Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, June 22, 2012

Coal miners are seen before taking part in “La Marcha Negra”, a five hundred kilometers walk to Madrid, in Mieres, near Oviedo, Spain, Friday, June 22, 2012. Strikes, road blockades, and mine sit-ins continue as 8,000 mineworkers at over 40 coal mines in northern Spain continue their protests against government action to cut coal subsidies. (AP Photo/Jose Colon)

More news this week from the coalfields of Spain, courtesy of Platts:

Spanish miners from three coal-mining provinces are starting out on a three-week march on the country’s capital to demonstrate against subsidy cuts to the coal sector which were approved by the country’s parliament earlier this week.

The march, which is the third of its kind, echoing previous marches in 1992 and 2010, follows 23 days of striking which has seen more than 8,000 workers halt work and output from the country’s mines reduced to zero.

A total of 180 miners will undertake the so-called “marcha negra” or “black march” from the provinces of Asturias, Leon and Teruel which starts Friday and will culminate in Madrid on July 11, Victor Fernandez, a spokesman for the Union General de Trabajadores, which is taking part in the march, told Platts Friday.

“If they can afford all those billions to bail out the banks, why can’t they find Eur300 million [$376 million] for this national industry,” Fernandez said.

Closer to home, one thing that always puzzles me is how West Virginia media outlets that constantly ignore or downplay modern dangers of the coal industry spend a lot of time reminding us of long-ago disasters. Here’s one example from the Beckley paper:

LAYLAND — Emidio Pettinaro insisted his boy do anything to earn a livelihood but take his chances as a coal miner.

Fresh out of high school, back in 1963, the son, Howard, heeded his advice.

Avoiding the grimy and risky life of a coal miner, he headed north and took a job with General Motors, where he stayed in the Pontiac division until retirement.

His father full well realized the perils of working underground, as one of many Italian immigrants who wound up in West Virginia’s mines.

Perhaps, too, there was another compelling reason for Emidio Pettinaro to want a safer life for his son.

About four years before he arrived in Fayette County, a buildup of mine dust was touched off by improperly tamped dynamite March 2, 1915, triggering a blast that rumbled through the Layland mine of New River & Pocahontas Consolidated Coal Co.

“My dad told me when I got out of high school, ‘Boy, you’re getting out of here,’” the son recalled.

When the dust settled in that horrific explosion, and rescue teams got inside, they recovered 112 bodies out of a work force of 164.

 Also this week, the Courier-Journal over in Louisville continued its reporting on unpaid coal industry safety fines:

Two House Democrats are asking company officials of a Kentucky mine where five miners died and of another mine that was shut down after a safety blitz to submit a plan for paying $1.5 million in overdue fines to the federal government.

“The impunity with which some operators fail to pay overdue fines has been an ongoing oversight and legislative concern of ours,” California Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey wrote in a letter to officials at K and D Mining Inc., which operates Mine No. 17 in Harlan County, Ky.

Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Woolsey, the ranking Democrat on that panel’s workforce protections subcommittee, have been outspoken advocates for tougher mine-safety laws.

They wrote to Jack Ealy, president, and Ralph Napier, vice president, of K and D Mining, as well as to John D. North. Napier and North ran Kentucky Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County, where five miners were killed in a blast in 2006. Ealy and Napier’s current mine, operated under K and D, was hit with a safety blitz last month by federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors that found so many dangerous conditions that the mine was closed for nine days.

Neither mine has paid outstanding penalties for years of citations for safety hazards.

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Some things are abundantly clear this week, following Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s Senate floor speech about the future of our state’s coalfields: In West Virginia, it’s big news — huge news, really — if one of our political leaders dares to tell a little bit of truth about the coal industry. And, of course, any politician brave enough to do that better be ready for a fierce response from coal and its many political allies.

Take, just for one example, the fit that Charleston Mayor Danny Jones threw on the radio:

He’s a very nice man and he’s very kind to people and very kind to me personally.  But we’ve had enough of this guy.  We don’t need his kind of leadership in West Virginia.

