Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, June 19, 2009

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Rescuers carry the body of a victim of mine explosion in Sawahlunto, West Sumatra province, Indonesia, Wednesday, June 17, 2009. The death toll from the blast that ripped through a coal mine in western Indonesia, continued to rise after rescuers unearthed more bodies Wednesday, officials said. (AP Photo/Ferry Sikumbang)

More than 30 miners (31 at last count) died earlier this week in an explosion at a coal mine in western Indonesia. Press accounts are available through The Associated Press,  the Jakarta Post, and Aljazeera.

Here’s some background on the region’s coal industry, along with a nice locator map from the Aljazeera site:

Indonesia has rich mineral resources with many coal and other mines, but often tends to use open-pit mining rather than underground mining.

 

The mine hit by the explosion was locally owned and produced only about 1,500 tonnes of coal a month and supplied local paper and power companies. Indonesia, which is the world’s largest thermal-coal exporter, is expected to produce around 230 million tonnes of coal this year, according to a government estimate.

My coal story of the week this week comes from the always interesting Sue Sturgis, who writes over at the Facing South blog about a potential connection between coal pollution and swing flu … that’s right, coal pollution and swine flu. She explains:

Scientists have discovered that exposure to a common pollutant may make people more likely to experience severe symptoms from swine flu — and it’s a pollutant emitted in large quantities by coal-burning power plants and other industrial facilities.

The culprit is arsenic, a highly poisonous semi-metal which, according to a new study by researchers at the Marine Biological Laboratory and Dartmouth Medical School, compromises a person’s ability to mount an immune response to the H1N1 swine flu virus.

Most disturbingly, the study — published last month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives — found that arsenic can weaken the immune response to swine flu even in the low-level exposure levels that  are commonly found in contaminated drinking water.

There’s a press release about the study here,  and the full paper is here. But the Facing South article goes a bit further, pulling together a bunch of related information. It’s worth a read.

Continue reading…

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Here in Charleston, today is the start of FestivALL, a great event that truly has something for everyone — even folks obsessed with all things coal…like Coal Tattoo readers.

On Monday evening, an exhibit of Thorney Lieberman’s photos, “Honoring America’s Coal Miners,” opens at The Cultural Center. The event starts at 6 p.m. You can see the whole photo project here.

For everything you need about FestivALL, be sure to check out the Gazette’s interactive map and schedule here.

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Over at A Better West Virginia.com, Jason Keeling has been encouraging online West Virginians to commemorate West Virginia Day by contributing thoughts about how to make our beloved state a better place to live, work, play, raise a family, etc. My buddy Doug Imbrogno profiled the efforts in today’s Gazette.

I’d like to think Coal Tattoo is making some small contribution to the effort, by in its own way passing on news and encouraging conversations about coal’s historic — and future — role in our state’s economy and environment. The Gazette has graciously allowed me much time away from our print editions and other online products to focus on Coal Tattoo, but the blog is really just an extension of what I’ve tried to do (and I think our newspaper as a whole) has tried to do for so many years.

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Protesters shut down for several hours a dragline similar to this one.

Fourteen protesters have been arrested — and allegations are flying — following an aborted effort by anti-mountaintop removal activists to scale a Massey Energy dragline and unfurl a huge banner that read, “Stop Mountaintop Removal.”

The banner apparently never got entirely unfurled, but the protest shut down the dragline at Massey’s Twilight Mine for several hours.

One Massey worker apparently was taken to the hospital as a precaution, after he reported concerns about blood pressure or heart problems following a run-in with the protesters. Rainforest Action Network, a group supporting the protesters and handling their media relations, said the protest effort is committed to non-violent actions. But four of the 14 have been charged with battery as a result of this incident.

We published an initial report on this earlier today,  and there’s additional news coverage from the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, the State Journal and from The Associated Press, for folks who want another take on the story. The activists are telling their side of the story on the Mountain Action site.

Continue reading…

Early this morning,  a group of concerned citizens launched a daring protest in which they scaled the boom of a dragline at Massey Energy’s Twilight Mine in Southern West Virginia, to unfurl a huge banner that says, “Stop Mountaintop Removal.”

