Coal Tattoo


I recently came across a fairly new study that uses geographically represented data to question the common notion that mountaintop removal coal-mining operations are good for the economies of the communities where they are located.

The study is called “Mountaintop removal and Job Creation: Exploring the Relationship Using Spatial Regression,” and it as published in the peer-reviewed Annals of the Association of American Geographers (subscription or membership required). It was written by Brad Woods of Penn State University and Jason Gordon of Mississippi State.

Basically, the authors took GIS data about strip-mine permit boundaries and compared it to population and economic data to see if being located near a larger mining operation made a community more likely to have large numbers of residents employed by the coal industry.

Their answer?

Contrary to pro-MTR arguments, we found no supporting evidence suggesting MTR contributed positively to nearby communities’ employment.

The study said:

Our research question was straightforward: Is there a relationship between the size of MTR mining and employment, which justifies the ‘coal means jobs’ mantra?

The results of the overall model suggested insufficient evidence to support a positive relationship between mine size (either MTR mining or underground mining) and percentage of the working population employed in coal mining. This finding casts doubt on the pervasive and dominant argument of MTR advocates.

The study outlined several caveats that are worth considering. First, the study looked at West Virginia — and an examination of other Appalachian states where mountaintop removal is practiced could produce different results. Second, the study looked only at direct employment by the mining industry, not other local occupations that service that industry.  In addition, the authors called for more research on various factors that affect coal industry employment in the region:

… Future research should examine other factors that might affect coal mining employment, such as the influence of shifting coal markets, which make coal from central Appalachia less attractive. As regulations associated with the extraction and burning of coal tighten, and West Virginia’s most accessible seams are exhausted, larger and easier to extract coal seams in Wyoming and abroad will likely displace Appalachian coal to meet energy demands. In turn, this will likely result in shifting employment patterns in the West Virginia mining sector.

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WVDEP: Blair Mountain petition ‘frivolous’

Update: The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden has a full story on this development in today’s paper. It’s online here.

This just in: The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has responded to the petition filed in early June seeking to protect Blair Mountain by having the area declared “unsuitable for mining” under the strip-mining law.

WVDEP’s answer to the petition filed by the Sierra Club, along with labor and historic preservation groups?

The petition is “frivolous”.

That’s right, in this three-page letter to Derek Teaney at the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, from Tom Clarke, director of the WVDEP Division of Mining and Reclamation.

Tom’s writes that a “significant portion” of the area has already been mined or was part of previous petitions for lands unsuitable declarations.  In addition, the WVDEP letter adds:

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.

Tom Clarke’s letter concludes:

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

So, as far as WVDEP is concerned … that’s the end of the story.

UMWA releases some contract details

This just in from the United Mine Workers of America:

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) today released highlights of the tentative agreement reached earlier this week with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA).

The tentative agreement, which would be effective from July 1, 2011, through December 31, 2016, includes wage increases totaling $6.00 per hour over the life of the agreement.

“This is the largest wage increase in dollar terms over the life of a single agreement UMWA members have ever received in our 121-year history,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said.

The proposed agreement includes two $1.00 per hour increases in the first six months of the agreement, on July 1, 2011 and again on January 1, 2012, which is an average 8.2 percent increase over current wages. Wages will be increased by $1.00 per hour on January 1 of each successive year of the agreement. By 2016, the last year of the agreement, the average UMWA miner covered under this agreement would be earning about $30 per hour in straight-time wages.

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Alpha speaks on Blair Mountain strip-mining

A story in today’s Wall Street Journal by Kris Maher has the first comments I’ve seen from Alpha Natural Resources about the future of Blair Mountain:

Alpha Natural Resources Inc. of Abingdon, Va., said it doesn’t intend to conduct mountain-top removal in the historic battleground area, but acquired one active operation outside the 1,600-acre boundary when it bought Massey Energy.

“We agree that Blair Mountain is an area of historical significance, and an appropriate commemoration of the 1921 events ought to be considered,” said Alpha spokesman Ted Pile. But, he added, a commemoration shouldn’t “abrogate the legal rights of the many property owners and leaseholders in the area.”

This just in from the United Mine Workers of America:

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) announced today that it has reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association (BCOA) for a new 5 1/2 year agreement that would become effective July 1, 2011.

