Coal Tattoo

Breaking: Patriot agrees to huge selenium cleanup

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Photo by Vivian Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition

In federal court down in Huntington, attorneys for the Sierra Club and other groups have just filed copies of a major lawsuit settlement that insiders are saying could require Patriot Coal to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to treat selenium pollution from three of the company’s major mountaintop removal mining complexes here in West Virginia.

The deal will require Patriot to build and operate new treatment systems for 43 water discharge outfalls on 10 different permits — far more than 14 outlets covered in a previous deal with Alpha Natural Resources or the five outfalls included in a settlement with Arch Coal.

And think about it — the most recent financial filings from Patriot say the company was already expecting to pay $95 million to install treatment systems for just four outlets at two of its mines, under a 2010 ruling in which U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers held the company in contempt for not moving quickly enough to end its selenium pollution violations (see here, here and here for more on that case)

Attorney Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, which is representing citizen groups in selenium cleanup litigation, told me today:

This is the culmination of years of work on this issue. We’re very pleased that the coal industry will have to pay the costs of its business and clean up polluted waters.

This new settlement — which I’ve posted online here — covers water pollution outlets at Patriot’s Hobet 21 complex along the Boone-Lincoln border (where selenium pollution has been previously documented here and here), the Samples Mine complex in the Cabin Creek area, and the Ruffner Mine in Logan County. According to the Sierra Club:

The settlement requires Patriot to install treatment technology on a set schedule to bring selenium discharges within acceptable levels. In addition, the company will pay penalties of $7.5 million, with the vast majority of those funds directed to the West Virginia Land Trust. Patriot will be subject to significant additional penalties for any violations that occur after the compliance date for each source of pollution.

Jim Sconyers, chair of the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club, said:

Several years ago, the coal industry said that there was no way to treat selenium pollution from their mines. But now they’re agreeing to treat that pollution. This settlement, and other recent actions against Arch Coal and Alpha Natural Resources, shows that mining companies can do far more than they admit to clean up their pollution.

Dianne Bady with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition said:

West Virginia coal mines are finally starting to address their legacy of selenium pollution. Mine operators and regulators in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia need to follow suit.

Interestingly, the deal also requires Patriot to drop any future plans for mining a major permit — and creating significant selenium pollution — at its Jupiter-Callisto Mine in Boone County, which is located near the home of anti-mountaintop removal activist Maria Gunnoe, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2009 for her work to protect West Virginia mountains, streams and communities.

Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said:

Although treatment may be sufficient to address these existing selenium problems, ultimately the industry and regulators need to recognize that it’s not appropriate to mine coal where disturbing selenium laden rock strata will release harmful amounts of pollution.

UPDATED: Here is a statement just issued by Patriot Coal —

Patriot Coal Corporation (NYSE: PCX) today announced that it has entered into a consent decree with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Inc., the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Inc. and the Sierra Club to resolve claims under the Clean Water Act relating to Patriot’s mining activities in West Virginia.

“Selenium is an issue that many companies involved in coal mining must confront.  Today’s settlement by Patriot represents a strategic response to this challenging issue.  We are pleased that this settlement provides a comprehensive framework for Patriot to address selenium across our properties going forward,” stated Patriot President and Chief Executive Officer Richard M. Whiting.  “We believe the consent decree serves the interests of both the public and our stockholders.”

As a result of the negotiated settlement, the Company has agreed to a comprehensive plan which provides for the necessary time and flexibility in the development, selection and implementation of emerging technologies to meet compliance deadlines in the future.  To resolve claims related to the consent decree, the Company will pay $7.5 million in civil penalties, to be allocated between the federal government and the West Virginia Land Trust for land preservation projects within the Kanawha River and Guyandotte River watersheds.

The consent decree, which has been filed with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, is subject to a public comment period and must be approved by the Court before it becomes effective.

After filing my own blog post and print story on yesterday’s press conference on the new reports concerning coal-slurry contamination of the Prenter community’s water supplies, a couple folks pointed out to me the story that Taylor Kuykendall did for The State Journal’s website. In particular, they told me to check out the quotes from DEP Secretary Randy Huffman.

I did, and here’s what was in the story:

However, not everyone agrees with the idea that coal slurry injection has caused water problems at Prenter.

“We studied specifically the possibility the slurry injection had migrated into the water, and there’s not a geologic connection between where it was store and where their problem is,” Department of Environmental Protection Director Randy Huffman told the Associated Press. “The injection site in Prenter is not the source of their problems.”

It looks like the quotes were lifted from an AP story that is nearly three years old.

Now, some readers may recall — I’m sure Prenter-area residents will remember — that their community was not included in the coal-slurry injection study that WVDEP did a few years back. Agency officials believed the slurry injection occurred too long ago and too far from residential drinking wells to be a good fit for their Legislature-ordered review.

Continue reading…

Here’s the latest, just announced by Earthjustice:

Environmental and public health groups announced their intent to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in federal court to force the release of long awaited public health safeguards against toxic coal ash. The EPA has delayed the first-ever federal protections for coal ash for nearly two years despite more evidence of leaking ponds, poisoned groundwater supplies and threats to public health.

