Coal Tattoo

In this Oct. 16, 2000 photo, 250-million gallons of coal slurry floods Coldwater Fork, which was spilled after the bottom fell from a 72-acre retention pond upstream several days earlier in Martin County, near Inez, Ky., flooding 28 miles of two streams.  (AP Photo/Lexington Herald-Leader, David Stephenson)

It’s been bizarre over the last few years to watch the coal industry and its friends in Congress try to pain the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement as a major solider in the Obama administration’s “war on coal” (see here and here, just for example). As if the election of a different president could somehow turn an agency that’s spent more than three decades as the “poor stepchild” of the Interior Department into the strong advocate for environmental protection and the rights of coalfield citizens that Congress had envisioned.

So it was really a hoot yesteday to see the West Virginia Coal Association blast OSM for the release of the agency’s new report on the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s enforcement efforts regarding coal-slurry impoundments:

Over the course of this 12 year review, the industry has responded to previous issues in a prompt and professional manner when provided with an opportunity for an open dialogue with OSM, but that opportunity was not provided in this situation.  The agency never requested any information from the industry that may have satisfied their concerns nor did they contact the industry to make them aware of the pending release of these reports, or today’s media event. Sensationalism has never advanced meaningful dialogue and progress with respect to developing a path forward.

Sensationalism? First of all, it’s quite something to hear the publicists and lobbyists who make a nice living off the inflammatory and deceptive “war on coal” campaign against regulation of the mining industry call anything sensationalism. Come on, guys.  But the other thing is, while it was unusual for OSM to hold a press conference to release this report, agency officials handled this in anything but a sensationalistic manner.

I’ve been to press conference that were all about sensationalism. Several events years where minnows were dumped into a jar of poison water to show the effects of acid mine drainage come to mind. But this one? Roger Calhoun, OSM’s Charleston field office director was very measured in both tone and content, being careful to explain that his agency didn’t find any imminent threats to public safety, but simply believes the WVDEP needs to do more to make sure such threats don’t develop. And the OSM report itself is anything but sensationalistic. It’s written in dry technical terminology that would make it hard for any member of the public to really be sure what a serious issue we’re talking about here.

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

I mean come on, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman certainly hasn’t been shy about voicing his opinions about the Obama administration’s moves regarding coal regulation, but even Randy wasn’t jumping up and down to complain about what OSM was doing here:

There are some unanswered questions and gaps in data … The information they are suggesting needs to be available in the files and available for consideration by the DEP , we can’t argue that the information shouldn’t be there. I’m not going to argue for less information.

And it’s not like OSM rushed into this thing … they’ve been working on an examination of the potential for coal-slurry dams to “breakthough” into nearby underground mine workings for more than a decade, since the October 2000 disaster at Massey Energy’s operations in Martin County, Ky. They’ve released at least two preliminary reports on the issue. Industry officials know what OSM was looking at, and they had plenty of opportunities to reach out to OSM and make whatever points they wanted to make.

In its statement, the Coal Association made these claims about coal-slurry impoundments:

These structures are some of the most highly engineered and regulated structures found anywhere in the world, with detailed engineering and geo-technical analysis associated with their design, operation and maintenance.

If that’s true, then the plan announced by OSM and WVDEP — for the state to require companies to submit more proof that they’ve minimized the potential for breakthroughs — shouldn’t be a problem. You would think the industry would by pleased to provide that information, and ease everyone’s concerns, instead of making unfounded complaints about “sensationalism” by OSM.