Coal Tattoo

Why doesn’t MSHA move faster on SCSR phase out?

When the announcement came last week that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health were finally doing something about CSE Corps.’s defective SR-100 emergency breathing devices, the talking point was pretty clear: The agency were taking aggressive action, and they really couldn’t move any faster.

MSHA chief Joe Main’s quote in the agency press release read like this:

Due to the large number of CSE SR-100s in underground coal mines, multiple SCSRs available to miners, the low probability of failure and the shortage of immediately available replacements, MSHA and NIOSH have determined that an orderly phase-out will better protect the safety of miners than immediate withdrawal of the devices.

And the United Mine Workers of America certainly had Brother Main’s back. Union spokesman Phil Smith issued this statement:

We have encouraged MSHA to be aggressive in dealing with this issue, and we believe this initiative meets that goal. Though we would like to see these units out of the mines even sooner, there really is no feasible way to replace all the SR-100’s with other approved units much faster than MSHA is calling for because they simply are not available in enough quantities until production of other units ramps up. For the next year, miners who must rely on an SR-100 need to remember to have two with them or within ready reach when they are underground.

Oddly, though, while the UMWA doesn’t think MSHA and Brother Main could move any faster, their statement went on to say that, well, sure, the coal operators could move faster:

We are pleased that MSHA has agreed to our request to instruct inspectors at mines to brief miners directly, on each shift, about this action instead of just posting the information. And, I must point out that there is nothing keeping mine operators from implementing this change ahead of the timeline MSHA has set. Just as MSHA is being more aggressive, we encourage operators to be aggressive as well.

Not to be too much of a pain here, but if if this — there really is no feasible way to replace all the SR-100’s with other approved units much faster than MSHA is calling for because they simply are not available in enough quantities until production of other units ramps up — is true, then how could this — there is nothing keeping mine operators from implementing this change ahead of the timeline MSHA has set — also be true?

If there’s no feasible way to move faster, why is the UMWA suggesting companies should move faster? If there’s nothing keeping mine operators from moving more quickly, why isn’t the UMWA demanding that MSHA force them to do so? I could go on. But I think you get the point.

As I tried to understand MSHA’s slightly confusing timeline for this phase-out of a unit that miners have long complained about — and that Sago survivor Randal McCloy clearly explained didn’t work when he and his coworkers needed them the most — I couldn’t help but think about this story that I wrote way back in December 2006:

A year after the Sago Mine disaster, thousands of West Virginia coal miners are still waiting for the additional emergency breathing devices promised by Gov. Joe Manchin and the coal industry.

Many of the state’s mine operators have placed orders with the nation’s largest manufacturer, CSE Corp., and could be waiting until late 2007 for delivery. CSE’s biggest competitor, Ocenco Inc., has an even longer waiting list.

“My sense is that there is a tremendous backorder,” said Chris Hamilton, a vice president for the West Virginia Coal Association.

At the same time, another supplier, the German company Draeger, has thousands of self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs, sitting in a warehouse.

“We don’t have a backlog at all,” Wes Kenneweg, president of Draeger’s North American operations, said in an interview earlier this month.

At Draeger’s warehouse near the Pittsburgh airport, more than 6,500 of its OXY K-Plus units fill row after row of shelves.

Back then, delays in getting new SCSRs into the hands of coal miners weren’t caused by a lack of units or production problems or anything like that. The delays occurred because regulators and lawmakers didn’t give firm enough and quick enough deadlines for the industry to act.

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Here’s the latest Alpha Natural Resources filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission:

On April 24, 2012, Sidney Coal Company, Inc. (“Sidney”), a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources, Inc., received an imminent danger order under section 107(a) of the Mine Act due to damage to a ventilation control structure across one of the entries into the Taylor Fork Energy Mine (the “Mine”), located near Sidney, KY, and requiring withdrawal of the miners.  Once the damage to the structure was identified it was promptly repaired. The order was subsequently terminated on April 24, 2012.  No injuries occurred as a result of the cited condition.

Friday roundup, April 27, 2012

In this photo taken March 12, 2012, coal miner Joackim Myhrvang gestires in Mine 7, Svalbard, Norway (AP Photo/Scanpix Norway, Berit Roald)

It’s always interesting to see photographs and news stories from the coalfields around the world, like the photo above and like the terrible events described in this short piece from AP out of China:

A Chinese city government says villagers with sickles and clubs protesting against mining activities in the southwest attacked police, killing one officer and injuring 15 others. The Lijiang city government in Yunnan province said late Friday that the violence erupted on Wednesday as villagers were gathered at a township government office to express concern that activities at a coal mine could trigger geological disasters.

 Or, this Christian Science Monitor piece out of Mozambique:

On a recent morning in western Mozambique, a group of 500 families in the district of Moatize fed up with Brazilian mining giant Vale do Rio Doce gave up on writing letters to the government and erected blockades instead. They hauled logs across the railroad and piled stones on the highway, halting the flow of Vale’s coal.

The families are among several thousand people displaced by mining activities in the region, recently discovered to hold the world’s largest untapped reserves of coking coal, which is used in steel manufacturing. Vale, they said, had not honored its promises: their new houses had been poorly built, and the area where they were resettled was isolated and unsuited to agriculture.

Doesn’t what happened in this story from Canada sound familiar:

Environment Canada weakened a draft version of regulations to crack down on pollution from coal-fired power plants following pressure from the industry, newly-released federal records have revealed.

Briefing notes prepared by the department in September said the proposed regulations offered the equivalent of an 18-month deferral on enforcement of the regulations “because of the interventions made by ATCO,” an Alberta-based energy company.

