Coal Tattoo

Judge Chambers orders Patriot to treat selenium

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We’re just getting word about a major ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers in the case over selenium pollution from Patriot Coal operations in Southern West Virginia.

Ruling from the bench at a hearing this afternoon, Judge Chambers held Patriot’s Apogee Coal subsidiary in contempt of court for not meeting earlier deadlines to clean up selenium discharges from its Ruffner Mine in Logan County.

The judge ordered Patriot to install the FBR treatment system — which uses bugs that eat the selenium — within 2 1/2 years at Ruffner and also to install treatment within 2 years and 8 months at its Hobet 22 Mine along the Boone-Lincoln County line.

Judge Chambers also ordered the company to post within two weeks a $45 million letter of credit that would ensure the treatment systems are installed. The judge also plans to appoint a special master to oversee the situation.

See previous coverage of these cases here, here and here.


Here’s a link to today’s Gazette print story about Judge Chambers’ selenium ruling.

The Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard today previewed stepped up campaigns by Rep. Nick J. Rahall and his Republican challenger, Spike Maynard. The article highlighted a new television spot in which Maynard brags about being “for coal” and attacks what he calls the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” Says Maynard:

I’m for coal, that’s what this election is about.

Not mentioned? Maynard’s close relationship with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship … or Maynard’s stance on whether workers in the coal industry ought to be able to go to work every day without being hurt or killed on the job.

Remember that Maynard criticized then-Supreme Court candidate (and now Justice) Menis Ketchum for suggesting that coal miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield didn’t have to die in the January 2006 fire at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. Wrote Maynard, in an e-mail to Blankenship:

This one you gotta see — Aracoma is mentioned — you could have prevented it if you had only operated the mine properly according to Menis.

We now know, of course, that Massey’s Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty in federal court to 10 criminal charges, including one felony, and paid $2.5 million in criminal fines.  In the plea agreement, Aracoma admitted that one of the violations — the failure to replace a key ventilation wall — “resulted in the deaths” of Bragg and Hatfield.

And years later, 29 miners were killed in a massive explosion at another Massey mine. Federal regulators and mine safety experts say the deaths at Upper Big Branch were also preventable.

Rep. Rahall has co-sponsored tougher mine safety legislation in the wake of Upper Big Branch … will Spike Maynard say if he supports this legislation? Or, does he believe — like his friend Don Blankenship — that sometimes these things just happen?

The Obama administration this week kicks off its series of seven public hearing on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed rules to govern the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from the nation’s power plants.

The Knoxville News Sentinel covered the first of the hearings, held yesterday in Arlington, Va., and reported:

Environmental activists urged the federal government Monday to regulate toxic ash from coal-fired power plants as hazardous waste, arguing that federal standards are necessary because the states have done a poor job of regulating coal-ash disposal.

‘The threat that coal ash poses to human health is serious, and it is widespread,’ said Barbara Gottlieb of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonprofit advocacy group that works to protect the public from environmental toxins.

But road builders and other industries that use recycled coal ash in concrete, cement and other construction materials argued that labeling coal ash as a hazardous substance would devastate the recycling business. Furthermore, they said, there is no scientific proof that coal ash is a danger to public health.

‘We hope you will rule on science, not science fiction or political science,’ said Thomas Adams of the American Coal Ash Association.

Time and again, the starkly contrasting views about the dangers and benefits of coal ash played out like a point/counterpoint debate during the opening hearing on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to set federal standards for coal ash disposal.

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Both sides taking mountaintop removal issue to D.C.

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Earlier today, mountaintop removal opponents re-announced their plans for Appalachia Rising, a huge rally and day of action scheduled for Sept. 27 in Washington, D.C. According to today’s news release:

Appalachia Rising will consist of Voices from the Mountains, a movement summit on the weekend, and the Day of Action, on Monday. Voices from the Mountains will engage participants in critical dialogue on the movement for justice and prosperity in Appalachia. The Day of Action will unite thousands in a march and rally, including non-violent civil disobedience for individuals who choose.

Meanwhile, coal industry groups have announced their own rally in Washington, scheduled for Sept. 15:

The West Virginia Coal Association, Citizens for Coal, the Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security (FACES of Coal), as well as several allied citizen and coal advocacy groups, will participate in a press conference and gathering held on September 15 on the grounds of the United States Capitol. The gathering will celebrate the American Coal Miner and the contribution coal and coal mining make to our nation’s energy security and economic stability. Current regulatory challenges, coupled with ill-informed public opinion and damaging legislation are threatening the viability of coal mining throughout the United States and particularly in West Virginia.

I doubt I could count how many times Joe Main complained about secrecy at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration back when he was health and safety director for the United Mine Workers union. Now that he’s the Obama administration’s assistant labor secretary for MSHA, you can’t help but wonder if Joe is a little less concerned about the public’s right to know.

Just today, I received a certified letter from MSHA in which agency officials denied a Freedom of Information Act request that is pretty important — well, it’s pretty important if you believe the public has a right to know about potential coal company violations and what MSHA is (or isn’t) doing about them.

This request stemmed from a story I did with Gazette reporter Gary Harki about two potential criminal investigations launched by MSHA at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine back in 2009, months before 29 miners there died in an explosion.

In this story, we reported:

Twice last year, federal mine safety officials overseeing the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine launched special investigations that are frequently the starting point for criminal probes, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.

MSHA records list “preliminary special investigations” for the Upper Big Branch Mine, but do not explain how those investigations were resolved or if they were eventually referred to federal prosecutors.


MSHA’s Special Investigations Division focuses on examining potential knowing and willful violations that would be appropriate for criminal prosecution. The division also examines cases in which miners may have been discriminated against for reporting safety problems, dust sampling fraud, and harassment of MSHA inspectors.

It’s well know now that federal authorities are conducting a criminal investigation at Upper Big Branch, and it’s been made public that they are looking back at hundreds of violations going back four years.

In its letter denying my FOIA, MSHA cited Exemption 7(A) of the federal Freedom of Information Act, which allows agencies to withhold from the “records or information compiled for law enforcement purposes, but only to the extent that the production of such law enforcement records or information … could reasonably be expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings.”

The letter said:

… The two inspection events you requested are part of an ongoing enforcement proceeding and [are] being withheld at this time … Public disclosure of these case records would circumvent discovery rules, chill sources and encourage obstruction.

Gayle Manchin, left, listens as her husband West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin speaks to the media following a news conference at his campaign headquarters on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010, in Charleston, W.Va. Manchin defeated Ken Hechler and Sheirl Fletcher in a special election and will represent the Democrats in the November general election to fill the void left by the death of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

My buddy Hoppy Kercheval over at MetroNews has declared “mountaintop removal opponents” among the losers in Saturday’s special primary election to nominate candidates to fill Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s Senate seat. In his latest commentary, Hoppy opines:

Democrat Ken Hechler campaigned as a protest vote against the controversial mining technique. He got nearly 16,000 votes (17 percent), but put that in perspective. There were 840,844 Democrats and independents eligible to vote for Hechler/against mountain top removal and only 2 percent did.

If we’re counting how many of the eligible voters cast ballots, by the way, Hoppy’s friend and boss John Raese got only just less than 11 percent of his possible votes from registered Republicans across West Virginia.

On Hoppy’s Talkline show this morning, WVLY’s Howard Monroe offered a different perspective — that perhaps the 17 percent of voters who sided with Ken Hechler were the hard-core mountaintop removal opponents, folks to whom that issue is the only issue, or at least by far the most important one.

I’ve written before that Hechler’s self-proclaimed protest candidacy against mountaintop removal carried a political danger for citizen groups who are fighting the practice.  A huge win for Gov. Manchin seemed likely all along, and it has drawn the predicted reaction from one of coal’s biggest boosters in the state media (Hoppy).

But some of the polling data seems to back up what Howard Monroe was saying. For example, the nationwide 2008 poll on mountaintop removal reported that 56 percent of those surveyed opposed mountaintop removal. But only 17 percent of those strongly opposed the practice.

Friday roundup, Aug. 27, 2010

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An image made from a video released by Television Nacional de Chile via the Chilean government Thursday Aug. 26, 2010, shows one of the trapped miners waving at the camera. (AP Photo/Television Nacional de Chile)

I’m sure Coal Tattoo readers have been following the news out of Chile about the 33 miners trapped deep inside a copper mine.

The latest news, of course, is the video message from the miners that was released earlier today by the Chilean government:

The New York Times had a good roundup of various clips from that video message, and described the video this way:

The miners, who have been trapped for three weeks almost half a mile underground, appear in good spirits and reasonably good health in the new video images of them in their subterranean home.

The video, shown to family members late Thursday night and on Chilean national television, was recorded by a minicamera sent by the government in the plastic tubes being used to deliver food and other items through a hole about four inches in diameter.

In the 45-minute video the miners are shown shirtless, most with mustaches and beards. One miner, with his helmet light illuminating the area, tours the space where the miners are holed up and describes the conditions.

Several news organizations have posted parts of the new video online. Near the start of a clip uploaded to YouTube by The Associated Press (embedded above), one miner can be seen telling the rescue workers above: “It takes courage to not leave us abandoned. We know everything you’ve been doing outside.”

An older miner added this message: “I’d like to say hello to my grandchildren and all my family. Stay together.”

Alberto Segovia, brother of miner Dario Segovia, one of the 33 miners trapped at the San Jose mine, lights candles outside the mine in Copiapo, Chile, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010.

There has obviously been tons and tons of media coverage of this story, including a piece from the Christian Science Monitor about safety standards in Chilean mines:

But as a team of diggers, doctors, and psychiatrists focuses on a mammoth rescue effort that could take up to four months, the nation is grappling with how this happened, and how to prevent such a collapse in the future.

“Chile has a free-market economy where the first principle is to maximize profit without any other consideration. We need to take other things into consideration, including worker security,” Augustin Latorre, spokesman for the Mining Federation, an association of 22 unions at private mines, said in a telephone interview. “The state should offer, in particular in mines, the necessary security measures and inspections. We aren’t demanding that mines be closed, but that they be secure.”

Sandro Rojas Carrizo reads a letter he just wrote to his brother Esteban, one of 33 miners trapped at the San Jose collapsed mine in Copiapo, Chile, Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010.

There’s other coverage from Time magazine, The Guardian, NPR, and this from The Associated Press via the Seattle Times:

While 33 men trapped in a mine cling to hope that they’ll get out alive, the company that put them there says it can’t afford to pay their salaries and may go bankrupt.

The San Esteban mining company is in such bad shape that it has neither the equipment nor the money to rescue the men; Chile’s state-owned mining company is digging the escape tunnel, which will cost about $1.7 million.

In the days after the Aug. 5 tunnel collapse at the San Jose gold and copper mine, company leaders defended their safety measures but have since remained silent, and attempts to reach anyone at San Esteban were not successful.

Lawyers for the small mining company said this week that with the mine shut down and no income, the company was at a high risk for bankruptcy.

Lilianette Ramirez, wife of miner Mario Gomez, holds the first letter retrieved from her husband who is trapped in the collapsed San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, Tuesday Aug. 24, 2010.

Several people have asked me about the “refuge” or “chamber” in which these miners survived, but my understanding is that this was an area cut into one of the mine tunnels and stocked with supplies, rather than a hardened refuge chamber like the ones now required in American coal mines.

