Coal Tattoo

It’s possible that United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts and Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship will suck all the oxygen out of the room later today, when they appear before a Senate Appropriations Committee panel to testify about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

But it should also be interesting to see Sen. Robert C. Byrd grill Blankenship and the other witnesses. I’m told Sen. Byrd will attend for part of both of the hearing’s panels (one made up of government witnesses such as MSHA chief Joe Main, and the other made up of Roberts and Blankenship).  Sen. Byrd “is expected to ask tough and probing questions of all the witnesses,” a spokesman told me this morning.

Much of the focus is likely to be on Roberts vs. Blankenship … but remember, the topic of the hearing is:  Investing in Mine Safety: Preventing Another Disaster.

With that in mind, here’s hoping that lawmakers ask a few of these kinds of questions:

— Assistant Secretary Main, if the pattern of violations system isn’t working as a strong enough deterrent to repeated violations of mine safety and health standards, why isn’t your agency simply rewriting its internal criteria and scoring model, rather than going through the much longer process of a new rulemaking on POV?

— Assistant Secretary Main, why hasn’t your agency moved more quickly — perhaps through an Emergency Temporary Standard — to updated the hopelessly outdated rockdusting rules for underground coal mines?

— Assistant Secretary Main, when did your agency become aware of NIOSH studies which clearly show the need to mandate permissible electrical equipment only in intake airways of underground coal mines? And why haven’t you yet moved to make this necessary change?

— Dr. John Howard, director of NIOSH, when and how did your agency make MSHA aware of its research on the need to tighten rockdusting standards and mandate permissible electrical equipment only in intake airways? Why haven’t you done more to make public these research and to let lawmakers and the public know about inaction by MSHA on these important issues?

— Assistant Secretary Main and Dr. Howard, what are your respective agencies doing to get potentially defective emergency breathing devices out of the nation’s coal mines and to develop a newer, better such device for the future?

Those are just a few that come to mind … tune in at 2 p.m. to watch the Webcast on the committee Web site.

Stopping selenium: New EPA standards coming?

The Obama administration is apparently nearing completion of a proposal that would tighten the selenium discharges from coal-mining operations.

Release of a new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended water quality criteria for selenium is “imminent,” state Department of Environmental Protection officials said during a public water quality standards meeting this afternoon.

Some sort of EPA proposal has been in the works for years, but a Bush administration effort was widely criticized by scientists as weakening protections for aquatic life (See here and here).

Pat Campbell, a DEP water quality assistant director, said during today’s meeting that he has not seen specific numbers on what EPA will propose. But tighter limits on selenium have been among the measures the Obama administration has been considering as part of its crackdown on mountaintop removal.

Stay tuned …

Three new studies were issued today by the National Academies emphasizing why the U.S. should act now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and develop a national strategy to adapt to the inevitable impacts of climate change. The reports, by the Research Council, the operating arm of  the National Academy of Sciencies and the National Academy of Engineering, are part of a congressionally requested suite of five studies known as America’s Climate Choices.

Ralph J. Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said today:

These reports show that the state of climate change science is strong. But the nation also needs the scientific community to expand upon its understanding of why climate change is happening, and focus also on when and where the most severe impacts will occur and what we can do to respond.

Perhaps most important for readers in the coalfields — where some in  the industry continues to push the line that climate change isn’t real or is some made-up hoax — is the first of the reports, which describes the compelling case that climate change is occurring and is caused in large part by human activities. That conclusion, the report finds, is based on a strong, credible body of evidence. As the National Academies described in a press release:
While noting that there is always more to learn and that the scientific process is never “closed,” the report emphasizes that multiple lines of evidence support scientific understanding of climate change. The core phenomenon, scientific questions, and hypotheses have been examined thoroughly and have stood firm in the face of serious debate and careful evaluation of alternative explanations.

The report itself says:

Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.

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News from the Spruce Mine hearing

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Hey f0lks, I’m back from the big EPA hearing on the Spruce Mine, and we’ve got a complete report posted on the Gazette’s Web site here.

