Coal Tattoo

Breaking news just in:

U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger has granted a preliminary injunction requested by Massey Energy against anti-mountaintop removal protesters.

I’ve posted a copy of the decision here. We’ll have more about this in the morning Gazette.

Updated: Here’s a link to our print story.

The Manchin administration today approved an air pollution permit for the Trans-Gas Development coal-to-liquids plant proposed for Mingo County, W.Va.

Officials from the WVDEP’s Division of Air Quality approved the permit and issued a Final Engineering Determination combined with a response to public comments.

As we’ve discussed on Coal Tattoo before, coal-to-liquids technology will generate twice the greenhouse gas emissions of standard gasoline, unless the production plants are equipped with carbon capture technology — which the Trans-Gas facility isn’t.

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Updated: Here’s a print story with more information on this SCSR recall.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration just posted a notice on its Web site announcing a joint investigation with NIOSH into a problem with CSE Corp.‘s self-contained self-rescuer units, the SR-100.

The MSHA notice says:

During a routine quality control test using a breathing simulator, CSE discovered that one SCSR delivered less than expected oxygen. A total of 4,017 units shipped from this lot may be affected. MSHA has requested CSE provide the serial numbers of affected units and the names of operators who purchased them.

MSHA posted a CSE “User Notice” which blamed the problem on “a possible issue with a component part … involving a shipment of oxygen cylinders from its supplier.” The company said:

CSE is investigating the potential that the breathing bag in the affected SR-100 units may receive less oxygen than the optimum amount of oxygen necessary for full inflation, if the unit is started with the oxygen cylinder.

The general public probably never heard of an SCSR (self-contained self-rescuer) before Jan. 2, 2006. But the importance of these little devices became all too clear as the Sago Mine disaster unfolded — and even more clear after Aracoma and Darby.

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CONSOL Energy might not be too keen on meeting water quality standards at its operations along Dunkard Creek in north-central West Virginia, but this “green” news about the Pittsburgh-based coal giant showed up in my e-mail inbox this morning:

CONSOL Energy Inc.’s  headquarters, located in Southpointe near Canonsburg, Pa., has become the first building in the business complex to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. Known as CNX Center, the 309,000 square-foot building was designed to be energy-efficient and compatible with the environment by including multiple features required for the LEED certification, such as public transportation stops close to the building, bicycle stalls for employees, an exercise facility and showers.

According to a press release from CONSOL:

During construction, local materials (obtained within a 500-mile radius), low chemical emitting paints, adhesives and carpet, and wood certified to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) standards were utilized. The project team also recycled more than 75 percent of all waste, diverting it from the landfill.

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Remembering Buffalo Creek

(A dog sits in Buffalo Creek hollow in the aftermath of the 1972 coal-slurry dam disaster in this photo by longtime Gazette photographer Lawrence Pierce)

Thirty-eight years ago today, a coal-slurry dam on Buffalo Creek in Logan County, W.Va., broke. A wall of water and coal waste — 30 feet high and 550 feet across — burst from the impoundment, and rushed more than 15 miles down the hollow, toward the confluence of Buffalo Creek and the Guyandotte River at Man.

The disaster killed 125 people, injured 1,000 and left 4,000 homeless.

Here’s part of  “Disaster on Buffalo Creek: A Citizens’ Report on the Criminal Negligence in a West Virginia Mining Community,” which we posted online back in 1997 as part of Voices of Buffalo Creek, a series to mark the 25th anniversary of this terrible disaster:

For the Buffalo Creek disaster, like the recent coal-mine fire tragedies at Farmington, West Virginia, and at Hyden, Kentucky, could have been prevented — it need not have happened. Clearly and simply, people living downstream from the Buffalo Mining Company’s coal refuse dam at Saunders were the victims of gross negligence.

In Appalachian — sometimes known as “the last white colony of western civilization” — absentee owners of the region’s vast energy resources and their subservient homebred and imported politicians time and again are to blame for mass death and destruction. Time and again, those most at fault throw up smokescreens to obscure their responsibility .