[I have edited this post, to remove the use of the word “daring,” because it gave some readers the impression that I was admiring the protesters for doing this. That was not my intent. I was thinking of daring as a word used the way my dictionary defines it: venturesomely bold in action or thought. I’m sure readers from both sides will criticize this editing, but I simply wanted to remove the word because it was being read a way different from what I had intended]

The Web site Mountain Action is providing details, and activists are also tweeting the action via MtnAction.

BUT, there is a report from The Associated Press that Massey Energy spokesman Jeff Gillenwater says  “a worker … [at the mine] has been injured by anti-mining protesters.” The AP report, by business writer Tim Huber, says the miner “was being examined at a hospital after a confrontation” at the Boone County strip mine.

Jeff Biggers at The Huffington Post has a report on the unfolding events, and here’s what a news release from the protest organizers said:

This is the first time a dragline has been scaled on a mountaintop removal site, and marks the latest in a string of increasingly dramatic protests in West Virginia by residents and allies from across the country. This act of protest against mountaintop removal comes just days after the Obama Administration announced a plan to reform, but not abolish, the aggressive strip mining practice.

I checked in with a spokesman for the West Virginia State Police, and he did not yet have any details on the incident. Stay tuned …

IG criticizes TVA handling of coal-ash spill

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The Tennessee Valley Authority’s Inspector General has issued a report criticizing the agency’s response and handling of the December coal-ash disaster at TVA’s Kingston Plant in east Tennessee.

The report is available online here, with a summary here.  There’s press coverage from Anne Paine at the Tennessean, who reports:

TVA officials had to search the Internet for terms to communicate with emergency responders after the massive coal ash spill last December, according to a new report critical of the power producer.

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Just in from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration …

MSHA has issued a new final rule on coal-mine rescue teams, responding to a federal judge’s decision in February to throw out parts of the agency’s initial final rule. This is the first re-write of national mine rescue team rules in years, and was launched after the Sago Mine disaster revealed serious flaws in the government and industry programs meant to help miners escape from fires, explosions and floods.

But the United Mine Workers union challenged several provisions of the rule in court, and U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Judge Stephen Williams sided with the union on the UMWA’s arguments against three provisions of the rule:

— That mine site and state-sponsored teams  could train at small mines annually, rather than semi-annually.

–Allowing state employees who are members of state-sponsored teams to substitute certain job duties for participation in one of the two annually required mine rescue contests.

–  Allowing state employees who are members of state-sponsored teams to participate in mine rescue contests by serving as judges.

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A few weeks ago, when he went off on EPA, West Virginia Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said this:

“We are the environmental regulators here in West Virginia. We are the ones on the front line here. We are the ones responsible for protecting the environment. We have a very rigorous and robust regulatory program that is basically being challenged.”

Well … we may find out now if the Obama administration thinks Randy’s right. Because this morning, a coalition of environmental groups filed a formal petition that demands the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency take over administration of the Clean Water Act’s water pollution permitting and enforcement program (the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or NPDES) from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

The petition, which I’ve posted here, alleges a “complete breakdown of West Virginia’s maintenance and enforcement of its NPDES program,” and goes on to say:

“The state’s capitulation to the industries it is obligated to regulate under the Clean Water Act and its resulting failure to enforce or maintain its NPDES program leave EPA no choice but to withdraw its approval of that program.”

The petition says that WVDEP’s failures are “greatly harming the state” and have led to the impairment of more than one-third of its rivers, streams and lakes. Causes of the impairment (many related to coal mining or the burning of coal) include: 5,153 miles of biologically impaired waterways; 3,958 miles of waterways with iron violations; 1,376 miles of waterways with pH problems; 937 miles with aluminum exceedences; 669 miles with mercury problems; and 160 miles with too much selenium.

“… The deficiencies of the West Virginia NPDES  permitting and enforcement program not only contribute to impairment and impede clean-up of West Virginia’s water resources, but also undermine the authority WVDEP must rely on to … comply with the law.”