There’s more coverage from The Associated Press and The State Journal. I’m sure there will be more being posted tonight and early in the morning. And Coal Tattoo will have more to say about the hearing in the days to come … in the meantime, I welcome your thoughts … just please keep in clean and respectful.

This image provided by Rising Tide DC, shows a banner that was hung in the Palm Court of the Jefferson hotel as part of a protest during the annual meeting of Massey Energy at the hotel in Richmond, Va.,Tuesday, May 18, 2010. The environmental group said two group members were arrested after unfurling the banner that read “Massey: Stop Putting Profits Over People”. They were charged with trespassing and were expected to be released. (AP Photo/Kim Hyunh via Rising Tide DC)

Here’s AP’s dispatch from today’s events at the Massey Energy Annual Meeting:

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A mixture of union representatives and anti-mining activists gathered outside a historic Richmond hotel Tuesday morning to protest against a common foe — Massey Energy Co.

Hundreds of people sang songs, chanted and held signs across the street from the Jefferson Hotel, while Richmond-based Massey’s board opened its annual stockholders meeting inside. Their protests were focused on Massey CEO Don Blankenship, calling for him to resign or to be prosecuted on environmental and workplace safety issues.

The meeting has attracted more attention than usual because it comes six weeks after 29 miners died in an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The blast is the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years and has prompted an outpouring of criticism of Massey.

At least two people were arrested inside the hotel by Richmond police. Hotel officials declined to comment, and police did not immediately identify who was arrested or why.

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The Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration just issued a press release headlined:

MSHA outlines hearing process in investigation of Upper Big Branch Mine explosion

In its, MSHA tries to emphasize what it says are unprecedented efforts to make its investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster transparent.  Some of the new announcements, dealing with what MSHA is calling “public hearings” following that will occur after the actual investigation interview hearings — which are going on now in private — are over with:

— One of the public hearings will involve the questioning of witnesses
with knowledge of the mine, the mine operations and the explosion.
This public hearing will follow the procedures used by MSHA in the 1999 investigation of the explosion at Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Co.’s Gramercy Works Alumina Plant. MSHA has updated the guidelines to ensure unprecedented access for the public and the media, both in person and via streaming video on the Internet. MSHA will post testimony and evidence on its website and solicit contributions to the final accident investigation report via a public comment process.

—  Another public hearing will focus on technical aspects of the explosion based upon the physical examination of the mine and other evidence. MSHA will present the theory (or theories) it has developed during the course of the physical investigation, and will allow outside experts and the general public to comment on MSHA’s investigation and initial analysis. These comments will be reviewed by the investigation team and considered in the development of the final accident investigation report. All comments will be made public at the time the report is published. This hearing will also be open to the public and media and accessible on the Internet.

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Sisters-in-law Frances Ervin, left, and Doris Ervin, right, both of Castlewood, Va., listened to speakers during a prayer vigil held in front of Massey’s headquarters in Richmond, Va. Monday, May 17, 2010, for Massey miners killed at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine recently. They said both of their husbands died from health issues related to mining. (AP Photo/Richmond Times-Dispatch, Alexa Welch Edlund)

After a prayer vigil last night, protesters are gearing up this morning at Massey Energy’s annual shareholders meeting in Richmond, Va.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports:

After a raucous rally in Monroe Park, nearly 1,000 protesters marched up Franklin Street toward the Jefferson Hotel and the annual meeting of Massey Energy Corp. this morning.

The protesters are urging Massey shareholders to fire CEO Don Blankenship.

The AP had a preview of the shareholder protest moves expected at today’s meeting, and there’s a Webcast of the annual meeting here. Meanwhile, check out the latest National Public Radio report on the Upper Big Branch disaster here.

The last time the federal government held a public hearing on mountaintop removal, the results weren’t very encouraging — that is, if you believe that everyone should get their say and that public policy shouldn’t be decided by whoever yells the loudest.

Recall that last October, hundreds of coal miners and their families shouted, chanted and jeered every time anyone on the other side of the issue tried to speak at a hearing sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Corps officials did nothing to restore order or remove the offenders, and claimed later that the event had been “conducted in an orderly fashion.”

