Coal Tattoo

WVDEP sued over reclamation site pollution

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As so much attention swirls around the potential environmental consequences of the rash of coal industry bankruptcies, two new lawsuits filed today by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and other groups provide some much needed context to that issue.

Here’s the press release, issued by the Sierra Club:

Today, a coalition of environmental and community groups filed two lawsuits in federal district courts in West Virginia to hold the state accountable for mining pollution generated from seven former mine sites now owned and managed by the WV Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP).

When mine operators in West Virginia go out of business before they complete all of the reclamation required by law, the state becomes responsible for finishing the clean-up, including managing any water pollution coming from the site. However, coal mines continue to generate harmful water pollution long after the mines are shut down. Today’s lawsuits allege that West Virginia is violating the Clean Water Act by discharging a variety of mining pollutants at levels that exceed water quality standards and permit limits from sites in Barbour, Nicholas, and Preston counties.

The lawsuits — I’ve posted them here and here — target alleged violations at sites where the DEP holds water pollution permits as part of its troubled Special Reclamation program, where the agency treats pollution left by bankrupt mining operations, but the sites still involve some regulated discharge. In the end, what environmental groups really want is to force the state to provide more funding — hopefully from the coal industry — to ensure that discharges from these and other sites don’t violate permit limits.

Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the Highlands Conservancy, said:

By burying their heads in the sand these past two decades and ignoring how the looming crisis of bankrupt coal companies would further deplete the state’s inadequate Special Reclamation Fund, West Virginia lawmakers have virtually guaranteed that citizens and taxpayers will be the ones responsible for cleaning up these coal company messes.

Kelley Gillenwater, spokeswoman for the WVDEP, declined to comment on the lawsuits.

‘Big ideas’: Jim Justice on climate change

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Photo by Christian Tyler Randolph

Here’s one of the more interesting parts of David Gutman’s story today from a long interview with Democratic gubernatorial candidate (and billionaire coal operator) Jim Justice:

Justice denies the scientific consensus that climate change is happening and is caused by human activity.

“There’s documentation that would give one concern, and I don’t think you should ignore that,” he said. “At the same time, I think there’s an awful lot of research that still should be done.

“I surely wouldn’t sit here and say I am a believer in global warming, but I wouldn’t sit here and say that I am not concerned.”

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It’s been a while since we checked in on the status of West Virginia’s Special Reclamation Fund, the pot of money that’s supposed to ensure mines abandoned by operators since passage of the 1977 federal strip mine law are properly reclaimed. Given the ongoing downward spiral of the nation’s coal industry, there have been several recent media accounts about potential problems, given huge reclamation liabilities of several major coal producers (see here, here and here).

So, on Thursday morning, I decided to drop by the regular meeting of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Special Reclamation Fund Advisory Council, a panel formed to keep an eye on the SRF and make sure it’s adequately funded. (By the way, I posted a copy of the fund’s most recent annual report here, for anyone who is interested)

The first thing on the agenda was a presentation from DEP officials that, in some ways, boils down to the agency’s continued unhappiness with having to live with court rulings that require pollution discharge permits for the SRF’s water treatment sites that have point-source discharges (see here and here for background on that).  DEP officials believe that these permits and their associated pollution limits aren’t really doing much to improve watershed-wide water quality, especially in areas affected by acid mine drainage.  Agency officials believe other approaches might do more good, and use money more wisely.

Maybe they’re right about that. But there’s the little issue of the Clean Water Act, and its mandate that no pollution discharges be allowed without permits. Nobody from DEP who attended Thursday’s meeting could really explain exactly how they could avoid the point source permits and still comply with the law.

Anyway, I think the big story at the SRF Advisory Council meeting was really discussion of this new letter to DEP Secretary Randy Huffman from Roger Calhoun, director of the Charleston field office of the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement:

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So how did that mercury get into the fish?

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COAL AND GAS

There’s important news out today from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration. Marla Cone of Environmental Health News reports:

Federal officials on Tuesday announced major changes in advice to pregnant and breastfeeding women by recommending consumption of at least 8 ounces of low-mercury fish per week.

“Eating fish with lower levels of mercury provides numerous health and dietary benefits,” Nancy Stoner, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Water said in a statement. “This updated advice will help pregnant women and mothers make informed decisions about the right amount and right kinds of fish to eat during important times in their lives and their children’s lives.”

Under the long-awaited, proposed new guidelines, pregnant and breastfeeding women are advised to eat a minimum of 8 ounces and no more than 12 ounces of fish with low levels of mercury, including shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod.