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What’s Sen. Byrd up to on mountaintop removal?

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My buddy, Gazette investigative reporter Paul J. Nyden, has more details on the news Coal Tattoo reported this morning, about Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., sending staffers on a fact-finding mission to look into the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

I think that this is an incredibly interesting piece of news, and it could be a game-changing development. Most sources I’ve talked to on both sides don’t think anything significant will come of it … but I’m going to wait and see.

Maybe Sen. Byrd was moved by Coal River Valley resident Bo Webb’s letter:

Sen. Byrd, as a grandfather, I write to you: If our grandchildren are going to have any jobs and future at all in West Virginia, we must get beyond the stranglehold of mountaintop removal coal operations and find a way to bring new jobs and life to our mountain communities.

This could be your greatest legacy, among many, Sen. Byrd.

Just yesterday, I was telling some folks there was probably no West Virginia political figure but Senator Byrd who could — or would be willing to take the heat for — pushing for some real changes in the way mountaintop removal is regulated, or at least trying to navigate our state and region toward some middle ground on this divisive issue, and in the process pave the way for some sort of green revolution that would give our state an economic future that is more diverse.

So will something like that happen? We’ll obviously have to wait and see. But there was something fascinating about the tone — and about the specific words used — in Senator Byrd’s statement about this fact-finding trip by his aides:

During their visit, they are also expected to evaluate the on-going flood recovery efforts, and discuss concerns expressed to my office about the impact of mountain-top mining and the severity of damage from the recent floods.”

What? A politician from West Virginia actually wanting to go and see the impacts  of mountaintop removal — and using the word flooding in the same sentence?

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A citizens’ group from Pennsylvania is criticizing President Barack Obama’s reported plan to pick a regulator from their state to be director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

The Mountain Watershed Association is circulating a letter opposing the potential nomination of Joseph Pizarchik, director of the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation within the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

According to the association, a group active in Westemoreland and Fayette counties in Western Pennsylvania:

We do not believe this is a good choice as several environmentally dangerous policies have been expanded under his watch.  One of these is the practice of burying power plant waste in unlined pits, sometimes in old mines, creating contamination in groundwater.

Pizarchik has been with the PADEP since 1991. Before that, he worked for the state’s Department of Transportation. He’s a Penn State graduate and holds a law degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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I wanted to make sure Coal Tattoo readers saw the story we published in today’s Gazette, about growing complaints about whether Jackson Kelly — one of the coal industry’s main law firms — is covering up evidence that coal miners have deadly black lung disease.

In summary:

The cases allege instances where unidentified Jackson Kelly lawyers gave judges or the law firm’s own experts only portions of the medical test results, withholding other evidence that proved miners had black lung.

In some instances, Jackson Kelly attorneys allegedly withheld proof of black lung from miners who did not have lawyers helping with their benefits cases. But once those miners obtained lawyers, and those lawyers sought complete copies of the medical evidence, Jackson Kelly tried to settle the cases and avoid revealing the fraudulent actions, the lawsuits allege.

smootd-c-l.jpgI’ve also posted a copy of the misconduct charges filed against Jackson Kelly lawyer Douglas Smoot here,  and the two lawsuits against the firm here and here.

Updated: A copy of Smoot’s response to the misconduct charges is posted here.  Jackson Kelly has not yet filed a formal response to either of the lawsuits.

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This just in:

Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) today announced that several staff members from his Charleston and Washington, DC offices are on a three-day fact-finding tour of portions of West Virginia to view first-hand mountain-top mining operations.  Byrd’s statement follows:

 “During the next few days, several members of my Senate staff from both my Charleston and Washington offices will be touring portions of West Virginia to view first-hand mountain-top mining operations.  These staffers, while engaged in their fact-finding mission, will also be meeting with coal industry representatives, as well as members of the environmental community and other concerned citizens.  During their visit, they are also expected to evaluate the on-going flood recovery efforts, and discuss concerns expressed to my office about the impact of mountain-top mining and the severity of damage from the recent floods.”

