Coal Tattoo

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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Closer to home, I guess most folks thought the biggest coal news this week was the debate between Massey Chief Executive Don Blankenship and and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Coal Tattoo’s effort at deconstructing the event is here, and if you missed it, West Virginia Public Broadcasting has the audio online here. Other coverage was provided by Hoppy Kercheval at MetroNews, The Associated Press, The New York Times, Grist, the Daily Mail, and the U.K. Guardian. Please pass on any links to other coverage, and if you have a link to archived video, let me know.

Also, this interesting commentary from Jason Keeling’s A Better West Virginia blog:

When people demonize each other as “coal thugs” and “tree huggers,” they fail to see each other as human beings. The potential for collaboration and future planning is diminished. So long as these patterns of communication continue, the likelihood of economic and social progress will remain bleak.

Perhaps the Blankenship/Kennedy debate will mark a new point in West Virginia’s history, in which people start listening to and hearing each other on the future of coal. Perhaps they’ll start caring more for their southern county neighbors, both those who are impacted by mining’s environmental effects and those with few job options outside of the industry.

As a native West Virginian, I contend it is the moral obligation of residents to stop turning a blind eye. Instead, let’s further educate ourselves on the matter, let’s listen to all parties, let’s engage in the political process and let’s make the tough decisions that help ensure an economically diversified state, whose image is no longer characterized by peril, but by progress.

But frankly, to me, the much bigger and more important story for the Appalachian coalfields was the message carried in the Downstream Strategies report issued this week: That Central Appalachian coal production is projected to drop by as much as half before the end of this decade. That report is posted here, and our blog post and discussion of it is here. Please check it out.

In other coal-related news and commentary:

— The United Mine Workers of America union strongly endorsed Sen. Byrd’s legislation to help miners get black lung benefits.  The UMWA statement came after an article and editorial in the Daily Mail calling the measure “a job killer” and a”billion-dollar blunder.” No mention in the DM’s coverage that black lung has killed 10,000 American coal miners in the last decade, or that West Virginia has the highest black lung death rate in the nation. UMWA President Cecil Roberts said:

There is a way to end the need for black lung benefits entirely, and everyone knows what it is. That is for the coal operators to ensure that the dust levels in their mines are low enough to keep miners from contracting the disease. But that hasn’t happened, and now the disease is once again on the rise.

The fight to end black lung and provide benefits for those who have it is an ongoing struggle. And we still are opposed by apologists for irresponsible coal operators who cry about how much it will cost, just as they have whined about the costs of safety improvements in the mines that have demonstrably saved lives.

— Somehow, I missed this piece about the end of Roland Micklem’s fast against mountaintop removal coal mining, posted on the Climate Ground Zero blog.

An interesting story from the Denver Post about a dispute over mining and roadless area protections on national forest lands in Colorado.

— Here in West Virginia, CONSOL Energy announced it had complete the addition of a new belt haulage system at its Shoemaker Mine near Moundsville.

— While the EPA discussed cleanup options for the TVA coal-ash mess in East Tennessee,  the Center for Progressive Reform reported on how regulation of coal-ash is the first big test of President Obama’s commitment to health and safety protections.

— There were a couple of interesting reports about coal stocks here and here.

— Along with a piece on the Science article on mountaintop removal, the fine folks at Living on Earth posted a  Web Extra audio of their interview with WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman. And if you missed the study’s lead author, Margaret Palmer, appearing on the Colbert Report, you can watch it here.

Finally, I plan to blog some more about both of these after I’ve read them more closely, but I wanted to make mention of two new coal-related books that are officially coming out next week.

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First, there’s Dragline, a collection of photographs by my friend, independent journalist Antrim Caskey. Antrim has taken great personal risks and faced legal challenges from Massey to document mountaintop removal and the civil disobedience efforts by the folks from Climate Ground Zero.

The press release here  explains that Dragline is a “journalism advocacy project,” and that Climate Ground Zero will be distributing copies of the book to the news media and decision makers to publicize the impacts of mountaintop removal on Appalachian communities and the environment.

Also check out Antrim’s Appalachia Watch Web site, with information about her new Rock Creek School of Photography, here.

Next, Coal Tattoo readers are certainly familiar with the blogging work of Jeff Biggers on The Huffington Post, among other places. If they haven’t read his book, The United States of Appalachia, they should.

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And now, Jeff has a new book coming out called Reckoning at Eagle Creek.  Here’s the description:

Cultural historian Jeff Biggers takes us to the dark amphitheatre ruins of his family’s nearly 200-year-old hillside homestead that has been strip-mined on the edge of the first federally recognized Wilderness Site in southern Illinois. In doing so, he not only comes to grips with his own denied backwoods heritage, but also chronicles a dark and missing chapter in the American experience: the historical nightmare of coal outside of Appalachia, serving as an exposé of a secret legacy of shame and resiliency.

A new review from In These Times says:

Biggers takes it a step further and pokes holes in the promise of clean coal jobs. Modern coal mining is so mechanized that relatively few miners are needed to extract the coal. Strip mining, which companies do whenever seams are close enough to the surface, is heavy on huge machinery and light on actual workers.

Underground, long-wall mining that is most in use now takes just a few men to run a machine that grinds away at the coal face without leaving behind the pillars which miners once skillfully carved out to hold up the roof.

Biggers also says that promises of many billions of tons of coal still in the ground are misleading, since much of this coal is too deep to be mined. He says the country is in a state of peak coal, similar to peak oil, with reserves already significantly declining. In other words, he says, massive investment in “clean coal” technology, and staking towns’ and regions’ economic futures on coal, will become moot in the not-so-distant future as coal dwindles.

Biggers advocates a “GI bill for miners” wherein the government would subsidize training miners in “green jobs” including the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels. Like many environmental and civic groups, he dreams of reinvigorating the heartland’s once glorious industrial infrastructure to manufacture machinery and equipment for renewable energy. (Of course the aspects of globalization that led to off-shoring of the steel and auto industries –including vastly cheaper wages and lack of regulations abroad – are also competitive factors in wind turbine and solar panel manufacture).

Here’s a trailer for the book: