Coal Tattoo

CONSOL sells last of West Virginia mines

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It was big news a couple years ago when CONSOL Energy sold its major West Virginia coal holdings to Murray Energy.  And now CONSOL, long a mainstay of West Virginia’s coal industry, has dropped this announcement, as reported by Taylor Kuykendall:

CONSOL Energy Inc. plans to divest itself of its Miller Creek and Fola mines in West Virginia, the last two coal mines the company held in Central Appalachia, by paying another producer $44 million to take the properties off its hands.

CONSOL, which has other mines run by its master limited partnership CNX Coal Resources LP in Northern Appalachia, will transfer the mines to Booth Energy’s Southeastern Land in exchange for Booth taking on $103 million in liabilities for the mines. An agreement disclosed in a U.S. SEC filing on July 25 said CONSOL will pay Booth $44 million over time, including $27 million at the closing of the sale.

CONSOL announced this move in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing yesterday. As the State Journal pointed out:

Miller Creek is still an active mine site, producing 2.1 million tons of coal in 2015, while the Fola site is idled and last produced 1.3 million tons in 2012.

The CONSOL SEC filing added:

The Miller Creek Complex is a premier asset in Central Appalachia, but no longer fits our portfolio. Taken together, the Miller Creek and Fola Complexes generated negative EBIDA in 2015 and are expected to generate negative EBITDA in 2016. These transactions constitute an important step in continuing to strengthen CEI’s balance sheet, enhancing liquidity, reducing our operational and regulatory risk profile and assisting with CEI’s transition to a pure play E&P business. In association with the transactions, the Miller Creek and Fola assets and liabilities are classified as held for sale in discontinued operations on CEI’s Consolidated Balance Sheets, their results of operations are included in discontinued operations on the Consolidated Statement of Income, and the reclassification of these assets resulted in an impairment charge of $356 million in the quarter. These assets were acquired in 2007 and the write down reflects the deterioration in the Central Appalachian coal market since then. The transactions are expected to close in the third quarter.

 

How coal miners die on the job

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Huff Creek Fatal Photo

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration photo

There’s a new report out from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration that spells out the findings of the agency’s investigation into the death earlier this year of Mark Frazier, a miner at Arch Coal’s Huff Creek No. 1 Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky.

Here’s the summary of the report:

Mark FrazierAt 8:16 am, on Friday, March 25, 2016, Mark Frazier (victim) was fatally injured while operating a continuous mining machine in an outby area of the mine. The victim was loading material from a coal transfer chute construction site in the B-Mains No. 3 portion of the mine. A large section of rock rib/brow fell trapping him between the frame of abattery-powered ramcar and the mine floor. The rock rib/brow measured approximately 44 feet in length, 4 feet in width, and 2 feet in thickness. The portion of the rock rib/brow that struck the victim measured 8 feet in length, 4 feet in width, and 2 feet in thickness and weighed over 5 tons.

And here’s a bit of the MSHA description of events leading up to the death:

On March 25, 2016, Mark Frazier, Outby Construction Crew Member and Fireboss, and Brian Napier, Outby Construction Crew Member, entered the mine at approximately 5:00 am and traveled to the coal transfer chute construction site located in the No. 3 entry of the B-Mains No. 3 panel. No coal production was scheduled, but employees were scheduled to work to clean up the coal/rock debris created from the excavation of the transfer chute in an outby area of the mine. Upon arrival at the construction site, Napier began preparing the ramcar for use and Frazier began an examination of the area. In the meantime, Tim Daniels, Outby Construction Crew Member, and Keith Boggs, Mine Examiner, entered the mine. At approximately 5:50 am, Boggs arrived at the transfer chute construction site, boarded a permissible buggy, and began traveling his mineexamination route.  Daniels began the shift by operating a battery-powered scoop to push loose material from the No. 2 entry and adjacent right crosscut toward the transfer chute. There was a short delay in the clean-up process while the feeder was repaired. Frazier operated the continuous mining machine to load out the excavated coal/rock debris into the ramcar operated by Napier. The clean-up process continued until about 25 loads of material were loaded out. At that time, Willard Hickey, First Shift Foreman, arrived at the work site and proceeded to the area of the continuous mining machine.

Then:

At 8:16 am, a large section of the rock rib/brow fell from the right rib and trapped Frazier against the ramcar. Hickey was knocked to the mine floor but he was not trapped and not significantly injured.

