Coal Tattoo

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… What I want to do is with West Virginia to figure out how we can seize that future. But to do that, that means there’s going to have to be some transition. We can’t operate the coal industry in the United States as if we’re still in the 1920s or the 1930s or the 1950s. We’ve got to be thinking, what does that industry look like in the next hundred years?

President Obama, speaking today in Baltimore, took questions from Republican members of the House of Representatives, including West Virginia’s own Shelley Moore Capito.

capito.jpgRep. Capito quizzed the president about his policies on coal. Here’s what she asked:

As you said on your — in the State of the Union address on Wednesday, jobs and the economy are number one. And I think everyone in this room, certainly I, agree with you on that. I represent the state of West Virginia. We’re resource rich. We have a lot of coal and a lot of natural gas.

But our — my miners and the folks who are working and those who are unemployed are very concerned about some of your policies in these areas: cap-and-trade, an aggressive EPA and the looming prospect of higher taxes. In our minds, these are job-killing policies.

So I’m asking in — in to — if you would be willing to re-look at some of these policies, with the high unemployment and unsure economy that we have now, to assure West Virginians that you’re listening.

And here is what President Obama said:

Well, I — look, I listen all the time, including to your governor, who’s somebody who I enjoyed working with a lot before the campaign and now that I’m president.

And I know that West Virginia struggles with unemployment. And I know how important coal is to West Virginia and a lot of the natural resources there. That’s part of the reason why I’ve said that we need a comprehensive energy policy that sets us up for a long-term future.

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In this Dec. 4, 2009 file photo, coal vendors load coal briquettes pounded from soft coal on to a cart at a coal depot in Beijing, China. China has set up a government agency headed by Premier Wen Jiabao to better coordinate energy policy, as the world’s second-largest power consumer faces growing domestic demand and struggles with shortages. (AP Photo/Elizabeth Dalziel, File)

We’ll have a short Friday roundup this week, as I’ve been pretty swamped covering the situation here in the Kanawha Valley at the DuPont Belle chemical plant (check out the coverage over at the Sustained Outrage blog).

I would welcome readers to point out their own news and commentary items on coal below in the comments section … Please include links!

If you missed it, the New Republic had a piece on West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd and his call for the coal industry to “embrace the future.”  In “Old Senator, New Tricks,” writer  Jesse Zwick concludes:

Byrd’s not about to become an environmentalist; even in his op-ed, he insisted that coal was here to stay. But he seems to recognize that the realities of global warming will force the country to rethink how it uses coal sooner or later and that the state’s companies aren’t playing a constructive role. (Blankenship, for instance, has criticized coal-heavy utilities in other states, like Duke Energy, for working with Congress on climate issues.) Byrd’s longtime mantra, according to political historian Robert Rupp, is that “It’s better to be at the table than on the menu.” And so he seems willing to spend what’s likely his last term in Congress getting West Virginia to realize that, in the end, obstructionism won’t serve the state very well.

Over at The State Journal, Pam Kasey had a great story headlined “North-Central W.Va. is Ground Zero for Surface Mine Coal Ash.” Pam explains:

On the eve of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decision about regulating coal combustion waste as a hazardous material, mine operators are spreading the substance extensively across north-central West Virginia.

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I post this link from The Wonk Room without further comment …

In a shameless act of greenwashing, a coal-gasification startup has named itself without permission after Dr. Seuss’s beloved Lorax. LoraxAg, LLC, is a western Massachusetts company that is seeking investors for its “Green Coal Technology” of a coal gasification and chemical production facility. The company, whose principals include Michael Sununu, the son of former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, has raised over $1 million in seed capital to build a high-sulfur coal factory. The name choice was a deliberate attempt to cloak their coal-and-chemical company as an eco-friendly venture.

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The latest anti-mountaintop removal tree sit protest has ended, according this statement just issued by Climate Ground Zero.

Two mountaintop removal opponents — Amber Nitchman, 19, and Eric Blevins, 28 — had entered their 9th day sitting atop oak trees at Massey’s operations in the Coal River Valley of Southern West Virginia. A third protester, 23-year-old David Aaron Smith, was originally part of the action but came down earlier when his equipment got wet.

