Friday roundup, June 14, 2013

June 14, 2013 by Ken Ward Jr.

Smoke billows from chimneys of the cooling towers of a coal-fired power plant in Dadong, Shanxi province, China.  (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

There was an interesting story this week in the Springfield-based Illinois Times:

What do you get if you’re facing millions of dollars in fines for water pollution over the course of a decade?

If you’re the Springfield Coal Company, you get your permit renewed by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, much to the chagrin of environmentalists and residents who live near the company’s strip mine five miles from the tiny town of Industry, about 70 miles northwest of the capital city, near Macomb.

Champaign-based Prairie Rivers Network is teaming with the Sierra Club and the Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago to appeal the IEPA’s approval last month of a permit renewal for the mine that has a history of violations dating to 2004, when Freeman United owned the property.

Under Freeman United, regulators recorded 219 violations between 2004 and 2008; in 2008 and 2009, the state found 134 violations after the Springfield Coal Company acquired the property, according to the attorney general’s office, which sued in a 2010 action that remains pending before the Illinois Pollution Control Board. Environmentalists, however, found 624 violations, nearly 300 more than the state discovered, and the board affirmed that number in a decision last November, finding that the mine has, indeed, repeatedly violated water pollution standards.

Regulators and the state are far apart when it comes to punishment, which the pollution control board has yet to decide. The state is asking for $837,000 in fines. Environmentalists want $64 million.

Springfield Coal says that both amounts are too much, noting that the highest fine for a violation of the Clean Water Act in Illinois during the past 15 years was $135,000.

The story goes on:

Closer to Springfield, Lisa Salinas, who owns land near a Carlinville area mine, knows the feeling.

For years, Salinas has battled the mine owned by a subsidiary of a company owned by Chris Cline, a transplanted Appalachian coal magnate who has showered Illinois politicians with more than $1.25 million in campaign contributions since 2010. Of particular concern is groundwater contamination, but regulators in early 2012 dismissed Salinas in intra-agency emails when she asked the location of monitoring wells where pollution had been detected.

“She’s a nut,” IEPA project manager Todd Gross wrote in an email to a fellow regulator on Jan. 13, 2012. “Lisa is just a pill.”

Eleven months later, the IEPA sent a letter to the mining company saying that the agency was considering legal action because the company ha dn’t done enough to resolve pollution problems. More than six months later, the IEPA still hasn’t sent the case to the attorney general’s office for action.

Mason, the IEPA spokesman, said that Gross’ characterizations of Salinas were “inappropriate” and regretted by the agency.

“However, his comments have not affected and will not affect the work the agency continues to do in relation to protecting the environment around the mine,” Mason wrote in an email.

Mason said that the IEPA has informed both the mining company and the attorney general’s office that alleged violations of pollution standards will be referred to the attorney general’s office for enforcement “as soon as possible.”

Salinas, who is a party to an appeal of a mining permit granted by the state Department of Natural Resources, said that she learned that regulators considered her a nut after obtaining copies of emails via discovery as part of ongoing litigation.

“I find it highly defamatory,” Salinas said.

“As a private citizen, the lengths I’ve had to go to to call them out for their inaction – to have them use that crude of language to discredit me is disgusting.”

Over in Kentucky, the Herald-Leader had its own interesting story about coal-mining permits:

State Rep. Keith Hall, chairman of the House committee on energy, holds the permits for Pike County coal mines with a repetitive pattern of safety and environmental violations, according to state officials.

Since 2010, state inspectors have cited Hall’s Beech Creek Coal Co. and other companies mining coal on his permits for dropping rocks on homes; mining outside of permitted areas; water pollution; failing to obey regulations on blasting, reclamation and maintaining slurry ponds; and allowing rocks, dirt and trees to slide down slopes.

“It’s a danger to everybody out here, I think. Every time you hear the blast, you wonder if something’s about to come down on you,” said Barbara Eldridge of the Phelps community.

In a different story, the Herald-Leader reported:

House Speaker Greg Stumbo said Thursday he would work to repay the state’s coal severance tax fund for $2.5 million that he previously agreed to divert to Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington.

Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, issued a statement defending the General Assembly’s 2012 decision to allocate $2.5 million in coal taxes to help pay for the planning and design of Rupp Arena’s renovation.

