Paul Nyden: Coal reporting, making W.Va. better

August 21, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

NydenThere’s a story I like to tell — I’m frankly not sure if it’s true — that more than a few years back a top West Virginia political leader called over to the agency that we now call the Department of Environmental Protection. This politician, an elected official, wanted the agency’s director to issue a coal-mining permit that was being held up over concerns about the damage that might be done.

As the story goes, the agency director assured the elected official that the permit would be issued that day. But, the agency director said, “I’m going to have to put a note in our files that we issued it on your orders. You know the files I mean … the ones that Nyden looks at all the time.” The elected official, without even debating the issue, said, “Just forget it,” and hung up.

That in a nutshell is what Dr. Paul Nyden has meant to West Virginia. I’ve often told people that the greatest single piece of journalism in West Virginia history is “Who Owns West Virginia,” the remarkable project produced in 1974 by Tom Miller, then of the Huntington paper. But for my money, no one reporter’s career has lived up to former Gazette publisher Ned Chilton’s mandate for “sustained outrage” more than Dr. Nyden’s has.

As many readers probably know, we’ve been going through a difficult process here at Charleston Newspapers, as we combined the newsrooms of The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail into one newsroom for the new Charleston Gazette-Mail. This morning’s paper included the news that, as a part of that process, Paul is retiring.

Obviously, this is a huge loss — for the Gazette-Mail, for West Virginia, for me and others who have been mentored by Paul, and for anyone who values context and history as part of the coverage of the nation’s coal industry. But I don’t want to write about my friend here as if he’s dead or something. He’s very much full of life — and I look forward to him continuing to contribute to the public discussion about West Virginia’s past, present and future. Hopefully he’ll keep writing book reviews about foreign policy, so I won’t have to read those books myself. And there’s a project or two I have in mind I hope he and I will work on together. Maybe Paul will have more time to take in baseball games.

This is as good a time as any, though, to stop and think about Paul’s journalism, and remember his contributions and see what the rest of us can learn from them, both about how to do journalism and about what West Virginians might try to do to help move the state forward as the coal industry Paul has covered for so many years continues to decline.

For one thing, Paul’s coverage of the lax permitting and enforcement practices of the old state Department of Energy set the standard for how a local journalist can and should hold a government agency accountable. When I had been at the Gazette barely a month, I was actually assigned to write up a story documenting how the Gazette, through Nyden’s reporting, was really doing DOE’s job for it:

Division of Energy attorney George V. Piper likes to joke that Paul Nyden is the agency’s best investigator. To others, the situation isn’t very funny. 

So far this year, the Gazette’s investigative reporter has uncovered more than $1 million in outstanding environmental fines and fees owed to the DOE or the federal Office of Surface Mining by coal companies. Since 1989, Nyden has revealed nearly $2 million in unpaid fines and fees …  Perry D. McDaniel, a Charleston lawyer and president of the West Virginia Environmental Council, said, “”It’s a shame The Charleston Gazette has to fund the job that the coal industry should be doing and that is proper review of permit applications, especially with regard to reviewing files for violations and the proper follow-up for the imposition of civil penalties.”

My personal favorite, though, was always a piece from 1990 headlined, “Flashing blue lights reflect a boiling feud within DOE.”

William “Bolts” Willis wants to install flashing blue lights, a siren and a state police radio in a Division of Energy vehicle for his own use. Energy Commissioner Larry George has not approved the request. Willis apparently wants the lights and siren in case he has to drive to a mine disaster.

Flashing blue lights reflect a larger feud boiling up rapidly.

George and Willis, who is George’s administrative assistant, have been attacking each other privately for more than a week.

George believes Willis is trying to torpedo his recent administrative reforms. Willis apparently sees those reforms as a threat to his own turf within the agency.

Willis said Tuesday that he has no problems with George. “We have been friends too long to let anything like this happen,” he said. Willis failed to return several telephone calls on Thursday and Friday.

Behind the scenes, Willis has been lining up support for more than a week from the governor’s office. He has been calling his political allies in the United Mine Workers.

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Mining’s toxic legacy: The same old story

August 12, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015 file photo, people kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colo., in water colored yellow from a mine waste spill. A crew supervised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been blamed for causing the spill while attempting to clean up the area near the abandoned Gold King Mine. Tribal officials with the Navajo Nation declared an emergency on Monday, Aug. 10, as the massive plume of contaminated wastewater flowed down the San Juan River toward Lake Powell in Utah, which supplies much of the water to the Southwest. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP, FILE) MANDATORY CREDIT

In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015 file photo, people kayak in the Animas River near Durango, Colo., in water colored yellow from a mine waste spill.  (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald via AP, FILE)

The photos just keep coming from the terrible gold-mine waste spill into the Animas River in Colorado, and as more information continues to come out, the story sounds worse and worse. The Denver Post reports:

The EPA on Monday expanded its response to the Animas River mining disaster, delivering bottled water in Colorado, New Mexico and Navajo Country and testing for contaminants as far as Lake Powell.

The acidic heavy metals that flooded into Cement Creek and the Animas in southwestern Colorado — including arsenic, lead, copper and cadmium — initially broke state water quality limits, based on data the Environmental Protection Agency has released.

Gov. John Hickenlooper declared a disaster. New Mexico also declared a disaster. California officials have been calling the EPA about water supply implications. Residents along the Animas near Durango, with about 17,000 people, swamped La Plata County with requests for well tests.

As The Wall Street Journal reported:

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks at a news conference on a recent Colorado mine spill after speaking at a Resources for the Future policy leadership forum, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2015, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy apologized Tuesday for a mine spill in Colorado that her agency caused last week and planned to travel to the area Wednesday, amid increasing criticism from lawmakers about the EPA’s response.

Ms. McCarthy said at a news conference in Washington that she was still learning about what happened, responding to a question about whether the EPA was reviewing changes in how it cleans up old mines. “I don’t have a complete understanding of anything that went on in there,” she said. “If there is something that went wrong, we want to make sure it never goes wrong again.”

One thing that’s troubling, of course, is the inability of public agencies like EPA to really give the public what it needs — sound information. From the Denver paper’s report:

… Five days after an EPA crew triggered the Gold King mine blowout, EPA regional chief Shaun McGrath still could not give an assessment of potential harm to people.

The spread of toxic heavy metals was such that authorities will block access to the Animas at least until Aug. 17 while the EPA develops “risk-screening criteria” and data show that water has returned to “pre-event conditions,” McGrath said.

While it appears EPA has provided some data on water sampling, here’s what the Post also reported:

EPA officials declined to discuss contamination levels. Colorado health and mining officials, who are supporting the EPA, declined to provide requested information or discuss the contamination.

Sound familiar to anyone who lived through the water crisis that followed the January chemical spill at Freedom Industries here in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley? See here, here and here if you’ve forgotten how hard it was to get straight answers.

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Clinton campaign looks to future on coal policy

August 10, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

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)

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.  (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Over the weekend, Reuters picked up on a story that we covered her late last month on Coal Tattoo, regarding Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s position on coal-mining issues. Their story started out:

In her 2008 bid for the White House, Hillary Clinton cast herself as a blue-collar Democrat who was unabashedly pro-coal, a stance that helped her beat opponent Barack Obama easily in primaries in states that produced or were reliant on coal.

Eight years later, a Reuters review of her recent campaign speeches and policy announcements shows that the great-granddaughter of a Welsh coal miner is now talking about the coal industry in the past tense.

The little-noticed shift in rhetoric speaks volumes about how the United States’ energy landscape has changed since Clinton last campaigned in 2008: oil and gas fracking have exploded and cheap natural gas has taken a huge bite out of coal.

In the intervening years the Obama administration has also proposed aggressive measures to tamp down greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels like coal, while once-powerful coal companies like Arch Coal, which declared bankruptcy last week, have lost their political clout.

The shift by Clinton is not without significant political risk. She will have to walk a fine line in trying to please the progressive activists she needs to win her party’s nomination and working-class “swing” voters whose support will be crucial for the general election in November 2016. Ohio and Pennsylvania, in particular, have a lot of electoral votes, which are key to electing a new president.

Mindful of that, Clinton has been careful to pay tribute to the contribution coal miners have made to the American economy, but she has also made clear that they should be helped to find new jobs, and a new way of life.

Ed Rendell, former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and Clinton ally, said an economic case for addressing climate change could resonate in his state, where the coal industry employs more than 36,000 directly and indirectly, according to the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance.

“Citizens, coal miners and executives are not dumb and they see the handwriting on the wall. Someone needs to tell them the truth and make it clear,” he said in an interview.

The next sentence seemed familiar:

Clinton’s campaign declined to comment on the shift in her coal message or how she plans to appease both environmentalists and coal workers.

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The future is here: Climate change, coal and the search for a path forward for the coalfields

August 5, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

FILE - This Feb. 10, 2006 file photo shows the Sidney Coal Company's Coal Preparation Plant in Sidney, Ky. Sidney is a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources Inc. Alpha Natural Resources Inc., one of the country's biggest coal producers, became the latest in a string of coal companies to seek bankruptcy protection amid an historic shift in the electric power sector brought on by cheap natural gas prices and pollution regulations. (AP Photo/Brian Tietz, File)

This Feb. 10, 2006 file photo shows the Sidney Coal Company’s Coal Preparation Plant in Sidney, Ky. (AP Photo/Brian Tietz, File)

It is not surprising that the usual suspects among the West Virginia media have come out in full force to thunder against the final version of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (see here, here and here).

There’s a lot of uninformed talk about “power grabs” and “doctrinaire” regulatory moves, given the near-unlimited flexibility that EPA gives states to come up with their own compliance plans.  The Wheeling paper is fixated on why Hawaii was exempt, and Hoppy Kercheval is so eager for some “civil disobedience” that I picture him chaining himself to a computer in Washington in a patriotic attempt to keep the rule from being published in the Federal Register.

The Daily Mail editorial page is ranting about how the EPA rule is  “aimed at dramatically reducing use of fossil fuels and forcing rapid shifts toward alternative energy sources like solar and wind.” They ignore the fact that these shifts have already happened, and are continuing to happen, largely as a result of the kinds of market forces that they so love to champion. As we reported today, citing EPA’s analysis of its rule:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy speaks in the East Room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Aug. 3, 2015, before President Barack Obama spoke about his Clean Power Plan. The president is mandating even steeper greenhouse gas cuts from U.S. power plants than previously expected, while granting states more time and broader options to comply. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

We expect that the main impact of this rule on the nation’s mix of generation will be to reduce coal-fired generation, but in an amount and by a rate that is consistent with recent historical declines in coal-fired generation. Specifically, from approximately 2005 to 2014, coal-fired generation declined at a rate that was greater than the rate of reduced coal-fired generation that we expect to result from this rulemaking from 2015 to 2030.  In addition, under this rule, the trends for all other types of generation, including natural gas-fired generation, nuclear generation, and renewable generation, will remain generally consistent with what their trends would be in the absence of this rule.

Sadly, the other trend that’s already happening is climate change. As President Obama explained in his remarks at the White House on Monday:

Climate change is no longer just about the future that we’re predicting for our children or our grandchildren; it’s about the reality that we’re living with every day, right now.

The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security.  While we can’t say any single weather event is entirely caused by climate change, we’ve seen stronger storms, deeper droughts, longer wildfire seasons.  Charleston and Miami now flood at high tide.  Shrinking ice caps forced National Geographic to make the biggest change in its atlas since the Soviet Union broke apart. 

 

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Why doesn’t Don Blankenship want the jury to hear about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster?

July 30, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

Mine Explosion Congress

Late last Friday, the defense lawyers representing former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship filed a motion asking to keep the jury in Blankenship’s criminal trial from hearing any evidence about the April 5, 2010, mine explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

We published a story that evening online and in the next day’s print edition about the filing, and I’ve posted the court document here.

One of the things I noticed initially about this filing was the little dig Blankenship’s lawyers got in about media coverage of the case:

Not only will every juror know about the UBB explosion, many jurors will bring to this trial the misimpression that this case is about Mr. Blankenship’s responsibility for the UBB explosion. That mistaken belief would have been formed and reinforced repeatedly by the media and interactions in the community. From day one, the local press has covered these proceedings, erroneously, as intended to determine Mr. Blankenship’s responsibility for the UBB tragedy.

The first story cited as an example of this “erroneous” reporting was a piece I wrote for the anniversary of the disaster.  It was headlined, “Upper Big Branch 5-Year Anniversary: Blankenship’s trial is focus of families,” and it says very clearly:

While the allegations against Blankenship focus on events at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, in Raleigh County, prosecutors stopped just short of alleging the former CEO was responsible for the deadly explosion.

The other thing I noticed was that, while Blankenship’s defense team doesn’t want the jury to hear evidence about what happened at Upper Big Branch, they go to great lengths to insist that, if the subject comes up, they can convince jurors that Blankenship’s theories that those 29 miners died in a “natural disaster”:

… Evidence from the government regarding causation and responsibility for the UBB explosion would be met by strong evidence from Mr. Blankenship rebutting the government’s theories, leading to confusion about the actual issues and to undue delay – a satellite mini-trial about the cause of the UBB explosion and who is responsible for it. If the cause of the explosion is at issue in the trial, the defense is ready to present substantial, compelling evidence that the incident was actually a natural disaster.

It does make you wonder why, if their case on the cause of the disaster is so good, Blankenship’s lawyers wouldn’t want to just go right down that road at trial.

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Coming soon: Final EPA ‘Clean Power Plan

July 29, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

In this July 15, 2015, file photo, President Barack Obama answers a question during a news conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Turkey’s dramatic air campaign against the Islamic State and Kurdish forces has created a bit of a conundrum for Obama, who is leading the fight against one of Turkey’s targets while relying heavily on the other target.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

The New York Times reports today:

The final version of President Obama’s signature climate change policy is expected to extend an earlier timeline for states to significantly cut planet-warming pollution from power plants, according to people familiar with the plan.

If enacted, the climate change plan, the final version of which is expected to be unveiled as early as Monday, could stand as the most significant action ever taken by an American president to curb global warming. But some environmental groups have cautioned that a later deadline for states to comply could make it tougher for the United States to meet Mr. Obama’s climate change pledges on the world stage.

This is just the latest in a series of press reports that try to predict when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is going to issue the final version of its Clean Power Plan and what that EPA plan will say.

One story from U.S. News and World Report, for example, said:

A sweeping federal rule that would curtail carbon emissions from power plants will likely be made even more stringent when it is finalized later this summer, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, widely regarded as a close ally of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rule, known as the Clean Power Plan, was unveiled by the EPA in June 2014. The subject of more than 4.3 million public comments, it is the keystone of President Barack Obama’s climate agenda and vigorously opposed by conservatives and industry groups.

“We are very optimistic and confident that it will be stronger, in particular in the areas of renewables and efficiencies,” NRDC President Rhea Suh said during a press briefing Wednesday at the organization’s headquarters in the nation’s capital.

UPDATED: Here’s a new report out today from EnergyWire:

U.S. EPA appears to be leaning toward giving states an extra two years — until 2022 — to start cutting carbon emissions from power plants under a final Clean Power Plan rule expected to be rolled out as early as Monday.

The rule will also provide more time for states to submit final plans, according to a timeline E&E obtained that was posted to EPA’s website.

Moving out the compliance dates could strengthen support from states friendly to the Obama administration’s climate plan and assuage the concerns of some critics. Across the political spectrum, state officials and energy companies have said more time is a concession EPA could grant in a final rule that would make it easier to cut greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 (ClimateWire, July 27).

Another piece from ClimateWire reported:

In countless meetings on the Clean Power Plan with states and energy companies, the most common plea to U.S. EPA has been for more time. More time to work on plans, more time to allow coal plants to retire and more time to move toward final goals.

It’s an easy concession for EPA — one that could go a long way toward ensuring flexibility under the rule without undercutting climate goals, knowledgeable observers say.

In particular, EPA has heard it should relax the rule’s interim goals, which require states to reach an average emissions rate between 2020 and 2029.

It’s a “big problem, and an unnecessary problem, with respect to the real goals of this regulation,” said Ken Colburn, a principal at the Regulatory Assistance Project, which advises state regulators tasked with writing carbon-cutting plans to meet state-specific targets.

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Gov. Tomblin and the Clean Power Plan

July 27, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

Earl Ray Tomblin

West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tombin, a Democrat, waves at the conclusion of his inauguration speech on Monday, Jan. 14, 2013, in Charleston, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

Late last week, the Washington Post’s Joby Warrick had what certainly appeared to be a pretty interesting story with a Hazard, Kentucky, dateline:

Even after years of talk about a “war on coal,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell startled some of his constituents in March when he urged open rebellion against a White House proposal for cutting pollution from coal-fired power plants.

The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan is “extremely burdensome and costly,” the Kentucky Republican said in letters advising all 50 states to boycott the rule when it goes into effect this summer.

The call for direct defiance was unusual even for McConnell, who has made a career of battling federal restrictions on coal. Yet more striking is what has happened since: Kentucky’s government and electric utilities have quietly positioned themselves to comply with the rule — something state officials expect to do with relatively little effort.

In this coal-industry bastion, five of the state’s older coal-burning power plants were already scheduled to close or switch to natural gas in the next two years, either because of aging equipment or to save money, state officials say. As a result, Kentucky’s greenhouse-gas emissions are set to plummet 16 percent below where they were in 2012 — within easy reach of the 18 percent reduction goal proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency in a draft of the agency’s controversial carbon-cutting plan.

“We can meet it,” Kentucky Energy and Environment Secretary Leonard Peters, speaking at a climate conference, said of the EPA’s mandate.

The nut graph:

The story is the same across much of the country as the EPA prepares to roll out what is arguably the biggest and most controversial environmental regulation of the Obama presidency. Under the Clean Power Plan, states will have to find ways to achieve dramatic cuts in carbon pollution over the next 15 years, with reduction quotas topping 50 percent over 2012 levels for some states. But despite dire warnings and harsh political rhetoric, many states are already on track to meet their targets, even before the EPA formally announces them, interviews and independent studies show.

Later on, though, a problem cropped up when Joby wrote:

Six governors have taken up McConnell’s call to “just say no” to the EPA’s proposal. Five are Republicans — including presidential contenders Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin — and one, Earl Ray Tomblin of West Virginia, is a Democrat.

The Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman pointed this out, and noted he didn’t recall Gov. Tomblin actually going along — at least publicly — with Sen. McConnell’s plan. So I checked in with the governor’s communications officer, Chris Stadelman. And sure enough, Chris told me in an email message that Gov. Tomblin “has not made a final decision” on Sen. McConnell’s proposal but “will do what’s in the best interest of WV residents.”

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Hillary Clinton, climate change and the coalfields

July 27, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a campaign event, Sunday, July 26, 2015, at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Hillary Clinton presidential campaign’s new climate change platform is getting a fair amount of attention coming out of the weekend. Here’s the New York Times:

Promising more than a half-billion solar panels by the end of a first term and an ambitious target of clean energy for every home in America in a decade, Hillary Rodham Clinton unveiled goals on Sunday evening to reduce the threat of climate change.

She said she would continue President Obama’s sweeping plan to limit carbon emissions from power plants, and announced targets that even push beyond current goal’s for greenhouse gases.

Mr. Obama’s proposed regulations are expected to be finalized by the Environmental Protection Agency in August, and the real work of making the changes — shutting down coal plants and increasing the number of renewable electricity sources — would fall to the next administration.

There’s more coverage here, here, here and here.

It’s interesting to compare the “fact sheet” released last night by the Clinton campaign with this text of the 2008 Clinton presidential campaign’s climate and energy plan, which included a lot of the obligatory language about various ways to accelerate the development and deployment of “clean coal technology”. This time around, the fact sheet simply promises this:

Coal Communities: Protect the health and retirement security of coalfield workers and their families and provide economic opportunities for those that kept the lights on and factories running for more than a century.

UMWA blasts ‘outrageous’ actions by Patriot

July 24, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

Cecil Roberts, Steve Earle

Here’s the latest from the United Mine Workers of America, in response to the recent move by Patriot Coal to try to break its union contract:

The language of the court documents filed by Patriot Coal asking for the elimination of the company’s collective bargaining agreement and its pension obligations would seem to indicate that the UMWA and its members are responsible for the company’s present predicament and that we are holding up a resolution to this bankruptcy.

Nothing could be further from the truth. No group of people have made more sacrifices to get Patriot Coal through the last couple of years than active and retired UMWA members. They have given up millions in wages and benefits, including retiree health care benefits that are a matter of life and death for thousands of them.

It is outrageous for Patriot and Blackhawk to hold up these miners and retirees as the reason this company will or won’t fail. What we are seeing here is an attempt to hand over yet more millions to a handful of Wall Street financiers at the expense of working and retired coal miners in Marion, Boone and Logan counties in West Virginia.

We have never said this process is at an end or that we have reached some sort of impasse. We have remained ready up to now to meet Patriot and their masters at Blackhawk halfway. But if that’s not possible, we are prepared to meet them head-on.