This protest had drawn interest from The Washington Post and the attention of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. This was also the longest single action in the campaign of non-violence civil disobedience against mountaintop removal that started last February.

Activists ended the protest because of the recent drop in temperatures and the approaching winter storm.

EPA offers straight talk on coal permit ‘clarity’

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My buddy David Fahrenthold at The Washington Post this morning gave readers his take on the recent happening in coal country, with a piece headlined, “EPA crackdown on mountaintop coal mining criticized as contradictory.”

Here’s what we in the business call “the nut graph” —

 … To many people in Appalachia, the orders coming out of Washington, especially one this month, have appeared contradictory and mysterious, signing off on some mines and blocking others. Environmentalists are unhappy because they fear federal officials are losing their nerve to take on the powerful coal industry. The coal industry is unhappy because it thinks the administration is on the brink of giving in to the green crowd.

To each side, it looks like the EPA hasn’t made up its mind. Which would make now the time to yell as loudly as possible.

The story quotes WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman explaining his thought that EPA’s appearance of indecision on mountaintop removal is creating some of the bitter conflict here in the coalfields:

They didn’t have a well-thought-out plan whenever they did this. And that’s really been the basis of the uproar. [Confusion over the EPA’s intentions] creates fear, and that brings out the worst in people.

silva-new.jpgMaybe so.  But the part of the story that floored me was where the assistant EPA administrator for water, Peter Silva, took on directly and forcefully this idea that the industry and its coalfield political friends are just looking for the Obama administration to “clarify” what the permit requirements are going to be.  Said Silva:

The notion of ‘clarity’ invoked by some West Virginia officials and industry representatives has too often meant letting coal companies do as they please, with little or no consideration for the harmful impacts on Americans living in coal country.

Wow.  That’s and unusually straight-forward response from a federal agency. And don’t forget, this is a guy whose nomination to the EPA slot was briefly blocked by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. Sen. Byrd apparently lifted his hold on Silva’s nomination after he met with Silva.

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Here’s a statement West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin just issued regarding a meeting he had this morning with the folks from Climate Ground Zero regarding concerns about Massey Energy’s response to the anti-mountaintop removal tree sitters:

I want opinions on mountaintop mining to be heard in a respectful, open and lawful dialogue; however, no one person’s right supersedes another’s. The environmentalists this morning told me they admit they are violating the law by trespassing, but they are concerned that countermeasures taken by the property owner are endangering the health and welfare of the demonstrators.

I have asked the State Police and mine safety officials to investigate the tree sitters’ allegations that decibel levels are dangerously high, and we have contacted the county prosecutor’s office to determine if the land owners are in violation of any law.

If the police and prosecutor determine that the law is being broken, I am sure they will pursue that. Even if we disagree, I believe we can walk away respecting each other but everyone – including activists and property owners — must do so within the letter of the law.

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If West Virginia Congressman Nick J. Rahall will jump out of an airplane to show his support for the coal industry, you think he’s going to think twice about a little thing like joining a congressional caucus?

Of course not.

And indeed, Rahall’s office just announced that the congressman from Southern West Virginia has joined out state’s other two House members — Democrat Alan Mollohan and Republican Shelley Moore Capito — in joining the “Coal Caucus.”

As described by Capito’s office, the purpose of the group is to “provide a voice for coal communities in Congress.”  Not wanting to be outdone, Mollohan — who previously served as lawyer for CONSOL Energy — also joined.

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Pretty interesting news from our friends at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility:

For years U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publications and reports about uses and dangers of coal combustion waste have been edited by coal ash industry representatives, according to EPA documents released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Not surprisingly, the coal ash industry watered down official reports, brochures and fact-sheets to remove references to potential dangers and play up “environmental benefits” of a wide range of applications for coal combustion wastes – the same materials that EPA is currently deciding whether to classify as hazardous wastes following the disastrous December 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee.

PEER reports this week on documents it obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act regarding the Bush administration EPA’s formal partnership with the coal industry, most prominently, the American Coal Ash Association, to promote coal combustion wastes for industrial, agricultural and consumer product uses.  They concluded:

This effort has helped grow a multi-billion dollar market which the industry worries would be crimped by a hazardous waste designation.

