Coal Tattoo

Mine Explosion Congress

 

Taft, California, is a long way from the Mingo County coalfields where Don Blankenship grew up. And Vegas is certainly a long way from Montcoal, West Virginia, where 29 coal miners died on April 5, 2010, in an explosion at a mine run by Blankenship’s old company, Massey Energy.

So maybe we should be generous and forgive the former Massey CEO and his career campaign consultants if they get a few details confused in the advertising campaign they hope will win Blankenship a seat in the U.S. Senate — or at least deny re-election to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, or maybe just confuse for the sake of history what happened at Upper Big Branch..

Maybe Blankenship really believes the ads. Maybe he really wants to be a Senator. Maybe he just wants to settle old scores.

Whichever the case, Blankenship and his consultants are really asking the wrong question about Upper Big Branch. If you ask the right question, the answer here — as it is with most industrial disasters — is that there is plenty of blame to go around for the 29 deaths at UBB.

The other evening, I was thinking about this as I read through the piece that the good folks at PolitiFact published about Blankenship’s ad campaign. They rated his statement — that the Obama administration’s internal review of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s role in a deadly mine explosion was ‘fixed'” — as “pants on fire.” In the world of PolitiFact’s “Truth-O-Meter,” this means: “The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.”

(By way of full disclosure, the PolitiFact folks are partnering with the Gazette-Mail on some fact-checking in West Virginia politics, and their piece on Blankenship credited me with “additional reporting.” All that really means is that I talked to the reporter who wrote the piece, pointed out some of the relevant public records and provided a bunch of links to previous coverage of the issues.)

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President Donald Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. Justice, a Democrat, announced that he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

 

President Donald Trump talks with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during a rally Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, in Huntington, W.Va. Justice, a Democrat, announced that he is switching parties to join the Republicans. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Here in West Virginia, the big political story over the last week has obviously been Gov. Jim Justice’s return to the Republican party.

Some of the media are of course very interested in promoting one of the governor’s reasons — this pretty far-out idea that the federal government is going to start subsidizing Appalachian steam coal production to the tune of $15 a ton.

There’s also a lot of interest in continuing to promote the sort of pandering that Gov. Justice (not to mention President Trump) are pushing that there’s a huge coal boom just around the corner. This is a comforting thought, both to state political leaders and to many of our fellow West Virginians. Just look at the last of those silly “Jim was right” press releases that Gov. Justice’s press office put out back while he was still a Democrat.

A huge coal boom would mean none of us would have to do the really hard work of building other kinds of economies in our coalfield communities — at least not right now. And it’s true that there has been an increase in coal jobs in West Virginia over the last three quarters. Taylor Kuykendall, the go-to guy among the media for these kind of numbers, explained last week:

Coal jobs in West Virginia are up 18.3% year over year in the second quarter, according to a new S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis of federal data, and up about 12.2% compared to the fourth quarter of 2016. The year-over-year increase represents about 2,132 jobs, while the increase from the final quarter of 2016 represents about 1,493 jobs.

But keep in mind, if you go back further than the last few quarters, or a year-over-year comparison, the increase in jobs doesn’t come anywhere close to rebuilding the sort of coal-based economy that politicians would have you believe is going to reappear.  Data from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration shows that West Virginia lost 13,000 coal jobs between the post-2000 high mark in the 4th quarter of 2011 and the low point in the 3rd quarter of 2016. Our state lost half of its coal-mining jobs in just that five-year period. We’ve only gained back a fraction of those. And the projections don’t suggest the jobs are going to keep coming back.

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FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2014 file photo, a mural of a coal miner stands in an empty storefront as signs advertising vacant apartments and stores hang in the windows along the main business street in Cumberland, Ky. The world’s biggest coal users - China, the United States and India - have boosted coal mining in 2017, in an abrupt departure from last year’s record global decline for the heavily polluting fuel and a setback to efforts to rein in climate change emissions.(AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

In this Oct. 17, 2014 file photo, a mural of a coal miner stands in an empty storefront as signs advertising vacant apartments and stores hang in the windows along the main business street in Cumberland, Ky. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

The Associated Press has a story out this morning about gains in coal production in the United States and in China:

The world’s biggest coal users — China, the United States and India — have boosted coal mining in 2017, in an abrupt departure from last year’s record global decline for the heavily polluting fuel and a setback to efforts to rein in climate change emissions.

Mining data reviewed by The Associated Press show that production through May is up by at least 121 million tons, or 6 percent, for the three countries compared to the same period last year. The change is most dramatic in the U.S., where coal mining rose 19 percent in the first five months of the year, according to U.S. Department of Energy data.

Coal’s fortunes had appeared to hit a new low less than two weeks ago, when British energy company BP reported that tonnage mined worldwide fell 6.5 percent in 2016, the largest drop on record. China and the U.S. accounted for almost all the decline, while India showed a slight increase.

The reasons for this year’s turnaround include policy shifts in China, changes in U.S. energy markets and India’s continued push to provide electricity to more of its poor, industry experts said. President Donald Trump’s role as coal’s booster-in-chief in the U.S. has played at most a minor role, they said.

Judging from the National Mining Association’s op-ed piece on the Daily Mail editorial page last week, this is just the kind of story the coal industry is looking for:

Coal has added about 2,000 direct jobs in the last year, with 1,700 just since December 2016. Mines are expanding and new ones are opening in Alabama, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Virginia and here in West Virginia.

Year-to-date production is up about 50 million tons, rail loadings are climbing despite a relatively mild winter, and power sector coal consumption climbed almost 23 percent in March, year to date. Both prices and exports are now expected to tick upward this year.

The Trump administration deserves some credit for this revival.

But not so fast … West Virginians might want to be a little careful before they get too excited about the coal rebound that political leaders keep hinting to coalfield residents is just around the next corner.

Take for example, the report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s latest “Energy Today” blog post, aptly headlined, “Future Coal Production Depends on Resources and Technology, Not Just Policy Choices.

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Murray makes good on promise to sue John Oliver

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As expected, Murray Energy and its CEO, Bob Murray, have filed a lawsuit against HBO and its Sunday night personality John Oliver over the blistering commentary on Murray and his company (watch it here).