The regulations, if finalized, are slated to come into force by July 1, 2015, but ATCO was seeking the deferral “to the end of 2016,” to protect its existing “Battle River 3” generating unit.

“ATCO’s views had an influence on the proposed regulations as published,” said the briefing note, produced a few weeks after Environment Minister Peter Kent unveiled his plan.

A few other examples:

Chinese workers who are exposed to silica dust in mines, and pottery and gemstone factories suffer not only from respiratory illnesses, but are at higher risk of contracting heart and infectious diseases and cancer, researchers in China have found.

— The three major companies involved in a project aimed at reducing Alberta’s carbon footprint have dropped out, striking a major blow to the province’s efforts to combat fierce international criticism over oil sands emissions, according to this report.

And of course, we know too well this story from New Zealand:

Stuart Mudge dreamed of learning the art of mining on the Pike River coalface.

But it was a passion which ultimately claimed the life of the 31-year-old resident of Runanga, a township 10km northwest from Greymouth.

And as a Royal Commission of Inquiry investigates the cause of the tragedy – as well as a raft of issues relating to the mine’s safety procedures, design and the actions of former management – Mudge’s parents have gone public with an aborted plan to have the mine closed down.

Just weeks before the initial explosion at Pike River on November 19, 2010, a group of Pike River miners and contractors – including Mudge – voiced their shared concerns over the mine at a private barbecue.

“They were all talking about safety at Pike River. Stu said something like, ‘The gas levels are terrible, she is going to blow . . . we should be doing something about it’,” Mudge’s mother, Carol Rose, told the Sunday Star-Times.

Stu’s father, Steve Rose, added: “They said, ‘OK, we will do it. We will go in on Monday morning and shut the mine down.’ “

But the concerned delegation of Pike River miners never made it to the Labour Department.

Steve said that the day following the barbecue, the men realised such a move could end their mining careers. “It was like, ‘S—, we will be blacklisted, we will never get another job in mining, no one will ever touch us,’ ” he said.


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We’ve asked before here on Coal Tattoo if West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller will really step forward now and lead our state toward sound policies on energy and climate change and, most importantly, our relationship with the coal industry.

Sen. Rockefeller offered West Virginians who desperately want someone to lead on these issues a bit of hope with his reaction to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. But truth be told, Sen. Rockefeller only looked so good because our other elected officials and other leaders were so quick to go so far out on the deep end attacking EPA (see, for example, UMWA President Cecil Roberts).

This week, we got at least some other small example that Sen. Rockefeller is willing to step slightly outside of the coal industry’s talking points, when he criticized Rep. David McKinley’s efforts to use a federal transportation bill to block EPA from regulating the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash.  The State Journal’s Pam Kasey reported on this, following up on a Politico report, but here’s the text of Sen. Rockefeller’s statement:

National surface transportation programs are critical to our economy and its continued growth. The Senate passed a responsible, bipartisan two-year surface transportation bill which included common-sense safety provisions and protected hundreds of thousands of jobs. The House never actually voted on a version of the surface legislation and we should focus on finding common ground, not pushing unrelated issues.

Right now, my goal as we begin the conference process is coming up with legislation that protects jobs and investments in our roads and bridges. To remain competitive in the 21st century, we must create a national surface transportation policy that reflects anticipated population growth and provides our safety agencies with authority to protect the citizens who use these systems.

Separately, I want to make it clear that I cannot support the environmental provisions that have been attached to the surface bill by the House. These riders would jeopardize the tremendous bipartisan support this bill has had so far in the Senate.

Contrast that to the contortions that Rep. Nick Rahall had to do on the House floor, as he tried to criticize the Republican version of the overall transportation package, but make sure everyone knew he supported whatever coal-ash language Rep. McKinley and the industry were pushing. Not for nothing, but my good friend Rep. Rahall seems to have done a bit of a flip-flop on coal ash, supporting Rep. McKinley’s effort to block all federal regulation of the material, after previously introducing his own bill that — while different from EPA’s approach — would have established tougher federal oversight.

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Another coal miner dies on the job

Tonight’s sad news comes from the coalfields of Kentucky, where another coal miner has died on the job. According to what MSHA said today:

Wednesday morning, it was reported that a contract worker fell from a catwalk about 15 feet and suffered a head injury.  While being transported to the hospital by ambulance, the contractor died.

 The death occurred at McCoy Elkorn Coal Corp.’s KC No. 1 Mine  in Knott County, Ky. This is the 7th U.S. coal mining death so far this year, according to MSHA.

UPDATED:  Here’s the MSHA preliminary report on this fatality. The victim was Delmar Miller, 61.

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

Six years ago, here’s how coal miner Randal McCloy described what he and his coworkers — all of whom died — went through trying to get their CSE Corp. SR-100 model self-contained self rescuers to work:

I fought with it for I don’t know how long, trying to mess with that valve, blow air through it, or anything I could do, but nothing would work.

After repeatedly dismissing such concerns, two federal agencies announced today a timeline for getting 70,000 of these particular SCSRs out of the nation’s coal mines.  In a just-issued press release, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration said:

… Mine operators must immediately begin phasing out the use of SR-100 self-contained self-rescuers manufactured by Pittsburgh, Pa.-based CSE Corp. The announcement, made in conjunction with the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, was prompted by the April 13 NIOSH report of a joint NIOSH-MSHA investigation that determined the units do not conform to safety requirements. Self-contained self-rescuers are portable devices that, in the event of an emergency, can provide underground miners with up to 60 minutes of breathable air.

By April 26, 2013, mine operators are required to replace with any other approved one-hour SCSR those SR-100s that are worn or carried by miners and stored on mantrips.  The entire phase-out of all SR-100 units must be completed by Dec. 31, 2013.

