Coal Tattoo


Late last week, West Virginia citizen groups filed an update to their petition asking the federal Environmental Protection Agency to take over Clean Water Act permitting and enforcement from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

As you recall, the original petition filed in May cited a variety of problems with the way DEP is handling its duty to protect West Virginia’s rivers and streams.

This supplemental petition is more narrowed in focus: It blames the death of Dunkard Creek from a massive fish kill on WVDEP’s inaction on longstanding coal industry pollution problems.

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EPA releases reports on AEP coal-ash dam in W.Va.

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The site of the AEP Philip Sporn plant in Mason County, as seen from the air. The coal-ash dams in question are located along the river, south of the plant.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials have finally  made public the contractor’s report upon which they based their decision to require additional testing and warn the public about possible structural problems at two American Electric Power coal-ash dams in Mason County, W.Va.

The report by EPA contractors from the firm Dewberry is among three new documents made public today by federal officials, as part of their continuing probe of impoundments across the coalfields where utilities dump toxic ash from coal-fired power plants. EPA also made public a response by AEP and then a reply to that prepared by EPA contractors.

If you recall, EPA warned the public about concerns regarding the two  dams at AEP’s Philip Sporn Plant near New Haven on Oct. 29 — oddly enough, sending out the press release the day before AEP planned a huge celebration just up the road at its Mountaineer Plant to kick off a carbon capture test project there. But at the time of the press release, EPA refused to release its contractors’ report publicly. They did give it to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, and I asked WVDEP to provide it to me. But I haven’t heard back in response to that request.

Initially, EPA outlined its concerns about the two Sporn dams this way:

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 new documents show that EPA contractors had recommended the agency list the Sporn facilities as being in “poor conditions” and outlined these reasons:

The classification reflects concerns of the dam assessors about ongoing sloughing of downstream dikes, the ongoing occurrence of ground vibrations that could affect slope stability, the use of fly/bottom ash as a material of construction and foundation for the existing dikes, and a lack of stability analyses that address these concerns.

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International Coal Group announced this morning that it has settled a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance over valley fills at its Thunder Ridge Mine in Leslie County, Ky.

ICG says the settlement allows the company to move forward with the last of four valley fills proposed for the site. In exchange, ICG agreed to plant native hardwood trees on an additional 150 acres of mined land and contribute $50,000 to the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Foundation for stream improvement work in the Middle Fork Kentucky River watershed.

bhatfield12.jpgBen Hatfield, ICG’s president, said:

We are pleased to have successfully resolved the legal issues over the Corps’ Section 404 permit for Thunder Ridge. We look forward to continue working with the Corps to improve theprocess for reviewing and approving permit applications for both surface and deep mining in a timely manner.

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Friday roundup, Nov. 13, 2009

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This undated photo provided by the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance shows coal dust coming from the stacker reclaimer as workers watch at the Alaska Railroad’s Seward Coal Loading Facility in Seward, Alaska. Plumes of coal dust rise off the conveyor belt as the coal is scooped and loaded settling on boats, homes and the water. (AP Photo/Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance, Russ Maddox)

(I’m posting this week’s roundup of news and commentary early, as I’ll be away from my computer much of the day on Friday. Have a good weekend, folks. Ken)

This week, Associated Press writer Mary Pemberton reported this story from Anchorage, Alaska:

When the north wind blows in Seward, dust flies off a large pile of coal and covers the town’s scenic boat harbor in black grit.

“It is just very, very, very dirty. It piles up against homes. I get reports of it in windowsills, inside locked cars, inside boats. Folks come back after the winter and find piles of it inside their locked up boats,” said Russ Maddox with the Resurrection Bay Conservation Alliance.

That local group has tried for years to fix the problem, and now three conservation groups are threatening to file a lawsuit against Alaska Railroad Corp. and Aurora Energy Services LLC, alleging they are discharging coal without a permit into Resurrection Bay – a popular destination for summer tourists.


Coal dust covers snow on a boat in storage at Major Marine Tours’ in Seward, Alaska.

Trustees for Alaska, a public interest law firm representing the Alaska Center for the Environment, Alaska Community on Toxics and the Alaska chapter of the Sierra Club late last month issued a 60-day notice of intent to sue.