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Does Justice campaign not care about the fines?

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Jim Justice

The Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman has a story today about the latest  back-and-forth nonsense between gubernatorial candidates Bill Cole and Jim Justice:

Does the Democratic nominee for governor of West Virginia support the Democratic president and the Democratic candidate to be the next president?

That’s the latest battleground in the race for governor, which has re-emerged with new TV ads and angry news releases after the political lull that followed the recent devastating floods.

State Senate President Bill Cole, Republican candidate for governor, unveiled an ad this week that attempts to tie Jim Justice, the Democrat in the race, to President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Here’s the ad:

But what’s really fascinating about this situation is this, in which Gutman describes the Justice campaign’s response:

Justice said that his donations were to support the re-election campaign of Steve Beshear, then the Democratic governor of Kentucky, not Obama.

His campaign was so eager to avoid the impression that Justice supported Obama that it sent a link to an unflattering article about environmental violations at Justice’s coal mines.

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Speaking of jobs …

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COAL TRAIN

A C.S.X. train loaded with coal winds its way into the mountains in this Nov. 21, 2004 file photo taken near the New River at Cotton Hill in Fayette County, W.Va.   (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

There’s a new report out from Downstream Strategies and the WVU College of Law’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development that takes a look at the opportunities that the Clean Power Plan could create for West Virginia’s coalfields.

You can read the report, “Expanding Economic Opportunities for West Virginia under the Clean Power Plan,” but here’s the conclusion:

Achieving compliance with the Clean Power Plan presents a number of challenges for West Virginia, which has historically relied on coal to generate most of its electricity and as an economic driver. Over time, coal-fired power plants in West Virginia will burn less coal, and other states that have historically imported West Virginia coal will also burn less coal. Increasingly stringent environmental regulations will converge with market forces that continue to make Central Appalachian coal less competitive—the development of cheap Marcellus Shale natural gas, the greater affordability of renewables, and the increasing cost of mining thinner and deeper coal seams. Even today, before Clean Power Plan implementation has even begun, coal production is decreasing, West Virginia coal miners are losing their jobs, coal companies are filing for bankruptcy, and severance tax revenues are declining.

West Virginia has the resources to meet these challenges, however, and can usher in new economic opportunities with appropriate planning and policies.

To do so, policymakers must take advantage of the opportunities presented by the Clean Power Plan and utilize the full flexibility provided by the rule to shape a strategy for West Virginia that reflects its unique circumstances and leverages its strengths. West Virginia is fortunate to have tremendous energy resources in addition to coal, and these other resources—including natural gas, renewable energy (wind, solar, hydropower), and energy efficiency—are relatively untapped. By implementing the legislative and regulatory policy changes outlined in this report, West Virginia lawmakers and regulators would provide an investment climate that attracts new investment in renewable and DG technologies, energy efficiency, and natural gas–fired generation. West Virginia can also spur innovation in other areas that would diversify the state’s electric power sector, reduce carbon pollution, and provide West Virginians energy savings and new economic opportunities. Taking advantage of the emissions trading opportunities contemplated by the Clean Power Plan would provide West Virginia with a fairly low cost compliance strategy, by incorporating the relatively abundant ERCs and allowances from surrounding states having greater zero- and low-carbon resources and energy efficiency savings, as noted in the DEP Feasibility Report, to enable coal plants to continue operating.

A better strategy would be to take advantage of the economic opportunities that will be created by emissions trading, through enactment of state policies that will encourage the development of zero- and low-carbon resources and energy efficiency savings within West Virginia. The state’s strategy for achieving compliance with the Clean Power Plan should focus not only on minimizing compliance costs, but should also consider the opportunities that are created by the economic activity stimulated by the Clean Power Plan.

Developing an all-of-the-above energy policy like those modeled in this report would help West Virginia take advantage of additional cost-effective compliance measures available under the Clean Power Plan, while at the same time capturing the other benefits of tapping into off of West Virginia’s energy resources. Leveraging all of West Virginia’s energy resources to reduce carbon pollution will also provide long-term benefits throughout the state as new jobs are created in new sectors of the state’s economy.

