Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Oct. 30, 2009

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In this photo taken Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2009, two cooling towers are demolished at a coal burning power plant as an effort to improve energy efficiency in Xinxiang, in central China’s Henan province. (AP Photo)

The Associated Press reports this week (via public radio) that President Barack Obama’s visit to China next month is not likely to yield a separate accord on countering global warming, though both countries are pushing for progress for upcoming global talks in Copenhagen.  At the same time, Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, told Congress that the U.S. is risking falling behind China on clean energy technologies. Meanwhile, some analysts argue that current U.S. legislative proposals don’t do nearly enough in this area.

Climate politics is likely to take center stage again next week, as Democrats prepare to move their bill through a Senate committee. One report wonders if any Republicans will show up.

This week’s coal news included stories about a South African mine explosion that killed one worker and injured 15 others, and a happier story about three Chinese miners who were rescued after being trapped for eight days.

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The failure of a TVA coal-ash dam in Tennessee last December caused a huge mess, and prompted renewed attention on regulation of coal-ash handling and disposal.

Earlier today, the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office issued a new report updating Congress on efforts by the Environmental Protection Agency to start regulating the handling and disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.

The report is available on the GAO Web site, and here’s a brief summary of the findings:

— The exact number of surface impoundments at utility coal fired power plants is not known. However, EPA is currently undertaking an effort to identify the number and location of all surface impoundments in the United States and, as of September 14, 2009, had identified over 580 surface impoundments nationwide.

— Problems that have been identified with the storage of coal ash include potential structural defects and other risks of collapse of the surface impoundment, such as at TVA Kingston Facility; health and environmental risks from CCR storage due to potential leaching of contaminants into surface or groundwater from unlined or failed liners at surface impoundments, landfills, or sand and gravel pits; and potential risks from the discharge of wastewater containing CCR into surface waters from surface impoundments. EPA is currently analyzing the structural hazards and environmental risks associated with surface impoundments.

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The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued this week two reports on deaths of miners at operations run by CONSOL Energy Inc.

In this report, MSHA found that Mark McIntyre had not been properly trained to work safely at CONSOL’s Ireland River Loading Facility (above) in Marshall County, W.Va. MSHA cited the company for not providing training … Apparently, workers at the loadout were trained as if they only worked at the preparation plant. CONSOL has started new training specific to safety on the river loadout, MSHA said.

And in this report,  MSHA found that Robert Maust died in a roof fall at CONSOL’s Bailey Mine in Greene County, Pa., because the company “did not have proper procedures in place to permanently support corners while operating inby the area.”  Maust died when a portion of the mine roof fell while he was installing a roof jack on the left inby corner ofa  crosscut. MSHA did not cite CONSOL in this death, despite finding that the lack of proper procedures contributed to the fatality.

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Gazette photos by Lawrence Pierce

NEW HAVEN, W.Va. — Well, American Electric Power certainly put on a good show today at the kickoff even of its CCS pilot project at the Mountaineer Plant in Mason County, W.Va.

Signs with pretty green arrows directed visitors into the plant. Speakers were projected onto twin giant-screen televisions. Everybody got a parting gift: A nifty thumb-drive pre-loaded with promotional material on the CCS project.

Along the way, though, there was a little bit of interesting news …

First, Sen. Jay Rockefeller called for the federal government to spend $20 to $25 billion on CCS research and development. That’s more than twice the amount included in current versions of the climate bill in both the House and Senate. But, the $10 million in both bills is over 10 years, and Rockefeller declined to give a time frame for his much larger proposal.

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Citing a new Government Accountability Office report, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is calling for reforms in the way the federal government processes benefits for miners who have contracted deadly black lung disease.

In a statement this afternoon, Rockefeller said:

Miners are the heart of the Mountain State, and we must continue fighting to protect their health and hard-earned benefits. I requested a comprehensive study of the Black Lung Benefits Program because I heard countless shamefull and alarming stories about coal miners whose benefits were routinely delayed or denied altogether.

Some cases have taken decades to resolve — this is impractical, harmful and absolutely unacceptable, given the immediate medical needs of those living with black lung.

