Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Dec. 17, 2010

Relatives mourn for a victim in an explosion at a mine owned by Yi Ma Coal Industry Group in Mianchi, in central China’s Henan province, Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010. The explosion killed 26 miners who were working despite an order to halt production, officials said Wednesday, while a mine tunnel collapse elsewhere left four dead in the latest accidents to strike the country’s mining industry. (AP Photo)

Hey folks, I’m catching up after not doing a “Friday roundup” last week, including posting the terrible news of another coal-mining disaster in China:

Thirteen people were confirmed dead after a gas explosion at a coal mine in central China’s Henan Province, the local work safety chief said Wednesday.

The accident occurred at 7:40 p.m. Tuesday at a pit of Juyuan Coal Industry Company in Mianchi County, Sanmenxia City, about 300 kilometers from the provincial capital of Zhengzhou.

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua news agency, rescuers prepare to enter a coal mine following a gas explosion in Mianchi county, in Henan province, on Wednesday Dec. 8, 2010. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zhu Xiang)

In other international coal news, a documentary news piece is raising questions about the disaster at Pike River Coal in New Zealand:

A 60 Minutes story ‘Blood on Coal’ revealed unknown information including a previous gas evacuation, ignitions underground, tracking devices that did not work, a less than desirable escape route and contraband, including cigarette lighters, being found in the mine.

This Nov. 30, 2010, file photo shows the drilling rig used to drill a shaft to test the gases emitting from the Pike River mine which has fatally trapped 29 miners and contractors in Greymouth, New Zealand. The New Zealand company that operates the coal mine where 29 miners died in a series of explosions last month said Monday it has been placed into receivership. Pike River Coal Ltd. chairman John Dow said that the largest shareholder, NZ Oil & Gas, appointed accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers as receivers. (AP Photo/NZPA, Iain McGregor)

According to the Web site of 3News, which produced the story:

Brent Foster an Australian miner who has worked at Pike River before told 60 Minutes he saw flames break out at the coalface and that a procedure called ‘stone dusting’ – applying lime to surfaces to control coal dust – was not done enough at the mine.

The flames Mr Foster saw are known in the industry as ‘ignitions’ and are treated extremely seriously.

Pike River Coal has confirms the fire was part of a series of ignitions and a number of remedial actions were taken, in consultation with the mines inspector.

The company has also confirmed it was issued with a notification in August about the lack of a stone dusting plan.

Pike River says a plan was then implemented and a follow-up inspection in October did not mention stone dusting.

In November, just before the explosion, there was monitoring of the stone dusting and sampling was due to be carried out on the Monday, three days after the mine blew up.

Mr Little says some industries including mining should have the best possible protection for staff no matter the cost.

“It’s about a sensible recognition that some workplaces and industries are inherently dangerous.”

Some other mine safety news from Kentucky, with this report from the Herald-Leader:

A former state mine safety analyst pleaded guilty Friday to fabricating inspection reports for sites she did not visit or visited only briefly.

Betty Sue Whitaker of Bulan pleaded guilty to 28 counts of tampering with public records, a class D felony carrying a penalty of one to five years, according to a news release from Attorney General Jack Conway’s office.

Also in Kentucky, my buddy Jim Bruggers of the Courier-Journal had this update on the big water pollution case involving International Coal Group:

Saying proposed sanctions against two coal mining companies for water quality violations are too lenient and state regulators cannot be trusted to do their jobs, four environmental groups are calling for harsher penalties.

Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd on Tuesday agreed to give the groups a hearing next month, saying they had raised issues of substance, and also ordered a 30-day public comment period on the proposed settlement between the state and the coal companies, which totals $660,000.

“We need to get this matter resolved,” Shepherd told attorneys for the state, coal companies and environmental groups.

Just short of next week’s anniversary of its coal-slurry disaster, TVA had more bad news:

Maintenance crews plugged a water leak from a huge gypsum storage pond at TVA’s Kingston Fossil Plant about 1 a.m. today, spokeswoman Barbara Martocci said this morning.

The cause of the leak is being studied.

“That will take time to determine,” she said.

Water from the seepage is being analyzed, she said, and both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state regulatory agencies were notified.

The leak occurred on the side of the earthen dike where rainwater had collected inside and was at the same level as the water within, she said. Martocci said she didn’t know how much water seeped out.

A slurry of wet gypsum from a pollution-scrubbing operation at the coal-fired plant was in another part of the pond, Martocci said.

And my buddy Don Hopey and David Templeton at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette busted out a major series this week, “Mapping Mortality,” about air pollution in western Pennsylvania:

This month the nation celebrates the 40th anniversary of the federal Clean Air Act and its clear and widespread successes. Throughout the region too, the skies are blue and that sulfuric “Pittsburgh smell” is mostly a bad memory along with soot-dirtied shirts and streetlights lit throughout the day.

But health risks linger in what many of us can’t see and can’t smell.

Numerous studies show that southwestern Pennsylvania has poor air quality and a yearlong Pittsburgh Post-Gazette investigation has found that those pollution problems remain far from solved in communities such as Shippingport and Monaca, Bellevue and Sewickley, Masontown and Clearfield, Cranberry and Bridgeville, Pittsburgh and hundreds of others.

Meanwhile, I wanted to be sure to point out a story by Kris Maher of the Wall Street Journal titled, Dead Miners’ Kin wrestle with choice to sue or settle:

Nine months after the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years, most of the 29 families who lost a father, son or brother at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine, in Montcoal, W.Va., are torn over whether to accept Massey’s $3 million settlement offer or to file suit.

The decision has split some families. Seven widows or close relatives have accepted settlement offers, but only three agreements have been finalized. In at least two cases, family members are at odds and plan to let a court decide which path they should take. Two families have filed wrongful death suits against the company.

Most, if not all, of the other families have retained lawyers and are awaiting the outcomes of federal and state investigations into the accident to see if the company is found responsible.

The difficult and life-altering choice—settle or sue—is similar to the one faced by relatives of workers killed in other industrial accidents, including the BP PLC oil spill that killed 11 workers this year, the California gas-pipeline explosion that killed four and a Connecticut power plant explosion that killed six. Kenneth Feinberg, a Washington attorney who has been appointed to oversee claims in BP’s $20 billion oil spill fund and who oversaw the September 11 victims fund, says Massey’s settlement offer is “standard operating procedure where the company wants to stay out of court and avoid the limelight and offers what it feels are very generous settlements.”

To me, this was the most interesting part:

Two days after an explosion ripped through a Massey Energy Co. coal mine, with rescuers continuing their search for survivors, the company’s board convened by phone.

They agreed that it was unlikely any of the 29 workers had survived. Then they decided to make a settlement offer of $3 million to each deceased miner’s family to help them financially and head off a wave of litigation, according to people familiar with the matter.

In the aftermath of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s retirement announcement, the aware for best lead goes to NPR’s Howard Berkes:

There’s a clause in the just-released Retirement Agreement for former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship that says he’ll get title to a ” … 1965 Blue Chevrolet Truck that you previously transferred to the Company.”

One of the nation’s most vilified ex-CEO’s may have made close to $18 million last year alone and is now scheduled to get at least $12 million in cash by July. And, he’ll get that Chevy.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had a story focused on Blankenship’s successor, Baxter Phillips:

To succeed the colorful Don Blankenship, coal giant Massey Energy selected a top lieutenant and company lifer.

But Baxter F. Phillips Jr. embodies a major personality shift from his predecessor, and along with establishing a newly independent chairman of the board, the leadership shake-up puts the coal company one step closer to a sale, according to observers.

And the Wall Street Journal reported about changes to Phillips’ salary and employment agreement:

Massey Energy Co. more than doubled the amount it will pay incoming Chief Executive Baxter Phillips to $8 million in the event that the company is sold or merged, the company reported in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Tuesday.

And just today, Bloomberg had a story about another interesting rumor regarding Massey:

Massey Energy Co., owner of the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 people died in April, is studying options ranging from a sale of the company to a takeover of Wilbur Ross’s International Coal Group Inc., according to three people with knowledge of the matter.

Talks with International Coal, which first started this summer, began again following the Dec. 3 announcement that Massey Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship will retire Dec. 31, said the people who asked not to be named because the talks are private.

The Beckley Register-Herald and West Virginia Public Broadcasting both reported on the start of MSHA’s public hearings on the new coal-dust standards meant to help eliminate black lung disease.

The L.A. Times had this interesting story about some kids in Oklahoma taking on a coal-fired power plant:

Talia Cox and her friends at Bokoshe Elementary teamed up for a community service project that’s more like David versus Goliath. The students want energy producer AES to stop dumping fly ash from the Shady Point plant near their homes. The EPA defines the dust as a by-product of burning finely ground coal to produce electricity.

It’s clear from talking to these kids that they haven’t simply taken the adults word for it. They’ve done their own research and truly believe that the fly ash is toxic to them and their families.

Meanwhile, in Kansas, there’s been a major development on the Sunflower Electric Power Plant:

Environmental organizations will join the EPA in carefully reviewing—and perhaps challenging—a controversial building permit that Kansas authorities granted Thursday to build a 895 megawatt coal-fired power plant in the southwestern part of the state.

Approval of the permit to Sunflower Electric Power Corp. comes just a few weeks before the Environmental Protection Agency’s “tailoring rule” takes effect Jan. 2. That rule is designed to employ the Clean Air Act to control heat-trapping gases from large emitters that are new or undergo significant modifications.

Issuing the permit before that deadline means the new plant can avoid that EPA rule designed to rein in greenhouse gases.

Speaking of greenhouse gases, we haven’t had much follow-up on Coal Tattoo about the climate meeting in Cancun, so here’s what the New York Times had to say:

A provision ensuring that industrialized countries can wiggle out of the Kyoto Protocol after 2012 is hidden in plain view of a new climate change agreement established in Cancun, Mexico, last week.

The line smothered in legalese appears to merely reference a section of the 1997 climate change treaty.

In actuality, though, “recalling Article 20, paragraph 2, and Article 21, paragraph 7 of the Kyoto Protocol,” serves as a key reminder that no country is obligated to take targets under the second phase of Kyoto. Its insertion was essential in winning Japanese support for the Cancun Agreements, experts close to the U.S., Japanese and European delegations said.

“It’s kind of hidden in the document, but it’s there,” said Paul Bledsoe, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Bipartisan Policy Center. “It’s a loophole for the parties not to have to enter the second commitment period.”

And here’s more from the Climate Progress blog:

The consensus reached at 3:00am this morning to forge the “Cancun Agreements” is a critical step forward in forging an effective global compact to fight global warming. These agreements will certainly not solve the problem, and some of the hardest issues in forging a climate treaty are still waiting to be addressed. But in a relatively short time, especially for this process, the parties came together on a balanced package of decisions on adaptation, forestry, technology transfer, the structure of climate finance and other issues which will be the basis for progress moving forward.