Navigating a path forward for West Virginia will require a comprehensive approach, both in terms of the energy resources deployed and the involvement of policymakers throughout both the state and federal government. Lawmakers, regulators, utility operators, and other stakeholders in West Virginia can build upon the results of this report and develop additional analyses to evaluate West Virginia’s options for meeting its obligations under the Clean Power Plan. Coordinating state planning efforts with other states and PJM will provide additional insights and new compliance avenues. West Virginia regulators deserve the full support of the state government to engage in regional planning discussions. Building on the analysis conducted for this report will enhance West Virginia’s ability to take advantage of the broad flexibility provided under the Clean Power Plan and serve the dual purpose of providing a framework for identifying opportunities to expand other sectors of the state’s energy economy and foster new opportunities for economic growth throughout the Mountain State.

 

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)

As Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump prepares for his big speech tonight at the Republican National Convention, Trump’s promises about the coal industry are getting some attention again.

Remember that Trump was very clear when he spoke here in Charleston a few months ago:

If I win we’re going to bring those miners back.

Yet, as Fortune points out:

Donald Trump’s promise to bring coal mining jobs back to West Virginia is pure fantasy. Even if environmental protections are eased under a Trump presidency, demand for coal, especially West Virginian coal, will continue to decline due purely to market forces. If Trump wants to help West Virginia, he should support efforts to diversify its economy into something more sustainable, like tourism or healthcare.

Likewise, there’s this report from High Country News:

Amid the federal government’s reform of coal-leasing nationwide, new environmental regulations and coalmine cutbacks and layoffs, a new report from the Energy Information Administration suggests things are likely to get even grimmer for coal mining … While the EIA’s report shows that federal regulations have played a part in industry decline, historically cheap natural gas has outcompeted coal, making it harder for coal companies to stay in business.

And here’s another piece, from The Hill, in which even  a Trump supporter offers somewhat contorted projections for the future:

A key congressional ally to Donald Trump said the Republican presidential candidate would focus his coal policies first on slowing down the industry’s rapid decline.

Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), who acts as an informal adviser to Trump on energy policy, was asked at a Politico event near the Republican National Convention in Cleveland Wednesday how many new coal-fired power plants would open under a Trump presidency.

 But he didn’t promise a rosy future for coal.

“I think the first thing you have to do is stop the bleeding,” Cramer responded, going on to say that Trump would then look to encourage “new technologies” to make coal a cleaner-burning energy source.

“The problem is that if we have policies like we have today that are designed to keep coal in the ground, shut it down at all costs, the innovators that could create the solutions, they’ll be out of business before they can create the solution,” Cramer said. “And we’re well on our way to a solution. But I think the race is, can they kill coal before we get to that solution?”

Just as important, remember this piece from Coal Tattoo back when Trump visited West Virginia:

Just as important, though, is another issue that Trump didn’t talk about at all:  The growing crisis facing the pension and health-care funds that cover thousands upon thousands of United Mine Workers of America retirees and their families …

It’s important to remember that this looming crisis won’t go away, even if the coal industry were to suddenly rebound. The problems with the solvency of the UMWA pension plan, for example, grow from the 2008 financial meltdown (now, whose fault was that?). Even if employment were to return to pre-meltdown levels, many of the companies that were paying into the pension plan then have since been relieved of that obligation by the federal bankruptcy courts. And even if that weren’t the case, it’s far from clear that the rising contributions alone would be enough. The same goes for the union’s health-care plan financial problems.

As we’ve talked about before, President Obama has a proposal for dealing with this crisis.  In Congress, members of both parties — Rep. David McKinley and Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito — have a proposal. Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton has a proposal.

But when the presumptive Republican nominee for president had a huge audience of coalfield families in the palm of his hand over at the Civic Center, he didn’t think that this issue was worthy of mention.

Sen. Capito’s $15,000 worth of regulations

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Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., looks out from the podium during a sound check before the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Monday, July 18, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Last night, West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito got a prime-time spot speaking at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, and much of what she talked about was really no surprise. As the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman reported:

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito assailed the environmental regulations of President Barack Obama and the email practices of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in urging the Republican National Convention to “turn the tide” to elect a Republican president in November …

She cited the gaffe infamous in West Virginia when Clinton, in describing her own plan to invest and diversify coalfield communities, said, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business” … “She has promised to devastate communities and families across coal country,” Capito said. “Hillary Clinton understands coal miners and blue collar workers about as well as she understands secure emails.”

