Coal Tattoo

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If you happened to miss our story about West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman’s comments about the mountaintop removal health studies, you should check it out:

West Virginia’s top environmental regulator says studies that have found residents near mountaintop removal coal-mining operations face increased risks of serious illnesses and premature death deserve to be carefully examined by state and federal officials.

“I think it is something that is worthy of a closer look,” said Randy Huffman, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection. “It is something that is worthy of consideration. The evidence that is being stated in some of the studies, that needs to be considered.”

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small2Now, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Randy Huffman in no way said that DEP is launching some new effort to take a comprehensive look at the growing list of studies linking living near mountaintop removal to greater risk of serious illnesses and premature death.  And note the comment from DEP communications director Kelley Gillenwater that “there is currently no conclusive data that would result in changes to the permit application review process.”

Moreover, if what the good folks organizing “The People’s Foot” event on Monday are looking for is an announcement that Randy Huffman has ordered his Division of Mining and Reclamation to stop issuing new mountaintop removal permits effective immediately … well, that’s just not going to happen. Don’t look for Randy to be grabbing a sign and joining the folks protesting outside his agency’s headquarters next week.

But given the political climate in West Virginia right now, it’s probably about right to say that Randy’s comments to me this week are both a big shift and a baby step. It’s a huge thing for someone in a position of authority — someone who works for a very pro-coal governor — to even acknowledge that these studies exist, let alone to go on the record right before a big protest as saying that the science deserves a closer look. It’s a baby step because, given the low bar in West Virginia for acknowledging any science that might in any way reflect negatively on coal, Randy’s comments are a long, long way from any real action on this issue.

So, what happens now?

This was well played by Randy. It’s pretty tough for the protesters to complain that DEP won’t acknowledge the studies when the secretary of the agency just did so. This means that the real action on Monday won’t be at the protest, but in the meeting afterward, when citizen groups will have a chance to make their case to some of Randy’s staff and suggest some path forward.

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Patriot Coal May 2013 Rally

Well, the latest police response to the continuing United Mine Workers of America “Fairness at Patriot” campaign event certainly seemed like a bit of overkill, as this letter to the editor of the St. Louis paper suggests (see the photos as well).  But it appears that some progress on the Patriot issue is being made in Congress.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts issued this statement yesterday, announcing the union’s support for new bipartisan legislation to help retired Patriot miners whose pensions and health-care benefits are threatened by the company’s bankruptcy:

The legislation introduced today by Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) will provide significant help to retired miners and widows whose health care is threatened. The Coal Healthcare and Pensions Protection Act of 2013 will also provide security for the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan, which serves nearly 100,000 pensioners.

“I want to thank Reps. McKinley and Capito for introducing this bill, and for their support of the retired miners, their spouses or widows, who through no fault of their own, currently face a loss of the health care they were promised and earned through lifetimes of service in America’s mines.

Reps. McKinley and Capito issued a joint statement with Rep. Nick J. Rahall. Rep. McKinley said:

Over the past two and a half years, my staff and I have been working with United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) officials, miners, and retirees in an effort to protect healthcare and pension benefits for our miners. After hearing the stories of what these men and their families face if they lose their benefits, it was clear that we had to find a solution.

And Rep. Capito said:

I am proud to join my West Virginia colleagues in introducing this legislation. We have worked diligently together to craft legislation that addresses the most pressing issues retirees are facing as a result of Patriot Coal Company’s bankruptcy. These hardworking coal miners have dedicated their lives to providing electricity to the Mountain State and building its economy, and we cannot let them down. I will continue to fight for our coal miners and the retirees whose benefits are at risk.

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Judge Chambers blocks health studies from case

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In a much-followed motion on a major permit challenge, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers has refused to allow citizen groups to argue that the federal Army Corps of Engineers wrongly failed to consider the growing scientific evidence that links living near mountaintop removal mining operations to increases risks of serious health problems, such as birth defects and cancer.

Judge Chambers issued his ruling on Monday, and I’ve posted a copy of his six-page opinion and order here. Readers may recall that Alpha Natural Resources was fighting an effort by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and other groups to present testimony about the long list of West Virginia University studies that have raised serious questions about mountaintop removal’s public health impacts. OVEC and the other groups are challenging a Clean Water Act permit the Corps issued for Alpha’s proposed Reylas Surface Mine in Logan County.

The judge cited the provisions of one of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, and a U.S. Supreme Court case that says that lawsuits like this one should generally be allowed to be amended or supplemented unless the proposed amendment would be “futile.” He also cited case law that describes how the National Environmental Policy Act purports to apply to these situations (see here, and here, for example).

Judge Chambers made two central points in this short decision.

First, he ruled that the Corps had already issued the permit, so that any federal action requiring NEPA review was over and done with — despite the fact that the actual, on-the-ground mining work that the plaintiffs are concerned about hasn’t started yet. Commenting on what citizen groups were trying to do, the judge wrote:

… The Corps’ duty to supplement [its analysis of the proposed permit] would continue so long as environmental impact remains to be realized from the permit decision. This position simply cannot be correct in a world where the impacts of permitting decisions are potentially permanent … Once the proposed action [which the judge defines as permit issuance — not mining activity] is completed, an agency’s duty to supplement terminates.

Second, the judge concluded that even if he allowed the citizen group lawyers to get the health studies into the case, they would still not be able to prove that the Corps’ failure to consider them in the permit review was arbitrary and capricious, the legal standard for overturning a Clean Water Act permit issuance. According to Judge Chambers:

Where, as here, the new claim is based on studies first published after the agency has met its initial NEPA obligation, the inquiry ‘must be framed in terms of information available during a specific time period, with recognition of the fact that an agency cannot have acted arbitrarily unless it has had a reasonable time to consider the alleged new information.

More specifically, Judge Chambers argued:

Having been presented with the newly published Hendryx studies for the first time in this lawsuit, the Corps has not had a reasonable opportunity [to] consider them, let alone to take action that could be found to be arbitrary and capricious.

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Voices left out of Marsh Fork school groundbreaking

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It will be a great moment tomorrow morning, when officials in Raleigh County gather for a ceremonial groundbreaking for the new Marsh Fork Elementary School. As the Beckley paper reported:

Marsh Fork Elementary students will provide music for the event, and Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, will be among the speakers.

Unfortunately, a few important voices — folks who played a huge role in making this new school a reality — aren’t on the guest list and haven’t been invited to speak.

Longtime community activist Bo Webb told me today that he wasn’t invited and that none of the other environmental and citizen group leaders who pushed for the new school in the first place are on the agenda.

I asked Sue Stover, a spokeswoman for the Raleigh County school system, why they weren’t included and she told me:

I can’t answer that … I don’t know. It didn’t come up. But I  think they definitely will be recognized from the stage for their role.

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If coal is so good, then why is W.Va. so poor?

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A coal truck drives out of downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

As we wrap up another week of news from the coalfields of West Virginia, it’s worth looking back to see exactly who is asking the tough questions that need to be asked about this industry and its impacts on our state.

First, it takes a couple of members of Congress from California of all places to press Kevin Crutchfield, CEO of Alpha Natural Resources, about exactly how opposing unions fits into his company’s notion of “Running Right.”

West Virginia’s elected officials don’t seem to be interested in finding out what Crutchfield is doing to reform the Massey Energy safety practices that brought us the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. Contrast the grilling of Crutchfield by Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey to the attitude of Rep. Nick Rahall, who this week touted “the new ownership in Southern West Virginia” as the answer to any coal-related problems. Of course, my good friend Congressman Rahall, despite spending more than 30 years in Washington, hasn’t been able to figure out what agency should look into the recent scientific study that found his constituents who live near mountaintop removal mines face a greater risk of birth defects.

Then, we had a Boston native, billionaire business information mogul (and mayor New York City) coughing up $50 million of his personal wealth to help the Sierra Club fight construction of new coal-fired power plants, encourage the closure of polluting older plants and halt new mountaintop removal mining permits.

That move by Michael Bloomberg really touched a nerve with the powers that be in West Virginia’s coal industry and among some of its political allies.

The United Mine Workers issued a statement blasting Bloomberg. So did the National Mining Association. I couldn’t imagine that Sen. Joe Manchin was going to let it slide, and he didn’t disappoint, issuing a press release saying:

Coal not only built this country, but it built the skyscrapers of New York City, and without coal, the lights of that city would be dark and its economy would be devastated.

My buddy Matt Ballard at the Charleston Area Alliance (a local business booster group) must have gotten the memo on this, because I noticed him tweeting about it:

1/2 Really would have liked 2 have seen #Bloomberg donate $ to build CO2 technology to help make coal cleaner & advance the industry.