You can read the lawsuit for yourself here, and this is how Murray Energy described it in the company’s press release:

The deceitful and damaging statements of Time Warner, HBO, and their operatives were clearly a deliberate attempt to assassinate the character of Mr. Robert E. Murray, a champion of the United States coal industry and patriotic American, and to destroy Murray Energy, a company which Mr. Murray founded nearly thirty years ago and built into the largest underground coal mining company in the United States. Allowing these false statements to stand unrefuted would be a disservice to the Company’s employees, who rely on Mr. Murray and Murray Energy for their continued livelihoods, and to the Company’s lenders, customers, and suppliers who depend on our integrity and performance.

The company continued:

The false and defamatory statements in this broadcast severely and destructively impact Mr. Murray, and all of Murray Energy, particularly our Mines in the State of West Virginia, where we are the largest coal mining employer in the State, as well as coal mining itself, one of the primary foundations of that State’s economy.

This suit comes after legal action by Murray last month against The New York Times over an editorial that paper published.  Lawyers for the Times have filed a motion to have that case dismissed, and here’s part of what they said in their legal brief on that issue:

In publishing the editorial, The New York Times and its editorial board were commenting on a significant issue of public importance and concern and acted properly. All of The New York Times’ conduct is fully protected by well-settled legal principles under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution … 

… The challenged statements in The New York Times’ editorial at issue are both true and expressions of opinion and commentary on a significant matter of public concern, not actionable under First Amendment precedent or applicable West Virginia law.

Alpha unloading more W.Va. assets

Here’s today’s news from Alpha Natural Resources:

Alpha Natural Resources (ANR, Inc.) announces the divestment of substantially all of the assets of two separate operations, a coal mining complex and a natural gas operation, both located in central West Virginia.

The Green Valley mining assets in Nicholas and Greenbrier Counties are being sold to Quinwood Coal Company. The divestiture includes the Number 1 preparation plant and related permits, which have been idle since the second quarter of 2014. In addition to the coal mining complex, the New River Energy natural gas operation is being sold to Kinzer Drilling. The divestiture includes 120 producing natural gas wells in five counties.

Alpha CEO David Stetson said the divestments represent another important step toward reducing Alpha’s footprint:

With these significant divestitures, we will transfer 28 mining-related permits, reduce surety bonding by approximately $3.5 million, eliminate future reclamation spending at these sites, and further reduce our annual holding cost for inactive and idle properties by approximately $1.1 million.  Additionally, $2.7 million in self bonding will be eliminated as part of these sales, which will assist ANR in meeting its obligations to the State of West Virginia.

Stetson added:

As with previous divestitures, Alpha has been able to enter into agreements with third parties that have indicated a desire to restart these operations and restore many jobs to the local community.

The press release added:

Stetson indicated that Alpha will continue to pursue sales of other non-strategic assets in the coming months. Terms of the transactions were not released.

Certainly an interesting announcement, considering some of the remarks in this recent  Taylor Kuykendall story for S&P Global Market Intelligence:

The notion that Contura was getting the crown jewels of the reorganization and that Alpha would remain in business primarily to fulfill duties toward reclaiming legacy coal mining properties, Stetson said, is a bit of a misconception … “We certainly were left with legacy properties, but the fact of the matter is we were left with the best metallurgical mines in the Central [Appalachian] region with significant production,” Stetson said in an interview at the company’s new Kingsport, Tenn., headquarters.

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If you happened to be a regular reader of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, yesterday’s bombshell about black lung disease was enough to frighten you.

In the paper, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that they had confirmed a cluster of the mostly deadly form of the disease — Progressive Massive Fibrosis, or PMF — at a clinic in the Kentucky coalfields. This cluster hadn’t been discovered during the regular NIOSH routines that track black lung, and raised serious questions that the extent of the crisis was far worse than previously explained:

… Cases in this report were not identified through standard coal workers’ pneumoconiosis surveillance, and whether similar clusters of cases exist in other communities is not known. Thus, the actual extent of PMF in U.S. coal miners remains unclear.

But if you happened to be listening to NPR’s All Things Considered later in the day, you heard the results of a new investigation by the great Howard Berkes:

Across Appalachia, coal miners are suffering from the most serious form of the deadly mining disease black lung in numbers more than 10 times what federal regulators report, an NPR investigation has found.

The government, through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, reported 99 cases of “complicated” black lung, or progressive massive fibrosis, throughout the country the last five years.

But NPR obtained data from 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which reported a total of 962 cases so far this decade. The true number is probably even higher, because some clinics had incomplete records and others declined to provide data.

The reaction from experts in the field — people who have spent their adult lives studying black lung and trying to fight the disease — was nothing short of terrifying.

Robert Cohen of the University of Illinois, Chicago:

I can’t say that I’ve heard really anything worse than this in my career.

Edward “Lee” Petsonk of West Virginia University:

I’ve spent much of my career trying to find ways to better protect miners’ respiratory health. It’s almost like I’ve failed.

Scott Laney, one of the authors of the NIOSH paper:

The current numbers are unprecedented by any historical standard. We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia.

I guess it’s still early, but the thing I notice is that my email inbox is pretty empty today.

Where are the formal statements from West Virginia political leaders expressing their outrage at this situation? Where are the press releases demanding action?

When anyone releases a new regulation aimed at fighting climate change or trying to curb mountaintop removal pollution, the last place you want to be is between any of our state’s politicians and a microphone or camera. But 1,000 cases of the most severe and deadly form of a disease that has killed 78,000 coal miners since 1969?

Crickets.

Of course, nobody really much campaigns around these parts on a platform of promising to protect the health and safety of coal miners. Those days are gone, especially now that Ken Hechler has passed.

We’re hearing a lot right now from politicians and the political media echo chambers about the middle class, the working class, people who live in middle America. What I can’t understand is how it is that issues like black lung — or any number of a long list of worker health and safety threats — isn’t really talked about like it’s a working class issue.

During this year’s presidential campaign, Democrat Hillary Clinton did mention black lung, but only briefly on her website and in context of protecting the program that provides benefits to victims of black lung. She didn’t propose more steps to end this terrible disease. Secretary Clinton did talk a bit about coal miner safety, after former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship showed up at an anti-Clinton rally. She expressed her support for making crimes like Blankenship’s a felony, instead of a misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in prison.

If President-elect Donald Trump talked about black lung, I must have missed it. But does anyone really believe a Trump administration will make tougher regulations and enforcement of mine safety and health protections a priority?

When mine safety and health came up during our state’s gubernatorial campaign, it was in the form of a ridiculous attack by the United Mine Workers on Republican Bill Cole and in defense of Democrat Jim Justice, our now-Governor-elect who can’t seem to pay all his mine safety fines on time, and over a bill that was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

What people who are truly friends of coal miners ought to do is make sure that all of our elected officials have to sit down and listen to what it sounds like for Mackie Branham — one of the coal miners Berkes interviewed — just trying to breathe.

