Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, April 12, 2013

Rescued miner Feng Zuxue is carried out of the mine shaft of a flooded coal mine in Weng’an County, southwest China’s Guizhou Province, Monday, April 8, 2013. Chinese state media Xinhua News Agency say three miners have been rescued after spending two and a half days trapped underground because of flooding in the coal mine that killed three of their colleagues. (AP Photo/Xinhua, Liu Xu)

While some of us were focused on yesterday’s confirmation hearing for EPA nominee Gina McCarthy, some reporters were thankfully also covering a House committee hearing on the important issue of coal-ash regulations — an issue where the Obama EPA’s actions so far haven’t lived up to their talk.

Greenwire, for example, reported (subscription only):

U.S. EPA and several Democrats yesterday said they were open to considering Republican-backed legislation aimed at creating state-centered standards for the disposal of coal combustion waste.

Even though EPA has been working for years on national regulations to police coal ash disposal, EPA Solid Waste Assistant Administrator Mathy Stanislaus said the agency doesn’t necessarily oppose a draft bill up for discussion that would effectively pre-empt EPA’s ongoing efforts.

“We do not have an official position,” Stanislaus testified during a sometimes-contentious hearing of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.

Here in West Virginia, the State Journal had a write-up on the hearing, reporting:

A Congressional committee on the environment and economy says states should be given the authority to regulate “one of the largest waste streams generated in the United States” if the state conforms to federal minimum standards.

In a hearing of the U.S. House of Representative’s Subcommittee on Environment and Economy, under the Committee on Energy and Commerce, witnesses testified regarding coal ash recycling and storage. Leaders of the committee touted legislation designed to allow states to implement standards regarding the handling of coal combustion residuals, a material that can be recycled into building materials.

“The long and short of it is – Congress is perfectly capable of establishing a standard of protection for coal ash,” said Environment and the Economy Subcommittee Chairman Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill. “The states are perfectly capable – and in the best position – to implement robust permit programs for coal ash.”

Others aren’t so sure about all of this … longtime mine safety engineer Jack Spadaro, for example, testified:

I am certain that the proposed legislation in its present form, without specific requirements for review of design, stringent geotechnical and hydrological engineering requirements, and vigorous enforcement by a federal regulatory agency will result in a catastrophic failure of a coal ash dam containment structure that will result in extensive loss of life and severe environmental damage that will be irreversible. There are thousands of such structures in the United States at this time and the failure of one or more of these dams is assured unless strict engineering standards are imposed.

And Lisa Evans, a coal-ash expert with the group Earthjustice, told lawmakers:

The Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act of 2013 cannot and will not adequately protect American communities from the toxic pollution from coal ash. Its ‘unique’ approach fails to guarantee the safety and security of communities located near high hazard dams and fails to ensure the protection of our nation’s drinking water, rivers and streams. After decades of dangerous disposal of billions of tons of coal ash, it is extremely disappointing that a bill without deadlines would receive serious consideration by this Congress.

Meanwhile, whistle-blowing Kentucky coal miner Scott Howard got some good news, as The Huffington Post reported:

A panel of federal judges ruled Thursday that a Kentucky miner who was fired two years ago after alleging unsafe conditions at his mine deserves to keep his job, delivering yet another legal victory to a highly public coal-industry whistleblower.

Charles Scott Howard lost his job at Cumberland River Coal Company, a subsidiary of energy giant Arch Coal, in May 2011. Managers informed him he was being let go because he was no longer fit to work due to an on-the-job injury. But Howard had lodged a litany of safety complaints against the company in the run-up to his layoff. An administrative law judge ruled last year that letting Howard go amounted to discrimination under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act.

Cumberland River appealed that decision, arguing that putting Howard back on the job would actually endanger him, due to his injury, and undermine safety law. The panel of appellate judges, however, didn’t buy it.

On another mine safety matter, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced this action:

Rox Coal Inc., which operates the Geronimo Mine in Somerset County, Pa., has been found in violation of a mandatory electrical hazard safety standard by an administrative law judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. The ALJ deemed the violation “quintessentially flagrant” and ordered the company to pay a $110,000 civil penalty.

The ALJ’s finding sustained the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s issuance and assessment of the violation as flagrant following an investigation into an electrical accident at the Geronimo Mine.

On Oct. 3, 2007, a miner was shocked while changing the fuse on a high-voltage switch house at Geronimo Mine. The mine’s chief electrician intentionally had disabled the safety switch two days prior to sending the miner and a co-worker to change fuses. As a result, the miners worked within inches of 7,200 live volts while performing this work.

Southwester Electric Power Company, John W. Jr. Power Plant in McNab Ark. seen from the front entrance on Wednesday April 10, 2013. The plant a first of its kind, ultra-supercritical 600-megawatt coal fire power plant went online in Dec. 2012. (AP Photo/Texarkana Gazette, Evan Lewis)

Interestingly, the Somerset Daily American reported:

A representative of RoxCoal, Friedens, said the company acted in good faith regarding the safety of its employees in commenting about a $110,000 fine.

RoxCoal received the civil penalty as the company was found in violation of a mandatory electrical hazard safety standard by an administrative law judge with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

Lori J. Mason, general counsel and manager-government affairs, said Wednesday that the fine was based on an electrician doing something he was not permitted to do.

“The employee was not authorized to do what he did,” she said. “We cannot predict when someone goes rogue, but that’s what he did. We took extensive measures to prevent it.”

Here in West Virginia, we had this report about a new mine disaster memorial, while the BBC had this interesting story:

Plans for a national mining memorial have been criticised for not including the Gleision pit tragedy because it is not officially classed as a disaster.

The memorial will be unveiled in October at Senghenydd near Caerphilly, site of the UK’s worst pit tragedy.

But Gleision will not feature because organisers say legislation states a disaster is five deaths or more and not every tragedy can be included.

Four men died when the Gleision pit in Swansea Valley flooded in 2011.

Prior to this week’s discussion of coal jobs issues in Congress and at the West Virginia Legislature, last week saw coverage of new data about coal jobs in Kentucky. Jim Bruggers at the Courier-Journal reported:

Coal production in Kentucky last year reached its lowest level since 1965, while shedding more than 4,000 jobs, nearly all of them in Appalachian counties, according to a new state report.

Eastern Kentucky coalfields took the largest hit, with production dropping 27.6 percent — extending what state officials fear may be a long-term trend. Officials blame the drop on competition from natural gas and increased mining costs, along with Washington’s tougher mining rules.

“This is a reality check, particularly in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields,” said Dick Brown, spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, which produced the report. “The trend has been downward for some time.”

There was also coverage from Erica Peterson at WFPL and from The Associated Press. The Mountain Association for Community Economic Development commented:

This staggering decline sharpens the critical need for new development efforts and ideas in the coalfields.

“We recognize the serious hardship that these layoffs mean for many workers and communities in the region. It is abundantly clear that Eastern Kentucky needs strong leadership and more focus on growing a different economy,” said Justin Maxson, president of the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development with offices in Berea, Hazard and Paintsville. “Piecemeal investments and disjointed policies are not real solutions. Eastern Kentucky has many of the building blocks for a stronger, homegrown economy — through strategies like entrepreneurship, and more support for sectors like forestry, agriculture, tourism, health care and energy efficiency to name a few — but they require real investment and forward looking leadership.”

“With even some in the coal industry acknowledging that this decline is potentially permanent, our elected officials must commit to the hard and vital work of growing a stronger economy that works for more people in the region,” Maxson said.

Here in West Virginia, the state Center for Budget and Policy explained:

While there has been lots of shouting about the state losing coal jobs, as a whole, the state’s natural resource extraction employment picture looks very healthy. All together, employment in the natural gas and coal industry reached almost 37,000 in the third quarter of 2012 – its highest point over the last ten years. While coal mining employment has declined recently, there are still more than 8,000 jobs today than there were in 2003. The growth in the natural gas industry has also played a large role making up for the losses in coal mining jobs. Over the last ten years, total employment has nearly doubled from about 6,900 in 2003 to just over 13,000 in 2012.

There was news today on selenium from the West Virginia statehouse, following this action last week in Kentucky:

The Kentucky Administrative Regulation Review Committee has advanced new rules proposed by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet to regulate the levels of selenium in Kentucky waterways. The state says the new regulations are a necessary update, and will adequately protect the environment and aquatic species; but environmental groups have raised serious concerns and say the proposal doesn’t comply with the federal Clean Water Act and is unenforceable.

The measure passed 5-3. Committee co-chairman Rep. Johnny Bell says he’s not confident the members of the committee comprehended the full effects of the regulation change.

“I don’t think anyone truly had a good understanding of what this will do in the future,” he said.

And in other coal news and commentary:

— The Associated Press, via The Washington Post, reported that Coal producer Alpha Natural Resources Inc. CEO Kevin Crutchfield received a pay package valued at about $6.2 million in 2012, down 8 percent from the previous year.

— Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s death was Monday greeted as a “great day” by coal miners, according to this report. Thatcher became a hated figure among northern mining communities in the 1980s after she clashed with the unions, refusing to give in to their demands.

— Corbin Hiar, reporting for SNL Financial, explained that a new Congressional Research Service report found that FutureGen, a decade-old carbon capture and storage demonstration project is unlikely to be completed before its federal funding expires at the end of 2015.

— Also reporting for SNL Financial, Matthew Bandyk explained:

When the U.S. EPA proposed a rule to regulate greenhouse gases from new power plants in spring 2012, the coal industry attacked the regulation as a de facto ban on new coal plants. Only a handful of projects that could begin construction by an April 12 deadline would be spared from the CO2 limits that would likely make any other conventional coal-fired project economically unfeasible.

This looming date, however, will not be an end to the controversy over the few plants aiming to meet the construction deadline, including projects developed by Sunflower Electric Power Corp. and Power4Georgians LLC. The environmental groups that, through lawsuits and public relations campaigns, have opposed these coal plants every step of the way are prepared to contend that the projects have not met the EPA’s definition of “beginning construction,” despite what the project developers may say.

— Out in Illinois, the story is that the state department in charge of mine safety lacked enough safety inspectors to comply with Illinois law in 2011 and 2012.

— And finally, Pam Kasey at The State Journal reports about how West Virginia’s power plants are responding to the new EPA mercury standards, and concludes:

In any case, in West Virginia, it appears that the future viability of coal for power so far remains intact.