Coal Tattoo

More water testing troubles … in Kentucky

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There’s an important story coming out of Kentucky this week that will be of interest to anyone who has followed the water sampling scandals here in West Virginia (see here and here) — or anybody who has just wondered why so much of our water pollution enforcement process is based on industry self-reported data. Here’s the press release from Appalachian Voices:

Over the course of 2013 and 2014, Frasure Creek Mining – one of the largest coal mining companies in Kentucky – sent the state false pollution reports containing almost 28,000 violations of federal law, and the Kentucky Energy and the Environment Cabinet failed to detect the falsifications, according to a letter of notification served to the company by four citizen groups. It was the second time the groups have taken legal action against Frasure Creek for similar violations.

In a 30-page notice of intent to sue mailed Friday, the groups document that Frasure Creek duplicated results from one water pollution monitoring report to the next, misleading government officials and the public about the amount of water pollution the company has been discharging from its eastern Kentucky coal mines. In some cases, Frasure Creek changed only the values that would have constituted violations of pollution limits in the company’s discharge permits. With a potential fine of $37,500 per violation, the maximum penalty could be more than $1 billion.

The Courier-Journal in Louisville explained:

This all comes, of course, as Sen. Mitch McConnell has accused the U.S. EPA of a war on coal, and promises his own war on the EPA, and as the EPA denies any war on coal — and, according to journalist Ronnie Ellis, some Kentucky citizens are arguing that it’s the coal companies that are waging the war … a war on the health and environment of Kentucky.

And, the C-J’s Jim Bruggers noted this response from Kentucky officials:

Contrary to inaccurate and inflammatory statements directed at the Cabinet … the agency has been actively monitoring compliance with Frasure Creek and other coal mining operations in Kentucky. Since 2011 the Division of Enforcement has reviewed approximately 179,000 (discharge monitoring reports) involving 78 coal companies and over 2,200 mining permits, assessed civil penalties in excess of $3,697,000, and has entered into 67 enforcement settlements with coal companies in Kentucky. The agency has and continues to proactively review and take appropriate enforcement actions to resolve violations identified during the inspection and review of coal mining operations.

We’ve covered previous discussion of the Kentucky situation here, and there’s a good summary of the background here, but this time, the story also made The New York Times:

In a state where coal-country creeks run red with iron, Frasure Creek Mining has been unusually clean of late: Amid tens of thousands of measurements that it submitted to Kentucky regulators in 2013 and early 2014, fewer than 400 exceeded the state’s limits for water pollution from coal-mine runoff … The disclosure could embarrass the state, not least because environmental activists caught Frasure and two other coal companies in the same scheme in 2010. Then, regulators promised to tighten their scrutiny of pollution reports and the laboratories that conduct pollution tests.

5 more things about the Don Blankenship indictment

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Gazette file photo by Chip Ellis

There’s been a lot written already about the indictment of longtime Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (see here, here, here and here for Gazette stories), but there are a few things that readers may have overlooked and are worth knowing:

1.  Prosecutors did not charge Blankenship with actually causing the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

Certainly, the 43-page grand jury indictment mentions the mine disaster, and it alleges that Blankenship was personally an “operator” of the mine who took part in a conspiracy to violate key safety standards that four different investigations (see here, here, here and here) said led to the explosion. But U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby stopped just short of blaming Blankenship, of alleging that blowing up the mine was one of his crimes.

Doing so avoids any eventual criminal trial turning into a “battle of experts,” and may remove some of the ability of Blankenship’s defense team to trot out his much-promoted theory that the explosion was basically an “act of God,” caused by an unforeseeable inundation of natural gas.  Also, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger has not exactly been impressed thus far with the testimony of U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration witnesses in previous Upper Big Branch cases (see here and here), and in at least one previous coal-mining disaster cases, the MSHA experts on explosions certainly could have done better.

2.  Financial crimes carry much longer maximum sentences than those for violating workplace safety standards.

Most news reports made clear that the total maximum sentence Blankenship would face if convicted on all four counts of the indictment would be 31 years. Of course, that’s the statutory maximum, and if doesn’t take into account federal sentencing guidelines.  But it hasn’t really been made clear that 20 years of that 32-year maximum sentence would come from Count 4 of the indictment, which charges Blankenship with a violation of 15 U.S.C. 78ff. The count alleges that Blankenship made untrue statements to the investing public when Massey defended its corporate safety record after the mine disaster.

Two other counts of the indictment — Count 2 charging Blankenship with conspiracy to defraud MSHA by advance notice of inspections and Count 3 charging him with making false statements to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission — each carry maximum jail sentences of 5 years. The allegation that actually involves unsafe mining practices is Count 1, which alleges a conspiracy to violate federal mine safety standards.  It carries a maximum sentence of 1 year in jail.

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A personnel carrier that once carried miners underground was left crushed and twisted by a 2006 explosion at the Kentucky Darby mine, which left five workers dead. Department of Labor/MSHA

Our friends at NPR News and the Mine Safety and Health News — Howard Berkes and Ellen Smith — have just posted some remarkable new work from a year-long investigation of what happens when coal mine operators never have to actually pay the safety fines that are assessed for violations of federal standards. Here’s how the web version of the NPR story starts:

Jack Blankenship was pinned facedown in the dirt, his neck, shoulder and back throbbing with pain.

He was alone on an errand, in a dark tunnel a mile underground at the Aracoma Alma coal mine in Logan County, W.Va., when a 300-pound slab of rock peeled away from the roof and slammed him to the ground. As his legs grew numb, he managed to free an arm and reach his radio. For two hours, he pressed the panic button that was supposed to bring help quickly.

“I couldn’t hardly breathe,” Blankenship remembered four years later. “I’d black out and come to. I was waiting to die. I’d already had my little talk with God.”

Aracoma Alma and then-owner Massey Energy had a history of serious safety problems, including falling rock. In the two years before Blankenship’s accident, the mine was cited by federal regulators more than 120 times for rock fall violations, according to records from federal regulators. That included inadequate roof support and deficient safety checks for loose rock.

