Photo of the Brushy Fork impoundment, by Vivian Stockman, with flight services provided by SouthWings.
The folks from Coal River Mountain Watch announced today that they’re having a press conference next week to urge the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to take strong action regarding problems OSMRE has apparently discovered at the former Massey Energy Brushy Fork slurry impoundment, now owned by Alpha Natural Resources, in Raleigh County.
According to today’s media advisory:
The Charleston Office of Surface Mining recently issued a Ten-Day Notice on the Brushy Fork slurry impoundment in Raleigh County over safety concerns with a portion of the impoundment. Citizens who live downstream and their allies will gather at the OSM office to express their concerns and demand the OSM take the strongest possible enforcement action.
Now, some readers may recall that we covered last year here on Coal Tattoo some disagreements between OSMRE and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection about safety issues regarding the Brushy Fork impoundment. You can re-read those previous posts here and here.
Now, OSMRE inspectors have apparently issued another Ten-Day Notice, after discovering what they believe could be serious problems related to the company’s alleged failure to “prevent liquifaction and provide safeguards against the development of this condition.” In response, WVDEP has ordered the company to come up with a drilling plan “to demonstrate that liquification safeguards exist” because state inspectors do not believe the data they’ve examined so far supports OSMRE’s position that there is a problem.
We’ll have more on all of this next week, after I’ve had a chance to talk more with officials from OSMRE and WVDEP, and after we see what the citizen groups have to say at their press conference and what kind of response we get from Alpha Natural Resources.
Researchers found “significantly higher” rates of birth defects in areas with mountaintop removal mines than in non-mining regions in central Appalachia, according to a study released Tuesday.
The study “offers one of the first indications that health problems are disproportionately concentrated specifically in [mountaintop removal] areas. It’s significant not only to people who live in coalfields but to policymakers as well,” said Michael Hendryx, an epidemiologist at West Virginia University.
Hendryx is one of the authors of the study, titled “The Association between Mountaintop Mining and Birth Defects among Live Births in Central Appalachia, 1996-2003.”
“This study extends previous research on low birth weight and on adult morbidity and mortality in coal mining areas,” Hendryx said.
Now, one thing we know for sure is that whenever the coal industry says regulators are getting in their way, Appalachian political leaders are falling all over themselves to issue news releases reacting. And whenever that happens, the local media throughout the coalfields do their duty: Repeating without question the industry line.
But in West Virginia, at least, I didn’t see much from the local media. And gosh, I haven’t seen once single public official issue a news release expressing the slightest bit of concern about whether their constituents (or future constituents) are facing a greater risk of birth defects because of mountaintop removal.
Does the study deserve far more attention, from the media and from policymakers?
Well, here’s what our friend Michael Hendryx said in a news release issued by WVU:
We found that birth defects were significantly higher in mountaintop mining areas versus non-mining areas for six of seven types of defects: circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, urogenital and ‘other’.
Overall, the prevalence rate for any defect was significant in both periods but was higher in the more recent period. In the earlier period the rate of birth defects was 13 percent higher in mountaintop mining areas and increased to 42 percent higher in the later period.
Is a 42 percent higher rate of birth defects in mountaintop removal areas big news? Is it a major public policy issue?
To date, the research generated by university researchers and other scientists has been effectively ignored by Congress and other legislative bodies. Thus, the tragedy of mountaintop removal mining remains legal. To help break through this willful ignorance by Congress, bought and paid for by the coal industry and its allies, the National Research Council needs to intervene. Already published and peer reviewed research underscores the urgency to do so. The nation’s preeminent scientific agency needs to be heard on this issue: the National Academy of Sciences and its National Research Council were not established to be ignored.
Certainly every agency with any jurisdiction whatsoever over mountaintop removal mining needs to acknowledge by their actions the published research about the effects of mountaintop removal mining, whether they involve ecological destruction or birth defects.
To help those agencies, and to help legislatures and citizens as well, the National Research Council needs to commission a study of mountaintop removal’s ecological and public health effects in Appalachia.
