Coal Tattoo

A little news and more on Patriot Coal bankruptcy

Late yesterday, Bloomberg brought us this interesting tidbit about the Patriot Coal bankruptcy case:

Patriot (PCXCQ) Coal Corp.’s bankruptcy case should be moved out of Manhattan because the company can’t show it didn’t create two new units with the sole purpose of avoiding other bankruptcy courts, the U.S. said.

The case should be moved “in the interests of justice,” said the U.S. Trustee, an arm of the Justice Department that oversees bankruptcies. The trustee’s request, filed today in Manhattan, where the coal producer’s Chapter 11 case is under way, didn’t specify a new court and joins motions from objectors who say St. Louis-based Patriot’s case should be heard in the Southern District of West Virginia.

Interestingly, as the story points out, West Virginia Attorney General Darrell V. McGraw has also joined in the original motion by the United Mine Workers of America to move this case to West Virginia. As we pointed out in a Gazette story a month ago:

Earlier this week, UMW lawyers sought to have the reorganization case moved from U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York to Southern West Virginia, where they say such issues can be more appropriately handled.

UMW lawyers noted that Patriot’s bankruptcy filing in New York is based at least in part on two New York-based subsidiaries, both of which were created only in June.

“Nobody mines coal in New York,” the union’s lawyers said in court papers. “Significant issues in this case — whether mines are shut, whether employee wages and benefits are cut — will all directly affect the West Virginia economy while having no such effect in New York.”

This case is vitally important to thousands of working UMWA members and thousands more retired miners and families.  UMWA officials say Patriot has 2,000 active union members in West Virginia and Kentucky, along with more than 10,000 retirees and an additional 10,000 dependents, most of them in West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky and Ohio.

In its bankruptcy filings, Patriot seems to be making it clear that it views its union contracts — along with their decent pensions and health-care benefits (or unsustainable labor-related legacy liabilities, as Patriot calls them) — as a drag on the company:

While less than 11.4% of miners currently employed in the U.S. coal industry are represented by the UMWA, more than 42% of the Debtors’ employees are represented by the UMWA.

The NBCWA [National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement] contains many provisions that restrict the ability of signatory employers to deploy labor and operate their mines in a flexible and cost-effective manner, which puts signatory companies at a cost disadvantage with their union-free competitors. Over the years, an extensive and costly package of pension and non-pension benefits for active and retired miners has evolved under successive NBCWAs, including funding benefits for tens of thousands of retired mineworkers whose employers are no longer in business.

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Coal job numbers: Looking to the future

Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

If you missed it, we had a story in this morning’s Gazette (posted online last night) that provides the first glimpse at government data reflecting the jobs impact on the layoffs various coal operators have announced since the first of the year. Here’s a bit of that story:

Coal-mining employment in West Virginia dropped by nearly 1,300 jobs in the second quarter of the year, according to preliminary numbers that illustrate the coal industry’s continued decline in the face of cheap natural gas, declining reserves, and competition from other coal regions.

New data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration put coal employment at about 23,300 during the period from April to June, a decline of about 5 percent over the previous three months.

The numbers are the first government statistics to reflect recent layoffs across the state’s coalfields. But some observers said they also show coal employment remains surprisingly strong, given the political campaign that alleges new environmental rules are destroying the industry.

Current statewide numbers are roughly the same as the last full quarter of George W. Bush’s presidency, according to jobs numbers mine operators report to MSHA.

West Virginia mining employment is up by nearly 1,800 jobs — more than 8 percent — since the Obama administration began initiatives aimed at cracking down on mountaintop removal mining. And, the most recent quarter’s figures show the seventh-highest number of jobs over the last 40 quarters, or 10 years.

So everyone is clear, many of the layoffs took effect in the second quarter of 2012, so they weren’t included in the first-quarter data that we previously published in the Gazette and discussed here on Coal Tattoo (see here, here and here).  And for those not familiar with the data, it’s reported to the government by coal operators and published by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, though various other agencies also keep similar figures.

What to make of all of this?

First of all, there’s simply no question that for the miners and families personally hit by these layoffs, it’s terrible news.  Roger Horton, a miner who started the group Citizens for Coal, spoke from personal experience when he testified to Congress last year about how mine closures can impact families and local communities:

The workforce and local union were obviously devastated but the county was also severely damaged. The school system and social welfare programs lost revenue that was vital to their existence and operation.

Entire communities were devastated. With nowhere to work and no prospect of the mine reopening any time soon, residents packed up and moved to other states to find lower paying jobs. Businesses that relied on the mine for their income — gas stations, restaurants, repair shops and equipment vendors — vanished.

But it’s also important, from a larger public policy standpoint, to put what’s happened and what is happening in context, and to base discussions about it around the facts — not the scare tactics of the mining industry’s public relations machine, the nonsense of President Obama’s coal-related campaign ads, or the rhetoric of those who don’t always fully understand the role coal still plays in many communities here.