Friday roundup, Dec. 2, 2016

In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a man takes a picture near a coal mine which has trapped dozens workers in Qitaihe City, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. The managers of an apparently unregistered coal mine in northeast China are under questioning as rescuers tried Thursday to reach workers trapped for a third day. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)

 

In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a man takes a picture near a coal mine which has trapped dozens workers in Qitaihe City, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. The managers of an apparently unregistered coal mine in northeast China are under questioning as rescuers tried Thursday to reach workers trapped for a third day. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)

Earlier this week, the New York Times had a story headlined, “Despite climate change vow, China pushes to dig more coal,” reporting:

America’s uncertain stance toward global warmingunder the coming administration of Donald J. Trump has given China a leading role in the fight against climate change. It has called on the United States to recognize established science and to work with other countries to reduce dependence on dirty fuels like coal and oil.

But there is a problem: Even as it does so, China is scrambling to mine and burn more coal.

A lack of stockpiles and worries about electricity blackouts are spurring Chinese officials to reverse curbs that once helped reduce coal production. Mines are reopening. Miners are being lured back with fatter paychecks.

China’s response to coal scarcity shows how hard it will be to wean the country off coal. That makes it harder for China and the world to meet emissions targets, as Chinese coal is the world’s largest single source of carbon emissions from human activities.

In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers and workers attend a briefing before conducting a search and rescue operation for workers trapped inside a coal mine in Qitaihe City, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. The managers of an apparently unregistered coal mine in northeast China are under questioning as rescuers tried Thursday to reach workers trapped for a third day. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)

In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers and workers attend a briefing before conducting a search and rescue operation for workers trapped inside a coal mine in Qitaihe City, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)

Interestingly enough, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

A deadly quarry collapse in northeast China this week reflects a surge in dangerous mining activity across the country as coal prices soar, following a government warning that the rally poses increased casualty risks.

The warning, in a report in early November, came as informal data have shown sharp increases in colliery casualties this year, with November the deadliest month so far.

On Tuesday, 22 workers were trapped when a shaft caved in at Qitaihe City Jingyou Coal Mine, a desolate outpost in China’s northeast, state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted rescue workers as saying on Wednesday. The cause wasn’t immediately known, nor was it clear whether any of those trapped had survived.

Last week, a coal-mine fire in neighboring Liaoning province killed 26 miners.

The Work Safety Committee of the State Council, a government agency, also said it would step up surprise inspections, including at night, to counter “illegal practices” at mines that put lives at risk.

“As coal prices go up, mines tend to go beyond the usual safety limits to get at the more dangerous coal, and accidents increase,” saidKeegan Elmer, a researcher for the Hong Kong-based watchdog China Labour Bulletin.

Also this week, Mother Jones had this important story:

As the clock ticks down to the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Obama administration is moving to enact one final measure aimed at cutting coal pollution. According to a spokesperson for the Interior Department, the administration intends to release an update to a decades-old regulation protecting streams from the impacts of mining before Obama leaves office on January 20.

Obama’s climate and environmental policies have largely been defined by a slew of executive actions and new regulations, including limits on carbon and mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants; new fuel efficiency standards; and a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands. In recent weeks, the administration has finalized a rule that seeks to limit methane emissions from oil and gas facilities and has placed a chunk of the Arctic off limits to further offshore drilling.

… Derek Teaney, senior attorney with the nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Advocates, says environmentalists have been waiting years for the rule to be strengthened. It was last updated by the Bush administration in 2008, and critics complained those changes left coal companies with too many loopholes. The Bush-era revisions were challenged in court by environmental groups, and the Interior Department withdrew them in 2014 … The “Obama administration has frittered away its time,” said Teaney.

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Jim Justice is all in with Trump’s coal con

West Virginia Governor-elect Jim Justice speaks to supporters at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., after winning the 2016 West Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Walter Scriptunas II)

 

West Virginia Governor-elect Jim Justice speaks to supporters at the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., after winning the 2016 West Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. (AP Photo/Walter Scriptunas II)

If you missed it in today’s Gazette-Mail, you should click here and check out the brief story about Gov.-elect Jim Justice’s phone call over the weekend with President-elect Donald Trump:

West Virginia governor-elect Jim Justice and President-elect Donald Trump discussed their plans for the future of the coal industry in a 15-minute phone call Saturday. Justice and Trump’s conversation focused on creating coal jobs, tourism, and other job possibilities, according to a press release from Justice.

Here’s the full press release that was issued on Saturday:

Today, President-elect Donald J. Trump called Governor-elect Jim Justice to congratulate him on his victory, and to discuss how to revive West Virginia’s coal industry. The fifteen-minute phone conversation focused primarily on how the two could work together to put coal miners back to work.

The Governor-elect took the call during his Greenbrier East basketball practice. During the conversation, Justice also discussed West Virginia’s tourism and other job possibilities with the President-elect.

“It’s an exciting day for West Virginia because we now have a pathway to the White House and a president-elect who is totally committed to putting our coal miners back to work,” said Governor-elect Jim Justice. “President-elect Trump made it clear that he won’t forget about West Virginia when it comes to our nation’s energy policies. I will work closely with the President-elect and his administration on clean coal technology, rolling back the job-killing EPA regulations on coal, and growing West Virginia’s other job opportunities.”

President-elect Trump asked Justice to pass along a message to the people of West Virginia: “We are going to get those coal miners back to work.”

Justice added, “President-elect Trump and I will work great together to bring new opportunities to West Virginia families. He also shared with me how much he cares about the people of West Virginia. Just as President-elect Donald J. Trump reached out to me, I am reaching out to Democrats and Republicans in the legislature to put aside party politics and pull the rope together to turn this state around.”

Let’s look at this part again:

The fifteen-minute phone conversation focused primarily on how the two could work together to put coal miners back to work … “It’s an exciting day for West Virginia because we now have a pathway to the White House and a president-elect who is totally committed to putting our coal miners back to work.”

We’ve written before in the Gazette-Mail (see here and here) and in this space (see here, here, here and here) about the aftermath of the presidential election and its implications for the West Virginia coal industry.

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Sago Mine owner eyed for Trump posts

sagocrosses1

 

There are multiple news reports (see here, here and here, just for example) this evening that President-elect Donald Trump is strongly considering venture capitalist Wilbur Ross as his nominee to be secretary of the Department of Commerce or secretary of the Treasury.