2/2 tech advances environmental science to help reduce #CO2. But instead he chose to not think about our domestic security. #Bloomberg

That was a general theme from the UMWA, the NMA and Sen. Manchin … that Mayor Bloomberg should have used his money to support development of  “clean coal” technology such as carbon capture and storage, or CCS.

OK, now let’s be clear again on something: American Electric Power dropped its work on one of the largest CCS test projects in history over in Mason County at its Mountaineer Plant. Why? Because federal and state officials have failed to make such technology necessary, by not passing any sort of binding limits on greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

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Trial starts in Marsh Fork Elementary case

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Testimony began yesterday in a civil lawsuit that alleges hundreds or Raleigh County children should get medical monitoring to determine if they’ve been made sick by exposure to coal dust from the Massey Energy coal loading and storage operation adjacent to Marsh Fork Elementary School.

The Associated Press has this report on yesterday’s proceedings:

A jury of seven women heard opening statements from lawyers who brought the class-action lawsuit on behalf of an unknown number of current and former pupils at Marsh Fork Elementary against Richmond, Va.-based Massey and several subsidiaries.

The plaintiffs claim Massey improperly built the silo 235 feet from the school, which allowed dangerous levels of coal dust to enter the building and put children at risk of black lung disease and asthma.

“Massey owes a duty to do no harm,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Kevin Thompson said. “Massey could have built the silo further away. The wrong is building the silo next to the school.”

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A different take on coal pollution

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We talk a lot on this blog about the impacts coal causes because of our addiction to using it to fuel our industrial society here in the United States. But every once in a while a story out there catches my eye that reminds of coal’s importance — and impacts — in other parts of the world.

Yesterday was such a day … when I read this:

Children raised in homes using indoor coal for cooking or heating appear to be about a half-inch shorter at age 36 months than those in households using other fuel sources, according to a report posted online today that will appear in the June print issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

“Use of coal for indoor heating is widely prevalent in some countries, exposing millions of people to indoor air pollution from coal smoke,” the authors write as background information in the article. “Coal combustion emits chemicals such as fluorine, selenium, mercury, arsenic, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into the indoor air, and these chemicals may form residues on household surfaces and food. Often, exposures are prolonged owing to inadequate ventilation.”

A Reuters report said:

Roughly half the world’s population burns coal, dung, wood or crop wastes for heating or cooking, according to the World Health Organization. Indoor air pollution causes up to 1.6 million deaths a year, the group has estimated.

Coal smoke is known to cause lung damage, but the new study “is significant because it indicates there’s some systemic effect” on the entire body.”

The study found:

Prenatal exposure to pollutants has been linked to restricted growth in utero, shorter length at birth, smaller head circumference and early-childhood cognitive deficits. To determine whether exposure to coal byproducts in the years following birth—a period marked by rapid development—also may adversely affect development, Rakesh Ghosh, Ph.D., of University of California, Davis, and colleagues tracked 1,133 children in the Czech Republic from birth to age 36 months. Data was gathered from questionnaires filled out by mothers and from medical records.

Among households in the study, 10.2 percent used coal for indoor heating or cooking and 6.8 percent used wood; 46.8 percent of wood users and 22.4 percent of coal users also used other fuel sources. At age 36 months, boys in coal-burning households were about 1.34 centimeters (0.52 inches) shorter than boys in households using other fuels, and girls raised in homes that used coal were about 1.3 centimeters (0.52 inches) shorter than girls in other homes.

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Health care and coal miners

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 A roof bolter at work at Blue Mt. Energy’s Deserado Mine, Rangely, Colo. Photo by Phil Smith, UMWA.

Interesting news out there today about the latest version of a health-care bill and its potential impacts on folks like coal miners, who work in dangerous occupations and have pretty valuable health-care insurance plans through their employers.

Apparently, the proposal by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, D-Montana, would levy a heavy tax on those insurance plans — a tax that folks like West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the committee’s second-ranking Democrat — thinks is unfair. According to this Associated Press account:

Rockefeller, who met privately with Obama on Wednesday, said the proposal “could prevent workers in high-risk professions from getting the health benefits that they need, particularly coal miners.”

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Asbestos trial underway in Montana mining town

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This undated AP photo shows the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine near Libby, Mont.

After years of delays, the people of a Montana mining town are getting their day in court to see a major chemical company face federal charges accusing it of poisoning their homes and schools with asbestos, according to The Associated Press.

W.R. Grace and Co. and five of its executives are charged by federal prosecutors with knowingly exposing the residents of Libby, Mont., to the fibrous mineral linked to cancer.

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