Coal Tattoo

Here’s the statement just released by United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts on the buyout of Massey Energy by Alpha Natural Resources:

We believe there will be several things that come from the purchase of Massey Energy by Alpha Natural Resources.

First, while by no means perfect, Alpha’s overall safety record is better than Massey’s. Alpha’s got quite a job on its hands to turn the former Massey mines around from Massey’s safety-last culture. But if they are successful, the miners at the former Massey mines will be at less risk than they have been.

Secondly, erasing the Massey name from America’s coal industry is a positive step, no matter who is responsible for it. Massey had come to represent all that was wrong with the coal industry, whether it be safety and health issues, environmental issues or simple respect for its workers, their families and the communities where they live.

While Alpha inherits those problems from Massey, one hopes that Alpha recognizes that sorry record and has a plan in place to move swiftly toward resolving many of those issues.

And lastly, we represent about 1,500 active Alpha employees and thousands of retirees. We have open lines of communication with the company. When measured by the standard set by the previous leadership at Massey, this represents a significant improvement.

It should come as no surprise to Alpha that we strongly believe both the company and the workers would be better off with a larger union presence at the company moving forward, and we are working toward that goal. As we do, we invite Alpha management to work with us in securing a safer, more secure future for its workers, their families and all the company’s stakeholders.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has sent it proposed changes to the “pattern of violations” regulations to the Federal Register, where they are currently available here.

MSHA has scheduled a media briefing this afternoon to discuss its proposal.

Stay tuned …

UPDATED:

An initial comparison of the proposal with MSHA’s existing part 104 rules indicates three major changes —

First, the proposed rule would do away with the “warning letter” operators now receive indicating that have a “potential pattern of violations” and move directly to issuing pattern notices to operators.

Second, the proposed rule would require MSHA to conduct POV screenings twice a year. Current rules require that screening only once per year.

Third, the proposed rule would eliminate the requirement that MSHA consider only violations that have become final orders of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission after any company appeals.

UPDATED 2:

Here’s a link to our print story about the MSHA proposal.

Officials from Alpha Natural Resources just finished up a nearly 90-minute conference call in which they promoted their purchase of Massey Energy to industry stock analysts.

You can check out an audio replay of the event online, and they also have a slide show that includes some facts and figures about the transaction here. Among the highlights:

— The combined Alpha-Massey company will rank 2nd in many measures of U.S. coal producers — including production, coal reserves and earnings — behind only Peabody Energy. The combined company will hold 5.1 billion tons of reserves.

— Alpha plans to keep its existing management team and board of directors in place, but may offer a position as some sort of consultant or adviser to Baxter Phillips, a longtime Massey executive who took over as CEO when Don Blankenship retired last month.

— The transaction creates a combined company valued at about $15 billion. Approvals are still needed from the Federal Trade Commission and the shareholders of both companies.

— Once finalized, the merger creates a giant among companies that produce steel-making coal, with 40 million tons of annual production and $1.7 billion tons of reserves.

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Massey update: More on the Alpha buyout

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Back in early December, when Massey CEO Don Blankenship announced his, er, retirement, from the company, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts offered this hope for what the change in Massey’s leadership might mean for the company, its workers, and the communities where it operates:

This also represents an opportunity for the coal industry in West Virginia and across the country to take a step away from the negative image that has cast a pall over our industry, created in large part because of the actions of Don Blankenship and Massey Energy while he has been at the company’s helm. Let us take this opportunity to move forward in a reasonable, rational way as we work to overcome the many difficult issues that confront our industry.

So, what now, given the other shoe that dropped with Saturday’s announcement that Massey — free from Blankenship’s control and reported opposition to such a deal — has agreed to a buyout by Alpha Natural Resources?

Well, Cecil Roberts and the mine workers have so far declined to comment on the news. And we’ll have to wait until early tomorrow morning to hear much more than the press release quotes from Alpha and Massey executives. A conference call with industry stock analysts is scheduled for 8 a.m. and will be broadcast to the rest of us via the Web.