Readers in coal country may recall Ross as the man who really owned the Sago Mine, the International Coal Group operation in Upshur County where 12 coal miners died in a Jan. 2, 2006 explosion.

As we reported in the Gazette at the time:

wilbur-rossNew York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr. has controlled the company that owns the Sago Mine since at least early 2001, according to court records, corporate disclosures and other publicly available documents.

Ross began buying up Anker Coal Group in 1999, with the purchase of a one-fifth stake in the company, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings.

By 2001, Ross had acquired 47 percent of the company – making him by far the largest shareholder, SEC records show.

One commentary this evening in The Nation spells out the development this way:

After campaigning as a champion of coal miners, Donald Trump is reportedly close to choosing for Commerce Secretary a New York billionaire who owned a West Virginia mine where a dozen miners were killed in 2006. Trump’s favored candidate, Wilbur Ross, also engineered buyouts that cost workers their benefits and their jobs. It’s a striking choice, considering Trump’s promises to improve the lives of coal miners and other working-class Americans.

The possibility that Ross would get a spot in the Trump team isn’t that surprising, given that Ross has been reported for a while to be one of the President-elect’s economic policy advisers.

It is worth pointing out that if he got either the Commerce or Treasury slot, Ross would not be in charge of coal mine safety and health regulation for the Trump administration. Folks who are concerned about those issues would obviously be better off watching to see who President-elect Trump makes Secretary of Labor — and then who exactly is chosen to by Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.

Is something like Sago too much baggage for Ross to become a cabinet secretary? Well, considering some of the other appointments already announced by the transition team, that seems pretty unlikely.

For the record, it’s certainly true that the Sago Mine didn’t exactly have a spotless safety record at the time of the deadly explosion — far from it, according to our stories published at the time (see here, here and here, just for example).

Interestingly, though, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, when it issued the report of its investigation of the Sago Disaster, did not list any of the many violations its inspectors found as having contributed to the deaths. A separate report by an independent team — led by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer — found plenty of blame to go around, noting failures by regulators and the company to ensure the safety of the Sago workers.

A confirmation hearing for Ross could give the Democrats in the Senate the opportunity to ask a few interesting questions … But then again, it’s not like either presidential candidate or the national media spent much time at all talking about worker safety and health during our nation’s just-completed presidential election.

Friday roundup, Nov. 4, 2016

In this Monday, Oct. 31, 2016 photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, rescuers work at Jinshangou Coal Mine in Chongqing, southwest China. Rescuers worked through the night at the privately owned Jinshangou mine where the explosion occurred before noon Monday, Xinhua News Agency reported. (Tang Yi/Xinhua via AP)

 

In this Monday, Oct. 31, 2016 photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, rescuers work at Jinshangou Coal Mine in Chongqing, southwest China. Rescuers worked through the night at the privately owned Jinshangou mine where the explosion occurred before noon Monday, Xinhua News Agency reported. (Tang Yi/Xinhua via AP)

Sadly, the story out of the coalfields of China didn’t end well earlier this week, when the rest of the miners trapped by an explosion were found dead.  Not surprisingly, the follow-up story reports:

Regulators found several safety violations in a coal mine in western China where 33 people died this week after being trapped underground in a gas explosion.

China’s State Administration of Work Safety said Wednesday the mine in the municipality of Chongqing was using outdated equipment and miners were sent more than 100 meters (328 feet) beyond the approved drilling area, causing gas to accumulate.

We’ve talked before on this blog about how workplace disasters in far-away places often make us get up on our high horse about how much
more advanced we are in the United States, and how that sort of cockiness may not be the best approach for encouraging safety and health in our domestic mining industry.

As if to remind us of that, the great Chris Hamby at BuzzFeed had this report on Wednesday:

One of America’s most renowned medical centers — The Johns Hopkins Hospital — intentionally defrauded hundreds of sick coal miners out of compensation and health benefits while pocketing large sums from coal companies, according to a class action lawsuit filed by the families of two coal miners who died of black lung disease.

The lawsuit, which also targets a longtime Hopkins doctor, draws heavily from revelations in an investigative report by the Center for Public Integrity, in partnership with ABC News, about a unit of radiologists who for decades provided coal companies with readings of miners’ X-rays. Those readings almost always said the miner didn’t have black lung, helping the companies avoid paying benefits under a program administered by the federal government.

…  The investigative report found that the longtime leader of the unit, Dr. Paul Wheeler, had read X-rays in more than 1,500 cases but never once found a case of severe black lung. Other doctors, looking at the same films, found evidence of the disease hundreds of times. Wheeler’s credentials and longtime affiliation with Johns Hopkins often trumped those of the other doctors, however, and administrative judges credited his reports to deny more than 800 claims … The investigation found that in more than 100 cases, biopsies or autopsies proved Wheeler wrong.

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‘One of the good coal operators’

Jim Justice

 

Just a few hours before the second and final debate between gubernatorial candidates Jim Justice and Bill Cole — and in the wake of last week’s devastating report about Justice by NPR — the United Mine Workers union is stepping up to defend their candidate. Here’s UMWA President Cecil Roberts in what the union says is a “reality check” on which candidate is best for mine safety:

I read the NPR story regarding the mine safety fines incurred by mines operated by companies that Jim Justice owns. Let me be clear: I believe his company needs to pay any fines it has incurred. My understanding is that those fines are, in fact, being paid right now.

But if we want to talk about which candidate for West Virginia Governor cares more about the health and safety of working miners, let’s make sure the facts are clear. Jim Justice has never questioned the need for mine safety laws and regulations.

The prepared statement from President Roberts went on:

Bill Cole hasn’t just questioned whether we need safety laws for West Virginia miners, he played a key part in slashing the state’s mine safety and health law in 2015. First, the law Bill Cole pushed through the State Senate abolished a commission that was charged with making sure miners weren’t breathing harmful diesel exhaust emissions while working underground.

Bill ColeSecond, Bill Cole agreed with those who thought it was not a problem for miners to have to carry an injured miner 1,500 feet to get to mechanized transportation and then be brought outside for medical treatment. Anyone who has ever walked underground over broken rock and lumps of coal knows how difficult that is at the best of times. Trying to do that over the equivalent of five football fields while rushing to get an injured co-worker to safety is the last thing miners need to be doing.

