This Continuing Resolution will continue to keep the government open and operating as normal for the next several days, in order to finalize legislation to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year. I am optimistic that a final funding package will be completed soon. It is time that this essential work is completed so that critical programs and activities – including national defense – are properly and adequately funded for the year.

Regarding the UMWA issue, the release added:

The legislation also extends the December CR provision for health care benefits for retired coal miners and their dependents for the length of this CR. This provision protects coal miners and their families from losing health care benefits.

For the UMWA’s retirees, and especially for those who understand the importance of the troubled pension plan that involves far more people — something like 89,000 current pensioners and another 29,000 who have vested in the program — this week-long extension is certainly a mixed blessing, and a potential source of more trouble. The concern for the union and its retirees at this point is that the additional time before a longer-term funding bill is approved gives some within the coal industry still more time to try to carve out some language for themselves. That’s because, as mentioned in a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, some Republican lawmakers have an alternative plan:

The emerging GOP proposal, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair, would divert that money to provide health care benefits for retirees from profitable coal companies that already are providing that coverage.

Rep. Murphy hasn’t yet dropped his proposal as an actual legislative proposal yet, and it hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention. But it was being promoted in some radio ads on stations in Northern West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania over the last few weeks. The ads were funded by a group called the Secure Energy for America Association, which has close ties to CONSOL Energy — a company that has been trying to rid itself of the rest of its coal operations to focus on natural gas.

The UMWA’s concern is that, first, this proposal would relieve companies like CONSOL of their obligations to fund health-care benefits under the Coal Act and, second, it would do so by diverting the money that the union’s Miner Protection Act would use to stabilize the UMWA pension plan.

Phil Smith, the union’s spokesman, said this morning that the union is pleased to have its health-care benefits language in the short-term government funding bill, but remains concerned about where the broader issue could be headed, given the language that Rep. Murphy and some in the industry are pushing:

If it’s going to give Congress more time to come to a permanent solution for these benefits and pensions then that’s what it’s going to take. But we’re concerned that a segment of the coal industry appears to be trying to take away the most logical source of funding for pensions going forward just so they can pad their bottom line.

 

 

UMWA benefits extension down to the wire – again

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Budget Battle

 

We should know perhaps as early as today how things are going to play for legislation aimed at protecting the health-care benefits and pensions for thousands of retired United Mine Workers of America coal miners at their families.

It seems a stretch at this point to think that when the House GOP leadership makes public the text of its version of the latest continuing resolution — a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown come Friday — that it will include a long-term fix for both the UMWA health-care benefits for more than 22,000 retirees and family members and language that would financially rescue the union’s troubled pension program, which covers 89,000 retirees currently receiving pensions and another 29,000 miners who have vested in the program.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., expressed confidence last week that a long-term fix for the health-care benefits alone could be worked out this week.

But it’s also possible that we may just see another kick-the-can-down-the-road temporary measure like the one that currently expires at the end of the month.

Stay tuned …

The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster

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UBBPortal

 

Seven years ago today, a huge explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Twenty-nine coal miners died:

Carl Acord

Jason Atkins

Christopher Bell

Greg Brock

Kenneth Chapman

Robert Clark

Cory Davis

Timmy Davis

Michael Elswick

William Griffith

Steven Harrah

Dean Jones

Richard Lane

William Roosevelt Lynch

Joe Marcum

Ronald Maynor

Nicolas McCroskey

Eddie Mooney

Adam Morgan

Rex Mullins

Joshua Napper

Howard Payne

Dillard Earl Persinger

Joel Price

Gary Wayne Quarles

Deward Allan Scott

Grover Skeens

Benny Willingham

Ricky Workman

Wait – What did Capito say about climate change?

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FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate Republicans discussed a proposal Wednesday to temporarily help millions of people who could lose federal health care subsidies should the Supreme Court annul the aid, which has been a pillar of President Barack Obama’s health care law. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

 

Earlier this week, when President Trump issued his executive order on energy, there was such a flurry of statements from all manner of politicians and various special interest groups that it was hard to keep up. But there was one that stuck out. It came from EPA and was billed as, “What They are Saying About President Trump’s Executive Order on Energy Independence“:

Senator Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va)
With this Executive Order, President Trump has chosen to recklessly bury his head in the sand. Walking away from the Clean Power Plan and other climate initiatives, including critical resiliency projects is not just irresponsible — it’s irrational. Today’s executive order calls into question America’s credibility and our commitment to tackling the greatest environmental challenge of our lifetime. With the world watching, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have chosen to shirk our responsibility, disregard clear science and undo the significant progress our country has made to ensure we leave a better, more sustainable planet for generations to come.