MSHA chief Joe Main said:

Due to the large number of CSE SR-100s in underground coal mines, multiple SCSRs available to miners, the low probability of failure and the shortage of immediately available replacements, MSHA and NIOSH have determined that an orderly phase-out will better protect the safety of miners than immediate withdrawal of the devices.

Here’s a link to NIOSH’s official “user notice” about this action, and a separate MSHA bulletin on the matter.

Some media folks have picked up an on interesting report issued yesterday by the International Energy Agency, telling us:

… Many technologies with great potential for energy and emissions savings are making halting progress at best. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is not seeing the necessary rates of investment to develop full-scale demonstration projects, and nearly half of new coal-fired power plants are still being built with inefficient technology.

But for my money, there’s a different report that coalfield political leaders across the U.S.  — especially elected officials here in West Virginia, like my good friend Sen. Joe Manchin (above) — should take the time to read. It’s a paper from Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and it was written by Michael Greenstone of MIT and Adam Looney at the Bookings Institution as part of The Hamilton Project. The paper is called “Paying Too Much for Energy? The True Costs of Our Energy Choices,” and I first saw it referenced on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, where Ezra Klein  Brad Plumer wrote:

There are two ways to think about the cost of energy. There’s the dollar amount that shows up on our utility bills or at the pump. And then there’s the “social cost” — all the adverse consequences that various energy sources, from coal to nuclear power, end up foisting on the public.

Economists have been working to quantify these social costs for some time: from the premature deaths due to air pollution to the damage wrought by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf Coast. Yet rarely has anyone tried to tally them up in a comprehensive fashion. Which is what makes this new paper from Michael Greenstone and Adam Looney of the Hamilton Project so valuable. The two economists sift through all of these economic papers and try to calculate what the price of various energy sources would actually look like if these external social costs were included.

What did they find? Well, as Klein explained:

The change is especially stark for coal. On market price alone, electricity from existing coal plants is easily America’s cheapest energy source, which explains why coal still provides 45 percent of the country’s electricity. But it’s mainly cheap because coal users don’t have to pay for the downsides: Soot from coal-fired power plants, for instance, still causes thousands of premature deaths each year and hundreds of thousands of illnesses, but those costs are borne by other people, in the former of shorter lives and higher health care bills.

If coal users had to pay these costs out of their own pockets, Greenstone and Looney estimate, the price of burning coal at an existing plant would jump from 3.2 cents per kilowatt hour to 8.8 cents per kilowatt hour. Natural gas looks much cheaper by comparison — in part because it emits half as much carbon-dioxide as coal and considerably less lung-damaging air pollution. And new coal plants would end up being more expensive than even wind or nuclear power.

But what I really liked about the paper was the context, such as this:

Whether by heating our homes in winter, keeping the lights on in our of½ces, powering factories that manufacture goods, or fueling our automobiles, energy drives our economy and supports our quality of life. Thanks in part to an economic infrastructure heavily dependent on energy use–roads and highways, ports and railways, broadband and computer networks, manufacturing plants and shipping facilities–American workers and businesses are among the most productive in the world and the most globally integrated. A century of innovation, fueled by cheap and plentiful energy largely from coal, oil, and natural gas, has allowed the nation to transition from an agriculture-based economy to one based on high-value-added manufacturing and services aided by computerization. Our standard of living–among the highest on earth–would not be possible without energy and the systems that have been developed to harness it.


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Citizens seek order to block Loadout mining permit

Lawyers for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups have just filed this legal brief, asking for a temporary restraining order to block a Clean Water Act permit issued by the federal Army Corps of Engineers to Loadout LLC for the company’s Nellis Surface Mine in Boone County, W.Va.

U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers in Huntington was already scheduled to hear arguments tomorrow morning on a permit for Alpha Natural Resources subsidiary Highland Mining’s Reylas Surface Mine, and environmental group lawyers have asked the judge to also consider their motion for a TRO against Loadout in a hearing tomorrow.

Stay tuned …

It’s always interesting to take a closer look at what officials from the coal and utility industries are saying about the same topic to different audiences.

I was reminded of that this morning when I re-read a piece that the State Journal’s great reporter, Pam Kasey, put on line yesterday. The story was headlined Coal will be just 50 percent of AEP generation in 2020: CEO, and in it, Pam reported:

American Electric Power is “repositioning its assets” for a “more sustainable fuel mix,” according to a Leadership Message from President and CEO Nicholas K. Akins.

Akins’ message was issued April 24 in conjunction with the utility’s annual meeting in Tulsa, Okla.

It doesn’t simply mean a shift from coal to gas, although that’s a large element.

“Several factors are driving us in this direction, including new environmental regulations; the economics of coal versus natural gas; the operating cost, age and efficiency of some coal units; increased competition; and grid reliability,” Akins wrote.

“We will retire more than 5,100 megawatts of coal-fired generation and retrofit nearly 11,000 megawatts with new, advanced pollution controls or upgrade existing control equipment,” he wrote. “Additional coal-fired generation may be refueled with natural gas.”

And the bottom line:

“By 2020, we estimate natural gas will account for 27 percent of AEP’s generating capacity, compared with 24 percent today,” he said.

Coal will fall to 50 percent in 2020 from 67 percent in 2011, with the rest made up of nuclear, renewables, hydro and pumped storage and energy efficiency.

“This effort to create a more sustainable balance of our generation resources will be very challenging and expensive but will provide long-term fuel stability and allow us to adapt to the major upcoming market and operational changes,” he said.

