Coal Tattoo

Catching up on last week’s coal news

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In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, rescuers head to the blast site at the Xinxing Coal Mine in Hegang of northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009. The number of dead in China’s worst mining accident in two years rose Wednesday after three more bodies were pulled out of the coal mine, state media said. China’s mine safety authorities have blamed crowded conditions, insufficient ventilation and slow rescue efforts for the high death toll in the gas explosion, which hit before dawn Saturday when 528 miners were under ground. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Wang Song)

f7f0215b5ea44ee890ff6069c8d000d8.jpgAn explosion last week in China killed at least 104 coal miners, according to the latest media reports. The disaster was another lesson for coal-hungry China, and media reports are blaming poor management and inadequate safety precautions. There was also word over the weekend of a flood that trapped 16 Chinese coal miners.

Closer to home, separate coal mining accidents in Kentucky and Alabama claimed the lives of two miners last week.

Leslie Trent, 37, died at TECO Energy’s Upper Second Creek Portals in Perry County, Ky. A second worker was also injured in the Tuesday accident, which involved a hoist boom falling during construction of a new mine shaft. The workers were employed by a contract firm, Frontier-Kemper Constructors. That same company was cited by MSHA in an August 2007 shaft accident that killed three people at a coal mine in Gibson County, Indiana.

And in Alabama, 53-year-old James Chaney died at the Jim Walter Resources No. 7 Mine near Brookwood, Ala. Early media reports, citing comments from MSHA’s public affairs office, were blaming the death on Chaney and another worker encountering an area of low oxygen during a fire boss run underground. A search for the two workers began late Monday night, and four rescuers were also treated at the hospital. When Chaney and the other worker, apparently a foreman, were found Chaney was non-responsive.

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I’m just back from a quick trip to the Capitol, to check in with 81-year-old Roland Micklem, who this morning began a fast aimed at trying to abolish mountaintop removal coal mining.

There’s more about this at the Climate Ground Zero Web site,  including an open letter in which Micklem writes:

I’m inspired and energized by the young people here at Climate Ground Zero, who at great personal risk are carrying on a campaign to stop mountaintop removal by nonviolent direct action. Despite the awesome challenge of climate change and other threats to the global ecology, there’s a new awakening among people and a renewed commitment to save Mother Earth from the excesses of our own species.

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Today, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement published in the Federal Register its rulemaking notice concerning the stream “buffer zone” rule.

As we’ve mentioned before, by taking this route — instead of publishing a proposed rule for public comment — the Obama administration assures that no action (at least in the form of a proposed rule) will be taken on the buffer zone rule until at least early 2011.

Today’s notice seeks public input on how the Obama OSMRE should rewrite the changes the Bush administration previously made to this important strip-mining rule. See previous coverage here, here, here and here.

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Charleston lawyer David Grubb passes out checks to jubilant miners Sunday at their union hall in Cannelton. Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Hey folks! Coal Tattoo is back online. Thanks for your patience, and for all the comments while I was out. I hope everyone had a good holiday.

I’m hoping to do a roundup later about a bunch of big coal-related news that happened in my absense.

In the meantime, make sure to check out my buddy Paul Nyden’s story today, “85 miners collect checks in Massey settlement.”  As Paul writes:

Eighty-five coal miners laid off from Cannelton Mining after Massey Energy took it over and renamed it Mammoth Coal gathered at their local union hall on Sunday afternoon. Each miner received a $38,000 check from Massey.

On Oct. 30, Massey agreed to pay $8.75 million to settle a lawsuit filed in 2006 in Fayette County on behalf of 229 miners and job applicants who were over 40 years old.

See previous coverage here, here and here.

Friday roundup, Nov. 20, 2009

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Well, folks, postings on Coal Tattoo are going to be pretty scarce for a week or so … I’ll be back online full-time after Thanksgiving. Hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday next week.

But first, one last blast with a roundup of coal-related news and commentary from the last week.

There were several stories this week that focused on efforts by West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller to stall consideration of the climate change bill while he works to get more in it to protect the coal industry. Those stories came from Politico and  The Hill.