Ratification votes at approximately 125 UMWA Local Unions nationwide will take place on Friday, June 17. As required by the UMWA Constitution, Local Union contract explanation meetings will take place on Wednesday, June 15, two days prior to the ratification vote. Details of the tentative agreement will not be released until after the explanation meetings.

“This has been a long and intense process,”  UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts said. “We had many issues to confront, especially with respect to our pensions, health care and wages. But through the strength and solidarity UMWA members have historically demonstrated, we were able to meet those challenges.”


Blair Mountain March gets started

In this June 6, 2011 photo, this historical marker along W.Va. Route 17 in Blair, W.Va., is the only visible sign of the 1921 battle here between thousands of armed, unionizing coal miners and the thousands of law enforcement officers and security guards hired to defeat them. At least 16 men died on the mountain, which could be turned into a strip mine. (AP Photo/Vicki Smith)

My buddy Dr. Paul Nyden on Sunday previewed the start of the March on Blair Mountain:

More than 600 people are expected to begin a 50-mile march from Marmet to Blair Mountain on Monday to protest mountaintop removal mining.

The five-day event comes close to the 90th anniversary of the historic Battle of Blair Mountain, where more than 10,000 union miners marched from Marmet to help organize non-union coal mines in Logan and Mingo counties.

In 1921, the march from Aug. 24 through Sept. 4 was the largest armed confrontation in United States labor history. It ended when federal troops were sent into the area.

This year’s event is “to demand sustainable job creation in all Appalachian communities, abolish mountaintop removal, strengthen labor rights and preserve Blair Mountain,” the groups Appalachia Rising and the Blair Mountain Coalition said on the march website.

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Dave Thearle, a member of the United Mine Workers of America, waves an American Flag during a labor rally in Waynesburg, Pa., Friday, April 1, 2011.  (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

There’s a new study out from a Stanford Law School professor that addresses an issue that comes up quite often here on Coal Tattoo: Whether union coal mines are safer than non-union operations.

The conclusion? Here’s what professor Alison D. Morantz concludes:

Although the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has always advocated strongly for miners’ safety, prior empirical literature contains no evidence that unionization reduced mine injuries or fatalities during the 1970s and ‘80s. This study uses a more comprehensive dataset and updated methodology to examine the relationship between unionization and underground, bituminous coal mine safety from 1993 to 2008.

I find that unionization predicts a substantial and significant decline in traumatic mining injuries and fatalities, the two measures that I argue are the least prone to reporting bias. These disparities are especially pronounced among larger mines.

My best estimates imply that overall, unionization predicts an 18-33% drop in traumatic injuries and a 27-68% drop in fatalities. However, unionization is also associated with higher total and non-traumatic injuries, suggesting that injury reporting practices differ substantially between union and nonunion mines. Unionization’s attenuating effect on the predicted frequency of traumatic injuries seems to have grown since the mid 1990s.

You can read the whole study by visiting this link and clicking where it says “One Click Download.” The paper is called “Coal Mine Safety: Do Unions Make a Difference?” Morantz, by the way, is a former union-side labor lawyer, and this paper was produced as part of the John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics at Stanford.

UMWA questions Alpha hiring of Massey execs

This statement just out from the United Mine Workers of America:

“When the initial announcement of the merger of Alpha Natural Resources and Massey Energy was announced last January, I said, ‘Alpha’s got quite a job on its hands to turn the former Massey mines around from Massey’s safety-last culture…one hopes that Alpha recognizes that sorry record and has a plan in place to move swiftly toward resolving many of those issues.’

“Then came the news that Alpha was placing Massey personnel who played key roles in Massey’s corporate culture into important positions in the merged company. In the wake of the strong report issued yesterday on the Upper Big Branch (UBB) disaster by the West Virginia Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel (GIIP), the wisdom of putting these people into critical slots in Alpha must be called into serious question.

“The GIIP report details one case after another at UBB where the company’s safety record was one of willful disregard for the law and regulations. Indeed, the report points out that Massey’s culture of disdain for safety ‘can only be accepted where the deviant has become normal.’

“Who was directly responsible for this culture? None other than Chris Adkins, Massey Energy’s Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. This is the same Chris Adkins who was in charge when the Aracoma Alma mine caught on fire and two miners were killed. This is the same Chris Adkins who asserted his Fifth Amendment rights against incriminating himself in the UBB investigation and has yet to testify.

“Yet Chris Adkins is slated to be one of the people who Alpha said will ‘spearhead the implementation,’of its safety program. That’s frankly incomprehensible to me. Chris Adkins doesn’t belong in Alpha’s executive offices. He belongs in jail.

“Alpha’s also got a nice office waiting for Shane Harvey, Massey’s General Counsel, who is still pushing the ridiculous notion that the explosion at UBB was caused by some sort of natural gas inundation.

“The GIIP report is clear on the cause and the reason for the tremendous explosion: Massey failed to maintain the mine as it should be maintained, and it failed to do so because people like Chris Adkins just didn’t care whether it was safe or not.

“I wonder if Alpha is going to continue that ‘natural gas’ line of bull once it is responsible for Massey’s failings. I can only hope that they will not, because to do so would be to continue to insult the memory of the 29 miners killed by Massey’s Performance Coal that terrible day.”

This just in:

Workers at the Willow Lake mine in Equality, Ill., voted to be represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) as their collective bargaining agent.

“We are very pleased to welcome these miners into the UMWA family,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said today. “These courageous miners sought us out in their struggle to gain a strong voice at work. We look forward to sitting down with the company to negotiate a fair and equitable collective bargaining agreement as soon as possible.”

The southern Illinois site where the bargaining unit of 444 workers mine is operated by Peabody Energy, and has more than 20 million tons of recoverable coal reserves.

The UMWA represents 105,000 active and retired coal miners, manufacturing workers, public service employees, health care workers and professional employees in Canada and the United States. Headquartered in Triangle, Va., the UMWA represents more coal miners than any other union in the world.

Cecil E. Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, addresses a labor rally of Friday, April 1, 2011 in Waynesburg, Pa.(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Say what you want about my friend United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, but you pretty much always know where he stands.

Except when he writes op-eds like the one in today’s Gazette, in which he makes like a Chamber of Commerce leader and slams the Obama administration’s effort to keep reducing deadly pollution from coal-fired power plants:

Just as our economy is beginning to climb out of the deepest recession since the Great Depression, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a variety of new rules that will inevitably lead to large-scale unemployment and massive rate hikes over the next several years.

… Tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in the utility, coal and transportation sectors. Hundreds of communities will suffer as their tax bases shrink with the closure of nearby utility plants. Industrial states that were hit hard by the recession and still suffering from high unemployment will take another, needless hit.

Now, there are folks in the regional and environmental community who will immediately jump on this as typical stuff from the UMWA. These folks remain increasingly bitter that Cecil Roberts won’t join their fight to stop all mountaintop removal (or maybe all surface coal-mining).

That wouldn’t be fair.

Maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic. All of the publicity about the upcoming march to urge protection of Blair Mountain reminds me of when I met Cecil, more than 20 years ago.

It was the summer of 1989. Cecil was vice president of the union, leading its strike against Pittston, fighting for the health-care benefits of UMWA retirees and widows. It was a young intern at the Gazette, and somebody thought it was a good idea to let me cover the strike (one joke in the newsroom that summer was about how, if there were any trouble on the picket lines, I wasn’t on the company’s health-care plan). UMW leaders were re-enacting the march to Blair Mountain to draw attention to their fight with Pittston (subscription required).

One thing I learned that summer was how so many UMWA fights were not really about the working miners who were doing the fighting, but about either protecting the union’s retirees or trying to ensure a better life for their kids.

Continue reading…

Out today, in preparation for tomorrow’s annual Workers Memorial Day commemoration, is the annual AFL-CIO report, Death on the Job.

The raw statistics are always startling:

In 2009, according to preliminary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4,340 workers were killed on the job—an average of 12 workers every day—and an estimated 50,000 died from occupational diseases. More than 4.1 million work-related injuries and illnesses were reported, but this number understates the problem. The true toll of job injuries is two to three times greater—about 8 million to12 million job injuries and illnesses each year.

And the cost in dollars alone?