Clearly, the net loss of 1,300 jobs to any industry in West Virginia is a troubling economic trend, right? Everybody can agree on that? But is it the end of the world, sky is falling, destruction of an industry that supporters fear and some opponents actually celebrate?

Remember that coal is a boom-bust industry. As the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy has warned, by relying so heavily on one boom-bust industry for so long, West Virginia puts itself at risk for what happens when things go bust:

However, natural resource extraction tends to lead to economic boom and bust cycles, as production grows and shrinks, energy prices rise and fall, and the resources themselves are depleted over time. West Virginia has experienced this pattern over the past century. Since the state is so dependent upon natural resources, this pattern of booms and busts causes volatility in revenue streams, leaving communities vulnerable, underdeveloped, and less economically secure.

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Remembering the Crandall Canyon Mine Disaster

Five years ago today, the first in a series of coal-mine “bumps” occurred at Murray Energy’s Crandall Canyon Mine out in Utah. Before the disaster was over, six miners and three would-be rescue workers were dead.

Peg McEntee, columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote about the anniversary:

Drive up the road to the Crandall Canyon Mine and you’ll see abandoned buildings, silent conveyors and the gaping, dark portal that leads to the tomb of six good men.

Then walk up the winding path to nine black stone monuments — six markers for the men who died first, and three benches for those killed while trying to find them.

Many of the families who lost their husbands, fathers and sons have left Utah’s coal country, but some remain. For those, the country’s social fabric, and the all people who live and work there, remain a comfort.

“We put our arms around the families and help them grow as much as they can,” says Price Mayor Joe Piccolo. “The one thing about coal miners and their families is that they’re self-reliant, resilient people.”

She concludes:

Last week, I stopped at another monument to the miners near the Huntington Cemetery. It’s a curving wall with a panel of bas-reliefs of their faces, sculpted by Karen Templeton and cast in now-patinated bronze.

I’d seen it before, but this time I felt a shock — they seemed to be looking right into my eyes. For an instant, I caught a glimpse of the good men who will always live in memory in coal country and far beyond.

Coal protest: Was this really so radical?

The follow-up story in today’s paper about Saturday’s big anti-mountaintop removal protest at Hobet Mining was certainly discouraging. As the Gazette’s Travis Crum reported:

Matthew Louis-Rosenberg, a Sandstone resident and the group’s spokesman, alleges that State Police cooperated with coal supporters and miners who showed up to intimidate them. State Police spokesman Sgt. Michael Baylous said police support an individual’s right to protest and showed no preferential treatment in enforcing the law.

Among the troubling reports:

He alleges that one member, Dustin Steele, 21, of Matewan, was assaulted by law enforcement while in custody. Louis-Rosenberg was unsure which agency allegedly carried out the assault and hoped to learn more by speaking to Steele.

And:

An independent journalist also was arrested before Saturday’s protest.  Babette Hogan, 52, of San Francisco, told the Sunday Gazette-Mail she was taking photos from the passenger seat of a vehicle on Kanawha State Forest Drive when a trooper demanded her camera. When she refused, Hogan was arrested and charged with obstruction, she said.

Now. all of the facts aren’t in yet. And there is no question that being a police officer is made more difficult when citizens decide to break the law to make a political point — especially when in doing so they potentially put their safety and the safety of hard-working coal miners at risk.

But the West Virginia State Police have plenty of other things to worry about, and given the State Police’s formation a century ago to essentially help put down the unionization efforts in our state’s coalfields, it’s vitally important that the agency not only neutrally enforce the law, but also ensure that everyone walks away from these sorts of potential confrontations without getting hurt.

Perhaps Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will call in his State Police leadership and investigate what happened here, to ensure the agency is truly out to protect everyone’s right and safety, and ensure that the media’s ability to gather the news is also protected, even from troopers who might not like having their picture taken.

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Yes, you read that headline right … The United Steelworkers union has come out with a strong statement describing President Obama as the nation’s “pro-coal” president. It came in the form of this op-ed commentary published late last week in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette under the byline of Steelworkers President Leo Gerard (above):

Coal miners wake up before the sun rises, travel miles into the darkness of mountains and with only a lamp on their helmets help power our country. They have a dangerous job, and they deserve a president who fights for them.

Frankly, the piece is a little all over the place, jumping back and forth between discussions of environmental regulations and worker safety and health issues. For example:

Mr. Obama is committed to protecting clean air and clean water for our families while also helping the coal industry. That is why he promotes clean-coal technologies to ensure that the industry remains competitive.

The president wants mine workers who clock in each day to stay safe on the job. His administration has launched an inspection program that targets mines with patterns of violations, and it’s paid off. Between 2010 and February 2012, the injury rate at inspected mines dropped by 18 percent. Last year saw the second-lowest number of mine worker fatalities since such statistics have been recorded.