What struck me was the tone of the comments regarding coal, when compared to what Nick Akins had to say during a visit to Charleston not so long ago. As reported in the Gazette:

Although the amount of energy produced by coal will decrease in the nation — from 45 percent today to 39 percent by 2020 — a top electric utility company CEO said there is definitely a future for coal.

“Coal is naturally going to come down, natural gas will be the choice, but they’re really marginal,” said Nick Akins, president and chief executive officer of American Electric Power. “Once technology is proven, you’ll start to see coal come back. We still need coal . . . . If someone is trying to eliminate that, it’s just not going to happen.”


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In this Jan. 27, 2012 photo, a deck hand secures a barge in one of the chambers at the Montgomery Lock and Dam along the Ohio River in Monaca, Pa. Each barge holds an estimated 1,500 tons of coal, according to lock master Rick Greenwood.  (AP Photo/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Keith Hodan)

When last we left our good friend, West Virginia University mining engineering professor Syd Peng, he was wrongly opining — contrary to the U.S. Supreme Court’s declaration — that the federal Clean Air Act wasn’t the proper tool for regulating global warming pollution.

Apparently, testifying on behalf of coal-mine operators in mine disaster cases isn’t taking up all of Dr. Peng’s time these days. So we had in yesterday’s Gazette another op-ed about national energy policies. The op-ed was headlined, “We need to back fossil fuels,” as if the nation and state aren’t doing a lot of that already:

Responsible people recognize that oil, natural gas and coal must provide a major share of the nation’s fuel mix to avoid potentially devastating economic consequences.

Like Dr. Peng’s earlier Gazette op-ed piece, “Congress should block EPA,” this latest commentary does little more than parrot the conventional line of the coal industry that funds WVU’s mining engineering school (see here, here and here).

But along the way, Dr. Peng doesn’t exactly get his facts right. Let’s review

First, Dr. Peng writes in his first two paragraphs:

We have an urgent national priority: moving forward with the development and demonstration of energy-efficient technologies that would enable America to burn fossil fuels more cleanly and cheaply.

With the outlook dimming for nuclear power and renewable energy sources, there are growing concerns that efforts to maintain air quality and combat global warming will fail as energy production increases in the years ahead.

With the outlook dimming for renewable energy sources? What is he talking about?

Even a freshman student at WVU could use Google to find this U.S. Energy Information Administration website that explains:

Renewable energy consumption increased by about 8% between 2008 and 2009, contributing about 8% of the Nation’s total energy demand, and 10% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2009.

And you don’t have to be a member of the West Virginia Coal Hall of Fame to find the most recent EIA projections that show:

Use of renewable fuels and natural gas for electric power generation rises: The natural gas share of electric power generation increases from 24 percent in 2010 to 27 percent in 2035, and the renewables share grows from 10 percent to 16 percent over the same period.

Dr. Peng may be correct, or at least reasonably close, when he writes that:

Fossil fuels meet 84 percent of U.S. energy demand, and the Energy Information Administration forecasts they will continue to be the primary energy sources well into the future.

But in his zeal to defend fossil fuels, and bash anything else, Dr. Peng writes:

Despite the Obama administration’s efforts to derail development of fossil fuels, energy companies are not backing off. Thanks to new technology and innovation, companies are tapping into vast domestic supplies of oil, natural gas and coal. And they are doing this without any new tax breaks or subsidies.

More than three-quarters of all energy tax breaks go to renewables such as solar and wind though they account for only 2 percent of electric power generation.

It’s true that the Obama administration has tried to take some reasonable steps to reduce some of the environmental impacts of fossil fuels, especially coal — things like tougher water quality guidance  standards on mountaintop removal and stronger air pollution limits on coal-fired power plants and on the booming natural gas drilling industry.  But President Obama also personally rejected EPA’s plans to combat smog, has ignored demands from environmental groups and scientists that he ban mountaintop removal altogether, and the administration has been very supportive of the natural gas boom overall, despite citizen concerns about the potential impacts.

And this subsidy stuff? Well, Dr. Peng sounds a lot like Sen. Joe Manchin, who tries to argue that coal doesn’t get government subsidiaries and renewable energy does, and assertion we’ve debunked before here on Coal Tattoo.

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What does Alpha have against scientists?

Well, first Alpha Natural Resources didn’t want any discussion about the growing body of science linking mountaintop removal to human illness discussed in the court case over the Reylas Surface Mine proposed by Alpha subsidiary Highland Mining Co.  In the process, Alpha’s lawyers convinced U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers to block testimony about the health studies — and as an added bonus for the company, the pressure of such legal fights appeared to convince WVU researcher Michael Hendryx — the lead scientist examining such issues — that he didn’t want to testify as an expert witness after all.

Now, Alpha’s lawyers want Judge Chambers to block any testimony in the case from Margaret Palmer, a nationally respected biologist from the University of Maryland who is one of the major players in the science examining the water quality impact of coal-mining in Appalachia.  Why? Because Dr. Palmer has dared to speak out publicly about her research and about the policy implications of her scientific findings. Here’s what the company’s lawyers allege in this legal brief filed on Friday:

Highland Mining requests that the Court preclude Plaintiffs from offering expert testimony by Dr. Margaret Palmer because she is a public advocate for Plaintiffs’ cause whose fundamental opposition to all surface mines in central Appalachia, regardless of the mine’s individual characteristics, renders her opinion both untrustworthy and unhelpful to the Court … Dr. Palmer has been an outspoken critic of surface coal mining in central Appalachia for several years and has claimed repeatedly that it is impossible for any surface coal mine in central Appalachia to comply with the Clean Water Act.

