Friday roundup, March 15, 2013

March 15, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

In this photo provided by China’s Xinhua News Agency, a relative of miners waits at the site of the accident in Shuicheng County, southwest China’s Guizhou Province, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. China said 21 coal miners have been killed and four more are missing following an accident inside a mine in the southern province of Guizhou. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Ou Dongqu)

 As the photo caption above says, 21 coal miners in China and four more were listed as missing following an explosion and roof collapse.

In other international news, Gardiner Harris at The New York Times touched on coal-mining in this story about new child labor rules in India:

After descending 70 feet on a wobbly bamboo staircase into a dank pit, the teenage miners ducked into a black hole about two feet high and crawled 100 yards through mud before starting their day digging coal.

They wore T-shirts, pajama-like pants and short rubber boots — not a hard hat or steel-toed boot in sight. They tied rags on their heads to hold small flashlights and stuffed their ears with cloth. And they spent the whole day staring death in the face.

Just two months before full implementation of a landmark 2010 law mandating that all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14 be in school, some 28 million are working instead, according to Unicef. Child workers can be found everywhere — in shops, in kitchens, on farms, in factories and on construction sites. In the coming days Parliament may consider yet another law to ban child labor, but even activists say more laws, while welcome, may do little to solve one of India’s most intractable problems.

“We have very good laws in this country,” said Vandhana Kandhari, a child protection specialist at Unicef. “It’s our implementation that’s the problem.”

The story goes on:

Suresh Thapa, 17, said that he has worked in the mines near his family’s shack “since he was a kid,” and that he expects his four younger brothers to follow suit. He and his family live in a tiny tarp-and-stick shack near the mines. They have no running water, toilet or indoor heating.

On a recent day, Suresh was sitting outside his home sharpening his and his father’s pickaxes — something he must do twice a day. His mother, Mina Thapa, sat nearby nursing an infant and said Suresh chose mining himself.

“He works of his own free will,” she said. “He doesn’t listen to me anyway, even when I tell him something,” she added with a bittersweet laugh.

Ms. Thapa said that three of her younger sons go to a nearby government school and that they would go into the mines when they wanted to.

“If they don’t do this work, what other jobs are they going to get?” she asked.

India’s Mines Act of 1952 prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from working in coal mines, but Ms. Thapa said enforcing that law would hurt her family. “It’s necessary for us that they work. No one is going to give us money. We have to work and feed ourselves.”

The presence of children in Meghalaya’s mines is no secret. Suresh’s boss, Kumar Subba, said children work in mines throughout the region.

“Mostly the ones who come are orphans,” said Mr. Subba, who supervises five mines and employs 130 people who collectively produce 30 tons of coal each day.

He conceded that working conditions inside his and other mines in the region were dangerous. His mines are owned by a state lawmaker, he said.

“People die all the time,” he said. “You have breakfast in the morning, go to work and never come back. Many have died this way.”

Closer to home, there was a big court hearing in Washington in the U.S. EPA’s appeal of a ruling that threw out its veto of the Spruce Mine permit.  Greenwire explained:

Skeptical appellate judges put tough questions today to both U.S. EPA and a major coal mining company as the two argued over the agency’s 2007 Clean Water Act veto of a federal strip-mining permit issued by the Army Corps of Engineers for a sprawling West Virginia mine.

The stakes are high in the battle over Mingo Logan Coal Co.’s Spruce No. 1 mine — one of the largest-ever mountaintop-removal mining projects — as the mining company challenges one of EPA’s most potent regulatory weapons, its Clean Water Act veto.

EPA’s use of that veto in 2011 effectively revoked the 4-year-old mining permit issued under the George W. Bush administration. The agency cited its authority under the pollution law’s Section 404, which empowers the EPA administrator to scrap a “specification” in a corps permit “whenever he determines” a potentially unacceptable environmental damage.

As mentioned here in Coal Tattoo earlier this week, this case drew a very conservative panel of judges, and from the Greenwire story, it shows:

EPA appealed the decision to a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where Judge Thomas Griffith today asked EPA why it used its veto power so many years after the permit had been issued.

“EPA came late,” Griffith said. “Doesn’t that create the instability that Congress wanted to avoid?”

He also asked whether EPA effectively negated the Army Corps’ permitting authority.

Matthew Littleton of the Department of Justice replied, “There is no temporal limitation to EPA’s authority.”

But the story also reports:

Arch Coal attorney Robert Rolfe faced similarly aggressive queries as judges probed the meaning of technical language in the Clean Water Act.

Rolfe contended that EPA is only allowed to withdraw a “specification,” meaning a condition on which a permit is issued, and only during the permitting process.

But Griffith acknowledged EPA has a “strong textural argument.”