Generally, one point of the commentary argues that President Obama has tried to encourage “clean coal” — I suppose meaning coal that controls power plant greenhouse emissions — while GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has had hash words for coal pollution:

Of course, it’s not enough to produce good jobs today. We need to invest in the long-term security of the coal industry so that mine workers don’t have to wonder whether they will have a job to support their families next year, or the year after that.

With countries like China and Germany competing with us to lead the global clean-energy economy, Mr. Obama is making the most significant investments in clean coal of any president in history. His administration is partnering with businesses and universities on clean-coal projects in more than a dozen states and plans to rapidly deploy new technology.

The goal is to have five to 10 commercial-scale, low-carbon-power-plant demonstration projects online by 2016 and to have the technology become widespread within a decade. The manufacturing of clean-coal technologies is already supporting supply chain jobs in the United States. Facilities are making investments and hiring workers to manufacture components for clean-coal projects and to supply electricity to utilities.

Mr. Obama has been working to build a clean future for coal, but Mitt Romney abandoned the interests of coal miners and utility workers as governor of Massachusetts by attacking their “dirty power plants,” refusing to protect their jobs and even declaring that a Massachusetts coal plant “kills people.” He claimed to enforce strict regulations on coal-fired plants — in his words, “without compromise.”

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W.Va. coal-mining jobs on rise under Obama

There’s no doubt that next week’s taxpayer-funded coal industry pep rally against President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will feature industry officials and their political supporters arguing that the current administration’s policies are killing the coal industry, and putting West Virginians out of work.

Republican political operatives — folks that probably wish Don Blankenship would run for governor — are already gearing up their spin that West Virginia has “fewer coal miners” because of President Obama and EPA.

But over at the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, Ted Boettner dares to try to insert some facts into this whole discussion. Writes Ted:

While the Obama administration and the EPA may be taking a harder look at mountain top removal mining permits, a quick look at coal mining employment in West Virginia reveals that since Obama took office in the winter of 2009 coal mining employment has grown by over 1,500 jobs or by 7.4%. If we measure from the end of the national recession in June 2009 (or the 2nd Quarter of 2009) to the third-quarter of 2011 (the latest available data), employment in the coal mining industry has grown by 3,100. For comparison, total employment in West Virginia has only grown by 2.9% over this period.

Here’s the chart, which supports what we’ve previously published in the Gazette on this issue:

 

UMWA wins big decision in Peabody case

Dave Thearle, a member of the United Mine Workers of America, waves an American Flag during a rally in Waynesburg, Pa., in April 2011. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Here’s the lead on this story, from the AP:

A federal judge has rejected a coal company’s objections over a union election at a southern Illinois mine, ordering Peabody Energy Corp. to halt what he called unfair labor practices at the site and to rehire a worker fired over the dispute.

U.S. District Judge G. Patrick Murphy’s injunction Monday at the United Mine Workers of America’s request came four months after a National Labor Relations Board administrative law judge similarly ruled against St. Louis-based Peabody in the dispute over the union’s 2011 organizing at the Willow Lake mine. The Saline County site is operated by Peabody subsidiary Big Ridge Inc.

Murphy ruled that he was compelled to act, writing that failing to impose the injunction would “send a clear message to Willow Lake employees that Big Ridge … is too big for the law and not even the NLRB can do anything to help Willow Lake employees.”

UMWA President Cecil Roberts said:

This represents yet another decision that completely repudiates the company’s actions during and after this election, and strongly supports the workers’ decision to elect the UMWA to be their collective bargaining representative.

The UMWA has been prepared to sit down at the bargaining table with the company since the day we won the election. It’s long past time for these workers to have the fair contract they deserve. I once again call on the company to put aside its campaign of threats and intimidation, and sit down with us so we can negotiate a reasonable contract that is fair for everyone involved.

I posted a copy of the ruling here.

I’m not sure what MetroNews radio personality Hoppy Kercheval would prefer — For United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts to announce the union will work against President Obama’s re-election or for Brother Cecil to keep refusing to do so, giving Hoppy endless material for the statewide radio network with all of its coal industry advertisements.

But it is clear that Cecil Roberts isn’t doing a very good job of not taking Hoppy’s bait. Maybe he’s not trying that hard. It’s interesting that the UMWA has taken its complaints about the Obama administration’s environmental policies to a particular sort of media/infotainment outlet. First, there was the union president’s appearance Tuesday on Hoppy’s statewide Talkline program and then last night, a quick interview on a CNBC program hosted by conservative commentator Lawrence Kudlow. Could a guest blog for Don Surber be the next move in the UMWA’s media strategy?

Of course, the thing that got the most attention from this week’s Cecil Roberts media tour were his remarks about EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. If you missed it, early in the interview with Hoppy, Cecil threw this in from really out of nowhere:

I noticed this past week the vice president was talking about the campaign and he mentioned that Osama Bin Laden was dead and general motors was alive. He should have gone on to say that the coal industry is not far behind with respect to what happened to Osama Bin Laden.

Later, as Hoppy continued to try to corner Cecil about the union’s 2008 endorsement of then-candidate Obama, the radio host asserted:

This is happening by the EPA under a particular administration which you guys supported, and this administration is hanging you out to dry. Hanging you out to dry.

Cecil responded with this:

I don’t know if I would put it that distinctly, but I would say this, the Navy Seals shot Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan and Lisa Jackson shot us in Washington, so there you go.

This line got picked up by a variety of beltway media outlets (see here, here, here and here) and was the lead-in for Cecil’s appearance on CNBC last night.

What to say about this sort of rhetoric?

Well, Cecil should and I’m sure does know better, at least deep down somewhere.

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And so it begins: Coal layoffs sign of things to come?

If you don’t read the Saturday newspaper, you might have missed this story, outlining two troublesome announcements last week by major coal producers here in West Virginia:

Alpha Natural Resources announced late Friday that it plans to idle several Appalachian coal mines and reduce work schedules at others, citing reduced coal demand as more electricity utilities move toward using natural gas.

The company said many of the affected workers would be able to transfer to other Alpha operations but that about 320 workers would be displaced “within the next few weeks.”

The announcement is the second such move by a major coal producer this week, coming just one day after Patriot Coal said it was closing its Big Mountain complex in Boone County.

You can read for yourselves the announcement from Alpha here and the one earlier in the week from Patriot here.  Alpha made a separate announcement of its moves, in anticipation of the release of its quarterly earnings data on Feb. 24. Patriot wrapped word of its closure of the Big Mountain Complex in Boone County inside its quarterly earnings statement.

For those who missed the details of the Alpha closures and schedule cutbacks — Alpha didn’t bother to include that in its press release — here’s the way company spokesman Ted Pile explained it in an email to me:

West Virginia:

— #2 Gas mine in Kanawha County is being idled immediately as is the Randolph Mine in Boone County. Both are underground.

–The Black Castle surface mine in Boone County is reducing its work hours

–Camp Branch surface mine in Logan County is reducing work schedules

–Progress/Twilight surface mine is cutting back work schedules (Boone Cty.)

–Alloy Powellton mine in Fayette County s eliminating one underground section

Kentucky:

— the Cave Spur and Perkins Branch underground mines are idled immediately. Both are in Harlan County.

— the Coalgood surface mine in Harlan County will be phased out by the middle of this year and the Big Branch West surface mine in Knott County will close in early 2013.

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Blue-Green Alliances and the Future of Coal

A coal truck drives through an railroad tressel near downtown Welch, W.Va., Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2011.  (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

Over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that when most politicians start talking about balancing jobs and the environment, it signals they’re getting ready to get pretty weak on environmental protections … but maybe that’s an unfair conclusion to draw in all circumstances.

There’s no question that, when it comes to coal mining controversies, the industry’s public relations machine has done a great job of trying to make things about “jobs versus mayflies.” The media, especially in the coalfields of West Virginia, has done little to help — mostly ignoring the growing scientific evidence that links living new mountaintop removal to increase rates of serious health problems, like cancer and birth defects. The notion that polluting water, air and land impacts not just lizards and fish, but people, isn’t one that is given a lot of attention in the context of mountaintop removal.
Following last Friday’s major speech about global warming and “the future of coal” by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, the discussion of all of this is continuing in the comment section of a post I wrote called, “What will we do about coal’s crisis in the making?” And we were reminded just yesterday of the very real connection between coal’s environmental pollution and public health, with the release of two new expert reports about the slurry contamination in the community of Prenter.

But for those wanting to think and discuss more about the connections — or lack of connections — between the labor and environmental movements, historian and writer Erik Loomis has an interesting post on the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, called “Blue-Green Alliances.”  Loomis opines:

This gets to the complexities of the blue-green alliance, or the coalition between labor and environmental groups to craft policies that builds a unionized and sustainable future. There are clear areas where labor and environmentalists should have a common agenda–green technology, worker health, pollution. But there are equally clear lines that demarcate where the two groups can and can’t work together, particularly in extractive industry unions. My book-in-progress explores how logging unions in the Pacific Northwest organized around environmental issues, broadly defined. In the 1970s, a strong blue-green coalition (though I don’t believe the term had been invented yet) existed in the Northwest, with logging unions allying with environmentalists to keep workers safe and force timber companies to comply with the era’s new environmental regulations. But this was fraying at the same time it was peaking. The International Woodworkers of America had long criticized the timber industry’s unsustainable cutting, but when the rubber met the road and environmentalists in the 1970s and 80s were demanding increased wilderness areas and the protection of the last remaining old-growth stands, how could they vote their own members out of work? Especially when their union was coming under attack from so many other sides, with mills shutting down left and right?