At the end of yesterday’s MSHA press conference, a local radio reporter asked a pretty darned good question. It went something like this: Is Massey 100 percent responsible for the 29 deaths at the Upper Big Branch Mine? Or is MSHA also to blame, at least in part?
Put in a practically impossible situation by that question, MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin said:
I don’t know if MSHA plays a part, but there are certainly things we could have done better. I’m sure everybody wishes that they had done something different to keep this from occurring.
Interestingly, Kevin cited one example, saying he wished that an MSHA inspector who was in a different part of the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 5, 2010, would have instead visited the mine’s longwall machine — where a mix of problems was just waiting to become the disaster. Kevin said:
If he had gone to the longwall I think we would have shut the mine down.
I can only imagine the way living with such life-and-death decisions must wear on longtime MSHA staffers like Kevin Stricklin, who I’m sure wants nothing more than to never, ever, have to investigate another coal-mining disaster.
At the same time, protecting the health, safety — the very lives — of our nation’s miners is their job. They know that going in. And after a disaster, part of their job is facing up to whatever agency shortcomings played a role, and of course taking action to try to fix those problems.
So, it’s telling that MSHA’s formal presentation Tuesday night for the families and Wednesday morning for the public and press contained no mention of any of the findings so far from the agency’s “internal review” of MSHA actions prior to the disaster.
I was reminded of the neat move that the Bush administration pulled four years ago (almost to the day), by releasing internal reviews for three disasters — Sago, Aracoma and Kentucky Darby — all on the same day. It was a nice way to take one bad press hit instead of three.
MSHA officials — from left to right, Patricia Smith, Kevin Stricklin and Joe Main — await the start of a press conference Wednesday. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.
Officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration — with a little help from initial media reports like mine last night — have probably confused things a bit on this business about Massey Energy keeping “two sets of books” at the Upper Big Branch Mine.
So let’s see if we can sort this out and be real clear here.
First, they weren’t really keeping “two sets” of mine examination books. At least not two sets of, for example, “pre-shift examination” books. They didn’t have one pre-shift book that they recorded hazards in and other they didn’t. They didn’t show the clean one to MSHA and keep the “dirty” one secret from government inspectors.
The situation MSHA described during today’s briefing is just slightly more complex than that. My buddy Howard Berkes over at NPR probably did a better job of explaining this than I did, so let’s take a look at what Howard reported early this morning:
Mine owner Massey Energy kept two sets of records that chronicled safety problems. One internal set of production reports detailed those problems and how they delayed coal production. But the other records, which are reviewed by federal mine safety inspectors and required by federal law, failed to mention the same safety hazards. Some of the hazards that were not disclosed are identical to those believed to have contributed to the explosion.
PATHFORK, Ky. (AP) — State officials say a miner has died in an underground mine in Harlan County.
The miner was working at the Manalapan Mining Co.’s P-1 mine in Pathfork around 11:50 a.m. EDT Wednesday. A statement from the state’s Energy and Environment Cabinet says preliminary reports show the miner was killed in a roof fall. Officials have not released the miner’s name.
The mine has been closed, and officials from the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing are investigating the incident.
It was the second fatality at a mine in Kentucky this year. Robert L. Cook of Inez died in March when he was pinned between a continuous miner boom and a mine wall at a mine in Martin County.
And while I was driving back from Beckley on the West Virginia Turnpike, my iPhone buzzed with an email statement from Ted Pile, the spokesman for Massey’s new owner, Alpha Natural Resources. The statement starts out well enough:
Ken, first, the last 13 months have been a difficult time for the miners’ families and our thoughts and prayers continue to go out to them. In regards to the MSHA briefing, we welcome any additional information that will help reconstruct what happened at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine.
But we also ask for time to conduct our own assessment of all the findings published to date as well as proprietary or confidential information we didn’t have access to prior to the acquisition of Massey. Our goal is to gain a full understanding of each contributing factor and more importantly, apply anything learned so that an event like this won’t ever happen again.