Earthjustice, on behalf of Appalachian Voices (NC), Chesapeake Climate Action Network (MD), Environmental Integrity Project, French Broad Riverkeeper (NC), Kentuckians For The Commonwealth (KY), Moapa band of Paiutes (NV), Montana Environmental Information Center (MT), Physicians for Social Responsibility, Prairie Rivers Network (IL), Sierra Club and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (TN), sent the EPA a notice of intent to sue the agency under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). The law requires the EPA to ensure that safeguards are regularly updated to address threats posed by wastes. However, the EPA has never undertaken any action to ensure safeguards address the known threats posed by coal ash, a toxic mix of arsenic, lead, hexavalent chromium, mercury, selenium, cadmium and other dangerous pollutants that result from burning coal at coal-fired power plants.

The notice of intent to sue is available online here.   Earthjustice said in its press release:

Following a spill of more than a billion gallons of coal ash at a disposal pond in Harriman, TN, in December 2008, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson announced in 2009 plans to set federal coal ash regulations by year’s end. In May 2010, the EPA proposed a hybrid regulation to classify coal ash either as hazardous or non-hazardous waste. After eight public hearings across the country and more than 450,000 public comments, the agency decided to delay finalizing the rule amid intense pressure from the coal and power industries.

Despite numerous studies showing the inadequacy of current federal coal ash safeguards to protect public health and the environment as well as documented evidence by the EPA and environmental groups showing coal ash poisoned aquifers and surface waters at 150 sites in 36 states, the EPA continues to fail to adopt federal safeguards. Today’s lawsuit would force the EPA to set deadlines for review and revision of relevant solid and hazardous waste regulations to address coal ash, as well as the much needed and overdue changes to the test that determines whether a waste is hazardous under RCRA.

Earthjustice coal ash expert Lisa Evans said:

Politics and pressure from corporate lobbyists are delaying much needed health protections from coal ash. The law states that the EPA should protect citizens who are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in their drinking water from coal ash. As we clean up the smokestacks of power plants, we can’t just shift the pollution from air to water and think the problem is solved. The EPA must set strong, federally enforceable safeguards against this toxic menace.

A coal truck drives through an railroad tressel near downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011.  (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that when most politicians start talking about balancing jobs and the environment, it signals they’re getting ready to get pretty weak on environmental protections … but maybe that’s an unfair conclusion to draw in all circumstances.

There’s no question that, when it comes to coal mining controversies, the industry’s public relations machine has done a great job of trying to make things about “jobs versus mayflies.” The media, especially in the coalfields of West Virginia, has done little to help — mostly ignoring the growing scientific evidence that links living new mountaintop removal to increase rates of serious health problems, like cancer and birth defects. The notion that polluting water, air and land impacts not just lizards and fish, but people, isn’t one that is given a lot of attention in the context of mountaintop removal.
Following last Friday’s major speech about global warming and “the future of coal” by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the discussion of all of this is continuing in the comment section of a post I wrote called, “What will we do about coal’s crisis in the making?” And we were reminded just yesterday of the very real connection between coal’s environmental pollution and public health, with the release of two new expert reports about the slurry contamination in the community of Prenter.

But for those wanting to think and discuss more about the connections — or lack of connections — between the labor and environmental movements, historian and writer Erik Loomis has an interesting post on the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, called “Blue-Green Alliances.”  Loomis opines:

This gets to the complexities of the blue-green alliance, or the coalition between labor and environmental groups to craft policies that builds a unionized and sustainable future. There are clear areas where labor and environmentalists should have a common agenda–green technology, worker health, pollution. But there are equally clear lines that demarcate where the two groups can and can’t work together, particularly in extractive industry unions. My book-in-progress explores how logging unions in the Pacific Northwest organized around environmental issues, broadly defined. In the 1970s, a strong blue-green coalition (though I don’t believe the term had been invented yet) existed in the Northwest, with logging unions allying with environmentalists to keep workers safe and force timber companies to comply with the era’s new environmental regulations. But this was fraying at the same time it was peaking. The International Woodworkers of America had long criticized the timber industry’s unsustainable cutting, but when the rubber met the road and environmentalists in the 1970s and 80s were demanding increased wilderness areas and the protection of the last remaining old-growth stands, how could they vote their own members out of work? Especially when their union was coming under attack from so many other sides, with mills shutting down left and right?

The lesson from both the Northwest forest and Trumka’s coal miners is cultural. In the end, cultural divides shouldn’t stop anyone from promoting environmental positions with as much vigor as possible. But there is something very real about the resentment engendered when so-called outsiders (a term that can mean so many things) demand the end of an extractive industry without much thought into where workers are going to go. Even though those jobs are probably going away anyhow, it gives business a convenient target to direct workers’ ire. Of course, I don’t have any great answers about how to avoid this problem except to build understanding between the two constituencies, hoping that alliances over keeping workers’ bodies safe and air and water clean lead to stronger connections that allow environmentalists and labor to build toward understanding on the more intractable issues.

 

SSP organizer Bobby Mitchell labeling a black water sample from Prenter. Photo from the Sludge Safety Project.

I’m just back from the Capitol here in Charleston, where folks from the Sludge Safety Project held a press conference to publicize the public release of two expert reports filed in the case filed by several hundred residents of the community of Prenter over their allegation that coal slurry has poisoned their drinking water.

The two reports are available here and here, and the bottom line, as described by the organization is:

Conclusion: coal slurry leaking out of the underground impoundments in the old coal mines and released from the plant or various discharge points within the NPDES permits in Laurel Lick and Sand Lick leach metals while percolating through the aquifer consisting of the coal waste valley fill, zone of shallow weathered and fractured bedrock and alluvium. The metals are thus transported downstream to the location of the residential water wells.

Speakers at the press conference included Laura Merner, Ph.D. candidate in hydrology and SSP volunteer, the Rev. Jim Lewis, and Prenter resident Jennifer Hall-Massey, whose story of watching her neighbors get sick and die was told so well in The Last Mountain film.

Interestingly, Rev. Lewis mentioned that they would have had a bigger crowd of West Virginia residents at the press conference, but that folks from the Rawl area, who recently settled their coal-slurry contamination lawsuit, are concerned about still being covered by a gag order issued by a panel of judges overseeing that case. If the gag order isn’t lifted, Rawl resident might not be able to travel to Charleston this legislative session to tell lawmakers about their experience and lobby for tougher regulation of coal-slurry handling and disposal.

In case anyone missed it, I wanted to go back and focus some attention on remarks that our friend Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion (and a UMWA representative):

“I’m not saying ‘Something we can call agree on,’ I’m not saying ‘Compromise,’ I’m saying something that protects the health and safety of miners,” Caputo said. “If the industry doesn’t like it, that’s just too damn bad.”

That’s what Delegate Caputo told the Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard when asked about the House leadership’s new mine safety bill, introduced yesterday — ahead of legislation promised in last week’s State of the State address by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Delegate Caputo’s comments highlight what appears to me to be an increasing trend, in which political leaders don’t want to tackle tough issues at the statehouse before first making sure that a powerful industry isn’t going to derail their efforts. This happened here in West Virginia with last month’s special session on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The governor’s office has said it hasn’t finalized its mine safety bill because it was still talking with industry lobbyists about it, to ensure there was consensus support for it.

What ever happened to proposing a bill you think is good, debating its merits, and then voting it up or down? That way, if lawmakers vote with industry over miners’ safety, the public will know and can base their own votes on Election Day accordingly …

W.Va. lawmakers introduce mine safety bill

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Here’s the report just out from the AP’s Larry Messina:

For two West Virginia lawmakers who lost fathers in coal mining accidents, preventing disasters like the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion has taken a personal turn.

House Speaker Rick Thompson was not yet born when a roof fall killed his father at age 21. Delegate Charlene Marshall’s dad died in the mines when she was 6.

Thompson and Marshall are among 11 lawmakers who introduced legislation Monday offering numerous ways to target unsafe mines.

The bipartisan bill would identify and then remedy the enforcement problems cited in the reports by Upper Big Branch investigators. That disaster killed 29 miners.

It also seeks to allow miners’ families to take part when fatal accidents are investigated. Both Thompson and Marshall said their families were left in the dark after their fathers died.

This, of course, comes after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin talked up mine safety in his State of the State address, outlining a mixed package of measures, without actually having the legislation decided upon and ready to introduce. The Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard tweets that the governor’s bill should be introduced by Friday and that the plan is for a House Judiciary subcommittee to work on the competing proposals.

UPDATED: Ry has done a blog post on the Daily Mail’s Capitol Notebook, with this great quote from Delegate Mike Caputo, a UMWA representative, about whether mine safety legislation should be based on a consensus approach:

“I’m not saying ‘Something we can call agree on,’ I’m not saying ‘Compromise,’ I’m saying something that protects the health and safety of miners,” Caputo said. “If the industry doesn’t like it, that’s just too damn bad.”

You can read the bill for yourself here, and I’ve posted a fact sheet being distributed by the House leadership here. (note that two of the bill’s 11 co-sponsors are Republicans — one from Upshur County, where the Sago Disaster happened, and one from Raleigh County, where Upper Big Branch occurred).

Among other things, the bill would make it a crime for anyone to knowingly commit or willingly permit violations of state mine safety regulations. Current state law applies that sort of a standard to corporate mine operators and to any director, officer or agent of the corporation who knowingly authorized, ordered or carried out the violation.

Continue reading…

There’s an op-ed in this weekend’s Gazette-Mail that is worth a look — and worth a detailed read by our region’s political leaders. It’s by West Virginia native Lou Martin, who teaches history now in western Pennsylvania at Chatham University. Lou writes of a “crisis in the making” in Boone County, where coal is such a big part of the economy, yet good coal seams are playing out and competition from other regions threatens future production levels:

In May, CNN Money reported that 3,800 of the county’s 8,600 employed people worked in the mining industry. And a report by economists at WVU and Marshall titled “The West Virginia Coal Economy 2008” reported that 60 percent of the county’s roughly $35 million in property tax revenue came from coal. While those figures certainly speak to the importance of coal to Boone today, they also represent the potential for devastation when the coal companies leave. Imagine when half of those jobs and tax revenues disappear as Downstream Strategies predict they will. Boone County will be left with slurry ponds, “reclaimed” mountains and dirty water.

Lou warns:

As a society, we do not plan well for economic transitions; nor do we tend to plan for the long term. Our elected officials have a vested interest in helping businesses and industries that are here now, not imagining future businesses and industries. Coal companies focus only on this year’s profits. Unions protect current members’ jobs. Planning the future of Boone County is too important to leave up to the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, the CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, the president of the United Mine Workers, or even government officials like Sen. Manchin and Gov. Tomblin.

This time, the people need to plan out their own future. What do we want the future economy to look like? I propose that we try to create a society that will last for another 100 years, 200 years, or maybe even 1,000 years. But under the current plan, Boone County will face utter devastation –economic and environmental — in just 25 years.

For those who don’t know him, Lou Martin has written extensively about the working-class people of Appalachia, with a focus on the steel and pottery country of West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle (see here, for example).  And, he’s observed what has happened in those parts of the world in recent years, writing in his West Virginia University doctoral dissertation:

Beginning in the 1960s, local potteries began closing up shop until only Homer Laughlin remained. When Weirton Steel showcased its “mill of the future” in 1967, that moment proved to be the high point for the company and its workers. Thereafter, foreign competition, mismanagement, and global economic forces beyond any individual company’s control undercut Weirton Steel’s position in the market. By the 1980s, working families in Hancock County were faced with many tough decisions and sad realities as the winds of “creative destruction,” in the words of economists, picked up thousands of industrial jobs and carried them to the distant frontiers of industrial capitalism. The county’s population declined from about 40,000 in 1980 to about 30,000 in 2000. Many of those who remain are retirees who have watched helplessly as pensions and health insurance evaporated amidst bankruptcy hearings and corporate takeovers.

The deindustrialization of Hancock County underscores the ongoing nature of the industrial restructuring that brought new industries and industrial jobs to the county a century before. Workers struggled for decades to achieve a modest, dependable income and a decent life. During those decades, they continually adapted to new technologies, shifting markets, and changes within the working class. At the height of their influence locally, the rural-industrial workers of Hancock County also joined with like-minded Americans around the country to roll back the New Deal order and transform postwar America. The wrenching economic changes of the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, have left many working families to wonder what it was all about.

Dave Thearle, a member of the United Mine Workers of America, waves an American Flag during a labor rally in Waynesburg, Pa., Friday, April 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

As I read, I was reminded of passages from the speech AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave on Friday at the United Nations:

Now, some people’s response is to demand that we end all coal production now—they say “End Coal.” Never mind that such a thing is simply not going to happen—there is no substitute now for metallurgical coal and if we stopped burning coal this afternoon and cut the power in the U.S. grid by 50 percent, as Mayor Bloomberg advocates, he’d be reading handwritten memos by candlelight this evening. Given that reality, it’s important to think about how that slogan is heard in places like my hometown of Nemacolin, Pennsylvania.

Nemacolin lives on coal—the coal mine my grandfather and my father went down to every day of their working lives, the power plant the mine feeds, the rail lines that carry coal to other plants. When these folks hear “End Coal,” it sounds like a threat to destroy the value of our homes, to shut our schools and churches, to drive us away from the place our parents and grandparents are buried, to take away the work that for more than a hundred years has made us who we are.

So why, in an economy without an effective safety net, would the good men and women of my hometown and a thousand places like it surrender their whole lives and sit by while others try to force them to bear the cost of change.

The truth is that in many places – and not just places where coal is mined – there is fear that the “green economy” will turn into another version of the radical inequality that now haunts our society—another economy that works for the 1% and not for the 99%.

You can read the speech for yourself here and you can also see the initial reactions from a couple of the most outspoken anti-mountaintop removal activists in the comments section.

It’s certainly true that Rich Trumka didn’t mention mountaintop removal — and there’s no doubt we haven’t heard much from the Rich’s old friends at the United Mine Workers about the growing body of science that links living near mountaintop removal to serious health problems, to increases risks of cancer and birth defects among coalfield children. I’ve asked the question on Coal Tattoo before, “Exactly what sort of environmental protection does the UMWA support?” At the same time, I’m not sure that the way to build strong coalitions is to do what citizen groups did a few years back when the UMWA’s media spokesman, Phil Smith, took part in a roundtable aimed at trying to find common ground on heated and complicated coal industry issues.

And gosh, to hear the president of the AFL-CIO to speak so eloquently about what is without a doubt a much larger global crisis — climate change — was a truly remarkable moment. Just go back and read part of it:

Today, as we meet together, scientists tell us we are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change—with catastrophic consequences for human civilization. We must have a stable climate to feed the planet, to ensure there is drinking water for our cities but not floodwaters at our doors. A stable climate is the foundation of our global civilization, of our global economy—the prerequisite for a profitable investment environment.

And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

And what about economic transformation, about green jobs and a stronger economy? Rich Trumka said:

Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer: Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

Taking on the threat of climate change means putting investment capital to work creating jobs. It means building a road to a healthier world and a healthier world economy–one less dependent on volatile energy prices, one where many more of us have the things that modern energy makes possible.

Reading the Trumka speech and the reactions to it also reminded me of the wise words of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd:

Change is no stranger to the coal industry. Think of the huge changes which came with the onset of the Machine Age in the late 1800’s. Mechanization has increased coal production and revenues, but also has eliminated jobs, hurting the economies of coal communities. In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in the Mountain State. Today there are about 22,000. In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.

And change is undeniably upon the coal industry again. The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

These are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia’s elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities. I share those concerns.

Remember that Sen. Byrd also told us that “the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.” Of course, that is exactly the oppose of what we heard last week from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, in a State of the State address that mentioned coal only to cheer-lead, as opposed to actually leading. And it’s exactly the opposite of what other political leaders are doing when they dodge questions about the mountaintop removal health studies.

Even for those political leaders who support mountaintop removal — or who are afraid not to support it — go back and read Lou Martin’s op-ed piece:

… Even if we cannot agree on mountaintop removal, change is still coming. A 2010 report by Downstream Strategies predicts that coal mining in Central Appalachia will decline by more than half over the next 25 years (from 234 million tons in 2008, down to 99 million tons in 2035) for reasons ranging from competition from natural gas to depletion of the most productive reserves.

There’s a crisis in the making … what are we going to do about it?

Friday roundup, Jan. 13, 2012

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A group of Bosnians transport coal for heating in horse drawn carts, on a road near Sarajevo ,Bosnia, on Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. The average unemployment rate is up to 42 percent according to the Bosnian government. Collecting coal by hand and selling it on a local market is the only way an impoverished category of the Bosnian population can survive the winter. (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

In the wake of this week’s State of the State address by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin — and the governor’s full-speed-ahead view, no holds barred view of fossil fuels — it’s interesting that the Brookings Institute has a new report out that tells us:

State clean energy funds (CEFs) have emerged as effective tools that states can use to accelerate the development of energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. These clean energy funds, which exist in over 20 states, generate about $500 million per year in dedicated support from utility surcharges and other sources, making them significant public investors in thousands of clean energy projects.

It’s especially interesting because it discusses a kind of Washington paralysis that Gov. Tomblin doesn’t seem to mind — inaction on climate change and green energy:

Washington is again paralyzed and pulling back on clean energy economic development. Deficit politics and partisanship are firmly entrenched and the raft of federal financial supports made available through the 2009 stimulus law and elsewhere is starting to expire.

No wonder it’s hard to imagine—especially if you’re sitting in the nation’s capital—how the next phase of American clean energy industry growth will be financed or its next generation of technologies and firms supported.

And yet, one source of action lies hidden in plain sight. With federal clean energy activities largely on hold, a new paper we are releasing today as part of the Brookings-Rockefeller Project on State and Metropolitan Innovation argues that U.S. states hold out tremendous promise for the continued design and implementation of smart clean energy finance solutions and economic development.

Specifically, we contend that the nearly two dozen clean energy funds (CEFs) now running in a variety of mostly northern states stand as one of the most important clean energy forces at work in the nation and offer at least one partial response to the failure of Washington to deliver a sensible clean energy development approach.

To date, over 20 states have created a varied array of these public investment vehicles to invest in clean energy pursuits with revenues often derived from small public-benefit surcharges on electric utility bills. Over the last decade, state CEFs have invested over $2.7 billion in state dollars to support renewable energy markets, counting very conservatively. Meanwhile, they have leveraged another $9.7 billion in additional federal and private sector investment, with the resulting $12 billion flowing to the deployment of over 72,000 projects in the United States ranging from solar installations on homes and businesses to wind turbines in communities to large wind farms, hydrokinetic projects in rivers, and biomass generation plants on farms.

In so doing, the funds stand well positioned—along with state economic development and other officials—to build on a pragmatic success and take up the challenge left by the current federal abdication of a role on clean energy economic development.

Stephen Lacey had a good report on this on the Climate Progress blog:

Congressional commitment to action on clean energy policy in 2012 is about as secure as Kim Kardashian’s wedding vows.

So with states once again representing the major driver for renewable energy, how can they keep the momentum going at a time when federal enthusiasm is at its lowest level in years? The key, according to a new report from the Brookings Institution, is for states to focus not just on project-level deployment, but to shift some funds toward support broader sustainable economic goals that foster the clean energy economy from the ground up.

Creating an integrated clean energy economy is about more than simply deploying renewable energy projects. It’s about putting the structures in place to support technological innovation, boost local manufacturing, and create the supply chain to support a new industry.

The authors point to states like California, Massachusetts and New York, which have set aside good chunks of money from these funds to create cleantech research hubs, business incubators, and worker training programs. These help build the industry from top to bottom and potentially keep greater amounts of economic value within a state.

Continue reading…

AFL-CIO’s Trumka calls for talk about future of coal

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Here’s a speech my old buddy Rich Trumka, the former United Mine Workers president who now heads the national AFL-CIO, gave today about climate change (and he talks a fair amount about coal too):

Good afternoon. I am honored to be here with all of you. And thank you, Denise (Napier), for that kind introduction and all your work to protect the pensions of public employees of the state of Connecticut. I also want to express the thanks of the labor movement to Tim Wirth and the United Nations Foundation, and to Mindy Lubber and her team at CERES, not just for organizing this event, but for all you’ve done to focus investors on the opportunities for investment in addressing climate change as well as the risks of failing to address climate change.

Today, as we meet together, scientists tell us we are headed ever more swiftly toward irreversible climate change—with catastrophic consequences for human civilization. We must have a stable climate to feed the planet, to ensure there is drinking water for our cities but not floodwaters at our doors. A stable climate is the foundation of our global civilization, of our global economy—the prerequisite for a profitable investment environment.

And to those who say climate risk is a far off problem, I can tell you that I have hunted the same woods in Western Pennsylvania my entire life and climate change is happening now—I see it in the summer droughts that kill the trees, the warm winter nights when flowers bloom in January, the snows that fall less frequently and melt more quickly.

Even so, some will ask, why should investors or working people focus on climate risk when we have so many economic problems across the world? The labor movement has a clear answer: Addressing climate risk is not a distraction from solving our economic problems. My friends, addressing climate risk means retooling our world—it means that every factory and power plant, every home and office, every rail line and highway, every vehicle, locomotive and plane, every school and hospital, must be modernized, upgraded, renovated or replaced with something cleaner, more efficient, less wasteful.

Continue reading…

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin certainly did a lot of Washington bashing last night in his State of the State address. For example:

This is not Washington D.C., where partisan bickering has subverted the legislative process. This is West Virginia, where the republican and democrat, liberal and conservative, come together, resolve differences, and take decisive action.

Gosh, it’s a good thing that there’s no bickering among politicians in West Virginia … no fighting over something like the gubernatorial succession, whether an acting governor can move into the mansion or who gets to run the state Senate while the Senate President is acting as governor. And certainly, our leaders can do something like draw up new congressional districts without ending up in an embarrassing court battle that leaves voters unsure which district they’ll be in come election time.

But that’s not all Gov. Tomblin said about Washington. He went on:

This is not Washington D.C., where uncontrolled spending has led to uncertainty, a lack of confidence, and a fundamental breakdown in the operation of government. This is West Virginia, where we figured out in a realistic way to cut waste, balance the budget, reduce the tax burden, and commit to our citizens and our businesses, that this is a great place to work, live, and play.

And of course:

This is not Washington D.C., where the EPA and other governmental agencies engage in back-door policy making that threatens the very livelihood of so many of our fellow citizens. This is West Virginia, where we appreciate the need for reasonable, open environmental regulations but understand the fundamental need for jobs and for low cost, reliable energy developed right here in the United States of America.

Never mind the huge role that federal outlays for our aging population, the disabled and the poor — not to mention the fact that, as the fine folks at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy explained, federal government spending has played a major part in the economy recovery in West Virginia.  I was reminded of the scene from The West Wing where President Bartlet asks his election rival, a fictional governor who campaigns on an anti-Washington platform, if the federal government can have back all the money it funneled that state’s way:

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‘One death in our mines is one death too many’

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Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin speaks Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012 during his state of the state address at the Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Here is what Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in his State of the State speech to summarize his promised mine safety reform legislation:

Just as we must continue to mine coal, we must make certain that our miners are safe. We have created a new rock dusting laboratory. We have increased the number and the salaries for our mine inspectors. We are re-checking our rescue chambers to make sure that they are safe. And, we have diligently worked to determine the causes of the Upper Big Branch disaster to make sure a disaster like that never happens again!

To build on this progress, I will submit legislation designed to improve mine safety. This legislation will enhance rock dusting standards, protect whistleblowers, mandate methane sensors at long walls, and increase pre-shift reviews. We will prohibit mines from announcing that an inspector is coming, and we will provide more training for self-rescuers. We will also begin a year-long study on the training of our inspectors, our foreman, and our miners. Coal mining is a dangerous profession, but we can make it safer. One death in our mines is one death too many.

Finally, now is the time to make sure that our mines are drug free. Much like Virginia and Kentucky, we will implement our own drug-testing program. No workplace can tolerate a person impaired by drugs, particularly in our mines.

Here’s what West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had to say in tonight’s State of the State address about his efforts to help stop any tougher regulation of the coal industry:

Let me now speak very directly about one of my problems with Washington.

As long as I am Governor I will continue to fight this administrations war on coal! A few months ago, a federal court agreed with our lawsuit and ruled that the federal EPA had in fact overstepped its authority. I will keep fighting until Washington recognizes that one of the keys to America’s future is the use and promotion of our natural resources. It is a fight from which I will not shrink, and one that I fully expect to win!

Here’s the latest from Dina Cappiello at The Associated Press:

The most detailed data yet on emissions of heat-trapping gases show that U.S. power plants are responsible for the bulk of the pollution blamed for global warming.

Power plants released 72 percent of the greenhouse gases reported to the Environmental Protection Agency for 2010, according to information released Wednesday that was the first catalog of global warming pollution by facility. The data include more than 6,700 of the largest industrial sources of greenhouse gases, or about 80 percent of total U.S. emissions.

According to an Associated Press analysis of the data, 20 mostly coal-fired power plants in 15 states account for the top-releasing facilities.
Gina McCarthy, the top air official at the EPA, said the database marked “a major milestone” in the agency’s work to address climate change. She said it would help industry, states and the federal government identify ways to reduce greenhouse gases.

The Obama administration plans to regulate emissions of heat-trapping gases under existing law. A proposed regulation to address pollution from new power plants could be released as early as this month. Eventually, the EPA will have to tackle facilities already in operation. The largest emitters will be the first in line.

The largest greenhouse gas polluter in the nation in 2010, according to the EPA’s data, was the Scherer power plant in Juliette, Ga., owned by Southern Company. That coal-fired power plant reported releasing nearly 23 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, in 2010.

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That headline almost seems like a silly question … I mean, don’t we pretty much know what Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s going to say about the coal industry? Would anyone be shocked if he didn’t use the phrase “backbone of our economy,” trash the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and pledge to make sure our coal mines are the safest in the world?

Those have pretty  much been Gov. Tomblin’s standard talking points, from last year’s State of the State address when he was acting governor to his first press conference after being elected to a speech at his investiture ceremony and his inauguration last November, this sort of statement has pretty much summed up Gov. Tomblin’s position:

I will fight for our state’s coal industry, the backbone of our economy. We will continue to take on the federal government and oppose efforts by the EPA and others to stop production of the most efficient fuel our country knows.

There was a tiny glimmer of hope for something more yesterday, when the governor’s office confirmed that the administration would support an increase in the state’s coal-production tax to support continued efforts to save the DEP’s special reclamation fund from insolvency. But even that statement made it pretty clear who Gov. Tomblin turns to for confirmation before pursuing any coal-related initiatives:

The Governor appreciates the Advisory Council’s hard work on issues relating to the special reclamation fund and the steps to make sure that abandoned mine sites are properly treated. He is aware of the proposed fee increase, including the fact that the motion to pass the increase was seconded by a representative from the coal industry. Although he does not believe that we need to be increasing taxes and he does not believe we need to be placing additional unnecessary burdens on the coal industry, he is supportive of the recommendation. By increasing this fee, we will maintain the integrity of our current bonding system, support the special reclamation fund, and the citizens of this State will not be threatened by general tax increases on this issue.

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Is it really all that surprising that, as we reported in the Gazette this morning, Alpha Natural Resources is trying hard to keep any discussion of West Virginia University’s studies linking mountaintop removal to human health problems out of a pending lawsuit over one of the company’s Clean Water Act permits?

I mean, come on … nobody else — except the people who live near mountaintop removal operations — wants these studies to be part of a public conversation about the future of the Appalachian coal industry.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller won’t hold a Science Committee hearing on the subject. Sen. Joe Manchin doesn’t have time to talk common sense about what these studies show. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin doesn’t want anything to do with the topic.   Rep. Nick Rahall, while he did agree to an interview on the subject, can’t figure out what agency of the government should examine the issue.

And the only time you see much in most of the state’s media outlets on this topic, it’s to allow coal industry officials to spread half-truths and misinformation about the findings of WVU’s Michael Hendryx and his colleagues.

So maybe it’s not that big a deal that Alpha doesn’t want these health studies considered in the context of a challenge to its Highland Reylas permit … the really interesting thing now will be to see if U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers — who has presided over a bunch of significant mountaintop removal cases, and shown a willingness to listen to the science from both sides in those matters — will allow these issues to be heard in his courtroom.

UPDATED: Here’s a link to a news story in which we report that all 29 settlements have been reached.

By the end of the day, settlements are expected to have been finalized between Alpha Natural Resources and the families of all of the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

At least that’s the word from my sources involved in the mediation over the weekend at Glade Springs Resort. Lawyers for Alpha and the families were meeting in talks mediated by Michael K. Rozen, who is parters with Kenneth Feinberg, who has handled such high-profile cases as the Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund and the BP Oil Spill Fund.

Alpha, which bought the mine disaster liability when it acquired Massey Energy last June, had previously reached settlements with the families of 11 of the miners who died. Several other settlements have since been reached, and all indications are that all of the potential wrongful death claims — meaning those for all 29 victims who died — could be agreed upon by the end of the day.

Presumably, Alpha will be eager to go public when that happens, as settling those claims and putting a definitive number on the liability is certain to be considered a positive thing on Wall Street.

 

Ry Rivard has an important story at the top of the front page of today’s Daily Mail, reporting:

Coal companies should pay more to help clean up forsaken mine sites in West Virginia, the board overseeing state mine reclamation money said Monday.

The state Department of Environmental Protection’s Special Reclamation Advisory Council voted unanimously to recommend the state nearly double a mine reclamation tax on coal companies.

The story continues:

The proposed reclamation tax increase, which has to be approved by the Legislature, would add to the money the state now receives to clean up mine sites when mining companies don’t.

The state currently collects about $21 million a year from the reclamation tax, which is levied on each ton of coal produced in the state. This tax is different from the state’s much larger severance tax on coal, which is expected to raise about $400 million this year for the state and funds numerous programs.

If the increase were approved, the reclamation tax would go from 14.4 cents per ton to 27.9 cents. That would bring in an additional $17.4 million next year to clean up mine lands, a DEP spokeswoman said.

West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney, who is also a member of the reclamation fund advisory council, said nobody likes to see tax increases but the tax has to be raised to help keep reclamation funds solvent. Costs to the state for cleaning up mine sites is rising because, among other things, a 2011 court agreement requires the state to comply with stricter environmental standards than before.