Interestingly, though, Sen. Capito also threw this in, as Gutman reported:

Policy-wise, Capito’s focus was largely on federal regulations, which she said cost each American household $15,000 a year, repeating the figure four times. That number comes from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank, which admits it is a “back of the envelope” calculation that does not account for any for the benefits of regulations.

For more about that dubious number, check out this Fact Checker post — from 1 1/2 years ago — by Glenn Kessler at The Washington Post:

The factoid comes from an annual report, Ten Thousand Commandments, put out by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market group founded in 1984 to combat what it considered excessive government regulation. So already you have to take the analysis with a large grain of salt. Indeed, the report is billed as “An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State.”

The $15,000 is derived from an estimate that regulations cost at least $1.8 trillion a year …  (This number is calculated in a CEI working paper titled “The Tip of the Costberg.”) Then $1.8 trillion is simply divided by the number of American households. Presto, each household “pays” $14,974 annually in a hidden regulatory tax.

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Appeals court again rejects MTR health studies

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There was an interesting ruling earlier this month out of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, in which citizen groups were again blocked in their efforts to litigate against a mountaintop removal mining permit using the growing body of science about mining’s public health effects.

The Jackson Kelley law firm, which represented the mining company in this case, summarized the results this way in a post on its blog:

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has unanimously upheld the Army Corps of Engineers’ issuance of a Clean Water Act § 404 permit to Raven Crest Contracting, LLC, a subsidiary of White Forest Resources, Inc.

On August 10, 2012, the Corps issued a § 404 “dredge and fill permit” to Raven Crest for its Boone North No. 5 Surface Mine in Boone County, West Virginia. The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Coal River Mountain Watch, and Sierra Club filed suit, claiming that the Corps had violated the Clean Water Act and NEPA by not considering a series of studies allegedly linking mining to adverse health impacts.

I’ve posted a copy of the 4th Circuit decision here, and also posted the citizen group brief, the coal company brief, and the Corps’ brief.

Readers may recall that this issue came up before in other cases, one in which U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers refused to consider these health studies and another in which the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Corps and the coal industry.

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UMWA reaches new deal with Murray

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Miners Public Employees Rally

UPDATED:  The UMWA rank-and-file rejected this contract proposal.

Here’s the news announced this morning by the United Mine Workers of America:

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) announced today that it has reached a new tentative collective bargaining agreement with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) that will be submitted to its membership next week for ratification.

 UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said, “This tentative agreement comes six months before the expiration of the current agreement, however the rapidly deteriorating status of the American coal industry means that it is important to lock in the best terms and conditions we can before things get any worse. We believe this proposal does that, but it is up to the UMWA members who will vote on this agreement to make the final determination.”

 UMWA Local Unions will explain the proposal to members over the weekend and the ratification vote will take place next Tuesday, June 28. Details of the proposed agreement will not be released until after the ratification vote is tallied.

The BCOA, once the major negotiating group for the coal industry, now is made up mostly of Murray Energy operations. Here’s a statement issued this morning by Murray:

Murray American Energy, Inc. (“Murray American”) announced today that the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, Inc. (“BCOA”) and the United Mine Workers of America (“UMWA”) have reached a tentative labor agreement which, if ratified, will run from June 30, 2016 to December 31, 2021.

Mr. Robert E. Murray, the Chief Executive Officer of Murray American and Chairman of BCOA, said “We are pleased that the BCOA and UMWA have reached this very important tentative agreement, which will go a long way in ensuring that Murray American’s UMWA-represented employees are able to continue working, even in this very depressed coal marketplace. Indeed, over the past several years, the United States coal industry has been absolutely destroyed by policies of the Obama Administration and by the increased use of natural gas to generate electricity. Coal markets and prices have generally been cut in half. This tentative agreement provides the BCOA and UMWA with a path forward, even in these extremely difficult times.” The tentative agreement is subject to ratification by the members of the UMWA.

Murray American subsidiary companies which are members of the BCOA, include: The Ohio County Coal Company, which operates the Ohio County Mine; The Marshall County Coal Company, which operates the Marshall County Mine; The Marion County Coal Company, which operates the Marion County Mine; The Harrison County Coal Company, which operates the Harrison County Mine; and The Monongalia County Coal Company, which operates the Monongalia County Mine. Murray American currently has over 1,500 UMWA-represented active employees. The Ohio Valley Coal Company and The Ohio Valley Transloading Company, which together have over 200 UMWArepresented active employees, will also be voting on the tentative agreement with the UMWA.

 

Will Congress protect retired coal miners?

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CER

Photo by DYLAN LOVAN / AP — United Mine Workers of America president Cecil Roberts speaks to about 4,000 retired members at the Lexington Center in Lexington, Ky., last Tuesday. Roberts urged members to push for legislation that would protect pensions and health care benefits for retirees that have been put in jeopardy due to a downturn in the coal industry.

There’s been a growing public push for Congress to take action on legislation to rescue the troubled health-care and pension funds that provide for tens of thousands of retired United Mine Workers and their families across our nation’s coalfields.

Last week, the UMWA held a huge rally in Lexington to try to drum up more support for the bipartisan legislation. As the Associated Press recounted:

United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts told the gathering in Lexington of about 4,000 members from seven states that miners spent their lives working in dangerous places to provide the nation’s electricity and steel. The miners, some of whom arrived in wheelchairs, don’t deserve having their benefits put in jeopardy, Roberts said.

“What do they want these people to do, get out of their wheelchairs and go back to the mines?” Roberts remarked after the rally.

(The AP, for reasons passing understanding, felt compelled to comment in its report that, Cecil Roberts “is popular among the union membership for his fiery oratorical style.”)

That rally followed a series of Senate floor speeches last month by Democrats, calling for action on the bill, and a letter by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and others urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (whose role in blocking the measure was documented by the Washington Post) to act on the legislation prior to the summer recess.

In West Virginia, Republican Rep. David McKinley has been a strong supporter of the bill, and just yesterday, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., delivered a floor speech on the issue:

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The looming coal cleanup crisis

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Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

Earlier this week, The New York Times had the latest of the recent national stories to take a stab at explaining the impending crisis regarding the cleanup of decades of pollution problems related to coal mining. The Washington Post had its own version of this story a few months ago.

Here’s a couple of the “nut graphs” from the Times piece:

Regulators are wrangling with bankrupt coal companies to set aside enough money to clean up Appalachia’s polluted rivers and mountains so that taxpayers are not stuck with the $1 billion bill.

The regulators worry that coal companies will use the bankruptcy courts to pay off their debts to banks and hedge funds, while leaving behind some of their environmental cleanup obligations.

The industry asserts that its cleanup plans — which include turning defunct mines back into countryside — are comprehensive and well funded. But some officials say those plans could prove unrealistic and falter as demand for coal remains weak.

The Post summarized the situation in a similar way:

A worsening financial crisis for the nation’s biggest coal companies is sparking concerns that U.S. taxpayers could be stuck with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in cleanup costs across a landscape of shuttered mines stretching from Appalachia to the northern Plains.

Worries about huge liabilities associated with hundreds of polluted mine sites have mounted as Peabody Energy, the world’s largest publicly traded coal company, was forced to appeal to creditors for an extra 30 days to pay its debts. Two of the four other biggest U.S. coal companies have declared bankruptcy in the past six months.

Under a 1977 federal law, coal companies are required to clean up mining sites when they’re shut down. But the industry’s plummeting fortunes have raised questions about whether companies can fulfill their obligations to rehabilitate vast strip mines in Western states — many of which are on federally owned property — as well as mountaintop-removal mining sites in the East.

It’s great that these issues are getting national attention. But this attention is long overdue. And one thing that is a bit worrisome is that there is a tone in the stories that sometimes makes it seem like this all came out of nowhere — that no one possibly could have imagined this crisis.

That’s just not true.

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Another coal miner killed on the job

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Mine Explosion

Here’s the sad news today out of Illinois:

A death investigation is under way after a miner was killed at the New Era Mine in Saline County on Monday, June 7, 2016.

Captain Bill Paterson with the Illinois Department of Mines and Minerals says the man suffered fatal injuries when he was pinned beneath a piece of equipment. Another miner was also hurt and is recovering in the hospital. The names of both of the miners are being withheld until family is notified.

New Era Mine is owned by American Coal.

The New Era Mine is controlled by Murray Energy, and here’s the press statement that company provided today:

The American Coal Company (“American Coal”) confirms that an accident occurred at its New Era Mine, this afternoon, in which an employee of a contractor, David Stanley Consultants, LLC, was pinned beneath a piece of equipment on which he was working. The name of the individual is being withheld pending notification of family members.