Other reactions have been just as predictable, including today’s editorial in the Daily Mail  (which resorts to nonsense like the phrase “fear-mongering anticarbonites“) and the comments the Daily Mail published from West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts (who often seems to think his job is to be chairman of the state Republican party).

Remember now that Steve Roberts used a nasty misinformation campaign to try to derail the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s effort to help coal miners struggling with black lung disease, and also tried to hint in a not-so-subtle way (subscription required) that perhaps Sen. Byrd’s  “Embrace the Future” speech about coal wasn’t really coming from the senator himself. So it was with Sen. Rockefeller this week, with a Politico story calling the speech the senator’s “swan song” and lots of people whispering about whether his coal comments were a sure sign he wasn’t going to seek another term in two years.

The West Virginia Coal Association issued its own statement responding to Sen. Rockefeller and when I spoke with coal lobby President Bill Raney, he made two points that I thought were interesting. I included this first part in a print story today:

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Thursday he was “extremely disappointed” in Rockefeller and that the industry’s public relations campaign is absolutely correct when it argues “Appalachia is just totally under assault” by the Obama administration’s U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I don’t look at it as scare tactics,” Raney said. “I don’t think he’s talking about our ads. They aren’t scare tactics. We’ve tried our best to be very positive about this thing.”

OK … if the Coal Association isn’t trying to scare people, why are they promoting advertising spots like this one on their website?

The other thing Bill said that I found interesting was this:

I wish [Senator Rockefeller] had called and we could have had a conversation about the concerns he had.

Seriously now.  At least twice previously, Sen. Rockefeller has called the coal lobby and industry executives out publicly for denying the science of global warming and using “scare tactics” in their campaign to block any reforms of mining practices or coal-related pollution.

It happened first in September 2010, when Sen. Rockefeller appears on stage over at the University of Charleston with Obama Energy Secretary Steve Chu. As we reported at the time:

Rockfeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, also blasted industry leaders and members of West Virginia media who promote the notion that global warming isn’t real.

“I’m concerned that powerful voices in West Virginia continue to argue that climate change is a myth,” Rockefeller said. “I’m not on the same bandwagon that some of you are.”

The senator said that climate change skeptics are harming West Virginia by putting off efforts to perfect and deploy CCS, giving natural gas more time to cut into coal’s market and hurt mining’s long-term viability.

“Burying one’s head in the sand is not a solution, and can only backfire,” Rockefeller said.

About five months later, Sen. Rockefeller took a similar message directly to Raney’s organization, in this speech to the annual West Virginia Coal Symposium. As we reported at the time:

Rockefeller said industry officials should not simply fight making changes in the way they operate, but focus on finding better ways to adapt.

“The coal industry is at a crossroads like never before — change is already upon us,” Rockefeller said. “And we have to find a way — urgently — to grab hold of our own future.”

But each time Sen. Rockefeller seemed about to really go out on a limb on coal issues, he would pull back, or hedge, or say something that was, frankly, a bit silly or that suggested he wasn’t really paying attention, or maybe was the victim of  bad staff work. And despite Sen. Rockefeller’s recent statements about coal ash legislation, this week’s vote to stand up for EPA’s efforts to reduce mercury and other toxic air pollution from power plants is really the first time the senator has put his vote on the line against the industry’s wishes on a specific issue.

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Mr. President, I rise today in the shadow of one seemingly narrow Senate vote — the Inhofe resolution of disapproval of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on mercury and air toxics — to talk about West Virginia. About our people – our way of life, our health, our state’s economic opportunity – and about our future.

Coal has played an important part in our past and can play an important role in our future but it will only happen if we face reality.

This is a critical and contentious time in the Mountain State. The dialogue on coal, its impacts, and the federal government’s role has reached a fevered pitch.

Carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal’s future are the subject of paid television ads, billboards, break room bulletin boards, public meetings, letters and lobbying campaigns.

A daily onslaught declares that coal is under siege from harmful outside forces, and that the future of the state is bleak unless we somehow turn back the clock, ignore the present and block the future.

West Virginians understandably worry that a way of life and the dignity of a job is at stake. Change and uncertainty in the coal industry is unsettling. But my fear is that concerns are also being fueled by the narrow view of others with divergent motivations – one that denies the inevitability of change in the energy industry, and unfairly leaves coal miners in the dust.

The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions.

Instead of facing the challenges and making tough decisions like men of a different era, they are abrogating their responsibilities to lead. Consol’s Bobby Brown, was never timid, especially when he and the United Mine Workers turned around labor management relations in the central coal fields.

Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and worst of all coal miners’ hopes. But sadly, these coal operators have closed themselves off from any other opposing voices and few dared to speak out for change – even though it’s been staring them in the face for years.

This reminds me of the auto industry, which also resisted change for decades. Coal operators should learn from both the mistakes and recent success of the auto industry. I passionately believe coal miners deserve better than they are getting from operators and West Virginia certainly deserves better too.

Let’s start with the truth. Coal today faces real challenges, even threats and we all know what they are:

—  First, our coal reserves are finite and many coal-fired power plants are aging. The cheap, easy coal seams are diminishing, and production is falling – especially in the Central Appalachian Basin in Southern West Virginia. Production is shifting to lower cost areas like the Illinois and Powder River Basins. The average age of our nation’s 1,100-plus coal fired plants is 42.5 years, with hundreds of plants even older. These plants run less often, are less economic and the least efficient.

— Second, natural gas use is on the rise. Power companies are switching to natural gas because of lower prices, cheaper construction costs, lower emissions and vast, steady supplies. Even traditional coal companies like Consol are increasingly investing in natural gas over coal.

—  Third, the shift to a lower carbon economy is not going away and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is. Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment.

Despite the barrage of ads, the EPA alone is not going to make or break coal. There are many forces exerting pressure and that agency is just one of them.

We need real world solutions to protect the future of coal.

Two years ago, I offered a “time out” on EPA carbon rules — a two-year suspension that could have broken the logjam in Congress and given us an opportunity to address carbon issues legislatively.

But instead of supporting this approach, coal operators went for broke when they demanded a complete repeal of all EPA authority to address carbon emissions forever. They demanded all or nothing, turned aside a compromise and in the end got nothing.

Last year, they ran exactly the same play, demanding all or nothing on the cross-state air pollution rule – refusing to entertain any middle ground, and denying even a hint of legitimacy for the views on the other side. And they lost again, badly.

So here we are with another all-or-nothing resolution destined to fail. This foolish action wastes time and money that could have been invested in the future of coal. Instead, with each bad vote they give away more of their leverage and they lock in failure.

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Happy West Virginia Day!

AP photo by Jeff Gentner

New federal legislation was introduced today that seeks a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits and demands that the federal government examine the growing scientific evidence that residents living near these mining operations are at greater risk of serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects.

Here’s part of the announcement:

Thirteen Members of Congress led by Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) today introduced legislation to provide a full scientific analysis of the potential health threats to communities affected by mountaintop mining. H.R. 5959, The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act (ACHE), would also place a moratorium on new mountaintop removal coal mines and expansion of existing mines until the science demonstrates the mines will not cost local families their lives or their health.

Kucinich said:

The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act will provide the families in these communities the answers and the protection they deserve. Mountaintop mining is a practice in which entire mountaintops are blown up in order to access a seam of coal sitting deep inside the mountain. The evidence is growing that toxic chemicals that are safely sequestered in rock inside the mountain, get released when the mountains are turned inside out.

The ACHE Act will stop new mountaintop removal coal mines until the science clearly demonstrates the mines will not cost these hard working communities their health or their lives. It will also fund some of the best researchers in the world to carry out that science.

There’s also a press release from coalfield citizen groups here.  Longtime activist Bo Webb said:

The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency (ACHE) Act offers an opportunity to all House members to put differences aside and swiftly pass a bill that will protect the health and lives of the unborn.

Other sponsors include: Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Judy Chu (D-CA), John Yarmuth (D-KY), Michael Honda (D-CA), James Moran (D-VA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), John Conyers (D-MI), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Keith Ellison (D-MN).