In this combo of undated photographs released by Diario Atacama are seen the 33 miners who are trapped alive in the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile since it collapsed on Aug. 5, 2010. Top row from left to right are Alex Vega Salazar, Ariel Ticona Yanez, Carlos Andres Bugueno Alfaro, Calros Barrios Contreras, Carlos Mamani Solis, Claudio Antonio Acuna Cortes, Claudio David Yanez Lagos, Daniel Esteban Herrera Campos, Dario Antonio Segovia Rojas, Edison Fernando Pena Villarroel and Esteban Alfonso Rojas Carrizo. Second row from left to right are Florencio Antonio Avalos Silva, Franklin Lobos Ramirez, Jimmy Sanchez Lagues, Jorge Hernan Galleguillos, Jorge Ricardo Ojeda Vidal, Jose Samuel Henriquez Gonzalez, Juan Andres Illanes Palma, Juan Carlos Aguilar Gaete, Luis Alberto Urzua, Mario Nicolas Gomez Heredia and Mario Sepulveda Espina. Third row from left to right are Omar Orlando Reygada Rojas, Osman Isidro Araya Acuna, Pablo Amadeos Rojas Villacorta, Pedro Cortez, Raul Enriquez Bustos Ibanez, Renan Anselmo Avalos Silva, Richard Reinaldo Villarroel Godoy, Samuel Dionisio Avalos Acuna, Victor Antonio Segovia Rojas, Victor Hermogenes Zamora Bugueno and Johny Barrios Rojas. (AP Photo/Diario Atacama)

In coal mining news and commentary this week:

— The New York Times reports that Democrats in Appalachia are running away from the Obama administration’s coal record like their political lives depend on it.

— Here in West Virginia, the Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard reported that Gov. Joe Manchin skipped a Senate candidate debate to attend a campaign fundraiser hosted for him by a coal operator.

— The AP, via Business Week, reported on the TVA’s consideration of idling some of its coal power plant fleet.

— Via The New York Times, Greenwire reports that The Obama administration has urged the Supreme Court to toss out an appeals court decision that would allow lawsuits against major emitters for their contributions to global warming, stunning environmentalists who see the case as a powerful prod on climate change.

— The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media had an interesting piece (quoting yours truly) about coverage of carbon capture and sequestration.

— In Kentucky, there was a report from the Herald-Leader that At least four entertainment acts have refused to perform during the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games because a coal company is one of the major sponsors.

— We also had two Associated Press stories about surprise inspections at the nation’s coal mines.

One recounted an MSHA news release that warned against tipping off underground miners to the arrival of agency inspectors. The other was more interesting, detailing the results of some of these surprise inspections, as described in another MSHA news release:

The inspectors found numerous violations including failure to follow the mine’s approved ventilation plan, inadequate roof support, and accumulation of combustible materials.

MSHA chief Joe Main commented:

The conditions found at these mines, discovered when MSHA worked to thwart any advance notice, underscores the importance of the program information bulletins on ventilation the agency recently circulated throughout the mining industry, as well as the need for the legislative reforms pending before Congress.

Howard Berkes at NPR blogged about this, pointing out a previous NPR piece by Frank Langfitt about tipping off inspectors and noting these interesting comments from National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston objecting to the MSHA inspection sweeps and news release about them:

Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman at the National Mining Association, said MSHA’s response has been overly aggressive considering that most mines have a safe track record.

“MSHA’s high public profile on this inspection technique is offensive to the vast majority of U.S. mines that are trying their best to comply with all safety requirements and to improve miner safety,” Raulston said.

Finally, several media outlets — including the Herald-Leader, the Courier-Journal and the Harlan Daily Enterprise — had stories about miner Scott Howard winning his safety discrimination case against Arch Coal. For those who aren’t familiar with his story:

Charles Scott Howard played the video for officials at a meeting in Lexington in July 2007, as regulators considered new rules on mine seals in the wake of explosions that killed 17 men in Kentucky and West Virginia in 2006.