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The ‘dominant narrative’ about coal’s decline

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It was interesting to watch this piece from VICE News about the campaign for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, especially the footage of this comment from longtime Rep. Nick J. Rahall:

Coal is everything to our state of West Virginia … I have always stood for coal, am standing for coal, and will always stand for coal … Yeah, coal is in a slump now. But coal is going to come back.

I’d like to believe that Rep. Rahall knows better, that he understands well that the Obama administration isn’t the only pressure on Southern West Virginia coal, and that regardless of whether he and other opponents win their fight with the U.S. EPA, another boom in our southern coalfields simply isn’t just around the corner  (see also here).

The piece goes on to report:

… The dominant narrative around here is that Obama’s stringent regulations — thus his “war on coal” —  are to blame for the loss of coal mining jobs.

It does include this further context:

In reality, the downturn is largely due to dwindling reserves, the rise of natural gas, and the automation of the mining industry, which has replaced workers with machines.

But that’s just a mention, almost in passing, in a nearly 15-minute piece that is mostly about this “dominant narrative.” So you have to wonder, why is the “war on coal” the dominant narrative. Of course, it’s partly because of the huge advertising campaign from the mining industry. But it’s also because that’s the way the national and local media keep framing things.

There’s another example out there today in this Associated Press dispatch:

LOGAN, W.Va. (AP) — The president of the West Virginia Coal Association reports a decrease in the number of coal mining sites in the state.

Bill Raney says the state has 96 active mining sites, down from 152 in 2013 and 184 in 2012. Media outlets report that Raney attributes the decline to uncertainty created by President Barack Obama’s administration.

Raney also says the industry is seeing a shift in production from mines in southern West Virginia to northern West Virginia. He attributes that to the scrubber technology added to northern power plants during the 1990s which enabled them to burn high-sulfur coal found in northern West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

That story, apparently picked up from the Logan Banner and WVOW-FM in Logan, will likely run in every paper in West Virginia, over the weekend before Tuesday’s general election.  And look at that sentence I put in bold type:

Media outlets report that Raney attributes the decline to uncertainty created by President Barack Obama’s administration.

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Coals War

Over the last few months, I’ve actually enjoyed avoiding the parachute journalism that’s always done this time of year by people with titles like “national correspondent” or “political editor”.   The television ads are bad enough, and now we’ve got to endure career campaign consultants insulting each other via social media. So it would be nice if we had more actual journalism — the kind that gives voters the sort of information that helps make good choices.

But last evening, I couldn’t help but point my browser over to The New York Times when I saw that they were promoting their latest take on West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District race between longtime Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall and sometimes-Republican challenger Evan Jenkins. The story was headlined, “Race Tests Democrats’ Viability in West Virginia,” and written by Trip Gabriel, whose Twitter profile identifies him as “New York Times national correspondent covering politics and all things mid-Atlantic.”

The piece starts out this way:

“Pro-jobs. Pro-coal. Pro-life. Vote Republican!!!” reads a prominent sign coming into town.

And that ought to be the end of the story here in southern West Virginia, with its beleaguered mining industry and largely white population that fills the pews of evangelical churches on a Wednesday night as readily as on Sunday morning.

The region voted overwhelmingly Republican in the presidential contest two years ago, part of the historic defection of West Virginia Democrats, who hold a 2-to-1 registration advantage, from the national party over social issues like abortion and, more recently, opposition to environmental regulation.

And yet a Democratic congressman, Nick J. Rahall II, has defiantly held onto his seat here in the sparsely populated Third District, which runs from the rugged Appalachian coal fields in the west to the famed white-water rafting of the New River Gorge.

OK … let’s look at that last bit again:

… The sparsely populated Third District, which runs from the rugged Appalachian coal fields in the west to the famed white-water rafting of the New River Gorge.

Let’s let Trip have the “sparsely populated” part. The 3rd District’s roughly 610,000-person population is less than the average of about 711,000, though certainly congressional districts out west are far more “sparse” than in Southern West Virginia.  but “runs from the rugged Appalachian coal fields in the west to the famed white-water rafting of the New River Gorge”?

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Our 3rd District starts along the Ohio River and stretches across the coalfields to the Virginia border. It’s great that Trip got to go to Bridge Day, but he’s putting pretty prose before geographic accuracy here. The line he was looking for was something like, “which runs from the Ohio River town of Huntington — made famous in the movie “We Are Marshall” — through the rugged coalfields and west to the Virginia border, where Greenbrier County is home to the famed Greenbrier Resort.

This is a little thing probably. And perhaps we should be glad the Times left out the word “hardscrabble” when it published this particular parachute story.

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As we enter the home stretch of this election season, an issue that continues to get little attention from the local media — and no attention at all from major candidates — is one we wrote about in this recent Gazette story:

A new West Virginia University study has found that dust from mountaintop removal coal-mining operations promotes the growth of lung cancer tumors.

The study results “provide new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of mountaintop removal dust emissions and “support further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control” for that dust, according to the paper, published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“A growing body of evidence links living in proximity to [mountaintop removal] activities to greater risk of serious health consequences, including significantly higher reports of cancer,” the study said. “Our finding strengthens previous epidemiological studies linking [mountaintop removal] to increased incidence of lung cancer, and supports adoption of prevention strategies and exposure control.”

It would be one thing if — as some political leaders continually try to suggest — this was just one isolated study.  But it’s not. It’s a growing body of studies that continues to present a compelling case that something is going on. And, of course, while the human health studies are the most troubling, the evidence of environmental destruction from mountaintop removal also continues to grow.

Just this week, there was another important paper out of the University of Kentucky, reporting on how mountaintop removal is reducing the salamander population in Kentucky’s coalfields. This is a follow-up paper to one that produced a similar finding in West Virginia.  We wrote about that paper in a Gazette story that summarized the findings of a study many of the overlooked environmental effects of mountaintop removal:

Mountaintop removal is having frequently overlooked impacts on forests, biodiversity, climate and public health, and an updated federal review is needed to more fully examine those issues, according to a new study by government and university scientists.

The study warns that mountaintop removal is not only causing significant changes in the Appalachian topography, but also could be worsening the impacts of global warming.

Authors of the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal BioScience, say that legal and regulatory focus on water quality impacts has led to less research on how mountaintop removal affects forests, soils, biodiversity and the mountains themselves.

“Evaluation of terrestrial impacts is needed to complement the growing literature on aquatic impacts in order for an environmental assessment of the practice to be comprehensive,” states the paper, written by scientists from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, Rider University and West Virginia University.

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How soon we forget: Mine safety in W.Va.

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STANDDOWN

One way that West Virginia lawmakers seem to like to avoid taking stronger action on important public health and safety issues is to put off much-needed reforms until someone does a study or a report on the issue. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting more and better information — assuming that you plan to actually look at that information and follow up on the public policy implications of it.

That’s not always what really happens at the West Virginia Legislature. Just look, for example, at how lawmakers do nothing about the ongoing problems related to the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom, at the same time that they move terribly quickly to protect a Department of Environmental Protection decision to ignore landfill intake limits to ensure drillers have somewhere to dump their waste.

This method of ignoring important issues was on display yesterday at the Capitol, where a special legislative committee on Labor and Worker Safety Issues met during this month’s interim session.

The committee was scheduled to hear a presentation from Eugene White (above, left), director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, about this report, That report was required by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s mine safety bill, passed in 2012. That legislation mandated:

The director shall, by December 31, 2013, report to the Legislature and Governor on the need for revisions in the state’s underground mine safety enforcement procedures. The director shall initiate the study using appropriate academic resources and mining safety organizations to conduct a program review of state enforcement procedures to evaluate what reforms will assure that mining operations follow state mandated safety protocols. The report shall include recommended legislation, rules and policies, consider various options for improving inspections, accountability and equitable and timely administrative procedures that cause remediation of hazardous working conditions.

As readers may recall, while Gov. Tomblin, his handlers and a lot of lawmakers and cheerleaders called the governor’s legislation comprehensive, it was really anything but (see here, here and here). We also know that the Tomblin administration was slow to actually put in effect the few tough changes included in the governor’s bill.  And the point of this report was to outline other needed changes, so lawmakers could act on those, based on the facts and recommendations in this report.

First off, though, this report was completed and provided to lawmakers nearly a year ago now.  We wrote a story about it in early January, explaining:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislative leaders need to enact a long list of additional reforms to protect the health and safety of West Virginia’s coal miners, according to a new state report.

The report from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training urges revised inspection and enforcement measures, tougher standards for preventing mine explosions and a requirement for proximity-detection systems that would prevent common crushing and pinning accidents.

In the 85-page report, Tomblin and lawmakers also are urged to provide more money for coal mine regulation and safety training, and increase pay so the agency can maintain a quality inspection staff.

“West Virginia has repeatedly had the highest coal mine fatality and accident totals in the country,” the report says. “The state must correct that.”

But, the only thing that lawmakers did about mine safety during last year’s session was take action to confirm it was just fine with them that the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety didn’t follow a mandate to toughen methane monitoring n the state’s underground mines.

The only real safety reform that took place this year in West Virginia’s mines was a new rule to require proximity detection devices on certain mining equipment. But that rule allows mine operators quite a long time to comply, and it was passed only after repeated demands for action from mine widow and safety advocate Caitlin O’Dell.

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Coal
It’s been about 15 years ago now. I was at an environmental journalism conference, attending a lunch session about climate change that included representatives of some of the big national and international environmental groups, along with a few industry people and some scientists.  The environmental groups were, of course, rightly making their case — as they continue to today —  that urgent action was needed to deal with carbon dioxide emissions

This was a long time ago and I was younger and probably even dumber than I am now. But I tried several times to engage these folks about what they thought a national climate policy should include in the way of economic, educational, or other help for coalfield communities where any mandated reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would almost certainly mean a significant decrease in about the only kind of good-paying jobs around.

Well, you would have thought I was from Mars. I mean, some folks were reasonably arguing that they were environmental groups. It was their job to work to protect the environment, public health and all that stuff. Their role in the process wasn’t to develop economic transition policies. They weren’t against those things necessarily. It just wasn’t their passion, and they didn’t think it was their job. But some folks were more hostile to my queries. They lectured me about how evil coal-mining was, and how they just didn’t understand why anyone in West Virginia wouldn’t welcome a complete end to the practice. Those folks had never been here. They certainly hadn’t been to a coal mine. They never came out and said so, but I certainly walked away feeling like they didn’t really care much what happened in places like Logan County, W.Va., as long as they got some sort of climate policy enacted.

I’ve been replaying those discussions a little in my mind this morning, and looking back at a piece that David Roberts wrote for Grist called, Should the feds bail out coal miners?  The piece was a follow-up to an earlier post he wrote called Democrats: Coal Country is just not that into you.

Now, let me make a disclaimer: I don’t really know David Roberts. Never met him. I do read his stuff all the time — and I certainly envy his great adventure taking a year away from social media. I’m a fan of his work. And I’m absolutely not trying to say that David Roberts doesn’t care about people in places like Logan County. From what I read, he just doesn’t strike me as that kind of guy. Far from it.

But I found his piece yesterday to not be nearly as thoughtful as I’ve come to expect from him. As he said on Twitter, maybe that’s just because I disagree with him about it.  But he wrote himself that it was “all pretty cursory” and just “idle musings,” and that he hoped what he wrote would get a discussion going. You should go read what he wrote, and maybe think about commenting.

David Roberts makes some good points. For example, he writes that some of the broad sort of New Deal programs that might really jump-start an economic transition in the Appalachian coalfields have little chance of getting through Congress right now. He points out that coal miners aren’t the only workers hurting in this country, and recommends broader programs that will help all workers, not just miners.

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Obama Mine Explosion

The lights on the helmets are turned on at the end of a memorial service for the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine, in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

We’ve talked before on this blog about the dangers of the sort of public relations that aims to show great success on making coal mines safer and healthier places for miners, and about the media coverage that falls into this trap.

I couldn’t help thinking about that last week, when The Associated Press made like it had some huge scoop with this story on a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announcement:

The number of chronic safety violators among mine operators has fallen sharply in recent years, according to government figures released Thursday …

The government puts repeat safety offenders on its Pattern of Violations, or POV, list, which is reserved for mines that pose the greatest risk to the safety and health of miners. A POV designation means that if a federal inspector were to find another significant and substantial violation, an order would be issued to withdraw miners from a specific area, effectively ceasing operations of that area until the problem is corrected there.

Prior to 2010, according to MSHA, no mine had been put on that list. But partly in response to the 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion in West Virginia, which killed 29 miners, MSHA toughened its enforcement that year and began citing mines for POV actions. Since then, seven mines have been on the POV list.

In its 2010 screening, 51 chronic violators were identified for further review among mine operators. But for this year’s screening, that number had dropped to 12. The biggest reduction came in coal mines, which dropped from 42 in 2010 to six this year.

The numbers were obtained by The Associated Press ahead of their official release on Thursday.

JoeMainHouseMarch2012MSHA issued a press release and posted a blog entry from agency chief Joe Main, who touted what he said are the results of MSHA enforcement initiatives, saying they had created a “a game changer in mine safety and mine safety culture”:

While we can’t measure how many lives have been saved, or how many illnesses and injuries have been prevented, we do know these reforms have worked to make mines safer and made a real difference in the safety, health and wellbeing of our nation’s miners. That’s what really counts.

The MSHA announcement was based on a couple of key statistics:

— The number of mines identified as chronic violators has substantially declined. In 2010, when we first used the revised Potential Pattern of Violations screening tool, 51 mines were identified for further review. Using the same measuring stick, 12 mines were identified in this year’s screening – a 76% reduction in the universe of chronic violators. The most significant reduction was in the coal sector, which accounted for 42 screened mines in 2010, but only 6 in the recent 2014 screening – an 86% reduction.

— The unacceptable violation records once held by the top chronic violators such as Upper Big Branch are becoming a thing of the past. The top 12 of the 51 mines identified in the 2010 screening had been cited for 5,431 total violations, 2,050 of which were S&S violations. In contrast, the 12 mines identified in 2014 had been cited for 1,952 total violations, 857 of which were S&S violations.  This is a 64% reduction in total violations and a 58% reduction in S&S violations.

— Mines undergoing the POV process have significantly improved compliance and injury rates. We have measured the effectiveness of these reforms on mines undergoing the PPOV and POV process by comparing the results of mine inspections 6 months prior to the POV and PPOV actions to inspection results following the action. Since 2010, among the mines that were placed on POV or went through the potential POV process under the prior rule, the number of S&S violations has dropped by 62%, total violations fell by 38%, and, notably, unwarrantable failure violations dropped by 81%. In addition, the operator-reported rate of lost-time injuries in these mines went down 48%.

These are good developments. Don’t get me wrong about that. To the extent that increased enforcement and reduced violations — and most importantly curbed injuries and deaths — Joe Main, MSHA and the Obama administration deserve credit for their efforts to make those things happen.

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There’s an interesting piece out today from West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Ashton Marra, reporting from the annual Bluefield Coal Symposium.  The part that jumped out at me was this, quoting Rep. Nick J. Rahall:

Rahall said economic diversification is something the state should see the federal government as a partner in doing, not as the entity that will take the lead.

“Coal is number one, make no mistake about it, has been, is, always will be, we will never turn our backs on the coal industry,” he said, “but I think [we should] diversify our economy and have other industries in place so that we can have the retraining or other places for dislocated coal miners however temporary it may be to go and work.”

It’s probably a step forward to hear Rep. Rahall say the word “diversify,” especially at a coal event in front of a coal crowd. Rep. Rahall has said before that he understands that the coal in his district is running out, but such comments seem few and far between as the Republicans and their out-of-state money continue to try to defeat his re-election bids.

Still, read this part of it again:

… But I think [we should] diversify our economy and have other industries in place so that we can have the retraining or other places for the coal miners however temporary it may be to go and work.”

What’s Rep. Rahall talking about? The forecasts from the U.S. Department of Energy certainly don’t show that the current and drastic decline in his district’s coal industry is in any real way temporary. I asked Rep. Rahall’s office for any data they have suggesting the Central Appalachian coal downturn is only temporary, and a spokesman sent me this quote — which as you can see, doesn’t really answer the question at all:

As I have made clear many times, coal is, and will continue to be, a driver of West Virginia’s economy. At the same time, I believe that broadening and diversifying the economy is important to helping to provide greater stability during the peaks and valleys of coal production and employment.

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New coal fight: Bob Murray vs. Chris Cline

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Robert Murray

Murray Energy President Bob Murray certainly is willing to use the legal system when he feels he’s been wronged.  So the latest report from The Associated Press is probably not that big of a surprise:

A leading U.S. coal company is suing a rival with which it shared confidential business plans during a deal that later fizzled, saying the competitor used the proprietary details to buy up land in southern Illinois to thwart the accuser’s expansion plans.

Murray Energy Corp., a privately held Ohio-based company with operations in Utah, alleges in a lawsuit Saline County, Illinois, that Williamson Energy LLC breached terms of a confidentiality agreement in 2008 when Murray was trying to sell it operations in the southern Illinois.

The story explains:

Under the agreement, the lawsuit claims, Williamson pledged not to disclose or use any of Murray’s confidential information to acquire mineral or property rights related to Murray’s operations for eight years.

Murray claims Williamson has done just the opposite since 2009, buying cherry-picked parcels and mineral rights at above-market prices — in some cases, four times the going rate — “directly in the path” of Murray’s mining operations. Murray alleges it planned to buy or lease those tracts, that the parcels are too small to offer mining potential to Williamson, and that Williamson bought the land “to hinder MEC’s operations to gain an unfair competitive advantage.”

