Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, July 30, 2010

In this Dec. 3, 2009 file photo, a village woman collects leftover coal near a train loaded with coal at a coal mine in Dadong, Shanxi province, China. AP Photo/Andy Wong

Commentary and debate continued this week on the death of any meaningful legislation to address the climate crisis, and I thought I would pass on a few of the more interesting pieces I’ve seen.

First, there was this op-ed piece in The New York Times by Lee Wasserman, director of the Rockefeller Family Fund, which opined that, among other things:

IF President Obama and Congress had announced that no financial reform legislation would pass unless Goldman Sachs agreed to the bill, we would conclude our leaders had been standing in the Washington sun too long. Yet when it came to addressing climate change, that is precisely the course the president and Congress took. Lacking support from those most responsible for the problem, they have given up on passing a major climate bill this year.

You can’t help but wonder if West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller read this piece.

Eric Pooley, author of the book The Climate War, had a thoughtful piece over at the Yale Environment 360 site. And of course, Joe Romm had some interesting things to say on his Climate Progress blog, rightly blaming the media for its coverage of the legislation.

Speaking of climate change, there was some news out concerning last winter’s big storms. Andrew Revkin reports on his Dot Earth blog about a study clarifying what did and didn’t contribute to the events. Romm has more on this, putting this one study in some context.

In other coal-related news this week:

Politico reports on the possibility that President Obama would veto legislation aimed at blocking EPA from regulating greenhouse gases.

— W.Va. Public Broadcasting had the latest on efforts to tap into the Abandoned Mine Land Fund to help rescue the United Mine Workers’ pension plan.

Continue reading…

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency just posted a new guidance document for Appalachian strip mining on its Web site.

It’s called “Assessment of Stream Ecosystem Structure and Function Under Clean Water Act Section 404 Associated with Review of Permits for Appalachian Surface Coal Mining.”

Neither EPA nor the Army Corps of Engineers have formally announced the issuance of this guidance, which appears to have been posted pretty late on a Friday afternoon.

But the issues dealt with in the guidance are the same as those raised in a March 2007 ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers: Whether government agency reviews of mining permits adequately consider impacts on not just the “structure” of streams, but also the important ecological “functions” served by those streams.

That decision by Judge Chambers was subsequently overturned by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and was being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by environmental and citizen groups. (Recall also that there were very strong dissents issued in the 4th Circuit to that ruling overturning Judge Chambers).

The new guidance spells out two requirements concerning two important regulatory provisions:

First, a determination should be made concerning the nature and degree of effect the proposed discharge of dredged or fill material will have on both the aquatic ecosystem structure and ecosystem function, and

Second, compensatory mitigation requirements must be commensurate with this determination.

The guidance states:

Our shared goal is to reduce environmental, water quality, and public health adverse effects associated with surface coal mining and to ensure the effectiveness of mitigation for unavoidable impacts. Key to this effort, in our judgment, is improved availability of science-based tools to determine the ecological functions of high gradient streams.

Massey Energy has been making a lot of noise in its complaints about the way the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is investigating the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. (See previous posts here and here).

But in a ruling quietly issued last week, an administrative law judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration blasts Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co.”s handling of the matter. In denying Massey’s request for an expedited hearing on its complaints about MSHA’s investigation procedures, Judge Margaret A. Miller wrote:

I am concerned about the motives of  Performance in this case. Instead of focusing on the issue at hand and submitting legal authorities that entitle it to an expedited hearing, it uses this venue to attack the investigative techniques of MSHA, which are really not at issue here.

Performance’s documents exaggerate and misrepresent the facts, and make little attempt to address the legal issues that are being raised.

Instead, Performance treats this Court as a forum for grandstanding and, in doing so, attempts to interfere with the ongoing investigation.

I’ve posted a copy of Judge Miller’s decision here.

Really, I thought it was a pretty simple request. All I wanted was for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to give me copies of the hearing transcripts and the public comments submitted when the agency wrote its current “pattern of violations” regulations.