Mine seals are meant to block off water and deadly explosive methane gas in unused parts of mines. Inadequate seals were implicated in both blasts.

The reaction was swift after Howard showed the footage he had shot at the Cumberland River Coal Co. Band Mill No. 2 mine.

Federal inspectors went to the mine that day and ultimately cited alleged safety violations related to seals.

In short order, the company put a discipline letter in Howard’s file.

The company claimed Howard had created an unsafe condition by taking a camera underground, and it said he had violated a company policy on taking photos.

However, that was just a pretext to discipline Howard because company managers were displeased that he had videotaped the seals, Administrative Law Judge T. Todd Hodgdon said in his ruling.

Howard’s actions were protected by the federal mine-safety act, said Hodgdon, a judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

The judge said disciplining Howard could have made him or other miners apprehensive about documenting hazardous conditions.

As Ellen Smith pointed out on The Huffington Post, it was a bittersweet victory:

Howard was just seriously injured in a mine accident July 26 while doing clean-up work in another one of Cumberland’s mines in Virginia. He had been hospitalized in an intensive care unit with a serious head injury, but released to go home on July 29.

Best wishes to Scott Howard for a speedy recovery. Thanks to HuffPost, here are the videos he shot:

There’s been another flurry of news reports this week about the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, including our Gazette story about at least four of the families settling potential wrongful death cases with Massey Energy.

Tim Huber over at The Associated Press churned out one story about methane bubbling up from the floor of a flooded section of the Upper Big Branch Mine and another piece about a handheld methane detector discovered by investigators in the mine’s longwall section.

Let’s break these two bits of information down and provide some context for what they might — and might not — mean.

First, the methane bubbling up from the mine floor.  The AP story cited an interview with MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin, and said that Kevin had “discounted [the] significance” of the methane bubbles.

I talked to Kevin about this matter as well, and that’s not what he told me. In fact, I asked him about Tim Huber’s story, and this is what he said:

I don’t want to say it [the methane bubbling] doesn’t concern me. It is something we are looking at.

I wondered if MSHA officials were hesitating to say much about methane bubbling up through the mine floor, for fear of setting off another round of Massey’s claims that the disaster was an unavoidable act of God.  Kevin assured me that wasn’t the case, and said his agency wasn’t focused on what Massey’s PR machine was or wasn’t doing:

They’re going to do whatever they’re going to do and say whatever they’re going to say.

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New report documents more coal ash contamination

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As the Obama administration prepared to begin the public hearings on its proposed regulation of the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash, environmental groups today are releasing a new report that documents more water contamination from ash dumps across the country.

The report, by the Environmental Integrity Project, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club, documents 39 additional coal-ash dump sites in 21 states that are contaminating drinking water or surface water with arsenic and other heavy metals.

Experts from those groups found that, at every one of the coal-ash dump sites equipped with groundwater monitoring wells, concentrations of heavy metals such as arsenic or lead exceeded federal health-based standards for drinking water, with concentrations at the Hatfield’s Ferry site in Pennsylvania reaching as high as 341 times the federal standard for arsenic.

This new report comes after a February 2010 report by Environmental Integrity and Earthjustice that documented water contamination from 31 coal-ash dump sites in 14 state. See New report: More water poisoned by coal ash. It also adds to the nearly 70 other sites previously identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at Earthjustice, said:

There is no greater reason for coal ash regulation than preventing the poisoning of our water. We now have 39 more good reasons for a national coal ash rule. the mountaing number of contaminated sites demonstrates that the states are unable or unwilling to solve this problem.

Environmental groups want to see the Obama EPA take a more aggressive stance, and choose to more closely regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste (for more discussion of the alternatives being considered by EPA see Obama EPA punts on coal ash regulations.