Oddly, what AP reporter Jim Suhr doesn’t seem to have explained — at least in none of the versions of the AP story I’ve seen — is that the target of Murray’s lawsuit, Williamson Energy parent company Foresight Energy, is owned by another fairly colorful coal operator, West Virginia native Chris Cline (see here, here and here).

I’ve posted a copy of Murray Energy’s press release about lawsuit here and you can read the full complaint for yourself here.

Thursday roundup, July 3, 2014

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Climate Rules Arkansas

In this   June 2, 2014, file photo, a coal train stops near White Bluff power plant near Redfield, Ark. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and state Public Service Commission called a meeting Wednesday, June 25, 2014, to discuss coming rules being imposed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

Earlier this week, Jim Efstathiou Jr. and Mario Parker at Bloomberg produced an important story headlined Vanishing coal jobs weigh on U.S.-backed pension plans, in which they report:

After mining coal for almost 40 years, Robert Schultz hoped his pension would let him and his wife spend more time at the beach in retirement.

Then Schultz, a fifth-generation coal miner who retired about six years ago, got a letter from the U.S. Labor Department telling him that his pension was in financial trouble and benefits may need to be cut.

“We’re talking about people not getting what they need,” said Schultz, 61, of Boone County, West Virginia.

A surge in overseas demand that has raised coal’s outlook in the short run hasn’t stemmed long-run job losses, which could worsen with proposed U.S. limits on power-plant emissions. Competition from non-union operators has made matters worse, cutting employer contributions to the main pension plan for union miners and drawing a “seriously endangered” rating from pension regulators, raising the prospect of a government rescue.

The United Mine Workers of America plan, along with the fund for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, dominate the pool of underfunded plans. Should either fail, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the government-run agency that backs employee pension plans, may be forced to step in, according to Randy Defrehn, executive director of the National Coordinating Committee of Multiemployer Plans, a group that advocates for pension operators.

“At that point you’d have several hundred thousand pensioners whose benefits just go away and I can’t imagine that they won’t be knocking at Congress’s door,” Defrehn said. Congress is already reviewing legislation to help pension plans.

We’ve reported on these issues before here and here, but this Bloomberg piece has some pretty interesting details. For example:

The pension plan for union miners had about $5.8 billion in liabilities in 2012 and was only 71.2 percent funded at the end of 2013, according to Labor Department filings  … “Instead of there being hundreds or thousands of contributing employers, they’re down to a handful now,” Defrehn, a former administrator at the coal miners’ pension, said in an interview. “That means that this plan is not in great shape…It sounds like the last nails are about to be hammered into the coffin.” 

Another Bloomberg piece, by the way, makes the point that EPA doesn’t kill coal jobs, better mining does:

The U.S. has lost more coal jobs since 1978 than it has today, and climate policy isn’t the reason. There wasn’t any. Coal companies are in the business of producing coal, not jobs. Between 1978, when the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration started collecting data, and 2013, the U.S. shed more than 132,000 coal jobs, or nearly 52 percent of its workforce, according to MSHA data.

In the same period, U.S. coal production jumped almost 47 percent, to about 984 million short tons last year, 16 percent below its 2008 peak.

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Gina McCarthy

There’s another big decision out this morning from the U.S. Supreme Court on climate change, and you can expect to see some West Virginia officials touting it as more proof for their argument that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is out of control … but before you buy that, it’s worth actually paying attention to what the decision says and what some of the media coverage of it is explaining.

Sure, as some of the headlines are saying, the Supreme Court limited EPA’s authority in writing rules to restrict carbon pollution. But read on, for as this story from Bloomberg explains:

The U.S. Supreme Court partially upheld one of President Barack Obama’s early efforts against climate change, saying the Environmental Protection Agency had authority to impose new permitting requirements on some power plants and factories.

The permitting rules apply when facilities are built or expanded. They are separate from the administration’s more comprehensive climate-change regulations, including the plan released June 2 to cut carbon emissions from existing plants by as much as 25 percent over 15 years.

The Supreme Court gave the EPA a preliminary victory in October, refusing to consider arguments that would have barred the agency from addressing climate change at all. That left states and business groups fighting the permit rules, which they said may ultimately affect millions of facilities, including bakeries and apartment complexes.

Today’s ruling, which splintered the court, may head off that possibility, limiting the rules to a few hundred facilities that already have to get permits for other pollutants. The justices said greenhouse-gas emissions by themselves can’t serve as the trigger for a permit requirement.

Or, as The Washington Post pointed out:

Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the court, said “EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case.” Scalia said the agency wanted to regulate 86 percent of all greenhouse gases emitted from plants nationwide. The agency will be able to regulate 83 percent of the emissions under the ruling, Scalia said.

Some readers may recall that West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey made quite a big deal about their filing of a “friend of the court” brief in the case.  But this ruling is hardly the kind of major defeat for EPA that those politicians are looking for. Here’s the New York Times:

The Supreme Court on Monday handed President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency a victory in its efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources like power plants … States and industry groups challenged the regulations on many grounds, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce calling them “the most burdensome, costly, far-reaching program ever adopted by a United States regulatory agency.” The Supreme Court limited the issue it would consider to whether the agency “permissibly determined that its regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from new motor vehicles triggered permitting requirements under the Clean Air Act for stationary sources that emit greenhouses gases.”

Barack ObamaPresident Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, June 25, 2013.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

UPDATED: Here’s the link to the EPA proposed rule, just posted on the agency’s website.

A few hours ago, reporters at The Wall Street Journal broke the story with the first real details of the carbon pollution rules that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to propose tomorrow morning:

The Environmental Protection Agency will propose mandating power plants cut U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions 30% by 2030 from levels of 25 years earlier, according to people briefed on the rule, an ambitious target that marks the first-ever attempt at limiting such pollution.

The rule-making proposal, to be unveiled Monday, sets in motion the main piece of President Barack Obama’s climate-change agenda and is designed to give states and power companies flexibility in reaching the target.

