Coal Tattoo

White House threatens veto of coal ash bill

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Coal Ash Spill

In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn.   (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

With the U.S. House set this week to take up West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley’s coal-ash bill, the Obama White House yesterday evening issued a pretty clear threat to veto the legislation if it ever reaches the president’s desk. Essentially, the administration says the proposal would undercut the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s coal-ash rule issued last December:

EPA’s rule articulates clear and consistent national standards to protect public health and the environment, prevent contamination of drinking water, and minimize the risk of catastrophic failure at coal ash surface impoundments. H.R. 1734 would, however, substantially weaken these protections. For example, the bill would eliminate restrictions on how close coal ash impoundments can be located to drinking water sources. It also would undermine EPA’s requirement that unlined impoundments must close or be retrofitted with protective liners if they are leaking and contaminating drinking water. Further, the bill would delay requirements in EPA’s final CCR rule, including structural integrity and closure requirements, for which tailored extensions are already available through EPA’s rule and through approved Solid Waste Management Plans.

This morning, Rep. McKinley, through a spokesman, had this to say in response:

Two years ago, President Obama said he ‘would like to work with Congress’ to ensure the safe management of coal ash. That’s what we have done with our bill. Yesterday’s veto threat ignores the bipartisan consensus built over five years on this bill.

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pizarchiktestifies

It seems that at least some of the beltway media are expecting some serious news to come out of a hearing this morning before the House Natural Resources Committee, where Republicans are continuing to try to manufacture some major Obama administration scandal out of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s bungling of the Environmental Impact Statement for its rewrite of the stream buffer zone rule.

The National Journal, for example, ran with the ridiculous headline, Explosions Coming Over Mountaintop-Mining Rule and a typical story reducing the matter — and all things related to mountaintop removal and coal mining — to the standard Democrats vs. Republicans story line.

If you missed the notice for the House committee hearing, here’s how the Republican leadership staff described their plan for the event:

For over two years, the Committee has been conducting an investigation into the rewrite of this coal production regulation. This unnecessary rewrite, carried out through the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) at the Department of the Interior, proposed to dramatically alter a regulation that took over five years of environmental analysis and careful scientific consideration to complete. The Department’s process in rewriting this regulation has been rushed and unorthodox. After tossing aside the 2008 plan, the Department spent millions of taxpayer dollars and hired new contractors to complete a new environmental impact statement, even though one was already completed for the 2008 rule. Those contractors were dismissed after it was publicly revealed that the Administration’s new proposed regulation would cost 7,000 jobs and cause economic harm in 22 states. The Administration has spent five years and over $9 million taxpayer dollars working on this rewrite, but has failed to even publish a draft rule. In September 2012, the Committee released its own report on this issue entitled, “President Obama’s Covert And Unorthodox Efforts to Impose New Regulation on Coal Mining and Destroy American Jobs.”

For those who have forgotten, this all goes back to the big scoop that Tim Huber wrote for The Associated Press in January 2011, about the potential job losses outlined in a leaked documents from the OSMRE EIS.

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MSHA gets more attention as shutdown drags on

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MainMarch2011

We’ve been writing for several days now about the impact of the Republican government shutdown on the ability of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to conduct its regular — and legally required — mine inspections, a vital part of MSHA’s duty to protect the health and safety of the nation’s coal miners (see here, here and here).

Well, today, the issue got even more attention. First, we heard from Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., who delivered a House floor speech about the issue, saying:

I stand here today to remind my colleagues, and the public, that cuts in government funding and government programs have consequences — sometimes deadly.

It is a lesson we learned in 2006 when annual coal mining deaths soared to 45, a 10-year high, reversing an 80-year trend of steadily falling fatalities – a trend attributed, in part, to years of underfunding the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

It is a lesson we should heed now. This year, as of September 4th, 14 coal miners had died on the job in our country. And this past weekend, three coal miners lost their lives at work over three consecutive days — including, one miner in West Virginia.

Think about that: In first nine months of the year, fourteen coal miners perished on the job. In the first nine days of the government shutdown, three coal miners have perished. Mr. Speaker, even one death is too many.

Rep. Rahall continued:

WV MINE EXPLOSIONNo one has linked these recent deaths directly to the government shutdown.  But the inability of this Congress to pass a simple bill to fund all the operations of our government has resulted in cutbacks of routine inspections that are essential to the complex system of safety oversight of this complex industry.

I hope that everyone in the coal industry — from the CEOs to the office staff, to security guards, to the miners themselves — will redouble their vigilance and take every possible step to ensure health and safety.  

And I urge my colleagues to abandon this ridiculous political showdown that is undercutting the safety in our mines, our industrial facilities, our food chain, and so much more.  

This is not a slow down.  It is not a slim down.  

This is a politically driven shutdown and it has real and dangerous consequences for the people who put their faith in us to provide them with basic services, to ensure their well-being, to protect their lives, to simply do the job we were elected to do – to lead. 

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Coal Ash Spill

In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn.  U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan ruled Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 that The Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for the huge spill of toxin-laden sludge. Varlan said in a written opinion that TVA was negligent in its conduct and will be liable for damages to be determined later. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

Earlier today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the latest version of a bill from Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., to block the federal Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic coal ash from the nation’s power plants. As Erica Peterson explained for WFPL, the vote was 265-155.  West Virginia’s other two House members, Democrat Nick Rahall and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, are both co-sponsors of the bill.

McKinley2Rep. McKinley said today:

For 33 years Congress has wrestled with how to deal with coal ash but has failed to find an answer. The bill that passed the House today is a common sense solution for how to recycle and dispose of this unavoidable byproduct of burning coal.

Keep in mind that the bipartisan Congressional Research Service has offered tough criticisms of the legislation, and Earthjustice has likewise said the legislation is far too weak, with the group’s coal-ash expert, Lisa Evans saying just this week:

This bill falsely claims to address the nationwide toxic threat from coal ash dumping. But in reality, the bill will make the problem much worse.

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ManchinFloor

West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin keeps doing his best to promote himself as some sort of reasonable, bipartisan deal-broker, using his “common sense” approach to various issues. This maneuvering led him yesterday to be the only Democratic Senator to oppose the confirmation of the woman his party’s president wants to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the second term of the Obama administration.

As we reported in today’s Gazette, Sen. Manchin admitted that his vote against Gina McCarthy had nothing to do with her qualifications. In fact, the senator conceded she was highly qualified, describing her as,  “a talented scientist who has dedicated her life to public service.” Sen. Manchin praised Ms. McCarthy’s “pragmatism,” her “willingness to serve her country” and her “stellar bipartisan credentials, an extremely rare quality in Washington these days.” Sen. Manchin noted that she had worked for both political parties, and with a very odd tone, the senator added:

In fact, it’s not hard to imagine that she could have been nominated to be EPA Administrator by Mitt Romney if he had won the 2012 Presidential election. After all, she advised him on climate change when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

But apparently good qualifications aren’t enough:

… My vote against her goes much deeper than her nomination, her views on energy and the environment or even her job performance the last four years as head of air policy at the EPA.

No, my vote against Gina McCarthy is really a vote against the Administration’s lack of any serious attempt to develop an energy strategy for America’s future.

We need to develop every source of American-made energy.

It’s only common sense to use what you’ve got.

There are any variety of problems with Sen. Manchin’s approach here, not the least of which is hypocrisy of criticizing the tone of coal industry critics by saying:

… If we stop demonizing  one energy resource, and I do mean demonizing it … when people say, “I hate this” or “I hate that” and “I can’t stand this” … you know what, turn the lights off, turn the air conditioning off, turn it all off and see how you like it …

I mean come on, just a few sentences before, Sen. Manchin was throwing around the coal industry’s terminology, making a policy discussion out to be an armed conflict:

The President often speaks about an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. But his new global climate proposal amounts to a true declaration of war on one of the above – coal.

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Petra Wood, right, of Casswille, WV., holds a protest sign outside the Morgantown, W.Va., office of U.S. Rep. David McKinley on June 23, 2011. Wood and other members of the West Virginia Sierra Club want McKinley to withdraw a bill they say would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its power to protect people from toxic coal ash. (AP Photo/Vicki Smith)

As mentioned earlier this week, Rep. David McKinley is at it again. The latest version of the West Virginia Republican’s coal-ash legislation cleared a House subcommittee yesterday. And while his efforts on this issue have gone nowhere in the Senate, Rep. McKinley is hopeful it will go differently this time. Vicky Smith over at the AP has a story out about it this morning:

McKinley says this year is different: The latest version of the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act (H.R. 2218) was crafted with input from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which McKinley said is “not opposing” the draft that cleared a House subcommittee Thursday.

“We’ve listened and reacted,” he said, “and we’ve listened again.”

David Beard at the Morgantown Dominion Post focused on EPA’s stance, too, in a story he did in yesterday’s newspaper (subscription required), noting that during a telephone press conference on Wednesday, McKinley:

… told reporters … [that] at this point the EPA doesn’t appear to oppose the bill … “I hope, they’ll continue to stay with us.”

But of course, EPA — in a dance that is becoming all too familiar from this agency under the Obama administration — won’t answer questions about its thoughts on the current version of the coal-ash legislation.

When I contacted EPA’s press office this week to inquire if the agency was now supporting Rep. McKinley’s bill, press secretary Alisha Johnson pulled this on me:

We don’t comment on pending legislation.

Well, that’s simply not true. EPA does comment on pending legislation. Not two weeks ago, when Sen. Joe Manchin helped to broker the Lautenberg-Vitter agreement on a bipartisan chemical safety bill, EPA spokeswoman Molly Hooven gave me this quote, instructing me to attribute it to Johnson, the agency press secretary:

EPA is pleased that Senators Lautenberg and Vitter are working together to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) — chemical safety is a bipartisan issue. EPA continues to support and advocate for a strengthened chemicals management law in accordance with the Administration’s principles.  We look forward to working with Congress, stakeholders, and the public as we move forward on this effort to ensure that EPA has the tools necessary to make certain that chemicals manufactured and used every day in this country are safe.

And, as Vicki noted in her AP dispatch, EPA assistant administrator Mathy Stanislaus commented on an earlier version of the bill during a House committee hearing back in April. In his prepared testimony, Stanislaus had this to say:

The Discussion Draft of the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act addresses some of the principles discussed above for effective CCR management. Although the Discussion draft contains key provisions that require states to implement CCR programs that address specific contaminants, address leaking surface impoundments and, require the establishment of groundwater monitoring, we note that it does not clearly address timelines for the development and implementation of state programs, criteria for EPA to use to determine when a state program is deficient, criteria for CCR unit structural integrity, deadlines for closure of unlined or leaking impoundments/units, including inactive or abandoned impoundments/units, and the universe of CCR disposal units subject to a permit program including impoundments, landfills, waste piles, pits and quarries, and other disposal scenarios.

And Greenwire noted additional comments EPA made at the hearing:

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

“We do not have an official position,” Stanislaus testified during a sometimes-contentious hearing of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) asked, “Could you characterize the EPA’s position as wishing to cooperate with the committee on this bill or wanting to be confrontational?” Stanislaus responded, “We are absolutely willing to cooperate.” EPA has not offered a timeline for completing the regulation.

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Rep. McKinley introduces new coal-ash bill

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When we last left West Virginia Republication Rep. David McKinley, he was using his stacked discussion panel to pretend there’s no scientific consensus about man-made global warming. Well this week, Rep. McKinley is bringing back a somewhat reworked version of his coal-ash legislation (see the bill here and a summary here). He says in a prepared statement:

Coal ash is widely reused in construction products such as cement, concrete, wallboard, and roofing materials. This bill will preserve this beneficial reuse and help keep electricity costs low for American businesses and families. It provides a workable alternative to EPA’s 2010 proposal to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste, which put hundreds of thousands of jobs in jeopardy and threatened to drive up electricity and construction costs.

According to that statement:

The Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act retains the same guiding principles from McKinley’s previous legislation, H.R. 2273, which passed the House in 2011 by a bipartisan vote of 267 to 144. The legislation protects both the environment and jobs by setting enforceable federal standards while allowing states to craft a permit program that works best for the state. The legislation also contains many improvements that were contained in S.3512, including requirements for groundwater monitoring at all structures that receive coal ash after enactment and corrective action for unlined, leaking impoundments within a specified time period.

The new legislation makes additional clarifications and key improvements such as setting deadlines for issuing permits, creating an interim compliance period for many of the requirements, and identifying criteria to assess whether a state permit program is meeting the minimum requirements. The legislation also includes new provisions to ensure structural stability, including a consultation with state dam safety officials, a periodic evaluation to identify structural weakness and potentially hazardous conditions, and the creation of an emergency action plan for high hazard structures.

But here’s what the folks at Earthjustice had to say today:

Late last night, Congressman David McKinley introduced bad legislation (H.R. 2218, the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act) designed to subvert the EPA’s ability to set federally enforceable safeguards for coal ash pollution. Despite having one of the nation’s largest coal ash impoundments in his district—which has contaminated nearby groundwater and streams with arsenic, lead and other toxic metals—Congressman McKinley persists in his misguided mission to allow power companies to continue dumping toxic coal ash into unlined and unmonitored landfills and ponds.

Lisa Evans, an Earthjustice coal ash expert, told me:

The bill remains dramatically inadequate to protect human health and the environment.  While HR 2218 contains some superficial changes, its critical underlying deficiencies have not been cured.  The bill still contains no protective standard to ensure public health is protected by state programs nationwide, leaking coal ash dumps still have no real-world requirement to close in a timely manner, the regulated universe remains completely undefined, structural stability standards are inadequate, and legacy dump sites are still completely unaddressed.  These are huge and dangerous gaps in public protection. There is window dressing, but the house is still burning.

Spruce Mine riders not getting vote in Senate

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It looks like — at least for now — that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., isn’t having any success in his effort to block the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from being able to veto Clean Water Act permits like the one for the giant Spruce Mine in Logan County.

We’ve talked before about the reaction from West Virginia political leaders to a federal appeals court ruling that upheld EPA’s authority to issue such a veto. Sen. Manchin not only introduced stand-alone legislation to revoke that authority, but also tried to attach two separate amendments (see here and here) about it to the Senate’s Water Resources Development Act of 2013. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was a co-sponsor of one of the two amendments.

But as the bill moves through the Senate, it was announced yesterday on the floor that Sen. Manchin’s proposals are not among those currently scheduled to actually be considered and voted up or down. I asked Sen. Manchin’s office about this, but folks there haven’t responded. Meanwhile, The Hill noted that Sen. Manchin was among those who voted for a failed Republican amendment that would have stopped EPA) from expanding what can be identified as waters protected under the Clean Water Act.

CRS: Nobody happy with EPA on MTR

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There’s a new report out from the Congressional Research Service called Mountaintop Mining: Background on Current Controversies. As many of you know, the CRS works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.

Given all we hear from political leaders and coal operators about how tough the EPA is on mountaintop removal and the coal industry in general, the CRS report offers an interesting reminder of the real state of these issues:

Viewed broadly, the Administration’s combined actions on mountaintop mining displease both industry and environmental advocates. The additional scrutiny of permits, more stringent requirements, and EPA’s veto of a previously authorized project have angered the coal industry and many of its supporters. At the same time, while environmental groups support the veto and EPA’s steps to restrict the practice, many favor tougher requirements or even total rejection of mountaintop mining in Appalachia.

Sen. Rockefeller reintroduces mine safety bill

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This just in:

Senator Jay Rockefeller today reintroduced his landmark mine safety legislation aimed at fixing the glaring safety issues revealed in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster on April 5, 2010, which claimed the lives of 29 miners in Montcoal, West Virginia. Senator Joe Manchin cosponsored the legislation.

The Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act was first introduced in 2010, and again in 2011 and 2012.

Sen. Rockefeller said:

Since the terrible tragedy at Upper Big Branch more than three years ago, some crucial steps have been taken to improve mine safety, but we are long overdue to make an even bigger leap forward by passing comprehensive mine safety legislation. We owe it to families of the victims at Upper Big Branch, and to the miners of today and tomorrow, to pass mine safety legislation that moves us more strongly ahead. Coal miners’ loved ones give thanks for answered prayers every time they walk through the front door. We should be constantly vigilant for that safe return home. We cannot wait for another tragedy before we act. The time is now.

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Here’s the latest from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, via Larry Messina at The Associated Press:

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller believes that pressing ahead on mine safety and miners’ health can advance the debate over the future of coal, and he wants the industry to abandon what he considers a combative and close-minded approach to that discussion, the West Virginia Democrat told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

The state’s senior senator said industry leaders and their political allies have focused on President Barack Obama and his U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the exclusion of the other forces sapping demand for this fossil fuel.

But Rockefeller has also reached out to the industry for help drafting upcoming legislation to promote ways to harness coal’s energy without releasing so much carbon dioxide.

“I believe clean coal has a future,” Rockefeller told the AP. “I’m not against coal. I’m against their refusal to recognize what their future is, and their decision to focus all of their attention and all of their money on saying, `You’re either against the EPA or you’re not.”’

Rockefeller blasted the industry’s talk of a “war on coal” in June remarks on the Senate floor. He decried what he views as a “daily onslaught” of “carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal’s future.”

“I thought it was very important to call out the coal operators for being so negative,” Rockefeller said. “It’s having such a damaging effect.”

A variety of factors have combined to stymie the industry. Natural gas prices hit 10-year lows in April, a month when government data show natural-gas fired power generation equaled coal-powered generation for the first time on record. A mild winter also reduced demand. European economic woes and signs of cooling growth in Asia, meanwhile, threaten coal exports.

Alpha Natural Resources Inc., a leading coal producer, blamed such market forces last week when it reported a $2.2 billion second-quarter loss to stockholders.

“The facts are that natural gas is eating coal’s lunch right now, and that will continue while their prices are low,” Rockefeller told the AP.

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Sen. Rockefeller introduces new mine safety bill

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This just in from the office of West Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator:

Senator Jay Rockefeller today announced that he is reintroducing his landmark mine safety legislation with new provisions aimed at fixing more of the glaring safety issues revealed in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which claimed the lives of 29 miners in Montcoal, West Virginia.

The bill includes some provisions similar to those in the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety and Health Act of 2011, but also includes these new components:

— Prohibits Mine Operators from Keeping Two Sets of Books. This provision directly addresses the fact that Massey had two sets of books at Upper Big Branch and was not properly sharing information about the condition of the mine with MSHA. These are changes based on the recommendations of the UMWA in their report, and deals with issues that many of the reports highlighted.

— Establishes Strict Penalties for Unsafe Ventilation Changes. Investigations conducted by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the United Mine Workers of America, and the Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel determined that Massey made multiple illegal ventilation changes at Upper Big Branch mine without any approval. Reduced ventilation can lessen clean air flow in the mines and increase the likelihood of explosions. The bill would severely penalize mine companies with up to $220,000 in fines for such flagrant violations that could seriously harm miners just trying to do their jobs.