Jeff Stant, director of the Environmental Integrity Project’s Coal Combustion Waste Initiative, said:

The contamination of water supplies, threats to people, and damage to the environment documented in this report illustrate very real and dangerous harms that are prohibited by federal law but are going on in a largely unchecked fashion at today’s coal ash dump sites. Contamination of the environment and water supplies with toxic levels of arsenic, lead and other chemicals is a pervasive reality at America’s coal ash disposal sites because states are not preventing it. The case for a national regulation setting common sense safeguards for states to meet, such as liners, monitoring and cleanup standards, could not be more persuasive. The need for more direct EPA involvement is clear; leaving enforcement to the same states that have refused to do their jobs for the last 40 years is simply not a responsible course of action.

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It’s no wonder that The Associated Press missed the most significant point in the latest West Virginia Public Service Commission order on the PATH power line project … the PSC’s press release didn’t even mention it.

The press release and the AP story (undoubtedly based mostly — if not entirely — on the press release) focused only on several findings regarding public notice for landowners in certain areas where the proposed power line route has changed. (The PSC doesn’t yet have the press release online).

But if you read the actual order posted here, you’ll see that the PSC made a much more significant decision in this order: It rejected the latest request by PATH developers at American Electric Power and Allegheny Energy to delay proceedings in their state permit proceeding.

As Bill Howley points out on his Power Line blog, the WV PSC is concerned that the PATH project is again headed for a situation where proceedings in West Virginia, Virginia and Maryland are headed down different schedules or worse, actually analyzing different projects:

At the time of this Order, based on a review of public documents of the Maryland Public Service Commission, the Maryland Commission has not yet issued a procedural schedule in its proceeding. There is also no active proceeding on file in Virginia. We are concerned that we are moving forward under a time table that will once again separate the processing schedules in the three jurisdictions resulting in administrative inefficiencies.

In light of the consideration given to the proceedings in Maryland and Virginia in rescheduling the present case and the filing by the Applicants of a proposed revised procedural schedule, the Commission will direct the Applicants to file a brief description of available information regarding the timing of the anticipated proceedings in Maryland and Virginia and how the potential efficiency of keeping the schedules “reasonably well aligned” will be retained or facilitated by the requests in this case. The Applicants should also provide suggestions as to how such alignment could be accomplished given the statutory requirements in West Virginia as well as in Maryland and Virginia.

The PSC order concluded:

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that within fourteen days of the date of this Order the Applicants file a description of the current state of the PATH project in Maryland andVirginia, in addition to the other considerations described in the discussion of this Order.

Climate Ground Zero announced this morning that a pair of anti-mountaintop removal activists have blocked the entrance to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection headquarters over in Kanawha City.

According to the announcement:

Joe Hamsher, 23, and Sarah Seeds, 60, are chained to a concrete-filled metal barrel that is blocking the entrance to the parking lot of the DEP office complex in Charleston. The activists painted the following statement on the barrel: “Department of Easy Permits: Closed.”

Climate Ground Zero said the activists are trying to call attention to the WVDEP’s new mine permitting guidance, which they said is part of the state agency’s pattern of not enforcing the Clean Water Act.

MSHA offers update on Upper Big Branch probe

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The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has offered a quick update on its investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, posting the following highlights to its Web site:

— To date, 197 interviews have been conducted, with approximately 50 more planned.

— Mapping teams have completed about 90 percent of the mine mapping. Once water is pumped from the headgate 22 section, the mapping crews will be able to complete the mapping. Pumping is likely to begin later this week.

— Investigation teams plan to revisit the longwall face to search for evidence that may be under sloughed or fallen material. The second remote control for the shearer has not been located, nor have any additional methane detectors been found.

— Testing continues on the handheld detectors that have been collected.

— To date, 260 pieces of evidence have been collected.

— Investigators have gathered 183 separate documents (not counting record books and individual data sheets obtained from the mine)

— MSHA investigators have taken more than 3,000 photographs.

— The flame and forces team continues to conduct its underground investigation.