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MSHA chief Joe Main just announced that his agency is going after 3 “scofflaw mine operators” in Kentucky for unpaid safety and health fines. Here’s the MSHA news release:

ARLINGTON, Va.The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) today announced that, on behalf of the secretary of labor, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Kentucky has filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky to collect $639,034.98 in delinquent civil penalties for violations at Double A Mining’s # 4 Mine and an additional $25,749.94 in unpaid civil penalties for violations at B King Coal Inc.’s #1 and #2 Mines.

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President Obama gave a nod to “clean coal technology” a few minute ago in his State of the Union Address.

In came in a passage about clean energy development:

… To create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.

The president continued:

I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. This year, I am eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate. I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy; and I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future – because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.

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Buried in a new Rolling Stone magazine profile of Obama EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson is some potentially huge news for coal mining in Appalachia … it seems that EPA has quietly begun re-examining the definition of “fill material” in its Clean Water Act rules and may make some changes.

But if you look closely at what EPA has said, it’s not clear that they’re really going to do what environmentalists would like to … we’re a long way from knowing if this is a big deal.

Here’s the deal: The Rolling Stone story, by Tim Dickinson, reported:

… Jackson tells Rolling Stone, the EPA is reviewing the infamous Bush “fill rule” that allows mining companies to bury streams and lakes with mining rubble in the first place. “Staff is working on it now,” she says. “We haven’t put anything about it out publicly.” Jackson says the primary goal is to reform gold mining in Alaska — where miners have begun dumping toxic waste into a pristine lake near Juneau — but adds that the move may also “curtail” mountaintop-removal mining.

I picked up on this in my friend Elizabeth Bluemink and her Pebble Blog for the  Anchorage Daily News (for more on what Alaska and the fill rule has to do with mountaintop removal, go back and read this Coal Tattoo guest blog by Derek Teaney), and her piece prompted me to check in with EPA officials, who gave me this statement:

EPA is currently considering administrative options for improving the Clean Water Act review of proposed mining related discharges in waters of the U.S., including discharges associated with hard rock (mineral) and coal mining.  Among the options, we are specifically evaluating potential revisions to the definition of “fill material” and clarification of how this regulation is interpreted and implemented.  EPA is coordinating with the Department of the Army and Corps of Engineers in this evaluation of our joint regulations.  The goal is to improve the Clean Water Act review of mining related discharges to reduce environmental, water quality, and human health impacts.  While we are eager to move ahead quickly with improvements in our CWA programs, EPA has not made any final decisions.  We anticipate that the process of revising CWA mining reviews will likely include the opportunity for public notice and comment to provide maximum transparency and public participation in our decision-making.

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Photo by Antrim Caskey

After introducing a resolution against congressional action on global warming a day after he met with coalfield residents to hear their concerns about mountaintop removal, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin might find it hard for folks to buy his line that he’s seeking calm in the coalfields.

But maybe that’s what Manchin is trying to do now … The governor has inserted himself  — or perhaps he’s been inserted, I’m not sure which —  into the ongoing dispute between Climate Ground Zero tree-sitters and their supporters, Massey Energy, and the State Police.

I’m told the governor plans a meeting tomorrow morning with the State Police and Raleigh County authorities to discuss concerns expressed by citizen groups that Massey’s security guards are harassing and endangering the protesters.

Recall that three protesters took to the trees at Massey’s Coal River Mountain operations last Thursday, the same day Massey CEO Don Blankenship debated Robert F. Kennedy here in Charleston. One of the three has since come down, but the other two are still there nearly a week later.

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Manchin blasts bill to deal with global warming

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You have to wonder sometimes what Gov. Joe Manchin is thinking … there he was yesterday, with all his talk about finding a “balance” between jobs and the environment. And the very next day …

Top lawmakers today introduced — at Manchin’s request — a resolution attacking efforts in Congress and by the Obama administration to tackle the global warming problem.

Larry Messina has more about this on his Lincoln Walks at Midnight blog, with links to a story by his Associated Press colleague, Tom Breen.