— Limits Miners’ Exposure to Black Lung Disease. This debilitating disease is on the rise among a new generation of coal miners. Specifically, the provision would require that MSHA issue a rule within six months – a rule that is long overdue – to lower exposure levels to respirable dust which would provide the maximum feasible protection that is achievable through environmental controls. It would also require that MSHA reexamine the incidence of black lung disease every five years and, unless there is a decline in black lung, update the regulations again. More than 70 percent of the victims tested at Upper Big Branch were determined to have signs of black lung disease.

— Improves Federal and State Coordination to Combat Safety Violations. The Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel recommended that federal and state agencies immediately work together to address safety problems at mines right after they are found out, and this provision would strongly encourage such actions.

— Improves Mine Safety Technology and Enhances Safety Training. Providing miners, operators, and regulators with the most up-to-date safety training and information about conditions inside mines is essential to preventing explosions and keeping miners safe. This legislation entitles miners to quarterly training on the use of emergency oxygen supplies under real-world operating conditions, and also requires the installation of “black box” technology on mining equipment to measure methane, oxygen, carbon monoxide, and coal dust levels.

UPDATED I’ve posted a copy of the legislation here.

Sen. Rockefeller said:

My new bill includes important pieces from my previous mine safety legislation, which I’ve been fighting to pass in Congress. It also includes new provisions that specifically address problems that the investigations into the tragedy at Upper Big Branch brought to light. This bill, which would make sure that such glaring violations are never overlooked in the future, is critical to providing the maximum level of protection for our nation’s miners and their families. Our miners deserve our full support, and it’s outrageous that Congress has yet to pass such important reforms.

AP photo by Jeff Gentner

New federal legislation was introduced today that seeks a moratorium on new mountaintop removal permits and demands that the federal government examine the growing scientific evidence that residents living near these mining operations are at greater risk of serious health problems, including cancer and birth defects.

Here’s part of the announcement:

Thirteen Members of Congress led by Representatives Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and Louise Slaughter (D-NY) today introduced legislation to provide a full scientific analysis of the potential health threats to communities affected by mountaintop mining. H.R. 5959, The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act (ACHE), would also place a moratorium on new mountaintop removal coal mines and expansion of existing mines until the science demonstrates the mines will not cost local families their lives or their health.

Kucinich said:

The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency Act will provide the families in these communities the answers and the protection they deserve. Mountaintop mining is a practice in which entire mountaintops are blown up in order to access a seam of coal sitting deep inside the mountain. The evidence is growing that toxic chemicals that are safely sequestered in rock inside the mountain, get released when the mountains are turned inside out.

The ACHE Act will stop new mountaintop removal coal mines until the science clearly demonstrates the mines will not cost these hard working communities their health or their lives. It will also fund some of the best researchers in the world to carry out that science.

There’s also a press release from coalfield citizen groups here.  Longtime activist Bo Webb said:

The Appalachian Communities Health Emergency (ACHE) Act offers an opportunity to all House members to put differences aside and swiftly pass a bill that will protect the health and lives of the unborn.

Other sponsors include: Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), Judy Chu (D-CA), John Yarmuth (D-KY), Michael Honda (D-CA), James Moran (D-VA), Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), John Conyers (D-MI), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and Keith Ellison (D-MN).

My own experience with Rep. Nick J. Rahall is that he’s a kind, patient and — above all — very gracious man. Rep. Rahall has gone out of his way to give me tons of time for interviews, even though he probably knew the questions weren’t going to be especially easy and the resulting story might not be what politicians consider positive coverage.

So it’s been a bit troubling to hear stories of how some constituents have been treated in recent years when they’ve tried to convince Rep. Rahall that he is wrong to be such a staunch supporter and defender of mountaintop removal. If you watched any of the video stream yesterday of the arrests made of anti-mountaintop removal activists in Rep. Rahall’s offices, what you saw was a politician whose become very defensive of his record and very angry with those who continue to question the direction his politics have gone.

On the one hand, Rep. Rahall did give these young activists a half-hour meeting, even though they arrived without an appointment and were clearly part of some organized protest that was set up to end with peaceful civil disobedience arrests. Some of the “tweets” I saw from activist groups were a bit baffling, given that they were condemning Rep. Rahall not for his position on mountaintop removal, but for daring to think that once a meeting was over, people should leave his office so he could move on to other things (which in this case included meeting with the families of some of the miners who died in the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster). The whole point of yesterday’s action was for some folks to get arrested, to it’s silly to complain when that actually happens.

On the other hand, from what I saw, Rep. Rahall was reduced to complaining that these activists (including his constituents) were “too negative” or “too pessimistic” about West Virginia and its future, and about the coal industry. Rep. Rahall praised the development of the new Boy Scout Jamboree facility in Fayette County. But he apparently forgot that, in order to make that project work, the state had to spend a significant chunk of money cleaning up some of the coal industry’s messes. (And like most West Virginia political, business and media leaders, Rep. Rahall certainly wasn’t interested in saying anything about the incredibly discriminatory policies and practices of the Boy Scouts).