“When the bonds for renovating Rupp are issued, though, I fully intend to see that the money is replaced … making it more of a loan than a grant,” Stumbo said.

However, there is presently no plan for such bonds. To pay for the preliminary work, the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government expects to match the state’s money with $2.5 million of its own, plus $200,000 from the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau and $250,000 from the Lexington Center.

The Hazard Herald had this to say:

Another all-too-familiar story in the region is being played out this year — to the tune of $2.5 million in coal severance taxes — money that is not, however, being spent to improve the economy and industry of Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields …

It is true that many people here love UK basketball, and some who still have jobs will go take in a few games next season. But perhaps Speaker Stumbo and our other legislators can explain to people in their home region why they can’t get waterlines extended to their communities. Perhaps they can explain why an arena outside of the coalfields, where no coal is being produced, should get millions in coal taxes that are supposed to go back to the coal counties.

Perhaps that’s how they believe it is supposed to be, that the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. Our priorities are obviously askew when we value an entertainment venue over necessities like water, but in the end we can’t say we’re that surprised. After all, the state lops off over 50 percent of coal taxes for the General Fund and other allocations outside of the coalfields. What’s another $2.5 million?

Up in Pennsylvania, StateImpact reported this week:

Natural gas is outpacing coal and wind when it comes to new sources of electricity for a 14-state region that includes Pennsylvania. PJM Interconnection coordinates the wholesale electricity market and manages transmission for an area that stretches from Illinois to New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to North Carolina, including the District of Columbia.

PJM conducts a yearly “capacity auction” that insures enough electricity will be available three years into the future. This year’s auction, which concluded in May, established contracts with power suppliers for June 2016 through May 2017.

“It’s a continuation of what we observed last year in 2012,” said PJM spokesman Ray Dotter.  ”What we’re seeing is gas playing a growing role and coal playing a smaller role [in the region’s electricity generation.] It’s a big change and a pretty rapid change.”

In international news, the Guardian reported:

Air pollution from Europe’s 300 largest coal power stations causes 22,300 premature deaths a year and costs companies and governments billions of pounds in disease treatment and lost working days, says a major study of the health impacts of burning coal to generate electricity.

The research, from Stuttgart University’s Institute for energy economics and commissioned by Greenpeace International, suggests that a further 2,700 people can be expected to die prematurely each year if a new generation of 50 planned coal plants are built in Europe. “The coal-fired power plants in Europe cause a considerable amount of health impacts,” the researchers concluded.

Analysis of the emissions shows that air pollution from coal plants is now linked to more deaths than road traffic accidents in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic. In Germany and the UK, coal-fired power stations are associated with nearly as many deaths as road accidents. Polish coal power plants were estimated to cause more than 5,000 premature deaths in 2010.

Also, the BBC had a piece about coal vs. natural gas — and then there was this report in the Irish Times:

About two-thirds of all proven reserves of oil, gas and coal will have to be left undeveloped if the world is to achieve the goal of limiting global warming at two degrees Celsius, according to the chief economist at the International Energy Agency.

Addressing participants in the latest round of UN climate talks in Bonn, Fatih Birol said this should be an “eye-opener” for pension funds with significant investments in the energy sector – particularly in coal – as well as for ratings agencies.

He predicted coal would be hardest hit in the “unburnable carbon” scenario, followed by oil and gas. “We cannot afford to burn all the fossil fuels we have. If we did that, it [average global surface temperature] would go higher than four degrees.

“Globally, the direction we are on is not the right one. If it continues, the increase would be as high as 5.3 degrees – and that would have devastating effects on all of us.”

Instead of ignoring it, energy companies had a “crucial” role in confronting the challenge of climate change. “We think the energy sector cannot afford to be isolated – not just for moral reasons, but also for the business perspective.”

Coal Tattoo will be shutting down for a few days early next week … but hopefully everyone will be getting ready for some of the great happenings associated with the celebration of West Virginia’s 150th birthday … Information about the official celebration is available here, but be sure to also check out the schedule for Charleston’s FestivAll, which includes a Friday, June 21, concert by Kathy Mattea. Look for the Gazette’s release of its collection of 150 Ideas to make West Virginia even better, and plan on checking out the release of Hollow: An Interactive Documentary.

Finally, to get you in the mood for next week’s big events, here’s the great Hazel Dickens:

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