“When all of these things come together, it just had to be done,” Raney said.

We’ve reported many times on the huge financial problems facing the state’s special reclamation program (see here, here, here and here) and, of course, the question now is whether Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislative leaders will listen to the advisory council. Last year, the Legislature did nothing, at least in part because the administration did not back the advisory council’s recommendation to increase the tax.

Stay tuned …

National Research Council starts mine rescue study

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A government photo shows the SCSRs that Sago miners tried to use to survive after the January 2006 explosion.

Later this week, the National Academy of Sciences will begin a new study of mine rescue called, Mine Safety: Essential Components of Self Escape.  A summary describes the effort this way:

An ad-hoc committee of inter-disciplinary experts will conduct a study to identify and synthesize the literature relevant to understanding “self escape” in the context of mine safety. The committee will review literature in areas such as judgment and decision making under conditions of uncertainty and stress, training of personnel in high-risk professions, technological advancements that may facilitate self escape (e.g. signaling), physiological and biomechanical effects of stress, and systems approaches to improve the likelihood of success self escape. This study will focus on underground coal mining but with the understanding that findings and recommendations for that industry will likely be informative to the underground metal/nonmetal mining industry. Basically, the stated purpose of this study is: What does it take to give mine workers self-escape capabilities during a disaster?

Apparently, the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, asked for this study.  They study committee is going to address these issues:

1. Define “self escape” in the context of mining disasters;

2. Identify competencies which are essential for mine workers to have in order to allow them to execute self-escape methods, which will include cognitive competencies as in hazard recognition and decision making, as well as physical abilities;

3. Suggest the most effective training methods for the mining industry to adopt in order to impart those skills to miners and to validate individual competency levels of same;

4. Consider systems factors, such as escape way conditions, availability of refuge alternatives, or other technologies (such as through the implementation of communication systems and sensors) that would contribute to a successful self escape by providing the miner with improved decision-making capabilities, e.g. through the availability of information, and/or providing physical conditions that would make it easier to escape under adverse conditions;

5. Identify any “gaps” in scientific findings that could inform this issue, thus help to set a possible research agenda for future funding strategies for NIOSH.

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Friday roundup, Jan. 6, 2012

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Afghans miners and local residents wait for news outside a coal mine in Narin, Baghlan province, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011. An Afghan official says 11 miners have died in an accident at the coal mine in central Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Jawed Dehsabzi)

As I scanned through the news I missed over the holiday season, I unfortunately stumbled onto the sad story of 11 coal miners who died in an explosion just before Christmas in Afghanistan:

Although fatal accidents are relatively rare, safety conditions at mines in Afghanistan are among the worst in the world. Some mines employ children as young as 10 years old and miners usually work by hand and have little ventilation, equipment or safety gear.

And more recently, there was this terrible report out of the Philippines:

Authorities resumed searching Friday for victims of a landslide that killed at least 22 people in a remote Philippine gold-mining village where miners work their small-scale claims with pickaxes. Officials have no good estimate of how many people are missing but say early reports of up to 100 were overblown. Many could have stayed elsewhere for the Christmas holiday, they said, or may have fled their mountainside shanties earlier in the night when the hill started to crumble.

And the New Zealand Herald had this helpful story that explained findings so far in the investigation of the Pike River Mine Disaster there:

As a long list of safety failures at the Pike River mine were read out, the sound of muffled weeping could be heard from the public gallery at the Greymouth District Court.

It was one of many moments when the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River disaster left family of those who died distressed, angry or incredulous.

Mountains of evidence – much of it disturbing – have been presented to the inquiry since it began its mammoth effort to uncover the reasons for the deaths of 29 miners in July.

It’s interesting to note how much of the Pike River investigation has taken place in public, out in the open – in contrast to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s secretive probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Speaking of Upper Big Branch, let’s not forget that lawyers for Alpha Natural Resources and attorneys for families of some of the miners who died are meeting this weekend at Glade Springs Resort for a mediation session aimed at resolving wrongful death and injury cases filed as a result of the April 5, 2010, explosion.  Kris Maher reported in The Wall Street Journal:

Settling the suits through mediation would allow Alpha to resolve litigation that could go on for years, and spare families an emotionally draining trial. “That’s why we settle cases, in order to have certainty as opposed to the crap shoot of a jury trial,” said Robert Bastress, a law professor at West Virginia University in Morgantown, who isn’t connected to the case.

Benny Jones, a lawyer representing two families of deceased miners and an injured survivor, said a settlement would bring some closure to his clients. “It’s just wearing them out,” said Mr. Jones, who is optimistic a settlement can be reached. “They committed to spend a tremendous amount of money recently to settle old cases, so it would appear from my point of view that they do want this behind them,” he said of Alpha.

To date, 11 families of deceased Upper Big Branch miners have each accepted $3 million settlements offered earlier by Massey and agreed not to sue the firm. Lawyers for the other families expect that settlements would be based on compensatory damages from lost wages as well as an amount for punitive damages.

Some legal experts said investigative reports that faulted Massey for failing to prevent a massive coal-dust explosion could result in higher payments. “This is a particularly egregious case because you had so many killed and the violations, and the anger is so high down there,” said Mr. Bastress of West Virginia University.

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