Coal Tattoo

MSHA chief Joe Main has given a couple of interviews lately that are worth noting. First, there was this story from The Associated Press a week ago:

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s continuing crackdown on the coal industry hasn’t deterred the industry’s growth, director Joe Main said Friday.

From April 2010 to June 2011, the number of underground mining employees grew by about 11 percent, Main said in an interview with The Associated Press on his second anniversary as assistant secretary of labor in charge of mine safety.

There was also an 8 percent increase in the number of new mining units, meaning either new operations or expansions of existing mines, in the past fiscal year. Main said that demonstrates that strategic, targeted initiatives can work.

“We’ve applied tools that are effective on safety but also don’t deter growth,” he said.

And then, there was this story from the Louisville Courier-Journal on Sunday:

After the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster killed 29 miners last year, federal coal-mine regulators launched a new program of safety blitzes, showing up unannounced at mines in Kentucky and other states, seizing telephones so people underground would get no warning, and fanning out in search of hazards.

Since April 2010, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has conducted 251 so-called “impact inspections” in coal mines, including 73 in Kentucky and seven in Indiana.

Those safety sweeps have netted 4,530 citations for violations, including nearly 2,000 in Kentucky and 111 in Indiana. At the same time, MSHA has ordered 427 temporary mine closings to fix problems, including 174 in Kentucky and six in Indiana.

Two years into his job as the nation’s top mine regulator, MSHA Administrator Joseph Main says the safety blitzes and other initiatives he’s championed are building blocks for “the best foundation … for mine safety in this country.”

MSHA also is moving ahead with proposed regulations to improve and tighten coal-dust monitoring to protect miners from excess exposure that can lead to black lung disease; new rules to crack down on operators with a pattern of safety violations; and additional action to prevent equipment from crushing miners.

“We’re trying to do the right things, whether it be ending black lung disease, preventing these most common deaths (in accidents) … and preventing mine disasters,” Main said in an interview. “I know that we need more improvements to get us where we need to be.”

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Here’s the latest on coal-ash ponds from Earthjustice:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest release of data concerning coal ash ponds reveals a threefold increase in the number of significant-hazard rated coal ash ponds. This nightmare scenario comes as legislation passed by the House of Representatives and introduced in the Senate proposes to completely castrate the EPA’s ability to set federally enforceable safeguards for proper coal ash disposal.

“Coal ash ponds are threatening hundreds of communities and their drinking water supplies, but the current approach in Congress is to ignore the problem and hope it goes away,” said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans.

The EPA is rating coal ash ponds according to a National Inventory of Dams (NID) criteria that categorizes the ponds by the damage that would occur if the pond collapses. Coal ash ponds are usually earthen structures holding back millions of tons of toxic coal ash and water. This month, the EPA recently released a new set of data that reveals 181 “significant” hazard dams in 18 states. This is more than three times the 60 significant-hazard ponds listed in the original database released in 2009. In addition to the increase in the number of significant hazard-rated ponds, eight of the previously unrated coal ash ponds were found to be high hazard ponds in information released by the EPA earlier this year. Because of the switch in ratings after the EPA inspections, the total number of high hazard ponds has stayed roughly the same at a total of 47 ponds nationwide.

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Sometimes little things I see in our newspaper catch my attention, and take me off in unexpected directions. Take today, for instance … There was a little display advertisement headlined, “Department of Homeland Security to Hold Public Meeting on Ammonium Nitrate Proposed Rule.” The ad continued:

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is holding a public meeting in Charleston, West Virginia, on the proposed rule for the Ammonium Nitrate Security Program. The purpose of the rule is to prevent the use of ammonium nitrate in an act of terrorism by regulating the chemical’s sale and transfer.

The meeting will provide the public with the opportunity to be briefed on the basics of the proposed rule and enable DHS to consult with the public and other interested parties on the proposed rule.

What’s this all about? Well, it turns out that back in 2008, Congress passed appropriations language that requires the Department of Homeland Security to:

… Regulate the sale and transfer of ammonium nitrate by an ammonium nitrate facility … to prevent the misappropriation or use of ammonium nitrate in an act of terrorism.

Well, Homeland Security officials didn’t get around to proposing this rule until August 2011, and now they’re accepting comments on the proposal. As an Associated Press account explained:

More than 15 years after a fertilizer bomb was used to blow up a government building in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people, the federal government is proposing to regulate the sale and transfer of the chemical ammonium nitrate.

The proposal comes nearly four years after Congress gave the Homeland Security Department the authority to develop a program to regulate the compound.