From China, the week brings more bad news, with reports that eight miners were killed and 11 injured in an explosion in a mine in Shizuishan City, northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. In a separate accident, six miners were missing after an outburst of coal and gas at the Majiagou coal mine in Tangshan City, north China’s Hebei Province. News of both accidents comes from the Xinhua news agency.

In Australia, the opposition party is arguing that “clean coal” has left that country behind, and probably will never work.

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The Cherry Mine Disaster

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A postcard shows the ruins of the fan building at the Cherry Mine.

One hundred years ago tomorrow, 259 coal miners were killed in a fire at the Cherry Mine in Cherry, Ill.

This was one of four major mining disasters that claimed the lives of more than 1,000 workers in a two-year period, and helped lead to creation of the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910.

Karen Tintori wrote a book, Trapped: The 1909 Cherry Mine Disaster, about the tragedy, and Jeff Biggers wrote a piece this week for The Huffington Post about the disaster. There’s also been coverage in the regional media, including the Peoria Star and the Chicago Tribune.


West Virginia’s Supreme Court ruled today in favor of Massey Energy in the big Harman Mining case and — in a politically related case — refused to force the release of e-mail messages between Massey Energy President Don Blankenship and former Justice Spike Maynard.

The ruling in Harman Mining is here, and the ruling in the Associated Press Freedom of Information Act case is here.

Updated, 5 p.m.:

Here’s a link to my buddy Paul Nyden’s news story.


You would be hard pressed to find a publication that’s more pro-coal than Bill Reid’s Coal News.

But even you Coal Tattoo readers who don’t like coal much at all should give it a look sometimes. Like this month, when it features an opinion piece that outlines a dozen reasons why “the coal mining industry and the coal-burning utilities share a well-deserved antipathy from the public at large.”

Among the reasons?

Coal mining industry resistance to abandoning mountaintop removal and valley fills, despite readily available alternatives. This is probably the most contentious current issue facing the industry.

So, is Bill Reid letting me write for him now? No. This piece, called “Coal, Energy Policy and Climate,” (starting on page 28) was written by Maurice Deul, a coal consultant who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Mines and the University of Pittsburgh.

Deuel writes that, “in the sixth decade of my involvement with coal research and affinity with the coal industry”  he wanted had “these observations to make concerning ssome of the causes” for the general public’s negative view of coal.

Some of the list go way back in time:

The historical record of coal workers battles for high wages and better working conditions, resentment of use of State Militia and U.S. Federal Troops to suppress miners’ demands; and the battle for ‘portal to portal pay.’

Others are pretty darned timely:

Continued failure of the coal-burning electric utilities (including the TVA) to find alternatives to ponding for  fly ash disposal.

And some show that the coal industry hasn’t come nearly as far as its PR agents would have us all believe:

The fact that miners continue to contract Black Lung forty years after passage of legislation to eliminate the disease through health regulation.

After his list (see the entire thing below), Deul concludes:

Not everyone is aware of all these issues, but experienced and knowledgeable coal people know that these are real attitudinal problems that the coal and electric power industries must overcome before they can achieve public acceptance.

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Massey Energy President Don Blankenship was on statewide radio here in West Virginia today, this time blasting the Obama administration for a wide-ranging list of efforts to toughen environmental regulations.

Among the things that made the list:  Reviews of proposed uranium mining, efforts to more strictly police factory farms, efforts to resume taxing chemical companies to pay for Superfund toxic cleanups, and consideration of taking steps to deal with water pollution from drilling in the Marcellus shale. Speaking on the MetroNews show Talkline, Blankenship even hauled out the old, out-of-context attack on then-candidate Obama’s comments that his proposals for addressing global warming would keep utilities and the coal industry from building new power plants that don’t capture their greenhouse emissions.

According to Blankenship:

It’s a widespread environmental movement acceleration that is causing, what I refer to as, a regulation-cession. We’re not in a recession, a typical, cyclical recession.  We’re losing our jobs to other countries because you can’t comply with the regulations that change constantly, are very expensive to comply with or that you can’t even get a permit.