And third, Bill Cole supported putting miners’ lives in danger by allowing companies to move large equipment around in a mine and putting that equipment between working miners and escape routes if something bad happens. This law was put into place back in the 1970s when miners were killed as a result of this practice. We should never allow something to happen underground that we know has already lead to miners’ deaths. But Bill Cole did.

The UMWA is talking about the legislation described in this story, and which a top union official and state legislator criticized in this op-ed piece, saying:

This extreme legislation loosens coal mining safety regulations to the benefit of big corporations without any regard for worker safety.

Oddly, the UMWA didn’t mention in its statement today that the bill in question was eventually signed by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, over the union’s objections.

Also not mentioned is what happened the following legislative session, earlier this year, when the UMWA actually went along with another coal lobby bill that weakened mine safety protections. That bill also passed, and was signed by Gov. Tomblin. Union officials said they had little choice but to try to reach that compromise bill, fearing the industry — and a Republican controlled Legislature with Cole as Senate President — easily had the votes to pass something worse.

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Jim Justice

 

Well, our friend Howard Berkes at NPR (along with the good folks at West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Ohio Valley ReSource) have put together the pieces of the puzzle. Their bombshell this morning on Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jim Justice reports:

… Justice’s mining companies still fail to pay millions of dollars in mine safety penalties two years after an earlier investigation documented the same behavior. Our analysis of federal data shows that Justice is now the nation’s top mine safety delinquent.

His mining companies owe $15 million in six states, including property and minerals taxes, state coal severance and withholding taxes, and federal income, excise and unemployment taxes, as well as mine safety penalties, according to county, state and federal records.

The story continues:

In the past 16 months, while fines and taxes went unpaid, Justice personally contributed nearly $2.9 million in interest-free loans and in-kind contributions to his gubernatorial campaign, according to state campaign finance reports.

Grant Herring, a spokesman for the Justice gubernatorial campaign, said Justice “won’t be doing an interview,” despite multiple requests after NPR provided details of our investigation.

Importantly, the investigation also reports:

Delinquent Justice mines also continue to have worse-than-average safety records, according to NPR’s analysis of MSHA injury and violations data. Our analysis shows that injury rates (for injuries forcing time away from work) are twice the national average and violations rates more than four times the national rate during the years the Justice mines failed to pay penalties.

The Justice fines concern Celeste Monforton, a former MSHA official, mine disaster investigator and lecturer on workplace safety at George Washington University and Texas State University.

“I don’t think we should forget that the reason that he has those penalties is because there were violations and hazards in his coal mining operations,” says Monforton.

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Blankenship’s letter from a Taft, California, jail

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Gazette-Mail file photo by Chip Ellis

Well, I guess we all knew that something like this was coming sooner or later. Don Blankenship has seldom been one to keep quiet; well, except for that time he refused to answer questions from investigators after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster … or that time he declined to take the stand in his own defense at his federal court criminal trial.

But Kris Maher over at the Wall Street Journal had the story this morning:

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who is serving a one-year sentence in federal prison for violating mine safety laws, is issuing a highly unusual personal defense this week, using a 67-page booklet to declare that he is an “American Political Prisoner.”

“The story is a little complex, and telling it from prison without a computer and without much documentation has not been easy,” Mr. Blankenship wrote. “But it is a story that Americans need to know.”

And indeed, there is a press release, in the form of this blog post — dateline “Taft, California,” where Blankenship is serving his prison sentence, as well as a .pdf file of Blankenship’s booklet now available through his website. I’ve downloaded a copy of the booklet and posted it here for safekeeping. Blankenship says he’s going to send the booklet to 250,000 people — he doesn’t say who — and explains his reasons for doing so:

This booklet is the right thing to do. It is the right thing to do because all Americans deserve a fair trial, and not one like I had. It is right to do this booklet because coal miner safety is more import-ant than political correctness. Lies about accidents and improper prosecutions are serious matters, as they prevent worker safety improvements and deprive people of their basic human rights.

We’ve seen this movie — literally — before. For example, the booklet runs through Blankenship’s theory that the Upper Big Branch disaster was caused not by poor safety practices at Massey under his watch, but by an uncontrollable flood of natural gas into the underground mine. Investigations by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the Governors Independent Investigation Panel (the McAteer team), the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, and the United Mine Workers of America all reached conclusions contrary to Blankenship’s theory.

The other thing that Blankenship goes off about is his belief that the media has ignored (covered up, I think is his term) allegations about MSHA’s role in what happened at UBB. It’s hard to buy into his part of his theory, given that his major concerns about MSHA — inaction about potential methane leaks from the look of UBB, perhaps poorly planned demands for changes in the mine’s ventilation system, and the potential that not all records about MSHA’s involvement at UBB have been made public — were all covered fairly extensively by Blankenship’s favorite news outlet.

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Coming clean about the Clean Power Plan

FILE - In this July 1, 2013, file photo, smoke rises from the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal burning power plant in Colstrip, Mont. Most Americans are willing to pay a little more each month to fight global warming, but only a tiny bit, according to a new poll. Still environmental policy experts hail that as a hopeful sign. Seventy-one percent of the American public want the federal government to do something about global warming, including six percent of the people who think the government should act even though they are not sure that climate change is happening, according to a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

 

Tomorrow is a big day for coal and energy issues, what with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia set to hear oral argument in the case trying to stop the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Lots of eyes in West Virginia will be watching, and we’ve covered the implications of this issue before (see here, here and here).

There’s a bunch of stories out there nationally that provide various sorts of previews of tomorrow argument.

The New York Times, for example, takes this angle:

The pitched battle over President Obama’s signatureclimate change policy, which is moving to the courts this week, carries considerable political, economic and historical stakes. Yet its legal fate, widely expected to be ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, could rest on a clerical error in an obscure provision of a 26-year-old law.

That error, which left conflicting amendments on power plant regulation in the Clean Air Act, will be a major focus of oral arguments by opponents of Mr. Obama’s initiative when the case is heard on Tuesday in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The initiative, known as the Clean Power Plan, which Mr. Obama sees as at the heart of his climate change legacy, gave the United States critical leverage to broker the landmark 2015 Paris climate change accord. If the plan is struck down, the United States, the world’s largest carbon polluter over the centuries, will lose its main tool to cut greenhouse gas emissions. If it is upheld, it will transform the nation’s electricity system, closing hundreds of coal-fired power plants and setting in motion a wholesale shift to wind, solar and nuclear power, as well as to improved electric transmission systems.

And here’s The Washington Post:

President Obama’s signature effort to combat global warming will be in the hands of federal judges this week, as an appeals court in Washington weighs the legality of the administration’s plan to force sharp cuts in power plants’ carbon emissions and push the nation toward cleaner energy sources.