There is a basic question raised anew by Buffalo Creek, the latest assault by the coal operators in their long slaughterhouse in death, injury and disease: Whether the people of Appalachia and West Virginia can any longer afford this senseless destruction of their lives, their land, and their democratic institutions; or whether the ownership and operation of coal mines should be brought under democratic control to benefit all the people. All to clearly the tragedy of Buffalo Creek has torn away the mask, revealing the ugly truth that powerful coal interests dominate the government, the environment, and the West Virginia way of life to the detriment of all citizens. Discussion and action are needed now to transform King Coal, the tyrant, into Citizen Coal, the servant of all — before and not after another Buffalo Creek disaster.



The Sierra Club and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy just announced that they plan to sue CONSOL Energy to try to force the company to “stop releasing harmful pollution” into Dunkard Creek. According to a news release issued by the groups:

Consol’s own instream monitoring data show that for years chloride pollution from its operations has exceeded water quality standards. That pollution contributed to a toxic golden algae bloom that killed nearly all the aquatic life in a 35-mile stretch of Dunkard Creek last year on the Pennsylvania border with northern West Virginia.

This formal “notice of intent to sue” comes after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection blamed CONSOL’s mine discharges for the destruction of Dunkard Creek last fall.

In the legal notice, which I’ve posted here, the citizen groups note that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection authorized CONSOL’s pollution, repeatedly giving the Pittsburgh-based coal giant more time to clean up its discharges. (For more on that issue, check this long Sunday piece I did last fall and this blog post about the looming problem of conductivity water quality problems related to the coal industry).

Jim Kotcon, energy chairman for the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said:

… The compliance order issued by WVDEP continues a pattern by WVDEP of being too cozy with the industries they are supposed to be regulating. WVDEP did not consult with the public nor did they adequately protect the aquatic life in Dunkard Creek. CONSOL has been given one extension after another to comply with the Clean Water Act, and it appears that WVDEP is more concerned with protecting the industry than with protecting the environment.

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The New York Times published a major mine-safety related editorial today, commenting on this week’s House hearing in Washington on the backlog of enforcement cases at the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

You can read the editorial, Sago, Four Years Later, here, but this is the bottom line:

Sago occurred after Bush administration cuts eliminated scores of safety inspectors. That has been reversed, and President Obama’s budget calls for a 27 percent further increase in financing for the mine-safety agency.

The administration also must appoint more judges and staff members to the appeals board to clear up the backlog and ensure that violators swiftly face their deserved punishments. The Sago tragedy will be compounded if its long-needed reforms fall prey to fresh schemes by unscrupulous operators.

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New report: More water poisoned by coal ash


While the Obama White House continues to sit on a proposal to reform handling and disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants, a new report out this morning from the Environmental Integrity Project and Earthjustice details new information revealing 31 other sites around the country where coal-ash pollution has contaminated groundwater, wetlands, rivers and streams.

There’s a press release online and the entire report, Out of Control: Mounting Damages from Coal Ash Waste Sites, is also available.

The sites identified in the report bring the number of cases of water contaminated to more than 100 around the nation, when you add in the 70 that have been previously cited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (See this EPA report and this follow-up Federal Register notice).

Among the report’s highlights:

— Arsenic, a potent human carcinogen, has been found at 19 of 31 sits at extremely high levels, with one site found at nearly 150 times the federal water standard.

— At least 26 of these 31 sites report contamination that exceeds one or more primary drinking water standards.

— Twenty five out of the 31 sites are still active disposal sites.

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Following up on Monday’s big story about the growing scandal over falsification of  key safety records at Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine in north-central West Virginia, mine foreman John Renner has been charged by federal authorities. But keep in mind that Renner’s lawyer says his client is cooperating with authorities — and state mine safety officials believe the problems at Federal No. 2 go far beyond Renner.