You can read the full GAO report here, and Rockfeller’s letter requesting it here.

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This announced today by the United Mine Workers of America union:

More than 200 miners over the age of 40, including 82 members of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local Union 8843, who applied for work at a West Virginia mine operated by a subsidiary of Massey Energy will share an $8.75 million settlement of an age discrimination class action suit they filed against the company and its CEO, Don Blankenship, in 2006.

The miners applied for employment at Massey subsidiary Spartan Mining Company’s Mammoth mine, formerly known as the Cannelton mine, in eastern Kanawha County between September 1, 2004 and August 31, 2006. All were denied employment. The mine had been acquired by Massey after the bankruptcy of the previous owners, Horizon Natural Resources.

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MTR protests going national

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This just in a while ago from Vicki Smith at The Associated Press:

Activists with Mountain Justice, Rainforest Action Network and other groups planned protests at Environmental Protection Agency headquarters and across the country Friday to demand the end of mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

An online map showed more than two dozen planned events from California to Maine, including demonstrations at a regional EPA office in Philadelphia and a New Jersey office of JPMorgan & Chase Co., a bank environmentalists say is the biggest financier of the destructive form of strip mining.

It was the third attempt at a national protest since June, and evidence the environmentalists believe the tide is turning in their favor under the Obama administration.

“The end of mountaintop removal is almost here,” declares the Rainforest Action Network on its Web site. “Political and financial decision-makers in New York, Washington D.C. and across the country continue to hear our message.”

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EPA issues warning about W.Va. coal-ash impoundment

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Updated: 3:30 p.m. —

If you to to this Web site,  you’ll find EPA reports about many of the nation’s coal-ash impoundments … but EPA just told me that they will not release to the public a copy of the report that prompted the action discussed in the press release below …

This just in from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

As part of an ongoing comprehensive review of dam integrity of coal ash impoundment sites nationwide, EPA has alerted West Virginia public officials and first responders that an impoundment at American Electric Power’s (AEP) Philip Sporn facility requires additional safety testing.  While EPA does not believe the impoundment’s dam is at immediate risk of failure given the information we currently have, out of an abundance of caution the agency has notified W.Va. and Ohio officials of the need for further testing to fully determine the impoundment’s integrity.  AEP has committed to submitting a plan to carry out the safety tests.  That plan will be provided to EPA on Monday, November 2.  EPA will oversee the testing and use all necessary authority to assure the safety of the facility. 

Following the failure of an impoundment at the TVA facility in Kingston, Tenn., in December 2008, EPA has been conducting on-site evaluations at electric utilities nationwide to determine the impoundments’ structural integrity.

As part of that effort, EPA contractors identified factors at the AEP Philip Sporn facility that are similar to the Kingston facility – specifically, both facilities piled coal ash and bottom ash around the impoundment to raise the impoundment’s walls.  To ensure the impoundment’s stability, EPA is requiring AEP to conduct two tests: a liquefaction test to determine if the foundation will become unstable under certain pressures, and a slope stability test to determine if the impoundment’s embankment will fail under certain pressures.

The assessment of AEP’s Philip Sporn facility was conducted as part of the agency’s nationwide assessment of surface impoundments at electric utilities following the coal ash release at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston, Tenn. facility.  To date, EPA has completed reports on assessments of 22 facilities.

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As I mentioned yesterday, it’s coal day at the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Folks from the coal industry are testifying about the Senate climate change bill.

Mike Carey, president of the Ohio Coal Association, said what you would expect:

Without a doubt, this legislation which the committee is considering will devastate our communities, bankrupt our region, cause energy costs to soar across the country, and according to the EPA have almost no impact on global temperatures since China, India and the rest of the developing world will continue to increase their emissions.

But then there was Preston Chiaro, (above) chief executive for energy and minerals at Rio Tinto,  a huge worldwide coal company and the second largest coal producer in the United States, who told lawmakers:

Unmanaged climate change is a threat to our assets, our shareholders, and our employees, and also to civil society and political institutions in many of the countries in which we operate and across the globe.

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Senate climate bill hearings: What about coal?

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Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., makes a point during testimony on the Senate’s climate change bill earlier this week.

Hearings started yesterday and continued today on the Senate climate change bill, the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.

The hearings before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee continue tomorrow, and it’s apparently coal day … testimony is expected from Mike Carey, President of the Ohio Coal Association and Gene Trisko of the United Mine Workers of America union. I’d also suggest checking out what David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defense Council has to say … NRDC has been very critical of coal, but also is a big supporter of CCS technology, so it will be interesting to see what Hawkins says about the latest bill.

When the latest version of the bill was released very late Friday night, Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer listed “new provisions to address clean coal technology” among the changes.  A fact sheet released by the committee outlined these changes:

— New provisions to stimulate development of commercial-scale carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies;

— A modified “bonus allowance program” that allows for advanced payments to “early actors” in installing CCS technology, provided that funded projects will achieve at least a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases.

— Provisions that require coal-fired power plants to meet emissions performance standards once sufficient commercial-scale CCS technology has been deployed, while also ensuring timely reductions in global warming pollution from power plants.

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Attorneys for the staff over at the West Virginia Public Service Commission just filed a blockbuster motion that throws another significant procedural hurdle in front of the PATH power line project.

Similar to a motion already discussed here by their counterparts in Virginia, the WVPSC staff want the PATH application thrown out because of a Maryland ruling that leaves them unable to fully evaluate the project.

The WVPSC staff motion is available here. I’ll be doing a story for our print edition, and will post a link here when it becomes available.

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TransGas Development proposes to build a $3 billion coal-to-liquids fuel plant at Mingo County’s new energy park near Gilbert.

The Associates Press put out an un-bylined story yesterday about the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s plans to issue an air pollution permit for the proposed TransGas Development liquid coal plant in Mingo County.

AP had an unfortunate quote from Randy Harris, the project director for the Mingo County Redevelopment Authority, which is trying to promote the project:

This proves that clean coal can be done.

Well, I read through the draft permit and WVDEP’s engineering evaluation on the agency’s Web site.  And nowhere in there does it say anything at all about this plant capturing and sequestering its carbon dioxide emissions …

Joe Kessler, an engineer at WVDEP’s Division of Air Quality, told me TransGas does plan to recycle about 25 percent of its carbon dioxide emissions back into the plant. But, according to Kessler, the company is still estimated to release about 3.6 million tons of CO2 every year into the atmosphere. And John Benedict, WVDEP’s director of air quality, told me:

It emits a fair amount of CO2.

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Mine safety awards announced

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As the National Mining Association says in a press release, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced its “Sentinels of Safety” awards.  The awards “recognized 20 U.S. coal and mineral mines for their outstanding safety record in 2008, the safest year in the history of American mining,” the group said.

The Associated Press put out a brief story about Massey Energy’s announcement that it is the first company to ever win 3 of these awards in the same year. The AP story noted:

Massey says its safety performance has been better than the coal industry’s average. However, it also has struggled at times. Earlier this month, MSHA warned Massey that safety needed to improve at three of its operations or they would face stricter enforcement.

Click on down for a list of all of the winners …

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Climate Ground Zero said today that one of the protesters arrested last month for blockading Massey Energy’s regional headquarters has been sentenced to jail time for his role in that action.

Joseph Hampsher, 22, of Charleston, was sentenced to 20 days in the regional jail by Boone County Magistrate Charles Byrnside. Hampsher apparently reached a plea agreement with prosecutors.

According to the Climate Ground Zero, this is the first time someone taking part in the peaceful civil disobedience actions against mountaintop removal in Southern West Virginia has been sentenced to jail.

PATH: Is it needed? Would it increase reliability?

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New expert testimony filed today with the Virginia State Corporation Commission concludes that the PATH power line is not needed and would actually make our regional electrical grid less reliable.

The expert testimony, provided on behalf of the Sierra Club, also argues that PATH would increase air pollution, and that other cheaper and simpler alternatives are available.