 

Sad news: Dr. Donald Rasmussen has died

July 23, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

Rasmussen

Here’s the sad news, as reported for the Charleston Gazette-Mail by our Dr. Paul Nyden:

Dr. Donald L. Rasmussen, an internal medicine specialist who helped spark the 1969 Black Lung Strike, died on Monday. He was 87. Born on Feb. 24, 1928, Rasmussen grew up in Manassa, in the San Louis Valley in Colorado.

After attending medical school at Utah State University, Rasmussen joined the Army in 1955 as a captain who specialized in internal medicine. He learned a lot about chest diseases and became chief of chest diseases at Brooke General Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.

When he left the Army in 1952, Rasmussen came to Beckley and began working at the Appalachian Regional Hospital and testing coal miners for pneumoconiosis, or black lung disease.

Throughout the 1960s, Rasmussen became involved in groundbreaking research about black lung, a sometimes-fatal disease caused by inhaling coal dust.

“Rasmussen advanced his conclusion that simple pneumoconiosis, which frequently did not show up on lung x-rays, nevertheless caused the breathlessness among miners that might be apparent only through exercises on a treadmill accompanied by a blood-gas test,” former Congressman and Secretary of State Ken Hechler wrote in the West Virginia Encyclopedia.

Here’s the statement issued by the United Mine Workers of America:

We are extremely saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Donald Rasmussen today. Because of his courage and determination, thousands of miners who suffer from black lung are getting treatment and benefits that they would not otherwise get.

He was a pioneer in advocating for miners who have this insidious disease. When other doctors were taking the company line and denying that black lung existed, Dr. Rasmussen was testifying before state legislatures and Congress, fighting to win recognition that breathing coal dust was killing miners.

The hearts and prayers of the entire UMWA family are with the Rasmussen family. They have lost a loved one, and coal miners have lost a strong advocate who will long be remembered.

Water quality: Are we learning from the past?

July 23, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

IMG_3484

Dozens of miners turned out this week for a state DEP public hearing on water quality standards. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.

In the wake of Tuesday’s state Department of Environmental Protection public hearing on water quality standards, it seems a shame to allow the irony of the evening’s events to go unmentioned.

As the photo above shows, the West Virginia Coal Association did a find job of turning out a few dozen coal miners to sit at the hearing to show their support for the industry-pushed rule changes on aluminum and selenium that DEP (under orders from the Legislature) has proposed. Only two of the miners spoke, but I’m sure DEP got the message.

Still, let’s remember that there were really two sets of water quality rules on the agenda for the public hearing. The first were the changes that environmental groups say will clearly weaken pollution limits for aluminum and selenium and complicate the enforcement for both toxic chemicals. The other is a pair of site-specific water quality variances that DEP says are needed to allow it a broader — and less bound by court-mandated permit requirements — approach to cleaning up streams in the Tygart and Cheat river watersheds that continue to be burdened by acid mine drainage from previous coal mining activities.

Now, the industry’s argument in favor of the first set of changes — especially the one for selenium — is that the state’s current limits are unnecessarily stringent, and are making things even worse for the coal industry. The politicians who showed up with Tuesday night’s crowd of miners kept having to stop themselves from turning the event into another bash-Obama and the EPA rally, rather than a hearing at which the state DEP was giving mine operators what they want.

The thing is, while it’s true that citizen group lawsuits and court ruling have forced companies to spend money cleaning up selenium pollution — in one case helping push Patriot Coal to abandon mountaintop removal — it’s also true that scientists have found selenium is a serious problem for aquatic life in West Virginia streams (see here and here).

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White House threatens veto of coal ash bill

July 22, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

Coal Ash Spill

In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn.   (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

With the U.S. House set this week to take up West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley’s coal-ash bill, the Obama White House yesterday evening issued a pretty clear threat to veto the legislation if it ever reaches the president’s desk. Essentially, the administration says the proposal would undercut the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s coal-ash rule issued last December:

EPA’s rule articulates clear and consistent national standards to protect public health and the environment, prevent contamination of drinking water, and minimize the risk of catastrophic failure at coal ash surface impoundments. H.R. 1734 would, however, substantially weaken these protections. For example, the bill would eliminate restrictions on how close coal ash impoundments can be located to drinking water sources. It also would undermine EPA’s requirement that unlined impoundments must close or be retrofitted with protective liners if they are leaking and contaminating drinking water. Further, the bill would delay requirements in EPA’s final CCR rule, including structural integrity and closure requirements, for which tailored extensions are already available through EPA’s rule and through approved Solid Waste Management Plans.

This morning, Rep. McKinley, through a spokesman, had this to say in response:

Two years ago, President Obama said he ‘would like to work with Congress’ to ensure the safe management of coal ash. That’s what we have done with our bill. Yesterday’s veto threat ignores the bipartisan consensus built over five years on this bill.

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Patriot Coal: Here we go again …

July 21, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

Patriot Coal May 2013 Rally

Here’s the news from The Associated Press:

Patriot Coal wants a bankruptcy judge’s permission to reject the company’s collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees’ health care benefits … Patriot wrote that it would otherwise run out of cash and have to liquidate in a matter of weeks.

Patriot said the move would be necessary to close on a proposed partial sale to Lexington, Kentucky-based Blackhawk Mining LLC.

Otherwise, the United Mine Workers of America would need to reach collective bargaining terms with Blackhawk, which doesn’t want to contribute to the pension plan. Patriot wrote that discussions with the UMWA and Blackhawk are at an impasse.

You can read the court filing for yourself here or here.