Even after a marathon hearing Tuesday, the legal questions about the Clean Power Plan are almost certain to remain unresolved when Obama leaves office. But the outcome of the case ultimately could shape the president’s environmental legacy and influence how millions of Americans get their electricity.

“It’s the big kahuna,” said David Doniger, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which backs the proposal.

The sprawling, unpredictable legal battle — which has attracted attention from the Supreme Court — pits the nation’s leading environmental groups, climate scientists and even tech giants such as Apple against more than two dozen states, industry groups and conservative lawmakers.

There are many others, including pieces from EnergyWire, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Caller.

Locally, the Daily Mail editorial page had an op-ed from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is among those challenging the EPA rule, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting had a brief preview that included these comments from the AG:

We know that over the last number of years that the regulatory onslaught has play a part in the onslaught of the loss of coal jobs. There are other factors, I would concede, but the regulatory onslaught has been a factor.

It was nice to see AG Morrisey acknowledge the “other factors” that have led to coal’s decline, something we’ve certainly tried to convince public officials to face up to over these last few years (see here, here and here, for example). As with election stories these days, it’s often easy for public officials — and voters — to get away with spouting the coal industry line without ever being confronted by journalists with facts about coal’s decline and the reality of the challenges faced by coalfield communities — even if the AG and his allies manage to win the day in court.

Friday roundup, Aug. 26, 2016

In this Aug. 10, 2016 photo, Vincent Montant, director of facilities for Allegany Public Schools, shows the long-handed shovel that is used to remove coal ash from the furnace at Braddock Middle School in Cumberland, Md. are exhibited for inspection as the academic year approaches. (Michael A. Sawyers/Cumberland Times-News via AP) WHAG-TV OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT

 

In this Aug. 10, 2016 photo, Vincent Montant, director of facilities for Allegany Public Schools, shows the long-handed shovel that is used to remove coal ash from the furnace at Braddock Middle School in Cumberland, Md. are exhibited for inspection as the academic year approaches. (Michael A. Sawyers/Cumberland Times-News via AP)

Another week, and another New York Times story that oversimplifies the current situation in the nation’s coalfields … This time, it was a story headlined “Alienated and Angry, Coal Miners See Donald Trump as Their Only Choice.” It started this way:

Deep in the belly of an Appalachian mountain, a powerful machine bored into the earth, its whirring teeth clawing out a stream of glistening coal. Men followed inside the Maple Eagle No. 1 mine, their torches cutting through the dank air. One guided the machine with a PlayStation-like controller; others bolted supports in the freshly cut roof.

They were angry. The coal industry that made West Virginia prosperous has been devastated. Every day, it seemed, another mine laid off workers or closed entirely. Friends were forfeiting their cars, homes and futures.

For these men, this season’s presidential campaign boils down to a single choice. “I’m for Trump,” said Dwayne Riston, 27, his face smeared in dust. “Way I see it, if he wins, we might at least stand a chance of surviving.”

Few places in America offer such a simple electoral calculus as the rolling, tree-studded hills of West Virginia.

Yeah, OK. Few places are as often pigeonholed and depicted as devoid of any nuance — through a simple journalistic calculus without any effort at all at context — than the coalfields of West Virginia when the big-time, out-of-state political correspondents parachute in to enlighten the world. I have to check again to make sure Times reporter

Sure, the miners are angry. Yes, many of them see voting for Donald Trump as their only hope. But does anyone really believe that most of this story wasn’t already written in the correspondent’s head before he got off the plane or hopped in a rental car?

These stories are hard for the national media to resist, and a look at any of the projections for Trump’s sure victory in West Virginia explains part of the reason for that (see here or here). My point isn’t that Trump is not going to win here. That seems obvious.

Last week, another hotshot Times correspondent focused on “Beyond Coal” issues in Appalachia (mostly Kentucky) without mentioning the fact that the Obama administration was trying to throw billions of dollars at the region’s economic problems. This time, the Times makes hardly a mention of any of the local efforts at finding a path forward, with this:

Yet the people of Mingo County have forged their own brand of resilience, one born of the tight-knit rural values that draw embattled citizens together. For some, that means planning for a better future: Dr. Dino Beckett, a local physician, has spearheaded initiatives to grow healthy food locally and reduce diabetes. For others, it means lifting a defiant finger to the outside world.

For anyone who knows Dr. Beckett, that line makes it clear that the Times reporter didn’t spend enough time in the area (or with Google, for that matter), to understand that people are far more complex than either on the one hand spearheading forward-looking initiatives or, on the other hand, “lifting a defiant finger to the outside world.” West Virginians can both be trying to improve local public health and be tangled up with characters like jailed former Massey CEO Donald Blankenship (some readers may recall that the Hillary Clinton was likewise confused by finding actual nuance in Mingo County).

Then there was this line:

With salaries starting at $70,000 a year, a job in the mines was long considered the local jackpot. Mingo County’s breathtaking valleys and hollers — narrow creeks bordered by high hills — are lined with spacious homes, swimming pools and gleaming vehicles. Now, there is a palpable fear that the good life is gone, perhaps for good.

The local jackpot? That makes it sound like working in a coal mine isn’t incredibly hard work, not to mention incredibly dangerous work. This would have been a nice place for the Times reporter to make some mention at all of the downsides of the coal industry — things like black lung disease, mine explosions, water pollution … I could go on. Why is it that the Times is unable to show its readers that when one travels West Virginia, one finds incredible beauty and then, just around the bend, a moonscape or an orange stream? Why must we be “the other” place, a one-dimensional hollow that these “journalists” can’t seem to understand and are certain their cosmopolitan readers won’t get either.

More importantly, this story — like last week’s Times piece — chooses to make no effort at all to explain the complex reasons behind the decline in our region’s coal market. All this latest story gave us was this:

Political fury in Mingo County focuses squarely on the Environmental Protection Agency and President Obama, who is seen as having started a “war on coal.”

Why is it considered good journalism to cite all this “political fury” without providing any context to explain what’s really going on? It’s not like the Times doesn’t know about the context — they’ve published stuff about this very recently (see here and here).  It’s as if the Times believes politics and facts really should be separate things — and that political journalism shouldn’t involve ever providing context, especially if that context undermines the narrative or what voters are saying. There’s nothing wrong with giving the angry miners a voice. But that’s only part of the story.