American Electric Power and Allegheny Energy argue that PATH is needed to avoid power grid overloads and other reliability concerns. You can read their application to the West Virginia Public Service Commission here, or their “Frequently Asked Questions” sheet here. And, the PATH folks have a whole collection of print ads and broadcast spots here.

But here’s what George C. Loehr, a nationally renowned electricity expert, told the Virginia regulators:

Rather than increase reliability, PATH would actually make it worse.

… If PATH is approved, generating companies will be given a powerful incentive to site new generators in the Allegheny coalfields, hundreds of miles to the west, rather than in or close to the eastern load centers. Even existing coal-fired generators will have the opportunity to ramp up their outputs.

This will make the eastern megalopolis even more dependent on remote generation sources than it already is. Cities like Newark, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington and Richmond will depend for their electric supply on generators hundreds of miles away. I’ve been in  electric power transmission planning and reliability for more than 47 years, but you don’t have to be an engineer to understand that this is a less reliable situation than if the resources were located nearby.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a big new report on the dangers posed by disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants and other water pollution issues surrounding these plants. Among the conclusions:

An increasing amount of evidence indicates that the characteristics of coal combustion wastewater have the potential to impact human health and the environment. Many of the common pollutants found in coal combustion wastewater (e.g., selenium, mercury, and arsenic) are known to cause environmental harm and can potentially represent a human health risk. Pollutants in coal combustion wastewater are of particular concern because they can occur in large quantities (i.e., total pounds) and at high concentrations (i.e., exceeding Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs)) in discharges and leachate to groundwater and surface waters. In addition, some pollutants in coal combustion wastewater present an increased ecological threat due to their tendency to persist in the environment and bioaccumulate in organisms, which often results in slow ecological recovery times following exposure.

The EPA report is available here.  This report was brought to my attention by the Sierra Club, which issued a statement about the it:

We applaud the EPA for addressing coal’s toxic legacy head on, for delving deeper and completing this long overdue investigation. We strongly encourage EPA to continue on this path, to take the next step toward safeguarding communities and drinking water by putting strong federal protections in place for coal ash and scrubber sludge disposal.

EPA also indicates on this Web site that is is planning another round of information gathering from utilities as part of its rulemaking on these issues.

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USA Today’s circulation dropped 17 percent over the last six months. But 1.9 million people still take their paper. And those readers this morning were served an editorial that says it’s time “to tip the scales” the other way on mountaintop removal coal mining.

According to the editorial:

While blowing up mountaintops for surface mining is not illegal, two restrictions bar dumping the waste in or near surrounding waterways. But it took environmentalistlawsuits during the Clinton administration to push federal agencies to enforce the prohibitions, and regulatory changes during the coal-friendly Bush administration undercut the rules.

When Barack Obama took office, environmental groups pushed for a clampdown on mountaintop removal and were dismayed when officials approved dozens of new permits. Now, though, the administration has taken a step in the right direction. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency froze 79 permits for further review after evaluation showed that the projects might harm the environment. The administration would do well to block the worst of them and change regulations to make the permitting process much stricter.

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Given reports that Massey Energy has started blasting away on Coal River Mountain, where environmentalists and local citizens hoped to see a wind farm instead of a strip mine, it’s worth taking a look at what recently happened in another one of these United States …

Today, President Barack Obama is touring Florida Power and Light’s new DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia on Tuesday – the largest photovoltaic facility in the U.S.  This comes two years after Earthjustice fought FPL’s plan to build the nation’s largest coal plant near Everglades National Park.

There’s more about this FPL facility here, and background on Earthjustice’s fight against the coal plant here.

According to a statement from Earthjustice:

In June 2007, Earthjustice gathered evidence and experts which helped convince the Florida Public Service Commission to consider the full costs associated with polluting coal plants. It was the first time that global warming played a role in a PSC decision, and the first time in 15 years that state regulators rejected a new power plant.

David Guest, managing attorney for Earthjustice in Florida, said:

Instead of having a dirty coal plant to provide power, we have clean solar energy. It is gratifying to know that Earthjustice helped change public policy and moved our state to more common-sense technology. We are finally putting the sunshine back in the Sunshine State.

