Coal Tattoo

Deja vu from Richmond…

For those new to the mountaintop removal issue, this is the fourth time that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., has overturned a federal judge in West Virginia who tried to curb mountaintop removal mining.

Here are links to coverage of the previous 4th Circuit rulings:

2005 overturning Judge Joseph R. Goodwin

 2003, overturning Judge Charles H. Haden II

2001, overturning Judge Charles H. Haden II

I’ve got a short, but updated story on the Gazette’s Web site that explains some initial basics on the 4th Circuit’s ruling in the big mountaintop removal case.

Here’s part of that story:

A federal appeals court today overturned a judge’s 2007 decision to require more thorough permit reviews of mountaintop removal mining operations.

In a victory for the coal industry, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., rejected the decision by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers in Huntington.

By a 2-1 vote, a 4th Circuit panel concluded that Chambers wrongly did not defer to the federal Army Corps of Engineers interpretation of its own rules when granting Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal coal operations.

“In matters involving complex predictions based on special expertise, a reviewing court must generally be at its most deferential,” wrote Judge Roget Gregory in a 74-page opinion on behalf of himself and Judge Dennis Shedd.

Gregory and Shedd also ruled that Chambers wrongly determined the corps should have considered environmental effects before the direct impacts on the streams being filled. Those other effects — on surrounding valleys and forests — are best left to be regulated by state agencies under the federal strip mine law, Gregory and Shedd concluded.

And I’ve also posted Judge Chambers original decision here, so folks can recall what he had to say on the matter.

Word just in that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., has overturned Judge Robert C. Chambers’ 2007 mountaintop removal decision.

I’m reading the decision now, but have posted it here. I welcome comments from everyone on this major development.

Park Service to DEP: Just say no to mining permit

The National Park Service is urging state regulators not to renew a permit for a mountaintop removal permit for Powellton Coal’s Bridge Fork West Surface Mine, located near the towns of Jodie and Ansted in Fayette County, W.Va.

Local Park Service Superintendent Don Striker told DEP in a January 22 letter that “extensive violations” of water pollution limits by the mine “causes us great concern for potential threats” to the New River Gorge National River and the Gauley River National Recreation Area.

Striker continued:

…Powellton has been exceeding permit limits for discharge for daily and monthly averages at an extremely high frequency, registering a substantial number of violations of multiple parameters including suspended solids, iron, manganese and aluminum.

These pollutants pose a threat to aquatic life and human welfare. Precipitates of aluminum, iron and manganese can coat stream bottom substrate limiting the available habitat for aquatic life, suspended solids are also harmful to aquatic life through the erosion of gills, and aluminum is known to be toxic to aquatic life, and has been associated with neurological and bone diseases in humans.

The frequency of exceeding permit limits indicates a lack of commitment on the part of the permittee to employ adequate controls that will limit the impacts of this operation on downstream resources.

Continue reading…

Slurry report (well kinda) coming Tuesday

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small.jpgRandy Huffman, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, is scheduled to deliver a report to lawmakers Tuesday on his agency’s investigation of whether coal slurry that’s injected into underground mines is getting into drinking water and making people sick.

But as we learned this weekend from Associated Press writer Vicki Smith, DEP hasn’t really been able to figure out the answer to the question asked by lawmakers and coalfield residents.

But Huffman is going to present at least some sort of updated report to the Legislative Water Resources Committee during a meeting at noon Tuesday in the HouseJudiciary Room (410M) of the state Capitol.

Coal ash comes to Congress

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A House Natural Resources subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for later this week on committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall’s legislation to regulate the design, construction and inspection of coal-ash impoundments across the nation’s coalfields.

The hearing is set for 10 a.m. Thursday before the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Witnesses include:

— John Craynon, mining engineer and chief of regulator support at the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

— J. Davitt McAteer, vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University and former head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

— Tom FitzGerald, Kentucky Resources Council.

— Sandy Gruzesky, director of the Division of Water, state of Kentucky.

Gazette readers recall that Rahall’s legislation (H.R. 493) would apply to coal-ash impoundments regulations substantially similar to those that currently apply to coal slurry impoundments under the 1977 federal strip mining law. For more about the legislation, check back to this article on the Gazette Web site.

Rahall, D-W.Va., introduced his legislation a few weeks after the disastrous failure of a coal-ash impoundment at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Plant in Roane County, Tenn. (Thanks to my fellow Society of Environmental Journalists member Antrim Caskey and to Southwing for the photo with this post. To view more of Antrim’s photos of the TVA mess, visit her Web site.)

Continue reading…

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The battle over  the future of  Coal River Mountain moves from on-site protests to courtroom legal arguments Tuesday.

Folks who are interested in this growing controversy over whether the area’s ridges should be a strip mine or a wind-energy facility might will want to follow what happens at an upcoming hearing before the state Surface Mine Board.

The board has scheduled a hearing for 8:30 a.m. Tuesday in Charleston on an appeal filed over the state Department of Environmental Protection’s approval of a permit for Massey Energy subsidiary Marfork Coal’s proposed mountaintop removal operation at the Bee Tree Surface Mine site.

Continue reading…

Remembering the Scotia Mine Disaster

scotiawidows.gifI just finished reading Gerald Stern’s recent book, “The Scotia Widows: Inside their Lawsuit Against Big Daddy Coal.”

Many of you may recall that Stern wrote a book about his experience as the lawyer for victims of the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster, in which a coal-slurry dam failure killed 125 people in Logan County, W.Va.

Stern also represented widows of the Scotia Mine Disaster. And while this new book isn’t as good as the Buffalo Creek one, it is well worth the read.

It’s also a pretty timely book in a couple of ways.

On March 6, 1976, a violent explosion ripped through the Scotia Mine in Eastern Kentucky. Fifteen miners who were working nearly three and a half miles underground were killed. The United States Mine Rescue Association has posted a short description of the disaster on its Web site.

Continue reading…

Let’s make a deal?

Environmental groups are asking some interesting questions about the federal government’s new Clean Water Act settlement with Patriot Coal Corp.

Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, told me that citizen groups he often represents will probably challenge the deal, after going along with a similar settlement (including a record $20 million fine) last year with Massey Energy.

I spelled out the basics of the $6.5 million deal with Patriot in a story for our Print edition today. And now, I’ve posted the EPA/Department of Justice complaint against Patriot here and the consent decree here.

Continue reading…

Hansen on Coal River Mountain: Go Tell Obama

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For more than 20 years, James E. Hansen has been one of the nation’s preeminent climatologists and a leading voice about the dangers of global climate change. Now, Hansen has weighed in on the growing battle over whether Coal River Mountain should be home to a strip mine or a wind-energy facility.

Earlier this week, Hansen posted a short paper, “Tell President Obama About Coal River Mountain,” on his Web site:

“Coal River Mountain is the site of an absurdity. I learned about Coal River Mountain from students at Virginia Tech last fall. They were concerned about Coal River Mountain, but at that time most of them were working to support Barack Obama. They assumed Barack Obama would not allow such outrages to continue.”

Hansen explains the “absurdity” this way:

The issue at Coal River Mountain is whether the top of the mountain will be blown up, so that coal can be dredged out of it, or whether the mountain will be allowed to stand. It has been shown that more energy can be obtained from a proposed wind farm, if Coal River Mountain continues to stand. More jobs would be created. More tax revenue would flow, locally and to the state, and the revenue flow would continue indefinitely. Clean Water and the environment would be preserved. But if planned mountaintop removal proceeds, the mountain loses its potential to be a useful wind source.

As regular Gazette readers know, Coal River Mountain Watch and other environmental groups are promoting a wind-energy facility as an alternative to Massey Energy’s plans for a mountaintop removal operation. Hansen’s commentary was posted to his website on Tuesday, the same day that 14 people were cited for trespassing in two protests aimed at that particular Massey operation. (Some folks in the coal industry have recently contacted me, questioning the findings of a study that touted the economic impacts of the wind proposal. I plan to look into those complaints, and report back to readers on what I find).

Last June, Hansen told Congress and then the National Press Club that the United States needed to outlaw coal-fired power plants that don’t capture their carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

In his commentary on Coal River Mountain, Hansen says Obama supporters are already becoming “restive” and that he’s been asked to speak at a variety of actions around the country calling for faster action by the new president to deal with climate change and coal. “I don’t know what to say,” Hansen says. “I feel that more time must be given. But these people are right — the directions that are taken now are important.”

We’ve posted a story on the Gazette Web site about some fairly big news, involving Patriot Coal Corp. agreeing to a $6.5 million Clean Water Act settlement with EPA and the Justice Department.

That story is here, and the government’s press release is here.

This comes more than a year after Massey Energy agreed to a record $20 million fine in a similar case.

Details on the Patriot deal are still coming out. The government doesn’t seem to have posted the actual settlement agreement yet, and it hasn’t been added to the federal court Pacer system either.

We’ll have more on this later, probably in tomorrow’s print edition and on the Gazette Web site.

Welcome to Coal Tattoo …

I’ve lost track of how many blogs there are that deal in some way with the swirling issues and growing controversies surrounding the coal industry. So does the world really need another one?

Well, I sure hope so.

Coal helped to build industrial America, powered our nation through two world wars, and is still an important part of the economy in coalfield communities from West Virginia to Wyoming. And, as industry supporters and their billboards remind us, coal keeps the lights on in about half of all American households.

But the downside of coal becomes more and more apparent each day.

Over the last three years, a string of mine disasters — Sago, Aracoma,  Darby and Crandall Canyon — reminded us of the very real human cost to miners and their families.  Just before this past Christmas, the collapse of the TVA coal-ash dam in Tennessee showed us again that there’s really nothing that clean about coal.

Earlier this week, the New York Times’ blog, Green Inc, observed that it’s been a tough week for coal. Among other things, the Times cited the Air Force’s cancellation of plans for a coal-to-liquids fuel plant in Montana, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s call for a moratorium on new coal plants, and a $140 million Clean Air Act settlement by utilities in Kentucky. (Closer to home, the Times also noted yesterday’s big protests against Massey Energy, and a new lawsuit over contaminated drinking water supplies).

But with a few exceptions, most of the blogging out there about coal comes from either the industry’s most vocal opponents (see Coal is Dirty or the Front Porch) or from coal industry boosters such as Behind the Plug.

So maybe it’s time for one of the few daily newspapers in the country that still covers the coal industry on a regular basis to get into the game, to take the leap into the blogosphere.

We’ll still be doing plenty of coal stories in the daily print edition, as well as longer projects on the industry in the Sunday edition. But the blog format will allow the Gazette to get information out more quickly, and to help foster the growing national — really, international — discussion about the future of coal.

With that in mind, one thing that I want to note is that it seems that there are really two separate discussions going on about coal.

One of them is out there in the broader world. Scientists, policymakers and even investors are becoming more and more convinced that the downsides of coal have to be addressed. One way or the other, coal-fired power’s contribution to global warming must be dealt with. To these folks, the question is: Can coal have a place in our energy mix in a carbon-constrained world?

The other discussion is happening here in West Virginia, and in other coal communities. Locally, the issues are different, and in many ways much more emotional. It’s a battle between families who rely on coal to put food on their tables and send their kids to college, and folks who live near coal mines and are tired of blasting, dust, and water pollution. To these folks, the questions are: How can we protect coal’s future or how can we shut down mountaintop removal?

These two discussions are starting to intersect a little bit. Activists who don’t like mountaintop removal are talking more and more about climate change. But there’s still a huge disconnect between the way the broader world talks about coal and the way we here in the coalfields do.

Perhaps the scientists and activists who understand what coal burning is doing to our climate should try to understand a little more about how a third-generation coal miner in Eastern Kentucky feels. And maybe that coal miner should be a little more open to hearing what the world would be like if we don’t do something about rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Most importantly, maybe the policymakers in Washington need to understand what the economic impact of climate change regulations is going to be on places like West Virginia and Wyoming. And maybe politicians and government officials in places like Charleston, W.Va., need to come to terms with the fact that change is coming to this industry.

I hope this blog contributes a little bit to helping these discussions along. I welcome thoughts, comments, suggestions and criticisms on how to get this job done.