Coal Tattoo

While the rest of us were focused on President Obama’s big meeting with West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and other energy state governors, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver issued a pretty significant ruling in a water pollution case against a Fayette County coal operation.

The ruling, which I’ve posted here, again supports the notion that private deals the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection works out with coal companies to resolve water pollution violations do not prevent citizen groups from filing their own Clean Water Act lawsuits to try to force companies to stop violating permit limits.

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Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

Given the numerous challenges working against any substantial recovery of the region’s coal industry, and that production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decades, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever. State and local leaders should support new economic development across the region, especially in the rural areas set to be the most impacted by a sharp decline in the region’s coal economy.

That’s the take-home message from a major new report issued today by the Morgantown consulting group Downstream Strategies. The report is called, “The Decline of Central Appalachian Coal and the Need for Economic Diversification.”

It’s must-read material for anyone who cares about the future of the Appalachian coalfields, and especially for elected officials who keep hoping that the next coal boom is just around the corner.

evanhansen.jpgrory.jpgAuthors Rory McIlmoil and Evan Hansen  make the case that a host of factors — competition from other coal-producing regions, rising interest in natural gas and renewable energy, and the depletion of Central Appalachia’s best reserves — has prompted a decline in regional coal production that is unlikely to be reversed. In fact, they report:

After strong and increased production through the mid-1990s, regional production last peaked in 1997 at 290 million tons. Even as national production continued to grow, by 2008, Central Appalachian production has fallen 20 percent to 235 million tons.

Recent projections indicate that — despite substantial coal reserves — annual production may decline another 46 percent by 2020, and 58 percent by 2035, to 99 million tons.

And, importantly, that’s without considering the potential impacts of climate change legislation or new restrictions on mountaintop removal coal mining. Both of those policies are likely to further squeeze the region’s coal industry, the report says, making it all the more important to begin planning for such events:

Should substantial declines occur as projected, coal-producing counties will face significant losses in employment and tax revenue, and state government will collect fewer taxes from the coal industry. State policy-makers across the Central Appalachian region should therefore begin taking the necessary steps to ensure that new jobs and sources of revenue will be available in the counties likely to experience the greatest impact from the decline.

The report adds:

While there are numerous options available, the development of the region’s renewable energy resources and a strong focus on energy efficiency offer immediate and significant opportunities to begin diversifying the economy.

In a news release, Rory said:

Coal has contributed significantly to local and state economies in Central Appalachia, but production has fallen substantially over the last 12 years as other coal basins and sources of fuel have become more competitive. This trend is expected to continue as mining costs increase due to the depletion of the lowest cost coal reserves, and as new environmental regulations are implemented. As this happens, local and state economies will need new sources of jobs and revenue to replace coal mining jobs and taxes.

And Evan added:

Given that coal production is projected to decline significantly in the coming decades, diversification of Central Appalachian economies is now more critical than ever. State leaders should use this legislative session to increase support for new economic development across the region, especially in the rural areas set to be the most impacted by a sharp decline in the region’s coal economy.

We’ve talked a lot on Coal Tattoo about the concept of “peak coal,” and  about what greenhouse gas limits and new restrictions on valley fills would mean for the coal industry and the region as a whole. We’ve discussed options for “green jobs” in the coalfields, including an op-ed Evan co-wrote about an abandoned mine cleanup project that Downstream Strategies was working on as one example, and Rory’s project in his former job promoting the Coal River Wind Project (and Evan’s report on the economic benefits of it).

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When will Massey’s water pollution violations stop?


Well, Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship is at it again … writing letters to the editor wrongly arguing that the planet is cooling and  tweeting away his attacks on the federal government.

At the same time, a new legal action against his company has revealed that Massey’s water pollution violations have become more frequent since a record $20 million Clean Water Act lawsuit settlement with U.S. EPA.

As I pointed out before, when the settlement was announced, federal government lawyers predicted it would force Massey to clean up its act. Remember that the EPA lawsuit — alleging more than 60,000 days of water discharge violations over a six-year period — was hardly the first enforcement action against Massey. Among a long list of other such actions, two Massey subsidiaries had pleaded guilty previously to criminal violations of the Clean Water Act.

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Two years ago, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached a record $20 million Clean Water Act settlement with Massey Energy, this was the lead of my Gazette story on the deal:

Federal environmental regulators believe a record $20 million fine, new pollution monitoring requirements and the threat of automatic penalties for additional violations will force Massey Energy co. to change the way it does business.

Well … it hasn’t turned out that way, at least according to a new formal Notice of Intent to Sue sent to Massey last week by the Sierra Club, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Coal River Mountain Watch and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

According to the legal notice, which I’ve posted here:

Remarkably, Massey’s violations have grown more frequent after the settlement with EPA than they were before EPA brought its enforcement action.

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Hearing on Mingo liquid coal plant — NEXT WEEK


The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection announced yesterday that it’s having a public hearing next week on the air pollution permit for the TransGas Development coal-to-liquids plant proposed for Mingo County.

That’s right —  the hearing is NEXT WEEK, as in Thursday, Dec. 17. Contrary to The Associated Press report (which unfortunately got posted on the Gazette Web site), the hearing is NOT tonight.

As Coal Tattoo has reported before, this plant as proposed does nothing to address the increased greenhouse gas emissions that come from turning coal into a liquid transportation fuel.  But coal industry supporters are pushing for it anyway, and the WVDEP Division of Air Quality proposes in its permit to do nothing to limit the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions or make the developers somehow address this issue. The WVDEP’s draft permit and engineering evaluation are available on the agency’s Web site.

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Sen. Byrd: “Coal Must Embrace the Future”


This is the full text of a statement today by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. — And audio is available by clicking in this button:

For more than 100 years, coal has been the backbone of the Appalachian economy. Even today, the economies of more than 20 states depend to some degree on the mining of coal. About half of all the electricity generated in America and about one quarter of all the energy consumed globally is generated by coal.

Change is no stranger to the coal industry.  Think of the huge changes which came with the onset of the Machine Age in the late 1800’s.  Mechanization has increased coal production and revenues, but also has eliminated jobs, hurting the economies of coal communities. In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in the Mountain State. Today there are about 22,000. In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.

And change is undeniably upon the coal industry again.  The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals. Meanwhile the Central Appalachian coal seams that remain to be mined are becoming thinner and more costly to mine. Mountaintop removal mining, a declining national demand for energy, rising mining costs and erratic spot market prices all add up to fewer jobs in the coal fields.

These are real problems. They affect real people. And West Virginia’s elected officials are rightly concerned about jobs and the economic impact on local communities.  I share those concerns.  But the time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.

Let’s speak the truth. The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.

Coal companies want a large stockpile of permits in their back pockets because that implies stability to potential investors. But when coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit. This, in turn, may create the perception of ineffectiveness within the industry, which can drive potential investors away.

Let’s speak a little more truth here. No deliberate effort to do away with the coal industry could ever succeed in Washington because there is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America. That is a stubborn fact that vexes some in the environmental community, but it is reality.

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A new report out this morning from the group Physicians for Social Responsibility outlines an “assault on human health” by the mining of coal, the burning of coal and the disposal of coal’s waste products.

According to this new report:

Electricity provides many health benefits world-wide and is a significant contributor to economic development, a higher standard of living and an increased life expectancy.

But burning coal to generate electricity harms human health and compounds many of the major public health problems facing the industrialized world. 

Detrimental health effects are associated with every aspect of coal’s life cycle, including mining, hauling, preparation at the power plant, combustion, and the disposal of post-combustion wastes.

In addition, the discharge of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere associated with burning coal is a major contributor to global warming and its adverse effects on health worldwide.

Among other adverse effects, the report links coal pollution to: Asthma, stunted lung development, infant mortality, lung cancer, abnormal heart rates or heart attacks, congestive heart failure, stroke and developmental delays.

Physicians for Social Responsibility is a non-profit advocacy organization that is the medical and public health voice for policies to prevent nuclear war and proliferation and to slow, stop and reverse global warming and toxic degradation of the environment.

They’ve posted their complete report, “Coal’s Assault on Human Health” here. It was being released this morning during a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

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Coal industry lobbyists and coal-state politicians like to remind us that coal is a relatively cheap source of energy.

But in a major new report out today, the National Academy of Sciences details some of the huge “hidden costs” of coal: More than $62 billion a year in “external damages” — that is, premature deaths from air pollution.