UPDATE: The contractor employee is Mr. Robbie E. Clark, thirty-four (34) years old, of Eldorado, Illinois.

This matter is currently being investigated, and we will continue to work closely and diligently with appropriate authorities. American Coal is committed to ensuring that safety remains the absolute highest priority across all of our operations.

Our employees and management are deeply saddened by this tragic event. During this very difficult time, we send our sincerest condolences and prayers to the family and to all those affected by this loss.

This is the fifth coal-mining death listed by MSHA so far this year in the U.S.

UPDATED:  Here’s a statement from MSHA —

Two miners were working with a diesel scoop. They lowered the bucket and put downward hydraulic pressure on the bucket to raise the middle of the scoop up. Both men crawled under the scoop to look at something. The hydraulic pressure slowly released, allowing the scoop to lower onto and trap the two men under it. An examiner heard them yelling and came to the scoop and saw them under it. He put downward hydraulic pressure on it again by lowering the bucket. He got the survivor out and then they got the victim out. CPR was started but the victim could not be revived. 

Jim Justice

West Virginia billionaire businessman Jim Justice announces that he is running for governor of West Virginia as a Democrat in 2016 in White Sulphur Springs , W.Va., Monday, May 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)

There was troubling news out of the coalfields of Kentucky over the last few days about billionaire coal operator Jim Justice, the Democratic candidate for governor here in West Virginia. Here’s the Courier-Journal report from my friend Jim Bruggers:

Kentucky environmental regulators spent the weekend and Monday investigating a mudslide at a Pike County surface mine owned by West Virginia coal baron Jim Justice that they say contributed to local, damaging flooding last week.

State officials Monday confirmed their investigation was centered on Justice’s Bent Mountain mining operations, which had significant reclamation deadlines last year and are the subject of ongoing enforcement activities.

As the C-J explained, the local Appalachian News-Express reports that:

… Water suddenly came rushing out of a hollow, damaging several homes in the community of Meta, late Thursday, about eight miles outside Pikeville.

This all comes in the wake of one report in the C-J that Justice’s required mine reclamation projects in Kentucky are missing cleanup deadlines and a second story that — shockingly — Justice needs more time to finish reclamation at Kentucky operations, including at least through the end of the year to fix a major, three-mile-long “highwall” in Pike County.

All of this undoubtedly provides more fodder for the Republican campaign this fall in support of Justice’s GOP opponent for governor, current Senate President Bill Cole. Whether Justice and the Democrats like it, this stuff is fair game, especially since Justice’s major argument for electing him is that he’s such a successful businessman. If he wants voters to believe he would run the state the way he runs his mining operations, then it’s reasonable for the campaign to include a focus on exactly what Justice’s business model looks like.

At the same time, if the Cole campaign and its supporters want to go down this road, it’s also worth asking them about their own views for regulating the coal industry to stop incidents like the one over the weekend in Kentucky.

 

 

Election Day in coal country: A race to nowhere?

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A group of coal miners wave signs for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as they wait for a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

A group of coal miners waive signs for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as they wait for a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Across West Virginia, the polls have opened. Primary Election Day 2016 has begun.  Now we vote.

Some things are likely decided already. It’s all but certain that Republican Donald Trump will face Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential race in November. The GOP candidate for governor in the fall will be Senate President Bill Cole. By the end of tonight, we’ll know who Cole will face from the three-candidate Democratic field.

It’s hard to imagine the primary election results providing much progress in addressing the serious problems communities face in the ongoing decline of the mining industry. In many ways, the discussion here is mired in the same place it was four years ago, when I wrote a post called “Before tomorrow: Election Day in coal country” on the day of the 2012 General Election.

Today’s primary doesn’t free us of campaign signs and pollster calls. It just sets us up for more of them between now and November.

Importantly, though, the candidates who will carry on to the General Election will in many ways set the tone for the political discourse and community discussion about what we collectively should be trying to do to make the coalfields a better place to live, work, and raise families.