But it turns out that — despite what agency spokeswoman Amy Louviere said was an “exhaustive search” —  no one from MSHA can find the records …

Now, you remember the “pattern of violations” program. It’s the system through which MSHA can take tougher enforcement actions against mine operators who repeatedly violate health and safety standards. The program has come under much more intense scrutiny since the April 5 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, a repeat violator that MSHA couldn’t seem to figure out how to put onto a pattern of violations order.

One of the main issues surrounding the pattern of violations system is MSHA’s claim that mine operators are thwarting the system by repeatedly appealing citations and fines, clogging up the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission’s docket and postponing tougher enforcement through POV orders.

We’ve run through before the questions about some of MSHA chief Joe Main’s statements regarding his promised plan to reform the POV system.

As I’ve been reporting this issue, one of the things I was curious about was what exactly MSHA’s rules say and how they came to say that. In fact, the rules do state that MSHA, in determining whether a mine has committed a pattern of violations, will only consider citations and orders that “have become final,” meaning if they were appealed those cases have been resolved.

But it turns out that, back in 1989 and 1990, when MSHA wrote these rules (Congress gave MSHA the pattern of violations tool back in 1977, but the agency didn’t get around to writing rules for more than a decade, but that’s a different story) some interested parties warned that this language about “final orders” would be a problem. I’m quoting here from MSHA’s July 31, 1990, Federal Register notice announcing its final rule:

Under paragraph (b) of the final rule, MSHA will consider only final citations and orders when identifying mines with a potential pattern of violations. Some commenters objected to this approach in the proposal, while others agreed. The commenters who objected stated that there is no support in the legislative history for consideration of only final citations and orders. They were concerned that operators would be motivated to challenge every S&S citation and order, thus delaying application of the pattern criteria. The commenters who agreed with the proposed approach requested that MSHA consider only final citations and orders issued after the effective date of the pattern rule. These commenters stated that the decision to contest the majority of citations and orders is made by operators on the basis of a business decision that weighs the cost of appeal against the payment of the fine, rather than strictly on the merits of the citation or order. According to the commenters, the use of citations and orders issued prior to this rule to support a pattern notice would not have been a factor in the operator’s past evaluation of whether to challenge these actions.

MSHA responded:

The final rule specifies that MSHA will consider only citations and orders issued after the effective date of the rule that have become final to identify mines with a potential pattern of violations. MSHA believes that this approach will provide clear notice to mine operators of which citations and orders will be considered in identifying mines with a potential pattern of violations. Proper notice of which citations and orders will be used to identify mines with a potential pattern is of paramount importance given the extraordinary nature of the pattern notice.

So, MSHA was warned and these warnings turned out to be correct. But I wondered who submitted these comments. I wanted to read the full record, to understand MSHA’s reasons for writing the POV rules the way it did.

Two weeks ago, I asked MSHA for the public comments and transcripts of public hearings (one was held in Pittsburgh and one in Denver). I didn’t hear anything back, so I asked again yesterday.

MSHA’s Amy Louviere called me back, and she put on the phone Patrica W. Silvey, MSHA’s longtime standards director (she held that job back in 1990 when this POV rule was written).  Silvey told me:

We don’t have any records. We’ve looked.

Generally, MSHA would keep such records for at least five years, and then send them off to government archives, where they would be stored for at least 10 years. But even after that, Silvey said, documents that are considered “permanent records” — such as the hearing transcripts I requested — are kept, basically forever. Updated: Silvey clarified that she left the office of standards in 1998 and returned in 2006, and that MSHA believes the records in question here were sent to the archives sometime in the 2001-2002 timeframe, so she was not head of the office when that transfer was to have occurred.

But in this case, nobody can find the records of MSHA’s POV rulemaking.

It will be interesting to see how this is explained when a final report is issued by the Labor Department’s Inspector General, which is investigating MSHA’s handling of the POV program and has already criticized the agency for randomly removing companies from the list of those that might need tougher enforcement.

The Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Lisa P. Jackson has flatly denied a collection of petitions that alleged the agency’s scientific determination that global warming is real and is a threat to public health and welfare.

In a formal announcement, EPA said:

The petitions to reconsider EPA’s Endangerment Finding claim that climate science cannot be trusted, and assert a conspiracy that invalidates the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and the U.S. Global Change Research Program. After months of serious consideration of the petitions and of the state of climate change science, EPA finds no evidence to support these claims. In contrast, EPA’s review shows that climate science is credible, compelling, and growing stronger.

Among other challenges to the EPA findings, petitions were filed by several coal companies and industry groups, including the Ohio Coal Association, Peabody Energy Co., and Massey Energy.

The detailed EPA response is posted here, and this EPA page has a long list of scientific references that back up the agency’s findings. EPA also has a helpful “Facts vs. Myths” page located here.

Jackson said today:

The endangerment finding is based on years of science from the U.S. and around the world. These petitions — based as they are on selectively edited, out-of-context data and a manufactured controversy — provide no evidence to undermine our determination. Excess greenhouse gases are a threat to our health and welfare. Defenders of the status quo will try to slow our efforts to get America running on clean energy. A better solution would be to join the vast majority of the American people who want to see more green jobs, more clean energy innovation and an end to the oil addiction that pollutes our planet and jeopardizes our national security.

Last week, we were treated — along with the media at the National Press Club — to Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s comments that mining accidents sometimes just happen and are unavoidable.

And this week, we’ve seen several coal companies complain in their quarterly financial statements about increased safety inspections and enforcement following the deaths of 29 workers at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Patriot Coal reported earlier in the week that it’s experiencing increased costs related to safety issues, and International Coal Group said today that production is down because of “intensified” inspections and enforcement by MSHA.

But at least one coal company offered a little different spin on all of this … CONSOL Energy officials seemed to almost welcome the increased focus on safety. CEO Brett Harvey said, as he’s said before, that his company’s goal is zero injuries, illnesses and deaths:

We are committed to zero. Our people are committed to zero. Zero is a real number and we intend to drive the company toward that goal.

Nicholas J. DeIuliis, CONSOL’s chief operating officer, said that CONSOL spends about $200 million a year on safety efforts and compliance, but that all of those efforts also make the company more productive.

CONSOL, company officials said, views safety and production as going “hand in hand” and doesn’t expect increased scrutiny from MSHA — or a new safety law — to appreciably increase its costs.

Tragically, just an hour or so after CONSOL officials made their comments, a miner was killed at their company’s Loveridge Mine in Marion County, W.Va.

This death makes the question all the more important … compare the statements of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who says that sometimes mining deaths just happen, to those of CONSOL’s Brett Harvey, who says:

We don’t believe we’re perfect, but we believe we can achieve a perfect place when it comes to the safety of individuals.

Will the entire coal industry adopt Harvey’s goal?

The West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training just reported that a coal miner was killed this morning at CONSOL Energy’s Loveridge Mine near Fairview in Marion County.

According to agency spokesman Hoy Murphy:

It appears the miner was caught in a rib roll, which I’m told is when a block of left-over coal comes loose from the wall or ceiling. A preliminary report indicates he was a roof bolter who was working on the roof bolting machine when the rib roll pinned him against the miner machinery. The rib roll is estimated to have been four feet wide by 13 feet long and 6 to 24 inches thick along the length. His identification is not being released until his family can be notified. A Miners Health, Safety &Training inspector is at the mine this afternoon.

That makes 42 coal-mining deaths nationwide and 33 in West Virginia.


CONSOL Energy issued the following statement —

Jessie Adkins, 39, from Belington, W.Va., was fatally injured today around noon while working at CONSOL Energy’s Loveridge Mine, near Fairview, W.Va.

Mr. Adkins, a miner operator, working as a bolter, with seven years of mining experience, three of those at Loveridge Mine, was injured when coal and other materials from a section of the side of the mine entry, called the mine rib, collapsed and pinned him against a nearby continuous mining machine. No other miners were injured.