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Former Vice President (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Al Gore’s new book “Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis,” has a full chapter on carbon capture and storage (CCS). And what he has to say will sound familiar to folks who have followed Coal Tattoo’s discussion of the possibilities — and pitfalls — of this technology.


The chapter begins:

The idea of  ‘carbon capture and sequestration’ is compelling. In theory, the world could capture all of the CO2 that is presently emitted into the atmosphere by fossil fuel electricity plants and sequester it safely in repositories located deep underground and beneath the bottom of the ocean. We could then continue to use coal as a primary source of electricity without contributing to the destruction of human civilization in the process.


The reality, however, is that decades after CCS was first proposed, no government or company in the world has built a single commercial-scale demonstration project capturing and sequestering large amounts of CO2 from a power plant.

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We know that strip mining is tearing up the beauty of our state. We know that strip mining is not a good economic future for West Virginia and not a good economic future for our children. And we know that, whatever advantage it has now, the damage that it leave is a permanent damage.

— Sen. Jay Rockefeller, 1972

The story is probably worn-out now, about how Jay Rockefeller lost that election, and then switched his position on strip mining. By 1977, Rockefeller was governor, and was urging Congress to allow an exemption to legalize mountaintop removal to strip-mining law then being written:

Mountaintop removal should certainly be encouraged, if not specifically dictated, by proposed legislation.

Back then, Rockefeller was among the West Virginia leaders who pushed hard for lawmakers to allow mountaintop removal instead of forcing all surface mines to be reclaimed to their “approximate original contour.”  As I wrote in one of the Mining the Mountains stories more than a decade ago:

Some members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation, including Sen. Jennings Randolph and Rep. John Slack, both Democrats, also argued that allowing mine operators to flatten out the hills would be good for economic development.

“In the state of West Virginia, we have a need for level land,” Randolph said in 1973. “We know that ofttimes surface mining can allow for the location of a school, an airport, or for housing – not one, but many homesites.”

But at the “media availability” after Gov. Joe Manchin’s big closed-door summit with the coal industry yesterday, Rockefeller focused on this issue again:

I think there are virtually no states in this country except West Virginia that has the degree of mountaintop removal that we do have. We need it, we can’t exist without it, because you can’t build a high school, you can’t build a house, you can’t build an industrial park without having a place to put it.

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Office of Surface Mining photo of surface mine blasting at an unidentified mine.

It’s been widely reported that Massey Energy late last month started blasting at its Bee Tree Mine on Coal River Mountain, the site where environmental groups have proposed a wind energy facility as an alternative to mountaintop removal.

But last week, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection quietly cited Massey subsidiary Marfork Coal Co. for using too large a load of explosives in its blasting operations at Bee Tree.

Here’s what the notice of violation, issued Nov. 4 by WVDEP inspector Sandra Duncan, said:

Blaster scaled to a gas well instead of the two-inch gas line that was closer to the blast. Failure to use the closest structure caused the allowed maximum weight of explosives to be detonated in any eight millisecond period to be exceeded.

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I caught part of the Veteran’s Day parade in downtown Charleston this morning, and I’ve been reading this New York Times story which contains some of the more grim news to come out of the Fort Hood massacre:

Fort Hood is still reeling from last week’s carnage, in which an Army psychiatrist is accused of a massacre that left 13 people dead. But in the town of Killeen and other surrounding communities, the attack, one of the worst mass shootings on a military base in the United States, is also seen by many as another blow in an area that has been beset by crime and violence since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began. Reports of domestic abuse have grown by 75 percent since 2001. At the same time, violent crime in Killeen has risen 22 percent while declining 7 percent in towns of similar size in other parts of the country.

And incredibly:

Since 2003, there have been 76 suicides by personnel assigned to Fort Hood, with 10 this year, according to military officials.

Coalfield communities and coal miners are no strangers to the military, with places like West Virginia historically sending — and losing — a larger share of their young people to foreign wars than other parts of the country.

But then, I read reports out in the last two days from Mother Jones and Climate Progress about the latest antics of one of Big Coal’s major lobby groups, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

According to Kate Sheppard at MJ:

The coal front group American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity has been in hot water lately for employing an astroturf group that forged letters to Congress opposing the House climate bill—and then for possibly lying under oath about their position. Now ACCCE is in trouble again—for misrepresenting the views of two major veterans groups in an email hyping coal’s role in energy security.