The lesson from both the Northwest forest and Trumka’s coal miners is cultural. In the end, cultural divides shouldn’t stop anyone from promoting environmental positions with as much vigor as possible. But there is something very real about the resentment engendered when so-called outsiders (a term that can mean so many things) demand the end of an extractive industry without much thought into where workers are going to go. Even though those jobs are probably going away anyhow, it gives business a convenient target to direct workers’ ire. Of course, I don’t have any great answers about how to avoid this problem except to build understanding between the two constituencies, hoping that alliances over keeping workers’ bodies safe and air and water clean lead to stronger connections that allow environmentalists and labor to build toward understanding on the more intractable issues.

 

UMWA reaches deal with Alpha on Massey plants

This just in:

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) announced today that it has reached collective bargaining agreements with Alpha Natural Resources covering five Central Appalachia coal preparation plants which had previously been owned by Massey Energy. Workers at the plants had been working under the provisions of a previous contract that expired in 1998.

“This is a very good day for these workers and their families,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “They will get a substantial initial raise, the first they’ve had since 1998. They will get annual wage increases for the life of the agreement. They will get a $1,000 bonus. They will get shift differentials, a clothing allowance, sickness and accident benefits and the best quality health care benefits.

“I commend the workers at these plants for persevering so long and sticking with the UMWA in the face of constant attacks by the previous ownership,” Roberts said. “Massey simply refused to take any steps to reach a fair agreement as long as these workers stayed in the UMWA. But the workers stayed united and it ultimately paid off for them.

“I also want to recognize the fresh approach Alpha is taking with respect to recognizing the value of these employees,” Roberts said. “The UMWA is working to build a good relationship with Alpha at these and other operations where we represent the workers. We appreciate the company’s willingness to recognize and address the long-standing inequities the workers at these preparation plants were dealing with.”

The agreement covers some 145 workers at the following locations: the Bandmill preparation plant in Logan County, W. Va.; the Long Fork preparation plant in Pike County, Ky.; the Goals preparation plant in Raleigh County, W. Va.; the Chesterfield preparation plant operated by Alpha subsidiary Omar Coal Co. in Boone County, W. Va.; and the Power Mountain preparation plant in Nicholas County, W. Va.

The 5-1/2-year agreement goes into effect Jan. 1, 2012, and will continue until June 30, 2017.

Big Blair Mountain rally set for Tuesday

Here’s the latest from the Friends of Blair Mountain:

On November 1st, a variety of citizens are coming together to raise awareness of the Battle of Blair Mountain and to call on our state agencies and politicians to preserve the Blair Mountain battlefield and develop it as the significant national historic site that it truly is.

In 1921, ten thousand coalminers joined together to fight for their basic human rights to live and work in safe conditions. They fought for five days on the steep ridges of Blair Mountain until finally federal troops quelled the conflict peacefully.

Currently, Blair Mountain is threatened by imminent destruction from MTR, an extremely destructive form of coal extraction. A broad range of citizens including community members, union coalminers, environmentalists, academics, and many other people have been working to preserve the battlefield.

We have already taken constructive steps to show that heritage tourism is profitable, with the establishment of Coal Country Tours that features Blair Mountain as a stop along a multi-day tour through the coalfields. We have also established a Community Center and Museum in the town of Blair, WV, to celebrate the struggles of coalminers at Blair Mountain as well as larger coalfield culture.

We will continue to build local business around the Blair Mountain battlefield, and to continue to honor the heritage of coal mining families. With this press conference and rally at the State Historic Preservation office at the Cultural Center, we are asking our state government to step up and help us preserve and develop Blair Mountain.

We realize it is a difficult political decision due to pressure from the coal industry, but is it one that will preserve a piece of heritage for future generations as well as building local business now. We believe that with all of us working together we can come up with a viable solution where the jobs of coalminers are protected, new and diverse business opportunities are generated in the communities around the battlefield and coal companies can still underground mine the battlefield.

Come join us on November 1, 2011, at 12:00 as we discuss the importance of Blair Mountain and present a petition with over 26,000 signatures from people around the world to the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer. Speakers will include noted scholars, mining families, activists, and community members. All are welcome to attend.

Cecil Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers of America, right, listens as Massey Energy Company Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 20, 2010, before the Senate Health and Human Services subcommittee hearing on mine safety. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

While testimony yesterday in federal court in Beckley focused on advance reporting of MSHA inspections at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, the defense lawyer for company security director Hughie Elbert Stover raised an interesting question in his opening statement to the jury: Is prosecuting a security guard the best the federal government can do following the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years?

Stover lawyer Bill Wilmoth asked where the evidence is about what really caused that terrible explosion on April 5, 2010. He said that information seems to be locked in a closet somewhere, certainly not to to be heard of during this week’s criminal trial against his client. It was an interesting strategy, especially since Wilmoth had earlier tried to prevent any mention of the disaster during the Stover trial.

But it was also very timely — because as trial continues today in Beckley the United Mine Workers of America is doing its best to ensure that evidence about what really happened at Upper Big Branch gets out. Right now, top UMWA officials are in Charleston, briefing families of the 29 miners who died on the findings of the union’s own extensive investigation of the disaster. A press conference is planned for later today. We’ll have much more on their report after that press conference.

The union’s findings aren’t surprising:

It is the determination of the union that the sparking of the shearer bits and bit blocks, aided by missing and ineffective water sprays, a lack of water pressure and inadequate ventilation, ignited a pocket of methane at the tailgate near the longwall. the ignition traveled into the gob where it encountered an explosive methane-air mixture, resulting in an explosion. The explosive forces picked up and suspended float coal dust in the mine atmosphere in sufficient quantities to initiate a massive dust explosion.

How could something like this happen in this day and age?

The dangerous conditions that contributed to the explosion existed at the mine on a daily basis. These conditions, which represented gross violations of, mandatory health and safety standards, were not accidental. They were permitted to exist by a corporate management at Massey that created a culture that demanded production at any cost and tolerated a callous disregard for the health and safety of the miners employed at the operation.

The UMWA’s 154-page report supports previous findings from the Davitt McAteer team and preliminary results from MSHA, outlining major problems with the Upper Big Branch mine’s longwall shearer, serious violations of requirements for rock-dusting underground and significant and repeated failures to properly ventilate the huge Raleigh County mine.

But there are some interesting new things in the UMWA report as well:

— The union appears to make a much more specific allegation than either MSHA or McAteer have so far about a specific illegal change in mine ventilation its investigators believe led to the methane present in the longwall area and the gob, the fuel for the initial ignition and explosion.

— UMW officials included fascinating maps and descriptions in their report that show more clearly than I’ve seen before the massive size and scope of the explosion — along with a discussion of how the blast essentially circled around on itself, following the trail of coal dust and creating a growing path of death and destruction underground. The union noted, for example, that the blast traveled up the a former coal-transportation tunnel called the “Glory Hole”  and scorched the roof on an adjacent Massey mine.

— After the explosion, investigation teams found in the longwall area of the mine a methane monitor that appeared to be almost new — or certainly undamaged despite its location near the heart of the explosion. Union officials aren’t sure how it got there, or how it got to be so free of damage, dirt and dust. But they noted it was found near where it appears that a brattice cloth curtain was hung so that it would direct all airflow toward the sensor, diluting any methane at that point.

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Remembering the Jim Walter Mine Disaster

A makeshift memorial, with flowers and a sign, covered the fence outside the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Ala., when I visited the area five years ago.

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the series of explosions that killed 13 coal miners at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Bookwood, Ala.

On this day last year, I wrote a little bit about my own trip to Brookwood five years ago, as part of the Gazette’s Beyond Sago:  Coal Mine Safety in America project and series. I also wrote:

It’s worth remembering that the Bush administration’s response to Brookwood was to proceed to dismantle the regulatory safety net intended to protect our nation’s coal miners. Since then, we’ve seen not only Sago, Aracoma and Darby, but also Crandall Canyon and now, Upper Big Branch. Since that day in September 2001, 292 coal miners in the United States have died — and that doesn’t count the perhaps 10,000 who succumbed to black lung in the last decade.

I did a quick Internet search and only found one mention in the media of today’s anniversary, an article in the local Tuscaloosa News,  recounting the investigation report and subsequent litigation over the disaster:

On Dec. 11, 2002, MSHA issued its report. It cited Jim Walter Resources for 27 violations, including eight major violations that the agency said contributed to the deadly disaster.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao sought $435,000 in civil fines from the company.

Jim Walter Resources appealed the penalty. MSHA Administrative Law Judge David F. Barbour took testimony over 24 days. On Nov. 1, 2005, Barbour ruled. He reduced the fine to $3,000 after dismissing six of the major violations against Jim Walter Resources and modifying the other two.

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Cliffs agrees to new UMWA contract

This just in from the United Mine Workers of America:

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and Cliffs Natural Resources agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement yesterday that is substantially the same as the National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement (NBCWA) already signed by the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (including Consol Energy) and Alpha Natural Resources.

“I am extremely pleased that Cliffs has agreed to the terms and conditions of the contract,” UMWA International President Cecil Roberts said today. “This agreement means that the miners at the Cliffs mines where the UWMA represents the workers are getting a substantial pay increase, maintaining their pensions, and keeping the best health care benefits in the world.

“I commend UMWA International District 17 Vice President Joe Carter and International District 20 Vice President Daryl Dewberry for guiding these negotiations to a successful conclusion,” Roberts said. “Because of their leadership, nearly 900 more miners will be covered by this agreement in West Virginia and Alabama.”

The agreement covers approximately 425 UMWA members at the Pinnacle mine in Wyoming County, W. Va., and 450 members at the Oak Grove mine and preparation plant in Jefferson County, Ala. The agreement includes a total of $6 per hour in wage increases, continued family health care benefits, and defined-benefit pensions, among other provisions.

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On the heels of last week’s demand for an investigation of  what the United Mine Workers alleges are misleading coal exhibits at the West Virginia State Museum, citizen groups have now sued the state Department of Environmental Protection over its refusal to consider “lands unsuitable for mining” protections for historic Blair Mountain in Logan County.

As The Associated Press reported:

Several groups that couldn’t convince state regulators to declare Logan County’s Blair Mountain unsuitable for mining are taking their case to Kanawha Circuit Court.

In a complaint Thursday, they asked the court to force the state Department of Environmental Protection to accept their June petition and hold a hearing.

“DEP can’t just skip the public hearing because it’s more convenient for them to do so,” argued Bill Price of the Sierra Club. “… Blair Mountain belongs to all West Virginians, and all West Virginians have a right to weigh in.”

Recall that WVDEP’s mining director, Tom Clarke, declared the citizens’ petition “frivolous” and refused to even process it — let alone hold a public hearing and examine the matter in any detail. In his letter responding to the original petition, Clarke wrote:

A significant portion of the lands identified in your petition has been affected in the past and continued to be affected by oil and gas and logging operations. These activities have great potential to adversely affect the historic integrity of the lands you have identified. A declaration that the lands you have identified are unsuitable for mining would not effectively protect the historic integrity of these lands because it would have no effect on oil and gas and logging operations.

Because I am rejecting your petition as frivolous, no other findings are being made with respect to it.

Barbara Rasmussen, a historian and President of Friends of Blair
Mountain, responded:

Since the 1991 petitions were submitted, a number of new and significant facts have come to light. The exact area for which we had requested unsuitability status is ‘eligible for listing’ on the National Register of historic places, and multiple professionalarchaeological and historical surveys have been completed, which led to the discovery of 15 previously unknown battle sites at Blair Mountain.

And Cindy Rank, mining chair of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said:

For DEP to dismiss the entire petition because some minor portion of the petition boundary might be ineligible due to prior permitting ignores the value and eligibility of the other 70% of the Battlefield. DEP’s response is an affront to the very intent of the Surface Mine Act, which provides a mechanism to protect important historical sites like Blair Mountain.

UPDATED:

In related news, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., has denied a request from the Department of Interior to transfer a case challenging the removal of Blair Mountain from the National Register of Historic Places to a federal court in West Virginia.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton noted the “national significance” of the issue. I’ve posted a copy of the ruling here.

 

UMWA blasts W.Va. state museum

Just in from the United Mine Workers of America, this three-page letter to W.Va. Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith, in which UMWA President Cecil Roberts raises major questions about the state museum’s portrayal of coal history:

Over the past months, several members of the UMWA staff have visited the West Virginia State Museum on many separate occasions. I have been to the museum myself, and seen the displays there. I have a number of very serious concerns with what is an inaccurate portrayal of the UMWA and our history of oppression and struggle against the coal operators of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Among the examples:

— The ‘Company Store’ including the discussion of the system of using mine company scrip instead of U.S. legal tender to pay miners. Your presentation makes it seem as if the scrip system was little different from a credit card, where miners and their families could pay of expensive purchases over time.

Nowhere is it stated that miners had absolutely no choice as to whether they used scrip or not. Nowhere is it mentioned that going somewhere else instead of the company store to purchase goods and equipment was an offense frequently punishable by a beating from the company’s Baldwin-Felts thugs followed by dismissal from employment and eviction from the company house.

— ‘Coal Mining’ includes misleading statements regarding Island Creek Coal and the UMWA organizing, as well as a very small presentation regarding the worst industrial disaster in United States history — the explosion at the Monongah Mine — that includes language regarding the company’s Christmas ‘gift’ to the families of those killed that is offensive to the memories of the fallen miners.

— ‘The Battle of Blair Mountain,’ which blames Sid Hatfield for instigating the violence in the coalfields that led to that battle, instead of focusing on the daily violence inflicted on coal miners and their families in the coal camps of the day.

Roberts continues in his letter:

Indeed, in just about every instance where the UMWA is mentioned in the museum, we are linked with violence or some other unsavory activity. There is no mention of the millions of West Virginians who have, over the past 60 + years, received or continue to receive the benefits of UMWA pensions and retiree health care — considerably easing their senior years — which were negotiated by the UMWA.

There is no mention of the UMWA’s leading role in passing mine safety and health legislation which have saved countless lives in West Virginia and throughout the nation. There is no mention of the UMWA’s role in fighting to end black lung and to establish and then protect black lung compensation.

Roberts asks Randall Reid-Smith to respond, and explain how the state intends to “correct this false information” and “whether or not you intend to work with the UMWA on correcting the biases imparted by so many of the museum’s displays.”

UPDATED: KIMBERLY OSBORNE, A SPOKESWOMAN FOR SENATE PRESIDENT, ACTING AS GOVERNOR, EARL RAY TOMBLIN ISSUED THIS STATEMENT THIS AFTERNOON:

 

“I appreciate Cecil Roberts and the UMWA for bringing their concerns to light,” Gov. Tomblin said. “And the impact labor organizations like the UMWA has had on our state and nation in shaping today’s workplace. As such, I have instructed the Division of Culture and History to review the information provided and act accordingly to ensure our state’s history is portrayed accurately.”

 

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., was just assuring me yesterday that the “new ownership” in Southern West Virginia was going to change things about the way the coal industry operates.

Perhaps Rep. Rahall should talk to his colleague, Rep. George Miller — the ranking Democrat on the House committee that oversees mine safety and other labor issues — about this, because Rep. Miller doesn’t seem too convinced.

Readers may recall that back in late May, Miller and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., wrote to Alpha Natural Resources CEO Kevin Crutchfield, to question whether Alpha was going to rid itself of Massey’s safety culture once it acquired the rival company.

Crutchfield apparently responded with this letter, which assured Miller and Woolsey that Alpha’s “Running Right” program or philosophy or whatever exactly it is was the path to improving those Massey operations, to assuring not only the safety of miners, but protection of the environment. Crutchfield wrote:

While Running Right had its origins in safety, it is now the platform for how Alpha conducts all of its business activities, including environmental stewardship and continuous improvement, and generally how Alpha expects employees to treat each other and the communities where our affiliates operate. That is why Running Right training is provided to all employees throughout the company and not just employees involved in operations. Only in this way can Alpha create the culture that will lead to true improvement in all aspects of its business.

And now, Miller and Woolsey have responded, with a long list of questions for Crutchfield — primarily about whether Alpha has looked into the new findings of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s investigation of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Continue reading…

Running Right: Alpha and unions

Here’s a new story out from the AP’s Vicki Smith:

The United Mine Workers says a notice the new owners posted at a West Virginia mine where 29 men died in an explosion last year is a standard industry tactic aimed at discouraging attempts to unionize.

Spokesman Phil Smith says the union knows about the memo that Virginia-based Alpha Natural Resources posted at the Upper Big Branch mine the day it bought Massey Energy.

The independent Mine Safety and Health News obtained it and posted the text online Tuesday.

It says signing a union authorization card is like signing a blank check and reminds workers they can refuse. It also promises the company will listen to workers’ concerns.

Alpha spokesman Ted Pile says it’s not unusual for mine management to post policies informing workers of their rights under labor laws.

This Alpha memo was first reported by my friend Ellen Smith at Mine Safety and Health News on Facebook. Here’s the entire memo, as quoted by Ellen:

OUR [Alpha] POSITION ON UNION REPRESENTATION:

Unions do not provide jobs nor ensure job security. They never have and they never will. Only successful companies like ours will do that for you.

We urge you to never sign a “Union Authorization Card” a legal document that gives the union the exclusive right to act on your behalf.

Signing a Union Authorization Card is like signing a blank check. You will not know what it is going to cost you or your family in the future.

You have a right Guaranteed by Federal Law to Refuse to sign a Union Card. If anyone ever asks you to sign such a card you have the right to refuse to sign it. All you have to do is say NO.

UNIONS are a business. They need monthly dues and assessments from employees to survive.

We believe you need to keep all of your take home pay and not share it with any union for costly union fees, union dues, union accessements or fines. You should keep your hard earned money for yourself and your family.

We pledge to keep our lines of communication open for you to talk to your immediate supervisor, Superintendent, or the Company President anytime you feel the need to express a complaint, gripe, or concern about a problem or need a question answered.

UPDATED: There’s a longer version of Vicki’s AP story posted here.

 

Alpha’s union mines agree to UMW deal

This just in from the United Mine Workers of America:

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) announced today that subsidiaries of Alpha Natural Resources have signed the 2011 National Bituminous Coal Wage Agreement (NBCWA), covering two large coal mines controlled by Alpha in Pennsylvania.

“Alpha agreed to substantially the same contract for these mines that we negotiated with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) in June,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. Roberts said that there are a few local issues that are different in the Alpha agreement, but that the pay, health care and pension benefits language is the same as in the BCOA agreement.

“The miners at those mines have already overwhelming ratified this agreement, so there will not be another vote and the contract will take effect immediately,” Roberts said. “That means miners’ pay will be increased by $1 per hour immediately. That means their health care will be preserved with no cuts or added costs. That means that health care and pensions for current and future retirees is secured.”

The agreement covers nearly 1,400 working miners at the Cumberland and Emerald mines in Greene County, Pa., and will be retroactive to July 1. Additionally, the company agreed that if it reopened the company’s idled Wabash mine in Illinois before the end of 2013, the UMWA would remain the collective bargaining representative for the miners there and this agreement would be in effect.