Coal Tattoo

An adverse ruling by a federal administrative law judge certainly isn’t stopping Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship from taking shots at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s investigation of the deaths of 29 of Blankenship’s workers at the Upper Big Branch Mine here in West Virginia.

Blankenship went after MSHA again last evening at an industry meeting down in Bluefield, comparing what he said is an agency cover-up to the Watergate scandal, saying:

Today what you have is MSHAgate. You’ve got a situation where they won’t tell the truth about what they know. We’re not making a genuine effort at the government level to find out what happened.

See coverage from The Associated Press and from West Virginia Public Broadcasting (with audio).

Interestingly, though, this all comes out just as federal and state regulators looking into the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster have called off more witness interviews as Massey management officials all line up to refuse to appear and offer information to government investigators.

Among those who were scheduled to appear this week was Elizabeth Chamberlin, Massey’s corporate vice president for safety. Other interviews scheduled with mine managers for last Friday and for the rest of this week have also been called off.

At least two Massey managers have sent letters to the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training in which they refuse to appear to interviews in response to state subpoenas. So far, Gov. Joe Manchin’s administration has refused to release copies of those letters so the public can understand whatever complaints Massey managers have about the interview process.

Part of the problem here, though, is that MSHA itself does not have legal power to subpoena witnesses in accident investigations, unless it calls a public hearing. And, of course, the Obama administration and MSHA chief Joe Main — a former advocate of public accident investigations — have decided to conduct a closed-door investigation.

West Virginia state mine safety regulators have subpoena power for both public and private investigation interviews, but Massey officials have apparently objected to MSHA taking part in interviews held pursuant to state subpoenas.

Seems like there might be an easy solution to this problem for MSHA: Federal officials could immediately call for a public hearing, and subpoena Massey mine managers to testify out in the open about what happened at Upper Big Branch.  And since Massey Energy has supported the notion of a public investigation, surely its mine managers would drop any objections to appearing and testifying at such a hearing …

After Monday’s post, “Industry rally: Who can be the most pro-coal?” and a lively discussion via Twitter with my buddy Ry Rivard about the Daily Mail’s “War on Coal” story regarding West Virginia’s 3rd District Congressional race, I got thinking …

So I asked the campaigns of both Republican Spike Maynard and Democrat Rep. Nick J. Rahall the following question:

So far, much of the 3rd District campaign has focused on the “war on coal” — on arguments about who would do more to stand up to “abuses” by the EPA meant to reduce the damage from surface mining and control greenhouse gas emissions. But according to general and industry estimates, coal production in Southern West Virginia and the rest of Central Appalachia is projected to drop by half over the next decade and by up to 58 percent by 2035 — and that is without any additional restrictions on mountaintop removal or limits on greenhouse gases. (See here, here and here) Given these estimates, what exactly is your plan for preparing Southern West Virginia economically for this reduction in coal production and the resulting job losses? If elected, how would you help the region to diversify and to minimize the damage to communities from such a sweeping economic challenge?

I gave both camps a deadline for responding, and only got something back from Rep. Rahall … Nothing from Maynard. Here’s what Rahall’s camp had to say:

I have worked diligently to help broaden and diversify the economy of our region.   I am, for example, a strong proponent of what I term “the three T’s”:  transportation, technology, and tourism – areas that I believe represent real growth opportunities for our region.  And Senator Byrd liked to add a fourth T to that list – teamwork.   Southern West Virginia needs to be pulling together to tackle our economic challenges, perhaps now more than ever.  We need to keep investing in infrastructure – in more modern roads and bridges, in telecommunications, in water and sewer systems – in all of those fundamentals that help to grow existing businesses and invite new businesses to want to locate here.   These are some of initiatives I have been promoting as a Congressman from Southern West Virginia and as Vice-Chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, a position I was elevated to after gaining years of expertise and experience.