Ammonium nitrate is one of the most common farm fertilizers in the world, and instructions for turning it into a bomb are available on the Internet. Its deadly potential was once again realized on July 22, when a Norwegian man allegedly blew up a government building in his country, killing eight people with a bomb that investigators believe was made with ammonium nitrate.

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Here’s the latest from the Friends of Blair Mountain:

On November 1st, a variety of citizens are coming together to raise awareness of the Battle of Blair Mountain and to call on our state agencies and politicians to preserve the Blair Mountain battlefield and develop it as the significant national historic site that it truly is.

In 1921, ten thousand coalminers joined together to fight for their basic human rights to live and work in safe conditions. They fought for five days on the steep ridges of Blair Mountain until finally federal troops quelled the conflict peacefully.

Currently, Blair Mountain is threatened by imminent destruction from MTR, an extremely destructive form of coal extraction. A broad range of citizens including community members, union coalminers, environmentalists, academics, and many other people have been working to preserve the battlefield.

We have already taken constructive steps to show that heritage tourism is profitable, with the establishment of Coal Country Tours that features Blair Mountain as a stop along a multi-day tour through the coalfields. We have also established a Community Center and Museum in the town of Blair, WV, to celebrate the struggles of coalminers at Blair Mountain as well as larger coalfield culture.

We will continue to build local business around the Blair Mountain battlefield, and to continue to honor the heritage of coal mining families. With this press conference and rally at the State Historic Preservation office at the Cultural Center, we are asking our state government to step up and help us preserve and develop Blair Mountain.

We realize it is a difficult political decision due to pressure from the coal industry, but is it one that will preserve a piece of heritage for future generations as well as building local business now. We believe that with all of us working together we can come up with a viable solution where the jobs of coalminers are protected, new and diverse business opportunities are generated in the communities around the battlefield and coal companies can still underground mine the battlefield.

Come join us on November 1, 2011, at 12:00 as we discuss the importance of Blair Mountain and present a petition with over 26,000 signatures from people around the world to the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer. Speakers will include noted scholars, mining families, activists, and community members. All are welcome to attend.

Two miners die in Kentucky highwall collapse

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Denise Stringer, right, a surface mine clerk for the Armstrong Coal Company’s Equality Boot Mine, Frank Henderson, center, an Armstrong employee and Ohio County, Kentucky Sheriff’s deputy, Chris Matthews, left, monitor traffic near the entrance to the mine near Centertown, Ky., on Friday, October 28, 2011.  (AP photo/The Evansville Courier & Press, Molly Bartels)

Very bad news from earlier today from the coalfields of Kentucky, via Erica Peterson of WFPL in Louisville:

The bodies of two men killed in an accident on an Ohio County surface mine have been recovered. Rescue teams reached the bodies of 47-year-old Darrel Winstead of Madisonville and 23-year-old Samuel Lindsey of Mortons Gap around 1:15pm EDT.

The men were blasters who worked for Mine Equipment and Mill Supply Company out of Dawson Spring, Kentucky. They were killed when a highwall collapsed at the Equality surface mine near Centertown, which is owned by Armstrong Coal.

The Courier-Journal and the AP (via the Herald-Leader) also have coverage here and here, with the Courier-Journal reporting:

Armstrong has operated the Equality mine since December 2008 and has been producing coal there since 2010.

As of the end of September, the mine employed 129 people and had produced 1.5 million tons of coal for the year to date, MSHA records show.

The mine was cited for nine safety violations with $1,531 in penalties in 2010 and 6 violations carrying $1,394 in penalties this year, according to MSHA’s citation database.

Some of the citations were for violations of regulations governing the placement of materials on the tops of pits or highwalls and the operation of mining equipment, the records show.

That makes 17 coal miners killed on the job this year in the U.S., according to the official MSHA count.

What’s up with ‘bizarre’ Obama plan for OSMRE?

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OK … now let me make this clear: When I first heard that the Obama administration and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar were going to merge the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement with the Bureau of Land Management, I asked my source to repeat what they said … I thought for sure I had a bad connection on my cell phone.

But no, there’s the story in today’s Gazette from my buddy Dr. Paul Nyden:

The Obama administration wants to merge the federal Office of Surface Mining, which enforces and oversees federal and state regulations on the coal industry, with another federal agency … Late Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he is currently evaluating the best way to integrate OSM with the federal Bureau of Land Management.

In a news release, Salazar explained the move this way:

We must always be looking for ways to make government work better, to build on our strengths, and to get the most out of the limited resources we have. OSM and the BLM have vital natural resource missions, tremendous public servants, and strong leaders who are helping us rethink how we better deliver services and how we can further strengthen our regulation, reclamation, and stewardship responsibilities. We will rely on the ideas and input of employees and many others at every step of the process, so that we ensure that an integration is successful and consistent with our authorities under the law.

There’s more about what the Interior Department is up to in this memorandum, this order, and this list of questions and answers.

Many questions to come to mind about all of this, but one thing is clear: The administration wasn’t ready to go public with this announcement, and was pushed into it by a story from Greenwire, which reported yesterday:

Rumors of an imminent announcement about the reorganization circulated among mining industry leaders and on Capitol Hill all day, and officials are reportedly vetting a draft order to accomplish the change. Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher is not commenting on the reports.

One source familiar with the deliberations cited cost savings and efficiency as reasons for the possible change, saying combining operations could cut down on administrative functions. Early critics of such a move say OSM and BLM have distinct functions.

And it’s also clear that our good friend Rep. Nick J. Rahall, a West Virginia Democrat who as a freshman congressman in 1977 served on the conference committee that wrote the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, is going to oppose this merger. As Dr. Nyden reported:

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the last member of Congress who was on the House Natural Resources Committee when OSM was created in 1977, said the agency “provides a sounding board for Appalachian residents to express their concerns to the federal government.

“I am concerned that OSM will be diluted, or denuded, and will not serve as the same repository of coalfield residents’ concerns,” Rahall said during a telephone interview Wednesday evening. He called the move “rather bizarre.”

Fair enough. And it seems likely that some coalfield citizen activists and environmental advocates — particularly those who have been around longer and have strong ties to the notion that OSMRE was set up by Congress to police the coal industry — will probably be uneasy with the Obama proposal, or oppose it outright.

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Why coal miners die on the job

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In its new report on the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, the United Mine Workers of America included a depressing list of not only the UBB victims, but all of the coal miners — 48 of them in all — who died on the job in the United States last year.

One of these miners was a fellow named Charlie Qualls,  known as “Big Sexy” to friends and family. Mr. Qualls was killed while he was driving a truck for Medford Trucking, a contract firm working for Massey Energy’s Republic Energy Mine. Some readers may recall that Mr. Qualls was killed on Dec. 4, 2010 — just a day after Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s retirement from the company was announced.  It’s worth remembering that while Mr. Qualls family was mourning their loss, Wall Street was cheering the departure of Mr. Blankenship, and of course, Mr. Blankenship was enjoying his golden parachute.

What’s that got to do with anything today? While, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has released the report of its investigation into Mr. Qualls’ death, and the agency found some pretty serious problems and issued some strong enforcement actions.

The new MSHA report, available online here, concludes:

The accident occurred because:; (1) there were mismatched brake chambers on the drive axle of the truck; (2) the trailer brakes were not properly maintained and failed to operate effectively; (3) unsafe operating conditions were overlooked due to a failure of the pre-operational inspection policy/procedure; and (4) the victim was not wearing a seatbelt at the time of the accident.

Now, here’s the description of what happened, in the somewhat stilted and overly formal language of an MSHA investigation report:

Charles R. Qualls, victim, arrived at the Republic Energy Mine at 4:00 p.m., on Saturday, December 4, 2010. He drove a Kenworth coal truck to the mine from his home. Mr. Qualls was the only miner to drive this truck, and only on the evening shift. When the victim performed the pre-operational inspection using the 59 point daily inspection of coal haulage trucks checklist, no defects were found. The truck, a 1993 Model W900B Kenworth with a 2006 model Benson 35 foot dump trailer, was operated by Medford Trucking LLC, ID No. B106, leased from Johnny Clark Trucking LLC.

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In a March 15, 2011 photo, Massey Energy Security Chief Hughie Elbert Stover, center, and his wife, left, are swamped by members of the media as they leave the Federal courthouse in Beckley after. Stover, 59, is charged with lying to federal investigators and ordering another Massey employee to dispose of documents relating to security at the Upper Big Branch mine.   (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, F. Brian Ferguson)

Well, I sure picked the wrong time to duck out of a trial … I listened to several hours of testimony this morning in the trial of Upper Big Branch Mine security director Hughie Elbert Stover, then I headed up the West Virginia Turnpike to Charleston for the release of the United Mine Workers report on the April 2010 mine disaster (see here and here).

While I was in Charleston, down in Beckley, Mr. Stover was getting his say — having taken to the stand in his own defense. Thanks to Brooks Jarosz of WSAZ-TV, I cobbled together a story with some of the highlights of Mr. Stover’s testimony (giving WSAZ credit in print), including:

At 2:20 p.m. Tuesday, Hughie Stover took the stand to give the jury a look at his character. He talked about serving in the Marines and Navy. He says he is a former Raleigh County Sheriff’s Deputy and volunteer firefighter. He has a wife and daughter and he loves to spend time with his grandchildren.

When his attorney asked about the documents thrown away at the UBB mine, Stover testified it was a regular practice to throw out the documents once the garage, where these documents were stored, filled up.

“It never crossed my mind that I was doing something illegal… There’s nothing on earth that would make me commit a crime,” Stover said. “I wouldn’t wish on anyone the heartache and misery I’ve put them through (Stover’s family.)”

I’m sure Mannix Porterfield from the Beckley Register-Herald was in the courtroom for this, but I didn’t see an update on their website yet with details of the testimony. The AP didn’t staff today’s portion of the trial, but it looks like the Wall Street Journal’s Kris Maher hung around for the trial. Kris reported:

Mr. Stover, who testified for nearly two hours, said he was told by an Upper Big Branch mine superintendent that security guards could announce over the mine radio that safety inspectors were on the site. He said he believed that was an acceptable practice, approved by company lawyers, and different from calling mine managers individually on the phone. That is why, he said, he told investigators that his security guards didn’t “notify” personnel that inspectors had arrived.

Closing arguments are set for tomorrow morning, so stay tuned …

Cecil Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers of America, right, listens as Massey Energy Company Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2010, before the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

While testimony yesterday in federal court in Beckley focused on advance reporting of MSHA inspections at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, the defense lawyer for company security director Hughie Elbert Stover raised an interesting question in his opening statement to the jury: Is prosecuting a security guard the best the federal government can do following the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years?

Stover lawyer Bill Wilmoth asked where the evidence is about what really caused that terrible explosion on April 5, 2010. He said that information seems to be locked in a closet somewhere, certainly not to to be heard of during this week’s criminal trial against his client. It was an interesting strategy, especially since Wilmoth had earlier tried to prevent any mention of the disaster during the Stover trial.

But it was also very timely — because as trial continues today in Beckley the United Mine Workers of America is doing its best to ensure that evidence about what really happened at Upper Big Branch gets out. Right now, top UMWA officials are in Charleston, briefing families of the 29 miners who died on the findings of the union’s own extensive investigation of the disaster. A press conference is planned for later today. We’ll have much more on their report after that press conference.

The union’s findings aren’t surprising:

It is the determination of the union that the sparking of the shearer bits and bit blocks, aided by missing and ineffective water sprays, a lack of water pressure and inadequate ventilation, ignited a pocket of methane at the tailgate near the longwall. the ignition traveled into the gob where it encountered an explosive methane-air mixture, resulting in an explosion. The explosive forces picked up and suspended float coal dust in the mine atmosphere in sufficient quantities to initiate a massive dust explosion.

How could something like this happen in this day and age?

The dangerous conditions that contributed to the explosion existed at the mine on a daily basis. These conditions, which represented gross violations of, mandatory health and safety standards, were not accidental. They were permitted to exist by a corporate management at Massey that created a culture that demanded production at any cost and tolerated a callous disregard for the health and safety of the miners employed at the operation.

The UMWA’s 154-page report supports previous findings from the Davitt McAteer team and preliminary results from MSHA, outlining major problems with the Upper Big Branch mine’s longwall shearer, serious violations of requirements for rock-dusting underground and significant and repeated failures to properly ventilate the huge Raleigh County mine.

But there are some interesting new things in the UMWA report as well:

— The union appears to make a much more specific allegation than either MSHA or McAteer have so far about a specific illegal change in mine ventilation its investigators believe led to the methane present in the longwall area and the gob, the fuel for the initial ignition and explosion.

— UMW officials included fascinating maps and descriptions in their report that show more clearly than I’ve seen before the massive size and scope of the explosion — along with a discussion of how the blast essentially circled around on itself, following the trail of coal dust and creating a growing path of death and destruction underground. The union noted, for example, that the blast traveled up the a former coal-transportation tunnel called the “Glory Hole”  and scorched the roof on an adjacent Massey mine.

— After the explosion, investigation teams found in the longwall area of the mine a methane monitor that appeared to be almost new — or certainly undamaged despite its location near the heart of the explosion. Union officials aren’t sure how it got there, or how it got to be so free of damage, dirt and dust. But they noted it was found near where it appears that a brattice cloth curtain was hung so that it would direct all airflow toward the sensor, diluting any methane at that point.

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In a March 15, 2011 photo, Massey Energy Security Chief Hughie Elbert Stover, center, and his wife, left, are swamped by members of the media as they leave the Federal courthouse in Beckley after. (AP Photo/The Register-Herald, F. Brian Ferguson)

Updated:  Check out a story on today’s testimony, here.

A 12-person jury was selected Friday and lawyers are set to begin their opening arguments at 9:30 this morning in the trial of Hughie Elbert Stover, security director at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 workers died in that terrible explosion back on April 5, 2010.

The explosion was the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years, and Stover’s indictment clearly grew out of what government officials say is a sprawling criminal investigation. But his charges don’t directly have anything to do with the explosion or the deaths. Instead, Stover is charged with two felonies: Lying to government investigators and trying to destroy evidence. Together, the two charges carry a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail, with the heavy time — up to 20 years — tied to the second charge, which is technically called “destruction, alteration, falsification of records in federal investigations and bankruptcy.”

Stove had faced three felony counts, but federal prosecutors dropped one of those late last week. Mostly, that move makes for an easier case for prosecutors. They dropped one count that alleged Stover lied to an FBI agent and an MSHA investigator in an interview that wasn’t recorded or transcribed. But they kept another count alleging that he lied in his initial interview with MSHA and state investigators in an interviewed that was transcribed by a court reporter. The difference? Well, now prosecutors don’t have to put agents on the stand to testify about what Stover said in that unrecorded interview, meaning the defense won’t get a chance to try to discredit the agents’ version of those events. Instead, they can just introduce the transcript to show what he said.

Still, prosecutors will still have to convince jurors that Stover lied when he told investigators that Massey had a policy that prohibited security guards from giving advance warning of federal safety and health inspections. Court records indicate that prosecutors have several witnesses who are expected to testify on that point. Prosecutors will also have to prove that Stover told one of his employees to dispose of a bunch of security-related documents kept in a garage on the mine property.

Both charges stem from the government’s investigation of concerns that Massey officials used security guards to warn underground foremen and other workers of impending inspections, perhaps giving time for any violations to be quickly remedied. Regular readers will recall that this was a major allegation made against Massey by families of the Upper Big Branch miners during a congressional field hearing held by Rep. George Miller, who was then chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor.

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Friday roundup, Oct. 21, 2011

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In this undated photo, changing water levels and sediment deposits leave their mark on mud flats and sand bars on the Conejohela Flats in Manor Township, Pa. The darker material is deposited coal dust. The Conejohela Flats, a string of low-lying floodplain alluvial islands between Columbia and Turkey Point, is undergoing a major facelift. (AP Photo/Intelligencer Journal, Ad Crable)

For the climate deniers and skeptics among Coal Tattoo’s readership, this is a tough week … just look at the news:

— The Economist reported:

Marshalled by an astrophysicist, Richard Muller, this group, which calls itself the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature, is notable in several ways. When embarking on the project 18 months ago, its members (including Saul Perlmutter, who won the Nobel prize for physics this month for his work on dark energy) were mostly new to climate science. And Dr Muller, for one, was mildly sceptical of its findings. This was partly, he says, because of “climategate”: the 2009 revelation of e-mails from scientists at CRU which suggested they had sometimes taken steps to disguise their adjustments of inconvenient palaeo-data. With this reputation, the Berkeley Earth team found it unusually easy to attract sponsors, including a donation of $150,000 from the Koch Foundation.

Yet Berkeley Earth’s results, as described in four papers currently undergoing peer review, but which were nonetheless released on October 20th, offer strong support to the existing temperature compilations. The group estimates that over the past 50 years the land surface warmed by 0.911°C: a mere 2% less than NOAA’s estimate. That is despite its use of a novel methodology—designed, at least in part, to address the concerns of what Dr Muller terms “legitimate sceptics”

… the Berkeley Earth study promises to be valuable. It is due to be published online with a vast trove of supporting data, merged from 15 separate sources, with duplications and other errors clearly signalled. At a time of exaggerated doubts about the instrumental temperature record, this should help promulgate its main conclusion: that the existing mean estimates are in the right ballpark. That means the world is warming fast.

The Guardian says:

The world is getting warmer, countering the doubts of climate change sceptics about the validity of some of the scientific evidence, according to the most comprehensive independent review of historical temperature records to date.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, found several key issues that sceptics claim can skew global warming figures had no meaningful effect.

The Berkeley Earth project compiled more than a billion temperature records dating back to the 1800s from 15 sources around the world and found that the average global land temperature has risen by around 1C since the mid-1950s.

This figure agrees with the estimate arrived at by major groups that maintain official records on the world’s climate, including Nasa’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa), and the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, with the University of East Anglia, in the UK.

— And as described by The Daily Climate:

… As the impacts of climate change become apparent, many predictions are proving to underplay the actual impacts. Reality, in many instances, is proving to be far worse than most scientists expected.

“We’re seeing mounting evidence now that the scientific community, rather than overstating the claim or being alarmist, is the opposite,” said Naomi Oreskes, a science historian with the University of California, San Diego. “Scientists have been quite conservative … in a lot of important and different areas.”

Meanwhile, there was more bad news this week from China, as Reuters reported:

A blast at a coal mine in southwestern China has killed 13, state news agency Xinhua said on Wednesday, in the latest disaster to hit the accident-prone industry.

The explosion happened on Monday at the colliery in Chongqing when 16 miners were working underground, the report said, citing a government statement.

Three miners managed to escape, and police have detained six people in connection with the incident, Xinhua added.

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Here’s the latest from the AP’s Vicki Smith:

Arch Coal Inc. has agreed not to mine under Buckhannon-Upshur High School and the proposed site of a middle school, an attorney for the Upshur County Board of Education said Friday.

Under a deal reached Thursday, Arch agreed to establish no-mining and limited-extraction zones that will protect the investments the county has made in its facilities, said board lawyer Hunter Mullens.

In exchange, the school board will drop objections it had filed to the permit application before the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The board has fought for months to stop the mining plan created by International Coal Group Inc. before it was bought out by St. Louis-based Arch. Members worried the 1,800-acre Hampton Mine would cause the ground beneath the school to subside and create the possibility of explosive methane gas leaking into its buildings.

“Our goal was always to identify a solution that the school board could support,” said Arch spokeswoman Kim Link. “We agree that the no-mining zone makes sense for everyone involved.”

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For folks who are interested in the coal industry or coal history, there’s plenty to love about the West Virginia Book Festival, being held this weekend at the Civic Center here in Charleston.

First off, my friend Bonnie Stewart will be giving a talk about her new book, “No. 9: The 1968 Farmington Disaster” on Saturday at 10 a.m. We’ve talked about Bonnie’s work before on Coal Tattoo here and recall a great NPR piece that gave a preview of the book here. It’s also been featured on the Gazette’s book festival blog by my boss, Gazette City Editor Greg Moore.

Earlier this week, the Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden had a story in the paper about the book, writing:

Records and documents, Stewart writes, show the 1968 “disaster easily could have been prevented. The company men responsible for the mine’s day-to-day operations knew the mine was dangerous, but did not slow or stop production to make it safe.

“Everyone in the mine was under intense pressure to produce coal . . . . State and federal inspectors ignored the mine’s glaring and egregious ventilation violations.”

One of the book’s saddest stories is about 48-year-old Emilio Megna, who had one more shift before he would retire and open up a gas and repair service station in Worthington.

“Just eight more hours, 600 feet underground inside the cold and dark tunnels, then he would no longer have to breathe coal dust or scrub it from his face and clothes each day.

“No longer would he have to worry about methane gas explosions or roof falls that could bury him alive,” Stewart writes.

“The day before the No. 9 exploded, Emilio’s 16-year-old son, Joe, tried to convince his father to play hooky and go trout fishing. But Emilio would not do it, said he owed it to the company to work his last shift.”

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The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden did a piece the other day about a hearing that was being held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about growing concerns regarding concussions being suffered by young athletes, and about the safety of the equipment those kids use. Paul explained:

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, W.Va., held a hearing Wednesday about the growing number of brain concussions suffered by athletes, particularly in high school, and the questionable marketing of “anti-concussion” or “concussion-reducing” sports equipment.

Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said, “Every afternoon at the end of the school day, millions of our children head to playing fields, gymnasiums or hockey rinks to participate in team sports.

Now, this is clearly and important issue, and West Virginians can be proud that our now-senior senator is taking a role in trying to dig into and deal with the issue.  But frankly, it reminded me of the fact that my good friend Sen. Rockefeller doesn’t want to talk about the growing body of peer-reviewed studies about a potential link between mountaintop removal and increased rates of cancer, birth defects and other illnesses among his constituents who live near these giant mining operations. You remember the studies, like the one that found:

The odds for reporting cancer were twice as high in the mountaintop mining environment compared to the non-mining environment in ways not explained by age, sex, smoking, occupational exposure, or family cancer history.

There are 1.2 million people who live in mountaintop coal mining counties in central Appalachia based on 2010 US Census data. If the rates found in this study represent the region, a 5% higher cancer rate (14.4% vs. 9.4%) translates to an additional 60,000 people with cancer in central Appalachian mountaintop mining counties.

Remember that not so long ago I asked to interview Sen. Rockefeller about the West Virginia University studies on this issue, and was told by his staff:

I doubt we can make it happen, Ken. Another time.

Well, how about another time?

You see, the committee that Sen. Rockefeller chairs, while perhaps not having direct oversight over EPA or OSMRE or other mining regulatory agencies, does indeed have broad jurisdiction over “science, engineering, and technology research and development and policy.”

Wouldn’t it be a public service for Sen. Rockefeller to have WVU’s Dr. Michael Hendryx and other experts — perhaps including the University of Maryland’s Dr. Margaret Palmer — come and testify about their work looking into the science of mountaintop removal impacts? Officials from EPA and OSMRE could come, too. And folks from the coal-mining industry could provide a witness who could explain exactly what the industry thinks is wrong with the data or methodology of these studies.

Safety update: Industry tries to change the subject

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I would have sworn that the Federal Register notice said that today’s U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration hearing was to accept public comments on MSHA’s proposal to finally require mine operators to begin installing “proximity detection systems” on continuous mining machines in underground coal operations.

But then my old buddy Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, went to the microphone and started to speak … and the next thing you knew, we were talking about the industry’s continued complaints that MSHA isn’t moving quickly enough to approve mine operators proposals for “extended cuts” of coal in underground mines. Ever the master of understatement, Chris told MSHA officials at the hearing this morning in Charleston:

MSHA’s reluctance to approve this method of mining places hundreds of miners in harm’s way at an alarming rate in West Virginia’s underground mines.

Now, regular readers may recall that this was former Massey Energy CEO’s Don Blankenship’s crusade, an issue Blankenship brought up just a month after 29 of his company’s miners were blown up at Upper Big Branch (see here and here).   And this is not the first time that the coal association and its members have tried to hijack an MSHA public hearing on one issue and turn it into a publicity show on a different topic. They did it a year ago when MSHA came to town to try to gather input on a proposal to tighten the outdated standards for rock-dusting to control the underground buildup of explosive coal dust.

Hamilton tried to make the issue relevant to the ongoing rulemaking on proximity devices, by arguing that extended cuts mean fewer continuous mining machine moves and thus less potential exposure for workers to moving equipment in tight and confined underground tunnels.

Of course, we’ve heard MSHA’s Kevin Stricklin explain before the significant safety concerns agency officials have regarding the combined use of extended cuts and scrubbers, and it’s clear that MSHA is going to be looking at such mining plans very closely because of ventilation and roof control issues — not to mention continued worries that some operators are doing illegal extended cuts.

And in the process, Chris neglected to provide MSHA any real input into what a federal rule on proximity devices might look like — well, except to say that federal regulators are moving too quickly and to be sure to get in a line about the Obama administration’s “war on coal.” By contrast, an official from Joy Manufacturing provided some detailed comments about what his company believes would be a strain put on efforts to retrofit existing continuous mining machines under MSHA’s proposal to phase-in proximity device requirements over 18 months.

Continue reading…

This just in:

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) will release its report on the Apr. 5, 2010 disaster at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine at a press conference on Tuesday, Oct. 25, in Charleston, W. Va.

“Our charge is different from any other party to this investigation,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “We don’t have operational policies from which to divert attention. We don’t have regulatory enforcement actions-or inactions-to explain away. We don’t have lawsuits to defend against.

“All we have are the surviving miners, their families and most of all, the families of the victims,” Roberts said. “More than anyone, they deserve to know the entire truth about what happened to their loved ones and their co-workers. That’s what we will report on Tuesday.”

The UBB mine was a nonunion mine, however shortly after the explosion miners working there designated the UMWA as their representative in this investigation.

We followed up this morning in the Gazette with a lengthy story about a development we first broke on Saturday: What could be major safety concerns about the reliability of mine refuge shelters being used in the nation’s underground coal mines. Today’s story explains:

Concerns about potentially faulty underground mine refuge shelters are much broader than previously reported, but federal and state regulators delayed action on the matter for months, interviews and a review of public records showed this week.

Corroded and improperly sized fittings could be a problem for more than 1,500 shelters in use in coal mines across the country — including both inflatable, “tent-design” units and other, hardened steel structures, officials acknowledged and records indicated.

Federal and state mine safety officials have understood the problem for months, but only began taking enforcement action in September. Even then, firm steps were delayed at the behest of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, after coal industry lobbyists complained about the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training’s plans.

There are a variety of state and federal documents about this story online from the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training website here.

In today’s story, Phil Smith of the United Mine Workers noted that the lack of transparency on this issue is similar to that in the ongoing investigation of major problems with the mining industry’s most widely used brand of self-contained self-rescuer.  Phil got me to thinking about the status of the promised mine rescue reforms that grew out of the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire in 2006.

Stop yourself and consider it for a minute … We’ve had this issue with SCSRs, in which it’s not clear at all how many miners might still be stuck with problem units.  Questions remain about the implementation of requirements for mine emergency communications and tracking gear. The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster revealed continuing problems with the mine rescue team system that remain unresolved by MSHA. Now, we have this potentially serious issue with rescue chambers or shelters.

And not for nothing … But just last week, folks at the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety were discussing repeated problems with getting information quickly when accidents occur underground.  Then today, the Wheeling paper has some interesting reporting about problems with the way CONSOL handled emergency response during what turned out to be a fatal accident Monday night here in West Virginia:

Emergency calls from the site were placed directly to STAT Medevac and Tri-State EMS, not to the county 911 center, he said.

But when a medical helicopter arrived, firefighters were needed to set up a landing zone, and the ambulance service also called for additional aid.

“A direct call to 911 simplifies everything,” Hart said. “By dialing 911, all those resources are managed from a single point of contact.”

Hart said the EMA will hold an “after-action” meeting with Consol to make sure all emergency procedures were followed properly. He couldn’t say, however, that a call to the 911 center would have resulted in a different outcome.

“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” he said.

So what’s going on? Have the reforms ordered after the 2006 disasters really been fully implemented? Have regulators and the industry done enough? Can they ever do enough, when the job before them is making sure every worker gets home to their family after every shift?

Judge allows mention of mine disaster in trial

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Larry Messina over at The Associated Press has a story out this morning reporting that:

A federal jury can hear about West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster in an upcoming criminal trial arising from last year’s deadly explosion.

Defense lawyers for Hughie Elbert Stover had argued that mention of the blast that killed 29 miners would unfairly prejudice jurors. They also questioned its relevance.

Trial in Stover’s case is scheduled to start on Monday, and U.S. District Judge Irene Berger also ruled in this 11-page order against Stover’s efforts to have thrown out his own statements to mine disaster investigators and to federal agents.

Stover is charged with lying to investigators and with trying to destroy evidence related to questions about whether Massey routinely warned underground workers about federal inspectors showing up at the Raleigh County mine prior to the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 workers.

Another West Virginia miner dies on the job

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We posted a story earlier on the Gazette’s website, but here’s more from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Last night at about 8:00 pm, a miner was killed on the surface at the river portal of the underground mine. The victim was bridging at a nip connection for his loading machine, which was used as a trench digger. The victim had exited his machine to hook up the nip, and it appears the machine struck him when re-energized. The miner’s leg was amputated. The area where the accident occurred is called the “jump.” This is an area where there is a 50-foot break in the trolley wire, where regular vehicles can cross the mine track.

An investigator responded last night and secured the scene. An investigation is underway.

MSHA also provided this update:

The victim attempted to use a jumper cable to move the machine (referred to as a hoe, used for trench digging). The machine failed to coast through a gap in the trolley wire, and the victim dismounted to connect the jumper cable to the trolley wire to move the machine through the gap. He placed one end of the nip on the energized trolley wire and one end on the harp of the machine’s trolley pole. An eye witness account indicated that when the victim placed the nip on the harp, the machine suddenly moved forward and ran over him.

Update: The Wheeling paper has identified the miner who was killed as 62-year-old Charles McIntire.

Production update: More bad news for coal industry

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Perhaps Monday morning is as good a time as any to ponder what a world we live in.

On Friday afternoon, Rep. David McKinley’s press agents were promoting his legislation to strip EPA of its ability to regulate toxic coal as as a “jobs bill.” On the House floor, the West Virginia Republican said anyone who voted against his legislation was personally responsible for the loss of 316,000 jobs — a figure he got from a fairly questionable industry report, and a number contradicted by another recent report.

Earlier last week, officials from American Electric Power were telling lawmakers that new environmental rules deserved a huge part of the blame for increased electricity rates, but then adding this, according to the Gazette’s Phil Kabler:

Asked whether the environmental requirements were excessive, [AEP subsidiary Appalachian Power vice president Mark] Dempsey said, “There are plenty of studies that back up the reasons for the requirements placed on us.”

And then, there was a new announcement from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration, adding more weight to the concern that our region’s political leaders need a plan for the coming declines in the coal industry.  As Platts explained:

The US Energy Information Administration expects a 3.9% decline in the electricity generation sector’s coal consumption in 2012, it said Wednesday.

That fall in demand is somewhat steeper than EIA’s expectations a month ago, in its September Short-Term Energy Outlook, when it forecast a 2.3% drop in consumption, data shows.

Meanwhile, the EIA is expecting US coal production to decline by nearly 24 million st, or 2.2%, to about 1.045 million st in 2012 as domestic consumption and exports fall and inventories at electric power plants decline. In September, the agency expected 2012 output to be level with 2011’s levels at around 1.061 million st.

By region, output in Appalachia is expected to fall 5.6% to 319.7 million st in 2012. Production in the Interior is expected to drop 7.9% to 145.8 million st. Western production is projected to improve 1.4% to 579.6 million st.