“While I am personally unable to participate in this tour at the present time, I have instructed these staff members to be my eyes and ears on the ground and report back their findings and the results of their discussions in an effort for me to obtain the most up-to-date information on the issue of mountain-top mining.  With the recent announcement from the Obama Administration that it is planning to increase federal oversight of the mining operations, I believe it is imperative for my staff and me to hear from all interested parties in West Virginia as we move forward on this debate.”

 

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AEP’s Conner Run Dam is one of six coal-ash impoundments listed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as a high-hazard facility, meaning its failure could endanger human lives.

Last week, I wrote about both on Coal Tattoo an in the Gazette print edition about efforts by Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to have EPA identify publicly 44 “high-hazard” coal-ash impoundments located around the nation’s coalfields.

What I should have also done in those stories was point out that West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection had already made the locations of our state’s “high-hazard” coal-ash dams public months ago.

Brian Long, the longtime chief of dam safety for DEP, had provided that information to me, and we published a story and a Google Map of all of the state’s coal-ash impoundments (at least the ones DEP identified at the time) here.

But we did not at the time label which of those impoundments were listed as high hazard (a definition that means if the dam were to fail it could threaten human lives). So for the record, the ones classified as such were: Holz Dam in South Charleston, Scotts Run Cinder Barrier Dam near Belle, FMC Retention Dam in Spring Hill, the Conner Run Dam in Marshall County (see photo above), McElroy’s Run Dam in Pleasants County, and the Scary Creek Impoundment in Putnam County.

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Amid all the other reactions to the Obama administration’s announced plans for dealing with mountaintop removal, I am sitting here on a Friday afternoon, wondering if they — and the rest of us — buried the lead.

There it is, at the bottom of their list of proposals:

Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.

What? Who? When? How?

We should all want to know the answers to those questions … our elected officials — from Sen. Byrd to Gov. Manchin and down to county commissioners and mayors — should all be demanding to know.

President Obama campaigned at least in part on promises that he would “green the economy” with lots of good, new jobs based on alternative energy industries. And whether anyone likes it or not, efforts to deal with global warming — another Obama priority — are going to impact coalfield communities. Our leaders would be right to ask what is going to be done to give our people jobs in this new economy.

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Gazette photo by Chris Dorst. Flight courtesy of Southwings.

sutley.jpgAt the start of yesterday’s conference call with reporters, White House environmental adviser Nancy Sutley made a couple of bold statements.

First, she proclaimed that the Obama administration was “taking unprecedented steps to reduce the impacts of mountaintop coal mining.”

Next, she declared that the administration “is doing all it can under existing laws and regulations to curb the most environmentally destructive impacts of mountaintop coal mining.”

Was either of these statements true?

First, are the actions outlined in the Obama plan unprecedented? Anyone who followed the rulings of the late U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II might disagree…

haden.jpgIn an October 1999 decision, Judge Haden ruled that the stream “buffer zone” rule outlawed valley fills that would bury perennial or intermittent streams.  Then, in May 2002, Haden ruled that the Clean Water Act did not allow any valley fills at all, unless companies proposed them as part of some post-mining development plan.

Of course, we now know that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., overturned both of those rulings. But do Obama’s plans to “strengthen environmental reviews,” “minimize the adverse consequences,” or “coordinating the regulation” by difference agencies really do more to reduce impacts than either of Judge Haden’s decision? If not, was it really accurate to call the Obama plan “unprecedented”?

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Ukrainian police officers stand guard as relatives of miners wait for news of loved ones, at the Skochynskiy mine in eastern Ukraine’s coal-rich Donetsk province, Monday, June 8, 2009. (AP Photo/Photomig)

Eleven coal miners were killed and at least two more are missing after an explosion earlier this week at an underground mine in the Ukraine.  Initial reports had listed 26 missing workers, but  today’s release from the ITAR-TASS News Agency has the lower numbers.

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Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is calling on the Obama administration to identify 44 “high-hazard” coal-ash impoundments that EPA is looking at as part of a broad investigation of these facilities:

…I am concerned that the EPA, after consulting with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security, has indicated that they cannot make the list of “high hazard” sites public.

