Friday roundup, Dec. 7, 2012

December 7, 2012 by Ken Ward Jr.

In this Sept. 11, 2012 photo, a four-wheel-drive car follows a large mining truck as it makes its way to the top of a Boggabri coal mine near Gunnedah, Australia, 450 kilometers (280 miles) northwest of Sydney. (AP Photo/Rob Griffith)

Over at The Associated Press, Vicki Smith this week had a nice overview of the larger issues raised by the death of a CONSOL Energy miner in the collapse of a coal-refuse embankment in Harrison County, W.Va.:

With a driver and his bulldozer missing in a thick, dark lake of coal slurry, a mine safety expert and critic of the coal industry says regulators are ignoring stricter construction standards that could prevent more failures at hundreds of similar dam-like structures around the country.

For at least a decade, state and federal regulators have allowed coal companies to build or expand the massive ponds of gray liquid and silt atop loose and wet coal waste, said Jack Spadaro, an engineering consultant and former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy.

“They’re building on top of the existing slurry, and therein lies the problem,” Spadaro said. “It’s wet and it has no stability. It’s creating hazards for all of us downstream.”

Meanwhile, just in time for that CONSOL fatality, one of the company’s mine superintendents had a letter to the editor in the Pittsburgh paper criticizing what he said is over-regulation of the mining industry:

Sadly the Environmental Protection Agency is putting ideology ahead of practicality … At the end of December, CONSOL Energy’s Miller Creek Mine in Mingo County, W.Va., will have no permitted reserves to support the 145 employees at this location and despite our best efforts, the company may not be able to reassign those workers. These employees are not statistics, they are real people with mortgages, car payments and children to feed and put through school … Moving forward on permits like ours, and countless others, could mean thousands of jobs and do wonders for our economy.

Meanwhile, in China:

An accident in a coal mine in southwest China killed 17 miners on Wednesday, while 11 workers were still missing three days after another mine flooded in the northeast, state media reported.

The official Xinhua News Agency said there was an outburst of coal and gas in a shaft in a mine in Fuyuan county in Yunnan province on Wednesday afternoon.

Citing the county government, Xinhua said the other 49 miners underground at the time escaped unharmed.

In a separate report, Xinhua said 11 miners were still missing three days after a coal mine flooded in northeastern Heilongjiang province. A total of 22 miners were working in the mine when it was flooded on Saturday night. Six escaped, two were helped out on Sunday and three miners had been confirmed dead.

China has the world’s deadliest coal mine industry, with 1,973 miners killed in accidents last year.

Safety improvements have reduced deaths in recent years, but safety rules are often ignored and accidents are still common.

Over at Climate Progress, Stephen Lacey had this report:

One of the world’s biggest mining firms says that extreme weather caused by climate change is already impacting some of its assets, thus forcing the company to re-evaluate its investments in the coal sector.

Speaking to investors and analysts on Monday, the Chief Executive of BHP Billiton’s coal division explained how the company is reinforcing infrastructure around its coal export terminal in Queensland, Australia because of increases in extreme weather that threaten the facility.

BHP Billiton is one of the largest producers of aluminum, copper, thermal coal, metallurgical coal, nickel, silver and uranium. The Australian company also owns and operates the Hay Point Services Coal Terminal, a coal facility that makes up a large portion of the biggest coal port in the world.

Closer to home, the State Journal’s Taylor Kuykendall had a piece headlined Married to coal: Markets driving cultural change for some WV families, reporting:

The coal miner’s wife is a cultural icon of West Virginia’s coal communities — vigilant yet kind, caring but strong.

But as the Appalachian coal industry struggles through its current decline, the traditional role of a coal miner’s wife, as well as the social structures and culture in certain communities, could be pushed to change.

Thanks to the high pay most miners earn, single-income households in the coalfields are common. Now, as job losses become a more common occurrence due to market conditions, regulatory climate and other factors, miners’ spouses must not only worry about the health and safety of their significant other, but also fret over what some say is a threat to their way of life.

While the state as a whole lags behind nationwide labor force participation rates, female labor participation rates run even lower and trail behind national averages.

According to a 2010 analysis by West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics, the female labor participation rate was 48.2 percent. The male participation rate was 61.2 percent. The statewide data represents trends and data from communities where coal is not the primary industry.

“It’s still possible to earn a substantial salary with a high school diploma because of the coal mines, something unique to Appalachia, I believe,” said Jessica Troilo, assistant professor of child development and family studies at West Virginia University. “Because the financial culture didn’t have to change as it did for many families in the U.S. in the 1970s-1980s, cultural assumptions about work and providing for one’s family (and who should do the providing) didn’t have to change.”

Troilo said she expects those cultural assumptions to begin to change. Outside of regional exceptions such as the coalfields, this cultural shift largely already has taken place.

“Prior to the 1970s, men with only a high school diploma had the ability to earn a wage high enough to support a family,” Troilo said. “Once the technology boom hit, this changed. Now, it’s fairly commonplace to have families with two earners.”

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