What happened since the arrests in Rep. Rahall’s office, though, is especially interesting.

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Coal pornography: What is this all really about?

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Photo from iLoveMountains via House report.

I think often about the incredible irony that Don Blankenship named his political action group, “And for the Sake of the Kids.”   How about “for the sake of” the orphans of the many terrible mining deaths caused by production-over-safety view of coal mining advanced by Blankenship during his leadership at Massey Energy?

Or how about “for the sake of” kids like Makayla Urias? She  got her five minutes of unfortunate fame this week, when a photo of her in a bathtub full of mining-tainted water got bounced all around the Internet in the latest media skirmish in the campaign against mountaintop removal coal mining. Haven’t seen the photo? I’m surprised. You can check it out yourself here, on the website of Katie Falkenberg, the freelance photographer who took the shot. UPDATED: The photo has been removed from Ms. Falkenberg’s website, and a note there says, “The family has declined media request to use this photo; it has therefore been removed from the photo essay to honor their wishes.”

If I seem a little troubled by all of this, I guess I am.  I’ve got bathtub photos of my son. Most parents have them. Such moments are later treasured by parents, and bring eye-rolling embarrassment or worse from the kids.  But not many kids will get stuck with hearing the story of the time their bath-time photo was not only paraded around the halls of Congress, tossed around all matter of websites, but also prompted a totally absurd child pornography investigation by the Capitol police.

The story made it into the mainstream media this morning, with this write-up in the Denver Post:

An award-winning coal-mining activist was questioned for 45 minutes by police on suspicion of child pornography after U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn’s energy and mineral resources subcommittee decided a photo she submitted of a child in foul bathwater was inappropriate.

Photo by Tom Dusenbery

Maria Gunnoe of West Virginia had been invited by Lamborn — a Colorado Springs Republican and the subcommittee’s chairman — to testify at his hearing Friday on the Spruce Coal Mine in her state. It was the fourth time Gunnoe had been in front of the committee and the second time she had been there at the behest of Lamborn.

Gunnoe, a grandmother, said that when she has spoken to the committee previously, she never felt as if members made eye contact, so she decided to bring a photo by a freelance photojournalist of a child taking a bath in dirty water — allegedly polluted by coal mining — to put up on the panels above her head.

“I was drawn to the photo because I think it really captured what happened here,” Gunnoe said from her home Tuesday.

The general story, as I understand it, goes like this:  Committee staff and/or members decided the photo was somehow “inappropriate” and directed that Gunnoe not be allowed to show it during her hearing testimony. Then after the hearing, she got hauled into a nearby room and questioned by a U.S. Capitol Police officer. Republicans or their staffers had apparently suggested this photo was child pornography. I’m still a little baffled that one of the environmental group lawyers or lobbyists who might have been present at the time didn’t just step in and advise Maria not to go with those police officers unless she was under arrest. Then again, who would have possibly imagined the police going along with something as nutty as this.

AP photo

The Denver Post article added some interesting details, which paint Lamborn as trying to distance himself from all of this (without his actually saying his staff acted inappropriately for their role in this harassment of a citizen of these United States):

Lamborn — who leads the energy and mineral resources subcommittee under the House Committee on Natural Resources — said he heard about the photo before the hearing and decided to pull it from the planned presentation without looking at it. As chairman of the subcommittee, he is in charge of the hearing, the witnesses and the staff.

“I accept the judgment of professional staff,” Lamborn said Tuesday. “If it’s inappropriate, I don’t think I should be viewing it. The fewer people who viewed it, the better.”

Lamborn on Tuesday said he still hadn’t seen the photo and didn’t intend to.

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We’ve asked before here on Coal Tattoo if West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller will really step forward now and lead our state toward sound policies on energy and climate change and, most importantly, our relationship with the coal industry.

Sen. Rockefeller offered West Virginians who desperately want someone to lead on these issues a bit of hope with his reaction to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposal to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. But truth be told, Sen. Rockefeller only looked so good because our other elected officials and other leaders were so quick to go so far out on the deep end attacking EPA (see, for example, UMWA President Cecil Roberts).

This week, we got at least some other small example that Sen. Rockefeller is willing to step slightly outside of the coal industry’s talking points, when he criticized Rep. David McKinley’s efforts to use a federal transportation bill to block EPA from regulating the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash.  The State Journal’s Pam Kasey reported on this, following up on a Politico report, but here’s the text of Sen. Rockefeller’s statement:

National surface transportation programs are critical to our economy and its continued growth. The Senate passed a responsible, bipartisan two-year surface transportation bill which included common-sense safety provisions and protected hundreds of thousands of jobs. The House never actually voted on a version of the surface legislation and we should focus on finding common ground, not pushing unrelated issues.