A National Academy news release is available here and the report itself here.

Those coal costs are part of the $120 billion in “hidden costs” that the academy’s National Research Council documented in its report, “Hidden Costs of Energy: Unpriced Consequences of Energy Production and Use.”

What are they talking about? The press release explains:

Requested by Congress, the report assesses what economists call external effects caused by various energy sources over their entire life cycle — for example, not only the pollution generated when gasoline is used to run a car but also the pollution created by extracting and refining oil and transporting fuel to gas stations.  Because these effects are not reflected in energy prices, government, businesses and consumers may not realize the full impact of their choices.  When such market failures occur, a case can be made for government interventions — such as regulations, taxes or tradable permits — to address these external costs, the report says. 

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Dunkard Creek fish kill: A wake-up call for WVDEP?


We’ve discussed before the broader implications of the fish-kill disaster on Dunkard Creek in Northern West Virginia, and how it highlights the dangers of the Department of Environmental Protection’s failure to set water quality standards for total dissolved solids or write cleanup plans to address increased conductivity in streams across the state.

It might be that it takes this kind of terrible incident to shake the folks at WVDEP into moving more quickly to deal with both of these important issues.

Speaking to reporters after updating state lawmakers on the Dunkard Creek situation, WVDEP water director Scott Mandirola said the fish kill has forced his agency to re-examine how it has handled both the TDS issue and stream cleanup plans for streams with excess conductivity:

It certainly changed the playing field a little bit. 

While he didn’t make this clear in his prepared presentation to a special legislative interim committee on water issues, Mandirola said he generally agrees with the conclusions of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which has blamed CONSOL Energy mining discharges for the salty water conditions that allowed golden algae to grow to dangerously toxic levels in Dunkard Creek.

Mandirola said WVDEP may never know exactly how the golden algae got into Dunkard Creek in the first place. But, he said, there’s no real way to actually get rid of it. So regulators and water quality officials now need to focus on reducing conditions — primarily the salty water — that foster the algae to turn toxic:

We can’t ignore it. If we ignore it, we may see an event like this again.

I’ll have more on today’s legislative meeting in tomorrow’s Gazette. In the meantime, you can check out presentations by WVDEP and the state Division of Natural Resources on the fish kill here and here.

Pa. thinks CONSOL to blame for fish kill


While I was busy blogging about the big Army Corps of Engineers public hearing on mountaintop removal, my buddy Don Hopey at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was tracking down the latest on the Dunkard Creek fish kill.

He’s got the story, and here’s what he says:

A heretofore undisclosed underground flow of mine pool water between Consol Energy’s Blacksville No. 1 and No. 2 mines may have contributed to the highly salty, polluted discharges that caused the massive, month-long fish kill on Dunkard Creek.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said stream sampling shows discharges high in dissolved solids and chlorides from Consol Energy’s Blacksville No. 2 Mine are the “primary immediate source” of the fish kill that last month wiped out aquatic life on 35 miles of the 38-mile stream that meanders along the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border.

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Is Marsh Fork Elementary School safe? (Part II)


In Part I, I discussed the history of inadequate studies and inspections by state and federal officials that — despite their clear omissions — are used by Massey Energy and its supporters to make statements like this one, issued last week by Gov. Joe Manchin’s communications director:

… The governor would never send any child to a school that isn’t safe, sound or sanitary. We rely on experts to examine building conditions and to make those determinations.

As Part I showed, the Manchin administration’s “experts” didn’t bother to actually test the air that kids are breathing down at Marsh Fork Elementary … but some other folks have done that, as part of a lawsuit filed against Massey Energy by some local residents over alleged pollution problems related to the company’s Goals Coal Co. processing plant.

Scott Simonton, a Marshall University professor and member of the state Environmental Quality Board, submitted this expert report to Kevin Thompson, a lawyer for the residents. The report, dated October 2008, is part of the court record and I’ve posted it online.

Simonton reviewed data from air sampling conducted in an around Marsh Fork Elementary and found that, while limited, the data “does support my belief that dust from coal-related activities adjacent to the school are impacting the air quality — and therefore increasing human health risk — at the school.” Simonton added:

This dust not only impacts the exterior areas of the school, but interior areas as well.

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Photo by Britney Williams, courtesy Coal River Mountain Watch.

We don’t look for chemicals. Which chemicals would you look for? There’s a bazillion of them.

— Bill Elswick, director of school facilities for the W.Va. Department of Education

As Marsh Fork Elementary School continues to be in the news, there’s a lot of noise out there about “tests” that Massey Energy and its supporters on this issue (including, interestingly enough, Gov. Joe Manchin)  say show that the school is perfectly safe.

In his story today, my friend Larry Messina at The Associated Press paraphrased the leader of Marsh Fork’s Parent Teacher Organization, Andrea Cook,  this way:

Cook cites the results of tests on soil and air at the school that have yet to raise red flags.

In its statement last week, Massey Energy itself put it like this:

The Goals facility has been inspected numerous times by environmental consultants and federal and state regulatory personnel whose findings have confirmed the safety of the facility.

But, it is also important to  understand why local school officials don’t think the school is unsafe — and why these “tests” haven’t shown any problems. The answer is pretty clear: Local folks think the school is safe because the Manchin administration told them so. And, the Manchin administration told them so because state and federal agencies conducted inadequate inspections that didn’t bother to actually test the quality of the air students at the school breath.

Find that hard to believe? Well, let’s rewind the story again, back to the summer of 2005.

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In Sunday’s big Gazette story about the Dunkard Creek fish kill, I reported that local residents were asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over the investigation and response to this mess.

Ben Adducchio at West Virginia Public Broadcasting picked up on this after the Dunkard Creek Watershed Association issued a new release. Here’s the text of that news release:

The Friends of Dunkard Creek of Pennsylvania, Dunkard Creek Watershed Association of West Virginia, Wheeling Creek Watershed Conservancy and the Greene County Watershed Alliance urge the US Environmental Protection Administration to take the lead role in the investigation of the biological disaster that killed over 130 species of aquatic life in Dunkard Creek.

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NY Times: Blockbuster on coal and dirty water

There’s quite a buzz going around West Virginia — and rightly so — about the front-page New York Times story, “Clean Water Laws Neglected, at a Cost.”

The edition of the Times featured a four-column-wide photo at the top of 1A showing a seven-year-old West Virginia boy’s damaged teeth, linked by his dentists on the polluted drinking water his family  blames on the underground injection of coal slurry. The photo is here in the online edition of the story.

I was glad to see the Times make note of this fact about Ryan Massey, his mother Jennifer Hall-Massey and the family in question:

She and her husband, Charles, do not live in some remote corner of Appalachia. Charleston, the state capital, is less than 17 miles from her home.

Far too often, these kinds of coal-related stories paint the problems as something that’s happening in a far-away land, someplace none of us really needs to think about or be concerned with.

The Times story is part of a multi-part series the paper is doing about water quality issues. The previous story, Debating how much weed killer is safe in your water glass, was also written by reporter Charles Duhigg, and is worth giving a read.

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This undated handout photo U.S. Geological Survey shows USGS scientists, Lia Chasar and Erica Rau, analyzing fish for mercury in the St. Marys River in northern Florida. (AP Photo/USGS, Mark Brigham)

Dina Cappiello at The Associated Press nailed it with the lead of her story on this new U.S. Geological Survey study on the contamination of fish nationwide with toxic mercury pollution:

No fish can escape mercury pollution.

The study, available online here,  reports that USGS scientists found mercury in every fish they tested in nearly 300 streams — 291 to be exact — all across the country.  According to a USGS news release:

About a quarter of these fish were found to contain mercury at levels exceeding the criterion for the protection of people who consume average amounts of fish, established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More than two-thirds of the fish exceeded the U.S. EPA level of concern for fish-eating mammals.

And, as the USGS also reported:

Atmospheric mercury is the main source to most of these streams coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United Statesbut 59 of the streams also were potentially affected by gold and mercury mining.

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Rahall and coal: What’s next?


Congressman Nick J. Rahall certainly got a lot of attention for his weekend stunt skydiving to show his support for the coal industry. (He’s shown above giving the ol’ Thumbs-up before the jump).

You’ve got to hand it to West Virginia Red, which remarked:

Next month Rahall will be shot out of a cannon over the New River to show how much he loves healthcare.