Today at 7 p.m. at the Charleston Civic Center, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to hold a public hearing on its proposal to veto the permit for the Spruce Mine, the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history.

We’ll see how tonight’s event goes — whether everyone on all sides can be a little more tolerant of views they disagree with, and whether EPA does a better job of keeping order than the Corps did last October.

It’s a little disappointing that EPA Regional Administrator Shawn Garvin refused to give media interviews leading up to the hearing — it would have been a good opportunity for a top EPA official not only to explain the agency’s actions, but to let citizens in West Virginia know that federal officials were doing all they could to see that tonight’s even would be safe and orderly.

Perhaps everyone who plans to attend would give a quick thought to these words from Sen. Robert C. Byrd regarding how Freedom of Speech Requires Tolerance:

… I encourage all of us to take a deep breath, exhale, and be tolerant of others views. Shrillness and violence will not move the debate forward – it will only attempt to undermine the type of freedom of speech that our Founding Fathers envisioned back in 1787 when they rose to that dramatic challenge of establishing what has become the greatest Republic in the world.

Will Massey lawyers get into the interviews?

In her big op-ed piece this weekend, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis made a pretty sweeping statement about the way her Mine Safety and Health Administration plans to conduct its investigation into Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster:

… I have made it clear that company officials and company lawyers will not be allowed in the room during interviews …

There’s just one problem: Based on MSHA’s own investigation interview guidelines — a document the agency has carefully not posted on its Web site or discussed publicly in any real detail — what Solis said in the op-ed simply isn’t true.

I’ve posted these guidelines here, so take a look … There are any number of ways that Massey’s lawyer can get into the interviews

The document makes a perhaps sincere, but nonetheless confusing, statement about this whole situation:

Massey Energy has acknowledged that its counsel is not providing personal representation to any company employee. The company and its attorneys thus will not be permitted in or attend interviews as the duly authorized legal representative of any employee witness.

OK … If that’s the case, then why did MSHA need to add a bunch of other language, describing situations where, in fact, Massey lawyers — or lawyers paid by Massey — would be allowed in the room?

— Right there at the top — If a “management witness” is being interviewed, they have a right to have their own “duly authorized personal representative and/or company legal representative” in the room with them.

— A personal representative who is directly or indirectly provided or paid by a third party including Massey Energy Company, may represent a non-management witness at an interview only if doing so does not in any way compromise the representative’s duty of loyalty, confidentiality, or professional independent judgment to the witness.

In this instance, the MSHA document then lists six different tests that must be met, including the witness having given their “informed and written consent” to having the company lawyer in the room, and the lawyer being prohibited from communicating with Massey about “the substance of the representation.”

But then, there’s this kicker:

MSHA may also permit such representation if it determines in other circumstances that the representative’s duties will not be compromised by such an arrangement.

That appears to give MSHA broad authority to allow company lawyers in the room based … why would the agency need to have that in the guidelines if, as Secretary Solis said in her op-ed:

… I have made it clear that company officials and company lawyers will not be allowed in the room during interviews …

MSHA chief Joe Main has filed his response to the efforts by his former employers at the United Mine Workers of America union and families of two miners killed at Upper Big Branch to force a more public investigation of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

I’ve posted a copy here, so you can read for yourself.

MSHA lawyers have filed a motion to dismiss — arguing that the families have no case that a court could possibly rule on — and also filed a response to the request for a temporary restraining order filed by the families and the UMWA.

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This just in from The Associated Press:

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — An explosion ripped through a major coal mine in northern Turkey on Monday, trapping 32 workers, authorities said.

The blast took place at the Karadon mine near the Black Sea port of Zonguldak. There was no immediate word on its cause. It was the third mine accident in Turkey in the past six months.

Gov. Erdal Ata of Zonguldak province said 32 workers were 1,770 feet (540 meters) below ground and there had been no contact with them since the blast.

“We are trying to reach them,” Labor Minister Omer Dincer said.

Engineer Husnu Unal said eight other workers who had been underground were rescued. Some of them suffered from smoke inhalation and were taken to local hospitals, authorities said.

Anxious relatives of the workers waited for news alongside dozens of ambulances at the mine entrance, the state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

Safety violations and outdated equipment have been factors in past mine accidents in Turkey.

In February, a methane gas explosion collapsed an underground chamber in a coal mine in northwestern Balikesir province, killing 13 workers. In December, a similar accident killed 19 miners in neighboring Bursa province.

In Turkey’s worst mining disaster, a gas explosion killed 270 workers near Zonguldak in 1992.

Here’s an op-ed piece by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis that appeared in the print edition of today’s Sunday Gazette-Mail:

In the past six weeks, I have made a number of trips to West Virginia to meet with the families of the 29 men who died at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Although there is nothing I can do to eliminate their pain and suffering, I can, as the nation’s top cop on the workplace beat, make sure that we learn the truth about what happened on April 5, and bring those responsible to justice.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration is taking an aggressive and unique approach to the Upper Big Branch Mine investigation — one that utilizes every possible tool we have to get the truth, ensure transparency and accountability, and preserve the ability of federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges if it is determined that crimes were committed.

Our dedication to transparency begins with the unprecedented number of public hearings we will conduct, including one where miners, contractors, mine officials and others with knowledge of the Upper Big Branch Mine will participate. We will use subpoena power if necessary to ensure that happens. Other public hearings will explore the technical aspects of the explosion, as well as allow family members of the deceased to voice their thoughts and suggest potential reforms in mine safety law. We also will host a town hall meeting to promote the exchange of ideas on how best to create a culture of safety — and practical ways to improve safety — at mining operations. These events will be open to the community, as well as to anyone else interested in justice and mine safety, via live webcasts.

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Friday roundup, May 14, 2010

Relatives and miners carry a coffin with their colleague killed after explosions at the Raspadskaya mine in the city of Mezhdurechensk in the west Siberian region of Kemerovo, Thursday, May 13, 2010.  (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

Mass safety inspections of all Russian coal mines were ordered this week, in the wake of two explosions at a Siberian mine that killed at least 66 workers and left 24 others still missing.

The search for the missing is apparently off for at least a week because of fears of more blasts.  Parts of the Raspadskaya mine are going to be flooded to try to force out methane accumulations.

Emergency workers rest during a break in searching at the Raspadskaya mine after it was hit by explosions, in the city of Mezhdurechensk in the west Siberian region of Kemerovo, Thursday, May 13, 2010. Rescue operations to find 24 workers missing in a Siberian coal mine explosion were suspended Thursday because of fears of a new blast. The Russian Emergencies Ministry said Thursday that the death toll from the explosions now stands at 66. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

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Federal prosecutors have confirmed that they are conducting a criminal investigation of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in that massive explosion last month.

We’ve got a first cut at a story on the Gazette Web site here.

The story is based on a letter from U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller and Assistant U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin to lawyers for the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration. You can read the letter here.

Most interesting is that the letter says the criminal probe includes examining violations at Upper Big Branch that date back to at least 2007, according to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission case numbers included as an attachment to the letter.

Stay tuned …

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua news agency, villagers wait outside Yuanyang Colliery Friday, May 14, 2010, a day after a coal mine accident in Puding County, Anshun City of southwest China’s Guizhou Province. The official Xinhua News Agency said Friday that 31 workers were in the mine when the blast happened Thursday night, and that 10 managed to escape. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Ou Dongqu)

Here’s the latest AP dispatch:

State media says the death toll in a coal mine blast in southwest China’s Guizhou province has risen to 21.

The official Xinhua News Agency said Friday that 31 workers were in the mine when the blast happened Thursday night, and that 10 managed to escape. It did not immediately give any other details.

Although safety conditions have improved in the last several years, China’s mining industry is by far the world’s deadliest, with accidents and blasts killing more than 2,600 coal miners last year.

More coverage from United Press International, the BBC, and the People’s Daily Online.

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Massey Energy today is continuing its efforts to shift public focus to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, with this press release calling for MSHA to retract statements made in a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article on the ongoing dispute over the use of scrubbers in Massey mines.

We had our own story on this issue earlier this week, and the bottom line seemed to be that, even with scrubbers, Massey was not complying with the limits for coal-dust exposure in its underground mines.

Well, next week, Massey CEO Don Blankenship will get a chance to have his say in Washington. Blankenship is schedule to testify to Congress for the first time since the April 5 explosion that killed 29 workers at his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

Blankenship is among the witnesses listed for a hearing on Thursday before a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that will focus on the need to provide additional funding for coal-mine safety.

If that’s not enough — Blankenship is listed to testify on the same panel as United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts … other witnesses include MSHA chief Joe Main, Department of  Labor Solicitor M. Patricia Smith, NIOSH Director John Howard,  and Mary Lu Jordan, chairwoman of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

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Federal investigators have determined that a page was removed from the “fireboss book” at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers were killed a month ago in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

That’s according to a new court filing by lawyers for the families of two of the miners who died in that horrific April 5 explosion in Raleigh County.

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials revealed this potentially important piece of information to the families of the Upper Big Branch miners during a closed-door meeting last week at Liberty High School in Beckley, according to the court documents.

Rachel Moreland and Mark Moreland, lawyers for the families of William I. Griffith and Ronald Maynor made this revelation public in a legal memorandum filed in the lawsuit in which they and the United Mine Workers seek to force MSHA to conduct its investigation of the disaster through a public hearing. The legal memo, filed today in U.S. District Court in Charleston, says this is what happened at that meeting last week:

After much prodding by miners’ families, MSHA admitted that the investigative team determined that one page of a fire boss book has been removed.

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Federal and state agency officials today completed their fourth day of closed-door interviews in the investigation of the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

While the interviews continued, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger has yet to schedule a hearing on a request from the United Mine Workers of America and families of two of the disaster’s victims that the interviews be opened to the public.

Judge Berger has given MSHA until Monday to file a response, an indication that a ruling isn’t coming at least until then … and meanwhile, investigative interviews continue — with MSHA and the state questioning their own mine inspectors about their actions at Upper Big Branch, all behind closed doors.

(Contrary to some reports, by the way, it is not especially unusual for federal prosecutors or the FBI to begin a criminal investigation in a mine safety case before the civil investigation by MSHA is finished … often, the civil and the criminal probes happen at the same time).

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Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., has secured an additional $22 million to help clear up the huge backlog of appealed enforcement cases pending at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

In a statement announcing the move, Sen. Byrd had this to say:

Last month, a horrific explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine took the lives of 29 West Virginia coal miners. We are learning that this was a disaster that should never have happened. That mine had been cited for hundreds of safety violations – citations that were appealed and ignored, and I dare say, were scoffed and laughed at by the guilty parties.

We must reduce the backlog of contested safety violations. Simply put, penalties must be paid, violations must be corrected, and the violators must be punished.

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Relatives mourn a miner killed in explosions at the Raspadskaya mine in the city of Mezhdurechensk in the west Siberian region of Kemerovo, Thursday, May 13, 2010. Rescue operations to find 24 workers missing in a Siberian coal mine explosion were suspended Thursday because of fears of a new blast. The Russian Emergencies Ministry said Thursday that the death toll from the explosions now stands at 66. (AP Photo/Sergey Ponomarev)

Here’s the latest:

MEZHDURECHENSK, Russia (AP) — Rescue operations to find 24 workers missing in a Siberian coal mine explosion were suspended Thursday because of fears of a new blast.

Nonessential workers and miners’ relatives were taken away from aboveground areas around the Raspadskaya mine because of safety concerns. One of the blasts at the mine on Sunday seriously damaged buildings on the surface.

The Russian Emergencies Ministry said Thursday that the death toll from the explosions now stands at 66.

A ministry official, Pavel Plat, told reporters at the mine that the concentration of volatile methane gas in the mine is rising and that several sizable fires are burning some 460 meters (1,500 feet) underground.

Plat said methane concentration at some points in the mine was 7 percent. A concentration of 1 percent is generally considered to be the limit of safe conditions.

“Our task now is to put out the fires and reduce the gas concentration, and only after this is done will we send people” to the area where the missing miners are believed to be, Plat said.

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