Coal Tattoo

MSHA issues latest ‘pattern of violations’ warnings

Here’s today’s announcement from MSHA:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration today announced that eight mines around the country have received letters putting them on notice that each has a potential pattern of violations of mandatory health or safety standards under Section 104(e) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. The PPOV screening from which these letters resulted represents the second since MSHA established the current criteria and procedures in September 2010.

The eight mines that received letters are as follows:

1. Marfork Coal Co. Inc.’s Parker Peerless Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

2. Pay Car Mining Inc.’s No. 58 Mine in McDowell County, W.Va.

3. Pine Ridge Coal Co. LLC’s Big Mountain No. 16 in Boone County, W.Va. (previously received PPOV

notice in October 2009)

4. Rio Group Inc.’s Coalburg No. 2 Mine in Logan County, W.Va.

5. Nine Mile Mining Inc.’s No. 3 Mine in Wise County, Va.

6. Manalapan Mining Co. Inc.’s RB No. 12 in Harlan County, Ky.

7. Big Ridge Inc.’s Willow Lake Portal in Saline County, Ill. (previously received PPOV notice in

November 2010)

8. Queenstake Resources U.S.A. Inc.’s Jerritt Canyon Mill in Elko, Nev.

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There’s an interesting settlement that’s just been filed in U.S. District Court here in Charleston in a case brought by the Sierra Club and other groups against CONSOL Energy’s Fola Coal Co. subsidiary.

Environmentalists sued CONSOL back in October 2010, alleging the company was violating water quality standards at Fola’s Surface Mine No. 3 in Clay and Nicholas counties. The suit alleged the mine was “discharging pollutants … which cause acute and chronic toxicity, ionic stress, and biological impairment” in Boardtree Branch. It cited the narrative water quality standard for biological integrity and aquatic life and problems with conductivity pollution.

Under the settlement, CONSOL is going to conduct a major stream restoration project that company officials believe will resolve Boardtree Branch’s water quality problems. But if that project doesn’t work, the company is going to be on the hook for building an expensive new treatment system that will fix the problem.

Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Mountain Advocates represented environmental groups in the case, and he told me that the proposed settlement — which needs court approval — should be thought about in the context of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality guidance on conductivity and the West Virginia Environmental Quality Board’s ruling to require conductivity limits in a strip-mining permit. Lovett said:

It’s significant because for the first time a coal operator has agreed to comply with the narrative water quality standard related to a valley fill. It’s scientifically indisputable that valley fills cause high conductivity and impair life in streams. This coal company has agreed to remedy that.

I’ve posted a copy of the settlement here.

Without a doubt, one question I get asked more than any other is: “What’s Don Blankenship up to these days?”

One thing I know for sure is that Blankenship testified under oath a few months ago that he now lives in Johnson City, Tenn. I haven’t been able to confirm persistent rumors that he’s back in the coal business in some capacity.

But this morning, readers of the Charleston Daily Mail’s editorial page were treated to an op-ed under Blankenship’s byline. Headlined “The 2004 allegations against McGraw hold up: Child molesters do not belong in public schools,” the piece is a take on — of all things — the Penn State University football program’s child rape scandal. The article begins:

Joe Paterno and the Penn State football program have gotten a lot of deserved negative media publicity the past few weeks. The Penn State coaches and administrators failed to report to authorities that a child molester was on their staff.

Public and media outrage has been pretty much unanimous. Many at Penn State who remained quiet about the incident have lost their jobs.

The Penn State incident reminded me of the Warren McGraw 2004 State Supreme Court race. Contrast Joe Paterno’s action with Warren McGraw’s action.

Joe failed to properly report the incident he was aware of, but Justice Warren McGraw voted to not only release a recently convicted child molester from prison but literally ordered that the molester work at a school as a custodian.

Wow. It’s hard to know where to start with this. But let’s give it a shot …  First of all, is Blankenship’s comparison between the Penn State situation and the case of Tony Dean Arbaugh a valid one?

At Penn State, top university officials and athletic program administrators are alleged to have ignored reports that a one-time assistant coach sexually assaulted or had inappropriate contact with at least eight underage boys. If proven true, the allegations show that Penn State officials tried to avoid a law enforcement investigation that would have gotten to the bottom of the situation and punished those responsible.

In the Arbaugh case, then-Justice Warren McGraw voted (along with Justices Joe Albright and Larry Starcher) to release from prison Tony Dean Arbaugh, who was jailed after pleading guilty to one count of first degree sexual assault for abusing his half-brother. Justice McGraw didn’t try to cover up Arbaugh’s crime. He simply voted that Arbaugh — himself a sexual abuse victim — needed another chance in life.

The Supreme Court’s 3-2 ruling in that case spelled out Arbaugh’s past very clearly, outlining both what had happened to him and what he had done to others:

The appellant in this case, Mr. Arbaugh, has lead a long and painful life. He endured a long history of sexual assault at the hands of two of his adult male family members, beginning when he was seven or eight years old. These assaults included oral sex, sodomy, mutual masturbation, and “dry humping.” Mr. Arbaugh was also sexually assaulted by one of his teachers for a period of four years. As a result of these attacks, Mr. Arbaugh began acting out sexually against his younger half brother … He plead guilty under the information to one count of first degree sexual assault.

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MSHA to release Upper Big Branch report Dec. 6

The Labor Department announced earlier today that its Mine Safety and Health Administration would be releasing the report of its investigation into the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster on Dec. 6.

MSHA has scheduled a media briefing for 3 p.m. at the National Mine Health and Safety Academy outside of Beckley, W.Va.

It’s certainly an interesting date, being the 104th anniversary of Monongah, the worst mining disaster in U.S. history.

Stay tuned …

As we reported in this morning’s Gazette, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar appears to have taken action that would delay any merger of the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement with the Bureau of Land Management:

In a related move on Monday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he was delaying a report on his proposed merger of OSM with the Bureau of Land Management from Dec. 1 to Feb. 15. A prepared statement said the move was aimed at allowing more input from interested parties.

There’s an updated order from Secretary Salazar posted here, along with this statement from his press spokesman, Adam Fletcher:

In the weeks since Secretary Salazar directed OSM and BLM leadership to evaluate how certain functions of BLM and OSM might be consolidated to further strengthen the bureaus’ mining regulatory and abandoned mine land reclamation programs and achieve important efficiencies – without losing OSM’s independence as a regulatory body — some of the Department’s most senior officials have testified before Congressional committees; consulted with staff of the applicable committees as well as the Office of Management and Budget; and held employee meetings in Denver, Pittsburgh, Alton, Ill., and Washington, D.C., to discuss the proposed consolidation.

The discussions that have been conducted to date have been very productive. In particular, they have helped to identify efficiencies that OSM might gain by having BLM handle some of OSM’s administrative functions, in much the same way as some bureaus in the Department provide administrative support functions for other, smaller bureaus and offices. At the same time, it appears that some of OSM’s core functions might be strengthened by adding BLM’s abandoned mine reclamation program and BLM’s coal-related inspection responsibilities to OSM’s similar programs. Informative discussions also are underway regarding how best to maintain OSM’s independence over its regulatory responsibilities under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

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A recent audit by the Labor Department Inspector General has again targeted systematic problems with one of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s key tools: Collection of monetary fines for safety and health violations by the nation’s coal industry. The audit, available here, concludes:

While MSHA’s actions to pursue repeat, long term debtors as part of its overall enforcement effort were above the requirements of the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996, its policies and procedures did not assure that all potential scofflaws were identified. MSHA did not identify all potential scofflaw violators because it did not finalize or follow its draft criteria. The audit sample contained three violators with poor payment histories and delinquent balances ranging from $244,415 to $327,739 which MSHA had not identified for legal action as potential scofflaw violators.

Specifically, IG investigators look at penalty collection activities in 2009 and 2010 — during the Obama administration — and found that MSHA did not always:

–Timely apply payments against the outstanding debt of violators and timely and consistently refer delinquent debt to Treasury;

— Identify potential scofflaw violators; and

– Ensure that penalties were uncollectable before writing off the debt.

It’s important to note these figures from the IG audit:

During calendar years (CY) 2009 and 2010, MSHA inspections resulted in the issuance of 174,354 and 172,035 violations, and assessed monetary penalties of $137.0 million and $146.4 million, respectively. As of October 2010, for fiscal years (FY) 2001 through 2010, MSHA had collected 86 percent of the monetary penalties owed.

And the IG report notes:

In February 2006, MSHA filed an unprecedented lawsuit in U.S. District Court seeking an injunction against a mine company and its controlling owner who had chronically failed to pay assessed civil penalties. Since that time MSHA has occasionally, but irregularly initiated various actions against scofflaw violators. For example, in August 2008, MSHA informed three mine operators that failure to pay their delinquent civil penalties could result in the issuance of mine closure orders under Section 104(a) of the Mine Act. The three mines subsequently paid a total of more than $225,000 in overdue fines. Similarly, in March 2008, MSHA issued a withdrawal order to a mine operator for failure to pay civil penalties. The mine has been shut down since that time. During FYs 2009 and 2010, MSHA and SOL pursued 24 scofflaw violators that owed a total of $5,616,611 in delinquent civil penalties. MSHA collected over $1.2 million (23 percent) from 10 of the 24 scofflaw violators.

But the IG found that MSHA had never finalized a May 2009 proposal for how to identify and deal with mine operators who don’t pay their penalties. the IG reported:

Using MSHA’s draft criteria, we identified five scofflaw violators based on our audit sample of 269 civil penalties for FYs 2009 and 2010. MSHA had not identified three of these five as potential scofflaws or referred them to SOL for possible action. As of September 30, 2010, these three violators owed civil penalty balances of $244,415, $275,937, and $327,739 respectively.8 Without clearly defined policies and procedures to identify all potential scofflaw violators, violators may continue to operate while ignoring the financial consequences and the deterrent that civil penalties are intended to provide.

One of the most disappointing things in the audit is the somewhat softly stated fact that MSHA “did not have an accurate view of the amount and age of its uncollected civil penalties.” In other words, MSHA doesn’t know for sure how much mine operators owe or for what violations that were cited when. The audit explains:

As of October 2011, $124.8 million (85 percent) of the $147.1 million for civil penalties that had become final orders in FYs 2009 and 2010 had been collected and deposited with the Treasury. However, MSHA did not always (a) timely apply payments against the outstanding debt of violators and timely and consistently refer delinquent debt to Treasury; (b) identify potential scofflaw violators; and (c) ensure that penalties were uncollectable before writing off the debt.

Incredibly, here was MSHA’s solution to this problem:

… In February 2008, MSHA created the Exclusion List. To avoid incorrectly referring penalties to Treasury caused by possible unapplied payments, MSHA exempted violators it placed on this list from referral to Treasury even if their penalties appeared to be delinquent by more than 150 days. According to MSHA officials, violators on the Exclusion List were those that “routinely paid their civil penalties timely.” Therefore, MSHA presumed that delinquent balances were the result of unapplied payments. However, since delays in applying payments made MSHA’s debt delinquency information unreliable, MSHA could not know whether these violators had penalties that should be referred to Treasury.

IG investigators aren’t sure if the figures are accurate, but they said MSHA reported that, as of September 2010, penalty cases worth $8 million associated with 133 different violators were on the Exclusion List. In a footnote, the IG said the list contains a total of 325 mine operators — all of whom would avoid having unpaid penalties sent to the Treasury for potential debt collection activities, all because MSHA doesn’ t know if they’ve paid their fines or not. The IG report includes a chart that shows $4.2 million of that debt is more than 1 year overdue and another $3 million is more than two years overdue.

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Last week’s release of an EPA Inspector General’s report on the agency’s mountaintop removal permit crackdown doesn’t seem to have gotten a lot of media attention, given the timing on the day before Thanksgiving.

But Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. and requester of the IG study, certainly thought the report was a major slap at the Obama administration:

The report released today by the EPA Office of Inspector General confirms my concerns that EPA, through its own actions, is systematically slowing the pace of permit evaluations in Appalachia. Even more troubling is that as our nation works to find ways to cut our national debt, EPA has increased its budget and staff to evaluate these permits.

Instead of spending more and more taxpayer dollars to wage this war on affordable energy, the Obama-EPA should be processing and approving these permits to spur job creation, especially in areas such as the Appalachia that have significant employment needs. Equally important is the potential domestic energy production that these permits would provide.

Are the IG’s findings as big a deal as Sen. Inhofe makes them out to be? Well, you can read the entire report here, and see what you think.

But there are a few things to consider here … first, Sen. Inhofe’s staff makes much out of one particular statistic in the report, when they say in his statement:

Unfortunately, this report proves that the regulated community cannot depend on the Obama EPA to have an open and transparent permit process. EPA has a job to do and they need to do it. But taking 731 days to complete a 144 [-day] task only further demonstrates the Obama Administration’s determination to shut down the development of our vast domestic fossil fuels.

A 144-day task? Let’s be clear on what that figure is.  The IG report (on page 14) explains:

Corps regulations govern the permit application process and allow 60-90 days for IP application review and processing. However, the Corps stated that it has an internal goal to process permit applications within 120 days.  In contrast, EPA informed us that, on average, review and processing of an IP application for all types of activities (not specific to surface coal mining) takes 144 days.

Sen. Inhofe’s press release makes this statement:

Almost half of the 185 permits have taken at least 731 days to evaluate.

Here’s the part of the IG report where that comes from:

… Out of a universe of 185 projects, the Corps issued 56 permits (or 30 percent). Of these 56 issued permits, the Corps reviewed and processed 23 within its stated goal of 120 days. Table 4 also shows that 31 of the 56 took longer than the IP average review time of 144 days. Of the 66 pending applications, 41 applications (62 percent) have been in process for over 1 year. In fact, table 4 shows that 110 permit activities (59 percent)—whether issued, withdrawn, or pending—have taken a year or longer to process, with 75 out of 185 activities (or 41 percent) exceeding 2 years.

It’s interesting to note, though, that of the 185 permits examined by the IG’s office, the status is roughly equally split three ways among permits that have been issued, permits that the company withdrew, and permits that are pending — hardly the permit moratorium that the coal industry and their political friends constantly talk about. And of the permits that have been issued, nearly half were issued within 90 days, and two thirds were issued in less than a year.

Happy Thanksgiving everybody …

Hey folks, Coal Tattoo is going to be shut down for a couple of days. I hope everyone enjoys some time with family and friends. Be safe, be kind to each other, and be thankful.

Well, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has made it pretty plain that one of his absolute top priorities is to defend the state’s coal industry and to perpetuate the practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that on Friday — less than a week after he was sworn into office — Gov. Tomblin quietly replaced two of the five members of the state Environmental Quality Board.

Records at the Secretary of State’s office confirm that Tomblin appointed Charles Somerville, a biologist and dean of the College of Science at Marshall University and Mitch Blake, manager of coal programs for the state Geological Survey, to the EQB. They replace Charleston businessman and conservation advocate Ted Armbrecht and James Van Gundy, a retired professor of biology and environmental sciences at Davis & Elkins College.

Now, these changes come at a time when the EQB is set at its December meeting to sort out how it will respond to a circuit court ruling that sent back to it the appeal of an Arch Coal mountaintop removal mine in Monongalia County.

This appeal by the Sierra Club is one of two pending permit challenges (the other is in federal court)  that focus on trying to force state and federal regulators to include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new water quality guidance into mining permits issued in West Virginia.

WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman had said this about the EQB’s ruling in the case concerning the New Hill West Mine:

This was the worst ruling I’ve ever seen out of the EQB as far as a lack of respect for the rule of law.

EQB members had unanimously ruled that the WVDEP had wrongly failed to set certain water quality limits (see here and here). While Kanawha Circuit Judge James Stucky sent the case back to the board, the judge did not overturn the foundation of the EQB ruling. And while the EQB recently refused to continue a legal stay on the mining project, board members have also indicated that they would stick by their decision that WVDEP needed to include these limits in any future permit for the mine.

Gov. Tomblin’s action removes from the board two of the members generally considered most friendly to citizen groups. Keep in mind, now, though — the terms of the other three board members (including longtime chairman Ed Snyder) have expired, and the governor could still take some action to replace those folks as well … stay tuned …

The blog post yesterday from our friend Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., understandably focused on the clear good news in a new report from the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission and the Department of Labor:

Efforts to reduce the backlog of the thousands of health and safety appeals by mine operators trying to avoid tougher penalties is beginning to work, according to a new report from the Department of Labor sent to Congress last week.

The department said that the number of pending health and safety cases dropped to 17,101 at the end of July 2011, slightly lower than the 17, 591 when extra funding was approved a year earlier and despite having to deal with a flood of 11,412 new appeals.  This is the first time the backlog has gone down year to year since 2004.

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Remembering the Farmington Disaster

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

Forty-three years ago yesterday, 78 miners were killed in an explosion at Consolidation Coal Co.’s No. 9 Mine in Farmington, W.Va.

WBOY-TV reported from yesterday’s commemoration:

That morning, an explosion at the Consol Number 9 Mine just outside of Farmington, only allowed 21 of the 99 miners inside to escape.

“They’re heroes. These 78 men are truly heroes in the working miners’ eyes today. After this explosion, the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1969, which literally saved thousands and thousands of lives,” said Mike Caputo, the international vice president of UMWA District 31.

On Sunday, family and friends gathered at the site where 19 of those who died that day still remain.

The annual service has become a reunion, and a reminder to families that the sacrifice they made will never be forgotten.

“The reason why I’m here, is in honor of my dad’s memory. It’s because of him and the other 77 miners that everybody is safe to go to work and being comfortable with it now,” said Sharon Clelland, who’s father was killed in the explosion.

For the first time since the services began at the mine site, all of Sharon’s brothers and sisters were there to stand proudly with their mother.

“He has a cloud of glory. His face is so full of smiles now. He’d be so happy that we’re still together as a family. Family meant everything to Dad, and to know that we’re still as close today, as we were when we were little is just awesome,” beamed Clelland.

If you haven’t yet, check out my friend Bonnie Stewart’s book, No. 9, which chronicles the disaster and its aftermath.

Here’s the SEC filing made by Alpha Natural Resources on Friday:

On July 21, 2010, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street and Consumer Protection Act (the “Dodd-Frank Act”) was enacted. Section 1503 of the Dodd-Frank Act contains new reporting requirements regarding mine safety, including disclosing on a Current Report on Form 8-K the receipt of an imminent danger order under section 107(a) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (the “Mine Act”) issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (“MSHA”).

On November 14, 2011, Alex Energy, Inc. (“Alex Energy”), a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources, Inc., received an imminent danger order under section 107(a) of the Mine Act alleging that the grade of a portion of a haul road at the North Surface Mine was too steep. The order alleged that a portion of the roadway exceeded the maximum grade recommended by the manufacturer of certain rock trucks using the road. No injuries occurred as a result of the cited condition, and Alex Energy removed the trucks and a loader from the subject portion of the roadway.

The order was terminated on November 14, 2011.

Friday roundup, Nov. 18, 2011

In this Saturday, Nov. 12, 2011 photo, the body of a miner killed after a gas leak at the Sizhuang Coal Mine lies on the ground in Shizong county of Qujing city, in southwestern China’s Yunnan province. The gas leak hit one underground platform of the mine Thursday and spread to another platform, trapping 43 miners. It was China’s second deadly mining accident in less than a week. (AP Photo)

Without a doubt the most interesting article about coal that I read this week was the one headlined Coal Exports Are Bigger Threat Than Tar Sands Pipeline, written by Eric de Place on on Sightline Daily, a website covering American’s northwest. The piece got much broader attention when it was cross-posted by Joe Romm on his Climate Progress blog.

Here’s what it says:

The planned Keystone XL oil pipeline has earned major national attention for the damage it would do to the climate. At the same time, another climate drama is playing out with much less attention as coal companies make plans to export huge quantities to Asia by way of Pacific Northwest ports. It’s pretty clear that both projects are environmental horror stories, but I’ve been wondering: which one is worse?

So, from the “King Kong versus Godzilla” files, here’s my analysis of their carbon impacts. It turns out, coal exports are actually the bigger problem—and that’s really saying something.

The result surprised me: coal exports look to be an even bigger climate disaster than the pipeline. There are, in fact, quite a bit more direct emissions from burning the coal than from the oil. That’s true even when one counts the energy-intensive tar sands extraction and processing—and, of course, there are plenty of upstream emissions associated with coal mining that I’ve left out of the equation here. (In order to make a roughly direct comparison, I also omitted emissions associated with both products’ mining, refining, transportation, and so forth.) Clearly we can ill afford either one of these projects, but until we have a clear energy policy that respects climate science we’ll be wrestling with these kind of killer projects one at a time.

Also from Climate Progress, there was a great piece called Big Coal: Children’s Health and Clean Air Are Not Worth Our Spending One Penny of the Billions in Cash We’re Sitting On that explains:

The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, or ACCCE, is a coal industry coalition leading the charge to block the mercury and air toxics reduction rules. These efforts include spending $35 million on misleading television ads. Its members include major utilities such as Southern Company and DTE Energy. Huge coal companies are also major ACCCE supporters, including Arch Coal and Peabody. Other members include railroads that haul coal.

ACCCE is a vocal opponent of the air toxics rule for utilities. They even have a “countdown clock” for the days until the safeguards are issued. Its members are primarily concerned that the air toxics rule “is the most expensive rule the EPA has ever written for coal-fueled power plants.”

But this claim ignores the fact that the 22 ACCCE companies have nearly $18 billion in cash reserves, which should substantially ease their ability to withstand any economic impact of cleanup.

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Regular readers know that I’ve been a little suspicious from the beginning about this controversy over the leaked portions of the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s “Environmental Impact Statement” on its efforts to rewrite the federal stream buffer zone rule (see previous posts here, here and here).

So it was certainly interesting this morning when a House Natural Resources subcommittee posted the witness list and then the prepared testimony of a couple of the subcontractors who worked on that study and apparently were involved in preparing the questionable estimates of the buffer zone rewrite’s potential economic impacts. Remember now that the mining industry and its political friends have made much of these estimates, and used them to continue their efforts to discredit and block Obama administration efforts to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal.

Today’s witness list includes two speakers who worked for ESCI LLC, an engineering firm that apparently was a subcontractor for Polu Kai Services, which was working with OSMRE to write the EIS for the “stream protection rule,” or the agency’s proposals to rewrite the buffer zone regulation.

One witness, J. Steven Garder, president and CEO of ECSI, says in his prepared testimony that OSMRE officials tried to get contractors to change the results of their economic analysis to get different results:

A joint PKS and OSM team meeting was held in February in OSM’s offices in DC. During this meeting, OSM “suggested” that the PKS team revisit the production impacts and associated job loss numbers, and with different assumptions that would then change the final outcome to show less of an impact. The EIS team unanimously told OSM that it was not appropriate to change assumptions just to get a different answer. The team was also very concerned with the specific instruction from OSM to make the assumption that the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone (SBZ) Rule was in effect and being enforced across the U.S., which was not true. No state with an approved SMCRA program had promulgated the 2008 SBZ Rule, especially since the rule itself was subject to the litigation which brought about the SPR. If the PKS team assumed that the 2008 SBZ was in effect as part of the baseline existing environment, the nexus from the SBZ to the SPR would show less production, and therefore less job loss impact. The PKS team unanimously refused to use a “fabricated” baseline scenario to soften the production loss numbers.

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We’re about to be treated to another episode in the continuing story of the attacks by the coal industry and its friends in Congress on any effort by the Obama administration to reduce mountaintop removal’s impacts on coalfield communities, protect the world from greenhouse gas pollution and ensure mining industry workers make it home to their families after each workday.

That’s right the House Natural Resources Committee is set to hold a hearing later this morning on what Ohio Republican Bill Johnson’s bill called the “Coal Miner Employment and Domestic Energy Infrastructure Protection Act”. Basically, this is a bill to stop the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement from rewriting the federal stream buffer zone rule, but it’s actually much broader, prohibiting OSMRE from taking any actions that would do any of the following:

— Adversely impact employment in coal mines in the United States;

— Cause a reduction in revenue received by the Federal Government or any State, tribal or local government, by reducing through regulation the amount of coal in the United States that is available for mining;

— Reduce the amount of coal available for domestic consumption or export;

— Designate any area as unsuitable for surface coal mining and reclamation operations; or

— Expose the United States to liability for taking the value of privately owned coal through regulation.

Now, to hear Rep. Johnson talk, there’s a major crisis in the nation’s coalfields, with workers and their families already suffering because of actions by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency:

Every day thousands of hardworking coal miners go to work to put food on their families’ tables and keep millions of American families supplied with reliable, low cost electricity. The Obama Administration has actively sought ways to put an end to the coal industry through onerous regulations and activist rulemaking. This bill will ensure that this Administration cannot continue its efforts to increase the cost of energy for millions of Americans and put thousands of coal miners and coal industry related workers out of work.

The federal government should not be in the business of blocking production of one of America’s most abundant natural resources and the source of livelihoods in communities across the country.

And not so long again, in celebrating a partial court victory over EPA, the National Mining Association’s president, Hal Quinn, said this:

With this decision, coal communities can get back to the business of producing affordable energy for Americans and put more Americans back to work.

So imagine my surprise to see the chart I’ve posted above right there at the top of the National Mining Association’s website, along with this fascinating bit of text:

Mining added 11,000 men and women to our payrolls over the last year, along with 17,000 new support jobs. In fact, U.S. mining added thousands more jobs over the last decade-America’s first job-loss decade in 75 years.

Jobs at U.S. metals mines climbed by 10 percent and coal mining employment rose by 8.5 percent since 2001 . . . mining support jobs grew by an astounding 32 percent.

Here are their specific numbers:

Of course Matt Wasson at Appalachian Voices has been trying to make the point that government data indicates that coal-mining jobs in West Virginia specifically are on the rise since EPA began its crackdown on mountaintop removal — and lawmakers should know this, since Joe Lovett of the group Appalachian Mountain Advocates made this very point during a previous hearing:

Since 2007, as production in Central Appalachia has shifted away from mountaintop removal and back toward underground mining, the increase in employment at underground mines has more than offset declines at other types of mines. Although mountaintop removal may benefit the bottom lines of big coal operators, it does not increase the number of coal mining jobs.

Since mountaintop removal permits have been slowed by litigation and EPA regulation, mining jobs have actually increased in the region.

OSM: ‘Poor stepchild’ of the Interior Department

For the coal industry, discussion of the proposed merger of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and the Bureau of Land Management is mostly just another opportunity to bash the Obama administration and any efforts it makes to better regulate things like mountaintop removal.  Katie Sweeney, general counsel for the National Mining Association, told today’s Senate committee hearing on the subject:

Another way the department can marshal scarce resources absent consolidation is to ensure agencies truly focus on mission-essential activities. OSM has strayed from that path with its recent policy of reviewing state-issued permits in primacy states and second-guessing state permitting decisions. This emphasis on massive increases in oversight of state programs has proven to be unnecessary, duplicative, and a waste of millions of taxpayer dollars. OSM’s own annual evaluation reports demonstrate that the states have consistently done an excellent job in regulating coal mines.

OK … well, Ms. Sweeney must be reading different OSM oversight reports than I am.

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The Obama administration’s proposal to merge the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement continues to draw a lot of interest this week, with action to block the proposal in a House committee and a hearing today in a Senate committee.

Here’s the news from the House Natural Resources Committee:

Today, the House Natural Resources Committee approved an amendment by voice vote, to H.R. 3404, offered by Rep. Bill Johnson (OH-06). The amendment was a rejection of the Obama Administration’s recently announced intentions to merge the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Specifically, the amendment keeps OSM and BLM separate, independent agencies in the Department of the Interior and under the purview of the Under Secretary for Energy, Lands and Minerals.

Rep. Johnson said:

I’m pleased the Committee approved my amendment to protect the integrity of these two separate but equally important agencies. The attempt to merge these two agencies is yet another action by the Obama Administration in its ongoing war on American coal. There are serious statutory concerns with the Interior Department’s unilateral decision to merge OSM within BLM that could ultimately affect thousands of hardworking coal miners.

This amendment protects American jobs, ensures that the Obama Administration cannot skirt the laws passed by Congress, and guarantees these two agencies stay distinct entities within Interior Department while maintaining their individual, critical missions

Protects American jobs? Seriously now. This has to be one of the more baffling moves by coal’s friends among our nation’s political leadership. I have yet to hear anyone really explain exactly how it is that folding what little is left of OSMRE into the BLM for some administrative purposes amounts to a new front in the “war on coal.” Wouldn’t weakening OSMRE do more to get the federal government out of the business of overseeing coal, and isn’t that what the industry really wants?

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Report: Clean energy not unreliable or too expensive

Here’s the bottom line from a new report being issued this afternoon by the Civil Society Institute:

It is a myth that switching to safe, renewable energy would mean an unreliable U.S. power supply that also is too expensive to afford.

The report, prepared for the institute by Synapse Energy Economics, explains the benefits of a future energy system based less on coal and more on efficiency and renewables:

— Due in part to a significantly increased emphasis on energy efficiency, power sector carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2020 would fall 25 percent below 2010 levels; by 2050, such pollution would be 81 percent below 2010 levels. Under status quo trends, CO2 emissions would grow 28 percent from current levels by 2050.

— The steep health and environmental (including water use) impacts of coal-fired electricity are dramatically reduced and, by 2050, eliminated altogether when all such facilities are retired. For example, over 50,000 premature deaths are avoided relative to status quo trends linked to pollution from coal-fired plants.

— The construction and operation of the new power plants in the first decade would create roughly 3.1 million new job-years – the equivalent of 310,000 people employed for the entire decade.

— Natural gas use in 2050 would be reduced 28 percent from projected levels for 2050.

— By retiring about one quarter of the existing fleet of nuclear power reactors and not building any new ones, the risks associated with nuclear power generation and the nuclear fuel cycle are reduced considerably.

Civil Society Institute President Pam Solo said:

U.S. policymakers and others who assume that a safe, renewable energy future – including an end to reliance on coal-fired electric power and a sharply reduced reliance on nuclear power and natural gas – is impractical and too expensive for the U.S. to achieve are wrong. The truth is that America can and should embrace a workable and cost-effective future that is built on safe, renewable energy. Not only is it feasible and less expensive to do so, but we really have no other choice as a nation, given the concerns about coal emissions, natural gas ‘fracking,’ and nuclear reactor safety.

Synapse Energy Economics President Bruce Biewald said:

The results of our new analysis are very encouraging. We find that a transition to efficiency and renewable energy for our electricity is likely to be less expensive than the business-as-usual status quo approach. There are indications now that the cost of replacing coal with clean energy is falling. The current and projected price of coal has increased, and the price of photovoltaic systems has fallen sharply since 2009, a result of unprecedented growth in this sector globally. Further, the financial community is placing higher risk premiums on technologies with carbon emissions, making renewable energy and efficiency more attractive.

I’ve just learned of ruling by the West Virginia Environmental Quality board, lifting a stay on water pollution permit changes for Arch Coal Inc.’s New Hill West Mine in Monongalia County.

Readers may recall that this case focuses attention on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance for dealing with conductivity pollution from strip-mining operations. The board had ruled with the Sierra Club, which appealed the WVDEP permit approval, and last month a circuit judge sent the matter back to the EQB.

I’ve posted a copy of the EQB’s new ruling here, but I’ll try to briefly summarize.

Basically, the board said that new information about financial losses for Arch Coal was significant enough and evidence about immediate environmental harm small enough that it wasn’t going to continue a stay of the mining activity. But the company still doesn’t have a valid water discharge permit — DEP still needs to make some board-ordered changes to that permit, and board members remain concerned about long-term impacts and believe the Sierra Club is likely to prevail on the merits.

The ruling explained:

Simply put, the receiving stream is so degraded at present that a temporary stay will not repair the harm, but will likely cause ham to the local economy and financial harm to Patriot Mining …

… Macroinvertebrates are scarce and could suffer greater harm if levels of pollution are increased as a result of new mining … However, the testimony of experts at the evidentiary hearing also suggested that the impact would not be immediate or great. Long-term impacts may be considerably larger but immediate harm was not proven to the board.

… Given that the board has made a finding that [the Sierra Club] is likely to prevail on the merits of the case and that WVDEP and Patriot must modify the NPDES permit and may need to seek approval by the Environmental Protection Agency, all of this may be too great a risk for the company to move ahead with production at this time. However, the board will not stay the remaining terms and conditions of the permit prior to issuing a supplemental order in this matter.

Not surprisingly, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s proposal to merge the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement with the Bureau of Land Management is drawing some concerns from various quarters.

The issue got some attention earlier this month, when questions were raised about it during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing that was supposed to focus on OSMRE’s bumbling efforts to rewrite the stream buffer zone rule. Platts reported:

… Lawmakers from both parties raised concerns about the merger. A number of Republican members including Representative Bill Flores of Texas questioned whether Interior has the statutory authority to merge the two agencies.

Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey, the committee’s leading Democrat, asked for assurances that the merger would not impact the agency’s oversight.

“OSM is a separate and independent entity. … It will remain an independent agency,” Pizarchik said, quoting a statement Salazar gave to employees last week.

And environmental groups in Pennsylvania are raising concerns about the proposal’s potential impacts on the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program:

The Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, the Citizens Coal Council and other environmental groups are calling President Obama’s plan to fold the federal Office of Surface Mining into the Bureau of Land Management a threat to the $1.4 billion in federal funds due to Pennsylvania to reclaim abandoned mine lands and weaken surface mining regulation.

“(Pennsylvania) has developed a foward thinking, visionary program for restoring the more than 5,500 miles of dead streams utilizing funds collected, held and distributed by OSM,” said John Dawes, Executive Director of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds. “To move the Abandoned Mine Land Program and its finances into an agency whose main purpose is to lease federal lands would be a disservice to all Pennsylvanians working diligently to restore our streams and abandoned mine lands.

“Pennsylvanians worked very hard to secure the future of the Abandoned Mine Land Fund for the purpose of restoring land and streams in this state. We fear that BLM will have little interest in seeing the culmination of our hard work,” added Dawes.

“This scheme is illegal and defies common sense,” said Aimee Erickson, Executive Director of the Citizens Coal Council. While the many devils in the yet-to-be-released details of the Salazar OSM-BLM merger scheme already raise many serious and practical objections, the illegality of the proposed bureaucratic entanglement makes the proposal a non-starter.

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