UPDATED 3:45 P.M. Wednesday

My sincere apologies to Robert Ellis and the folks at Newtown Energy for again getting part of this story wrong.

Let’s try to get it clear this time — The $100,000 fine mentioned below and in today’s print story  concerned not reporting a problem with the mine’s elevator entry system — not a problem with the slope hoist system where yesterday’s fatal accident occurred.

My apologies also to Coal Tattoo readers for this error. Hopefully, I got it right this time.

UPDATED: 11 a.m. Wednesday

We had a story in our print edition today about this mining death. It’s available here.

I also wanted to update this a bit, with some additional information provided by Robert Ellis, the president of Newtown Mining. In particular, this mine has two entrances — one is the slope hoist in the Kanawha County side and the other is an elevator on the Boone County side.

Yesterday’s accident occurred on the slope hoist system. And Ellis pointed out to me that the $100,000 fine for not reporting within 15 minutes a problem with that system to regulators in 2008 involved the system being down for a little more than 12 hours — not several days as I had originally reported in today’s print story.

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There aren’t many details yet available from authorities, but West Virginia suffered its third coal-mining death of the year this morning.

A miner — not yet identified — was killed in a hoist car accident at Newtown Energy’s Eagle Mine in Kanawha County Boone County, according to Jama Jarrett, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. A second miner was also injured, but there was no immediate word on his condition.  Two other miners were also injured, one with minor shoulder and facial injuries and the other with minor head injuries, Jarrett said.

This is the 14th coal-mining death nationwide so far in 2009. It is the first since former United Mine Workers safety director Joe Main was confirmed last week as President Obama’s assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

Taking a quick look, the Eagle Mine is an underground operation that listed more than 200 workers and about 600,000 tons of production through the first three quarters of 2009, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Since opening in 2000, the Eagle Mine has consistently recorded an injury rate far worse than the national average — as much as three times higher — according to MSHA’s data. Last year, the operation was among those warned by MSHA to clean up its act or face tougher enforcement action for a “pattern of violations.”

Diana Peterson, a spokeswoman for MSHA, provided this update:

At approximately 7:00 am this morning, a hoist rope on a slope car broke at the Newtown Energy Inc, Eagle Mine.  One miner, age 53, located at the slope bottom, was struck by the hoist car, causing fatal injuries. Two other miners riding in the slope car when the hoist rope broke were also injured. Their injuries were not considered life-threatening.  The slope car was being hoisted out of the mine at the time of the accident. 

WVDEP confirms: Blasting starts on Coal River Mountain

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Coal River Mountain as seen from nearby Kayford Mountain. Photo courtesy of Coal River Mountain Watch.

The blogosphere was abuzz starting Saturday evening and continuing through the weekend with reports that Massey Energy had started blasting at its Bee Tree mountaintop removal operation on Coal River Mountain in Southern West Virginia.

If true, this would be big news — at least symbolically — because environmental groups who are trying to stop mountaintop removal have tried to turn this site into an icon in their campaign. They’ve even proposed that the area’s ridges would be better turned into a wind energy facility, rather than blown apart by Massey to get at its coal (See posts here and here for more about the wind proposal and criticism of it)

Matt Wasson of the group Appalachian Voices posted this announcement on The Huffington Post, and word quickly spread via Twitter and other blogs that cross-posted Wasson’s piece. Jeff Biggers followed up with another HuffPost piece yesterday morning.

It’s taken me most of the day, but I’ve finally gotten some confirmation from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection that Massey started blasting last week at this site. (Massey officials have not responded to several inquiries for comment).

I became especially interested when a glance at the WVDEP online database indicated that the Bee Tree site hadn’t been inspected by state officials for more than a month. Federal and state law requires at least partial inspections of all surface mines at least once a month.

But Kathy Cosco, WVDEP’s communications director, assured me via e-mail message that an inspection took place in early October, but just hasn’t been entered in the agency database yet. According to Cosco:

… A DMR inspector was at the site Thursday and two inspectors were at the site today. They said there have been seven blasts at the site, with the last one taking place on Thursday at 4:22 p.m.

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