Right now, my goal as we begin the conference process is coming up with legislation that protects jobs and investments in our roads and bridges. To remain competitive in the 21st century, we must create a national surface transportation policy that reflects anticipated population growth and provides our safety agencies with authority to protect the citizens who use these systems.

Separately, I want to make it clear that I cannot support the environmental provisions that have been attached to the surface bill by the House. These riders would jeopardize the tremendous bipartisan support this bill has had so far in the Senate.

Contrast that to the contortions that Rep. Nick Rahall had to do on the House floor, as he tried to criticize the Republican version of the overall transportation package, but make sure everyone knew he supported whatever coal-ash language Rep. McKinley and the industry were pushing. Not for nothing, but my good friend Rep. Rahall seems to have done a bit of a flip-flop on coal ash, supporting Rep. McKinley’s effort to block all federal regulation of the material, after previously introducing his own bill that — while different from EPA’s approach — would have established tougher federal oversight.

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Update: Coal ash and Congressman McKinley

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Earlier this week, the U.S. House of Representatives added to a major transportation funding bill an amendment from West Virginia’s very own, Rep. David McKinley, to block the federal Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic coal ash from the nation’s power plants. As Pam Kasey reported in The State Journal, the amendment was successfully added to the transportation bill on Wednesday. That bill passed the House, and now goes to a conference with the Senate.

Now, we’ve written about the Republican gentleman from West Virginia’s 1st congressional district before and his crusade to protect coal ash and the companies that generate it from reasonable federal regulations (see here, here and here). And remember the coverage of Rep. McKinley’s coal industry campaign support, of the fact that his own constituents have practically begged him not to push this legislation, and that Rep. McKinley hasn’t exactly jumped at the chance to hear those citizen concerns.

One report out from Politico this week made another interesting point about Rep. McKinley and coal ash:

It took freshman GOP Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia just three weeks after being sworn in to introduce a bill that would help a contributor, Arch Coal, by overturning an Environmental Protection Agency ruling that has broader implications for the mining industry, also one of his political patrons.

A month later, McKinley was back, with another bill that would block a proposed EPA regulation against coal-ash bricks and drywall, materials architectural and engineering firms — such as one founded by McKinley — routinely recommend in construction project bids.

Most new House members used their first months in office promoting by-the-book conservative bills — slashing spending and cutting taxes, all designed to show they came to Washington to fix Washington.

But a few like McKinley took a different route: They did things the Washington way, using a legislative process they once railed against to try to assist donors, protect favored industries or settle scores with their political enemies.

McKinley’s bills don’t violate ethics rules because they affect a broad array of businesses, but “appearances count for a lot. To many, this will seem to be payback for benefactors,” said Sheila Krumholz, the Center for Responsive Politics’s executive director. “There is the potential for pay-to-play politics at work, which is something that always should be scrutinized.”

The response from the congressman’s office is about what you would expect:

Katie Martin, a McKinley spokeswoman, said neither piece of legislation should surprise anyone.

“West Virginia is coal, and coal is West Virginia. It’s the economic engine of the state. Cap-and-trade, a direct attack on that way of life, was one of Rep. McKinley’s chief motivations for running. Now that he’s elected, he’s doing what he said he would — fighting tooth and nail to stop the EPA’s war on coal and protect the industry along with the tens of thousands of West Virginians it employs,” she said.

Rep. McKinley himself has shown us he doesn’t always understand his own coal industry legislation, almost as if someone from the industry just gave it to him already written and he introduced it … so it’s not surprising that when confronted with questions about potential conflicts of interest, the congressman’s staff pivots quickly to the standard “war on coal” line that is constant crutch now for our state’s political leadership. Little wonder, too, that Reps. Nick Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito are co-sponsors of McKinley’s coal-ash bill, though at least that created the uncomfortable situation for Rep. Rahall in which he had to twist and contort to make clear his support for the coal-ash amendment, while at the same time leading the Democratic charge against the broader GOP version of the transportation bill it was being attached to. Over in the Senate, West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin are co-sponsors of their own version of the coal-ash bill.

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Photo from iLoveMountains, via House Democrat report

We’ve covered here before the ongoing — and rather cooked-up — controversy over the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s efforts to rewrite the stream buffer zone rule into something that OSMRE Director Joe Pizarchik insists on calling the “stream protection rule” (see here, here and here).

Well, the issue was on display again yesterday, during a hearing before a Republican-controlled House Natural Resources Committee hearing. Subcommittee leaders did their past to muddy the water, so to speak, on the issue of mountaintop removal and its impacts on both the environment and public health. Here’s how the GOP’s press release described the matter:

At the hearing Committee Members specifically questioned the amount of taxpayer dollars being spent to expedite a rewrite of a rule completed in January, 2009 after five years of extensive environmental and scientific review to complete. According to Pizarchik, the Obama Administration has already spent $3.7million to pay for a contractor that was terminated and awarded Industrial Economics a contract for over $1 million to finish rewriting the rule. Pizarchik was unable to say how much of OSM’s own man-hours have been invested into the process.