Of course, we’ve seen this movie before. But it’s far from clear how it will end this time. Certainly, though, this Patriot move provides quite a contrast to what the bankrupt company sought from the court in this regard (as reported by West Virginia Public Broadcasting:

Last Friday, the United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to Patriot Coal’s proposed bankruptcy plan, which includes $6.4 million in bonuses paid to management employees.

The UMWA says Patriot’s proposed “key employee” bonus plan would benefit only the top executives. The union is concerned that the plan will ultimately lead to union miners having to take pay cuts, reduce their benefits, or even losing their jobs.

“At a time when Patriot is attempting to rid itself of obligations to workers, retirees, widows and families, it is simply outrageous that the five people who already make the most money in the company are getting hundreds of thousands more,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “For what? On what planet does it make sense to reward people who preside over bankrupt companies?”

Buffer zone: Blast from the past, more of the same

July 17, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

blast_osm1

Really, isn’t anyone — outside of the people who wrote it — fooling themselves if they think they already understand all of the implications of the new “Stream Protection Rule” proposal made public this week by the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement?

Gosh, I mean, the rule itself is 1,238 pages long and the accompanying Environmental Impact Statement is 1,267 pages long.  As I wrote in today’s Gazette story, though, really solid, definitive reactions from industry officials and their political allies were flying out literally as Interior Department officials were making these documents public.

For example, here’s West Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator, Democrat Joe Manchin:

This Administration’s long list of overreaching regulations is absolutely crippling West Virginia families and businesses. This proposed rule would have a devastating impact on our families, jobs and economy, and it fails to strike an appropriate balance between the economy and the environment.

The media isn’t much better. Here’s Hoppy Kercheval over at MetroNews:

Meanwhile, the Interior Department is trying to downplay the economic impact on coal states like West Virginia.

Several years ago a draft of the report leaked, saying the updated stream buffer rule would result in the loss of 7,000 jobs. The outcry was intense, but the Interior Department patched that up by just using a different formula to come up with new numbers… and voila!

Now the agency claims, with no hint of irony, that the rules will preserve “economic opportunities.” Specifically, according to their consultant’s revised calculations, 460 jobs will be lost, but 250 jobs will be created in mine reclamation work.

If we get many more of these Washington “opportunities” we’ll have to turn out the lights.

Here’s the thing, though, if Hoppy had actually read the rule or the EIS, he wouldn’t have used that 460-jobs figure — because it’s not in the report. It was mistakenly given to media during a conference call. I don’t know if Hoppy was on that call or saw the number in another media account, but he sure didn’t look at the actual economic impact numbers in the EIS, or he would have noticed the problem.

To be fair to Hoppy, I doubt any of the reporters who had to cover this story on deadline yesterday finished every single page of both documents. I certainly didn’t. But any reasonable reading of my story will not see the broad, sweeping conclusions he’s already drawing. I specifically noted:

The exact contents of the rule — such as how well it protects streams inside mining permit area “footprints” or toughens the definition of “material damage” to streams that isn’t allowed under the law — were still being digested by all sides Thursday.

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Alpha: Running right to bankruptcy court?

July 17, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

ALPHASIGN2

It may only be a matter of time before Alpha Natural Resources seeks bankruptcy court protection. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week:

Alpha Natural Resources Inc. is in talks to obtain financing for a potential bankruptcy filing early next month as it grapples with a severe downturn in coal prices, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Bristol, Va., coal miner is negotiating the terms of a “debtor in possession” loan with its loan holders and senior bondholders, the people said. The new financing would help see Alpha through bankruptcy should it file for chapter 11 protection in early August, around the time some of its convertible bonds come due, the people said.

The loan could total around $300 million to $400 million, one of the people said. Jointly providing the loan could align the interests of the two creditor classes, potentially smoothing Alpha Natural’s efforts to restructure its debt.

This morning, the Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden noted:

The New York Stock Exchange on Thursday stopped the trading of Alpha Natural Resources common stocks because of the company’s dramatically low stock prices.

On Aug. 1, 2008, Alpha’s stock reached the value of $104 per share. At the close of business on Wednesday, the value of Alpha’s stock had dropped to 24 cents a share.

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Bad news keeps coming for coal industry

July 15, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

FILE - In this March 28, 2007 file photo, lignite coal is mined at the Freedom Mine in Beulah, N.D. Sixteen years after North Dakota agreed to finance research aimed at revitalizing growth in the state's lignite industry, only one project has been built while other proposals that promised jobs and increased state tax revenue resulted in little more than multimillion-dollar studies that failed to find a clean and cost-effective use for the plentiful but low-grade coal. (AP Photo/James MacPherson, File)

In this March 28, 2007 file photo, lignite coal is mined at the Freedom Mine in Beulah, N.D.  (AP Photo/James MacPherson, File)

Earlier this week, The Associated Press put this out as big news:

Natural gas overtook coal as the top source of United States electric power generation for the first time ever this spring, a milestone that has been in the making for years as the price of gas slides and new regulations make coal riskier for power generators.

Unfortunately, in some ways, the AP story (largely a rewrite of an earlier SNL piece)  buried some relevant context:

The EIA said in a May report that it expects the level of coal-generated electricity to rebound as natural gas prices rise later this year and coal-fired plants return from spring maintenance. Overall, the EIA expects about 36 percent of total U.S. electricity generation to come from coal in 2015 and 31 percent to come from natural gas.