We’ve reported before here on Coal Tattoo about how Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield believes all mining accidents can be prevented … well, except maybe for the Upper Big Branch explosion — he “honestly doesn’t know” about that one.
Absent from today’s statement from Alpha? Any sort of criticism of the Massey safety practices outlined by MSHA in its investigative briefing.
Top MSHA officials say that they understand that the U.S. Department of Justice is looking into allegations — raised in civil litigation against Massey and its board members — that the former Massey board of directors was aware of serious safety problems at Upper Big Branch, but did little or nothing to remedy those problems.
During a press conference, I asked MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin about these revelations, and if MSHA was including an examination of them in its UBB probe, and Kevin told the media:
That information is being looked at by the Department of Justice.
In an interview later, I asked MSHA chief Joe Main if he was confident the Obama administration would seek criminal charges against any corporate officers found by investigators to have committed crimes that played a role in the mine disaster, and Joe told me:
I have every confidence that they [the DOJ] are carrying out a full and thorough investigation.
BEAVER, W.Va. — U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials have finished their presentation at today’s briefing on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and they’re starting a question-and-answer session for the public gathered at an auditorium here at the mine academy outside Beckley.
The major new point from the briefing has already been covered by this post last night, about the finding that MSHA investigators discovered two different sets of books, an indication that Massey knew about some safety problems at the mine, but did not report them as required in fireboss books.
The bottom line from the meeting so far is that MSHA investigators found these safety failures by the mine operator that contributed to the disaster: Failure to properly rockdust the mine, failure to control float coal dust, failure to maintain water sprays on the longwall shearer, and an emphasis on coal production over safety precautions.
According to MSHA:
“This explosion could and should have been prevented by the mine operator.”
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials have wrapped up their meeting with the families of the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and the briefing seems to have revealed a few new pieces of information.
First of all, the meeting apparently kicked off with a recorded video from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, who again expressed her sympathy to the families, thanked them for allowing her to spend time with them during the vigil that week in April 2010, and also promised the government would “leave no stone unturned” in prosecuting any criminal activity found to have occurred at Upper Big Branch.
But the biggest piece of news, according to numerous people who attended the briefing, is that MSHA revealed that agency investigators believe Massey’s Performance Coal Co. subsidiary was essentially keeping two sets of books about safety problems and hazards at the UBB operation. One set was called the “official” book, and that’s what was shown to government inspectors. The other set was called the “production” book, but it also included notations about safety problems or hazards discovered at the mine.
Shirley Whitt, whose brother Boone Payne died in the disaster, said that MSHA coal administrator Kevin Stricklin told the families that there was, “One set of books that had what problems they’d run into. That set was for Massey. Then other set was for MSHA so MSHA wouldn’t have any idea of the problems they were having.” Whitt said Stricklin told families that it was very unusual, but not necessarily illegal to have two sets of mine examination books.
But Whitt told the Gazette’s Gary Harki tonight:
I think that it makes it obvious that they (Massey) were trying to hide something. Why else would you do that?
When family members pressed on the question of the legality of the two sets of books, MSHA’s top lawyer, Patricia Smith, told the families that both MSHA and the U.S. Department of Justice were closely examining the two sets of books for potential violations of civil and criminal statutes that require accurate recording of hazards.
Several sources who attended tonight’s meeting also told me that MSHA officials told families that they have found Massey routinely did not record the required methane readings and airflow readings that were supposed to be part of regular mine safety examinations by company officials.
MSHA investigators have apparently completed a more than 200-page draft of their report on the disaster, but don’t expect to make it public in final form until sometime late this fall, according to sources who attended tonight’s meeting.
Tomorrow morning — after a private meeting tonight with the miners’ families — officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration have scheduled a major briefing on their investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.
On the one hand, MSHA is really promoting this event, noting that it is timed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of federal investigators beginning their underground investigation at the Massey Energy mine where 29 workers died.
MSHA will provide information about the physical evidence gathered in its investigation, as well as summaries of other evidence obtained by investigators. However, the underground investigation, interviews, physical testing and analysis of evidence are still ongoing. As has been the practice throughout MSHA’s investigation, some information will remain confidential in light of a concurrent U.S. Department of Justice criminal investigation, which is also ongoing, and requests by federal prosecutors to MSHA to limit the public release of evidence. President Obama has instructed both agencies to conduct thorough investigations into the tragedy, and to ensure that those responsible are brought to justice.
ARLINGTON, Va. – The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced that federal inspectors issued 428 citations, orders and safeguards during special impact inspections conducted at 15 coal mines and four metal/nonmetal mines last month. The coal mines were issued 339 citations, 12 orders and two safeguards, while the metal/nonmetal operations were issued 62 citations and 13 orders.
These inspections, which began in force during April 2010 following the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, involve mines that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns, including high numbers of violations or closure orders; indications of operator tactics, such as advance notification of inspections that prevent inspectors from observing violations; frequent hazard complaints or hotline calls; plan compliance issues; inadequate workplace examinations; a high number of accidents, injuries or illnesses; fatalities; and adverse conditions such as increased methane liberation, faulty roof conditions and inadequate ventilation.
“These impact inspections continue to spotlight serious health and safety conditions that exist at a number of mining operations around the country,” said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. “MSHA inspectors will not hesitate to use all of the enforcement tools at their disposal to bring these mines into compliance.”
As one example from last month’s impact inspections, on May 6, an inspection team arrived during the evening shift at Perry County Coal Corp.’s E4-2 Mine in Perry County, Ky. At the time of the inspection, the mine was on a 10-day spot inspection for methane liberation. Inspectors seized and monitored two phones on the surface to prevent advance notification of their arrival. They visited all four mechanized mining units and inspected conveyor belts in the outby areas of the mine.
Altogether, they issued 45 citations and three orders at this mine. Orders were issued for failing to abate a previous violation for combustible material along a conveyor belt, and to properly conduct the required dust parameter checks and on-shift examination. The operator was issued citations for ventilation-related violations, accumulations of combustible material along conveyor belts and on electrical equipment, and failure to maintain lifelines in the escapeways miners would use during a mine emergency. These conditions can lead to injury or death from a mine fire or explosion. The operator also was cited for failing to maintain dust collection systems designed to protect miners from black lung disease.
As a second example from last month, a team conducted an inspection May 16-23 at the Sherwin Alumina Co. LLC, Sherwin Alumina LP facility – a large alumina mine employing approximately 550 miners – located in San Patricio County, Texas. MSHA issued 35 citations and six unwarrantable failure orders.
Among the conditions inspectors found were areas where miners could fall from heights because of a lack of railings, covers or other protection; malfunctioning switches on electric equipment and circuits; equipment with safety defects; unguarded conveyor belts; and miners failing to wear life jackets or belts where there was a danger of falling into water. These are conditions commonly associated with injury or death in the mining industry.
That impact inspection was the second conducted at the Sherwin Alumina mine. The first was in May 2010.
Since April 2010, MSHA has conducted 278 impact inspections, which have resulted in 5,011 citations, 467 orders and 16 safeguards.
Here’s today’s bad news, from Leslie Fitzwater, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training:
Joseph M. Cassell, 33, of Glen Daniel died at approximately 1 a.m. on Monday, June 27, 2011, at Rhino Eastern LLC Eagle #1 Mine in Raleigh County. Mr. Cassell was a crew leader, and was struck by a rib roll while preparing to install timbers. The accident occurred in the #4 South section of the mine.
The investigation is a joint operation among the OMHST, MSHA and the company, and will continue tomorrow.
Amy Louviere, spokeswoman for the federal Mine Safety and and Health Administration, added that the accident occurred near a rib “brow,” or a low point in the roof:
At about 1:50 this morning, a 33 year old miner was killed when a rib brow fell. The miner was cleaning / shoveling along the rib to set timbers when the brow, measuring 100” high x 32’ wide x 37” thick fell, crushing the miner.
A woman steps out from a mobile refuge facility, which was designed to provided emergency shelter for miners working underground, on display during a coal equipment and mining technology exhibition in Beijing Wednesday, June 1, 2011. China’s coal mines are the world’s deadliest, with thousands of miners killed every year since the massive demand for coal induces many producers to cut corners and sidestep regulations. (AP Photo/Andy Wong)
We’ll start off today with some breaking news, brought to us by the AP, via Forbes.com:
BILLINGS, Mont. — A federal panel has rejected an attempt by conservationists to halt the construction of a long-stalled 121-mile railroad that would open a new area of Montana to coal mining.
The Surface Transportation Board said opponents failed to show why the $550 million rail line needed further environmental review. The decision came Wednesday in response to a petition by the Northern Plains Resource Council and Montana rancher Mark Fix, who lives along the proposed railroad route.
Coal consumption in the U.S. declined 2.7 percent in the week ended yesterday from the previous seven-day period, driven by a drop in the East, according to Genscape Inc.
Eastern power-plant use fell 3.4 percent while demand in the West gained 1 percent, the data provider said. Overall coal demand was down 8.8 percent from a year earlier.
Locally, Taylor Kuykendall of the Beckley Register-Herald had a story about another mountaintop removal mining permit that has Fayette County residents concerned:
Citizens packed the meeting of the Fayette County Commission Friday, urging the commission to speak up against a surface mining operation just 4 miles from Fayetteville.
Several residents spoke during the meeting against the surface operations of Frasure Creek Mining LLC, a West Virginia-based operation owned by the Essar Group, a company based in Mumbai, India. Opponents of the expanding operation said it results in blasts that can be heard around the county, including 7 miles away at a new adventure camp and site of the Boy Scouts National and World jamborees.
“We’re going to have a jamboree here in 2013,” said Levi Rose, a Fayette County citizen who has invested time in gathering information about the site. “We’re going to have blasting going on every day. So, the people that are going to this jamboree, they’re going to hear that blasting. Is that what we want? We’re bringing in all these people and resources, millions of dollars. Is that what we want?”
This just in from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and the Pennsylvania DEP:
The Pennsylvania and West Virginia Departments of Environmental Protection have begun sampling and monitoring ponds and streams in the Dunkard Creek area after sampling found golden algae in a privately owned pond in Pennsylvania.
Golden algae was determined to be the cause of a fish kill in Dunkard Creek in the fall of 2009.
The pond is located just north of the West Virginia and Pennsylvania state line, downstream from the town of Blacksville. The discovery was made by staff of CONSOL Energy during routine monitoring and sampling.
CONSOL Energy reported its findings June 9 to the DEP in both states, which immediately sent staff to the area to collect samples from the pond and various sites along Dunkard Creek. The samples were sent to various experts with extensive experience studying algae. The departments are awaiting the results. On Tuesday, June 14, WV DEP staff flew over the area to see if they could spot any other water bodies with discoloration and target them for sampling.
“We are still very early in this process, and there is no evidence that the algae is having a toxic effect in the pond at this time,” said Scott Mandirola, director of Water and Waste Management for WV DEP. “We are asking residents to be aware of this discovery and look for discoloration in their private ponds and area streams.”
… While Americans across the country suffer from this pollution, special interests who are trying to gut long-standing public health protections are now going so far as to claim that these pollutants aren’t even harmful. These myths are being perpetrated by some of the same lobbyists who have in the past testified before Congress about the importance of reducing mercury and particulate matter. Now on behalf of their clients, they’re saying the exact opposite.
I pointed out earlier what a poor job many in the local media did in covering this story, and at least one of those media outlets — West Virginia MetroNews — must have been reading. Because they actually gave EPA its say (a week late):
Federal EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told members of a congressional committee Wednesday her agency plans to continue to make its public health decisions on the principles of “the law and the best science.”
“Over the 40-year history of the Clean Air Act our GDP has grown 200 percent. So if history is any guide, we can do this,” Jackson said. “We can have safer, healthier air and have a growing economy.”
Not for nothing, but it’s not like EPA is all that effective in defending itself in these situations. I spent much of the week trying to get someone from EPA to do a phone interview about how some of these plant closings may have been driven by an AEP court settlement over long-standing pollution violations. So far, nobody from EPA has agreed to an interview.
Whether the mandate will immediately improve safety for the nation’s 46,000 underground coal miners is unknown because it’s uncertain how many mines installed everything they needed in time.
The most recent numbers from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration show that as of April, 64 percent hadn’t fully installed the required wireless equipment.
MSHA chief Joe Main talks pretty tough in this one:
The equipment had better be there, MSHA Director Joe Main told The Associated Press.
“We’re going to find out,” Main said. “Mines are obligated to have their communications systems in and we’re going to be applying the strength of the Mine Act.”
But, the story adds:
Main offered few specifics, saying only that communications and tracking equipment will be checked during regular inspections.
Here’s the thing, though … the AP story doesn’t even get into the real issue here. What’s that? It’s that the Obama administration MSHA is giving the coal industry the same loophole that the Bush administration did.
Our friend Howard Berkes over at NPR has a story out today reminding us that there have been no criminal charges filed to date in the August 2007 Crandall Canyon Mine disaster:
Four years after nine coal miners and mine rescuers died underground in the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah, federal prosecutors say they’re still not ready to file criminal charges or to conclude no charges are warranted.
A federal prosecutor looking into the collapse of a Utah mine said the operator was struggling to meet production quotas and was aggressively taking the last of the coal inside a slowly crumbling mountain — all “recipes for a disaster.”
U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said that even if he finds evidence of negligence at Crandall Canyon, it might not be enough to warrant criminal charges — and he wasn’t inclined to prosecute “bad business” practices, either. He said he was still looking deeper for evidence that could be brought before a grand jury.
But now, Howard reports:
In response to an NPR inquiry, spokeswoman Melodie Rydalch of the Utah U.S. Attorney’s office says, “Our investigation is ongoing. This week, we will ask MSHA [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] for what we anticipate will be the final extension of the stay of MSHA’s administrative cases.”
That’s a reference to a three-year delay in civil citations and fines levied by MSHA after the agency completed its investigation of two mine collapses at Crandall Canyon in August of 2007.
This just in from the United Mine Workers of America:
The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) today released highlights of the tentative agreement reached earlier this week with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA).
The tentative agreement, which would be effective from July 1, 2011, through December 31, 2016, includes wage increases totaling $6.00 per hour over the life of the agreement.
“This is the largest wage increase in dollar terms over the life of a single agreement UMWA members have ever received in our 121-year history,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said.
The proposed agreement includes two $1.00 per hour increases in the first six months of the agreement, on July 1, 2011 and again on January 1, 2012, which is an average 8.2 percent increase over current wages. Wages will be increased by $1.00 per hour on January 1 of each successive year of the agreement. By 2016, the last year of the agreement, the average UMWA miner covered under this agreement would be earning about $30 per hour in straight-time wages.
Yesterday, Kanawha Circuit Judge James C. Stucky issued what could be the beginning of a major development in the cases against former members of Massey Energy’s board of directors.
Judge Stucky ruled that stockholder groups who sued the board members have made a “prima facie” case that the defendant board members have violated a June 2008 legal settlement in which they pledged to improve their oversight of Massey’s safety performance.
In a two-page order, Judge Stucky cited a variety of things that it appeared to him the board members had failed to do:
— Failing to implement the required reporting, monitoring, management and reporting system;
— Violating the public reporting requirements;
— Failing to created and oversee a system for reporting safety compliance issues and to adopt whistleblower protections;
— Failing to fulfill the training-related review, recommendation and reporting requirements; and
— Failing to make a good faith effort to reform Massey Energy’s corporate governance as intended by and required under the Order and Stipulation.