Continuous mining machines are used in underground coal mining to drive tunnels, known in the industry as entries, into the coal reserve for ventilation, movement of miners, equipment and supplies; transportation of mined coal or for development of longwall mining sections.

Federal, state and company officials are at Loveridge Mine to investigate the accident, and will issue a final report at a later date.

Mr. Adkins was taken to Fairmont General Hospital following the accident, and was pronounced dead at that facility. He leaves behind a wife, Melissa, and two teenage children.

This just in:

Senators Jay Rockefeller and Carte Goodwin (both D-W.Va.) today unveiled mine safety legislation to honor the fallen miners at Upper Big Branch and to promote a culture of safety in mining and other industries.

Senator Rockefeller previously joined Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee Chairman Tom Harkin in unveiling a draft proposal in June. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Nick Rahall and House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller.

The bill is posted here, with a legislative summary here. Recall that the House Education and Labor Committee passed its version of a mine safety bill last week.

Sen. Rockefeller said today:

I’ve fought my entire career to make sure that hard working Americans can go to jobs without fearing for their safety and I will not stop until this is a reality. Before his death, Senator Byrd and I worked together to develop the beginnings of this workplace safety legislation—which includes significant improvements for our coal mines. Even as the investigation into the Upper Big Branch mine continues to move forward, we owe it to the families, and to the miners that still get up and go to work each day, to find real solutions—fixing the process for safety enforcement at mines with repeated violations, providing MSHA with strong safety tools and holding them more accountable, and protecting our dedicated miners who speak up when they know safety measures aren’t being handled correctly.

Sen. Goodwin said:

As a lifelong West Virginian, I know how much coal mining means to our state and how important it is that our miners have a safe workplace. We were all devastated by the disasters that occurred at the Sago and Upper Big Branch mines. From my role in helping our state enhance its mine safety laws after the Sago accident, I know that Senator Rockefeller and the late Senator Byrd have worked tirelessly to create legislation to tighten safety standards and to make sure that our federal agencies have the resources necessary to the enforce mine safety laws currently in place. I am proud to take my experience on this issue and continue to fight for appropriate measures that will make sure that our miners operate in a safe work environment.

The folks down at Climate Ground Zero put out  this news release today, harshly criticizing Massey Energy for the company’s lawsuits against anti-mountaintop removal protesters:

Massey Energy has filed a politically motivated civil suit, also known as a Strategic Lawsuit against Public Participation (SLAPP) suit, against fourteen activists arrested last year in relation to a protest on a mountaintop removal mining site. The suit seems to be part of a larger strategy on the part of the mining company to intimidate and silence critics of the company’s safety record and controversial mining practices, particularly mountaintop removal coal mining.

Climate Ground Zero says Massey has already filed four such suits against activists who have taken part in peaceful civil disobedience protests against the company’s mountaintop removal mining operations in Southern West Virginia. I’m aware of several court orders meant to block these protests, including this one in state court and this one by U.S. District Judge Irene Berger.  The latest of the suits targets those who took part in this protest shutting down a dragline mining machine.

Continue reading…

One of the common complaints from coal industry folks here in Appalachia is that regulators and environmentalists come after them, but leave the huge surface mines of the west alone.

We saw recently this isn’t necessarily true, when a coalition of groups filed a petition seeking to for the U.S. EPA to put in place new air quality standards for coal mines, in large part because of dust from western coal operations.

Yesterday, there was another example, with this Associated Press story:

A conservation group has asked the federal Surface Transportation Board to reconsider its approval of a proposed $550 million railroad that would open new areas of Montana’s Powder River Basin to coal mining.

The Northern Plains Resource Council said in its request Monday that the board’s 2007 approval of the Tongue River Railroad failed to take into account how burning coal contributes to climate change.

The group wants a new environmental study of the rail line. Its petition to reopen the case is the latest in a string of legal maneuverings by environmentalists seeking to stall Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s push for a major expansion of coal mining in the state.