The Guardian had some interesting thoughts on this:

In April a glut of fracked gas from new shale regions drove the price of gas down to just $2.50/million Btu (British thermal unit, a widely-used measure of energy), a 35% drop since February. This oversupply, combined with a routine seasonal shut down of coal plants, caused gas production to creep above coal for the first time.

“Power generators often use the spring months to take their plants offline for maintenance, especially coal plants. This maintenance period happened to coincide with a period of very low natural gas [prices],” said Tyler Hodge who works on the EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook.

Hodge said gas prices were expected to rise again in the coming months, and coal would reassert itself at the top of the production table when plants fire up again for the winter.

The back and forth is probably going to continue, but as we’ve reported here before, the long-term picture is not so good for coal, especially in Southern West Virginia.

Coal’s broader problems were made clear again today with a couple of interesting developments.

First, there was this announcement from Walter Energy:

Walter Energy, Inc.  today announced that it has entered into an agreement with certain of its senior lenders on the material terms of a restructuring. To implement this pre-negotiated restructuring, Walter Energy and its U.S. subsidiaries have filed for relief under chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Alabama. Walter Energy’s non-U.S. operations, including those in Canada and the U.K., are not included in the filings.

There’s more about this (with commentary from SNL’s Taylor Kuykendall, here. Keep in mind that Walter’s focus is mining of steel-making coal. The UMWA, which represents Walter miners in Alabama, said:

The Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Walter Energy is yet another indication of just how troubled the American coal industry is today. Walter does not produce coal for the energy market; it mines metallurgical-grade coal that is a raw material in steel production. Increasing competition from other countries in a shrinking worldwide steel market has caused metallurgical coal prices to plunge to levels not seen for years.

Second, there was this announcement from the Sierra Club:

Alliant Energy, a major Iowa utility, has committed to phase out coal use at six of its plants in the state, marking the 200th coal plant to shut down in the United States.  This marks a milestone in the country’s transition to clean energy and underscores Iowa’s growth as a clean energy state. The announced coal plant retirements are the result of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign advocacy, which has been a driving force in the national transition to renewable sources of power. The retirement of 200 coal plants nationwide represents the phase out of nearly 40 percent of the 523 U.S. coal plants that were in operation just five years ago. The work of Sierra Club and more than 100 allied organizations to retire these plants and replace them with clean energy has enabled the United States to lead the industrialized world in cutting global warming pollution, and has put the White House on firm footing to push for a strong international climate accord in Paris at the end of this year.

The Sierra Club added:

As coal plants are retiring at record rates, states are also making major investments in wind and solar power, fueling the transition to a clean energy economy. Iowa, for example, already generates more than a quarter of the energy powering homes and businesses from wind farms, ranking first in the nation in power generated by wind. Nearly 7,000 Iowans are now employed in the fast-growing wind energy sector, more than any other state, and Iowa has the potential to generate 100 times its current wind energy output. Iowa provides a model for neighboring states to phase out coal and capitalize on clean energy, which can also be a cost-efficient and commonsense way to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s forthcoming Clean Power Plan requirements.   

 Recognizing that coal is dirty, unnecessary and increasingly uneconomical, smart utility and energy companies are transitioning to cleaner, renewable sources of energy. Clean energy sources like wind and solar have increased four-fold since 2005, as the prices for clean energy have plummeted.

 

Stop digging: Why W.Va. can’t climb out of its hole

July 13, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

Coals War

A few weeks ago, I attended a really uplifting meeting over at Hawks Nest State Park (written about previously here and here) where a lot of smart people really focused on the nuts and bolts of how West Virginia can reach out and use what resources the federal government is making available to help our coalfield communities recover from the downfall of the mining industry.

One of the lingering questions from that meeting was how far along President Obama’s nearly $5 billion aid package for the coalfields is in Congress.  Turns out, not very far. And if these proposals are to survive, it sounds like it’s going to be in spite of — certainly not because of — the efforts of West Virginia’s congressional delegation. Here’s what we reported in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail:

West Virginia’s representatives in Washington don’t sound particularly enthusiastic about the Obama administration’s proposals to funnel nearly $5 billion in various economic aid to coalfield communities that are struggling as the state’s mining industry continues to decline.

A spokeswoman for at least one of West Virginia’s five-member congressional delegation — first-term Republican Rep. Alex Mooney — was especially clear when asked if her boss supported President Obama’s “Power Plus Plan,” a collection of budgetary and legislative proposals aimed at diversifying coalfield community economies.

“No, Representative Mooney does not support the Power Plus Plan,” Meredith Jones said.

You have to hand it to Rep. Mooney and his staff. At least they were up front about where they stand — though I couldn’t manage to get them to provide a coherent explanation of why in the world a West Virginia congressman would oppose money to help the communities in his district.

Most of the delegation took the route that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito chose with this statement:

While Senator Capito welcomes any investments that help distressed communities and create lasting jobs, it’s important to remember the catastrophic effects this administration’s proposed regulations have had on West Virginia. The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that.

Most of this line of thinking, of course, ignores the fact that much of the Southern West Virginia coal industry’s woes have more to do with geology and economic competition than they do with environmental regulation, and simply perpetuates the false notion that if we can just hold off until Obama is out of office, the next coal boom is right around the corner. (For more about this, see the excellent blog series underway here and here by Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists).