— Electrical testing continues on electrical components of the longwall shearer and cable.

— Testing of 1,800 rock dust samples has been completed. Additional rock dust samples will be taken when the water is pumped from the headgate 22 and tailgate 22 sections.

Patriot Coal made the announcement yesterday evening that its President and Chief Operating Officer, Paul Vining, is on the way out:

Patriot Coal Corporation announced today that Paul H. Vining is stepping down as President & Chief Operating Officer, effective immediately. In order to ensure a smooth transition of his responsibilities, Mr. Vining has agreed to continue in a senior advisory role at Patriot for a period which could extend through the end of this year.

Patriot reported:

The Company also announced that Charles A. Ebetino, Jr. will assume the position of Senior Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, with responsibility for all of Patriot’s mining operations. Mr. Ebetino has served as Patriot’s Senior Vice President – Corporate Development since its 2007 spin-off. Ebetino has more than 30 years of operating and commercial experience in the coal and utility industries, including prior senior management roles at Peabody Energy and American Electric Power, where he served as President & Chief Operating Officer of AEP’s coal mining and coal-related subsidiaries from 1993 until 2002.

Last quarter, Patriot reported a net loss of $13.6 million amid lower production and sales.

Also interesting, though, is that this management shakeup comes as Patriot is struggling to settle a major environmental lawsuit that has raised questions about the accuracy of its estimates of the costs of fixing selenium pollution from its West Virginia sites.

And, of course, Patriot’s much-praised Federal No. 2 Mine is under the cloud of a federal criminal investigation and Patriot has brought in new management there to try to clean things up.

In case you missed it, we broke the story yesterday evening on the Gazette’s Web site that Massey Energy has settled potential wrongful death lawsuits with four of the families of miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

It’s interesting to note that Massey CEO Don Blankenship has publicly urged the families to settle potential claims against the company without hiring lawyers and filing lawsuits, saying that way they can avoid giving attorneys a cut. And apparently, several of the four families who have settled are not represented by lawyers in the court proceedings seeking a judge’s approval for the deals.

Apparently, Massey has offered to pay for independent lawyers to review settlement documents with families, but it’s not clear that any of these four families took advantage of that offer.

In West Virginia, wrongful death cases can generally be settled without court approval, unless minor children are among the beneficiaries of the estates. But in some cases, lawyers for both sides seek court approval anyway to avoid any potential problems later for estate administrators if there are disputes among family members about the settlement.

Massey has confirmed that it has offered Upper Big Branch families settlements of $3 million. Other sources have said that some families were offered up to $5 million, but Massey officials flatly deny that. The company has told shareholders it has set aside nearly $129 million for costs of the disaster, including potential civil suit liabilities.

One troubling thing here is the ease with which West Virginia courts are willing to seal court records from public view, despite a Constitutional provision that declares our courts open and rulings by the West Virginia Supreme Court that judges should be as public as possible and carefully review requests for closing courtrooms and sealing documents, weighing the public’s interest in open government against any request by the parties in a case for secrecy (See here and here).

From The Associated Press:

A lawsuit claiming hundreds of children were exposed to toxic coal dust from a Massey Energy Co. silo next to Marsh Fork Elementary School may be tried next spring.

Raleigh County Judge Harry Kirkpatrick has scheduled trial for March 14, 2011, in Beckley. Williamson attorney Kevin Thompson says a pretrial hearing is set for Feb. 17.

Thompson is suing Virginia-based Massey and three subsidiaries — Goals Coal Co., AT Massey Coal Co. and Massey Coal Services Inc. — over dust from the silo that sits about 235 feet from the school.

The lawsuit accuses Massey of negligence and creating a public nuisance.

It demands punitive damages and a medical monitoring program for children and faculty who may have been harmed by dust that settled around the school.