Continue reading…

The Charleston Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard has an interesting story in today’s Charleston Daily Mail regarding former Congressman Ken Hechler’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

Headline: Hechler backers express doubts

Ry writes:

Ken Hechler has the backing of key members of the environmental movement, but even they don’t necessarily expect him to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Hechler is running on a platform almost entirely devoted to ending mountaintop removal mining. The 95-year-old former congressman and secretary of state has long opposed forms of surface mining.

The danger for mountaintop removal opponents is that Manchin, a very popular governor, could easily defeat Hechler in the primary, for reasons that don’t necessarily have much to do with the coal industry.  Still, the victory could be portrayed by the industry as proof that mountaintop removal has strong support among state residents.

Hechler himself comments on this issue in this story by the Gazette’s Alison Knezevich:

If I lose, it will not be a defeat for mountaintop-removal [opponents] because there are other reasons for why people will vote for Governor Manchin.

But the real news this morning is that Ry got this line into a story in the Daily Mail:

Also, polls suggest a majority of West Virginians oppose mountaintop removal, a point Hechler is making as he begins to campaign.

For those who question this summary, I outlined the findings of the publicly available polling data on mountaintop removal in the comments section of this Coal Tattoo post a while back.

Unfortunately, Ry also let Gov. Manchin’s campaign get away with its standard line about seeking a “balance” between jobs and the environment, without explaining why the governor’s mountaintop removal legislation really hasn’t done much to achieve any sort of balance.

We’ve already had the 2nd quarter financial reports come in from Patriot Coal and Massey Energy … and now we’ve also got the latest results from CONSOL Energy and International Coal Group.

ICG reported:

Net income was $4.5 million, or $0.02 per share on a diluted basis, for the second quarter of 2010 compared to net income of $10.4 million, or $0.07 per share on a diluted basis, for the second quarter of 2009.

Net loss for the first half of 2010 was $4.4 million, or $0.02 per share on a diluted basis, versus net income of $14.1 million, or $0.09 per share on a diluted basis, for the same period a year ago.

And CONSOL said:

CONSOL Energy Inc. (NYSE: CNX), the leading diversified fuel producer in the Appalachian Basin, reported record revenue of $1.289 billion in the quarter ended June 30, 2010, or 20% higher than the revenue of $1.071 billion for the quarter ended June 30, 2009. The Coal Division contributed a record $1.002 billion towards the total, as compared to $841 million in the year-earlier quarter.

Adjusted earnings(1) for the second quarter were $103 million, or $0.45 per dilutive share. During the quarter, CONSOL Energy incurred acquisition and financing fees ($18 million) and a charge for the settlement of the Yukon litigation ($15 million). Additionally, certain non-cash charges were accrued for a Fola Mine reclamation project ($28 million).

Despite achieving record revenue in the second quarter, adjusted earnings were lower than the $122 million for the year-earlier quarter because of increased interest expense associated with the acquisition of the Dominion Appalachian E&P assets. As CONSOL aggressively drills its largely undeveloped Marcellus Shale acreage, the company fully expects to achieve superior earnings in line with its expected rising revenues.

I did a quick piece for the Gazette’s Sustained Outrage blog about EPA’s very quick turnaround this year in releasing federal Toxics Release Inventory data.

While I haven’t had a ton of time to analyze the new numbers, I did notice what appears to be a pretty large cut in statewide total air emissions of TRI toxic chemicals … something around 40 percent, if the preliminary EPA data turns out to be correct.

And, a big chunk of that appears to be coming from pollution reductions at some of the state’s largest coal-fired power plants — like the John Amos plant out near St. Albans, where total air emissions reported to the TRI program dropped by half between 2008 and 2009.

Other coal plants, all typically among the state’s biggest polluters, also showed big drops. They included some of the big facilities owned by American Electric Power and Allegheny Energy.

The reason? A combination of things is likely, power company officials say, including the economic downturn — which cuts demand for power — as well as new pollution control equipment on some of the plants and, probably, even a switch by some electricity buyers to natural gas.

During a conference call with industry stock analysts this morning, Massey Energy officials offered a few new tidbits regarding the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster beyond what was reported in the company’s earnings statement last evening.

As you may recall, Massey had previously reported the disaster — which killed 29 miners — would cost the company between $80 million and $150 million. In last night’s statement, Massey put a finer point on that figure:

The second quarter and first half 2010 results include pretax charges of $128.9 million in incurred costs, asset impairments and accrued reserves associated with the tragic accident at the Upper Big Branch mine (UBB) that occurred in April 2010. These charges include estimates for loss of equipment, investigation costs, workers compensation and other compensation and benefits provided to the families of the UBB miners, charges expected to be incurred for litigation, net of insurance proceeds and other related costs.

On industry analyst asked CEO Don Blankenship how firm Massey was on these figures, saying that concerns about big jury verdicts or especially hefty fines are “one of the number one fears in owning your stock.”  Blankenship responded:

We think we’ve captured a realistic number.

Continue reading…

This just in from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA:

The 2009 State of the Climate report released today draws on data for 10 key climate indicators that all point to the same finding: the scientific evidence that our world is warming is unmistakable. More than 300 scientists from 160 research groups in 48 countries contributed to the report, which confirms that the past decade was the warmest on record and that the Earth has been growing warmer over the last 50 years.

Based on comprehensive data from multiple sources, the report defines 10 measurable planet-wide features used to gauge global temperature changes. The relative movement of each of these indicators proves consistent with a warming world. Seven indicators are rising: air temperature over land, sea-surface temperature, air temperature over oceans, sea level, ocean heat, humidity and tropospheric temperature in the “active-weather” layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth’s surface. Three indicators are declining: Arctic sea ice, glaciers and spring snow cover in the Northern hemisphere.

… The report emphasizes that human society has developed for thousands of years under one climatic state, and now a new set of climatic conditions are taking shape. These conditions are consistently warmer, and some areas are likely to see more extreme events like severe drought, torrential rain and violent storms.

There’s a really important story by the great John Cheves in today’s Lexington Herald-Leader. Here’s the lead:

Several major coal companies hope to use newly loosened campaign-finance laws to pool their money and defeat Democratic congressional candidates they consider “anti-coal,” including U.S. Senate nominee Jack Conway and U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler in Kentucky.

The story notes coal operators are also looking to funnel corporate money to try to help Republican Spike Maynard defeat longtime Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall in West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district.

Which coal companies are behind these effort? Gosh, it’s International Coal Group, Massey Energy, Alliance Resource Partners and Natural Resource Partners. Cheeves cites a letter written to other coal companies by ICG general counsel Roger Nicholson:

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, we are in a position to be able to take corporate positions that were not previously available in allowing our voices to be heard,” wrote Roger Nicholson, senior vice president and general counsel at International Coal Group of Scott Depot, W.Va., in an undated letter he sent to other coal companies.

“A number of coal industry representatives recently have been considering developing a 527 entity with the purpose of attempting to defeat anti-coal incumbents in select races, as well as elect pro-coal candidates running for certain open seats,” Nicholson wrote. “We’re requesting your consideration as to whether your company would be willing to meet to discuss a significant commitment to such an effort.”

Continue reading…

I was just checking out a new article in Chemical and Engineering News about the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, when I stumbled upon the headline of a complete separate story:

Carbon Dioxide’s Unsettled Future: Technologies to reel in greenhouse gas emissions abound, but can’t move forward without policy actions.

Here’s how it started:

With world population climbing, and energy demand along with it, countries are trying to figure out how to minimize the global-warming consequences of carbon-based energy …

… The challenges are enormous: Because of the differences in energy resources, nations around the world have different abilities to shift away from fossil fuel and to adopt technologies that reduce CO2 emissions.

And many of those technologies are not moving as fast as they could be because of uncertainty in public policies to reduce CO2 emissions.

