Coal Tattoo

Quecreek update: Legal arguments continue

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Here’s an Associated Press account of a hearing today in the continued legal fight over the near-disaster in July 2002 at the Quecreek Mine near Somerset, Pa.:

WASHINGTON (AP) — A mining company attorney defended its operations Thursday as the legal wrangling continued nearly seven years since the rescue of nine trapped coal miners in Pennsylvania’s Quecreek Mine.

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission heard arguments about whether a judge last fall fairly assessed $110,000 in fines against two companies, PBS Coals Inc. and Musser Engineering Inc., cited for negligence in the 2002 accident. The companies are challenging the fines.

A federal safety panel had previously recommended lesser fines of $5,000 against each company.

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It looks like any hopes that the Obama administration was going to increase spending on abandoned coal-mine cleanups in Appalachia — creating a potentially huge number of green jobs for the coalfields — have been dashed.

I’ve written before about how Obama’s preliminary budget proposal appeared aimed at redirecting more money from the Abandoned Mine Lands program to Appalachian states, where it’s really needed. See previous posts here, here, here and here. But based on the new budget documents released yesterday, that’s not really what the Obama proposal will do.

If you missed it, a brief summary: Back in February, the Interior Department announced that Obama’s 2010 budget proposal would include a major change in the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program.  The president was going to stop sending federal money for mine cleanups out to states (primarily Wyoming) that have already “certified” to the government that they have cleaned up all their abandoned coal mines.

The idea had a nice note of common sense to it, as summarized in a DOI budget summary document that said the administration proposed:

Terminating payments to coal-producing states that no longer need funds to clean up abandoned coal mines.

Doing this would free up this money — $142 million next year, increasing to more than $200 million by 2014 — to be used to reclaim abandoned coal mines in the states that, because of their long history of coal production before regulations, had the most abandoned sites. That includes West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, places where coalfield communities would likely be hurt the most by Obama’s other priorities — like tightening regulations on mountaintop removal (if he actually does that) and capping greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

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My friend Rick Wilson makes a pitch for green jobs for the coalfields today on his Goat Rope blog:

Many companies and public agencies are making more or less sincere noises about moving in a more sustainable direction. And there are public resources to support this emerging economy in both the stimulus package and President Obama’s proposed budget. There is also the possibility of using federal funds for reclaiming abandoned mines to create jobs aimed at mitigating some of the damage.

Of course, Coal Tattoo has made the pitch for increased spending on cleaning up abandoned coal mines across Appalachia before. And part of President Obama’s budget plan would help to do that, as I explained in Obama AML plan: Green jobs for the coalfields.

rahall_photo.jpgBut Obama’s AML plan is going to face a lot of attacks from Wyoming lawmakers and others. So far, it hasn’t even gotten the support of Appalachian political leaders, like West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin or House Natural Resources Chairman Nick J. Rahall.

So it becomes all the more important that Obama pick a strong leader, someone with real vision for cleaning up the coalfields (and strongly regulating strip mining) to run the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

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Mine spill Monday …

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Drainage from an old abandoned mine in East Bank caused a massive mudslide on Monday that closed W.Va. 61. Gazette photo by Rusty Marks

Blowouts and runaway mine discharges are in the news this morning in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky.

We’ve got an updated Associated Press story on the blowout in Leslie County, Ky., on our Web site here.

And here in Kanawha County, W.Va., a blowout from an abandoned mine has caused a mudslide that has a highway blocked and a school closed in the East Bank area. We’ve got a story on that here, and Gazette reporter Rusty Marks was up there taking photos and will be updating our coverage.

In the Kentucky situation, officials are reporting that the 10,000-gallon-per-minute discharge is polluting Robinson Creek. But for some reason, the AP is taking the line in this story that it’s not that big a deal to have a blowout that pollutes streams — like it’s a normal cost of the coal business — as long as no one is hurt and there are no evacuations:

A mine blowout in southeastern Kentucky was releasing thousands of gallons of water Sunday from an underground mine that had not been used since the 1970s, but no injuries or evacuations were reported, state officials said.

“We’re not looking at hillside failures,” said Paul Rothman, spokesman for the state Energy and Environment Cabinet. “We don’t see that happening here.”

Mine blowout reported in Kentucky

We’ve got an AP report on the Gazette Web site about a mine blowout in eastern Kentucky. Can’t tell for sure how serious it is.

There’s a longer and perhaps more up-to-date AP story here at the Lexington Herald-Leaders’ site.

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secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small.jpgRemember how West Virginia Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman wanted 3 1/2 years  to obtain water pollution permits for abandoned mine sites where  DEP is treating toxic discharges to streams?

Well, U.S. District  Judge Irene M. Keeley apparently didn’t think too much of Huffman’s proposal.

After a hearing on  Wednesday, Keeley gave the DEP just six months to apply for these permits and another six months to obtain the permits. I’ve posted the judge’s order, issued Thursday, here. The order applies to 18 abandoned mine sites that were targeted by the lawsuit brought by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy  the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

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Obama AML plan: Green jobs for the coalfields

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 A reclaimed abandoned coal mine site in Clay County, W.Va.

The question of why Appalachia — a region so rich in valuable coal reserves — remains so poor, despite the coal trains hauling away our mountains ton by ton, is hardly a new one.

But there’s new discussion of it, especially given the nation’s current economic troubles, all of the talk from the Obama administration about “green jobs” and an energy revolution, and the continuing battle over mountaintop removal coal mining.

And, Obama has actually already announced one little-noticed initiative that could be a huge help — if only the coal industry, environmental groups, and regional political leaders would get behind it.

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Wyoming not too happy with the new sheriff

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As I predicted yesterday, (See Obama and abandoned coal mines) political leaders from Wyoming are not too happy with President Barack Obama’s plan to stop giving them Abandoned Mine Lands money to use for projects other than cleaning up abandoned coal mines.

According to an Associated Press account, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (a Democrat) — among others — said he would work with  his state’s congressional delegation to resist Obama’s plan.

We will work shoulder to shoulder with our delegation, as we did when the state’s share of federal mineral royalties was reduced from 50 percent to 48 percent.  We intend to work closely with the congressional delegation on this going forward.

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Obama and abandoned coal mines

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President Barack Obama seems to be picking a fight with Wyoming, the nation’s top coal-producing state. But at the same time, the president might be proposing a change in the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program that would end some long-standing abuses.

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This just in from a federal court in California…

A new ruling will require the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to finally close a loophole that for more than 25 years made it easy for mining companies to skip out on costly cleanups by declaring bankruptcy.

The ruling, by the U.S. District Judge William Alsup of the Northern District of California, concerned EPA’s failure to issue “financial assurances” standards to require polluting industries to be financially able to clean up contaminated and dangerous mining sites.

“By not promulgating financial assurance requirements, EPA has allowed companies that otherwise might not have been able to operate and produce hazardous waste to potentially shift the responsibility for cleaning up hazardous waste to taxpayers,” Alsup wrote in a 15-page decision issued Wednesday.

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