MSHA releases more inspection findings

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This just in from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced the outcome of recent impact inspections at four underground coal mining operations in three states where unsafe practices and conditions are suspected. In each case, federal inspectors commandeered company phones to prevent surface personnel from notifying workers underground of MSHA’s presence on the property. These inspections occurred during shifts when MSHA enforcement personnel were least expected. The inspectors found numerous violations including failure to follow the mine’s approved ventilation plan, inadequate roof support, and accumulation of combustible materials.

“It is appalling that our inspectors continue to find such egregious violations, especially with the explosion at Upper Big Branch still fresh in everyone’s minds,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “MSHA will continue to target mines with enhanced inspections where conditions merit such actions, particularly at mines that display a disregard to miners’ safety and health.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced the addition of Pittsburgh and Louisville to the list of cities where it will hold public hearings on its proposed regulation of toxic coal ash.

The Pittsburgh hearing will be Sept. 21 and the Louisville hearing on Sept. 28.

Recall that EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson promised last month to add new hearing locations after Coal Tattoo reported how the agency had skipped the coalfields in scheduling its original set of public hearings on this all-important regulatory proposal.

When last we checked in on the big selenium case before U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers, settlement discussions were underway.

Court records filed last week indicate that is still the case. Judge Chambers continued proceedings in the case, asking for lawyers to telephone him this Wednesday with an update on those talks.

An open hearing in the courtroom has been set for next Monday at 1 p.m., according to the court filings.

Patriot probe, well water suit, other news

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While I took a few days off, we had an interesting flurry of coal-related news, including a couple of interesting stories from our friends at The Associated Press …

First, Vicki Smith updated the story of the federal criminal investigation at Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine:

A regulatory filing by Patriot Coal Corp. reveals that federal investigators have demanded information about methane gas detectors as they investigate questionable safety records at the Federal No. 2 mine in Northern West Virginia.

The St. Louis-based coal operator said in a recent quarterly report to the Securities and Exchange Commission that the information was subpoenaed in late April. Investigators wanted information about what kind of gas-detecting equipment it has used at the mine near Fairview since July 2008. The subpoena also demanded the results of tests on that equipment.

Recall that just about everybody — the United Mine Workers union, the coal industry, various political leaders and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis (shown above during a tour of the mine) — have cited Federal No. 2 as a model coal-mining operation … That is, until we broke the news earlier this year about a criminal probe of fakes safety checks at the mine.

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Hey folks, Coal Tattoo is back up and running after I took a few days off last week and over the weekend … and what do I come back to see? Another editorial in which The New York Times concludes that mountaintop removal must end.

The editorial comes just after the Times account of the battle between coal and wind power on Coal River Mountain here in West Virginia, and the Times observes this on the politics of the issue:

It is now possible to imagine the beginning of the end of a ruinous form of mining called “mountaintop removal.” Local opposition is growing, and the Environmental Protection Agency is tightening rules and threatening to veto one of the largest projects ever proposed.

The editorial praises the Obama administration’s efforts on the issue:

Most important, in June, the E.P.A. and the Army Corps of Engineers announced that before granting any new permits they would insist on a robust scientific analysis of a proposed mine’s downstream impact on fish, salamanders and other aquatic life. If the agencies remain true to their word, this new guidance — required under the Clean Water Act, but ignored for years — could make mountaintop mining all but impossible.

But the Times also notes:

The administration’s resolve will soon be tested. As part of its review of existing permits, the E.P.A. has said it is considering vetoing the 2,278-acre Spruce mine in Blair, W.Va. The project was approved in 2007, and limited construction has begun, but the agency said it would irrevocably damage streams and wildlife. It promised a final decision later this year.

In the end, the Times concludes:

Some local residents say a veto would doom West Virginia’s economy; others think it would save the state from environmental ruin. The E.P.A. should veto.

For their part, instead of preaching financial ruin, the coal companies need to develop ways to mine this coal without blasting the tops off mountains and fouling the waters below. If they can’t or won’t, the practice must be shut down.