It is the first time that the EPA and Food and Drug Administration have issued advice on the minimum amount of fish that pregnant women should eat. The previous advice, issued in 2004, included only maximum amounts to protect their fetuses from the harmful effects of mercury.

As in the old recommendations, pregnant and nursing women are told to avoid high mercury fish: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark; swordfish and king mackerel.

The agencies also reiterated their specific recommendations for limits on albacore (or white) tuna: no more than 6 ounces a week. Advice about consumption of tuna has been highly controversial, with the fishing industry criticizing any recommended limits and health advocacy groups pushing for the FDA and EPA to add it to the list of fish to avoid.

You can read more about the fish-consumption advisories here, but it’s worth remembering — especially as coalfield political leaders continue their campaign of misinformation about EPA efforts to better control power plant pollution — that the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is a major source of mercury contamination of our waterways (see also here, here and here).

Shutdown: Inspections cut, permit reviews slowed

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Budget Battle

A sign is posted on a barricade in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2013. Congress plunged the nation into a partial government shutdown Tuesday as a long-running dispute over President Barack Obama’s health care law stalled a temporary funding bill, forcing about 800,000 federal workers off the job and suspending most non-essential federal programs and services. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

As everyone knows by now, the federal government is in the process of closing down for reasons that The Guardian probably explained most clearly:

A shutdown of the US federal government, the first in nearly two decades, was looming close on Monday night as Congress careered toward a midnight deadline with little prospect of a deal to avert the crisis caused by a determined bloc of rightwingers in the House of Representatives.

Today’s Gazette story localizing the impacts, Shutdown would bring furloughs, closures to W.Va., explains some of the more important coal-related impacts:

Under a shutdown, active staff at labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration would be cut from 2,355 to 966. MSHA, though, would continue “to perform certain activities which, if not performed, would significantly compromise the safety of human life in the nation’s mines.

But instead of performing legally mandated regular inspections at all of the nation’s underground and surface mines and mining facilities, MSHA inspectors would visit only certain operations.

“MSHA will perform targeted inspections at mines which have been prioritized based on the mine’s history of the hazards that put miners’ lives at risk,” agency chief Joe Main said in his contingency plan, dated Sept. 10. “Hazard-specific inspections will also be conducted across the nation to address those conditions and practices which have been recent key causes of death and serious injury.”

Main said that “if unforeseen emergencies, such as a mine disaster” occurred, additional employees would be identified to work.

 You can read more yourself in the shutdown contingency plans for MSHA, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and other agencies.

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Why would anyone protest slurry impoundments?

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The folks at Radical Action for Mountain Peoples Survival (RAMPS) were at it again today, as they announced in this press release:

This morning at 7:30 a.m. two activists paddled out onto the 2.8 billion gallon Shumate slurry impoundment in Raleigh County with banners reading, “Slurry Poisons Appalachia” and “Gov. Tomblin, Put Health Over Profit.”  Later this morning, one activist locked himself to a barrel of black water in front of Gov. Tomblin’s mansion in a Tyvek suit reading “Locked to Dirty Water”.   Activists are calling attention to the failure of the state government to protect its citizens from the abuses of the coal industry and the threats posed by coal slurry disposal.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t personally relish chasing these protesters around from time to time. I’d rather be working on other things. And this morning, that’s what I spent my time doing — much of it trying to track down some details and analysis to explain to our readers the proposed settlement in the FirstEnergy Harrison Plant transfer case.

But as we’ve discussed on this blog many times (see here, here and here), there’s a time-honored tradition in the Appalachian coalfields of using peaceful civil disobedience to raise important issues and push for much-needed reforms, especially when it comes to the safety and health of people who work in the coal industry and residents in coal communities. The most recent example involves the repeated protests — and arrests of protesters –– by the United Mine Workers seeking a fair deal from bankrupt Patriot Coal.

The Daily Mail gave a blow-by-blow account of the efforts of police to remove the protester from in front of the Governor’s Mansion. But it was kind of interesting to see — fairly well along into the incident — a Republican activist ask the Daily Mail’s Zack Harold what the protest was about. I’m not saying that the protest wasn’t newsworthy, or that giving folks who are into instant updates a blow-by-blow is such a terrible thing … And it’s certainly not such a bad idea to have the media on hand to keep an eye on how authorities treat the protesters. I’ve done my share of coverage watching these protests.

(UPDATED: Larry Messina, a former AP reporter now working for the Tomblin administration, was quoted in the AP’s updated story as criticizing the protesters: “This was the wrong way to do things, and as a result we’ve had maybe a dozen Charleston firefighters on campus and at least two trucks that hopefully were not needed elsewhere in this city,” said Lawrence Messina, a spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.  “It’s definitely a public safety concern.”)

But the public also needs to be informed that the stated reason for the protest — outlined in that RAMPS press release — raised some perfectly valid points, serious concerns about the safety and stability of the coal-slurry dams that exist throughout the state’s coalfields.

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Citizens, activists and representatives of various coalfield environmental groups are gathering right now, just down the street, outside the Charleston field office of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. They plan to rally there, and then march down to the state Capitol to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s office. The media advisory says the groups are launching what they’re calling the “CARE Campaign,” which stands for “Citizen Action for Real Enforcement,” an effort to hold government agencies accountable “for their failure to respect citizens’ rights.” The media advisory explains:

Citizens have a right to expect protection by their government. West Virginia is failing to protect its citizens from chronic pollution, environmental degradation, human suffering and costs resulting from inadequate regulation of coal extraction by state government.

Decades of citizen efforts have not resulted in sufficient improvements to state government’s enforcement of mining laws, particularly around the devastating consequences for West Virginia communities of unenforced regulations for surface mining.

Today’s events are being held to call attention to this new petition, filed under Part 733 of the federal strip-mining regulations, urging that OSMRE take over regulation of coal mining in West Virginia. The petition alleges that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has “consistently and systematically failed to comply with SMCRA mandates intended to protect the State‘s residents and natural resources.” It notes:

While mining operations in West Virginia have been cited for at least 6,301 SMCRA violations since 2006, many more violations have been ignored and unenforced. West Virginia has failed to take action to address the systematic problems evidenced by these violations. These failures can no longer be tolerated. After thirty years of failure,  it is past time for OSM to assume control of SMCRA permitting, implementation, and enforcement in West Virginia.

The petition says:

The situation could not be more dire nor the stakes higher. In particular, since mountaintop removal mining has become common, West Virginia‘s failure to properly enforce its approved State program has enabled coal operators to use destructive mining practices that have devastated significant areas of its diverse, mountainous, and productive landscape. Forested mountain ridges and valleys have been flattened into moonscapes incapable of supporting any meaningful use or vegetation. Mountain streams have been permanently buried beneath the rubble of what were once mountaintops. Waters have been contaminated for generations to come.

These mining activities have caused communities and downstream areas to be subjected to increased flooding risks. Complete upstream watersheds have been rendered incapable of maintaining proper hydrological function. A huge portion of southern West Virginia has been permanently scarred by inadequately regulated mining and tens of thousands of additional acres are currently under permit or slated for permitting that would cause widespread additional significant harm to communities and their environment. Unless West Virginia‘s current illegal and ineffective implementation of SMCRA ceases and lawful administration and enforcement of SMCRA occurs, West Virginia‘s land, waters and wildlife will be either lost or permanently scarred and many communities will suffer the adverse economic, social and environmental impacts that SMCRA was specifically designed to prevent. This is unacceptable. OSM must act now.

 

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We published a story in this morning’s Gazette print edition that tries to detail the findings of an interesting new Duke University study about the potential impacts of low natural gas prices and tougher air quality rules on coal-fired power plants:

Coal-fired power plants around the country may face much greater financial risks than previously projected from a combination of low natural gas prices and stronger air quality rules, according to a new Duke University study.

The economic viability of as many as two-thirds of the nation’s existing coal plants could be threatened in the years ahead, according to Duke researchers who examined operating costs for hundreds of coal- and gas-fired plants nationwide.

“This is a much higher fraction of economic vulnerability than has previously been reported,” said Duke geologist and energy expert Lincoln Pratson, the lead author of the paper, published late last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The paper is apparently the first peer-reviewed study to look closely at issues that caused great controversy in coalfield communities and fueled an ultimately unsuccessful coal industry campaign to defeat President Obama’s re-election bid last year.

The study itself is online here and it includes some supplemental data files that some folks might want to play with. The study previously received media coverage from The Hill and from Brad Plummer on The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, which explained:

As a side note, the study also helps referee a contentious political debate. During the 2012 campaign, there were two big theories for what, exactly, was killing the U.S. coal industry. Many conservatives blamed the EPA’s air pollution rules, part of President Obama’s “war on coal.” Other analysts largely chalked it up to cheap natural gas — this was just the market at work.

This new study suggests that both are crucial factors, and tries to look at how, precisely, natural gas and the EPA will interact with each other in the years ahead.

Now, the Duke study did not address a lot of issues, and as our story and Brad’s post explained, it made a variety of assumptions that should be understood. One important thing for folks here in the Appalachian coalfields to remember is that some of the factors hurting the regional coal market, such as the mining out of the best and cheapest to each reserves, is not part of the Duke analysis. As Union of Concerned Scientists analyst Jeremy Richardson told me:

The way I look at it is that coal facing a sort of “death from a thousand cuts.” It’s not just one or two factors (the Duke paper considers the two dominant forces, natural gas prices and emissions regulations). But coal also faces additional pressures that were outside the scope of the analysis, as the authors note. These include regulations regarding cooling water usage and coal ash, and the eventual reduction in carbon emissions to address climate change.

Also, note that the analysis did not delve into the differences in coal producing regions within the U.S. Regardless of EPA regulations, Central Appalachian coal is already in the midst of steep decline, and EIA projects it will remain at reduced production levels to at least 2040. Factors driving this trend include geology (decreasing productivity because the easiest-to-mine seams are gone) and economics (it’s cheaper in many cases to ship coal from Wyoming).

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Construction of methane venting pad above West Elk coal mine in Gunnison County, Colorado. Photo by U.S. Forest Service.

Given all of the talk about the Obama administration’s “war on coal”, it’s certainly interesting that this decision, announced by Earthjustice, comes just one day after Tuesday’s general election:

The U.S. Forest Service yesterday ruled against conservation groups’ challenge to the Forest Service’s approval of a coal mine expansion within the Sunset Roadless Area 10 miles east of Paonia, Colorado. The coal lease expansion, together with loopholes built into the Colorado Roadless Rule last July, will allow corporate giant Arch Coal to bulldoze 6.5 miles of road and 48 natural gas drilling pads through 1,700 acres—nearly three-square miles—of wild, roadless forest.

The appeal filed in September 2012 with the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Regional Forester in Denver, sought to overturn an August decision affirming Arch Coal’s West Elk mine expansion into roadless lands that provide habitat for lynx, black bear, elk and goshawk. The conservation groups argued that the mine expansion violates laws meant to protect wildlife, air quality, and forest lands, as well as the Colorado Roadless Rule.

Ted Zukoski, staff attorney for Earthjustice, said:

Smokey Bear has turned his back on Colorado’s natural, roadless lands … Instead, the Forest Service has literally paved the way for a coal mega-corporation to destroy real bear habitat. The Sunset Roadless Area is a beautiful forest of aspen and giant spruce, beaver lodges and meadows, a home for elk and hawks. This is a place the Forest Service should be protecting for all Coloradoans, not sacrificing to appease special interests.

One interesting point here is that Arch Coal’s West Elk Mine is located partly in Gunnison County, Colo., one of only two of the top 25 U.S. coal-producing counties to vote for President Obama’s re-election.

More interesting, though, is this, explained by Earthjustice:

The conservation groups won an appeal in February 2012, overturning the Forest Service’s initial approval of this expansion, when the Forest Service concluded that it had failed to explain weakened protections for lynx, bald eagles, and measures meant to prevent landslides.

But when the Colorado Roadless Rule was adopted by the Obama administration in July in place of the National Roadless Rule, Colorado became subject to lower levels of protection for its roadless lands than for virtually all other roadless forest lands in the nation.

Matt Reed, acting Director of High Country Citizens’ Alliance based in Gunnison County, said:

The loopholes built in to the Colorado Rule leave 20,000 acres of pristine forest on Colorado’s West Slope open to destruction by coal mines. With this decision, the Forest Service rubber-stamped Arch Coal’s plan, and greenlighted use of these loopholes to bulldoze through wild forests.

 

It’s no shock to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but it’s still worth checking out this new report commissioned by the group Beyond Zero Emissions. Among the major conclusions:

There are clear indications from the international health research literature that there are serious health and social harms associated with coal mining and coal‐fired power stations for people living in surrounding communities.

The group explained:

It highlights a number of adverse health effects reported from a diverse range of countries. These effects range from excess deaths and increased rates of cancer, heart, lung and kidney disease and birth defects to minor respiratory complaints.

It is likely that many of these impacts – especially those experienced by communities in comparable countries – would also apply in Australia. Yet there are no primary studies addressing the health impacts of coal in Australia.

Against this backdrop there are at least 30 new coal mines and mine expansions planned for the Hunter Valley. An enormous new coal export terminal in Newcastle that would at least double the region’s coal export capacity is on the verge of approval without any health impact assessment being undertaken.

Coal kills: What is President Obama talking about?

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President Barack Obama speaks during a grassroots event at Cornell College on Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012., in Mount Vernon, Iowa. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

We’ve talked several times on this blog (see here, here and here, for example) about the ridiculous TV ads from the Obama administration that criticize Republican presidential candidate Gov. Mitt Romney for stating the truth: That pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people.

Well now, after bringing it up in Tuesday night’s debate, President Obama has added a section on the issue to his stump speech, at least to a version of it he delivered yesterday in Athens, Ohio.   As Politico reports:

President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s newfound affinity for coal here, chuckling his way through an attack on his GOP rival’s coal bona fides and questioning his authenticity on a key local topic.

“I was listening to Gov. Romney yesterday talk about how he’s a champion of coal,” Obama said. “When he was a governor, he stood in front of a coal fire plant and said, ‘This plant kills people.’”

“Now he’s running around talking like he’s Mr. Coal,” Obama said. “Come on. Come on. You know that’s not on the level. And has anybody ever looked at that guy and said, ‘He’s really into coal?’”

The context of Gov. Romney’s comments has been pretty well documented before, by the National Journal, Salon, and the Wall Street Journal. But the important thing here is that the crux of the statement — that pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people — is true. And you don’t have to take my word for it — take the word of, just for one example, the National Academy of Sciences, which is one recent report estimated the “hidden costs” of health damage from coal-powered electricity at $62 billion annually across the U.S.  Or read Full cost accounting for the life cycle of coal, published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, which found, among other things:

Estimates of nonfatal health endpoints from coal-related pollutants vary, but are substantial—including 2,800 from lung cancer, 38,200 nonfatal heart attacks and tens of thousands of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and lost work days. A review of the epidemiology of airborne particles documented that exposure to PM2.5 is linked with all-cause premature mortality, cardiovascular and cardiopulmonary mortality, as well as respiratory illnesses, hospitalizations, respiratory and lung function symptoms, and school absences. Those exposed to a higher concentration of PM2.5 were at higher risk. Particulates are a cause of lung and heart disease, and premature death, and increase hospitalization costs. Diabetes mellitus enhances the health impacts of particulates and has been implicated in sudden infant death syndrome. Pollution from two older coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Northeast was linked to approximately 70 deaths, tens of thousands of asthma attacks, and hundreds of thousands of episodes of upper respiratory illnesses annually.

Of course, power plant pollution is just one of the ways that coal contributes to premature deaths in this country. There’s also black lung disease, or the growing evidence that living near mountaintop removal coal-mining operations puts residents at increased risks.

So what exactly is President Obama getting at?

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Report: Coal costs Pa. government $165 million

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Here’s some interesting news out today from the Center for Coalfield Justice:

When taking all revenues and expenditures into account, the total net impact of the coal industry on the Pennsylvania state budget in Fiscal Year 2010-11 amounted to a net cost to the Commonwealth of $164.9 million.

A Center for Coalfield Justice report entitled, “The Impact of Coal on the Pennsylvania State Budget” found that despite localized benefits in a few communities, coal plays a relatively insignificant role in Pennsylvania’s overall economy. Additionally, the report notes that the ongoing and future costs associated with the coal industry are a weight borne by Pennsylvania taxpayers for years to come.

“This report shows what the coal industry doesn’t want people to realize: this is an industry artificially propped up by government support”, said Patrick Grenter, CCJ’s Executive Director. “Our policymakers must look at the facts and costs associated with coal and take steps to protect taxpayers from this costly and destructive industry.”

The report, by Morgantown-based Downstream Strategies, is online here. It’s similar to reports about coal’s impacts on state governments in West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.

EPA proposes permit for Capitol power plant

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This — just in from the U.S. EPA — should certainly get interesting:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking public comment on a proposed permit for the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C. that would provide the facility with the flexibility to begin using more-efficient natural gas rather than coal as its main source of energy.

The Capitol Power Plant was built in the early 1900’s and provides steam for heat and chilled water for cooling to nearby federal buildings, including the U.S. Capitol.

The proposed Plantwide Applicability Limit permit reduces the permitting burden for the plant in exchange for limiting its ability to increase emissions. The permit would establish a site-wide emissions cap for greenhouse gases, nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter at the power plant.

EPA prepared the permit in response to an application submitted by the Architect of the Capitol, which oversees the Capitol Power Plant. According to the application, the Capitol Power Plant intends to install two natural gas fired co-generation units to provide steam and electricity to the Capitol and nearby buildings.

This permit does not authorize construction of the project, but it does streamline the permitting process, which is handled by the D.C. Department of Environment.

This co-generation project will allow the Capitol Power Plant to generate its own electricity, which has not been done since 1951. The co-generation units would also improve energy efficiency.  The proposed permit is subject to a public comment period beginning Wednesday, Aug. 29 and concluding with a public hearing from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 1, at the Washington Council of Governments, 777 North Capitol Street, NE, # 300.

See previous coverage here, here and here.

New GAO report breaks down utility numbers

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There’s a new report out today from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that provides some helpful breakdowns of information about power plant retirements, new EPA regulatory proposals, grid reliability and other matters. Here are a few of the highlights:

— It is uncertain how power companies may respond to four key Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations, but available information suggests companies may retrofit most coal-fueled generating units with controls to reduce pollution, and that 2 to 12 percent of coal-fueled capacity may be retired. Some regions may see more significant levels of retirements. For example, one study examined 11 states in the Midwest and projected that 18 percent of coal-fueled capacity in that region could retire. EPA and some stakeholders GAO interviewed stated that some such retirements could occur as a result of other factors such as lower natural gas prices, regardless of the regulations. Power companies may also build new generating units, upgrade transmission systems to maintain reliability, and increasingly use natural gas to produce electricity as coal units retire and remaining coal units become somewhat more expensive to operate.

— Available information suggests these actions would likely increase electricity prices in some regions. Furthermore, while these actions may not cause widespread reliability concerns, they may contribute to reliability challenges in some regions. Regarding prices, the studies GAO reviewed estimated that increases could vary across the country, with one study projecting a range of increases from 0.1 percent in the Northwest to an increase of 13.5 percent in parts of the South more dependent on electricity generated from coal. According to EPA officials, the agency’s estimates of price increases would be within the historical range of price fluctuations, and projected future prices may be below historic prices.

— Regarding reliability, these actions are not expected to pose widespread concerns but may contribute to challenges in some regions. EPA and some stakeholders GAO interviewed indicated that these actions should not affect reliability given existing tools. Some other stakeholders GAO interviewed identified potential reliability challenges. Among other things, it may be difficult to schedule and complete all retrofits to install controls and to resolve all potential reliability concerns associated with retirements within compliance deadlines.

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Counting up the costs of coal

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We had a little story in today’s Gazette about a new study that’s making the rounds of the environmental press. It’s by three economists (two from Yale and one from Middlebury College) and was published in the most recent edition of the respected journal American Economic Review. As we reported:

Air pollution from coal-fired power plants costs the U.S. more in health damage than those plants contribute to the American economy, according to a new study in a respected economics journal.

Coal plants produce the largest “gross external damages” — $53 billion annually — of any of the industries examined in the new study published in the latest issue of The American Economic Review.

The story continued:

According to the study, the gross external damages (GED) of coal-fired power plants cost about twice the annual value added to the economy by those facilities.

“Coal plants are responsible for more than one-fourth of the GED from the entire U.S. economy,” says the study. “The damages attributed to this industry are larger than the combined GED due to the three next most polluting industries: Crop production, $15 billion/year, livestock production, $15 billion/year, and construction of roadways and bridges, $13 billion/year.”

And:

If the potential costs of carbon dioxide pollution were included “the damages caused by oil- and coal-fired power plants are between 30 and 40 percent higher,” the study said.

“Although the damages from CO2 are large, they are not as large as GED,” the study said. “For the case of coal-fired power plants, CO2 causes an additional $15 billion in damages, which is relatively small compared to the GED of $53 billion.”

The study has gotten coverage from Treehugger.com, as well from Grist here and from Think Progress.  There’s also an interesting mention of it here from The Heritage Foundation.

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Rep. Conyers calls out the coal industry

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The first press release to come in was, predictably, from our good friend, Sen. Joe Manchin. The West Virginia Democrat invited Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., to discuss his comments “degrading West Virginia.”

Then came a statement from United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, saying he was “extremely disappointed” by Conyer’s remarks about the coal industry. Last — and after the close of business hours — we got a release in which Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor said:

It is a sad day indeed when a congressman such as John Conyers attacks our State, our people, and a resource that not only has powered our Country but must also continue to play a significant role in the economic health of our economy.

For a minute, I thought for sure that Rep. Conyers must have picked up where the coal industry’s lawyers left off, blaming any increased health problems among residents of West Virginia’s southern coalfields on the fact that we’re all inbred hillbillies. But no, here’s all that Rep. Conyers dared to say:

There’s a big campaign going on about how you clean coal and we want to examine that as critically and fairly as we can, but here’s the problem: I’ve been to West Virginia, and that’s about all they’ve got there.

We’ve got to work out a situation in one state of the union, there may be others, in which we come up with alternative ways of creating full employment without just putting everybody out of work.