Among other things, the story quotes George A. Richards, focus area leader for energy system dynamics a the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory:

It’s not just a matter of solving technical issues.  It is a matter of cost and social acceptance. Cost remains a bottleneck for carbon-capture technology, and regulatory certainty is needed before investments will be made in large-scale sequestration.

Continue reading…

Coal industry officials turned out this week at federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement “open house” meetings to criticize the Obama admnistration’s efforts to rewrite the stream “buffer zone” rule.

The Lexington Herald-Leader reported on a meeting held the other day in Hazard, Ky., explaining the reasoning for a quite different sort of format for gathering public input:

Federal coal regulators wanted to make sure the public forum they called to discuss streams also flowed as smoothly as one.

After a series of contentious meetings about the divisive issue of mountaintop removal coal mining, there were new ground rules Monday at a toned-down open house on new Obama administration proposals to tighten water quality standards for Appalachian surface mines.

People on both sides of the issue were invited to stop by between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. at Hazard Community College, but there were no microphones or podiums. Rather, they were asked to put their thoughts in writing, dictate them to a stenographer or send an e-mail.

“We didn’t want this to become a riot,” said John Craynon, chief of the regulatory division of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. “Some of the previous meetings have turned into quite rowdy events, where folks on all sides of the issue felt threatened or intimidated. We wanted to set up an environment where we could actually hear from the people.”

Continue reading…

Massey Energy announced this evening that it lost nearly $89 million in the last three months, largely because of costs associated with the deaths of 29 miners at the company’s Upper Big Branch in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.

The Richmond, Va.-based coal giant’s 2nd quarter financial release is posted here, and the company will be having its quarterly call with industry stock analysts tomorrow at 10 a.m. You can listen in on the Web at this address.

Recall that in April, after the deadly explosion, Massey had this to say about the potential financial costs to the company:

Financial results for the second quarter 2010 will include a charge related to the tragic accident at the Upper Big Branch mine. While Massey anticipates further analysis will be required, the Company estimates the range of loss to be $80 million to $150 million for charges related to the benefits being provided to the families of the fallen miners, costs associated with the rescue and recovery efforts, insurance deductibles, possible legal and other contingencies. In addition, the full book value of equipment, mine and longwall panel development and mineral rights at the mine potentially impacted by the disaster is approximately $62 million. Massey will assess these assets for possible impairment once full access to the mine is restored but it does expect to recover much of the equipment.

In tonight’s news release, Massey said this on the subject:

The second quarter and first half 2010 results include pretax charges of $128.9 million in incurred costs, asset impairments and accrued reserves associated with the tragic accident at the Upper Big Branch mine (UBB) that occurred in April 2010. These charges include estimates for loss of equipment, investigation costs, workers compensation and other compensation and benefits provided to the families of the UBB miners, charges expected to be incurred for litigation, net of insurance proceeds and other related costs.

Continue reading…

The idea that mountaintop removal can be stopped in favor of underground mining is something that gets some traction now and again, especially by some folks in the environmental community.

But it’s worth remembering that the most efficient types of underground mining also take their toll on the environment (not to mention worker safety).  One of the best examinations of this issue was done a while back by the good folks at the Center for Public Integrity, who published a detailed expose called The Hidden Costs of Clean Coal.

And now, we have a new report just issued today by the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Citizens Coal Council, concluding that “Protection of Water Resources from Longwall Coal Mining is Needed in Southwestern Pennsylvania.” According to a press release, the report:

… Documents an internal administrative quagmire of illogical permit monitoring, baseless decisions, and lax oversight of coal operators by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP).

Key among the report’s findings is that despite improved data collection requirements and strong state constitutional and regulatory safeguards, the PADEP has failed to adequately evaluate and protect against threats to valuable Pennsylvania streams and watersheds adversely affected by the longwall “full extraction” method of coal mining. As a result, exceptional value and high quality streams are being lost to longwall mining.

Stephen P. Kunz, co-author with James A. Schmid of the consulting firm Schmid & Company, said:

Water resource protection is not happening because the regulations are not being applied and the laws are not being enforced.