Regular Coal Tattoo readers know that Dr. Palmer was one of the major authors of among the most significant scientific papers to date about mountaintop removal, the January 2010 piece in the widely read journal Science, which concluded:

Despite much debate in the United States, surprisingly little attention has been given to the growing scientific evidence of the negative impacts of MTM/VF.

Our analysis of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address. Published studies also show a high potential for human health impacts.

What everyone may not realize is that Dr. Palmer has nearly 30 years experience studying water quality issues and has more than 150 research publications or collaborate projects on the issues to her name. (You can read her full C.V. online here).  Dr. Palmer is also director of the new National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, a National Science Foundation-funded center that aims to bring together scientists from various fields to use science to find answers to many of our world’s most pressing problems.

Keep in mind that, in mountaintop removal cases, Dr. Palmer’s role has been to testify about whether mine operators can really do what they claim to be able to do — rebuild Appalachian headwater streams, recreating the important ecological functions of the waterways buried or mined through by large-scale surface coal mining (see here, here, here, here, here and here for examples of her scientific papers on this issue — a full publication list is online here).

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Friday roundup, April 20, 2012

In this photo taken Sunday, April 15, 2012, rescuers search for victims of a landslide from a strip coal mine in Thai Nguyen province, Vietnam. An official said the landslide from the coal mine’s dump killed one person and left five others missing and presumed dead in northern Vietnam.  (AP Photo/Vietnam News Agency, Thao Nguyen)

There was bad news this week from Vietnam:

Ten houses were buried in a rockslide that occurred in the early morning of April 15, at an earth and rock dump near a coal mine in Thai Nguyen Province, northern Vietnam.

Thousands of cubic meters of earth and rocks suddenly fell onto the ten houses, which were located right beneath the tip where the materials, dug out from the Phan Me coal mine, have been dumped for years. By the end of the day, five people were still buried under rock and soil.

Mr. Ha Van Thang, who luckily got out of danger, says that at around 3am, he and his wife got up to take care of their newly-born pigs. They suddenly heard a big explosion from the mount behind their home. Smoke rose from the nearby transformer station. Seeing rock and waste from the mount falling, he shouted and ran out of the house with his wife and his son.

However, his parents could not get out of the house. His father, Ha Van Xuan, 90, was quickly transported to a hospital and is still alive, but his mother, Vu Thi Hong, 85, was dead because of suffocation.

Meanwhile, there’s been tons of media attention this week about the two-year anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the most interesting pieces is this op-ed in the New York Times by my buddy Abrahm Lustgarten, a ProPublica reporter and author of the new book, “Run to Failure: BP and the Making of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster.” Abrahm observes:

Sure, there have been about $8 billion in payouts and, in early March, the outlines of a civil agreement that will cost BP, the company ultimately responsible, an additional $7.8 billion in restitution to businesses and residents along the Gulf of Mexico. It’s also true that the company has paid at least $14 billion more in cleanup and other costs since the accident began on April 20, 2010, bringing the expense of this fiasco to about $30 billion for BP. These are huge numbers. But this is a huge and profitable corporation.

What is missing is the accountability that comes from real consequences: a criminal prosecution that holds responsible the individuals who gambled with the lives of BP’s contractors and the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico. Only such an outcome can rebuild trust in an oil industry that asks for the public’s faith so that it can drill more along the nation’s coastlines. And perhaps only such an outcome can keep BP in line and can keep an accident like the Deepwater Horizon disaster from happening again.

Coal Tattoo readers no doubt remember that the Deepwater Horizon exploded just two weeks after Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine blew up, killing 29 miners in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years. The criminal investigation of the individuals responsible for Upper Big Branch continues, and there are some hopeful signs that U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his team might — perhaps for the first time in coalfield history — really move up the corporate ladder here. But prosecutors have also had setbacks, and the recent revelations about MSHA (see here and here) could be trouble for the government in future cases. Stay tuned.

Earlier this week, we blogged about a WyoFile story regarding how Wyoming and some other jurisdictions continue to spend money intended for abandoned coal-mine cleanups on other things. And thanks to our friend Sam Petsonk for pointing out this similar piece in the Wall Street Journal:

When the University of Wyoming needed an extra $10 million for renovations to its basketball arena last month, state legislators turned to an unlikely source: a federal fund for cleaning up abandoned coal mines.

The fund was set up to pay for things like sealing up old mine shafts and dealing with collapsed tunnels and abandoned surface mines. But, as allowed under law, the university plans to use the money to fix up its Arena-Auditorium, where its Cowboys play, providing an exterior face lift and rotating the court 90 degrees.

 Meanwhile, the New York Times had this interesting story from Oregon:

A new link in the world’s future energy supply could soon be built here on the Columbia River, and it would have nothing to do with the vast acres of wind turbines or the mammoth hydroelectric dams that give this region’s power sources one of the cleanest carbon footprints in the nation.

Instead, Boardman is pursuing one of the oldest and dirtiest of fossil fuels: coal. The question is not whether to use it to produce new energy but whether to make what some say would be tainted new profits.

Even as coal-fired power plants are being phased out in Oregon and Washington, Boardman, an agribusiness outpost across the river from vineyards owned by the Columbia Crest winery and where the Department of Energy recently awarded $25 million to an innovative biofuel producer, is among at least half a dozen ports in the region weighing whether to ship millions of tons of coal to Asia from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana.

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It seemed like it was going to be a slow Friday afternoon … then into my email inbox popped this release from our friends at the United Mine Workers of America:

“The comments from WWVA-AM on-air personality David Bloomquist about coal miners, their wives and the nature of coal miners’ jobs demonstrate a shocking ignorance about the work coal miners do and the highly-technical skills required to mine coal in modern America coal mines.

“Operating the intricate machinery in a coal mine requires a degree of knowledge that I suspect far exceeds Mr. Bloomquist’s capabilities. The equipment miners use everyday underground must be operated with precision and care. If Mr. Bloomquist hits the wrong button in his studio, the worst that can happen is that the wrong advertisement is aired. If someone in an underground coal mine hits the wrong button, people can die.

“I am especially troubled by his equating the work of coal miners to what ’13-year old kids do” in third world countries. Mr. Bloomquist may not be aware of the painful and long struggle coal miners and the UMWA fought to end child labor in the nation’s mines and elsewhere, but we have not forgotten. I am appalled that Mr. Bloomquist thinks child labor anywhere is OK, and suggesting that we should go back to those days in this country.”

Wow. Now, I’ll admit right off, I had never heard of this Bloomquist fellow — apparently he goes by the handle “Bloomdaddy” — until I saw this press release. So I clicked on the link the UMWA provided and saw this:

If I see one more sticker that says “Proud Wife of a Coal Miner” I’m gonna go crazy!!!!! Hey ladies…congratulations. I’m sure you’re proud of him….but I don’t care….and I doubt anyone else does either.

Congratulations….you’re married to a guy who works a job that nearly every other walking…talking..breathing human being….this side of Stephen Hawking….COULD DO!!!!!!!!! Now I know this is going to come off as harsh….but I don’t care because it needs said. There is nothing special about being a coal miner! Period. IS IT TOUGH…DEMANDING….HONORABLE WORK? ABSOLUTELY!!!! But it’s not up there with Navy SEAL…astrophysicist…or host of the Today Show. It’s not like someone with a GED…2 arms and 2 legs couldn’t do it. With that said…could I do it? No…because I’m allergic to manual labor and I’m soft….so there ya go.

But seriously…quit bragging that your old man is doing something 95 percent of the world’s population could do! As a matter of fact…..I believe coal mining is done in most third world countries by 13 year old kids….so there ya go….and I swear to God the day I see a “Proud Wife of a Stay at Home Dad” sticker…..I’m gonna run somebody off the road.

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Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives added to a major transportation funding bill an amendment from West Virginia’s very own, Rep. David McKinley, to block the federal Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic coal ash from the nation’s power plants. As Pam Kasey reported in The State Journal, the amendment was successfully added to the transportation bill on Wednesday. That bill passed the House, and now goes to a conference with the Senate.

Now, we’ve written about the Republican gentleman from West Virginia’s 1st congressional district before and his crusade to protect coal ash and the companies that generate it from reasonable federal regulations (see here, here and here). And remember the coverage of Rep. McKinley’s coal industry campaign support, of the fact that his own constituents have practically begged him not to push this legislation, and that Rep. McKinley hasn’t exactly jumped at the chance to hear those citizen concerns.

One report out from Politico this week made another interesting point about Rep. McKinley and coal ash:

It took freshman GOP Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia just three weeks after being sworn in to introduce a bill that would help a contributor, Arch Coal, by overturning an Environmental Protection Agency ruling that has broader implications for the mining industry, also one of his political patrons.

A month later, McKinley was back, with another bill that would block a proposed EPA regulation against coal-ash bricks and drywall, materials architectural and engineering firms — such as one founded by McKinley — routinely recommend in construction project bids.

Most new House members used their first months in office promoting by-the-book conservative bills — slashing spending and cutting taxes, all designed to show they came to Washington to fix Washington.

But a few like McKinley took a different route: They did things the Washington way, using a legislative process they once railed against to try to assist donors, protect favored industries or settle scores with their political enemies.

McKinley’s bills don’t violate ethics rules because they affect a broad array of businesses, but “appearances count for a lot. To many, this will seem to be payback for benefactors,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics’s executive director. “There is the potential for pay-to-play politics at work, which is something that always should be scrutinized.”

The response from the congressman’s office is about what you would expect:

Katie Martin, a McKinley spokeswoman, said neither piece of legislation should surprise anyone.

“West Virginia is coal, and coal is West Virginia. It’s the economic engine of the state. Cap-and-trade, a direct attack on that way of life, was one of Rep. McKinley’s chief motivations for running. Now that he’s elected, he’s doing what he said he would — fighting tooth and nail to stop the EPA’s war on coal and protect the industry along with the tens of thousands of West Virginians it employs,” she said.

Rep. McKinley himself has shown us he doesn’t always understand his own coal industry legislation, almost as if someone from the industry just gave it to him already written and he introduced it … so it’s not surprising that when confronted with questions about potential conflicts of interest, the congressman’s staff pivots quickly to the standard “war on coal” line that is constant crutch now for our state’s political leadership. Little wonder, too, that Reps. Nick Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito are co-sponsors of McKinley’s coal-ash bill, though at least that created the uncomfortable situation for Rep. Rahall in which he had to twist and contort to make clear his support for the coal-ash amendment, while at the same time leading the Democratic charge against the broader GOP version of the transportation bill it was being attached to. Over in the Senate, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin are co-sponsors of their own version of the coal-ash bill.

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CSE Corp. President Scott Shearer with one of his company’s SR-100 self-contained self rescuer units. Photo by AP.

 So far this week, we’ve had a blog post and this print story detailing the findings of the two-year National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health investigation of what we now know are critical defects with an unknown number of the 70,000 CSE Corp. SR-100 model self contained self rescuers that coal miners around the country rely on to help them safely escape in the event of an underground mine fire or explosion.

What we don’t know is what — if anything — the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and NIOSH are going to do about it. The best we got out of NIOSH was this:

“We’ve had several meetings,” said Maryann D’Alessandro, director of NIOSH’s personal protective technology laboratory. “We’ll continue to have meetings.”

