Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Nov. 4, 2011

In this photo released by China’s Xinhua news agency, rescuers work at the Qianqiu Coal Mine belongs to Yima Coal Group after an explosion of rock in Sanmenxia, central China’s Henan Province, Friday, Nov. 4, 2011. The sudden explosion of rock following a small earthquake killed four miners and trapped 57 others, the state news agency reported. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Zhu Xiang)

Families in the coalfields of China are waiting for word on the fate of at least 50 miners,  less than a week after 29 Chinese coal workers died in a massive explosion.  A Bloomberg story reminds us:

An average of more than six people a day died in the country’s coal mines last year compared with 48 people for the entire year in the U.S., the world’s second-biggest producer, data from the two governments show. China last year ordered supervisors to accompany miners into the pits.

In 2009, more than 100 people were killed in an explosion in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang. That was the nation’s worst mining disaster since December 2007, when 105 were killed at the Xinyao pit in Shanxi. Last year, a blast in central Henan province killed at least 48 miners.

The Oct. 29 explosion in Hunan was the deadliest this month. In other accidents, 17 were killed in Guizhou, 14 in Henan, 13 each in Chongqing and Heilongjiang and 11 in Shaanxi, according to reports by the official Xinhua News Agency.

The Chinese government aims to reduce deaths per million metric tons of coal produced by more than 28 percent in the five years through 2015, according to a circular published earlier this month. The number of people killed in coal mines declined 28 percent to 1,419 in the first nine months of this year compared with a year earlier, Xinhua reported on Oct. 21, citing Zhao Tiechui, head of the State Administration of Coal-Mine Safety.

Closer to home, Jessica Lilly of West Virginia Public Broadcasting had this story:

In a speech on the United States House floor, Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller recapped the United Mine Worker Association’s report into what happened at the Upper Big Branch. The union wants families of the victims to have a right to elect a representative during the investigation.

Under the Mine Act, any two living employees of a mine can elect a person or organization to be what’s called a ‘representative of miners’ at any time. This representative is allowed to travel with inspectors, point out problems, and examine any written citations. Mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard says it’s a right that’s simply not used enough.

“It seems to me the greater problem is that MSHA does not encourage miners to be miners’ reps,” Oppegard said.

“I think they don’t encourage it because a lot of inspectors and personnel probably feel more comfortable at mines where there are not miners reps because then they feel like they don’t have someone looking over their shoulder.”

And in West Virginia, an op-ed in the Gazette raised the age-old question of who owns our state’s great mineral wealth:

The last systematic study of land ownership patterns (done in 1981) found that nearly 60 percent of land in the sample of West Virginia counties studied was corporate-owned — and the percentage is even higher for mineral ownership. This is a result of conscious exploitation by outsiders and local elites who were able to buy up much of the mineral wealth of the state around the turn of the last century.

The inequality that is the focus of Occupy Wall Street can be felt acutely in southern West Virginia communities that are some of the poorest in the state, yet are surrounded by some of the richest coal reserves in the country.

Raw coal from the Allen Mine pours off a conveyer belt  on Sept.  26, 2011 near Trinidad, Colo.  The New Elk Coal mine opened four months ago 30 minutes west of Trinidad, in an area famous for its coal camps and miner history. The mine brings the promise of 500 jobs, business for local hotels, and a new generation of coal miners.   (AP Photo/The Colorado Springs Gazette,  Mark Reis,)

Over in Kentucky, my buddy Jim Bruggers blogged about the coal-ash spill in Wisconsin, and used the event to dig more into a local coal-ash disposal site, reporting:

Speaking of ash, there were news reports yesterday based on information from the environmental group Earthjustice that the ash pond at Mill Creek power plant in Louisville had been reclassified as a high hazard. I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of what’s new and this morning I spoke with Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. She told me that the ranking was buried in an earlier EPA inspection report that is now summarized in an EPA database — and that she had also found some 10 other relatively new such rankings for ash ponds in Kentucky in that database.

It all had a familiar ring to it, at least for Mill Creek. The Courier-Journal actually reported that the inspectors for the EPA had dubbed the Mill Creek pond has high-hazard ranking in April 2010. At the time, the C-J reported the following:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency inspectors say a large ash pond at Louisville Gas and Electric’s Mill Creek power plant is close enough to homes and a school to be classified as high risk.

The C-J also reported in that story that the classification was at odds with a state risk assessment, but that it reflected EPA inspectors’ concerns that a sudden collapse of the walls around the 79-acre pond could send wet ash gushing toward Robert Frost Middle School and homes in an adjacent Valley Station neighborhood. And this:

The inspectors also cited the pond’s risk to the environment and the Ohio River, concluding that a failure could release ash into the river, “damaging the surrounding area, wildlife and habitat, and threatening the drinking water supplies of the downstream communities.”

The great Sue Sturgis at Facing South had this special investigation of who is behind the investigations of some of the world’s leading climate scientists:

This week, in a courtroom in Prince William County, Virginia, a hearing will take place that could have implications for the privacy rights of scientists at colleges and universities across the country.

It’s part of a lawsuit brought by the American Tradition Institute, a free-market think tank that wants the public to believe human-caused global warming is a scientific fraud. Filed against the University of Virginia, the suit seeks emails and other documents related to former professor Michael Mann, an award-winning climate scientist who has become a focus of the climate-denial movement because of his research documenting the recent spike in earth’s temperature.

By suing the university, the American Tradition Institute wants to make public Mann’s correspondence in an effort to find out whether he manipulated data to receive government grants, a violation of the state’s Fraud Against Taxpayers Act.

But a Facing South investigation has found that the Colorado-based American Tradition Institute is part of a broader network of groups with close ties to energy interests that have long fought greenhouse gas regulation. Our investigation also finds that ATI has connections with the Koch brothers, Art Pope and other conservative donors seeking to expand their political influence.

And as The Guardian reported here:

The climate scientist Michael Mann has successfully fought off an attempt by a pro-industry thinktank to gain access to thousands of private emails.

After a day-long court hearing on Tuesday, a judge in Manassas, Virginia, granted Mann’s petition to join a lawsuit against the American Tradition Institute, an industry-funded thinktank that promotes scepticism about man-made climate change.

In an email, Mann called the decision a “good day” for academic freedom: “I don’t think there is any way to view this as anything other than a win for us, and for science more generally.”

McClatchy Newspapers distributed this interesting story:

A big part of what saved the freight rail industry from disaster lies not far beneath the rolling grasslands of eastern Wyoming.

Larry Kaufman, a transportation expert and author who worked in public affairs at BNSF predecessor Burlington Northern when it first tapped the vast coalfields of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin in the 1970s, said coal is a great business for railroads. They’ve been hauling it for more than a century, and they invested billions of dollars on track and locomotives to move it.

Coal still generates half the country’s electricity, and BNSF chief executive Matt Rose makes no apologies for it. BNSF runs dozens of mile-and-a-half-long coal trains every day from mines in Wyoming to power plants as distant as Georgia and Texas, and it’s looking to expand its export coal business to serve growing demand overseas.

“We could eliminate all of our coal assets in this country, and it would be a disaster,” Rose said in a recent interview. “We’re going to need coal for a long time.”

The Guardian reported:

This year’s UN climate negotiations are in Durban, South Africa. Many delegates will already be looking forward to the chance of going on safari after their labors, visiting Kruger National Park or one of the country’s other magnificent game reserves. But I have another suggestion. Visit the enemy. Just two hours’ drive up the Indian Ocean coast from Durban is Richards Bay, a huge deep-water harbor that is home to the world’s largest coal export terminal.

Anyone seduced by the conference exhibition halls in Durban, filled with the latest renewable energy technology, will get a rude awakening at Richards Bay. For it may tell the real story of our energy futures — and it is scary.

King coal is extending his kingdom. So dysfunctional is the world’s response to climate change that every year, the dirtiest fuel of them all is generating a growing proportion of the world’s energy.

All the talks in Durban will be of how to kick the coal habit. But as the climate talks have dragged on — from Nairobi in 2006 to Bali to Poznan to Copenhagen to Cancun and now to Durban — we have been hardening our addiction.

When the talks began half a decade ago, 25 percent of the world’s primary energy came from coal. The figure is now 29.6 percent. Between 2009 and 2010, global coal consumption grew by almost 8 percent.

Finally, for your iPhone and iPad users out there … good news, as you can now read Coal Tattoo on those devices with new Apps from The Charleston Gazette. Download them for free here.