Scientific American had a somewhat related piece titled, What will it take to force political action on climate change.  And thanks to Joseph Romm at Climate Progress for pointing out a Time magazine piece that pointed out that the science of climate change is growing much more dire as inaction to limit greenhouse emissions continues. Meanwhile, the Guardian points out that global temperatures could  rise by 6 degrees C by the end of this century.

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An interesting development just in concerning Massey Energy’s Bee Tree Mine, the Southern West Virginia operation where environmentalists had hoped to put a wind energy facility instead of a mountaintop removal job.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials are investigating the Bee Tree site, examining Massey’s operation there without first obtaining a “dredge-and-fill” permit under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act.

Yesterday, EPA regional officials in Philadelphia sent this letter to Massey’s Marfork Coal Co. subsidiary, seeking a long list of information about the Bee Tree operations.

Recall that Massey made a change in its surface mining permit from the state that the company apparently believed allowed it to — at least at this point — not need a 404 permit that could face EPA scrutiny before it would be approved by the federal Army Corps of Engineers. Massey had applied for a 404 permit, but then withdrew that application.

According to the new EPA letter, federal officials visited the site earlier this month and now are concerned that the site does need a 404 permit. The letter cautions Massey:

The activities underway at the site do not appear to have independent utility from the proposed mining project that is the subject of the Section 404 permit application. EPA is concerned that Marfork Coal Company may be committing signficant resources and conducting operations in reliance on a Section 404 permit that has not been issued. The Corps has not yet made a determination of jurisdictional waters and we have some concern that ongoing activities at the site could impact such waters if sufficient precautions are not exercised.

Updated:  Massey General Counsel Shane Harvey tells me the company has received EPA’s letter and is reviewing it.

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Joe Main, the Obama administration’s assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, held a conference call today to outline for the media his priorities for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Mine safety advocates have high hopes — and high expectations — for Main, the former longtime mine safety and health director for the United Mine Workers of American union.

I’ve posted a recording of the entire conference call, and you can listen by clicking on this button:

And here are a few highlights:

— MSHA plans action “fairly quickly — as in the “next couple of weeks” —  on a plan that Main said will end deadly black lung disease. Main said the standard limit respirable dust in underground mines needs to be tightened and that previous recommendations that MSHA do so will be part of this overall strategy.

— Along with that, Main plans to generally “beef up” the “health” part of MSHA, including staffing changes aimed toward those issues.

— MSHA will be focusing some efforts on the types of violations it finds to be leading causes of deaths in mines.

— Main plans to re-examine the changes in mine emergency response and rescue that have been made since the disasters at Sago, Aracoma, Darby and Crandall Canyon, and working to fill in “gaps” that still exist in those programs.

— MSHA will be taking a hard look at its training requirements and industry training programs, given the huge transition in the mining workforce, with lots of retirements and many new workers moving into the industry.

— Main plans to put a new emphasis at MSHA on seeing that miners can play a strong role in enforcement, perhaps meaning the agency will do more to stand up for miners who speak out against unsafe conditions in their mines.

— Main said he is taking no position on the S-MINER Act, a set of supplements to the 2006 MINER Act that has been pushed by Democratic leaders in Congress and the United Mine Workers.

And here’s a quote that sums up Main’s general goals for MSHA:

… I think that we in this country can achieve zero fatalities. When you look at what we’ve accomplished, I think that is entirely possible

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The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce is calling on the state’s congressional delegation — particularly Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockfeller — to refuse to advance health-care reform legislation unless or until the Obama administration stops what the Chamber calls a “war on coal/energy.”

In a press statement issued this morning, Chamber President Steve Roberts (above) says:

Since the start of the Obama Administration and the new Congress there has been a growing campaign against the mining and use of coal. This war against coal and domestic energy threatens our state and its citizens with increased poverty, lost tax revenues and economic disruption. This needs to end before irreparable damage sets in.

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Forty-one years ago today, 78 miners were killed in an explosion at Consolidation Coal Co.’s No. 9 Mine in Farmington, W.Va. The famous photo above was taken by longtime Gazette photographer Lawrence Pierce.

Readers might be interested to go back to last year’s Gazette, when my friend Paul Nyden wrote this story  to mark the Farmington disaster’s 40th anniversary. There’s also video, the front page of the Gazette from the day after the disaster, and we posted a copy of the official government investigation report and some analysis from Dr. Nyden’s dissertation of the Farmington disaste, all here.