We are pursuing whether the handling of these sites is consistent with the handling of other similar facilities, because of the critical importance of the public’s right to know about threats in their communities. If these sites are so hazardous and if the neighborhoods nearby could be harmed irreparably, then I believe it is essential to let people know.

In that way, they can press their local authorities who have responsibility for their safety to act now to make the sites safer.

The text of Sen. Boxer’s statement is here,  and there’s also video of her press conference here and here.

Also see coverage in the Tennessean,  the Huffington Post, and Politico.

Secrecy is nothing new on the coal ash issues, as Coal Tattoo previously reported here.

UPDATE: And as Coal Tattoo recounted back in early May, EPA officials back then refused to release a list of the 44 sites following a House committee hearing.

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Lots of commentary out there on today’s big announcement by the Obama administration about its plans for dealing with (or, some critics on both sides say, not really dealing with) mountaintop removal. As I report in tomorrow’s Gazette, the announcement drew little praise from either side of the debate.

Among the best commentaries I can recommend is this analysis by Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council. It’s among the few commentaries so far that goes beyond the back-and-forth rhetoric of coal lobbyists who complain this creates more regulatory uncertainty and environmentalists who object that Obama didn’t come out and ban mountaintop removal. Fitz raises two primary objections to what Obama’s folks announced earlier today:

The first concern is that the procedural Memorandum of Understanding detailing how EPA and the Corps of Engineers will coordinate review of the 108 pending requests for Section 404 authorization by coal companies in the Appalachian region, sets a schedule for EPA review and identification of proposed authorization of concern, that may result in inadequate substantive review of many of the applications. That only 6 of 48 requests for authorization reviewed by EPA since March were flagged by EPA, suggests that a number of the 108 may go forward due to agency staffing and time constraints.

The second concern is that, while the MOU addresses all mining techniques in the central Appalachian region, the media release and media focus continues to be on “mountaintop mining” and on using only the Clean Water Act to reduce the number of fills and number of sediment ponds and streams affected. The Office of Surface Mining should take a much more significant role in minimizing the footprint of mining, since all forms of surface coal mining generate spoil material that has to be managed, and it is in the design
and approval of mining plans and spoil handling that aquatic impacts can be avoided. 

Fitz goes on to discuss a number of specific steps that Obama could have — but did not — take to get mountaintop removal under control. And he closes by pointing out that Obama still has not named anyone to fill the important job of director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement:

The people of the Appalachian coalfields, indeed the nation’s coalfields, need and deserve a Director who will go to work each day with the goal of restoring the restoring to a troubled agency the morale, staff, and regulatory tools that have been lost and weakened since 1981. OSM must be a
full partner, utilizing all available regulatory tools to do what Congress directed in 1977: To protect society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations” and to assure that areas mined are reclaimed “as contemporaneously as possible.”

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Photo by Vivian Stockman. Flight courtesy of Southwings.

Obama administration officials earlier this afternoon outlined their plans for dealing with mountaintop removal for the media.

sutley.jpgNancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said various agencies are taking “unprecedented steps to reduce the impacts of mountaintop coal mining” in Appalachia.

You can listen to the entire conference call by clicking this button:

But I’ll try to summarize.

Administration officials announced that they are taking a series of short-, medium- and long-range steps that they say will allow mountaintop removal to continue, but reduce the impacts to communities and the environment.

jacksonmug.jpg“Mountaintop coal mining cannot be predicated on the assumption of minimal oversight of its environmental impact, and its permanent degradation of water quality,” said EPA administrator Lisa Jackson (who, oddly, did not take part in the conference call). “Stronger reviews and protections will safeguard the health of local waters, and thousands of acres of watersheds in Appalachia.”

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I’m on the conference call with EPA, the Corps of Engineers, Interior Department and the White House Council on Environmental Quality right now about mountaintop removal, and I hope to update things again soon — including posting sound from the phone call.

But until then, I wanted to point out to everyone that EPA has a bunch of new stuff on this on its Website:

Click here, and scroll down to “recent actions.”