This just in:

House Democratic leaders have sent a strong letter to Alpha Natural Resources President Kevin Crutchfield, questioning whether the company has met its promises to improve safety at former Massey Energy operations and complied with its non-prosecution agreement with U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. The letter, signed by Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey, ranking Democrats on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce says:

We are concerned that Alpha’s Running Right program, which was widely touted as a remedy to the widely discredited Massey safety culture, is not having the positive impact promised by Alpha.

Miller and Woolsey cited the troubling events at Alpha’s Road Fork No. 51 Mine (see here, here and here), and they point out — as reported here on Coal Tattoo — that the Alpha’s mine management at Road Fork includes the same mine superintendent who was in charge with two miners died in the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire and the guy who was the boss when Massey’s Freedom Energy operation had such serious safety problems over in Kentucky. Their letter says:

Given the life-threatening conduct at Road Fork #51, with conduct nearly identical to the deadly incident at Aracoma, the safety culture at former Massey operations appears unchanged, despite the Running Right program.

Some of West Virginia’s Democratic leaders are so upset with President Obama that they’re not even going to attend their own party’s national convention … So not only will most of them not talk about things like those studies linking mountaintop removal coal mining to series health problems like cancer and birth defects, but they don’t want to even bother taking their concerns about the administration’s policies to a gathering of fellow Democrats to try to make their case that President Obama’s policies are wrong.

Sen. Joe Manchin is among the biggest champions of a GOP measure to block one of the Obama administration’s efforts, a rule that would for the first time set limits on emissions of mercury and other toxic pollutants from coal-fired power plants.

Yesterday, the White House issued a statement threatening to veto the measure if it makes it through Congress:

The Administration strongly opposes S.J. Res. 37, which would overturn long-overdue national clean air standards limiting power plant emissions of toxic air pollution, including mercury. As a result, this resolution would cause substantial harm to public health and undermine our Nation’s longstanding commitment to clean up pollution from power plants.

The Mercury and Air Toxics Standards will ensure that the Nation’s power plants install modern, widely available technologies to limit harmful pollution – leveling the playing field for power plants that already have such controls in place. The standards are achievable; pollution control equipment that can help meet them already is installed at more than half of the Nation’s coal-fired power plants. Numerous studies, including analysis by the Department of Energy, have projected that the standards can be met without adversely affecting the adequacy of electric generation resources in any region of the country.

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A marcher holds a grim message during a black lung rally. Photographer and date unknown, courtesy of West Virginia and Regional History Collection, West Virginia University Libraries.

The Louisville Courier-Journal reported this weekend:

Long linked to underground coal mining, black-lung disease also strikes miners who work above ground … Those are the findings of a new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first assessment in a decade of black-lung disease in surface miners.

It found that 46 of 2,257 surface miners tested during 2010-11 had black lung, meaning roughly 2 percent had the potentially deadly respiratory condition caused by inhaling coal dust. Twelve had the most severe form, and the majority never worked underground.

The story continued:

And black lung was much more prevalent among surface miners in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia than those in other coal-mining states studied — with 31 of the 46 cases from the three Central Appalachian states.That works out to 3.7 percent of the Central Appalachian miners, compared with 2 percent of all surface miners and about 3.2 percent of underground coal miners nationally.

 You can read the CDC report for yourself here, and of course this is an issue the Courier-Journal has told us about before, especially in its 1998 series on black lung.

U.S. Attorney  Booth Goodwin  speaks to reporters Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011, at the Robert C. Byrd federal courthouse  (AP Photo/Brad Davis).

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin this morning put out a news release to update the public on the still-secret report that Alpha Natural Resources provided to give his office a six-month update on its progress improving mine safety efforts as part of Goodwin’s agreement not to bring any corporate criminal charges in the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

The second sentence of the release concludes:

The report indicates that Alpha is in compliance with the Agreement and has made substantial progress in improving safety.

And Goodwin says:

The progress Alpha reported is a very positive beginning to our agreement. The company has made great strides in addressing the systemic problems it inherited after the merger.

The health and safety research foundation and the innovations in safety equipment under our agreement have the potential to create major improvements in mine safety, not just at Alpha but across the country. And the financial consequences of Massey’s behavior are a powerful reminder that cutting corners on safety is bad for business.  There is still work to be done, as Alpha has acknowledged, but a lot’s been accomplished over the past six months, and I look forward to another good report in December.