Wait, what?

Well, before anyone thinks that Senator Capito has come to her senses about climate change … within a little more than an hour, EPA had sent out a corrected press release with a different quote from the senator:

President Trump kept his promise to roll back one of the most harmful acts of overreach by the Obama administration – the so-called Clean Power Plan. If fully implemented, the Clean Power Plan would have completely decimated West Virginia’s vital coal industry while having no meaningful climate impact. Stopping this disastrous plan will preserve America’s coal industry, expand our manufacturing renaissance that is reliant upon affordable energy, and protect American families from unprecedented hikes in their electric bills. I was honored to join the president for the signing of this Executive Order, and I look forward to continuing working with the Trump administration to advance environmentally responsible policies that grow the economy – not kill jobs.”

This “corrected” EPA press release included a link to Sen. Capito’s own full statement on her Senate website, and a note saying “A draft released earlier today mis-attributed a quote from another senator to Senator Capito.

If you were wondering, that other quote from the initial EPA press release was what Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, said about the Trump administration action.

 

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Obama Mine Explosion

 

Word is that there’s some sort of a deal that would turn the controversial mine safety bill pending in the West Virginia Senate into another “agreed to bill.”

At least that’s what state Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, indicated on Saturday. The actual language of the expected “committee substitute” hasn’t been made public yet, but will apparently be discussed tomorrow during a 1 p.m. meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy, Industry and Mining, which Smith (an official from Mettiki Coal) chairs.

Smith let word of the deal slip on Saturday during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, when he was asking about any progress among various stakeholder groups to work out a deal on a “forced pooling” bill that the natural gas industry very much wants. Smith offered no details, but said of the deal he says he helped work out, “Everybody lost something, but everybody gained something, too.”

Meanwhile, the West Virginia mine safety bill and somewhat similar legislation moving in Kentucky got the attention of the editorial board of The New York Times, which commented today:

President Trump’s vow to bring back the coal industry’s heyday is a delusion. But it’s already inspiring Republican legislatures in Appalachia to resurrect a grim element of those boom times: loose safety laws that endangered miners’ lives and protected owners’ profits.

… Federal safety standards should be adequate, the sponsors airily insist. In truth, both state and federal governments should continue to exercise parallel responsibilities in protecting miners’ health and safety. This is particularly vital now that Mr. Trump’s proposed budget would inflict a 21 percent cut on the Labor Department, which is responsible for federal mine inspections.

… Political pandering is nothing new in Appalachia, where the coal industry has wooed and intimidated generations of state lawmakers to favor mine owners. But this latest bout, launched in tandem with Mr. Trump’s fantasy job promises, can only leave remaining miners in greater danger on the job.

 

Mine safety rollbacks: W.Va. is not alone

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Mine Explosion Anniversary

As we reported here yesterday, the West Virginia Senate’s Committee on Energy, Industry and Mining met yesterday to take up SB 582, a bill to strip the state’s inspectors of any real enforcement role in coal mine health and safety (see also the companion bill introduced in the House).

A longer story in today’s print edition (and online here) provides more details about that bill, and explains that the EIM committee sent the measure to a subcommittee for further review.

It’s interesting to note that West Virginia is not alone in its effort this year to roll back mine safety protections under state law.

This is also happening in Kentucky, and it’s already happened in Illinois.

So far, I’ve seen no meeting scheduled for the subcommittee that’s looking at the West Virginia bill … so stay tuned.

 

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Mine Explosion

A sign for the Upper Big Branch miners is seen in front of a church in Eunice off of Route 3, W.Va. on Thursday, March 8, 2010. .(AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Rick Barbero)

West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining deaths last year and we’ve seen two coal miners — including one working at one of the governor’s operations — die on the job so far in 2017.

So obviously, it’s a good time for lawmakers at the Capitol to start focusing on coal-mine safety. And what better time to introduce what is certainly the most sweeping mine safety bill in many years than on a Saturday session of the state Senate, right?

After an initial glance at Senate Bill 582, here’s what United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts had to say over the weekend:

We are reviewing the legislation to make sure we fully understand the impact it will have on working miners. This is the first opportunity we have had to see any of this language. The fact that this bill was introduced on a Saturday when it would get the least amount of media coverage tells you all you need to know about how proud its authors are of it. When legislators are afraid of the people finding out what they are doing, something is wrong.

smith_randyThe bill, sponsored by Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker and a Mettiki Coal official, is 106 pages long and is  — to borrow the word used by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer — “breathtaking” in the extent to which is essentially eliminates any meaningful role for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training in enforcement of  safety and health protections for West Virginia’s miners.