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West Virginia and the global ‘renaissance of coal’

July 8, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

FILE- In this April 3, 2014, file photo, giant machines dig for brown coal at the open-cast mining Garzweiler near the city of Grevenbroich, western Germany. A global health commission organized by the prestigious British medical journal Lancet recommended in a report published Monday, June 22, 2015, substituting cleaner energy worldwide for coal will reduce air pollution and give Earth a better chance at avoiding dangerous climate change. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

In this April 3, 2014, file photo, giant machines dig for brown coal at the open-cast mining Garzweiler near the city of Grevenbroich, western Germany.  (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, File)

Over at Vox, Brad Plumer has a piece out titled, “The most important climate story today is the global coal renaissance.” He reports:

If you only focused on the United States, you might think coal’s days are numbered.

The dirtiest of all fossil fuels once provided more than half of America’s electricity. That has since dropped to 39 percent, thanks to competition from cheap natural gas, a dogged campaign by the Sierra Club to shutter old coal plants, and strict new air pollution regulations. Add in the Obama administration’s upcoming crackdown on CO2 emissions from power plants, and US coal will keep declining in the future.

But that’s not true globally. Far from it. According to data from BP’s Statistical Review of Energy, coal consumption has actually been accelerating worldwide since the end of the 1990s … It’s tempting to think that this worldwide coal boom is mainly a one-time blip due to China, where coal use has surged since 2000 but has since leveled off as the country transitions away from heavy industry. But as it turns out, that’s not true either.

According to an important new study in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, we’re in the midst of a global “renaissance of coal” that’s not confined to just a few countries like China or India. Rather, coal is becoming the energy source of choice for a vast array of poorer and fast-growing countries around the world, particularly in Southeast Asia. “This renaissance of coal,” the authors write, “has even accelerated in the last decade.”

Why is coal becoming so popular? The authors of the PNAS study — Jan Christoph Steckel, Ottmar Edenhofer, and Michael Jakob — argue that coal is often the cheapest energy option for many people, relative to other sources like oil, gas, nuclear, or renewables.

What’s especially notable is that countries no longer need their own domestic mines to take advantage of coal power. International coal markets have become so robust, with exports surging in mining countries like Australia and Indonesia, that it’s become much easier for a wide variety of countries to build coal-fired power plants. (Notably, the authors say, the price of coal itself, rather than the capital costs of building power plants, seems to be the important economic driver here.)

Now, I can just hear Sen. Joe Manchin … “See, Ken, coal has been and always will be our most important global energy resource. If we can just that that darned EPA off our backs, West Virginia can power the world. That’s just common sense.”

Not so fast. Sen. Manchin should read this study:

If future economic growth of poor countries is fueled mainly by coal, ambitious mitigation targets very likely will become infeasible. Building new coal power plant capacities will lead to lock-in effects for the next few decades. If that lock-in is to be avoided, international climate policy must find ways to offer viable alternatives to coal for developing countries.

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Data shows mountaintop removal decline

July 7, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

EIA MTR

From today’s edition of the Energy Information Administration’s Energy Today site:

Coal production from mines with mountaintop removal (MTR) permits has declined since 2008, more than the downward trend in total U.S. coal production. Total U.S. coal production decreased about 15% from 2008 to 2014. Surface production decreased about 21%, and mountaintop removal, one type of surface production, decreased 62% over this period. Lower demand for U.S. coal, primarily used to generate electric power, driven by competitive natural gas prices, increasing use of renewable generation, flat electricity demand, and environmental regulations, has contributed to lower U.S. coal production.

Worth noting, though, is this disclaimer:

By identifying the mines that have MTR permits, it is possible to estimate MTR production using mine production data. However, quantifying the amount of coal produced from mountaintop mining is difficult, because there are a variety of mining techniques that can be performed on a mountaintop in addition to mountaintop removal. These techniques include contour mining, where coal is mined on a hillside, and area mining, where coal is mined from relatively flat terrain. Some of these non-MTR methods may be used in conjunction with or following the use of MTR, making attribution of coal production by mining method less obvious. Consequently, production data in this article refer to total surface production at mines with MTR permits and provide an upper bound of MTR production.

Bipartisan bill aims to fund miner pensions

July 7, 2015 by Ken Ward Jr.

Coal

Here’s the news out of Washington this morning:

U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-WV), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), Bob Casey (D-PA) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) today introduced the Miners Protection Act. This legislation would ensure that the federal government and coal operators honor their obligation of lifetime pensions and health benefits to retired miners and their families who are facing uncertainty as a result of the financial crisis and corporate bankruptcies

According to the press release:

Retired miners are facing uncertainty because the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) 1974 Pension Plan is severely underfunded. Unlike other public and private pension plans, the 1974 Pension Plan was well-managed and funded prior to the 2008 financial crisis, which hit at a time when this Plan had its highest payment obligations. This – coupled with the fact that 60% of the beneficiaries are “orphan” retirees whose employers are no longer in the coal business, and the fact that there are only 10,000 active workers for 120,000 retirees – has placed the Plan on the road to insolvency. If the Plan becomes insolvent, these beneficiaries face benefit cuts and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation will assume billions of dollars in liabilities.

To address these issues, the Miners Protection Act would:

Amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to transfer funds in excess of the amounts needed to meet existing obligations under the Abandoned Mine Land (AML) fund to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan to prevent its insolvency.

Make certain retirees who lose health care benefits following the bankruptcy or insolvency of his or her employer eligible for the 1993 Benefit Plan. The assets of Voluntary Employee Benefit Association (VEBA) created following the Patriot Coal bankruptcy would be transferred to the 1993 Benefit Plan to reduce transfers from the AML fund.

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