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Friday roundup, June 15, 2012

Spanish coal miners talk as they spend their twenty-third day underground in a mine as part of a strike in Santa Cruz del Sil, Spain, Tuesday June 12, 2012. Strikes, road blockades, and mine sit-ins continue as 8,000 mineworkers at over 40 coal mines in northern Spain continue their protests against government action to cut coal subsidies.(AP Photo/Juan Manuel Serrano)

Over in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader had an editorial this week encouraging the Obama EPA to “hang tough”  in the coalfields:

Our so-called leaders would rather blame President Barack Obama for what competition from cheaper, cleaner natural gas is doing to demand for Appalachian coal than engage in an honest discussion of how to mine without ruining water.

That dynamic was on full display in Kentucky last week at public hearings in Frankfort and Pikeville that the Beshear administration requested from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

At issue are 36 surface mining permits being blocked by the EPA on what the Beshear administration and industry contend are invalid grounds. (For perspective, there are 355 active, pre-final reclamation surface mining permits in effect in Eastern Kentucky right now; the EPA has not shut down mining.)

Rather than providing a forum for discussing standards for protecting Kentucky’s water from the toxic fate of the Pike County pre-schooler’s well, Kentucky pols just wanted to beat up the EPA on the coal industry’s home court.

So much lame vitriol was spewed against the EPA and those who want to drink clean water it’s hard to know where to start. One of the zaniest has to be House Speaker Greg Stumbo’s assertion that the burial of hundreds of miles of mountain headwaters by the coal industry is justified by this newspaper’s failure to protest the burial of a creek in downtown Lexington more than a century ago.

Dig through all the chest-pounding, and you arrive at the central question: Can Kentucky’s state government be counted on to enforce coal industry compliance with clean water and other environmental laws.

Decades of evidence tell us the answer is no.

Also from Kentucky, James Carroll of the Courier-Journal wrote in his column about the prospects for new federal mine safety legislation:

Exactly six years ago this coming Friday, then-President George W. Bush signed into law a mine-safety package passed by Congress after 19 miners died in three accidents at Kentucky Darby No. 1 Mine in Harlan County, and at West Virginia’s Sago Mine and Alma No. 1 Mine.

Many of the changes focused on helping miners survive after an accident. Safety advocates pointedly noted that more needed to be done to prevent mining accidents.

But subsequent legislation to do that has not moved. There are myriad reasons for that: mining industry opposition to some provisions, ideological differences between Democratic and Republican lawmakers over how much additional power the federal government should have to regulate coal-mine safety, the desire to collect more research on safety issues, and a crowded legislative agenda where there are always other, urgent issues to address.

And let’s be blunt: coal-mine safety is not a national issue in the way that, say, consumer protections or food safety is. Mine safety is a concern only in places where coal is being mined.


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This weekend is sure to see a flurry of media coverage here in West Virginia of  what Sen. Joe Manchin’s press office is for some reason calling an “unprecedented energy tour“.   The Daily Mail and the AP are already promoting the events which include visits — and “media availabilities” — at “a Marcellus Shale drilling pad, coal mines, a coal-fired power plant, a wind farm and reclaimed surface mining locations.”

Manchin is bringing the likely incoming chairman and ranking minority member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to West Virginia, his press office insists to “demonstrate the state’s “all-of-the-above” approach to energy” and to “bring lawmakers together around a commonsense energy policy.” Manchin explained in his office’s press release:

In West Virginia, we truly have an all-of-the-above approach to energy and, for the first time, I am bringing leaders in both parties together to see how our state is an example of how to develop a comprehensive energy policy using all our domestic resources. I invited the incoming leaders of the powerful Senate Energy Committee to our state to see how we can do it all, and to explain how the country can follow this model.