MSHA chief Joe Main wouldn’t even come to the phone for an interview. At first, Main said through a spokeswoman that he wanted more time to review the NIOSH report.  I pointed out the report was only 24 pages long and had been provided to MSHA on last Friday — and that Main was personally briefed on the findings back in January — and then MSHA changed its story. Main wanted more time to discuss the findings with NIOSH, I was told.

Yesterday, NIOSH spokesman Fred Blosser helpfully pointed out to me that the initial cover letter from NIOSH chief John Howard to Joe Main that was released to the media on Monday was actually an earlier draft, and not the version that was signed and sent.  What’s the difference? Well, check out the original version:

That original language that I’ve highlighted says:

NIOSH looks forward to participating with MSHA in the planning and resolution of issues arising from the Technical Report, pursuant to Section IV (2) of the Memorandum of Understanding, by providing appropriate user notices for mine users and other uses and considering revocation jointly.

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There’s a great piece out today from with the headline, Romney misfires with EPA anecdote:

Mitt Romney railed against the “Obama EPA” and “how the Obama government interferes with personal freedom” — using as his example an EPA action taken in 2007, under President George W. Bush.

Furthermore, it was a Republican-nominated federal judge who made the initial ruling — in EPA’s favor — that was overturned recently by the Supreme Court.

At issue was a longstanding Environmental Protection Agency precedent regarding a property owner’s right to challenge an EPA compliance order in court, a policy that had been upheld in at least four other court challenges over the last two decades.

It reminded me that our good buddy Hoppy Kercheval did a commentary for MetroNews (also published in the Daily Mail) about this Supreme Court case. Hoppy’s piece was headlined, Zealots unconstrained by the rule of law and it sought to mix the Supreme Court ruling on appeals of EPA compliance orders with a separate federal court ruling that blocked EPA’s veto of the Spruce Mine permit. Hoppy started off his piece:

The Environmental Protection Agency, under President Obama’s appointee, Lisa Jackson, has stretched its power to carry out an ideological mission.

Nowhere in the piece does Hoppy piont out that the case started under his old ideal president, George W. Bush.  Oddly enough, the Daily Mail’s Don Surber managed to blog here and here about the Supreme Court case without pointing out its beginnings under the Bush administration.

I wonder if MetroNews and the Daily Mail will publish corrections.


We’ve written many times about the Obama administration’s plan to reform the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program so that some states — primarily Wyoming — stop getting tons of coal-tax dollars to spend on things other then cleaning up old, abandoned coal mines (see here and here, just for example). Some folks may remember part of our 2004 series on the AML program that focused on misuse of these funds by Wyoming (subscription required):

In the fall of 1999, University of Wyoming students and faculty moved into a new, $20 million geology building.

Located on the university’s Laramie campus, the 65,500-square-foot facility included new computer equipment, state-of-the-art laboratories and a student lounge.

Wyoming officials paid for most of the building with $17.9 million in federal Abandoned Mine Land money – coal taxes meant to fund reclamation of old coal mines. Federal regulators gave Wyoming the general go-ahead for public facility spending 10 years before. This was the state’s first such project.

Since then, Wyoming has spent more than $90 million in mine reclamation money on public works projects that have little – if anything – to do with coal mining.

Wyoming has diverted AML money to build highways, schools and hospitals, according to federal Office of Surface Mining data and state records.

In Campbell County, Wyoming spent $12 million on an addition at Gillette High School. In Sheridan County, $7.8 million bought a new hospital. The town of Medicine Bow got $560,000 for a new water treatment plant.

Until last month – prompted by questions from The Charleston Gazette – the OSM did not have a complete accounting of how the money was spent.

“The state of Wyoming, quite frankly, was spending the money any way it wanted to,” said Guy Padgett, director of the OSM’s field office in Casper, Wyo.

Now, nearly a decade later, we have this story from a non-profit news organization, WyoFile, reporting:

Since 1977, the state of Wyoming has received (or been promised) $1,051,898,067.60 from the AML fund according to Office of Surface Mining, which operates under the auspices of the Department of the Interior.

While disbursements did go towards the original purpose of the fund – Wyoming has reclaimed more than 1,051 coal and non-coal mine sites – hundreds of millions also got funneled into building water systems in Gillette, clean-air research, a hospital addition in Sheridan, maintaining state highways, and the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resource Trust.

The largest single recipient has been the University of Wyoming, which has received more than $200 million in AML-related funding for research in clean coal technology, engineering and over-all energy research. This includes a 2007 $50 million appropriation for building the Michael B. Enzi STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) facility.

A 2011 report from the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) on Wyoming’s AML activity put it plainly. “Wyoming has spent much of its AML funds on non-coal mining related problems.”

According to OSM documents, Wyoming has, thus far, spent only roughly 10 percent of its AML-related distributions, $151.6 million, reclaiming coal mine hazards.

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Bullpush Mountain, public health and EPA attacks

This is how Bullpush Mountain, said to be West Virginia’s first mountaintop removal operation, looked back in 1998 when it was featured in the Gazette’s Mining the Mountains series. Photo by Lawrence Pierce.

It’s been a long time since I wrote about Bullpush Mountain, when the Gazette exposed major flaws (which continue today) in the permitting of mountaintop removal operations in West Virginia. Back then, we wrote:

Bullpush Mountain isn’t a mountain anymore. It’s a flat, grassy meadow that stands out among the wooded hills along the Fayette-Kanawha County line.

More than 25 years ago, Cannelton Industries Inc. chopped the top off Bullpush to get at the coal underneath. The operation, started in 1970, was the first mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia.