But who is Alpha Natural Resources, and what exactly will this huge transaction mean for the companies involved, their workers, their communities and the crucial issues facing the coal industry and coalfield families who work for, live near, or care about the future of the region?

It’s far too soon to offer a clear answer, but let’s talk about a few things that we do know.

First, how about the UMWA? Well, union spokesman Phil Smith did note last night that the mine workers represent hourly employees at two Alpha operations in southwestern Virginia and at two very large underground mining complexes in western Pennsylvania. Those two western Pa. operations — Cumberland and Emerald — are both longwall mines that together produced nearly 11 million tons of coal with 1,300 employees in 2010. And those two mines were both added to Alpha fairly recently, in its 2009 purchase of Foundation Coal.

But like Richmond, Va.-based Massey, Alpha Natural Resources is mostly a non-union company. Company executives brag in their most recent report to shareholders  that 87 percent of its production comes from “union free” operations. As of Dec. 31, 2009, 79 percent of Alpha employees were “union free,” the company said.  They warned in that SEC filing:

Any further unionization of our subsidiaries employees, or the employees of 3rd party contractors who mine coal for us, could adversely affect the stability of our production and reduce our profitability.


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Alpha Natural Resources to buy Massey

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Here’s the press release:

ABINGDON, Va. & RICHMOND, Va. — Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (NYSE: ANR) (“Alpha”) and Massey Energy Company (NYSE: MEE) (“Massey”) announced today that they signed a definitive agreement under which Alpha will acquire all outstanding shares of Massey common stock, subject to customary closing conditions including stockholder approval of both companies. Under the terms of the agreement, Massey stockholders will receive, at the closing, 1.025 shares of Alpha common stock and $10.00 in cash for each share of Massey common stock. Based on the closing share price of Alpha common stock as of January 28, 2011, the agreement placed a value of $69.33 per share of Massey common stock (implying $8.5 billion enterprise value for Massey) and represents a 21% premium to Massey’s current share price. Upon completion of the transaction, Alpha and Massey stockholders will own approximately 54% and 46% of the combined company, respectively.

“We’re very pleased that Massey has chosen to join forces with Alpha and commit to this truly transformational deal”

The merger will bring together Alpha’s and Massey’s highly complementary assets, which include more than 110 mines and combined coal reserves of approximately 5 billion tons, including one of the world’s largest and highest-quality metallurgical coal reserve bases. Alpha and Massey believe the new entity will be well positioned to capitalize on strong global demand trends for coal including the metallurgical coal used in the steel manufacturing process. Further, the combination is expected to permit Alpha and Massey to benefit from geographical and asset diversification, including operations and reserves in Central and Northern Appalachia, the Illinois Basin and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

The resulting company will have an attractive financial profile with expected pro forma 2010 revenues of approximately $6.9 billion and the highest free cash flow generation of any pure-play U.S. coal company, a responsible balance sheet, and significantly enhanced scale with a combined enterprise value of approximately $15 billion. Stockholders and customers of both companies will also benefit from synergies which are expected to exceed an annual run-rate of $150 million within the second year of operations, as well as anticipated cash flow accretion in the first full year of combined operations.

“We’re very pleased that Massey has chosen to join forces with Alpha and commit to this truly transformational deal,” said Kevin Crutchfield, Alpha’s chief executive officer. “Together we will be America’s largest supplier of metallurgical coal for the world’s steel industry and a highly diversified supplier of thermal coal to electric utilities in the U.S. and overseas. The strategic and operational fit of our two companies is clear and compelling. Both companies’ stockholders will gain an opportunity to participate in the upside potential of a global industry leader with a robust production portfolio, attractive growth profile and substantial reserve base. Together, we are committed to creating a stronger company that has the scale to capitalize on further growth opportunities, succeed in a changing regulatory landscape and maintain the absolute highest standards in safety and environmental excellence.”