The email, sent in anticipation of Veterans’ Day, argues that coal can play a vital role in reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil and cites two groups—VoteVets and Operation Free. The problem: both of those groups are strong supporters of climate legislation—in part because of the national security threats posed by global warming—while ACCCE has been working energetically to undermine a bill.

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Manchin’s big closed-door coal industry summit

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I’m trying to figure out if Logan County Friend of Coal Art Kirkendoll got what he wanted out of today’s two-hour, closed-door meeting between West Virginia political leaders and executives of most of the state’s major coal producers.

We’ve posted a news story on the event, West Virginia leaders seek coal answers from White House, on the Gazette’s Web site. As the lead says, the outcome of the meeting is some sort of friendly agreement among Gov. Joe Manchin and the state’s congressional delegation to speak “with one voice” to try to clarify what the Obama administration is up to on coal policies.

Everybody seemed to agree with  the comments from the two coal executives Manchin invited to address the press in the Capitol during a “media availability” after the meeting — which was moved at the last minute from a public conference room in the Capitol building to the “party tent” Manchin had erected adjacent to the governor’s mansion for social events.


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This in from The Associated Press:

The state Public Service Commission is giving the parties involved in a multistate power line case until Nov. 17 to make their final responses on whether the project’s application should be dismissed.

The deadline was included in an order issued by the PSC on Tuesday.

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Gov. Joe Manchin and the state’s congressional delegation are sure to get an earful today when they meet with a herd of coal company executives and elected officials from coalfield counties.

But what do most West Virginians think about the ongoing debate over fighting global warming, reducing the impacts of mountaintop removal and moving toward cleaner production of energy?

I wondered that yesterday, as I was reading a post on Joseph Romm’s Climate Progress blog called, “Voters in Ohio, Michigan and Missouri overwhelmingly support action on clean energy and global warming.” Romm was describing the findings of a recent Pew Environmental Group survey that found:

Recent surveys of voters conducted in three swing states and five swing congressional districts find overwhelming support for a two-part plan to reduce global warming emissions and to require use of clean energy sources.

There is support in all three states for the combined proposal to reduce emissions and require clean energy sources. When asked, “Congress is considering an energy plan that has two key parts. One part would require factories and power companies to reduce their emissions of the carbon pollution that causes global warming by 17% (20% in MO) by the year 2020 and by 80% by the year 2050. The other part would require power companies to generate 15% of their power from clean energy sources like wind and solar by the year 2025. Would you favor/oppose this entire plan?”

  • 75% of voters in Michigan favor.
  • 68% of voters in Ohio favor.
  • 67% of voters in Missouri favor.

OK, what’s that got to do with West Virginia? Well, in that same post, Romm mentioned another survey that found:

63% of likely voters (and 59% of independents) in AK, AR, IN, ME, MI, MO, MT, NC, NV, ND, NH, OH, PA, SD, VA, WV support the bill.

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Just got off the phone with my buddy Gov. Joe Manchin … I admit to talking a little WVU football with him, but the main topic was today’s big summit with most of the state’s major coal operators.

I’ve been bugging Manchin’s communications director, Matt Turner, trying to get admitted into the meeting so I could tell Coal Tattoo readers what is said.  The governor’s office scheduled a “media availability” for just after the meeting, but what’s said in the meeting itself seems much more interesting– and newsworthy — to me.

Recall that the list of expected attendees includes Massey Energy President Don Blankenship, CONSOL Energy CEO Brett Harvey and International Coal Group President Ben Hatfield.  Two members of Congress will be there, as will county commissioners from the state’s major coal producing counties, and top officials from a dozen or more other coal companies. It’s a big deal to get all those folks in the same room, and it seems like the public ought to know what is said.

In my experience, the governor has been a pretty open guy, and he’s never been shy about answering my questions — or coming out to listen to folks who show up at his office to protest his strong support for the coal industry.