Cannelton officials promised that if they flattened out the land, they could more easily develop it. The company drew up plans to turn Bullpush into a brand-new town, complete with churches, schools, shops and a hospital.

None of that ever happened. No schools. No churches or shopping centers.

Unfortunately, Bullpush Mountain wasn’t alone:

Across the Southern West Virginia coalfields, mountaintop removal mining is turning tens of thousands of acres of rugged hills and hollows – nobody knows how many – into flat pastures and rolling hayfields.

A new coal industry advertising campaign declares that mine operators who lop off mountaintops are building “West Virginia’s Own Field of Dreams.”

“Like the Iowa farmer in the movie, ‘Field of Dreams,’ if we build the sites, they will come,” the industry ads say. “And when they come, they will bring with them better jobs, housing, schools, recreation facilities, and a better life for all West Virginians.”

A continuing Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation has found that these predictions have not come true and that, without major regulatory changes, they aren’t likely to come true anytime soon.

Coal industry backers point to a few small mountaintop removal jobs that were turned into homes for the new state prison, a high school and an air strip.

But most coal companies plan to leave giant mountaintop removal mines as flattened-out fields, according to a three-month review of state Division of Environmental Protection mining permits.

In last evening, we learned that the mountaintop removal operation that was performed on Bullpush Mountain wasn’t alone in another respect — it’s among the sites across our state’s coalfields that are illegally polluting our streams. According to this new lawsuit by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club:

Today a coalition of concerned groups took action to protect water ways impacted by the inactive and allegedly reclaimed Bullpush Mountain mine in Kanawha and Fayette Counties in southwestern West Virginia. Water monitoring conducted by the groups has revealed that the mine is still discharging dangerous levels of selenium. The groups’ lawsuit alleges that the current land owner, Boone East Development Company, has violated the Clean Water Act due to unpermitted discharges of selenium and conductivity from the “reclaimed” Bullpush Mountain site.

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

It’s past time for all involved to recognize that ‘reclamation’ means more than just putting the land back in some stable and usable fashion.  Assuring that reclaimed mine sites don’t pollute our water resources continues to be a responsibility of the land owner – whether that be the coal company that mined in the first place or whoever maintains ownership after the mining is done.

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NIOSH issues report on troubled SCSR model

This just in: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health has finally issued its report on the problems with the CSE SR-100 model self-contained, self-rescuer devices, saying in typically cryptic language:

The investigation was designed to test field-deployed CSE SR-100 SCSRs to determine the extent of oxygen cylinder failures in the population of approximately 70,000 units deployed in underground coal mines. NIOSH and MSHA collected and tested the oxygen cylinders from 500 field-deployed units in order to determine if the defect rate among the deployed units was less than 1%. To have 95% confidence that the defect rate was less than 1%, no more than three units in the 500-unit sample could fail the test. Five units failed the test. Therefore, the 1% maximum allowable failure rate under the protocol was not met.

The report is available online here, and there is also this cover letter to MSHA chief Joe Main.

Friday roundup, April 13, 2012

In this photo released by Peru’s presidential press office, an unidentified miner, center is helped out of the Cabeza de Negro gold-and-copper mine in Yauca del Rosario, Peru, Wednesday April 11, 2012. Nine miners had been trapped inside the mine since April 5. (AP Photo/Job Rosales, Peru’s presidential press office)

There was some good news out of Peru this week, with the rescue of nine miners who had been trapped inside a gold-and-copper mine for nearly a week.  As the BBC reported:

“We told each other jokes to keep up our hopes and ran from one place to another to keep warm,” one of the rescued miners, Edwin Bellido Sarmiento, told broadcaster Panamericana about his ordeal.

“There was a point when we thought we wouldn’t get out,” another miner, Javier Tapia Lopez, said.

Here’s one interesting take on this that was pointed out to me by a Coal Tattoo reader, comparing this to the miners who died in the sinking of the Titanic:

Their story epitomizes the story of all miners; people who go to the next ore body; the next mine; the next chance to earn an honest living; and who face dangers and death at every turn and move.

We empathize with the trapped Peruvian miners who are today’s lead mining story.  May the world come to their rescue and may they live, is all we can pray.

They are but another in a long history, a long line, of miners who have faced dangers that, in a way, are the essence of life.

There was also this news today from the coalfields of China:

Rescue workers are attempting to free nine mine workers who became trapped on early Friday morning when a coal mine flooded in northern China, state-run media reported.

The incident happened at around 1 a.m. local time on Friday at the Shanfu Coal Mine near the city of Changzhi in Xiangyuan County, which is located in Shanxi province. Only few details about the accident were available as of late Friday evening.

Officials from the Changzhi municipal government told the state-run Xinhua news agency that rescue workers from a nearby mine rushed to the site and are working to drain the pit. Xinhua said the cause of the accident is being investigated, but gave no other details.

Earlier this week, the Kongzhuang Coal Mine in Peixian county of Jiangsu province was also flooded. Of the ten miners who were working at the mine at the time of the accident, three were able to escape while the bodies of four miners were later recovered. Three others are believed to be still missing.

Safety conditions at mines in China have significantly improved in recent years but they remain among the world’s most dangerous with 1,083 fatalities in the first seven months of 2011 alone. There were 2,433 fatalities in 2010 and 2,631 in 2009.

Another interesting story from China reports:

The Chinese city Datong, despite being known for its coal resources, is transforming into a solar power center. “During the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-15) period, we have 432 projects with a total investment of 536.4 billion yuan ($84.8 billion) to help the city’s transformation from a high-carbon city into a low-carbon one,” said Geng Yanbo, mayor of the city.

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