It’s clear that the presidential race will feature Trump’s pandering efforts to convince West Virginia coal miners that they’ll all be back to work soon enough, after he eliminates the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and all those nasty rules and regulations. Secretary Clinton offers at least some hope that she will try to focus coalfield voters on huge problems that loom, such as the financial crisis with the United Mine Workers of America’s health-care benefits and pension plan — and just as important a dose of realism about the need to ramp up efforts to diversify coalfield economies.

Unfortunately, the Clinton campaign has already given Trump and its friends in the coal industry the only soundbite they really need. We’ll be hearing it over and over and over and over. And one danger is that Secretary Clinton will buckle under on this, and start talking more and more about “clean coal” and carbon capture — catchphrases that only generate the same false hope that has the Trump campaign so popular with some of our state’s coal miners.

Whether Clinton has a chance in West Virginia — and whether West Virginia will turn out to be important at all in the national election for president — really is less important in the context I’m talking about than what the focus and tone of the campaign does to broader discussions about where the coalfields are headed.

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Bob Murray on Donald Trump

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Last week’s  very flattering New York Times profile of Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray had a little tidbit about Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump:

The day after his coal-mine visit, Mr. Murray delivered a lecture at West Liberty University, a small public college in nearby West Virginia. There, about 150 students packed a hall to earn extra credit for their business class.

Mr. Murray came with a five-page speech titled “The Ongoing Destruction of a Major American Industry,” which, among other things, described the “regal, outlaw Obama administration.” But once he reached the lectern, the speech was forgotten. Instead, Mr. Murray spoke extemporaneously.

He warned the students about government bureaucrats (“They are rejects compared with people in the private sector”); about Bernie Sanders (“The problem with socialists is that they eventually run out of other people’s money,” paraphrasing Margaret Thatcher); about the leading Republican presidential candidate (“I’m not sure about Donald Trump”); and about Ivy League schools (“These schools are lousy”).

He announced that he was organizing a fund-raiser for Ted Cruz, though he pointed out that he was not endorsing him.

That fundraiser occurred back in early April, and of course Sen. Cruz has since dropped out of the race. So I asked Murray spokesman Gary Broadbent for an update on Mr. Murray’s thinking on the election and here’s the statement he gave me:

Mr. Robert E. Murray has not, as yet, formally endorsed any Presidential candidate.  It appears likely, however, that Mr. Donald J. Trump will become the Republican nominee for President.  If nominated, we hope that Mr. Trump defeats Hillary Clinton, who has stated that, if elected President, she is “gonna put a lot of coal miners and coal companies outta business.”  Mr. Murray is seeking for Mr. Trump to make the same very large and significant commitments to support the United States coal industry, which Senator Cruz has made.

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)

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)

Last evening at the Charleston Civic Center, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump certainly had a lot to say about coal miners. As the Gazette-Mail’s David Gutman reported:

The backdrop behind Trump was filled with men in miner’s stripes and hard hats waving “Trump digs coal” signs, and Trump peppered his remarks with his admiration for coal miners.

“I’ll tell you what folks, you’re amazing people,” Trump said. “The courage of the miners and the way the miners love what they do, they love what they do.”

“If I win we’re going to bring those miners back,” he said.

Then there was this:

Trump said he has “always been fascinated” by mining, “the engineering that’s involved and the safety and all that’s taken place over the last number of years.”

“All of it’s getting safe and as it gets safe they’re taking it away from you in a different way,” Trump said. “These ridiculous rules and regulations that make it impossible for you to compete, so we’re going to take that all off the table folks.”

As Gutman also reported, Trump is offering no real plan for how he’s going to reverse the downward spiral of the Southern West Virginia coal industry, though he (like West Virginia Democratic front-runner Jim Justice) is making bold promises — promises — in the face of just about every credible projection or analysis of where coal is actually headed (see here, here and here).

Just as important, though, is another issue that Trump didn’t talk about at all:  The growing crisis facing the pension and health-care funds that cover thousands upon thousands of United Mine Workers of America retirees and their families.

In the most recent UMWA Journal, union Secretary Treasurer Daniel Kane called this “the most important political issue facing the union right now. UMWA President Cecil Roberts told a U.S. Senate Committee in March:

… Today, there is a looming health care tragedy unfolding in the coalfields, with potentially devastating human effects. In many cases, the loss of health care benefits will be a matter of life or death. In all cases, it will be a financial disaster that the retired miners, who live on very meager pensions, will not be able to bear.