But not this time … Manchin says he doesn’t have a problem himself letting the press into today’s meeting. But, the governor said, he checked with coalfield county elected officials who asked for the meeting (meaning primarily Logan County Commissioner Art Kirkendoll) and was told the local officials wanted a private meeting.

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Where are all the coal ash dams?

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West Virginia inspectors discovered two coal-ash dams they didn’t know about at an American Electric Power site in Mason County.

A buddy who used to work for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was fond of saying the coal industry might as well be open with the public about mountaintop removal mining. “They haven’t figured out yet how to hide a strip mine,” my buddy used to joke.

Well, apparently that’s not true for coal-ash impoundments.

During an inspection sweep of West Virginia’s coal-ash dams, the WVDEP stumbled upon two such dams that they didn’t even know existed.  Both were located at the site of American Electric Power’s Little Broad Run Landfill, near its Philip Sporn Power Plant in Mason County, W.Va.

According to a report released last week by WVDEP:

The Little Broad Run site is designed as a fly ash landfill; however, design of storm water control measures resulted in the construction of two impoundments (Area 6 and Area 7) on the surface of the landfill. The height of both structures separately exceeds the 25 foot limit of the Dam Control and Safety Act.

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The New York Times reports this morning, in a story headlined, “No clear map for Democrats on path to new energy plan”:

Congress is unlikely, this year or next, to establish the “cap and trade” system for curbing carbon emissions that Mr. Obama and party leaders seek. Nor are world leaders at a climate conference in Copenhagen next month likely to strike a concrete deal to limit emissions in the name of curbing global warming.

The reason?

Though advocates insist that transforming energy policy will bring economic and environmental benefits alike, rising joblessness has amplified attacks from critics who deride Mr. Obama’s energy policy as a big-government “cap and tax” plan.

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West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin has scheduled what sounds like an “all-hands-on-deck” meeting of his coal industry friends for next week … Among the list of those invited and apparently likely to attend:

— Massey Energy President Don Blankenship, CONSOL Energy CEO Brett Harvey, International Coal Group President Ben Hatfield, top officials from a dozen other coal companies, and various lobbyists from the West Virginia Coal Association.

— U.S. Reps. Nick Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito, along with representatives of Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller.

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Friday roundup, Nov. 6, 2009

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There’s an incredible story out today in the Miami Herald about the boy pictured above, and other residents of a small Dominican Republic town where toxic coal ash was dumped. Here’s the lead, by reporter Frances Robles:

ARROYO BARRIL, Dominican Republic — Maximiliano Calcaño is 2 and was born with no arms.

“When I was pregnant, I was dizzy, vomiting and could barely walk,” said Maximiliano’s mother, Anajai Calcaño, 20. “My tooth cracked and fell out. Then my baby was born like that, without arms. Nothing like that had ever happened here before.”

By “before,” Calcaño means before a U.S. power company’s coal ash arrived at a nearby port, sitting there for more than two years.

She lives in a small wooden house with no indoor plumbing in a rural village in northern Dominican Republic, not far from where coal ash generated by Virginia-based AES Corp. wound up at the edge of the sea. More than 50,000 tons of coal ash laden with heavy metals was left at a port abutting local homes for years while the company, politicians, prosecutors, environmental activists and bureaucrats argued — and residents got sick.

The story goes on:

It has been six years since a contractor from Delray Beach brought the black dusty residue to the province of Samaná, and three years since the ash was cleaned up. Several civil lawsuits and criminal cases later, just when everyone thought it was over, the other shoe has dropped.

A civil lawsuit filed Wednesday in Delaware charges that toxic levels of waste dumped at the Arroyo Barril port has made people nearby sick. After years of repeated miscarriages, women whose blood levels show abnormal levels of arsenic are giving birth to babies with cranial deformities, with organs outside their bodies or missing limbs.

The case highlights the debate over coal ash, an unregulated byproduct of coal energy, which when processed and recycled is used in everything from cement to the foundation for golf courses. Popular Mechanics magazine this month calls a concrete made from coal ash one of the “10 Most Brilliant Products of 2009.”

The Miami Herald site also has video and you can read documents in the lawsuit and see more photos (like the one below, of the dump site) at this site, set up by a PR firm working with lawyers for the residents.


Photos by PRforLAW LLC

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