OK. In fairness to Sen. Manchin, Cecil Roberts and Senate President Tomblin, there is a paraphrase — not a direct quote — in the story by Greenwire (subscription required)[UPDATED – The Greenwire story has now been posted on the New York Times site here] that said this:

He called for the industry to be shut down in the state and for those who rely on coal jobs there to find alternative employment.

UPDATED: I asked Greenwire about this paraphrase, and reporter John McArdle was kind enough to share with me some more information about where that line in the story came from. After the speech, McArdle asked Rep. Conyers about his remarks on West Virginia and coal, “You would like all those people to get out of the coal industry?” Conyers responded:

If there’s no such thing as clean coal and coal is a major polluter then yes.

McArdle asked, “Shut the industry down and find alternative employment? Conyers said:

That’s what I said.

We posted a news story about this matter earlier this evening on the Gazette’s website here.  But frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what the big deal in some ways. The bulk of Rep. Conyer’s point seems to be that West Virginia needs a more diverse economy. Anybody really disagree with that?

Of course, Rep. Conyers also says that “from my limited understanding, there is no such thing as clean coal” and he adds that the history of coal mining in West Virginia “is one of the sorriest reports you’ll ever see.”

Now let’s see, more than 21,000 West Virginia coal miners have died in on-the-job accidents in West Virginia. Untold thousands more died from black lung disease. Just a couple of weeks ago, none other than Cecil Roberts was attacking the West Virginia State Museum because it fails to adequately depict his union’s history of “struggle and oppression” for fair treatment by the state’s coal industry.

It’s been just 15 months since 29 West Virginia coal miners died in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a generation. There’s a growing consensus among scientists that mountaintop removal coal mining is causing pervasive and irreversible impacts on the Appalachian environment — and WVU’s Michael Hendryx and his colleagues have published paper after paper outlining very troubling associations between increased disease and living near mountaintop removal operations.

There’s really no question at all that burning coal causes and contributes to thousands of premature deaths and various illnesses every year, imposing huge hidden costs on not just human lives but our economy. Despite industry-backed reports that tout the coal industry’s economic contributions to our state, other more independent research shows coal’s costs to state government are actually more than its contributions.

And, of course, there’s the biggest problem of all: Coal’s huge contributions to global warming. West Virginia political leaders talk a good game about “clean coal,” but none of them were willing to support legislation or regulation to require cuts in carbon dioxide from power plants — thus prompting utilities like American Electric Power to see no reason to move forward with perfecting and deploying carbon capture and storage technology that might actually keep coal viable in a carbon-constrained world.

Cecil Roberts complains that Rep. Conyers wants to “throw [people] out of work” and Early Ray Tomblin’s press release refers to the congressman’s “disrespect for West Virginia, [and the] hard-working men and women of the coal industry.”

But lots of elected officials, not to mention activists, have called for shutting down the coal industry. Rep. Conyers is among the few that seem to make a major point of talking about what might happen to the men and women who rely on the industry to put food on their tables. Don’t forget that most projections are calling for a major reduction in Central Appalachian coal production by the end of this decade — regardless of what regulators do about air pollution, climate change or mountaintop removal.

Isn’t a welcome change for an out-of-state politician who criticizes the coal industry to talk in the same speech — several times, apparently — about the need to do something to improve coalfield economies, to provide jobs in more than one industry?

And anyway, not for nothing, but where were all of these press releases when the coal industry’s lawyers said we were all a bunch of inbred hillbillies?

There’s a significant story out today from The Hill’s Energy and Environment Blog, reporting:

Utility industry claims that looming Environmental Protection Agency rules for power plants will create an economic “train wreck” are overblown, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) says in a new report.

Because EPA has yet to propose or finalize many of its clean air regulations, industry-sponsored studies predicting economic calamity “effectively underestimate the complexities of the regulatory process and overstate the near-term impact of many of the regulatory actions,” CRS says in an Aug. 8 report that has been circulating on Capitol Hill in recent days.

The CRS report concludes:

Frequently overlooked in analyses of EPA regulations are the benefits to public health and the environment that will occur, benefits that for the most part are difficult to monetize. EPA does estimate benefits of individual rules, while acknowledging that it is challenging to quantify benefits due to data limitations and uncertainties in approaches used to value benefits. The costs of the rules may be large, but, in most cases, the benefits are larger, especially estimated public health benefits. Neither the EEI nor the NERC report addresses benefits.

The Washington Post also has a piece on this CRS report, and we’ll have one in tomorrow’s Saturday Gazette-Mail.

 

Massey slurry case gearing up for trial

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Jimmy Murphy of Sprigg, W.Va., holds a jar filled with well water from his home he says was contaminated with coal slurry by Massey Energy and subsidiary Rawl Sales & Processing, prior to court hearing Monday, Nov. 15, 2010, in Charleston, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press has been up in Wheeling the last few days covering pre-trial hearings in the big coal slurry pollution case against Massey Energy by the residents of about 700 Mingo County residents.

Earlier in the week, Vicki reported on the latest efforts by judges in the case to seek some settlement through mediation:

For the third time, two judges will try to settle a long-running lawsuit that claims Massey Energy Co. and one of its subsidiaries poisoned hundreds of drinking water wells in southern West Virginia with coal slurry.

The state’s Mass Litigation Panel is handling the case against Massey and subsidiary Rawl Sales & Processing, both of which are now owned by Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources.

Judges Derek Swope and Alan Moats have ordered lead attorneys for both sides to meet July 25-26 in Charleston to discuss a possible deal and avoid the series of trials set to begin Aug. 1 in Wheeling.

And yesterday, she reported on the judges’ refusal to dismiss the case:

A three-judge panel refused Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit accusing Massey Energy of poisoning hundreds of southern West Virginia wells with coal slurry, but it denied a request to sanction the coal operator for taking years to produce maps of its underground injection sites and other evidence.

After a contentious daylong hearing in Wheeling, the judges began clearing the way for the trial, set to begin Aug. 1. They also laid out rules for that trial, ordering participants to stop talking to the media, denying video coverage of the proceedings and warning against signs, buttons, T-shirts and anything else that attempts to turn the Ohio County Circuit Court into a protest venue.

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UPDATED: The legislation passed this evening on a vote of 239-184.

When last we left my good friend Rep. Nick J. Rahall, his staff was dodging questions about the growing body of science that shows serious environmental damage and public health impacts in his district from mountaintop removal coal mining.

Since then, Rahall has become the co-sponsor of legislation called the Clean Water Cooperative Federalism Act of 2011, H.R. 2018. The title says this is what the bill would do:

To amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to preserve the authority of each State to make determinations relating to the State’s water quality standards, and for other purposes.

House members are set to vote on the legislation today, and the email message I just got from the office of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., tells me that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supports the bill, saying:

The Clean Water Act grants states the primary responsibility for protecting water quality. However, recent actions by the EPA upset and supplant this partnership with arbitrary federal power that is being exercised even over states with effective delegated regulatory programs. Individuals and firms that meet the requirements of, and obtain permits from, state regulators ought not to be left exposed to the enforcement whim and caprice of the federal government.

Make no mistake, this legislation is very, very unusual. The bipartisan Congressional Research Service observed in a report issued yesterday:

Beyond the recent specific examples, it noteworthy that the federal-state partnership for implementing environmental laws has not always been harmonious. There is ample history of friction between the desire of states to implement national programs flexibly according to their own priorities, versus EPA’s responsibility to oversee national programs and account for federal funds provided for states, as well as compliance of state programs with the goals and objectives of federal laws. While Congress has regularly registered concerns with regulatory initiatives of EPA and other federal agencies and sometimes considers legislative proposals to alter or de-fund an agency’s ability to implement a particular regulatory program, it is highly unusual for Congress to advance legislation that would broadly alter the federal-state partnership in order to address dissatisfaction with specific actions by EPA or another agency.

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We’ve noted before (see here and here)  that Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., is trying to be among the leaders in Congress in putting a stop to U.S. EPA efforts to better regulate mountaintop removal and for the first time really regulate on the federal level the handling of toxic coal ash.

Now, the Environmental Integrity Project is offering one potential explanation … they’ve issued this report that outlines McKinley’s political contributions from major coal and related companies. It says:

Congressman McKinley (R-WV), author of the bill to restrict EPA’s ability to regulate coal ash, reported over $185,000 in political donations from mining and electric power interests, including both PAC and individual totals. More than a third of that comes from corporate or individual donations from four coal mining companies: MEPCO ($34,700); Alpha Natural Resources ($11,000); the International Coal Group ($15,900); and Patriot Coal ($10,000).

Rep. McKinley, of course, serves on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Environmental Integrity Project notes:

This week, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is expected to vote on two bills, both supported by heavy contributions from electric power and coal mining interests. The so-called “TRAIN” bill would require EPA and federal agencies to aggregate the cost of all pending regulations to reduce pollution from coal-fired power plants, as part of a broader attack on those standards. The second would limit federal oversight of state coal ash disposal standards, and make it virtually impossible for EPA to take enforcement action against polluters who violate those requirements.

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