Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, March 25, 2011

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Mine workers and residents gather outside a coal mine after a explosion in Sorange near Quetta, Pakistan on Sunday, March 20, 2011. A methane gas explosion in a coal mine in southwestern Pakistan killed at least 43 miners. (AP Photo/Arshad Butt)

I apologize for not getting a Friday roundup done last week. I was busy with some other assignments, but we’ll try to catch up here today.

First off, we have a couple of interesting “fact check” items regarding claims about the Obama administration’s coal policies.

In one of them, the Lexington Herald-Leader declared to be “mostly false” the allegation by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that “President Obama is on record saying he wants to bankrupt the coal industry.”  According to the paper’s Campaign Watchdog:

There’s no evidence President Barack Obama has ever said he wants to bankrupt the coal industry, although Obama has proposed policies that he acknowledged might “bankrupt” anybody who builds a traditional coal-fired power plant.

Next, there’s this piece from WSLS-TV in Roanoke and PolitiFact Virginia regarding statements from Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Va., regarding EPA’s guidelines on conductivity and Appalachian coal mining:

Not even expensive bottled water, like Perrier and Evian, are of good enough quality to pump out of mines in Southwest Virginia, according to the EPA regulation.

Here’s what they found:

To test the accuracy of Griffith’s statement, PolitiFact Virginia Reporter Jacob Geiger went to a lab at VCU where he and a researcher actually tested the pollutants in various samples of water. One sample was from the James River and several others came from bottled water companies including Evian and Perrier.

In the PolitiFact Virginia reporter, Geiger said, “The EPA’s standard for conductivity is 500 microsiemans. The distilled water had a conductivity of 2.2 microsiemens. The James River water had a conductivity of 139 microsiemens. Evian 584. The Perrier had 795. And the Pellegrino had 1,266 microsiemens.”

What does all of that mean? Technically, that Congressman Griffith’s statement was accurate. Perrier and most of the bottled waters did not pass the EPA’s regulations for streams near the coal mining areas in Appalachia.


But, PolitiFact Virginia reports that this technically accurate statement misses the point. The EPA guidelines aren’t necessarily designed to make human drinking water safe. Instead, an EPA spokesperson says the regulations are in place to protect the environment including fish.

Richard Yost told PolitiFact Virginia, “The science demonstrates that stream life present in waters contaminated by mine waste is killed when salinity levels rise above levels that would not be toxic to humans who may drink such water. Aquatic organisms and people respond to salinity in very different ways, so it is not technically valid to make direct comparisons between healthy levels of salinity in central Appalachian streams and acceptable levels of salinity in drinking water.”

Simply put… what might be safe for us to drink could kill fish and other wildlife.

The verdict?

Rep. Griffith’s statement is: Barely True. The researchers note that while technically accurate, Griffith’s argument misses the point.

Specifically they wrote, “Saying Perrier is good for humans and therefore must be OK for fish seems to us like saying that because humans eat oranges, fish should too.”

While we’re on the subject of conductivity, John Hale of The Rural Blog had this piece about the issue, reporting:

The future of surface coal mining in Appalachia could depend on a scientific standard that the Obama administration has adopted as a sort of litmus test for water pollution but one that the coal industry says hasn’t been proven in the field.

In January the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vetoed what would have been the largest mountaintop-removal coal mine ever, Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 Mine in southern West Virginia’s Logan County. At the heart of EPA’s veto was conductivity, a measure of stream health, which the agency announced last April it would consider in mountaintop removal permitting.

EPA says research has proven that high conductivity, which indicates a high level of salts, damages aquatic life in streams. The coal industry says that research is far from conclusive.

And, our friend Dan Radmacher wrote more about his job change to work as communications director for the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment in this Roanoke Times column:

As one astute observer wrote to me when news broke that I would be leaving the newspaper to join the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, “I had a feeling that concern for the Appalachian environment is where your heart is, but as head of The Roanoke Times editorial page staff you couldn’t write about it every day. Now you’ll be able to speak freely and often on subjects such as mountaintop removal, associated water pollution, and their impact on Appalachian communities and people.”

The center does excellent work in those areas and more, and I’m excited for the opportunity to help Executive Director Joe Lovett and the rest of the staff as they battle against the many abuses perpetrated upon the people and places of Appalachia.

When I left the Gazette, I wrote about how my 10 years there had shaped me as an editorial writer and how I had come to realize tremendous satisfaction in helping give the powerless a voice as they fight the exploitation of the powerful.

That exploitation has been a recurring theme in the history of Appalachia, and fighting it is the mission of the organization I’m joining.

The debate is about coal, climate change, state and federal regulations, the fragile economies of states like Kentucky and West Virginia, and the mountains, rivers and forests of Appalachia. It involves complex, emotionally powerful issues involving people’s jobs, their health, their homes and their children.

I am looking forward to retaking a place in that debate.

Also in the Roanoke Times, Metro Columnist Dan Casey wrote a tongue-in-check piece about mountaintop removal:

The best thing about mountaintop removal is that it removes those shade-causing mountains. Have you ever lived on the east side of one of those in the winter? It gets darn cold when the sun drops behind them about 2:30 in the afternoon.

Removing those mountains will warm people’s homes, which will cause people to use their electric heaters less, which will mean the power company will need less coal to generate electricity.

Which means the coal company won’t have to remove the mountains.

In that sneaky but counterintuitive way, mountaintop removal actually saves mountaintops, though this is not widely understood.

Casey wrote a follow-up column, in which he explained:

You can’t say much about the coal mining process known as mountaintop removal without inflaming passions on both sides of the debate.

That was clear in the wake of my Feb. 17 column, which cheekily extolled the controversial practice’s many “benefits,” such flattened landscapes that would lower road-building costs and spur bicycling and new Super Walmarts.

Some people got the sarcasm, others didn’t.

Terry Dotson of Knoxville, Tenn., understood I was kidding. And he blasted me like a peak rich with fossil fuels.

“You sir have no idea what you jest about,” he wrote. “Mountaintop mining properly done, as it is today, provides lots of benefits … There are schools, airports, golf courses, shopping centers, soccer fields, horse arenas, football fields, baseball fields, business locations, federal prisons, subdivisions — all above flood stages in the mountains, not down where they are washed away year after year.”

Dotson added: “Being unconsciously incompetent is not good when people read your uninformed opinions!!”

But H. Rucker Keister III of Salem begged to disagree.

“Dan, this is best piece I’ve seen in [The Roanoke Times] in a long time,” he wrote. “I KNEW I was tired of walking and driving up and down those bothersome mountains. Now I can thank the coal and energy companies for fixing that for me!”

Jeff Biggers had some interesting international news this week, writing:

When thousands of Bangladeshi take to the streets again on March 28th as part of a decade-long battle to halt a devastating British-owned open-pit coal mine, the world will not only be watching whether Bangladesh’s government will honor a coal ban agreement from 2006 or resort to violence.

In light of disturbing WikiLeaks cables, American and worldwide human rights and environmental organizations will also be questioning why the Obama administration is covertly pushing for Bangladesh to reverse course and acquiesce to an internationally condemned open-pit mine that will displace an estimated 100,000-200,000 villagers and ravage desperately needed farmland and water resources.

There were some interesting pieces about the nuclear crisis in Japan that made mention of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and would be of interest to Coal Tattoo readers who are interested not just in energy policy, but in how major workplace or environmental disasters can occur, despite the many layers of protections industry sets up.

In one story, the New York Times pointed out:

Three of the world’s chief sources of large-scale energy production — coal, oil and nuclear power — have all experienced eye-popping accidents in just the past year. The Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia, the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the unfolding nuclear crisis in Japan have dramatized the dangers of conventional power generation at a time when the world has no workable alternatives able to operate at sufficient scale.

The policy implications for the United States are vexing. “It’s not possible to achieve a climate solution based on existing technology without a significant reliance on nuclear power,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington and an energy and climate change adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign. “It’s early to reach many conclusions about what happened in Japan and the relevance of what happened to the United States. But the safety of nuclear power will certainly be high on the list of questions for the next several months.”

“The world is fundamentally a set of relative risks,” Mr. Grumet added, noting the confluence of disasters in coal mining, oil drilling and nuclear plant operations. “The accident certainly has diminished what had been a growing impetus in the environmental community to support nuclear power as part of a broad bargain on energy and climate policy.”

And in another piece in its Week in Review section, the Times explained:

The sobering fact is that megadisasters like the Japanese earthquake can overcome the best efforts of our species to protect against them. No matter how high the levee or how flexible the foundation, disaster experts say, nature bats last. Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, warned that an earthquake in the United States along the New Madrid fault, which caused strong earthquakes early in the 19th century, could kill tens, or even hundreds of thousands of people in the more densely populated cities surrounding the Mississippi River.

All technology can do in the face of such force is to minimize damage to communities and infrastructure, he said, and “on both of those fronts, we’re never going to be perfect.”

And a Washington Post piece reported:

Many scholars now think that the very complexity of modern life — including our transportation and communication systems, our economy and our social interactions — is directly implicated in the severity of catastrophes. In more complex systems, even small changes or perturbations can have disproportionate and unpredictable effects. The things that make our systems more efficient also make them more effective in spreading the impact of a catastrophe.

The lesson to be drawn from all this is not that we should roll back the clock and return to a simpler and less interconnected existence. It is, rather, that more attention must be paid to the extra risks that come with all the advantages of modern life. There may be a significant cost involved in preventing low-probability disasters, or having sufficient infrastructure to deal with them when they cannot be prevented. But as we are reminded by this week’s events in Japan, that cost is likely to be less than the cost of ignoring those risks and doing nothing at all.

Finally, the Spike TV reality show, “Coal” is certainly getting a lot of media coverage, including reviews by The New York Times, The Associated Press, and MetroNews.