Baxter F. Phillips, Jr., Massey’s chief executive officer and president, stated, “This transaction represents a tremendous opportunity for Massey to partner with our Central Appalachian neighbor, Alpha, to create a new industry leader. After a careful review of a wide range of strategic opportunities, our board unanimously determined that this is the right course for our company. The merger with Alpha offers Massey stockholders an immediate and substantial premium, as well as the opportunity to participate in the significant value creation opportunities our combination presents. We have always respected Alpha’s passion for this business and we believe this is a natural and logical combination that has great upside for our members, communities, customers and other important constituents.”

Mr. Crutchfield added, “As we demonstrated in the Foundation transaction, we have a proven history of successful integrations since our inception in 2002, and we’ve built a strong track record of creating value through thoughtful strategic growth. We’re already prepared to launch a seamless integration process, which includes implementing our employee-driven Running Right philosophy of safety and environmental stewardship across the business. This is not just a combination of strong asset portfolios, but a transaction that will empower a combined group of almost 14,000 people and with a focus on continued investment in safety, the environment and our communities.”

Alpha’s chairman, Mike Quillen, commented, “We’ve always believed that the combination of Alpha and Massey makes for a great partnership, and we’re thrilled about the opportunities this will create for the employees of both organizations. Their talents, skills and ambition will be the foundation of a dynamic industry leader.”

The boards of directors of Alpha and Massey have each approved the terms of the definitive merger agreement and have recommended that their respective stockholders approve the transaction. The transaction is expected to close in mid-2011 and is subject to approval by each company’s stockholders and customary regulatory approvals and closing conditions.

Alpha has obtained $3.3 billion in committed financing from Morgan Stanley and Citi which, in addition to existing cash balances, will be sufficient to finance cash consideration to Massey stockholders and to refinance certain existing Alpha and Massey debt.

Friday roundup, Jan. 29, 2011

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Caterine Zapata, wife of miner Jorge Lara, reacts at La Preciosa mine in Sardinata, northeastern Colombia, Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2011. Lara is among 20 miners feared dead when an explosion believed caused by a methane gas buildup rocked the underground coal mine early Wednesday. Methane gas was also believed to be the cause of an explosion at the mine in 2007 that killed 32 miners. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

Twenty-one workers died this week in an explosion at a coal mine in Colombia, the latest in a string of accidents that have brought calls for improved safety in that country:

The disaster at the La Preciosa mine, the same mine where 32 miners were killed in a 2007 blast, was the latest in a string of mining accidents in Colombia and has led to calls for more government regulation. About 100 people were killed in mining accidents last year, most coming from a huge blast at a coal mine in June that took the lives of 70 miners.

The Associated Press explains that the nation has just 16 inspectors for 3,000 coal mines:

Colombia’s mining minister has gone to the scene of the country’s latest mining disaster and says the nation has just 16 safety inspectors for 3,000 mines. Mining Minister Carlos Rodado said in a radio interview Thursday that the latest disaster should prompt more investment in mine safety. La Preciosa passed a government safety inspection in November.

Relatives of miner Lucelio Carreno, who died during an explosion at the La Preciosa mine, sit around his coffin at their home in Sardinata, northeastern Colombia, Thursday Jan. 27, 2011. Twenty-one miners were killed when an explosion, likely caused by a methane gas buildup, rocked the underground coal mine early Wednesday. A similar blast killed 32 miners at the mine four years ago. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

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That’s a photo of the longwall shearer at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, and it’s probably the most interesting piece of new argument Massey made today during a media briefing on the company’s investigation of the April 5, 2010, mine disaster.

We’ve heard a lot of what Massey had to say today before:  The company believes a huge innundation of natural gas — not a build up of coal dust — fueled the terrible underground explosion that killed 29 miners. Massey doesn’t think MSHA’s tests of the rock-dusting meant to control explosive coal dust were accurate, and the company doesn’t think missing water sprays on the longwall shearer played any role in the explosion.

But with this photo, Massey tried to even more directly contradict MSHA’s theory of the explosion. Recall that MSHA said last week that worn-out bits on the longwall shearer could have caused sparks that ignited a methane and coal-dust explosion. MSHA even released this photo as proof:

Massey general counsel Shane Harvey said today that only two of the 44 bits on the shearer showed the kind of wear that MSHA was talking about.

I’ve posted the complete audio of the Massey briefing here

The bad news came yesterday: The first U.S. coal-mining death of 2011.

The accident happened at Baylor Mining’s Jims Branch No. 3a Mine in Wyoming County, W.Va., according to the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training. We don’t have many details, except that the accident occurred at about 12:30 p.m. Thursday and involved a beltline.

Then, we learned this morning that the miner who died was 19-year-old John C. Lester Jr., a red hat with more than 90 days experience in the mine, according to state officials.

UPDATED: MSHA has posted a preliminary report that describes the accident this way:

Victim received fatal injuries when he became caught between the moving No. 3 conveyor belt and the metal dip pan over the No. 3 conveyor belt that connected to the No. 4 conveyor belt discharge head roller.

Well, the rumors had been floating around for more than a month now that parts of the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s EIS on its stream protection rule had been leaked, so the story was bound to show up somewhere sooner or later … and Tim Huber over at The Associated Press got the scoop on it earlier this week.

I’ve been out for a couple days and I’m just catching up on it, but I made sure to post a copy of Tim’s story over at the Gazette’s Mining the Mountains page, so it doesn’t disappear from our free Web site in a week or so.

According to Tim’s story:

The Obama administration’s own experts estimate their proposal for protecting streams from coal mining would eliminate thousands of jobs and slash production across much of the country, according to a government document obtained by The Associated Press.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement document says the agency’s preferred rules would impose standards for water quality and restrictions on mining methods that would affect the quality or quantity of streams near coal mines. The rules are supposed to replace Bush-era regulations that set up buffer zones around streams and were aimed chiefly at mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia.

It continues:

The office, a branch of the Interior Department, estimated that the protections would trim coal production to the point that an estimated 7,000 of the nation’s 80,600 coal mining jobs would be lost. Production would decrease or stay flat in 22 states, but climb 15 percent in North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.

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Natural gas vs. Coal: A new wrinkle

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Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

We’ve talked many times here on Coal Tattoo about the prospects for coal as it tries to compete with the rise of natural gas.  But a new report today from ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten offers an interesting wrinkle:

Advocates for natural gas routinely assert that it produces 50 percent less greenhouse gases than coal and is a significant step toward a greener energy future. But those assumptions are based on emissions from the tailpipe or smokestack and don’t account for the methane and other pollution emitted when gas is extracted and piped to power plants and other customers.

The EPA’s new analysis doubles its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells, drastically changing the picture of the nation’s emissions that the agency painted as recently as April. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported.

When all these emissions are counted, gas may be as little as 25 percent cleaner than coal, or perhaps even less.


Here’s a new report from Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Federal inspectors cited a Canadian coal company for 19 health and safety violations during the nearly three months that a Spike TV crew was filming a reality show at its southern West Virginia mine, but shooting has wrapped up with no accidents or injuries.

“Coal,” shot at Cobalt Coal Corp.’s Westchester mine, is now in production and will premiere at 10 p.m. March 30. Nine subsequent one-hour episodes will air each Wednesday, Spike spokeswoman Debra Fazio said.

Ten videographers trained for 80 hours and were certified as apprentice coal miners to work underground at the McDowell County operation. They started shooting Nov. 9 and finished Jan. 21, Fazio said Monday.

During that time, Cobalt was cited for 19 violations, nearly half of which the Mine Safety and Health Administration deemed “significant and substantial,” or likely to cause serious injury. Three involved violations of the mine’s ventilation plan, while MSHA records show two others were for allowing highly explosive material such as coal dust to pile up.

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The pundit class of our country is, of course, in a frenzy about tonight’s State of the Union address, with everyone offering views about what President Obama will say and what he should say. David Roberts over at Grist, for example, wants President Obama to say:

… I plan to vigorously defend the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to implement reasonable measures to reduce climate pollution. As the agency carries on with the work of the Clean Air and Water Acts, some of the most successful and cost-effective public health programs in the nation’s history, I will veto any bill that attempts to take them backwards.

When we make our people healthier and our industries more efficient, we make our economy stronger. There is no conflict between clean air and prosperity. They are complements, each a measure of America’s strength and confidence.

So, why shouldn’t Coal Tattoo get into the act?

I’d like to hear from readers on various sides of coal industry issues … what would you like to hear President Obama say about coal? And how about we try to get beyond easy sound-bites and stuff like, “I want him to say he’s abolishing mountaintop removal effective tomorrow” or “I want him to announce he’s doing away with EPA” … let’s be a little more thoughtful than that, folks.

As a reminder, coal did get a mention in last year’s State of the Union, in which the President said:

… To create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.

Interestingly enough, just two days after that speech, in an unusual question-and-answer session with Republican members of Congress, President Obama also called for West Virginia to transition its coal industry into a cleaner, safer future:

So what I want to do is with West Virginia to figure out how we can seize that future. But to do that, that means there’s going to have to be some transition. We can’t operate the coal industry in the United States as if we’re still in the 1920s or the 1930s or the 1950s. We’ve got to be thinking, what does that industry look like in the next hundred years?

And it’s going to be different. And that means there’s going to be some transition, and that’s where I think a well-thought-through policy of incentivizing the new while, you know, recognizing that there’s going to be a transition process and we’re not just suddenly putting the old out of business right away. That has to be something that both Republicans and Democrats should be able to embrace.

Rolling Stone magazine has listed West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller among the 12 politicians and executives doing the most to block progress on dealing with global warming.  The full list is available here.

This is what the magazine had to say about Sen. Rockefeller:

The senior senator from the ancestral home of Big Coal talks a good game when it comes to global warming. “I’m concerned that powerful voices continue to argue that climate change is a myth,” Rockefeller declared last year. “Greenhouse gas emissions are not healthy for our Earth or for her people, and we must take serious action to reduce them.” But Rockefeller’s deeds don’t match his lofty rhetoric. Last year, he led the charge in the Senate to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon emissions, insisting that Congress should be the one to “determine how best to reduce greenhouse gases in a way that protects West Virginia’s economy.” Given that there is no chance lawmakers will take action on carbon pollution anytime soon, Rockefeller’s move was just another excuse to burn more coal. What’s worse, it also provided Republicans with bipartisan cover in their crusade to strip the Obama administration of its last remaining way to cut planet-warming pollution on its own. “Who does Senator Rockefeller think will protect Americans from the dangers of global warming if the government is left with no tools to do so?” asks Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

MSHA has just released its final investigation report on the death of Jimmy R. Carmack, a 42-year-old section foreman who was killed when part of a mine wall fell on him on June 16, 2010, at Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary Lone Mountain Processing Inc.’s Clover Fork No. 1 Mine in Holmes Mill, Harlan County, Ky.

Federal investigators concluded:

This fatal accident occurred because the Operator failed to provide adequate support for the ribs on the 001 Section to protect the miners. Additionally, the Operator failed to conduct adequate pre-shift and on-shift examinations and ignored the hazardous rib conditions on the 001 Section. The Operator failed to propose changes to the Roof Control Plan to address the adverse conditions on the 001 Section when those conditions indicated the plan was not suitable for controlling the ribs.

Here’s how MSHA described what happened:

On Wednesday June 16, 2010 at approximately 3:00 p.m., six members of the afternoon production crew of the 001 Section under the direction of Jimmy R. Carmack, Section Foreman, entered the mine via rubber tired diesel mantrip. The crew arrived on the section at approximately 3:30 p.m. and completed the “hot seat” change out with the dayshift crew. According to Jay Partin III, Roof Bolter/Mobile Roof Support Operator, Carmack (victim) checked the No. 1 Entry and directed the Continuous Miner Operator, Justin Guthrie to mine the barrier block left of the No. 1 Entry. At the time of the accident, the section was retreat mining.

The first shuttle car of coal could not be transported to the dumping point because the left inby rib corner of the No. 2 intersection had fallen out, blocking the shuttle car roadway in the crosscut toward the No. 1 entry. Carmack directed Ryan Daniels, Scoop Operator, to bring the scoop and remove the fallen material from the roadway. The continuous mining machine could then be used to remove the remainder of the loose rib.

Carmack was standing in the intersection of the No. 2 Entry discussing corrective measures for the area of fallen rib material, located at the left inby corner rib, with crew members: Guthrie; Partin; Donnie Taylor, Shuttle Car Operator; Daniels; and Forest Evan Carroll, Shuttle Car Operator. During their discussion, the right outby rib corner fell, dislodging two large Heintzmann roof jacks. One of the dislodged jacks struck Carmack in the head, causing fatal injuries.

Partin went to Carmack as soon as the dust from the falling rib had cleared, but could not detect a pulse or other signs of life. Carmack was placed on a long spine board, loaded onto a personnel carrier and transported to the surface where he was pronounced dead by Philip Bianchi, Harlan County Coroner, at 6:20 p.m.

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Friday roundup, Jan. 21, 2011

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Gazette photo by Chris Dorst

In the wake of last week’s veto of the Spruce Mine permit and this week’s big “Rally for Coal” at the West Virginia Capitol, we’ve had a good discussion going on here on Coal Tattoo about what this all means for the long-term issues surrounding the future of coal and the coalfields.

If anybody missed it, I wanted to recommend a couple of important points raised in the Huffington Post/Appalachian Voices commentary by Matt Wasson. In particular, Matt takes on the idea that the ability for the U.S. mining industry to produce the coal our society needs is somehow tied only to EPA’s refusal to issues any old permit a company wants:

According to the Energy Information Administration, the US coal mining industry was operating at an anemic 75% of its production capacity in 2009, down from 85% in 2008. That low capacity utilization is the result of a huge drop in demand for coal as well as competition from a burgeoning supply of natural gas. To put the current controversy in perspective, the 2.7 million tons of coal that the Spruce mine would have produced annually represents less than 1% of the unused production capacity at already-permitted US mines. Moreover, the EIA’s recently released 2011 Annual Energy Outlook projects that coal demand will not return to 2008 levels for the next 15 years. In the mean time, there are plenty of other mining companies that would be happy to take up any available market share, which helps explain why the Spruce backlash is only coming from West Virginia politicians and not from western or midwestern coal state legislators.

Even if a government agency or Congress went so far as to shut down every single surface coal mine in Central Appalachia, the average capacity utilization of existing US mines would only need to increase from 75% to 82% to replace that lost production. Thus, the argument that EPA restrictions on mountaintop removal permits threaten our energy supply and national security has no basis in fact whatsoever. As in, like, none.

Similarly, EPA’s stricter enforcement of laws impacting mountaintop removal mining would have no impact on the national unemployment rate even if the agency really was out to destroy jobs and the economy, as those in the coal industry frequently contend. Because there is insufficient demand for all of the coal that US companies could produce, jobs created to mine coal in one location come at the expense of jobs that would have been created or retained at other mines. It’s not like permitting a mine suddenly creates new demand for the coal it will produce.

The discussion on these issues is continuing this afternoon over at this spot on Coal Tattoo…

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AP photo by Jeff Gentner

We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground – but we will not reach it by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Dec. 3, 2009

I was re-reading those words this morning as I considered yesterday’s big “Rally for Coal” sponsored by Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin (the state Supreme Court says there’s really no such thing as “Acting Governor“) and also heavily promoted by Sen. Joe Manchin.

Manchin, of course, has been seeking as much publicity as possible on this one, taking time out from a statewide tour to have a press conference the day EPA announced its veto of the Spruce Mine — and then yesterday, conveniently announcing just hours before the big rally that his very first piece of legislation as a United State Senator would be one to strip EPA of its authority to police the Army Corps of Engineers’ permitting practices under the Clean Water Act.

But I wondered what Sen. Robert C. Byrd would say today about the Spruce Mine veto, and about the way West Virginia’s political leadership is responding to the Obama administration’s continued push to try to reduce coal’s impacts on our environment and on coalfield communities.

Well, no one can say for sure. But we do know that Sen. Byrd previously offered a much more measured response to the EPA’s threatened veto of this permit than other elected officials in the state, saying in March 2010:

The announcement by the EPA today of its Proposed Determination to exercise its veto authority over the Spruce #1 Mine permit begins a process that enables the company and the public to comment on the matter in writing and at public hearings. I would strongly encourage all parties to seek a balanced, fair, reasonable compromise.

EPA Administrator Jackson reiterated to me that more wide-ranging guidance is forthcoming in the near future, providing clarity relating to water quality issues and mining permits. I encouraged her to move forward as soon as possible so those seeking approval of permits can fully understand the parameters for acceptable activity under the Clean Water Act.

You have to wonder if Sen. Byrd wouldn’t have been pushing — both publicly and privately — for answers from Arch Coal executives and from EPA about why the two sides could come up with some reasonable permit changes, based on that once-secret report by Morgan Worldwide’s engineers. It’s very clear that none of the state’s remaining political leaders are interested in going that route.

In fact, both sides have really just gone back to their respective corners, throwing out the same sound bites and shouting in to the same echo chambers, trying to use the Spruce Mine veto to energize their base of supporters.

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‘Rally for Coal’ draws 1,000 to W.Va. Capitol

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Sen. Joe Manchin, right, and West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, far left, attend a rally for coal Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011 at the Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. More than 1,000 people crowded round the well of the state Capitol’s rotunda Thursday to rally in response to a recent action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Hey folks, I’ve been tied up all day covering the release of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s report on the Bayer CropScience plant in Institute, W.Va., but I wanted to pass on the early AP report on the “Rally for Coal” at the Capitol here in Charleston. The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden will have a complete report in tomorrow’s Gazette.

By Lawrence Messina

The Associated Press

From acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to working miners and their relatives, West Virginians spoke out Thursday at a rally against the Obama administration’s handling of the state’s coal industry.

More than 1,000 people filled the well of the state Capitol’s rotunda in response to last week’s regulatory action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The crowd also included scores of opponents of mountaintop removal mining who support the EPA action.

EPA announced last week that it’s revoking a crucial water permit for Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 mine. The 2,300-acre Logan County operation would have been the state’s largest mountaintop removal site.

Tomblin, a Democrat, was the first in a string a speakers at the hourlong event to blast EPA for that decision.

“This is about sending a message to Washington,” Tomblin said. “This rally is about jobs, plain and simple.”

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Here’s a statement issued last evening by the office of Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.:

In light of information released today by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) called on Congress to move on legislation immediately that would close loopholes in federal mine safety law that contributed to the inability of MSHA to prevent the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy. House Republicans voted to block the passage of mine safety legislation on December 8

“The preliminary results of the Upper Big Branch investigation underscore the need to provide MSHA with additional tools to keep a mine operator from using loopholes to avoid sanctions necessary to prevent horrific tragedies such as this one. Unfortunately, this game that some mine operators play ultimately cost the lives of 29 miners,” said Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee. “Republicans should join us and move without delay to close these loopholes and prevent another Upper Big Branch from happening again.”

Investigators found a widespread failure to comply with mandatory rock dusting standards necessary to prevent coal dust explosions and dysfunctional safety equipment necessary to reduce methane and coal dust ignitions at the longwall mining machine. MSHA’s preliminary findings indicate that this mine was managed in a reckless manner and in utter disregard of mandatory safety standards.

In the year prior to the April 2010 explosion, Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine was cited 515 times and ordered to shut down operations on 52 separate occasions – an average of once per week. However, because of shortcomings in the law, mine operators have an incentive to appeal citations in order to avoid tougher scrutiny, such as the ‘pattern of violations’ sanction.

Legislation proposed last year by Rep. Miller, the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, would give the Mine Safety and Health Administration powerful new tools to keep miners safe and hold mine operators accountable for putting their workers in danger.

This just in from the office of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin:

Washington, D.C. – Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) has delivered a letter to his Senate colleagues urging them to join with him and cosponsor legislation to oppose last week’s unprecedented regulatory actions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that threaten jobs and investments in every state.

Sen. Manchin told his fellow lawmakers that he will introduce legislation in the coming weeks to prevent the EPA from retroactively vetoing permits that have already been granted and are in operation. Just last week, the EPA retroactively vetoed a coal mining permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in West Virginia – even though the mine had received approval after an exhaustive, approximately 10-year regulatory process that included time for an extensive review by the EPA.

“At a time when our nation is struggling to recover from the worst economic recession in history, and with an unemployment rate that has hovered near 10 percent for two years, the precedent this decision sets could not be more dangerous,” Manchin wrote.

“Although the EPA claims no other permits are currently being considered for a retroactive veto, the potential negative effects of this decision are staggering. Now, every similarly valid Section 404 permit is faced with regulatory limbo and potentially the same after-the-fact reversal. Some activists are already urging the EPA to apply this decision to other operations in West Virginia and other states, putting countless more jobs, and our economic recovery, at grave risk.

“In the coming weeks, I intend to pursue legislation to clarify, in no uncertain terms, that the EPA does not have authority under the Clean Water Act to reverse prior approvals of the USACE where a permit has been put through a rigorous regulatory process, including time for thorough review by the EPA for possible negative environmental consequences, and awarded by the USACE prior to any official objections from the EPA.”

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I’ve been wasting some time this week, asking West Virginia political leaders what they thought of the once-secret engineering report outlining ways that Arch Coal Inc. could have greatly reduce the damaging impacts of its proposed Spruce No. 1 Mine.

Let me tell you … these folks do not want to talk about this. They want it to just go away and not be mentioned again. It just doesn’t fit into the neat narrative that the coal industry and its political supporters have put together, saying that the U.S. EPA has wrongly revoked an issued permit that passed all of the regulatory tests.

Gosh, none of the staffers I’ve talked to for West Virginia’s representatives would even admit on the record that they had bothered to read the report.

For example, I asked Briana Warner, a press spokeswoman for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., if her boss was going to examine the Morgan Worldwide study.  Here’s my specific question:

Wondering if Sen. Rockefeller is going to examine this engineering study and ask Arch Coal why the company didn’t pursue these options, and if the senator is concerned that Arch Coal refused to move toward alternative mining plans that would have reduced environmental impacts at a minimal cost.

This is the statement I received in response:

Senator Rockefeller has urged both sides to do what it takes to find a solution – making sure that EPA decisions are made responsibly and reliably for all West Virginia stakeholders. Rockefeller believes that a veto of a permit that was lawfully issued after many years of environmental review and with EPA participation is not a reasonable outcome.

You think that answers the questions I asked?

But if there was one member of West Virginia’s delegation who I thought might be interested in the Spruce Mine study, it was Rep. Nick J. Rahall. This West Virginia Democrat was on the conference committee that wrote the final version of the Surface Mining Act. He was chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee that has oversight duties in this policy area. Rahall has repeatedly been a thorn in the side of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement on certain strip-mining issues. And of our congressional delegation, Rahall has consistently been the one to show the most interest in a variety of important national environmental issues.

So I asked Rahall’s press office questions similar to those I asked Sen. Rockefeller’s staff. A few days went by, and I got no response. So I asked again. I just wondered if Rep. Rahall or anyone on his staff had looked at the study or perhaps quizzed Arch Coal about it, or even asked EPA about it.

This was the best the Rahall could do:

Arch Coal and the EPA undertook months of detailed talks concerning the Spruce No. 1 Mine permit, and why Arch and/or the EPA may have rejected some alternatives or proposed others is a question that only Arch and EPA are in a position to address. Where I take issue is with the fact that this veto action was taken against a previously granted permit – not one that was in the application, evaluation, or modification process. As I have said, the legality of this veto is a matter that I expect to be heard in and decided by the courts.

Remember, most of the mountaintop removal mining — an activity that an article in the respected journal Science said is causing “pervasive and irreversible” impacts — is happening in Congressman Rahall’s district. To date, I’m not aware of any proposals from him on how to try to reduce this impacts.