Nothing on the schedule for the tour indicates Sen. Manchin thought his fellow lawmakers should also see things like West Virginians who live with contaminated well water from coal-slurry pollution, or talk to residents who have watched their neighbors die from cancers that scientific studies say are more likely because they live near mountaintop removal mines. They won’t watch what a local law enforcement official called the “invasion” of heavy truck traffic related to the boom in Marcellus Shale gas drilling — or even talk with residents who worry that local land-use planning rules and federal environmental enforcement practices are too weak to ensure proper siting of our state’s increased number of wind energy facilities.

You have to wonder how lawmakers could ever push for the sort of “balance” Sen. Manchin talks about between the environment and the economy if they see only energy production, and don’t spend any time while they’re here visiting communities that are impacted by this energy production.

But the real mystery of this tour is exactly what Sen. Manchin did as governor or has done as a U.S. Senator to encourage a sound, reasonable and balanced energy policy for our state or this nation.

Let’s review:

— As governor, Sen. Manchin pushed for a state “energy plan” that focused almost exclusively on coal.  In particular, it promoted the notion that a series of coal-to-liquids plants around the state would be a great idea, without mentioning the words “global warming,” or discussing at all the potential harm coal-to-liquids technology does to any efforts to combat climate change.

— Also as governor, Sen. Manchin convinced lawmakers to create an “alternative energy” portfolio requirement for state power companies that — by the senator’s own recent admission — did nothing to require utilities to actually install more new clean energy generation in their systems. That’s right, the power companies can meet the requirement with pretty much to same coal-fired power plants they already had online.

— Along the way as governor, Sen. Manchin glossed over citizen concerns and scientific studies about environmental damage and public health threats, ordering his Department of Environmental Protection to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to try to block the Obama administration’s crackdown on mountaintop removal.

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Why does the coal industry get a bad name?

There was an interesting pair of stories recently in the Cumberland Times-News over in Maryland that offered a glimpse at why the coal industry is sometimes its own worst enemy.

First, there was  June 7 story headlined, One industry is tired of its name being blackened: Summit provides stage for officials to tell coal’s story.  It reported:

Initiated by Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot, Thursday, the Maryland Coal Summit attracted a hefty crowd of individuals who want the production and influence of the state’s coal to expand.  The summit was modeled after a similar event on the Eastern Shore dealing with Maryland’s poultry industry.

Franchot was quoted:

I am tired of the coal industry being vilified and the backward thinking about coal. Coal will not be forgotten and you are not alone. We will tell your story.

Two days later, on June 9 there was a piece last week headlined, Garrett to discuss transportation projects: Commissioners, roads department and Maryland Coal Association will meet to talk damage done by heavy truck traffic. It explained:

A meeting to discuss the status of Westernport and Lower New Germany roads will be held between the Maryland Coal Association, Garrett County commissioners and administration from the county roads department toward the end of the month, according to General Roads Superintendent Jay Moyer.

At a commission meeting in February, Moyer said it would be costly to fix the two roads and that the coal companies that regularly use the roads weren’t willing to foot the bill for repairs.


State downplays Alpha’s Road Fork problems

While we wait to see if U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin will publicly release the six-month progress report on his Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, it’s interesting to take a look at the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training’s report on the recent conveyor belt incident at Alpha’s Road Fork No. 51 Mine.

Recall that federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials described the May 18 incident as involving a “burned belt” and a delayed mine evacuation, and MSHA inspectors found serious safety problems involving accumulations of combustible coal dust — the sort of violations Alpha pledged to put a stop to when Goodwin agreed not to bring any corporate criminal charges related to the deaths of 29 miners at Upper Big Branch.

But the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training tells a bit of a different story. For example, in this five-page report — made public only yesterday — state inspectors Jack Campbell and Steve Stanley conclude this about the “burned belt” that MSHA described:

Even though high friction and smoke were produced by this event, there was NO FIRE and NO CO was produced. (All caps and underlined in original)

The state inspectors also wrote:

… no evidence of fire was seen … there was no ash or soot to be found, only rubber shavings, where the No. 1 drive roller lagging and belt had been abraded by the running of the drive.

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Well … there’s another ad out from Republican U.S. Senate candidate John Raese, in which Raese continues to allege that Sen. Joe Manchin supports the actions the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has taken to try to reduce the environmental damage, public health impacts, and global warming effects of the coal industry.