This is the kind of stuff I was talking about when I wrote the post, W.Va. Legislature: The race to stand up more for coal.   It’s about Gov. Manchin and the lawmakers who back this resolution making headlines and stirring things up. I’m surprised it doesn’t use the phrase “war on coal” in there somewhere.

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Manchin calls for calm in the coalfields

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Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Well, here’s the answer to the question posed on my previous post, “What’s Gov. Manchin going to say?”  For starters, Manchin emerged from a long meeting with coalfield citizens and issued a call for an end to threats and intimidation against West Virginians who are fighting to stop mountaintop removal:

We will not in any way, shape or form in this state of West Virginia tolerate any violence against anyone on any side. If you’re going to have the dialogue, have respect for each other.

Manchin also promised he would look into citizen complaints about lax enforcement of strip-mining rules by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, but he certainly wasn’t persuaded to drop his strong support for mountaintop removal. He said he told the citizens they would have to agree to disagree about that one.

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That was the scene at the West Virginia Capitol back in early November, when the stae’s political leaders turned out in force to join Gov. Joe Manchin in backing the mining industry against what they say is the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

This afternoon, Gov. Manchin is having a quite different meeting — one where folks like Bo Webb and Judy Bonds will give Manchin a contrasting view about the coal industry.  I understand that the citizen groups are also taking West Virginia University’s Michael Hendryx to brief Manchin about his work detailing the damage coal does to public health and its net-loss for the Appalachian region economically. The preliminary attendance list I saw also includes singer Kathy Mattea.

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Perhaps of interest to Coal Tattoo readers, a statement  from MSHA:

Underground fire traps 3 miners at Missouri lead-zinc operation

Miners retreat to refuge chamber, successfully rescued by mine rescue teams

ARLINGTON, Va. – A truck fire that broke out Jan. 21 at Doe Run Co.’s Viburnum #29 lead-zinc mine in Bunker, Mo., trapped three miners when their escape route became blocked by the 30-ton haulage vehicle.  The blaze, which erupted around 10:30 a.m. CST, prompted an immediate evacuation of the mine.  When mining officials discovered that three of the 16 working underground remained unaccounted for and uncommunicative, they activated the company’s two mine rescue teams.  Officials from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) arrived on the scene around noon, followed by a third rescue team from St. Genevieve, Mo.-based Mississippi Lime Co.

While rescue activities were underway, the three miners traveled 2,400 feet on their mining equipment to a designated refuge chamber – stocked with water and compressed air – where they waited safely inside.  Meanwhile, six members of Doe Run’s mine rescue team entered the mine from the surface through a 60-inch-diameter, 580-foot-deep ventilation shaft.  A portable, truck-mounted 36-inch-diameter rescue cage was used to lower the team members into the mine.

The team advanced approximately 1,400 feet, and, around 3:50 p.m., located the miners in the refuge chamber.  With the aid of a rescue escape hoist, the miners arrived at the surface between 4 and 5 p.m., and were transported by ambulance to Washington County Hospital in Potosi, Mo., for observation.  They were treated and released that evening.

The last of the mine rescue team members reached the surface at 5:30 p.m.  MSHA has launched a full investigation into the mine fire.

“I am deeply relieved at the successful rescue of the three miners involved in last Thursday’s accident,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.  “Furthermore, I could not be more proud of the efforts of the mine rescue teams, mining officials and MSHA.  The successful outcome is a testament to the dedication, hard work and constant preparation of these individuals.  My warmest thoughts and prayers go out to the families of these miners.”

“This outcome was exactly what we strive for in any mine emergency,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.  “It also reaffirms the value of these three components of a successful rescue: Every mine should have a proper emergency response plan in place, mine rescue teams should be available at a moment’s notice and the installation of refuge chambers can substantially increase a miner’s chance for survival.”

Hey folks … I’m going to be pretty busy covering another sad, tragic story.

A worker from the DuPont Co. chemical plant in Belle, W.Va., has died after being sprayed with poison phosgene gas.  You can follow updates on that story at the Gazette’s Sustained Watchdog blog.

So, if posts to Coal Tattoo are few and far between for a bit, please be patient.

Friday roundup, Jan. 22, 2010

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In this AP photo taken on Saturday Jan. 9, 2010, a cyclist pushes a bike near a power plant in Changchun, in northeast China’s Jilin province.

At least five miners have died after a mine flood today in northwest China. One other miner is still believed trapped.

While China’s coal industry is known for its deadly working conditions, some good news is that mining deaths there dropped by 20 percent in 2009. The AP reported:

Zhao Tiechui, the head of the State Administration of Coal Mine Safety, said accidents caused 2,631 deaths – a decline of 22 percent, or 584 deaths, from the previous year, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Wednesday.

That works out to 7.2 deaths a day from 8.8 in 2008. The number of accidents also declined.

By the way, the last time there were that many deaths in the U.S. coal industry was 1917.

The New York Times this week had a review of the movie  “The Shaft” (“Dixia de Tiankong”), which they described this way:

Set in a tiny coal-mining town in western China and arranged in three distinct segments, the film — which the Museum of Modern Art is showing as part of the touring exhibition, Global Lens 2010 — opens as a pretty young woman (Zheng Luoqian) is suspected of sleeping with her boss and takes refuge in an arranged marriage in Beijing. The second segment follows her unemployed brother (Huang Xuan), an aspiring singer, and his efforts to avoid the grip of the mine he detests. And in the final story their elderly father (Luo Deyuan) uses his retirement to pursue his own long-held dream.

There was more mine safety news this week from South AfricaUtah and Montana.

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West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is scheduled to meet on Monday with Bo Webb, a group of other coalfield residents, and perhaps some experts on coal’s impacts.

Bo asked for the meeting back in November, after Manchin held his closed-door summit with coal executives to come up with a strategy for combating the Obama administration’s “war on coal.”

The schedule I’ve seen calls for WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman and some other Manchin aides to attend.

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Blankenship vs. Kennedy II: Deconstructing the debate

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I’m sure Coal Tattoo readers are anxious to start weighing in on tonight’s big debate between Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship and environmental lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. So please have at it below in the comments section … just keep it clean and respectful of each other, and both Kennedy and Blankenship.

We’ve got tomorrow morning’s print story online now, and here’s the link to that. Here on the blog, I’m going to try to do a little bit of deconstructing, a little bit of fact-checking and just generally give some more perspective on what we all heard over across the Kanawha River in the University of Charleston’s Geary Auditorium.

UPDATED: If you missed it, the complete audio is available from West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

My guess is most of the commentary is going to say Kennedy won the debate. And let’s face it, Kennedy is a great public speaker and a very charismatic guy.  In a post-debate media briefing, even Blankenship admitted that public speaking isn’t his favorite thing — he says he’s a small-town guy, kind of shy and reserved. I don’t know about that, but Blankenship does sometimes mumble a bit and tonight he failed to really offer much of a detailed response to some of Kennedy’s major points.

debate6.jpgSeveral times, Blankenship expressed frustration as he tried to respond to Kennedy as bombarded him with a litany of problems Kennedy linked to the coal industry:

There is so much rhetoric that it’s tough to deal with in these kinds of discussions.

At the same time, Kennedy certainly was far from perfect and made a few statements that were just way wrong or don’t really hold water. A few examples:

debate5.jpg— Kennedy said that wind power provides 85,000 jobs, more than the 81,000 provided by the coal industry nationwide. As I’ve blogged before, that comparison is bogus. The wind industry figure includes construction jobs and manufacturing jobs (folks who make and built the turbines). But the coal industry figure, while accurate as far as it goes, does not include spin-off jobs, vendors, etc.

— Kennedy said that tens of thousands of miners — I think the exact number he used was 90,000 —  had lost their jobs since the 1950s, and none of them were forced out of work by environmental regulations. It’s always dangerous to use always or never … and in this case, anybody who follows the coal industry closely knows Kennedy was wrong. As Gene Trisko of the United Mine Workers testified to the U.S. Senate last year, the acid-rain provisions of the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 cost something like 30,000 jobs in the high-sulfur coalfields of places like northern West Virginia and southern Illinois.

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University of Charleston officials set up giant video screens for the overflow crowd at Thursday’s debate. Gazette photo by Chip Ellis.

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