For example, instead of conducting “inspections” at the state’s mines, the office would only perform “compliance visits and education.” Actual enforcement actions could only be taken against mine operators if a state employee discovers conditions that present imminent danger to workers — unless, of course, the infraction was committed by an individual miner. The state’s “Individual Penalty Assessments,” which target mostly mid-level foremen and not companies or corporate agents, would remain part of state law, under the bill.

Oddly, in a state where coal industry officials and their politicians have spent so much time bucking any role for the federal government in regulating mining, the bill also eliminates a long list of West Virginia safety and health standards and says that instead of those standards, mine operators must simply follow U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rules.

There’s a lot of other stuff in this bill, including some confusing provisions about the Department of Environmental Protection’s Special Reclamation Fund, a program that is of growing importance as the state faces the decline of the coal industry and the legacy liabilities that often poorly regulated mining has left behind.

The bill is on the agenda today for a 1 p.m. meeting of the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Smith. Two of the bill’s other three sponsors are also on the committee, if that gives you any idea whether this legislation is set to get moving.

This would be the third year in a row that West Virginia lawmakers have moved to weaken coal mine safety and health protections (see here and here). And before you blame the Republicans, recall that a Democratic-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor didn’t exactly pass meaningful mine safety reforms in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Stay tuned …

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Later today, the U.S. Senate will almost certainly vote to approve a resolution to block a last-minute Obama administration rule aimed at replacing the long-controversial stream “buffer zone” rule. The House passed the resolution yesterday afternoon. Once that resolution makes its way to the White House, President Trump will sign it.

Presumably, it won’t take long after that before all of the coal miners in West Virginia who have lost their jobs over the last few years will get called back to work.

Well, at least that is what coalfield political leaders, industry officials — and now the most powerful man on the planet — would have residents of places like Boone and Logan counties in West Virginia believe.

Here’s Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., during yesterday’s House floor debate on the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement rule:

Simply put, it was President Obama’s attempt to drive a final nail into the coffin of an industry that made America great. Look, enough is enough. This war on coal has to come to a stop, and I think this election set the tone for that. Now that we finally have a President who understands the painful impact of excessive and unnecessary regulations,

It is time to give the families of the coalfields all across America a chance to get relief from the unelected bureaucrats in Washington.

Here’s Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., during that same floor debate:

Stopping this rule matters to West Virginians, to our miners, to our families, to our consumers. We produce 95 percent of our electricity from coal. It is reliable and it is affordable … My State can’t afford to lose any more jobs, and I know that goes for other coal States.

It fell to Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, to bring some reality into the discussion:

… If there is a war on coal, it is being led by the natural gas industry who produces a cheaper product at a lower cost. And if  there is any trouble that coal is in, it is directly attributed to the free market and that competition.

Continue reading…

What we can learn from the Blankenship appeal

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Mine Explosion Congress

 

This morning, when I looked a the calendar to see what the day ahead would be like, I saw the date: Jan. 19. I was reminded of a Jan. 19 more than a decade ago, when the day took a terrible turn and two men working at one of Don Blankenship’s coal mines ended up dead.  I’m sure it’s another hard day for the families of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield. The calendar can be like that for mining families. The winter months especially are way too full of dates that mark one awful disaster or another.

Then shortly after I got to the newsroom, an email alert showed up from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, noting a new document filed in the Blankenship appeal:

PUBLISHED AUTHORED OPINION filed. Originating case number: 5:14-cr-00244-1.

I clicked, called up the opinion, and hurried to scroll down to the key passage:

Defendant Donald Blankenship (“Defendant”), former chairman and chief executive officer of Massey Energy Company (“Massey”), makes four arguments related to his conviction for conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws and regulations. After careful review, we conclude the district court committed no reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm.

We’ve got a lot of changes coming our way in this country. Come tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as our President. Already in West Virginia, we’ve seen what is likely a similarly significant change. On Monday, Jim Justice stood at the Capitol and took the oath as our new governor.

As a candidate, President-elect Trump certainly talked a lot about doing away with government regulations, especially those he says were killing the coal industry. Governor Justice has promised to fight federal environmental regulations that get in the way of his industry, and says under his leadership. West Virginia will mine more coal than ever before.

There’s obviously a lot of evidence that suggests the coal revival that’s being promised is very unlikely to happen. But today’s events, and the history of what happened today back in 2006, should make us think about this from another perspective.

Continue reading…