These are real people we are talking about. They live on small pensions, averaging $530 per month, plus Social Security. They rely very heavily on the health-care benefits they earned through decades of hard work in the nation’s coal mines … They spent decades putting their lives and health on the line every single day, going into coal mines across this nation to provide the energy and raw materials needed to make America the most powerful nation on earth. And they did that even though they knew they would pay a physical price for it.

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W.Va. Coal Association endorses Trump

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

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

Here’s the latest from West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney:

The membership of the West Virginia Coal Association today announced it is endorsing Donald Trump, Republican of New York, for the office of president of the United States in this year’s election.  The unanimous decision was made at a membership meeting in Charleston earlier today.

“Donald Trump has been firm and clear throughout his campaign in his commitment to rebuild America’s basic industries – the industries that made this country great – such as coal, steel and manufacturing” said Bill Raney, WVCA president, in announcing the endorsement. “Trump has said he will reverse the Democratic regulatory assault that has cost the coal industry more than 40 percent of our production and jobs since 2008.”

“In contrast, Hillary Clinton’s proposals essentially double-down on the job killing Obama policies,” Raney continued. “West Virginia can’t afford that and neither can the nation.”

“We believe that with the leadership team of Donald Trump in the White House and Bill Cole as Governor, West Virginia will begin to rebuild what we have lost to the Obama War on Coal and also look to the future once again with confidence.”

FILE - In this Tuesday, April 26, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a primary night news conference, in New York. Trump's highly anticipated foreign policy speech will test whether the Republican presidential front-runner known for his raucous rallies and eyebrow-raising statements can present a more presidential persona as he works to coalesce a still-weary Republican establishment around his candidacy. Trump's campaign says his speech Wednesday will focus on "several critical foreign policy issues" such as trade, the global economy and national security. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

In this Tuesday, April 26, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a primary night news conference, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File)

By sometime early this evening, West Virginians will get to see first-hand whether presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump can give Democratic gubernatorial front-runner Jim Justice a run for his money in the category of pandering to coal miners.

Justice, of course, is falsely telling our state’s hardworking miners and their families that if they will just elect him governor, West Virginia will end up “mining more coal … than has ever been mined before.” Justice told Hoppy Kercheval to “mark it down.” While Justice was blustering, two of his companies were on trial in Wyoming County, facing a suit from 15 families who say one of his mining operations contaminated their drinking water wells. (UPDATED: The jury in the Wyoming County case ruled in Justice’s favor.)

Trump, meanwhile, had this to say the other night after winning the GOP primary in Indiana:

… And West Virginia. And we’re going to get those miners back to work. I’ll tell you what. We’re going to get those miners back to work … we’re not going to be Hillary Clinton, and I watched her three or four weeks ago when she was talking about the miners as if they were just numbers and she was talking about she wants the mines closed and she will never let them work again.

Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania which was so great to me last week and Ohio and all over, they’re going to start to work again. Believe me. You’re going to be proud again to be miners.

The Associated Press has a pretty decent “fact check” item out on the subject of Trump and Appalachian coal. The AP concludes:

Trump, however, has yet to explain exactly how he will revitalize Appalachia’s coal industry. To pull it off, he will have to overcome market forces and a push for cleaner fuels that have pummeled coal.

Coal’s slump is largely the result of cheap natural gas, which now rivals coal as a fuel for generating electricity. Older coal-fired plants are being idled to meet clean-air standards.

Another hurdle for reviving coal mining in Appalachia: less coal. Reserves of coal still in the ground are smaller than in western states like Wyoming, the leading coal producer.

The story goes on:

It is unclear what Trump would do to increase mining jobs. He has long criticized the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, saying that its proposals to tighten emission standards on coal-burning power plants are killing American jobs. A Trump adviser said that a Trump administration would review many EPA regulations including those affecting the coal industry.

While the requirements have raised the cost of operating coal-fired plants, experts say a bigger factor in coal’s decline has been cheaper natural gas. Drilling techniques such as fracking have sparked a boom in gas production, driving down prices and prompting utilities to switch from coal.

As recently as 2008, about half the electricity in the U.S. came from burning coal and one-fifth from burning natural gas. Today, each accounts for about one-third — nuclear, hydroelectric and renewables like solar and wind make up most of the rest. Weak economic growth has hurt demand for Appalachian coal used in making steel.

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