Reporting on the fury, without reporting on the context — the constant drumbeat of campaign and issue ads that have for eight years now promoted the one-dimensional view of what’s hurting coal — simply helps to ensure that this same fury continues, and that no one understands what’s really going on.

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Really, Hoppy? ‘Blood money’?

And to think I was bothered when Sens. Manchin and Capito just had to take a swipe at President Obama’s environmental regulations on the day when the administration made good on a promise to pump some money into helping coalfield communities figure out what comes next.

hoppyBut wow. Hoppy Kercheval’s “commentary” today is really something. Maybe he should have waited for tomorrow’s traditional “steam release” segment to go on this rant about yesterday’s announcement of nearly $40 million in federal grants to coalfield communities and groups. Here’s what he wrote, under the headline, “Obama’s handout to coal country“:

… There is also a “blood money” feel to it, a payoff from the Obama administration to ease consciences over the damage done, handouts spread throughout the region to tamp down the misery index the White House helped create.

Blood money? Wonder why he put it in quotes? So he can pretend it wasn’t really him saying it? Who knows with Hoppy. He long ago went so round the bend about coal issues, climate change and President Obama that it’s hard to know whether even he believes what he says and writes.

You have to start with the headline, and Hoppy’s use of the word “handout.” It’s surely not by accident that Hoppy’s playing into the false notion that the administration’s Power Plus Plan is some sort of welfare — checks written to unemployed miners, rather than seed money to help local communities find ways to diversify their economies and communities for long-term success.

Then there’s Hoppy’s single-minded insistence that what’s happening in the coalfields is caused almost exclusively by government regulations. To try to avoid being accused of ignoring the facts, Hoppy makes a brief feint toward acknowledging the role of cheap natural gas. But in the end, Hoppy doesn’t tell the truth on these issues, because he ignores the long-standing warnings that someday the good coal was going to run out, that even a defeat of EPA wouldn’t save the Southern West Virginia mining industry, and that global warming is a major threat to human society — and a significant contributor to disasters like the June floods.

Not for nothing, but it’s worth pointing out here that while Hoppy crusades in favor of returning coal to its supposed heyday, Hoppy hasn’t exactly focused his attention over the years on the many downsides of our state’s relationship with coal:  Slurry dam disasters, mine explosion disasters, black lung disasters … or on the very real legacy liabilities that Hoppy’s as-few-regulations-as-possible philosophy have allowed to now be foisted on our state, like underfunded coal miner pension plans and giant messes left behind when the mountaintop removal is done.

Maybe the best thing to say about this from Hoppy is that at least he’s consistent — consistent at getting this story wrong, obfuscating the truth and just carrying the water of a powerful industry whose warts he likes to ignore. But then again, he’s not really consistent.

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It wasn’t so long ago that Hoppy was complaining when the Obama administration didn’t give West Virginia some of this “blood money.” In January, his column was headlined, “WV thumped by Obama green agenda yet again,” and objected when the federal government rejected the state’s request for $140 million from a program meant to help communities become more resilient to the kinds of natural disasters — floods, hurricanes, etc., — expected to become more likely and more damaging because of climate change. Hoppy explained:

The proposal was called “Adjust, Adapt and Advance,” and it included detailed plans for water, sewer and infrastructure improvements, land use planning that lowered risks to the environment, and housing, school and business developments on old surface mine sites that would be out of the flood plain.

So yeah, it’s “blood money.” But if Hoppy can use the rejection of a state grant for some more of that unseemly stuff to attack the “Obama green agenda,” then logic and reason and any sort of consistency go out the window.

What Hoppy didn’t make clear was that most of the money the state requested  in that earlier application — $110 million of it — was to be used for the last part of that, the development of old surface mine sites.

Hoppy writes that the “irony is self-evident” in President Obama providing money to help struggling coal communities. Really, though, Hoppy is a bit irony impaired on all of this. What’s really ironic is the whole idea that now that the mountains have been blown up, the streams polluted, and the riches of the coal hauled away to some other place, we have to invest public resources to make those flattened mountains into someplace businesses might locate, schools might be built, and families might be able to live.

I don’t know about you, but I remember the constant jingoism from coal supporters that mountaintop removal was good because when the mining companies were done there would be something valuable left over. And what’s really ironic is that the whole reason we don’t have more development on former mountaintop removal sites is that the anti-regulatory forces championed by Hoppy kept the portions of the federal surface mining act that required such development from being properly enforced.

And finally, really, what’s ironic is that the mess West Virginia is in now is largely of our own making. It’s a creature of our relationship with coal, our reliance on one industry, and our refusal to heed decades of warnings that we needed to branch out and get ready for this day. And commentators like Hoppy want to make it so that the Obama administration is damned if they don’t help us out of this hole, but also damned if they do help us out of it.

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There’s an interesting op-ed in The New York Times today by civil rights lawyer and author Chase Madar about the use of criminal prosecutions in major public safety disasters. It mentions the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, and the successful prosecution of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship:

The latest criminal charges of public officials in the contamination of the Flint, Mich., water supply seem righteous. After so much government ineptitude with such hideous consequences — tens of thousands of Flint residents poisoned; elevated blood lead levels in nearly 5 percent of the city’s children, many with possibly irreversible brain damage — surely these criminal charges will bring, at long last, justice for Flint.

Not really. Though these sorts of charges fulfill an emotional need for retribution and are of great benefit to district attorneys on the make, they are seldom more than a mediagenic booby prize. Prosecutorial responses fill the void left when health and safety regulations succumb to corporate and political pressure.

Take the collapse at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in 2010. Flouting safety regulations was an integral part of the corporate culture of the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, and last year its chief executive, Donald L. Blankenship, was convicted of a misdemeanor carrying a one-year sentence. Although some portrayed this as a blow for social justice, it’s difficult to see how it had much impact on mine safety.

Far more significant was the West Virginia Legislature’s passage last year of the Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act, the first statutory loosening of mine safety standards in state history. While on its deregulatory binge last year, the state almost entirely rolled back aboveground chemical-tank safety standards enacted in response to the Elk River contamination disaster of 2014 – which made the water of 300,000 people undrinkable.

The general point is that criminal prosecutions won’t stop mine disasters, or water pollution, or food contamination — and that the media give far too much attention to criminal trials in these incidents, at the expense of coverage of the many failings of our civil and administrative regulatory systems that are supposed to protect the public. Attorney Madar opines:

Our prosecutorial response tends to be reactive. Volkswagen will pay at least $15 billion for cheating on emissions tests on its diesel vehicles, and may face criminal charges. The tiny research center that caught the discrepancy is now facing cuts to its $1.5 million annual budget.