And in today’s Gazette, new MSHA chief Joe Main has an op-ed commentary about Farmington, discussing the mine safety reforms that followed, and the other reforms that followed other disasters. Main concludes:

Each one of these remarkable legislative actions has saved countless lives and reduced the number of accidents, illnesses and injuries in the mining industry. Further improvements are needed, though, to achieve the health and safety goals that this nation’s miners deserve. We must continue our efforts to keep miners safe and healthy each and every day. The sacrifices of our fallen miners must never be forgotten.

Later today, we might get a glimpse from Joe Main about what “further improvements” he plans, when he holds his first discussion with the media since being confirmed by the Senate.

Stay tuned …

Manchin seeking to tighten his new energy law

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As a special session of West Virginia’s Legislature continues, lawmakers have passed two resolutions expressing their support for the coal industry, saying that:

… Recent events at the federal level, most notably the debate over “cap and trade” legislation in Congress and obscure regulatory actions by the Environmental Protection Agency, are casting a shadow of doubt and uncertainty over the future of the coal industry in West Virginia…

But lawmakers are also examining a little-noticed bill sent to them by Gov. Joe Manchin to make several changes in the Manchin energy bill passed earlier this year. The change are in HB 408 and the companion SB 4008.

Recall that Manchin’s bill was intended to require utilities in West Virginia to get a share of their power from alternative energy sources. But, some critics noted that the governor’s definition of alternative energy was so broad as to include just about anything.

The new bill is aimed at narrowing this definition a little bit, according to Manchin communications director Matt Turner. “We want people to use newer technology,” Turner said.

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capito.jpgCongresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has issued this statement about a meeting she had today with EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson:

I appreciated the opportunity to meet with Administrator Jackson to share my concerns about EPA’s role in approving mine permits in the Appalachian region.  Though broad disagreements remain, we had a cordial and substantive discussion.

I reiterated my concerns that the delay of these permits has real-world consequences on the economy and on West Virginia jobs. EPA decisions do not exist in a vacuum.

I also expressed my beliefs that continued uncertainty will only serve to hamstring miners and mining communities as they seek to plan and seek future investment in their local economies which depend on mining.

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State investigators have cited a mine reclamation contractor for alcohol-related violations in the July death of a worker who drowned in a sediment pond at the Samples Mine in eastern Kanawha County.

On July 28, Mark Allen Gray, 28, died when he ran his rock truck off a haul road and into a sediment containment pond. (See photo above from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration). Gray was employed by Hawkeye Contracting Company LLC, which was performing reclamation at the site for Catenary Coal Co.

According to the new state findings, a toxicology report revealed that Gray had “alcohol present in the blood at a concentration of 0.08 percent.” Also, the report found “inactive metabolite from the consumption of marijuana was also found in the blood.” The report also said Gray had “carried on his person an alcoholic beverage in the form of a beer and an intoxicant identified as marijuana.”

State mine safety investigators report:

One opened, empty 12-ounce beer can was found inside the … truck operator’s cab … after the haul truck was retrieved from the pond.

Foreman Phillip Rife stated on two previous workdays he had detected what he believed to be the odor of alcohol on Mark Allen Gray’s breath. Security guard, Joetta Bowling, who was employed by Appalachian Security, stated that she witnessed Mark Allen Gray placing unopened cans of beer in his lunch box at the start of a recent workday. She did not relay this information to any Hawkeye Construction Company, LLC, management person.

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OSMRE announces ‘immediate actions’ on MTR

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The Obama administration has just announced what it says are “immediate actions” being taken by the Interior Department to “strengthen oversight” state strip mine regulators and “to better protect streams affected by surface coal mining operations.”

One of these “immediate actions”?

Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement says it is going to publish an “advance notice of propose rulemaking” to gather views on how it should rewrite the federal stream buffer zone rule.

But wait … we already knew that — and we knew that this move by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar essentially delays any action to overturn the Bush administration’s weakening of the buffer zone rule until at least early 2011.

And, according to this release, the advance notice of proposed rulemaking  still hasn’t been published … the news release says it “will be sent to the Federal Register shortly.”

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This just in via a copy of an e-mail sent to Gov. Joe Manchin’s office:

As per our phone conversation I am writing to request a meeting with Governor Manchin.   Many of us are very concerned about both the short term and long term effects of mountaintop removal.

I would like to have a meeting with the Governor in order to express those concerns and provide facts as to why the Governor should also be concerned with this type of mining practice.

I would like to bring a total of no less than 6 people with me.  The people I desire to attend are Dr. Ben Stout,  Dr, Michael Hendryx, Jack Spadaro, Robert Kennedy Jr., Rory McIImoil, Judy Bonds, Janet Fout, Vernon Haltom.

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Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for Mine Safety and Health, has scheduled a conference call with news reporters for Friday to discuss his goals and concerns, and take questions from the media. It will be his first press conference or interview since being confirmed to run MSHA about a month ago.

I’ve previously blogged about What I would have asked him if  the U.S. Senate had bothered to have a confirmation hearing for Main. Let’s open this thread up and get more suggestions on what the media should ask Main during Friday’s conference call.

blankenshipap.jpgGazette business editor Eric Eyre has the story today that a 10,600-acre site beside the New River Gorge National River in Fayette County will become the permanent home of the Boy Scouts of America’s National Jamboree.

The Boy Scouts of America press release doesn’t mention this,  but Massey Energy Co. said today that it worked with the Boy Scouts to transfer mineral and surface property rights to the land that was acquired for the new Scouting site. Additionally, Massey Energy pledged a $500,000 contribution to support construction of the project.

The Massey press release says both of the company’s actions “were integral to moving the project forward.”

Massey Energy President Don Blankenship said:

The Boy Scouts of America will always have a home in West Virginia. We are pleased to contribute to the economic development of Southern West Virginia and the personal development of thousands of Scouts from across the nation.

And Jack Furst, a Boy Scouts executive board member and project leader, said:

This project is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Boy Scouts of America and West Virginia. We are so pleased to have partnered with Massey Energy to turn the vision into a reality.

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A new report out this morning from the group Physicians for Social Responsibility outlines an “assault on human health” by the mining of coal, the burning of coal and the disposal of coal’s waste products.

According to this new report:

Electricity provides many health benefits world-wide and is a significant contributor to economic development, a higher standard of living and an increased life expectancy.

But burning coal to generate electricity harms human health and compounds many of the major public health problems facing the industrialized world. 

Detrimental health effects are associated with every aspect of coal’s life cycle, including mining, hauling, preparation at the power plant, combustion, and the disposal of post-combustion wastes.

In addition, the discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere associated with burning coal is a major contributor to global warming and its adverse effects on health worldwide.

Among other adverse effects, the report links coal pollution to: Asthma, stunted lung development, infant mortality, lung cancer, abnormal heart rates or heart attacks, congestive heart failure, stroke and developmental delays.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is a non-profit advocacy organization that is the medical and public health voice for policies to prevent nuclear war and proliferation and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment.

They’ve posted their complete report, “Coal’s Assault on Human Health” here. It was being released this morning during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

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PATH update: Flurry of filings coming in to WV PSC

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Today was the deadline the West Virginia Public Service Commission set for all parties to the PATH power line case to make known their position and arguments concerning potentially delaying the case for more than seven months.

So, there’s a flurry of stuff coming in to the commission, and I don’t claim for a second to have read it all.

But I did notice that the power companies have extended their proposed delay in the proceedings for another month, to 247 days.  Under their new proposal, hearings would be held in October 2010, and a final decision issued by the WV PSC by late February 2011.

The PSC staff have sought to have the commission throw out the PATH application, and as I’ve discussed before (See PATH motions: More than just procedural stuff)  there are some interesting reasons behind that request.

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

For the first time in nearly 40 years, EPA is proposing to strengthen the nation’s sulfur dioxide (SO2) air quality standard to protect public health. Power plants and other industrial facilities emit SO2 directly into the air. Exposure to SO2 can aggravate asthma, cause respiratory difficulties, and result in emergency room visits and hospitalization. People with asthma, children, and the elderly are especially vulnerable to SO2’s effects.

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