Other stories quickly followed from The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Associated Press  … well, just about everybody.

There are obviously a lot of important details to come, and much debate — along with a lot of blustering and nonsense — but there are a few things to keep in mind right off the bat, tonight, and especially tomorrow as the chest-pounding really gets started by coalfield political leaders.

First, if the reporting so far is right, then EPA is choosing a baseline year for emissions reductions — 2005– that many utilities — including the two American Electric Power and FirstEnergy here in West Virginia — should be pleased with.  As The Associated Press explained:

Environmental Protection Agency data shows that the nation’s power plants have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 13 percent since 2005, or about halfway to the goal the administration will set Monday.

For example, here’s a quick chart (based on data available here) that Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, posted on Twitter this evening, showing West Virginia emissions already halfway to the overall goal:

 

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Dirtiest Power Plant

This photo taken May 5, 2014 shows the stacks of the Homer City Generating Station in Homer City, Pa.  (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

It seems like everybody has some new report coming out this week to try to call attention to one aspect or another of the huge decision expected on Monday from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The first-ever rules to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants.

Just for example, Tuesday brought this report from Harvard and Syracuse about the public health “co-benefits” of an EPA rule to limit carbon dioxide emissions.  On Wednesday,  there was this report that ranks power plants, power companies and states according to their carbon emissions. And we also heard from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which issued a report outlining lots of scary things it says the EPA’s plans will do to our nation’s economy. EPA shot back with a blog post from an “experienced political operative” who runs the agency’s communications operation, and the Chamber responded on its own blog.

There’s also more than plenty media coverage. Some of it, like this Washington Post story, seems to be reaching to find some little scrap of a scoop about what EPA may or may not put in its proposed rule. Other stories, like this one from Bloomberg, are trying to parse out the various positions taken by different interest groups as this particular big fight begins in earnest. Some stories are hauling out the tired old narrative to speculate about potential political impacts of this battle, while others dug deeper for a more interesting political story.

Locally in the coalfields, expect even more of the nonsense we saw from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce commentary that the Daily Mail published last week. When you see that stuff, be wary of the wild claims about potential job losses and especially increased electrical rates, and before you freak out, read A bogus claim that electricity prices will ‘nearly double’ because of clean coal technology, in which The Washington Post’s Fact Checker dismantles the ad campaign from the National Mining Association:

This is a case study of how a trade group takes a snippet of congressional testimony and twists it out of proportion for political purposes …

There’s little justification for this radio ad to claim that people will see their electric bills nearly double because of the EPA rules on new coal plants. The NMA has seized upon a high-end wholesale estimate for “full recapture” carbon capture and sequestration technologies which the EPA specifically rejected — and then leveraged that factoid to make a wholly unsupported claim that the same increase would be reflected in retail prices. The EPA’s proposed regulations, along with other factors, may boost the cost of electricity, but the NMA should not rely on such bogus, hyped evidence to make its case.

Along those lines, The Economist offered this disclaimer about all of this “war on coal” business:

Republican talk of a “war on coal” is exaggerated. Market forces, from cheap natural gas to dwindling Appalachian coal reserves, have so far killed more mining jobs than green rules have.

And in one of the better pieces I’ve seen in the run-up to the new EPA rules, The Associated Press explained:

Three years ago, the operators of one of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants warned of “immediate and devastating” consequences from the Obama administration’s push to clean up pollution from coal.

Faced with cutting sulfur dioxide pollution blowing into downwind states by 80 percent in less than a year, lawyers for EME Homer City Generation L.P. sued the Environmental Protection Agency to block the rule, saying it would cause it grave harm and bring a painful spike in electricity bills.

None of those dire predictions came to pass.

Instead, the massive Western Pennsylvania power plant is expected in a few years to turn from one of the worst polluters in the country to a model for how coal-fired power plants can slash pollution.

Often, we in the media get so rolled up in the “news” — what’s happening right now — and trying to break some new aspect of the moving story, that we forget about or obscure the longer history of an issue, the real story arc that is probably more meaningful for our society. Trying to think of what our readers might need to know right about now about coal and climate change, I was looking back to a story I did nearly 17 years ago, as the world was beginning talks about the Kyoto treaty. The piece started out:

Thousands of West Virginia miners will go to work this week to help dig the coal that provides half of the country’s electricity.

At the same time, on the other side of the world in Japan, diplomats, scientists and elected officials from 160 nations will make decisions that could determine if many of those miners lose their jobs.

World leaders will gather in Kyoto, Japan, Monday for a 10-day summit to try to come up with a plan to curb pollutants that cause global warming.

Burning coal produces carbon dioxide, the most notorious of the greenhouse gases. Too much of it traps heat near the Earth, studies show. It warms the planet and otherwise tinkers with the climate system.

If greenhouse emissions aren’t scaled back, scientists say, people around the world will face problems that range from bigger blizzards to searing droughts, from flooded coastal regions to freak storms in the mountains and plains.

Here in West Virginia, political leaders, industry and labor worry that the cure could be just as bad, or worse, than the disease.

“It’s a work-to-welfare program for West Virginia,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

But it also reported:

“West Virginia is not New Hampshire, which has a fairly substantial high-tech component,” said Eugene Trisko, a Berkeley Springs lawyer and economist who studies climate-change policy for the UMW. “It’s not Florida, where the economy is run on retired people.

“Because of the lack of diversity in West Virginia’s economy, you would not expect that West Virginia would have an easier time adapting,” he said.

Still, some studies suggest that if power plants became more efficient, they could keep burning coal. State-level discussions of global warming rarely include examination of these studies.

Industry and labor officials seem focused instead on trying to derail the treaty. No one talks much about how to minimize the harm to coal-mining communities or help miners find other jobs.

“I don’t think anyone is looking at that,” Raney said.

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Will EPA’s carbon rules really be so bad?

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Gina McCarthy

It’s not surprising to see that the folks over at West Virginia Metro News are parroting the talking points from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trying to make the greenhouse gas emissions rules the Obama administration is going to announce next week sound like the end of the world.