The ad is called “Gang of Four” and it goes like this:

Lisa Jackson, Cecil Roberts, Barack Obama, and Joe Manchin … It’s the gang of four; The end of coal. The president and his EPA have been waging war on West Virginia  coal and the people who should be fighting for coal – Cecil Roberts and Joe Manchin – have supported the Obama administration every step of the way.

You can watch the ad yourself here:

But come on … let’s call this one like it is. The ad is just wrong. It’s false. Sen. Manchin and Cecil Roberts have most definitely not supported the Obama administration’s coal and energy policies every step of the way.

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Shoveled to the sidelines: AP on coal’s decline

In this Thursday, April 29, 2010 file photo, a pair of coal trains idle on the tracks near Dry Fork Station, a coal-fired power plant being built by the Basin Electric Power Cooperative near Gillette, Wyo.  (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

The Associated Press has moved a national business story looking at the ongoing decline of the coal industry in America, reporting:

America is shoveling coal to the sidelines.

The fuel that powered the U.S. from the industrial revolution into the iPhone era is being pushed aside as utilities switch to cleaner and cheaper alternatives.

The share of U.S. electricity that comes from coal is forecast to fall below 40 percent for the year, its lowest level since World War II. Four years ago, it was 50 percent. By the end of this decade, it is likely to be near 30 percent.

“The peak has passed,” says Jone-Lin Wang, head of Global Power for the energy research firm IHS CERA.

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We broke the story yesterday on Coal Tattoo about the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement stepping in to potentially stop the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection from retroactively granting Alpha Natural Resources an extension of time to start mountaintop removal operation at one of the former Massey Energy permits along the Coal River Valley.

Earlier today, I finally got the chance to talk to WVDEP mining director Tom Clarke about the situation, and Tom told me his agency hasn’t decide yet whether it will appeal the decision of OSM Charleston field office chief Roger Calhoun:

We’re reading the letter and we are looking at our policy and our regulations.

Over on Twitter, Coal River Mountain Watch’s Rob Goodwin — whose work monitoring WVDEP permit actions in the area brought this whole thing to light in the first place — raised an interesting question about the way state officials handled this:

What does this say about objections to the “retroactive”  Spruce decision? WVDEP willing to break the law for coal?

Certainly, the coal industry and its political backers among West Virginia’s elected officials have complained loud and long that it was wrong for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and veto a Clean Water Act permit for the Spruce No. 1 Mine after the federal Army Corps of Engineers had already issued the permit. WVDEP officials have joined in such criticism, saying in one letter about the Spruce Mine:

The WVDEP is committed to application of the existing laws, rules and policies to protect the environment … It does not support retroactive, ad hoc departures from existing laws, rules and guidelines. As regulators, operating within the authority of existing rules and laws, such an approach is unsupportable and undermines the considerable efforts over the years by the WVDEP, Corps and USEPA to develop consistent, predictable and fair permittting programs and procedures.

Now, Tom Clarke doesn’t think this is a fair comparison. The Spruce Mine was a permit WVDEP thought was completely within the law and acceptable, he told me. The Corps approved it, and EPA never stepped in at the time to block it, Tom said. The “retroactive” veto by EPA went against these previous approvals, and that was the problem, Tom said. In the case of the Eagle No. 1 permit, Tom said, WVDEP wasn’t going against its previous decisions to approve the permit — it was simply affirming those decisions and, he said, following its own policy regarding extending that permit.

But that’s where the problem is here for WVDEP, with this little policy.  Stick with me here: Federal and state law contain similar provisions (see Section 506 (c) on page 72 of the pdf ) regarding terminating surface mining permits. The federal language says:

A permit shall terminate if the permittee has not commenced the surface coal mining operations covered by such permit within three years of the issuance of the permit: Provided, That the regulatory authority may grant reasonable extensions of time upon a showing that such extensions are necessary by reason of litigation precluding such commencement or threatening substantial economic loss to the permittee, or by reason of conditions beyond the control and without the fault or negligence of the permittee.

This is important. Congress put the language in there for a reason, as this legislative history lesson reminds us:

To assure that no one will be locked into outdated reclamation requirements because permits are taken out and renewed without operations being undertaken, subsection (c) provides that permits will terminate if the permittee has not begun operations within 3 years of the issuance of the permit unless otherwise provided in the permit.

Years ago, WVDEP adopted language similar to the federal statute. That language was approved by OSM as part of the required federal oversight of the state’s surface mining regulatory program.

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Word just in from Boone County that a tentative agreement has been reached between residents of the Prenter-Seth community and Alpha Natural Resources, potentially resolving the major coal-slurry pollution case that was set to go to trial.

A court official confirms that the deal was reached earlier today in a court-ordered settlement meeting. No details have yet been made public, but further proceedings have been put on hold.

Jury selection had been ready to start today, with opening statements scheduled for next Monday. More background on the case available here, here and here.

A lot of folks have picked up on the interview U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson did with The Guardian and Grist, with most of them focusing on her remarks about the economics of coal vs. natural gas for firing the nation’s power plants:

So in my opinion the problem for coal right now is entirely economic. The natural gas that this country has and is continuing to develop is cheaper right now on average. And so people who are making investment decisions are not unmindful of that — how could you expect them to be? It just happens that at the same time, these rules are coming in place that make it clear that you cannot continue to operate a 30-, 40-, or 50-year old plant and not control the pollution that comes with it.

But just as important were Administrator Jackson’s comments that EPA has moved to crack down on mountaintop removal and require cuts in coal-fired power plant emissions for a reason:

Pollution from coal-fired power plants comes from the extraction of the coal in some cases, the burning of the coal, which gives soot and smog-forming pollution, and mercury and lead and arsenic and cadmium and acid gases and then you’ve got to get rid of the ash! …One form of energy has to at least be subject to the same laws as the other forms are. That’s what we’ve been working on as far as coal. I always tell people, it’s not about coal, it’s about the pollution that for too long has been associated with coal.

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Photo from U.S. Office of Surface Mining

Word just in this afternoon about a potentially major decision by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement …

OSMRE officials here in Charleston have determined that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was wrong in its decision to retroactively extend a Massey Energy/Alpha Natural Resources mountaintop removal permit along the Coal River Valley in Raleigh County, W.Va. I’ve posted a copy of a letter from OSM Charleston Field Office Director Roger Calhoun to WVDEP mining Director Tom Clarke here.

Essentially, the letter says that OSM is taking this action because WVDEP’s policy to allow such “retroactive” permit extensions or renewals is not part of the state’s federally approved program for regulating West Virginia’s surface coal-mining industry.

In his letter to Clarke, Calhoun concludes that WVDEP’s actions on this permit were “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.” The letter gives WVDEP five days to file an appeal with OSM’s regional director. If Calhoun’s determination ultimately wins out, then OSM could launch a federal inspection and ultimately take action, under the Obama administration’s 2011 policy to get OSM back in the business of more closely examining potential defects in state agency permit decisions.

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Gary May, left, of Bloomingrose, W.V., former superintendent of Upper Big Branch Mine, where an explosion killed 29 workers, walks with his defense attorney, Tim Carrico, at the Beckley Federal Courthouse in Beckley W. Va., Thursday March 29, 2012.  (AP Photo/Rick Barbero)

Here’s an interesting bit of news just out from the AP:

Federal prosecutors want to delay the sentencing of the former superintendent of the Upper Big Branch Mine by about 60 days.

U.S. District Judge Irene Berger had scheduled Gary May’s sentencing for Aug. 9 in Beckley, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Ruby wants to postpone.

Ruby says May is cooperating in an ongoing criminal investigation of the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 coal miners. Investigators need more time to fully develop that cooperation.

Ruby says in a court filing that May doesn’t object to the delay.

May pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiracy to defraud the federal government. He’s the highest-ranking mine official charged so far in the blast.

Ex-security chief Hughie Elbert Stover is appealing his conviction and a three-year sentence for lying to investigators.

Court records indicate Judge Berger has rescheduled the sentencing for Oct. 4.