There’s more commentary from The Huffington Post,  The Washington Independent, Grist, and Politico.

Here at Coal Tattoo, I just felt the public had a right to see the photos from the event, and to hear what Rahall had to say about it …

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Coalfield citizens got their say about the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s study of coal-slurry injection, and they didn’t hide their feelings about the agency’s efforts.

Joe Stanley, one of the representatives of the Sludge Safety Project , told members of the Legislature’s joint committee on water resources:

DEP has shown they are incompetent to regulate the injection of coal slurry.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, of course, has admitted that his agency’s study lacked adequate information to figure out if coal-slurry injection is polluting water supplies. Of course, agency officials permitted this practice for years without requiring the sort of information from coal operators that might be needed to answer such questions.

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Over the last few weeks, there have been a lot of rumblings from folks in the coal industry about the big West Virginia University study that concluded the adverse health effects of coal mining in Appalachian far outweigh the industry’s economic contribution to the region.

1058-roger-nicholson.jpgI give Roger Nicholson, vice president and general counsel of International Coal Group, credit for actually trying to respond in writing in a public forum, rather than grumbling in private.

But in his Sunday Gazette-Mail commentary, Nicholson hardly lays a glove on the study.  And because he spends little time or effort in actually critiquing the methods of the study, his criticism doesn’t amount to much as far as really discussing the costs and benefits of coal — or what role coal could or should play in the region’s future.

Roger starts out by saying my initial coverage of the study ignored “some key facts” and held WVU researcher Michael Hendryx and his co-author, Melissa Ahern of Washington State University, to a “much lower standard of factual rigor than [the Gazette] would  a pro-coal industry study.”

Well, it’s worth noting that this study appeared in a respected scientific journal, Public Health Reports — a journal that puts such articles through an accepted peer-review examination before they are published. Like the previous coal-related articles by Hendryx, this one went through the process that science recognizes for an examination of factual and methodological rigor. That doesn’t mean it is a perfect study. There is no such thing. But unlike the pro-coal studies that industry officials prefer the public to focus on — see examples here and here — the work Hendryx is doing is being reviewed and approved by other scientists as meeting accepted standards.

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Does WVDEP have enough mining inspectors?


The number of positions for strip-mining regulators at the WVDEP has dropped by nearly 6 percent over the last decade. The chart is based on U.S. OSMRE figures, and shows total number of positions, including vacancies.

I admit it. I’m a sucker for West Virginia’s Blue‘s periodic questions about West Virginia’s coal industry. I can’t help but jump in and try to answer them.

Take yesterday’s question, for example:

How many unfilled positions are there at the W.Va. DEP? What is the history of unfilled positions in the department?

I’m not going to take on the whole of WVDEP here. This is Coal Tattoo after all … But I’ll take a shot at answers this as it applies to the WVDEP Division of Mining and Reclamation, which is charged with policing the environmental impacts of our state’s coal-mining industry.

The short answer? The DEP and its predecessor agencies have never had as many inspectors, permit reviewed and other mining staff as  federal regulators suggested.

Today, the DEP mining division lists 13 vacancies. But that number is misleading, because the agency over the last year or so has eliminated at least 9 long-vacant positions.  WVDEP lists 270 positions, but has the equivalent of 257 full-time employees in its mining office.

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More evidence today about the troubles the coal industry faces — and about a decline that seems inevitable if a way isn’t found to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions on a widespread scale.

The headline on Anne C. Mulkern’s piece for Greenwire (via The NY Times) says it all: “Coal industry sees life or death in Senate climate debate.”

Coal Tattoo readers know that the United Mine Workers union (an organization that is unfortunately ignored by much of the media covering the climate debate  — leaving only coal operators and their lobbyists and the pro-coal voices) has said this about the House-passed version of the global warming legislation:

As it stands now, the amount of money dedicated to coal in this bill is remarkable, and the future of coal will be intact.

But the Greenwire story puts a finer point on it, explaining that the idea of an intact coal industry relies on scientists perfecting and the industry deploying CCS technology on a grand scale. The article quotes Kenneth Green, resident scholar at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, saying:

Unless they come up with a breakthrough technology to capture carbon and store it, coal is dying.”

Green adds:

If this [bill] does what they want it to do, I would say coal is on its way out.

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