“That is exactly what the statute allows them to do,” Griffith said, arguing that EPA vetoed a specification that in effect nullified the permit.

But Rolfe battled on.

“‘Withdrawal’ means withdrawal of a specification, not a permit. Congress used the term ‘specification.’ It did not use the term ‘permit,'” he said.

“EPA certainly has a role” in permitting, he added. “But that role has to be exercised before the permit is issued.”

Judge Brett Kavanaugh expressed reservation about whether there should be procedures for EPA and the corps to resolve permit issues, but he also appeared receptive to EPA’s arguments.

“What Congress may have thought,” he said, “is EPA may have been more sensitive to environmental issues, so let’s make them a backstop.”

Over in Kentucky, as reported by both the Herald-Leader and WFPL, a state panel decided that it would not punish a Harlan County miner who helped federal authorities bring criminal charges against a company and three mine supervisors. The Herald-Leader reported:

Attorneys for Mackie Bailey had said it was not fair for the state to seek to penalize Bailey when he was the one who blew the whistle on the violations.

Bailey, 41, said he felt vindicated by Thursday’s decision.

“It turned out real good,” Bailey said. “You shouldn’t punish somebody for trying to do the right thing.”

Bailey worked at the Manalapan Mining Co.’s P-1 mine near Pathfork, in Harlan County, in the first half of 2011.

Bailey operated a machine that installed bolts in the mine roof to keep it from falling. The machine has a bar that the operator is supposed to place against the roof of the mine as a temporary support to prevent roof falls while installing the permanent bolts.

As employees advanced the mine into the mountain in June 2011, however, they hit a spot where the roof rose so high that the temporary support bar wouldn’t reach it, according to Bailey and court records. That meant the miners using the machine were exposed to unsupported sections of rock, a serious violation that can lead to deadly roof falls.

Bailey said he told supervisors about the problem but was directed to keep working. One supervisor threatened to fire him in late June 2011 when he refused to bolt a section of the mine, Bailey said. The next day, David Partin, 49, of Pineville, was killed when a section of rock nearly 7 feet long and 3 feet wide collapsed on him at the mine, according to a federal investigation.

Though his attorney, Tony Oppegard, Bailey then reported the problem with the roof-bolting machine to Tracy Stumbo, chief accident investigator for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing.

Bailey said he had not reported problems to authorities earlier for fear of losing his job. Federal prosecutors ultimately took over the case.

A federal grand jury indicted mine foreman Bryant Massingale; superintendent Joseph Miniard; operations manager Jefferson Davis; and Manalapan on charges of violating safety rules. All pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing.

As Erica Peterson at WFPL explained:

But Bailey still faced sanctions from the commission for violations, because operating the machine without the safety devices is against the law.

The attorney for the Kentucky Office of Mine Safety and Licensing argued that it was clear a violation occurred. Bailey and his attorney—Tony Oppegard—didn’t dispute that, but argued that sanctions were inappropriate, because the information Bailey provided was invaluable. Oppegard also worried that prosecuting whistleblowers for the violations they report would have a chilling effect on other coal miners who might consider coming forward.

The three men on the Mine Safety Review Commission ruled in favor of Bailey that no punishment was deserved, even though a violation did occur. Commissioner William Donan also commended Bailey for his actions.

The Washington Post’s WonkBlog, meanwhile, had this piece about what’s going to happen to all of the coal miners who are retired or losing their jobs as the industry continues to decline:

… There’s another aspect to the decline of coal that’s getting less attention — namely, what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of currently retired coal miners who still rely on these companies for pensions and health benefits? Many of these retirees, after all, have crippling ailments after years of working in the mines. And many of the union benefits they’ve amassed over the decades are now at risk of vanishing.

One retiree explained to me in an interview that unionized coal workers had always prized their health benefits above all else — precisely because they knew that mining was an exceptionally dangerous job. “Whenever we negotiated for contracts, there were lots of things we gave up to keep our medical,” says former Peabody miner Bill Lemley, now 65 and at risk of losing his benefits in the Patriot bankruptcy.

Since the mid-1980s, plenty of industries — from steel to airlines — have seen companies go bankrupt and revamp their contracts with organized labor. Pensions and benefits often vanish as a result. That wave has recently started affecting the coal industry, which still has some 80,000 unionized workers and hundreds of thousands of retirees across the United States.

Meanwhile, the media watchdog group Media Matters for America posted 8 Charts That Expose The “War On Coal” Charade, in anticipation of the coming renewal of that campaign when President Obama’s new EPA administrator, Gina McCarthy, seeks Senate confirmation. Among the points they make:

The Obama administration has made significant investments to try to make coal “cleaner.” The following chart shows that the stimulus devoted far more funding for demonstration projects to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), projects that would try to advance thus-far elusive “clean coal” by capturing its huge carbon emissions and burying them underground, than similar projects for solar energy. The Energy Innovation Tracker report that this chart came from called demonstration projects “crucial” because they are “often expensive and underfunded by the private sector,” a phenomenon known as the “commercialization valley of death.” In total the stimulus devoted $3.4 billion to CCS. That is less than it appropriated for renewable generation overall, but it is nevertheless a significant investment in technology that could enable coal power to be compatible with a low-carbon future — a far cry from waging a “war” on the energy source.

But such efforts at promoting “clean coal,” are drawing fire with the nomination of MIT physicist Ernest Moniz to be the next Secretary of Energy:

When President Barack Obama tapped MIT physicist Ernest Moniz to be the next Secretary of Energy earlier this month, environmentalists were quick to raise concerns over his outspoken support of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas. Now they’re worried about his record on clean coal.

Moniz has endorsed Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, which includes the kinds of fossil fuel production frowned upon by environmentalists, such as hydrofracking and offshore oil drilling, and he shares the president’s support of clean coal technology.

He also co-authored a 2009 report on reducing carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants, which looked favorably on the use of so-called clean coal. “It’s cheap,” he said at the time, “there’s lots of it and there’s lots of it in places with high demand, namely the U.S., China and India.” He added, “Sequestration is a key enabling technology for coal use in a carbon-constrained world.”

Environmental advocacy group the Sierra Club has made securing the retirement of a third of the nation’s coal-fired power plants the center of its environmental agenda. Its executive director, Michael Brune, has encouraged Moniz to move beyond clean coal.

“In his role as secretary of Energy, we urge Mr. Moniz to prioritize clean, renewable energy as climate solutions over destructive fossil fuels,” Brune told HuffPost in an email. “We would stress to him that an ‘all of the above’ energy policy only means ‘more of the same,’ and we urge him to leave behind dangerous nuclear energy, toxic fracking and mythical ‘clean coal’ while focusing instead on truly safe, clean energy sources like wind and solar.”

Up in Pennsylvania, Don Hopey at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had this coal-ash related story:

The Citizens Coal Council has filed notice of its intent to sue the owner of a coal ash disposal site along the Monongahela River in Fayette County, alleging it has polluted ground water and endangers public health.

The 360-acre site, located in La Belle and owned and operated by Matt Canestrale Contracting Inc., has been used to dispose of hundreds of thousands of tons of coal ash from FirstEnergy Corp.’s Mitchell power plant and GenOn Energy’s Elrama power plant, both in Washington County.

The notice, required by environmental laws 60 to 90 days prior to filing a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, says operations at the Canestrale site create dust pollution that blows onto nearby properties.

“Citizens living near mine activities should not have to pay the price when operators don’t live up to their responsibilities and comply with environmental laws,” Aimee Erickson, Citizens Coal Council executive director, said Wednesday. “Dumping toxic coal ash into an unlined site like this one is not a solution but rather another dangerous problem for the surrounding communities.”

And Earthjustice reminds us:

In January 2009, during her confirmation hearing as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson said her agency would immediately evaluate the need for federal regulations for coal ash, toxic waste dumped by coal-fired power plants into unlined and often unmonitored landfills and ponds. The hearing came just weeks after a disaster in Kingston, Tennessee, where over 1 billion gallons of coal ash burst through an earthen dam and damaged and destroyed two dozen homes and hundreds of acres of a riverfront community. In March 2009, then-Administrator Jackson issued a statement assuring the public that the EPA was “moving forward quickly to develop regulations to address the management of coal combustion residuals” and that the EPA anticipated “having a proposed rule ready for public comment by the end of [2009].”

But four years later, after millions of tons of coal ash continued to flow into unregulated and leaking dumps, still no federal regulations exist. The latest step in this rulemaking process—the publication of a large collection of data known as a Notice of Data Availability is stalled in bureaucratic limbo at the White House. The EPA submitted the Notice of Data Availability to the Office of Management and Budget exactly one year ago today, yet the data have yet to be published for public comment. Without publication of the data, the EPA asserts it cannot move forward with a final rule.

While the EPA and the White House drag their regulatory feet, Americans living near coal ash dumps must worry about arsenic in their water or death, injury or loss of property that could come with another coal ash dam collapse. The Administration’s negligence is surpassed by environmental foes in both the Senate and the House of Representatives who have tried multiple tactics to pass legislation that would prohibit the EPA from ever setting federal coal ash standards, including at least two attempts to attach coal ash “riders” onto must-pass legislation. Despite being America’s second largest industrial waste stream and often containing dangerously high levels of toxic chemicals such as arsenic, lead, selenium, mercury, and more, some politicians would prefer no federal safeguards. Household garbage is often better regulated than this toxic waste.

“This is bureaucratic delay at its worst,” said Lisa Evans, Senior Administrative Counsel at Earthjustice. “The coal ash rule is essential to protect public health, and this unreasonable delay ensures that leaking and unstable dumps continue to threaten the safety of Americans.”

A Coal Tattoo reader pointed out to me this op-ed piece in a local newspaper from West Virginia native Brad Hoylman, who is now a state senator in New York:

The issue of hydrofracking particularly resonates with me because of my background. I’m originally from West Virginia, a state that permitted energy companies to use untested and unsafe methods to extract coal as an economic development tool. The results, as many know, have been calamitous. Mountaintop-removal mines in West Virginia and surrounding states have demolished an estimated 1.4 million acres of forested hills, buried roughly 2,000 miles of streams, poisoned drinking water, and literally wiped entire towns from the map.

Parts of New York where hydrofracking would occur, just like West Virginia, are in dire economic circumstances and hydrofracking is seen as a way to address the high unemployment rate. But at what cost to our environment and the health and safety of our water supply in the long run?

In more international news,  Scientific American reports:

As many as 115,000 people die in India each year from coal-fired power plant pollution, costing the country about $4.6 billion, according to a groundbreaking new study released today.

The report by the Mumbai-based Conservation Action Trust is the first comprehensive examination of the link between fine particle pollution and health problems in India, where coal is the fuel of choice and energy demands are skyrocketing.

The findings are stunning. In addition to more than 100,000 premature deaths, it links millions of cases of asthma and respiratory ailments to coal exposure. It counts 10,000 children under the age of 5 as fatal victims last year alone.

But another story says this:

Energy-guzzling China is facing a coal conundrum. Rapid urbanization and industrialization will keep China’s coal consumption at record highs of around 4 billion tons per year by 2015. At the same time, the country will have to fight for coal security and to keep its supply line uninterrupted, according to the first energy outlook report from China’s Energy Research Institute (ERI).

Swelling urban populations in pursuit of better housing, appliances and vehicles are keeping their foot on the gas when it comes to China’s energy consumption. They will continue to drive the shift from low-end, noncommercial energy like firewood to high-quality commercial energy like piped gas. The spread of urban centers increases the demand for electricity, more than 75 percent of which in China is generated from coal-fired power plants.

And finally, the Climate Progress blog had this important commentary about “Debunking the Myth of the Inadequacy of ‘Current Renewables‘”:

There’s no useful intellectual distinction between ‘current’ and ‘future’ renewables. It’s like saying my daughter, who’s six, is not the same person once she becomes an adult. The only way she won’t grow is if I don’t feed her.

The point is that continuing the amazing price drops and learning curves for renewables requires that we keep feeding them and help them keep learning – by expanding production, as the International Energy Agency has explained.

The fact is that if “today’s renewables” — a meaningless distinction as I’ve said — could only get us a third of the way there, that would be fine through, say, 2025, since the carbon price and deployment effort would accelerate countless near-commercial technologies now in the pipeline into the market to next us the next third and then the final third.

And just for example:

If you’d  like to see a study of how New York could go 100% renewable in two decades, see ”Examining the Feasibility of Converting New York State’s All-Purpose Energy Infrastructure to One Using Wind, Water and Sunlight” by Stanford’s Marc Jacobson et al.

As explained in a Stanford press release:

The study is the first to develop a plan to fulfill all of a state’s transportation, electric power, industry, and heating and cooling energy needs with renewable energy, and to calculate the number of new devices and jobs created, amount of land and ocean areas required, and policies needed for such an infrastructure change. It also provides new calculations of air pollution mortality and morbidity impacts and costs based on multiple years of air quality data.

The study concludes that while a WWS conversion may result in initial capital cost increases, such as the cost of building renewable energy power plants, these costs would be more than made up for over time by the elimination of fuel costs. The overall switch would reduce New York’s end-use power demand by about 37 percent and stabilize energy prices, since fuel costs would be zero, according to the study. It would also create a net gain in manufacturing, installation and technology jobs because nearly all the state’s energy would be produced within the state.

“We must be ambitious if we want to promote energy independence and curb global warming,” said study co-author Robert Howarth, a Cornell University professor of ecology and environmental biology. “The economics of this plan make sense,” said Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell engineering professor and a co-author of the study. “Now it is up to the political sphere.”

One Response to “Friday roundup, March 15, 2013”

  1. Steve says:

    The Mumbai study says:
    “The data is based on plant and fuel characteristics, since India, researchers said, does not make continuous and open-source monitoring information available at the plant level.
    Researchers then used models to estimate changes in ambient pollutant concentrations due to the presence of coal-fired plants in the region and estimated health impacts using peer-reviewed methodologies used in similar studies around the world.”
    Deaths that are estimates based on methodologies?

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