But if you read the story in today’s New York Times, headlined President Said to Be Planning to Use Executive Authority on Carbon Rule, you sure get a different idea of what major businesses that would be affected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have to say about what’s coming from the administration. For example:

Despite the fierce Republican opposition, a number of officials at electric utilities say they welcome cap-and-trade programs because they offer an affordable and flexible way to comply with the new regulation. “By trading on carbon credits, we’ll be able to achieve significantly more cuts at a lower cost,” said Anthony J. Alexander, president and chief executive of FirstEnergy, an electric utility with power plants in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. “The broader the options, the better off we’re going to be.”

And then there’s this:

John McManus, vice president of environmental services at American Electric Power, which has coal-fired power plants in 11 states, agreed. “We view cap and trade as having a lot of benefits,” he said. “There’s important design considerations that would have to be factored in, to consider each state’s circumstances. But we think it’s definitely worth looking at. It could keep the cost down. It would allow us to keep coal units running for a more extended period. There are a lot of advantages.”

It’s worth remembering that AEP supported the “cap-and-trade” bill that passed the House, but died in the Senate. And the United Mine Workers of America, while never officially endorsing that legislation, did say that the bill  would ensure that the “future of coal will be intact.”

Mine Explosion Congress

Buried among the news from the long holiday weekend was this important report from the Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden:

After a five-week trial in Grundy, Virginia., a Buchanan County jury awarded $5 million in damages to Harman Mining Corp. and Hugh M. Caperton in their legal dispute with A.T. Massey Coal that began more than 16 years ago when Massey bought Wellmore Coal Corp in 1997.

The seven-member jury announced its verdict about 5:30 p.m. on Friday afternoon, awarding $4 million to Harman Mining and two related companies — Harman Development Corp. and Sovereign Coal Sales. The jury also awarded $1 million to Caperton for personal financial damages.

Caperton argued he was forced to shut down his mining operations and file for bankruptcy because Massey illegally broke a contract he had to supply metallurgical coal, through Wellmore Coal, to the LTV Corp., a Pittsburgh steel company.

Within six months of Massey’s purchase of Wellmore and its parent company United Coal, Massey President and CEO Don Blankenship shifted the LTV contracts to his own non-union mines in Boone County.

In the trial that ended on Friday, Harman and Caperton asked the Buchanan County jury for $90 million in compensatory damages, which included wages and benefits for union miners who lost their jobs when Harman Mining’s operations shut down in 1998.

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Friday roundup, May 23, 2014

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Turkey Mining Disaster

Two young girls pray at the cemetery in the coal miners’ town of Soma, Turkey, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Eighteen people, including mining company executives, have been detained as Turkish officials investigate the mining disaster that killed 301 people, a domestic news agency reported Sunday. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

Here’s some of the latest news from Turkey:

As Turkish mines and safety codes come under the spotlight after the May 13 Soma disaster, which claimed 301 lives, miners around the country are also suffering in illegal mines that put thousands of lives at risk every day.

Illegal coal mines, where some unregistered businesses make money due to the low prices they can offer, are quite frequent in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak. Women, even children aged 15 or 16 work in the primitive facilities, where conditions are much worse than those of 9,500 working at Turkish Hard Coal Authority (TTK) facilities or 4,500 others at private mines in the region.

And:

A total of 114 people have been killed in accidents at these illegal mines since 1992.

There was also this interesting article in The New Yorker:

Coal is Turkey’s most exploited indigenous source of energy. Since Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (A.K.P.) first came into power, in 2002, it has been a cornerstone of their breakneck development. Umud Dalgıç, a sociologist with the Heinrich Boll Foundation, in Istanbul, said that the government sees coal as “essential for the growth of the country.” Coal, he argued, has come to symbolize the A.K.P.’s relationship with “average” Turks—whether that be miners who have found jobs in places like Soma and Kozlu, or poorer citizens who need cheap fuel to heat their homes. Working-class voters, like the miners, are essential to the popularity of Erdoğan and the A.K.P. During campaigns, Dalgıç added, some A.K.P. politicians have been known to hand out coal to the party’s supporters, along with food staples.

In Istanbul, protesters gathered in front of the offices of Soma Holding, and on Wednesday night, large crowds flocked to Taksim Square, animated by the same discontent that fuelled last summer’s protests in Gezi Park—anger at rapid development, at corruption in the government’s dealings with corporations, and at its apparent disregard for the well-being of Turkish citizens. But Istanbul can often feel far removed from the rest of the country, and even larger tragedies, like the earthquake that struck eastern Turkey in 2011, may quickly fade from memory here. With a few months remaining before presidential elections, the A.K.P. will be hoping that this disaster is quickly forgotten.

Turkey Mining Disaster

Several hundred members of the Union of Turkish Youth wear miner’s helmets during a march to commemorate the Soma coal mine victims, in Amasya, Turkey, Sunday, May 18, 2014. Eighteen people, including mining company executives, have been detained as Turkish officials investigate the mining disaster that killed 301 people, a domestic news agency reported Sunday. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

“Today, I can see people asking, ‘Why do we need coal?’” said Gürbüz, the renewable-energy expert. “But the main problem—and this isn’t only for Turkey—is the relationship between electricity and the way it’s generated. Everybody’s angry when they see pictures of nature being destroyed, but they don’t see the correlation, the relationship between the electricity they consume in their houses and coal mines. This is not just in Turkey, this is everywhere.”

 

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Friday roundup, May 16, 2014

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Turkey Mining Accident

A relative of a victim of the mine accident weeps next to the grave of her loved one, in Soma, Turkey, Friday, May 16, 2014. An explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, killed hundreds of workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The terrible news continues to flow out of the coalfields of Turkey. Here’s the latest today from The New York Times:

SOMA, Turkey — As grieving families prepared to bury more of the dead from Turkey’s worst mine disaster, the country’s energy minister said on Friday that up to 18 people were still missing and that the death toll could exceed 300.

An explosion on Tuesday in a coal mine near Soma, a town in western Turkey, ignited a blaze producing noxious fumes that choked hundreds of miners to death as they were changing shifts. By Friday, the death toll stood at 284, but the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, said in televised remarks to reporters that the final count was unlikely to be more than 302.

 And surely this sounds familiar to folks who have followed recent mining and other industrial disasters in the U.S.:

A four-year-old report that clearly warns of the life-threatening risks in the Soma mine has revealed the tragedy of the workers who were killed in the Soma mine was blatantly not “a usual incident in the mining sector.”

The “Work Accidents in Mines” report prepared by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers’ (TMMOB) in 2010 gave notice of the dangers in the mine, warned against the potential disasters and set out solution suggestions.

However, none of the issues pointed to were heeded, heading for an inevitable fall.

The 152-page report says the coal at the Soma basin has a high level of methane, which makes the mine intolerant to any mistakes.

“No production should be made before the necessary research has been completed. Carrying out production with the lack of experience might lead to disaster,” the report warns.

The report draws attention to the lack of any alternative routes for breathing or escaping, which made the rescue of the workers almost impossible in case of an accident.

“The ventilation in the mine pit is adversely affected since workers can’t be evacuated from the mine urgently and safely,” says the report that explains the dangers in details.

Also this week, U.S. News and World Report had an extended report on mine safety and how these sorts of deaths and disasters simply don’t have to be happening:

Daniel Lambka was a 20-year-old graduate of Southern High School who loved deer hunting and mudding aboard his dirt bike. Arthur “D.J.” Gelentser, 24, “an avid outdoorsman,” also played basketball and performed with his church’s drama team. Timothy Memmer, 41, was a union millwright who would “ride his Harley whenever he could.” And Eric Legg, 48, and Gary Hensley, 46, hunted and fished in the hills of West Virginia.

Together, they are the first five fatal victims of coal mining accidents this year. Legg and Hensley, claimed inside Brody Mine No. 1 in West Virginia, were the most recent: trapped and killed when the roof of the mine tumbled onto them as they performed an especially risky mining procedure Monday night.

“We express our deepest sympathies to Eric’s and Gary’s families, friends and co-workers,” said Patriot Coal executive vice president Mike Day in a statement. “We are fully cooperating with state and federal mine regulatory agencies to investigate this incident.”

Yet Legg and Hensley’s deaths – and those of countless others – could have been avoided, experts say. 

“We have not come up with any new ways to kill coal miners,” says Celeste Monforton, a mine safety researcher and advocate who worked at the Mine Safety and Health Administration. “These are things that we’ve known for a long time and we know how to prevent them.”

Turkey Mining Accident

Miners wait near the mine in Soma, western Turkey, in Soma, Turkey, Friday, May 16, 2014. An explosion and fire at a coal mine in Soma, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) south of Istanbul, killed hundreds of workers, authorities said, in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkish history. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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Turkey Mining Accident

Family members cry as they wait outside the mine in Soma, western Turkey, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Berza Simsek)

Maybe folks in West Virginia’s coalfields should be glad they’re not in Turkey, where the news is just unbelievably horrible:

Rescuers here battled on Wednesday to reach miners trapped underground after more than 200 were killed in one of the worst mining disasters in Turkey in decades. Despite the extensive rescue operation, a senior official said hopes of finding survivors were “dimming.”

The authorities said that the death toll had risen to 232 by mid-afternoon, the Associated Press reported.

More than 200 were thought to be still underground after an explosion in a power distribution unit on Tuesday set off a fire that was still burning on Wednesday. The official casualty toll was put at 205 dead and 80 injured — the highest for such a disaster since 263 workers died in a gas explosion at a mine near Zonguldak on the Black Sea in 1992.

“We are worried that this death toll will rise,” the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters at this mining town some 75 miles northeast of the Aegean port of Izmir. “I have to say that our hopes are dimming in terms of the rescue efforts.”

“We are dealing with an incident that might result with the highest worker loss ever in Turkey,” Mr. Yildiz said, according to Turkish news reports. “We still want to hope that miners have found small caves to hide in to breathe and survive.”

Of course, coal-mining disasters are preventable, even in Turkey, as one recent study concluded:

In summary, the cause and type of occupational fatality in the Turkish coal-mining industry suggests that many deaths could be prevented through the use of modern mining equipment as well as through tighter enforcement and regulation in the non-public mining sector.

Here in West Virginia, our mining industry likes to brag about how technologically advanced it is, while often bucking and delaying and picking away at any sort of rule that would mandate better life-saving equipment in our mines. And while the industry and political leaders talk a lot about how important mine safety is, we still see companies employing incredibly dangerous practices like the one that was going on Monday night when miners Eric Legg and Gary Hensley were killed at Patriot Coal’s Brody No. 1 Mine in Boone County:

The miners were performing “retreat mining” — in which workers back out of the mine, removing coal pillars that were left to hold up the roof — when pressures from the ground above the mine caused a sudden release of coal and rock material from the mine roof or wall, according to preliminary accounts from federal and state regulators and the company … An outburst, or a “bump,” is a sudden release of the roof, wall or even floor rock into an open area of the mine. Outbursts are different from roof falls. A roof fall is just what it sounds like: pieces of roof rock come apart and fall. Outbursts occur because of pressure pushing down onto the mine roof or wall, as opposed to the roof or wall simply falling down …

Various studies have found that coal outbursts or bumps can be especially hard to prevent. But, the studies over many years have also shown, they are not natural occurrences and can be avoided or the risk reduced with proper mine planning and compliance with that planning. “Inadequate mine planning or incorrect design can increase the occurrence of bumps in underground coal mines,” says one 1991 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

Kentucky attorney Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety advocate, said that retreat mining or “pulling pillars” is “the most dangerous type of mining.”

“Compliance with the pillar removal plan is essential,” Oppegard said. “The plan must be followed religiously because even the slightest deviation can have devastating consequences. In almost every retreat mining fatality that I’m aware of, failure to comply with the pillar plan was the cause of the accident.”

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