My membership on and now chairman of the Natural Resources Committee has enabled me to champion some important investments in tourism, too – like the New River Gorge National River and the Gauley River National Recreation Area, the Hatfield-McCoy Trail, Coal Heritage Area, and numerous like initiatives that are bringing visitors to our communities to spend time and money and perhaps look to invest here as well.

It is also critical that we keep enhancing our education and training systems, too, so that our young people are prepared to fill the jobs of the future, allowing them to stay right here building their careers and our economies and raising their own families.

Here’s a story that was first reported by National Public Radio this afternoon … a federal administrative law judge has thrown out Massey Energy’s complaints about the conduct of the investigation into the deaths of 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

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

Recall that Judge Miller previously blasted Massey for “grandstanding” in the case … company officials told NPR that they planned to appeal.

President Barack Obama looks at a document spread across his desk during a meeting on mine safety with, from left, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administrator Kevin Stricklin, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main, Deputy Mine Safety and Health Administrator Greg Wagner, and Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis in the Oval Office April 15, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The U.S. Department of Labor just announced — confirming a widespread rumor – that its Mine Safety and Health Administration was issuing an “Emergency Temporary Standard” to tighten the requirements for controlling the buildup of explosive dust in underground coal mines.

In a news release, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said:

Coal dust can cause explosions, and explosions kill miners. Inadequate rock dusting can dramatically increase the potential for a coal mine explosion. Compliance with the new standard will strengthen the protection for miners by minimizing the potential for such an explosion and, ultimately, will save lives.

The announcement comes on the heels of MSHA releasing data that shows widespread rock-dusting violations at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in a massive explosion on April 5.

MSHA explained the new standard this way:

The existing MSHA standard requires mine operators to maintain at least 80 percent total incombustible content of combined dusts in return air courses and at least 65 percent TIC in all other areas. It also requires that the percent TIC of combined dust in all areas where methane is present in any ventilating current be increased. The 80 percent TIC must be increased by 0.4 percent for each 0.1 percent of methane in return air courses, and the 65 percent TIC must be increased by one percent for each 0.1 percent of methane present in all other areas.

The ETS revises the existing standard by requiring mine operators to increase the total incombustible content of the combined coal dust, rock dust and other dust from 65 to 80 percent in all accessible areas of underground bituminous mines, and an additional 0.4 percent for each 0.1 percent of methane where methane is present in any ventilating current.

Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for MSHA, said:

Explosions caused by coal dust are particularly violent and deadly. When the NIOSH report was released in May 2010 containing new scientific evidence that called for a higher standard, MSHA moved quickly to get this new standard in place. We also revised our guidance on rock dusting to ensure that mine operators are taking the steps necessary to provide for the safety of everyone working in their mines.

Not mentioned by Main or Solis, though, is the fact — reported by the Gazette back in April — that NIOSH researchers have been calling on MSHA to tighten the rock-dusting standard since at least 2006.  Also not mentioned is a recommendation made by the Government Accountability Office way back in 2003 that MSHA should also provide its inspectors and the industry with rules clarifying what constitutes a violation regarding the levels of “float coal dust” in underground mines.

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MSHA announces ‘impact inspection’ results

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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 that, from April through August, the agency conducted “impact inspections” at 111 coal and metal/nonmetal mines throughout the country designated by the agency as having safety or health issues. During that time, enforcement personnel issued 2,660 violations, 45 percent of which were classified as significant and substantial. These targeted inspections are part of an aggressive enforcement strategy launched in the wake of the worst mining disaster in almost 40 years.

“We have learned a lot of hard lessons since the explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine more than five months ago,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “While a number of mine operators receiving impact inspections have taken positive steps to clean up their act, some have refused to take seriously their responsibility to protect their workers and change their ways. We can’t be at every mine every day, but when we have reason to believe that a particular mine operator is putting miners’ lives at risk, we will not sit back and wait for a disaster to happen.”

Throughout the course of the impact inspections, MSHA enforcement personnel employed a number of tactics at some mines to catch operators off guard, including late afternoon or evening arrivals at the mine site, driving unmarked government vehicles, and seizing mine phones to thwart communication between mining personnel working on the surface and those working underground.

“We are striving to make our inspections more strategic, less predictable and more effective,” said Main.

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Sunday’s New York Times blasted Congress for its inaction since the Upper Big Branch Disaster in April on coal-mine safety reform legislation:

Despite the Senate Republicans’ campaign agenda of nay-saying and filibuster, you would think taxpayers have a right to expect passage of a life-and-death measure to protect the nation’s coal miners. And yet decisive action on even this issue may be shunted aside until after the November elections.

This is intolerable. The case for far stronger safety laws was tragically made last April when 29 miners were killed in an explosion down in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. The shoddy safety record of the mine owner, Massey Energy, soon became clear — along with the need to plug gaping flaws in regulations and enforcement biased toward owners over miners who take all the risks.

The editorial singled out Senate Republicans, saying:

The House has a mine safety reform bill moving toward a floor vote, but the Senate’s attempt to come up with a bipartisan measure is floundering. John Rockefeller IV, Democrat of West Virginia, is angrily blaming Republican staffers, who he says “balked on everything.” Staffers? Where are the elected principals on such a vital issue?

The House measure parallels Senator Rockefeller’s goals of providing the flabby Mine Safety and Health Administration with subpoena power over recalcitrant owners; increased civil and criminal penalties; protection for whistle-blowing miners; and faster disaster investigations.

But was the Times needlessly partisan here? West Virginia Sens. Rockefeller and Carte Goodwin have a bill pending in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — why hasn’t the majority party brought it to a committee vote?  Why don’t Senate Democrats force the GOP to vote “No” on the bill if that’s the position they’re taking? In the House, why don’t Democratic leaders schedule a floor vote to likewise make the minority make their position clear?

As the Times concluded:

Last April, the death toll from Upper Big Branch found both chambers resounding with regret and resolve for reform. So, where’s the action? Can lawmaking be any harder than mining?

Coal mining supporters from the Appalachian states hold a rally near the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

We’ve got the complete Associated Press story on last week’s big pro-coal rally in Washington posted on the Mining the Mountains section of the Gazette Web site.  The industry front group FACES of Coal has more about the event on its own site, as well as its Facebook page.

I really wish AP would work on its boilerplate background on mountaintop removal:

In mountaintop removal mining, forests are clear-cut, explosives blast apart the rock, and machines scoop out the exposed coal. The earth left behind is dumped into valleys, covering intermittent streams. Coal operators say it’s the most efficient way to reach some reserves, and that it supports tens of thousands of jobs and provides coal for electricity. Opponents say it pollutes water, defaces majestic scenery and obliterates the quiet country environment.

Many surface coal mines in Appalachia bury not only intermittent streams, but perennial and ephemeral ones. And while the industry does indeed argue — perhaps correctly, if you read ICG Vice President Gene Kitts guest blog for Coal Tattoo — that this is the “most efficient” way to mine certain coal seams, this description of the other side of the story is greatly lacking:

Opponents say it pollutes water, defaces majestic scenery and obliterates the quiet country environment.

And it wouldn’t hurt if AP were to once in a while mention  the Science journal article that outlines the growing scientific consensus about the  serious effects mountaintop removal is having on the environment and communities in Appalachia.

Also not mentioned in the AP story, though, was the bipartisan bill introduced on Tuesday to block EPA from using any of its funding to conduct more detailed Clean Water Act permit reviews for strip mines or to enforce its new limit on the electrical conductivity pollution from these mines.

Among the sponsors of the bill is West Virginia Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who said:

Coal is affordable and abundant and mined right here in America. It supports thousands of jobs in West Virginia and across our country that we can’t afford to lose at a time of near double digit unemployment. I am proud to stand with the miners at today’s rally to remind Congress of the vital role this reliable American energy resource plays in our economic and energy portfolios.

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Friday roundup, Sept. 17, 2010

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Union leaders from the mining industry pose with signs inside a room at the Spanish Industry Ministry where they are staging a sit-in after talks with the government failed in Madrid, on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2010. The signs read “miners in the struggle,” “for the payment of our wages,” “for the industrialization of the mining towns,” “against cuts.” Spanish coal miners seeking unpaid wages and aid for a decaying industry have called a strike Sept. 22, 23, 29 and 30, adding pressure to a protest being staged by nearly 70 colleagues far down in the mines themselves.(AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

The protests by coal miners in Spain continued this week, as reported  here, here and here.

There was other interesting international news about coal this week, including a New York Times story headlined, As Europe kicks coal, Hungarian town suffers:

When the directors of Hungary’s last remaining coal-fired power plant announced that they would close the coal mine and begin dismantling the plant at the end of this year, the news sent shock waves through this weathered industrial city, where a statue of three miners stands in the square.

It was well known that the legendary Vertesi plant and its mine were kept afloat only by more than $30 million in annual state subsidies. But more than 3,000 of Oroszlany’s 20,000 residents work in industries related to coal. The government-owned plant is one of the town’s biggest taxpayers. And the area’s 5,000 homes, its stores and its factories all get their heat from the Vertesi plant.

“We know that coal is an old technique that is not sustainable here, but we have not found an alternative,” said Gabor Rajnai, Oroszlany’s mayor. “Everyone is thinking about how are we going to keep warm in winter.”

That story continued:

Determined to reduce Europe’s reliance on coal, the European Commission is fighting a complicated battle against the subsidies that have long sustained coal, an influential but polluting industry in Europe and in the United States. In May, the Brussels-based governing body for the European Union announced that economic bailouts and favors for coal mines and power plants were forbidden after this year, precipitating Vertesi’s demise.

As countries endeavor to reduce their fossil fuel emissions, many are trying to wean themselves from over-reliance on coal, the most highly emitting fuel. But coal is also the lifeblood of communities from Hungary and Germany to Kentucky and West Virginia, providing jobs, power and warmth. Last year, when President Obama’s budget proposal included the elimination of some tax credits and deductions tied to coal, as well as oil and natural gas, there was furious protest from coal states, and Congress never enacted the changes. A similar presidential budget will be voted on again this fall.

Though the European Union generally prohibits national subsidies, coal, considered a vital source of energy, had long been an exception. But that logic has shifted as concerns over global warming have grown and better sources of renewable energy have become available.

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This just in from The Associated Press:

The National Mining Association said Friday it is seeking a federal court order barring the Obama administration from using a policy designed to limit surface coal mining in Appalachia.

The move is part of a lawsuit filed by the NMA against the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last July. The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., seeks to overturn the policy, which the EPA unveiled April 1.

The NMA claims the policy illegally prevents mines from obtaining water quality permits to fill mountain valleys with rock and excess waste.

The EPA had no immediate comment, but Administrator Lisa Jackson has said the policy is designed to make it nearly impossible to obtain a valley fill permit in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia and Tennessee.

Environmentalists and others have cheered the policy for curbing mountaintop removal coal mining. The practice is considered too destructive by opponents, but mine operators defend it as an efficient way to extract coal for electric power plants in much of the eastern United States.

The biggest news from today’s U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration briefing on its Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster investigation is MSHA’s disclosure that nearly 80 percent of the samples its taken so far violated federal standards for controlling the build up of explosive coal dust.

We’ve got a separate post already online on Coal Tattoo about that, and feel free to join in the lively discussion about this significant revelation.

During today’s media briefing, Howard Berkes of NPR asked MSHA officials to put the rock-dusting samples in some perspective, given the reports this week about coal-dust accumulations in the Upper Big Branch Mine prior to the April 5 explosion.

In particular, Berkes asked why investigators just didn’t go ahead and conclude that coal-dust played a role. MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin responded:

I don’t think we want to say one way or another. From the beginning we said we wanted to look at every piece of the puzzle before we came up with our conclusion.

It’s fair to say that 80 percent in non compliance kind of leads you to that point, but it doesn’t tell us exactly how much that played a role. How big was the body of methane is one question that we have to go with. How far beyond that body of methane did the coal dust cause the explosion to propagate forward?

It could have been a little bit, it could have been a lot. It’s going to be fair to say that coal dust played a role, but we don’t know how big of a role.

For folks who may not understand all of this business about “rock-dusting”, I would suggest taking a look at this portion of the MSHA Web sitethis agency information bulletin, this NIOSH paper, this previous Gazette story, and this previous Coal Tattoo post.

UPDATED: You can listen to the MSHA media briefing here.

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Not so long ago, Massey Energy General Counsel Shane Harvey had this to say when The Associated Press asked him about the rock-dusting at his company’s Upper Big Branch Mine:

[The mine] appears to have been very well rock dusted, with rock dust still in place.

Well, not so much — at least according to data that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration presented to families of the 29 miners who died in that April 5 explosion at Upper Big Branch. During a closed-door meeting last evening in Beckley, MSHA officials gave told the families of these results:

— 1,803 samples taken

— 78.92 percent out of compliance

Several sources who attended last evening’s meeting described the rock-dusting data to me, and it seems likely that MSHA officials will confirm these results during a media briefing scheduled for later this morning.

Remember that “rock-dusting” — spreading crushed limestone on the surfaces of the underground mine tunnels — is a key ingredient in controlling any ignitions or explosions that occur during the mining process. MSHA rules require that dust collected from those surfaces have a certain percentage of incombustible materials (rock-dust) in order to prevent small ignitions from turning into big disasters.

Also at last night’s meeting, family members were told that Massey Energy mine managers from Upper Big Branch are challenging the right of federal investigators to sit in on witness interviews being conducted under the authority of subpoenas issued by the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training. Readers may recall that the state office has general subpoena power, while MSHA can only compel witnesses to appear for interviews if federal officials call a public hearing.

Stay tuned for more following this morning’s MSHA media briefing …

Earlier this evening, as families of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster were preparing to hear an update on the government investigation of that tragedy, Massey Energy issued what it called a “Guidance Update” on the company’s finances.

In the company’s update, in the form of this press release, Massey CEO Don Blankenship warned:

Our operations have continued to struggle since April. As we have noted earlier, increasingly stringent enforcement actions by MSHA across our operations and throughout the Central Appalachian region have resulted in lost shifts and loss of productivity.

Specifically, Blankenship said:

… Our Revolution longwall mine was idled in June for a planned longwall move but has remained down pending approval of its ventilation plan.

Now, Massey has been making much of its complaints about MSHA ventilation plan approval processes, but remember that the Revolution Mine (formerly called Justice No. 1) has been among those targeted with tougher enforcement by federal inspectors for allegedly serious violations.

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The Gazette’s Andrew Clevenger reported for us on yesterday’s W.Va. Supreme Court argument in the case over coal industry lawyer Douglas A. Smoot’s handling of a black lung benefits case. As he explained:

In 2009, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed formal charges against Smoot, alleging that he violated the state’s rules for lawyers by removing part of a doctor’s 2001 report before turning it over to a retired miner with an eighth-grade education who was representing himself in the black lung claim.

After a two-day hearing in June 2009, a three-member panel recommended the dismissal of all charges against Smoot, concluding that his handling of the case was in compliance with applicable black lung law. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel immediately appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

Andrew previewed the arguments over on the Gazette’s Sustained Outrage blog, and provided helpful links to past coverage and briefs in the case, one of several legal actions over Jackson Kelly’s work defending coal companies in black lung cases.

In his story, Andrew explained:

An attorney for the State Bar asked state Supreme Court justices to suspend the law license of a black lung lawyer who removed part of a doctor’s report before disclosing it to a retired miner seeking benefits in 2001.

“This conduct is deceitful. It’s dishonest. It is misrepresentation,” Jessica Donahue, a lawyer with the bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, told the justices.

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The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration just issued its report on the April death of coal miners John King at International Coal Group’s Beckley Pocahontas Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

MSHA investigators described the fatal accident this way:

On Thursday, April 22, 2010, at approximately 11:15 p.m., a 28-year old continuous miner operator was operating a continuous mining machine. He sustained fatal injuries when he was crushed between the machine’s conveyor boom and the coal rib. The victim was attempting to move the off standard continuous mining machine from the No. 6 Left coal face to the No. 8 Right coal face. As the mining machine was trammed, with the boom fully swung to the operator’s side, the machine contacted the right coal rib with the cutter head and the boom contacted the victim positioned on the left rib, crushing his pelvic area.

And they concluded that there were two root causes:

The victim was positioned in the Red Zone, an area of close clearance, while the continuous miner was being operated.


The operator failed to have an effective policy in place to identify Red Zone hazards and to alert mine management when Red Zone violations are committed or observed by others.

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We’ve written before about the efforts of the Ansted Historic Preservation Council and the Sierra Club to clean up water pollution problems at CONSOL Energy subsidiary Powellton Coal Co.’s Bridge Fork strip mine site in Fayette County, W.Va. (See previous posts here, here and here).

Now, there is a proposed settlement that was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Charleston that promises some interesting changes — not only at the mine site, but for other serious water pollution challenges in that area.

I’ve posted a copy of the proposed consent decree (it still needs approval from U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver and the Department of Justice) here.

Under the deal, Powellton Coal has agreed to pay nearly $135,000 in civil penalties for past water pollution violations. And, the company has come up with an “action plan” to end aluminum water pollution violations at the operation.

But the fascinating thing here is that Powellton has also agreed to spend $1.2 million on a “supplemental environmental project” that will create a “Land Use and Sustainable Development Clinic” at the West Virginia University College of Law.

The clinic will allow WVU law students and faculty to provide the community with legal resources directed to the following goals:

— To protect land essential to watershed protection through conservation/riparian easements or other land and water protection strategies.

— To draft land use plans and ordinances, where needed and possible to protect ground and surface water quality and quantity.

— To solve residential wastewater issues, such as “straight piping” (pipes that carry human waste from residence or business without treatment directly to a stream) to protect both ground and surface water.

The College of Law is going to provide another $943,000 for the clinic, making its total four-year budget $2.6 million.  Also, Powellton will pay stipulated penalty amounts for any future violations, and those funds will also go toward the law clinic.

Following up on the AP story earlier this week and yesterday’s Gazette story on the confused post-disaster timeline, my buddy Gary Harki and I have a new story online now with more from the last fireboss report at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

As we report:

A Massey Energy fireboss who warned of a buildup of explosive coal dust shortly before the company’s Upper Big Branch Mine blew up also complained of a strange burning sensation in his eyes and said he couldn’t see, state and federal investigators have been told.

About a half-hour before he and 28 other miners were killed in the explosion that rocked the Raleigh County mine, Michael Elswick  (Above, right) phoned a safety report to co-worker Scott Halstead on the surface.

Jami Cash, Elswick’s daughter, said Halstead told her family that Elswick said his eyes were burning and he couldn’t see.

“That’s when Scott Halstead said he was on his way in to get him,” Cash said in an interview with the Gazette. “Scott made it to the mouth of the mine and it blew. He didn’t get a chance to go in.”

There’s another MSHA meeting with the Upper Big Branch families tonight in Beckley, and agency officials are planning a media briefing tomorrow morning, so stay tuned …

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues its series of public hearings on proposed regulation of the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash, the group Physicians for Social Responsibility is releasing a new report on the subject. Its conclusion, according to Barbara Gottlieb, PSR’s deputy director for environment and health:

This is an expanding menace to health.  Coal ash is much more toxic than previously understood, and it is endangering communities and the environment in state after state.
The report, released in conjunction with Earthjustice,  is available online and here’s a list of its major findings:

— The toxic metals arsenic, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium and selenium contained in coal ash contribute to several forms of cancer, as well as lung disease, kidney disease, mental retardation, breathing problems and even death.

— The report documents the analysis of 73 samples of coal ash waste that showed that pollutants including arsenic and selenium can leach into drinking water at levels exceeding those which the federal government defines as hazardous, sometimes by orders of magnitude.

— Coal ash spills, leaks and leaches into surface and ground water, are absorbed by fish and other animals, and can even be delivered by the air people breathe.

— Low-income communities often carry a disproportionate burden of living near coal ash facilities.

Lisa Evans of Earthjustice said:

There is absolutely no question anymore: coal ash is toxic to human health. In the face of mounting evidence of harm to communities across the U.S., the EPA must act without delay to safeguard the public from this growing threat.

For a report on EPA’s latest public hearing, held Tuesday in Charlotte, N.C., be sure to read this blog dispatch by Facing South’s Sue Sturgis, who was covering coal-ash issues long before the rest of us in the media figured out the issue mattered.

EPA’s next public hearing is today in Chicago, while additional hearings are scheduled for Sept. 21 in Pittsburgh and Sept. 28 in Louisville.

‘An awful lot of confusion’ after Massey blast

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Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

We just posted a story on the Gazette’s Web site about the continuing problems that state and federal investigators are having trying to piece together an accurate timeline for the events the evening of the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

Along with the story, I wanted to post here on Coal Tattoo the audio of a couple of the emergency calls from the West Virginia Office of Homeland Security about the mine disaster.

Here you can listen to the first call in from Massey Energy at 3:39 p.m., a 4:34 p.m. call from Raleigh County 911 officials to the state, and a 5:14 p.m. discussion between a Homeland Security dispatcher and a Massey spokesman:

Coal mining supporters from the Appalachian states hold a rally near the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2010. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Here’s an Associated Press report from Washington, D.C.:

By Frederic J. Frommer

WASHINGTON (AP) — Hundreds of coal miners rallied on Capitol Hill Wednesday against the Obama administration’s attempts to rein in mountaintop removal mining, accusing the Environmental Protection Agency of trying to wipe out the coal industry.

“This administration is trying to shut down coal and fire all of you,” claimed Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., adding that the EPA was practicing “strangulation by regulation.”

The industry-backed group Faces of Coal paid for most of the travel and lodging expenses for the coal miners, who came from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio. Speakers included politicians from both parties and country music singer Stella Parton. A rival rally was planned later in the day by opponents of mountaintop removal, featuring country music performer Big Kenny.

In mountaintop removal mining, forests are clear-cut, explosives blast apart the rock, and machines scoop out the exposed coal. The earth left behind is dumped into valleys, covering intermittent streams. Coal operators say it’s the most efficient way to reach some reserves, and that it supports tens of thousands of jobs and provides coal for electric power plants across much of the South and East. But opponents say it is destroying land and harming water quality.

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Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin talks to coal miners during a rally yesterday at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va.

Well, no sooner were we given a brief bit of hope that West Virginia leaders might allow a real discussion of the good and bad sides of our state’s coal industry (see previous posts here and here), than an opportunity appears for elected officials to try to outdo each other in their support for coal.

It started with yesterday’s rally at the Capitol, where a couple hundred miners made a quick stop yesterday before heading to Washington, D.C., today.

Gov. Joe Manchin attended. Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin posted the photo above on his Facebook page, and House Speaker Rick Thompson promoted the event on Twitter with the comment, “Taking the Coal Message to Washington!”

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