Late Monday afternoon, federal prosecutors quietly filed an “information” in U.S. District Court in Clarksburg to charge Renner with making a false statement on a required safety report. Specifically, Assistant U.S. Attorney Angus Morgan charged that Renner:

… Did falsely state, represent, and certify that he had concluded an examination of the No. 27 block seal for the Federal No. 2 Mine when, in fact … [he] knew had had not made such an examination.

This is a felony under federal mine safety law.

Updated: A plea hearing for Mr. Renner has been scheduled for 2 p.m. March 10 in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge John S. Kaull.

But, the filing of charges through an “information” — as opposed to an “indictment” is generally an indication that the defendant is cooperating with federal prosecutors in a broader investigation.

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Frank Markosek-crandall

The Crandall Canyon Disaster left MSHA Inspector Frank Markosek with a long scar on his head. Photo by Al Hartmann/The Salt Lake  Tribune

My friend Mike Gorrell at The Salt Lake Tribune is one of the best coal journalists in the business. And he had a remarkable story this week, about the aftermath of the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster.

The story, For Mine Inspector, Tragedy Led to Misery, focuses on Frank Markosek, a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector who risked his life trying to save the six miners trapped deep inside the Murray Energy mine in the summer of 2007. Mike wrote it better than I ever could, so here’s what he reported about Markosek:

For his efforts, he has endured 2½ years of physical and mental anguish from injuries suffered when a mine wall blew in on the rescuers — killing three, wounding six — and from the bureaucratic nightmare that followed.

The experience has left the third-generation miner asking, “Why am I being punished because I didn’t die?”

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TRO against Massey protests extended

Photo by Antrim Caskey

U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger has extended through Friday at 5:30 p.m. her temporary restraining order against the anti-mountaintop removal protests that have targeted Massey Energy operations in Southern West Virginia for more than a year.

Berger extended her TRO and indicated she would rule before it expires on Massey’s request for a longer-term preliminary injunction against the protesters.

The decision was made after a roughly three-hour hearing in U.S. District Court in Beckley. (I did not attend the year, by the way, but checked later in the court records that are online).


Members of the House Committee on Education and Labor heard from all sides today about the growing backlog of citation and penalty appeals pending before the federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

We had a discussion the other day on Coal Tattoo about this issue prior to the hearing, and I’d certainly be interested in more thoughts from anyone who watched the hearing Webcast or read the testimony. (All that stuff is available on the committee Web site here).

To me, the bottom line was this testimony from Joe Main, assistant labor secretary in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

… The starting point for any analysis of the backlog is the obligation of mine operators to eliminate the conditions that lead to so many violations. With so many citations and orders issued, it is imperative that mine operators improve compliance. To do that, the mining industry must expand its health and safety management programs and more thoroughly and regularly identify problem areas, inspect mines and abate hazards in advance of MSHA inspections.

If MSHA can inspect workplaces and find these conditions, mine management should be finding them as well. If mine operators would take greater ownership of mine safety and health, it would be beneficial for all involved. Workers would be safer, the number of violations will be reduced, and penalties will go down. Instead of paying fines to the government, companies can invest that money back into ensuring the optimum health and safety at their mining operations.

That’s from Joe Main’s prepared testimony, which is available here. You can also watch the portion of his testimony he had time to prevent to the committee:

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Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., just issued the following statement about the federal criminal investigation of faked safety records at Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine:

This should be a sobering reminder to every operator and every miner that all the safety equipment, training and preparation in the world can be rendered ineffective once a decision is made to falsify safety records. A culture of safety must be vigilantly enforced by everyone from the boardroom to the bath house, or the whole system breaks down. Even in a mine like Federal #2, with its airtight emergency shelters, caches of oxygen and other safety devices, a miner is only as safe as the men he is working with, or working for, decides to be.


Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, right,  during a visit to Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine in northern West Virginia in August 2009.

We had an exclusive story in today’s Gazette print edition and online about major safety concerns at Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine up outside of Morgantown.

Federal prosecutors are actively investigating whether mine managers there falsified safety records to cover up explosive levels of methane in sealed areas of the underground operation.

This revelation is a bit inconvenient for Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who visited the mine last year and touted its fine safety record, and for MSHA chief Joe Main, because this is a United Mine Workers operation that is frequently held up as an example of the best the coal industry has to offer.

At the time of the Solis visit, Tim Huber of The Associated Press wrote:

Patriot’s Federal No. 2 is regarded by labor, industry and regulators as a well-run, safe operation. Like other West Virginia underground mines, it already has added airtight emergency shelters, caches of oxygen and other improvements required by the state after a pair of high-profile accidents killed 14 miners in January 2006.

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Massey, Alpha challenge EPA on greenhouse gases

I should know better than to count Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship out of any effort to stop the United States from confronting the challenge of dealing with global warming …

So, to make sure to give Blankenship his due, following my post this morning about challenges to the U.S. EPA’s “endangerment finding,”  I want to make special note that Massey Energy (along with Alpha Natural Resources) is a named petitioner in the Coalition for Responsible Regulation’s legal filing over the EPA action.

The Global Climate Law Blog has posted a copy of that petition here.

At least 16 lawsuits were filed before the Feb. 16 deadline to challenge the Obama EPA’s finding that greenhouse gas emissions threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations — the so-called “endangerment finding.”

This Greenwire report, brought to us via The New York Times, outlines the suits filed by, among others, the National Mining Association, the Ohio Coal Association and the states of Virginia and Alabama … I wonder what happened to the West Virginia Coal Association and our Gov. Joe Manchin, let alone Massey Energy and its CEO, Don Blankenship… UPDATED: Massey Energy is actually part of a petition challenging the EPA action. Read about it here.

But never fear, West Virginia’s interests are being stood up for by Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Robert C. Byrd.  The pair were among a group of coal state senators who signed this letter to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, urging Jackson to suspend any rulemaking on greenhouse gases so that Congress can consider comprehensive energy and climate legislation.

Rockefeller is pretty proud of his involvement in this letter. His office issued a news release (after the close of business) on Friday evening headlined, “Rockefeller Leads Challenge to EPA on Greenhouse Gas Regulations“. Among other things, Rockefeller said:

At a time when so many people are hurting, we need to put the decisions about our energy future in to the hands of the people and their elected representatives-especially on issues impacting clean coal.  EPA actions in this area would have enormous implications and these issues need to be handled carefully and appropriately dealt with by the Congress, not in isolation by a federal environmental agency.

MSHA: Oppegard critical of Joe Main initiative


We’ve had a good discussion here on Coal Tattoo about former MSHA staffer Celeste Monforton’s comments regarding the MSHA “Rules to Live By” campaign.

Now, MSHA chief Joe Main’s initiative is also being criticized by one of Main’s biggest supporters, longtime Kentucky mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard. Like Celeste, Tony was an MSHA staffer under Davitt McAteer during the Clinton administration. But Tony was also an outspoken backer of Joe Main getting the MSHA post under the Obama administration.

Jessica Lilly of West Virginia Public Broadcasting had the story on Friday, and you can read and listen to it here.  This is part of what Tony had to say:

There is a need for fundamental change in MSHA. We don’t need more slogans and compliance assistance. I understand that education is always a part of mine safety and that’s ok but to tout this major campaign, it’s really nothing different than anything we saw in the last 25 or 30 years.

We could have had two guys sit down in a room for 15 minutes and come up with the types of issues that are raised in this campaign.

Fola Coal update: Bad news and good news


Dec. 21, 2009 – Bickmore, W.Va. – Gov. Joe Manchin Joins Congressman Rahall, Congresswoman Capito, and Consol Energy miners to discuss the Fola mine located on the boarder of Clay and Nicholas Counties.

Well, CONSOL Energy dropped the other shoe this evening, announcing what it called a “restructuring plan” for its Fola Coal operations along the border of Clay and Nicholas counties here in West Virginia.

As announced, the move is terrible news for 157 coal miners who will be laid off effectively immediately. But, it’s also good news for 301 other workers whose jobs will be saved by the company’s plan.

We’ve got all the details in a story on our Web site (and for tomorrow’s print edition), and you can read CONSOL’s news release for yourself here.

Recall that back in December, CONSOL threatened to lay off nearly 500 workers because of a ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers that the federal Army Corps of Engineers had violated public involvement requirements when agency officials granted a Clean Water Act permit for Fola.

Coal industry supporters tried to capitalize on this development, citing it as proof that environmental lawsuits and regulations were putting good people out of work. But, as we have been through on Coal Tattoo, the reality in this instance — as in most of these disputes about coal — is a bit more complicated.

It turned out, for example, that CONSOL had already started the valley fill in question and — as company officials undoubtedly knew — all they had to do was ask Judge Chambers to stay his ruling if they wanted to keep operating.

Obviously, none of this is much comfort to the 157 families who are affected by these layoffs.  My heart goes out to them.

As part of the larger discussion about mountaintop removal and coal, though, it shouldn’t be ignored that CONSOL’s public statements today are much different than they were two months ago.

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TVA Coal Ash

Railroad cars line up at the Arrowhead Landfill at Uniontown, Ala., in this photograph taken Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2010. Each day the landfill accepts rail cars filled with tons of coal ash that was spilled during an accident at a Tennessee Valley Authority electricity plant at Kingston, Tenn., in December 2008. (AP Photo/Jay Reeves)

As controversy continues over the U.S. EPA’s still-unreleased proposed rule to reform coal ash handling and disposal rules, residents of Perry County, Ala., are planning to sue over the disposal of coal-ash from the TVA disaster at a landfill in their community. And at the same time, the Center for Progressive Reform published an interesting piece about the sorts of enforcement actions EPA could already take against coal-ash dumps without even writing any new rules.

apmexicominersMeanwhile this week, the families of some of the 65 coal miners who died four years ago in an explosion at the Pasta deConchos coal mine in Coahuila, Mexico, this week filed suit in U.S. federal court in Arizona, seeking damages from Grupo Mexico Inc. and related companies. According to a press release from the United Steelworkers union:

The miners were trapped underground on Feb. 19, 2006 when a powerful methane explosion rocked the mine in the early morning hours of an overnight shift.

Only two bodies were recovered in the immediate aftermath of the disaster before Grupo Mexico called off the search, infuriating family members unable to bury their dead.

The lawsuit alleges Grupo Mexico and the other corporate defendants failed and refused to take the necessary steps to prevent the disaster even though they were informed of unsafe conditions by the Mexican government and the miners themselves.

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It’s been a while, but we’ve written before on Coal Tattoo about the huge backlog of mine safety enforcement appeals filed by the industry in the wake of tougher penalties set up after the disasters of 2006.

Well, not the U.S. House Committee on Education and Labor, under the leadership of Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., has scheduled a hearing for next Tuesday on this issue. According to the committee announcement:

On Tuesday, February 23, [at 10 a.m.] the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee will hold a hearing to assess whether a backlog of mine safety enforcement actions are adversely impacting the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s ability to protect miners’ safety and prevent future tragedies, and to evaluate options to remedy the problem.

There is a rapidly growing number of mine safety enforcement cases currently pending before the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission (FMSHRC), a small independent agency which provides administrative trial and appellate review of contested citations, penalties, and worker retaliation cases. As the result of stepped-up enforcement and tougher penalties after a spate of mine tragedies in 2005 and 2006, mine owners tripled the number of violations they appeal and are now litigating 67 percent of all penalties. The backlog of cases FMSHRC must review has jumped from 2,100 in 2006 to approximately 16,000 today.