When asked by Chairman Lamborn how much more taxpayer money will be needed to finish the rule, Pizarchik replied, “I don’t know specifically how much more…”

However, the total cost of the rulemaking process is assured to be even more expensive.

Director Pizarchik also admitted OSM will miss their June 29, 2012 deadline to finalize the rule, which was set by a settlement agreement between the National Parks Conservation Association and the Interior Department, which could lead to additional litigation and spending more money.

This time, though, House Democrats — who couldn’t be bothered to a field hearing here in Charleston last year — actually had something to say. Democratic committee staff issued a report called Mountains Out of Molehills: Documents refute Republican allegations about rulemaking to protect streams from mountaintop removal mining. The report concluded:

Republicans on the House Natural Resources Committee, who oppose a new Stream Protection Rule, are now investigating OSM’s relationship with a contractor, Polu Kai Services (PKS), that was hired in June 2010 to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the rule. OSM and the contractor mutually agreed to end their relationship in March 2011 before the EIS was complete. Committee Republicans allege that the Obama administration and OSM acted improperly in seeking this separation agreement and in managing the contract.

The Department of Interior has provided more than 12,000 pages of documents to the Committee in response to Republican requests for documents related to this matter. Democratic Committee Staff reviewed these documents at the request of Ranking Member Ed Markey (D-MA) to assess the validity of the Republican allegations. The documents do not support these allegations and in fact show the allegations are untrue.

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House to vote on Rep. McKinley’s coal-ash bill

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UPDATED: The House has passed Rep. McKinley’s bill by a vote of 267-144.

As I write this, I’m watching the debate in the U.S. House of Representatives of Rep. David McKinley’s legislation to strip the federal Environmental Protection Agency of its authority to create tough nationwide regulations for the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash from power plants.

A vote is expected later today, and given the GOP control of the House, it appears likely to legislation will pass (keep in mind, of course that quite a few Democrats — such as West Virginia’s Rep. Nick J. Rahall — are backing the bill).

There’s a blog today from The Hill in which Rep. McKinley explains the reasons he’s pushing this matter, despite the fact that EPA has yet to really show that it’s serious about declaring toxic coal ash to need regulation as a hazardous waste. The blog says:

H.R. 2273 not only prevents the EPA from regulating it as a hazardous material, but establishes a new regulatory framework, similar but more stringent to that of municipal solid waste landfills, and will safeguard both jobs and public health. The states will have primacy over the regulation of coal ash, but EPA retains its ability to step in when necessary.

Now remember that state regulatory systems for coal ash are considered wildly inadequate, and here in West Virginia, the state Department of Environmental Protection couldn’t even keep track of how many coal-ash impoundments the state had.

And as for McKinley, there’s an interesting report out this week that again recounts his campaign contributions from the coal industry:

He has racked up more than $187,000 in mining related donations, including coal, more than any other federal candidate this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

McKinley has also done well with utilities, having received roughly $46,000 in related donations, among the top getters.

Watching today’s debate, it’s worth remembering what drove toxic coal-ash disposal — a long simmering issue ignored by many policymakers and the media — to the top of the EPA’s agenda: The massive failure of a huge coal-ash impoundment in Tennessee in 2008 (subscription required).

My friend Jim Bruggers at the Louisville Courier-Journal did a major series on the subject more than a decade ago, and some other great reporting on the issue has been produced by Sue Sturgis at Facing South and by Kristen Lombardi at the Center for Public Integrity.

Report: House coal-ash bill loosens arsenic limits

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There’s a new report out today from the Environmental Integrity Project regarding H.R. 2273, the bill Rep. David McKinley authored to prevent the Obama EPA from putting in place national standards for the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash.

According to their press release:

HR 2273, scheduled for a vote in the U.S. House on Friday, would authorize construction of new coal ash sites designed to leak up to five times more arsenic into groundwater than current law allows, according to a new analysis by The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP).

H.R. 2273 appears to eventually require cleanup if ash dumps cause arsenic and other pollutants to exceed the Safe Drinking Water Act standards in effect today, though without any real deadlines to give that requirement teeth. But the bill effectively wipes out these protections by allowing states to waive any standards – including the obligation to clean up badly polluted drinking water – by simply deciding they are “not needed” for coal ash management. The bill also requires EPA to defer to those judgments, which means that bad state decisions cannot be reversed, even if they jeopardize public health.

So, Rep. McKinley wants to put decisions about how toxic coal ash could impact public health in the hands of, for example, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection — whose secretary was just saying yesterday is not an expert in public health.

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