The cost of job injuries and illnesses is enormous—estimated at $159 billion to $318 billion a year for direct and indirect costs of disabling injuries.

As usual, this year’s report offers a variety of reform-minded suggestions for improved job protections — more inspectors, tougher laws and regulations, even something as simple as a better accounting of how many workers are hurt or killed on the job.

But there’s also something missing from the report. At least it jumped out at me … and that’s any sort of discussion of the ways that the agency charged with protecting the health and safety of the nation’s miners could on its own do a better job.

Sure, the report has a detailed section on coal-mine safety, focused on last year’s disaster at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine:

The April 5, 2010, explosion at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners in the worst coal mine disaster in the United States in 40 years. The Upper Big Branch disaster shocked and outraged the nation. It exposed serious problems at the Massey mine and deficiencies in mine safety laws and oversight.

The report goes on to outline the now well-known safety record of Massey at Upper Big Branch:

According to MSHA, the UBB mine had a history of serious violations. In 2009, 515 citations and orders were issued, and in 2010, prior to the explosion, there were 124 orders and citations issued for violations at the mine. These violations were serious. More than 39 percent of the citations issued at Upper Big Branch were for significant and substantial violations, and in 2009, MSHA issued 48 withdrawal orders at the mine for repeated significant and substantial violations. These included violations for standards on ventilation, roof supports and coal dust. Most of these violations were contested by Massey.

But the recommended reforms read more like MSHA chief Joe Main’s testimony to Congress, and less like those of an independent labor organization that’s supposed to represent the interests of workers. To read the report, the problem all boils down to the need for more mine safety legislation, and the only issue worth focusing on now is making Republicans look bad for not moving that legislation:

… Changes in the law are needed to give MSHA subpoena power in conducting investigations, injunction authority to shut down dangerous mines, to further improve procedures for addressing patterns of violations and to strengthen civil and criminal penalties. Mine safety legislation to address these areas was introduced in the 111th Congress, but was not enacted. And with the election of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, passage of such legislation in the 112th Congress is not likely.

The AFL-CIO completely leaves out of the picture any notion that MSHA isn’t using all of the tools at its disposal, and doesn’t ask any questions about whether the Obama administration could make worker safety in the coal industry more of a priority.

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More legal news that I didn’t get to on Friday: The United Mine Workers of America union has filed a motion asking to have its say in the Sierra Club’s lawsuit seeking to put Blair Mountain back on the National Register of Historic Places.

In their motion, lawyers for the UMWA explain the significance of the 1921 battle:

Though the UMWA miners who marked to Blair Mountain were defeated in battle, their stand paved the way for legislative and collective bargaining achievements in the first half of the twentieth century that helped build the American middle class.

The Battle of Blair Mountain was perhaps the most significant of a number of episodes of  “industrial strife and unrest” that Congress eventually sought to prevent by creating a legal framework for worker organization and peaceful resolution of industrial disputes.

And in their proposed “friend of the court” brief, the UMWA lawyers back the Sierra Club’s view that “powerful coal companies have undermined the process for nomination of Blair Mountain Battlefield to the National Register”:

It is beyond dispute that powerful coal companies continue to wield considerable influence over the economy and politics in West Virginia and beyond. Indeed, the instant matter demonstrates that the present-day administration of federal statutes in the state is not immune from such influence.

I’ve posted the UMWA’s court documents here.

UMWA endorses Thompson for W.Va. governor

This just in from the United Mine Workers of America:

The West Virginia state council of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Coal Miners’ Political Action Committee (COMPAC) today voted to endorse W. Va. House of Delegates Speaker Rick Thompson for Governor in the upcoming May 14 special primary election.

“Speaker Thompson’s outstanding and long-term record of support for coal miners, our families and all working families in West Virginia convinced our members that he is the candidate most deserving of our support in this critical race,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said.

“It was a tough call,” Roberts said. “There are several well-qualified candidates in the race. But our members in West Virginia came to the conclusion that Speaker Thompson would be the candidate who would best serve working families in our state.

Roberts noted that Thompson has been rated by the West Virginia AFL-CIO as having a perfect voting record in support of working peoples’ issues while in the House, the first Speaker in West Virginia history to have such a record.

“This is a critical election for the future of West Virginia,” Roberts said. “We will do all we can to discuss this endorsement with our membership and their families, and work to get every one of them out to the polls on May 14. There is too much at stake to sit this one out.”

UPDATED:  Here’s a link to Dr. Paul Nyden’s Gazette story about this Blair Mountain march announcement.

The folks from the Friends of Blair Mountain are set to announce later today their plans for a “a massive non-violent five-day march” from Marmet to Logan County to call attention to their efforts to preserve the site of the 1921 labor battle.

According to a press advisory about today’s event:

Speakers will include: Denise Giardina, acclaimed Appalachian writer; Mari-Lynn Evans, 2010 Appalachian filmmaker of the Year; Ken Hechler, statesman and former WV Secretary of State; Chuck Nelson, activist and retired UMWA miner; Terry Steele, retired UMWA miner; Wilma Steele, Mingo County art teacher; Chuck Keeney, professor at Southern WV Community and Technical College, great-grandson of famed UMWA Leader Frank Keeney; Jesse Johnson, Executive Committee member and former chair of the environmentalist Mountain Party; Mickey McCoy, member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and former Mayor of Inez, Kentucky; and Paul Corbit Brown, photojournalist and Frontline Human Rights Defenders Top 100 Human Rights Defenders in the World.

The march itself is scheduled for early June, and the news advisory explained it this way:

March planners believe that current plans to mountaintop removal mine Blair Mountain would dishonor the memory of the miners who sacrificed their lives for the right to collectively bargain. Citizens and organizers assert that if mining permits move forward on Blair Mountain, the most significant heritage site in Appalachia will be destroyed and the communities around Blair Mountain will be irreparably and adversely affected.

Citizens will march in support of preserving Blair Mountain and abolishing mountaintop removal in all of Appalachia. The march is additionally planned in support of strengthening labor rights nationwide and investing in sustainable job creation for all communities.

You can watch today’s announcement via live Web streaming here.

Hey folks, I’ve been out for a few days and am catching up on things. I wanted to make sure Coal Tattoo readers didn’t miss this commentary from United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, published first on the Perspectives page of the Sunday Gazette-Mail:

When my great-uncle Bill Blizzard marched up the side of Blair Mountain with several thousand other coal miners in the late summer of 1921, he wasn’t thinking about the coal that lay within the mountain. He wasn’t thinking about whether the streams along the base of the mountain ran clear or not.

He was thinking instead about the murder of his friend Sid Hatfield by Baldwin-Felts thugs just a few weeks before. He was thinking about the near-slavery conditions coal miners and their families were forced to endure. He was thinking about how to make their lives better.

It’s important for Americans to remember the events that occurred on the slopes of Blair Mountain those fateful days, for it is a compelling and historically significant story of struggle against oppression. That story cannot be told nearly as well if the mountain is not there.

Blair Mountain is as close to sacred ground as there is for the UMWA. Though we may not physically own the mountain’s land, its legacy is ours. We strongly support its preservation, for it represents the power ordinary people have when they decide to stick together and take up common struggle for the benefit of all. That is the essence of who we are as union members.

Today, West Virginians are still thinking about coal miners’ jobs, and about how to make their lives and their communities better. But we are also thinking about the coal under Blair Mountain and surrounding ridges, and what ought to be done with it. And we are thinking about whether the water runs clear, not just for the fish, but for the people as well.

These are critical times in the coalfields. For coal miners, our families, our relatives, our friends and our neighbors, the decisions we make and the actions we take will determine not just how we live, but how our descendants will live for generations to come.

We must do our best to make the right decisions. And as we do, we must also realize (just as those miners did so many years ago) that although we may not agree on everything, we are all in this together. Failure to do so puts us at the mercy of those who would use our differences to divide us, allowing them to reap their own, selfish rewards at our expense.

So let us start.

Let us start by recognizing the dignity of work, and the fact that those who mine coal, by whatever method, do so because they seek to provide for themselves and their families. And let us also recognize that when the UMWA represents any workers anywhere, we have a duty to defend every one of their jobs and make them the best jobs they can be.

Let us start by recognizing that coal operators have a responsibility to make the jobs of their workers as safe as possible. And they have a responsibility to respect their neighbors and do all in their power to minimize any damage that may be done to the environment as a result of their operations. And they further have a responsibility to repair any damage they do cause.

Let us start by recognizing that if the operators do not fulfill those responsibilities, then someone has to make them do so, most often the federal or state government, or both. The last thing any of us in the coalfields should desire is to go back to the days when coal operators were allowed to do anything they wanted with no consequences. That’s how Bill Blizzard ended up at Blair Mountain, after all.

Let us start by recognizing that the government has a critical role to play, because for too long, far too many coal operators have not respected their workers, not respected their neighbors, not cared about the damage their operations may have done and not cared to repair that damage once it was done.

Let us start by recognizing that whatever role government does play, it has a responsibility to take into account the impact of its actions on all concerned. And government has a responsibility to seek ways for coalfield residents, including miners and their communities, to benefit, not suffer, from its actions.

Let us start by recognizing that there will be changes in the way our nation and our world generate electricity over the next century. We don’t yet know what form this change will take, nor how fast it will happen. We do know that there are not currently enough other sources of energy (whether other fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear, biofuels or anything else) to replace the energy we create from coal to feed a growing demand in America, much less the world.

Let us start by recognizing that at some point in our future (perhaps decades from now, perhaps centuries from now (the coal will run out or will become too expensive to mine. Between now and then, it is our task to do all we can to develop ways to use coal responsibly and cleanly to power our nation and our world.

And let us start by reaffirming that all God’s children have a right to prosper in a safe and livable environment (at home and on the job) where they can thrive without fear of sickness, disease or injury caused by the irresponsible actions of corporations motivated solely by profit at any cost.

I believe that, working together, we can develop an environmentally sound and economically secure way forward for those who live and work in the coalfields of central Appalachia, one that does not merely celebrate the heritage of coal but embraces its future. If we are to live by the lesson of Blair Mountain, standing together to create a better future for all our children and grandchildren, we really don’t have any other choice.

Here’s the statement just released by United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts on the buyout of Massey Energy by Alpha Natural Resources:

We believe there will be several things that come from the purchase of Massey Energy by Alpha Natural Resources.

First, while by no means perfect, Alpha’s overall safety record is better than Massey’s. Alpha’s got quite a job on its hands to turn the former Massey mines around from Massey’s safety-last culture. But if they are successful, the miners at the former Massey mines will be at less risk than they have been.

Secondly, erasing the Massey name from America’s coal industry is a positive step, no matter who is responsible for it. Massey had come to represent all that was wrong with the coal industry, whether it be safety and health issues, environmental issues or simple respect for its workers, their families and the communities where they live.

While Alpha inherits those problems from Massey, one hopes that Alpha recognizes that sorry record and has a plan in place to move swiftly toward resolving many of those issues.

And lastly, we represent about 1,500 active Alpha employees and thousands of retirees. We have open lines of communication with the company. When measured by the standard set by the previous leadership at Massey, this represents a significant improvement.

It should come as no surprise to Alpha that we strongly believe both the company and the workers would be better off with a larger union presence at the company moving forward, and we are working toward that goal. As we do, we invite Alpha management to work with us in securing a safer, more secure future for its workers, their families and all the company’s stakeholders.

The Gazette’s Andrew Clevenger reported for us on yesterday’s W.Va. Supreme Court argument in the case over coal industry lawyer Douglas A. Smoot’s handling of a black lung benefits case. As he explained:

In 2009, the Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed formal charges against Smoot, alleging that he violated the state’s rules for lawyers by removing part of a doctor’s 2001 report before turning it over to a retired miner with an eighth-grade education who was representing himself in the black lung claim.

After a two-day hearing in June 2009, a three-member panel recommended the dismissal of all charges against Smoot, concluding that his handling of the case was in compliance with applicable black lung law. The Office of Disciplinary Counsel immediately appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

Andrew previewed the arguments over on the Gazette’s Sustained Outrage blog, and provided helpful links to past coverage and briefs in the case, one of several legal actions over Jackson Kelly’s work defending coal companies in black lung cases.

In his story, Andrew explained:

An attorney for the State Bar asked state Supreme Court justices to suspend the law license of a black lung lawyer who removed part of a doctor’s report before disclosing it to a retired miner seeking benefits in 2001.

“This conduct is deceitful. It’s dishonest. It is misrepresentation,” Jessica Donahue, a lawyer with the bar’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, told the justices.

Continue reading…

We reported yesterday on the continuing PR war between Massey Energy and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, with this episode focused in part on a dispute over an area of the Upper Big Branch Mine where inspectors issued an imminent danger order earlier this month.

Folks inside the Upper Big Branch Disaster investigation are really buzzing about all of this, in large part because of concerns inspectors are raising about the conditions in the area of the mine where this order was issued.

The area, known as Old 4 Right, was mined out. But it was still subject to requirements for periodic safety checks. And there is a dispute growing over whether the problems found there — bad roof conditions, a buildup of water, among other things — existed prior to the April 5 explosion and weren’t noted and corrected by either Massey Energy officials or government inspectors.

On the day MSHA issued its written imminent danger order, safety officials from the United Mine Workers (who are taking part in the investigation as miners’ representatives) wrote this report for top union officials:

It appears that this area of the mine (Old 4 Right) has not been properly examined for some time, even before the explosion occurred. MSHA, the State, and Massey are guilty of neglecting the area examinations (weekly’s) of this portion of the mine. Further investigation has to be made on this to see how far back this actually goes. Currently and during the ongoing investigation, after the explosion, the company examiner and the State inspector traveling with them have been reporting in the fireboss books that the area is clear and safe at the time of their examinations. Obviously this is a clear case of falsifying the report because the area could not be traveled in its entirety due to poor roof and rib conditions.

Now, state mine safety director Ronald Wooten says this just isn’t true. He says the conditions in Old 4 Right likely deteriorated during the time between when the explosion occurred and company officials (along with investigators) could get back into the mine to perform safety checks and needed maintenance. Wooten told me yesterday:

We don’t have any indication that those areas were not traveled and examined prior to the explosion. We don’t have any indication of that at all, but we will be looking into this further.

But it’s worth noting that investigations of the deaths of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield at Massey’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in January 2006 produced evidence that both state and federal inspectors could have done much more to prevent that tragedy.

Officials from Massey Energy and MSHA have not yet responded to my queries about this issue, though Massey has said it does not agree with the MSHA imminent danger order and is considering whether to appeal it.

President Barack Obama is introduced by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka before he spoke about jobs and the economy during an address before the AFL-CIO Executive Council in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2010. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

In appearance yesterday before the AFL-CIO Executive Council, President Obama touted unionization of coal-mine workers, saying:

But it is my profound belief that companies are stronger when their workers are getting paid well and have decent benefits and are treated with dignity and respect. It is my profound belief that our government works best when it’s not being run on behalf of special interests, but it’s being run on behalf of the public interest, and that the dedication of public servants reflects that.

So FDR I think said — he was asked once what he thought about unions. He said, “If I was a worker in a factory and I wanted to improve my life, I would join a union.”

Well, I tell you what. I think that’s true for workers generally. I think if I was a coalminer, I’d want a union representing me to make sure that I was safe and you did not have some of the tragedies that we’ve been seeing in the coal industry.

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UMWA endorses Gov. Manchin for Senate

Here’s a statement just issued by the United Mine Workers of America union, announcing that the union’s political action committee has endorsed Gov. Joe Manchin to fill Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s seat in Washington:

“While no one can ever fill the void in coal miners’ hearts that the passing of Sen. Byrd has left, we believe that Gov. Manchin is by far the best candidate for election to this seat,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said.

“Like Sen. Byrd, Gov. Manchin comes from a coal family,” Roberts said. “He knows personally how it feels to lose a loved one in the mines. He has been a strong and consistent advocate for better mine health and safety from the day he took office as governor, and has shown strong leadership in dealing with multiple tragedies that have occurred at nonunion mines in West Virginia over the last four years.

“Gov. Manchin is also an outspoken advocate for not just maintaining good jobs in West Virginia, but creating new ones,” Roberts said. “Working families in our state and across the country need a strong voice speaking out for keeping America’s jobs in America. Joe Manchin will do that, and we are very pleased to endorse him for the U.S. Senate.”