A well-enforced regulatory regime lacks the TV-movie narrative arc of a criminal trial. But none of these crimes could have been committed if the government had been doing its job properly.

OK. Now one glaring problem with this whole line of thinking is that, while telling readers that these prosecutions are little more than a “mediagenic booby prize”  that we mere news reporters fall for every time, Attorney Madar seems to be getting his information about the glaring holes in regulatory systems that aren’t explained to the public from — that’s right, the mainstream media.

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Friday roundup, Aug. 19, 2016

Secret Service agents stand post as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a coal mining roundtable at Fitzgerald Peterbilt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Glade Spring, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

 

Secret Service agents stand post as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a coal mining roundtable at Fitzgerald Peterbilt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Glade Spring, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This week, I’m going to try to get back into the habit of doing a post every Friday that tries to provide a quick look at a few coal-related news stories from around the Internet that I found interesting.

First off this week is the much-shared New York Times piece, “Beyond Coal: Imagining Appalachia’s Future.” Written by Times Mid-Atlantic Bureau Chief Sheryl Stolberg, the piece starts out like this:

Here in the heart of central Appalachian coal country, an economic experiment is underway inside an airy renovated Coca-Cola bottling plant. Most days, Michael Harrison, a former mine electrician and “buggy man” who once drove trucks 700 feet underground, can be found hunched over a silver laptop, designing websites for clients like the Pikeville tourism board.

Mr. Harrison, 36, is one of 10 former mine workers employed at BitSource, an internet start-up founded by two Pikeville businessmen determined to prove a point: that with training and encouragement, Kentucky miners can learn to code.

“We told them, ‘Quit thinking of yourselves as unemployed coal workers; you’re technology workers,’” said Rusty Justice, a founder of BitSource. He called his pep talks “reimagination training.”

Times Appalachia coverAnd then there’s what we like to call nut graphs:

Nearly 13,000 coal jobs — and countless more in related industries — have disappeared in Kentucky since President Obama took office; coal employment is at its lowest level since 1898. In Washington, Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a feud over whether Mr. Obama’s aggressive environmental regulations amount to a “war on coal.” On the presidential campaign trail, Donald J. Trump is vowing to “put our miners back to work.”

But across central Appalachia, and especially here in eastern Kentucky, elected officials, business leaders, environmentalists and community advocates are looking beyond politics to wrestle with a question essential to the region’s survival: What comes after coal?

I guess it’s a decent enough story, as far as it goes. And it’s certainly good to see many of the grassroots people who are working hard on these issues portrayed for the huge audience that will see a big Times feature like this.

Giving the Times a break, I’m not even going to go into the fact that the story doesn’t bother to point out the other factors — besides environmental regulations — that are killing the Appalachian coal industry. But I couldn’t help thinking that one thing that the story desperately needed to point out was that the Obama administration — which the story went to pains to note is constantly criticized in the region — is trying hard to help these grassroots people get to work diversifying the Appalachian coalfield economy. Even more importantly, this story absolutely needed to make note — given the political situation it chose to include very high up in the narrative — that there is bipartisan support for the major pieces of President Obama’s plan that would protect coal miner pensions and increase spending on abandoned mine cleanups, two areas of legacy liabilities that must be addressed for the region to move forward.

And if you’re wondering why the story focused more on Kentucky, don’t forget that statewide political leaders there made diversifying the coalfield economy a major issue, with the SOAR initiative.

Here in West Virginia, Sen. Jeff Kessler tried to get a similar program moving. But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was slow to step up, and his main project is trying to find some way to make use of the mountaintop removal-ravaged Hobet site along the Boone-Lincoln county line — an effort that faces huge challenges that were clear from the start and have been made more clear by Andy Brown’s reporting for the Gazette-Mail (see here and here).

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Bob Murray: MSHA inspections ‘total harassment’

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Yesterday, Hoppy Kercheval had Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray on the MetroNews show “Talkline,” ostensibly to talk about the growing financial challenges faced by Murray Energy and the vote coming up on Friday by United Mine Workers of America members on a second contract proposal with Murray.

Murray said, as he has before, that a new contract to replace the UMWA deal that expires at the end of the year, is essential to his company’s survival. The MetroNews summary of his comments went like this:

“The United Mine Workers turned it down last time. It is essential, the approval of it, to complete our four step program to avoid financial default in October,” Murray said.

Murray announced in July that 4,400 employees, 80 percent of his workforce, could lose their jobs. WARN notices were sent out.

But things veered away from that pretty quickly into another attack on the Obama administration and its efforts to better regulate coal mining.  Here’s Murray, responding to Hoppy’s softball questions:

I’ve worked night and day for 29 years building this company and creating these jobs only to have them destroyed by Barack Obama and his excessive regulations. Those regulations are coming out against coal, against the utilization of coal as well as the mining of coal faster than we can read them.

Murray went on:

Talk about harassment. In the first two days of this month, our mines had 89 federal inspectors from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration run by former UMWA safety man Joe Main. Eight-nine inspectors.

That means I had to take 89 management people off of inspecting the mines, off of doing safety training. It has nothing to do with safety. It is total harassment. Eighty-nine inspectors for 15 mines … All of which are cut back in production because they keep hiring these inspectors. They have nowhere to put them. It’s all harassment. It works against safety. There are so many ways that this federal government, under Obama, which Hilary Clinton has said she will continue trying to drive the coal mines out of business. It has nothing to do with safety. It has to do with eliminating underground coal mining.

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Trump worries coal-mine owners are starving

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 

A lot of the news out of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been rightly focused on his comments attacking the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, and then on his remarks Monday night in which he called Hillary Clinton “the devil.”

But Trump is still talking about coal mining, and here’s what The Hill reported he said Monday during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania:

“I have friends that own the mines. I mean, they can’t live,” he said.

“The restrictions environmentally are so unbelievable where inspectors come two and three times a day, and they can’t afford it any longer and they’re closing all the mines. … It’s not going to happen anymore, folks. We’re going to use our heads.”

It’s not really clear what environmental inspections Trump is talking about that involve inspectors visiting mines two or three times a day. Complete safety inspections of underground coal mines are required once per quarter — and sometimes those inspections take so long that MSHA has people at larger underground operations every day. But surely Mr. Trump, a champion of coal miners, isn’t thinking about cutting back on safety inspections.

Here’s more via a CBS News Twitter feed: