Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, March 11, 2011

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Indian coal workers are silhouetted as they work at a coal factory on the outskirts of Amritsar, India, Monday, March 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

The New York Times had an interesting story yesterday headlined, Clean-coal Debate Focuses on Gasification Plant:

A bill now on Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk to build a plant on the far Southeast Side that would supply Chicago customers with substitute natural gas made from Illinois coal has turned up the heat on the “clean coal” debate.

Proponents are billing the proposed plant, to be built by Chicago Clean Energy, as a key ingredient in the Midwest’s energy future. They say it would be a model for storing carbon emissions in the ground and provide hundreds of jobs.

Opponents — dozens of whom protested in front of the State of Illinois Building this week — say the plant is a bad idea environmentally and economically. They have packed two recent town-hall-style meetings to object.

The emotions and rhetoric prompted by the bill in Illinois, which has an abundant supply of coal, are emblematic of the debate about technological innovation, job creation and environmental benefits at a time when the economy is weak and the benefits of so-called clean-coal technology are unproven. The proposed Chicago gasification plant and others like it will not directly replace coal as an energy source, since the proposed plant would create gas for heating and cooking — competing with natural gas — rather than for electricity.

At issue is a bill passed by the state legislature in January that would require Peoples Gas and other utilities to buy gas for 30 years at a fixed rate from Chicago Clean Energy, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the New York firm Leucadia National Corporation. Chicago Clean Energy would build the $3 billion plant, which would also use petroleum coke from oil refineries. A related bill would require utilities in Southern Illinois to buy gas from a coal-to-gas plant that would be built there.

A Coal Tattoo reader pointed out two interesting stories from The Economist. One, headlined Climate Change in Black and White, reported:

AN IDEAL fossil-fuel power-plant would produce power, carbon dioxide and nothing more. Less-than-ideal ones—not to mention other devices for the combustion of carbon, from diesel generators to brick kilns and stoves burning dung—also emit various gases and gunk. These often cause local environmental problems, damaging lungs, hurting crops and shortening lives. And some of the gunk, notably soot or “black carbon”, can warm the planet, too.

Next week ministers attending the governing council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Nairobi will be presented with the summary of a new report on how fighting air pollution can help the global climate (the report itself is due to follow a couple of months later). The summary makes a powerful case for acting on two short-lived climate “forcings”, factors that change the amount of energy the atmosphere absorbs, as carbon dioxide does, but stay in it only briefly. One is black carbon and the other is ozone, which is vital for blocking ultraviolet rays in the stratosphere but hazardous in the bits of the atmosphere where plants live and people have to breathe.

In this Feb. 15, 2011 photo, from left, Chase Conaway, 10, Dylan Conaway, 12, and Kalyssa Conaway, 8, hold signs in support of power-plant operator TransAlta, the company that employs their father Patrick Conaway (not shown), at a rally at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. TransAlta’s has paid for new athletic fields, given millions to the United Way of Lewis County and donated equipment and employee time when local rivers flooded in 2007. So when Debbie Campbell, the head of the United Way chapter who grew up in the area, learned legislators wanted to shut down the plant early, she took the unusual step of rallying support on the company’s behalf. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In the other, Going Underground, the Economist discussed a new project to study more about the globe’s carbon cycle:

THE carbon cycle is the stuff of school books. It is a familiar tale of photosynthesis, forests, farming and fossils fuels. Understanding this cycle is important, both because it sustains life on Earth and because it is bound up with the rate of global warming. But are the outlines of the carbon cycle really that familiar?

One bit of big coal news this week came from Kentucky, where the Herald-Leader reported:

An environmental coalition filed a second notice of intent to sue a Kentucky coal mining company and called the state’s enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act an “abysmal failure.”

The group Appalachian Voices announced Wednesday it found that Bardstown-based Nally & Hamilton Enterprises submitted inaccurate water pollution reports to the state and might have failed to perform testing and monitoring. Appalachian Voices said it reviewed discharge monitoring reports, which are public records, and identified more than 12,000 violations of the Clean Water Act with potential penalties of more than $400 million.

“The company seems to have cut and pasted previous sets of data in later reports rather than monitoring the discharge and submitting accurate data for each month,” Appalachian Voices said in a news release Wednesday.

My buddy Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal got two blog posts out of this story. One discussed whether such situations merit criminal investigation:

One question about today’s story in The Courier-Journal about the Bardstown-based coal company that’s facing accusations from several environmental groups, and notices of violations from the state regulators. Should any of the violations be criminally investigated.

Robert Kennedy Jr. thinks so:

When Kennedy discussed similar alleged violations of faking Clean Water Act discharge reports by Frasure Creek and ICG mining companies last fall, Kennedy called for a criminal investigation –— and he did so again on Wednesday with Nally & Hamilton.

He said the repetitive nature of the reporting — like cutting and pasting months of the same data together — suggests a crime was committed, Kennedy said. And he questioned why Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway and the U.S. Attorney’s Office have not pursued criminal charges.

“Apparently there is no stomach by the U.S. Attorney or the Kentucky Attorney General to prosecute, …” Kennedy said.

Jim also took a look at the way the company involved responded to the allegations:

Faced with some negative publicity about alleged violations of the Clean Water Act, Nally & Hamilton Enterprises, Inc., took down its home page that provides information about the company, and replaced it with a photographic slide show of verdant and elk-covered reclamation sites.

And they didn’t return phone calls from The Courier-Journal about the allegations.

Their approach is very different from the International Coal Group. Every time I’ve called them up, they’ve answered the phone and answered questions head on. They even invited me out to see a surface mining operation first hand, including blasting.

Regular Coal Tattoo readers know that ICG’s Gene Kitts took the time to write a guest blog for us called “Why Surface Mine?” and I would agree with Jim Bruggers that the folks at ICG have generally been willing to engage, discuss and educate me and others in the media about their industry.

Meanwhile, Sue Sturgis at Facing South also had a take on the new Kentucky case:

The citizen groups were disappointed to see Gov. Steve Beshear’s (D) administration repeatedly take the industry’s side over the public interest. But it’s precisely because of that phenomenon dubbed “agency capture” that that the Clean Water Act included a citizen lawsuit provision to bring lawbreakers to justice, notes Waterkeeper Alliance President Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

To illustrate why the provision is so critical, Kennedy asks us to think about a child who’s learning to read in a Kentucky schoolroom and discovers she can’t keep up with her classmates — not because she doesn’t have the God-given ability but because she was exposed to neurotoxins like mercury and lead from the mine pollution contaminating her drinking water.

“Nally and Hamilton took that capacity away from her,” he says. “Why is that a lesser crime than robbing a bank or stealing from a store?”

Also this week, the AP out of Kentucky reported:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would have to review mining permit applications more quickly under legislation filed Tuesday by two Appalachian lawmakers who say they want to boost coalfield employment.

U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers of Kentucky and Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia introduced a House version of the so-called Mining Jobs Protection Act that they say would protect Appalachian coal miners from “strangulation by regulation.”

The House bill, similar to one filed in the Senate last week, would give the EPA up to 60 days to accept or reject permit applications so that mining companies aren’t left waiting indefinitely to learn whether they’ll be allowed to open new operations or to expand existing ones. Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said the current waiting period is one of the top complaints of the mining industry. He said some companies have had to wait years for a response.

Howard Berkes at NPR reported on another lawsuit filed against Massey Energy over the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

And finally this week, our friend Dan Radmacher, the former editorial page editor here at the Gazette, is leaving his current job at the Roanoke Times:

He will become communications director for the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment, a Lewisburg, W.Va.-based watchdog organization tuned into issues such as mountaintop removal and coal-fired power plants. He will stay with the paper through the end of March and will continue to live in Roanoke.

That story included this interesting comment from Dan:

Radmacher said he won’t miss “the assumption by some people that we’re not operating in good faith.” It’s one thing to disagree with someone’s opinion, he said, but another to question his integrity.