Later today, the U.S. Senate will almost certainly vote to approve a resolution to block a last-minute Obama administration rule aimed at replacing the long-controversial stream “buffer zone” rule. The House passed the resolution yesterday afternoon. Once that resolution makes its way to the White House, President Trump will sign it.
Presumably, it won’t take long after that before all of the coal miners in West Virginia who have lost their jobs over the last few years will get called back to work.
Well, at least that is what coalfield political leaders, industry officials — and now the most powerful man on the planet — would have residents of places like Boone and Logan counties in West Virginia believe.
Simply put, it was President Obama’s attempt to drive a final nail into the coffin of an industry that made America great. Look, enough is enough. This war on coal has to come to a stop, and I think this election set the tone for that. Now that we finally have a President who understands the painful impact of excessive and unnecessary regulations,
It is time to give the families of the coalfields all across America a chance to get relief from the unelected bureaucrats in Washington.
Here’s Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., during that same floor debate:
Stopping this rule matters to West Virginians, to our miners, to our families, to our consumers. We produce 95 percent of our electricity from coal. It is reliable and it is affordable … My State can’t afford to lose any more jobs, and I know that goes for other coal States.
It fell to Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, to bring some reality into the discussion:
… If there is a war on coal, it is being led by the natural gas industry who produces a cheaper product at a lower cost. And if there is any trouble that coal is in, it is directly attributed to the free market and that competition.
Here’s the latest from the office of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.:
U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) today released the following statement on his conversation with President-Elect Donald Trump on securing healthcare for retired miners.
“Today, I spoke with President-Elect Donald Trump and he assured me that he will help fight to secure a permanent health care solution for our retired miners, as guaranteed in the Miners Protection Act. I look forward to working with him, his administration and my colleagues in order to keep America’s promise to our miners and make sure they receive the healthcare they have earned and deserve.”
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)
Late last week, a group of Senate Democrats — led by West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin — took things down to the wire to try to squeeze a long-term fix for the troubled United Mine Workers of American’s health care and pension programs into an emergency government funding bill. They weren’t successful.
But as we reported on Friday night, Manchin is turning his attention on this matter to the future, saying he will push for President -elect Donald Trump to step in and make the UMW retirees a priority once the Republican takes office on Jan. 20.
Other West Virginia leaders are also making it clear they believe this issue needs a long-term solution. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said on Friday:
While it’s disappointing to see only a short term extension of benefits at this time, this issue was way too important to offer false hope and risk our miners walking away with nothing. This CR has now given us a chance to fight another day. I have already spoken to members of House Leadership, incoming Chairman Frelinghuysen and incoming Chairwoman Virginia Foxx and received a commitment to work toward a long-term solution for healthcare and pensions early in the next Congress. It’s time to work together and give our miners peace of mind so they know their benefits won’t be jeopardized by politics.
And Sen. Manchin isn’t the West Virginia political leaders turning to President-elect Trump for help on this. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said late Friday night:
Preserving retirement benefits for our nation’s coal miners is among the most important and pressing items on the congressional agenda
Your recent election has provided hope in West Virginia communities. I look forward to working with you on policies that will help put our miners back to work and rebuild local economies that rely on energy production. It is just as important that we act to preserve health care and pension benefits for retirees who have suffered from the down turn in the coal industry. I ask that you work with me and a bipartisan group of my congressional colleagues to enact the Miners Protection Act early in the 115th Congress.”
I’m not aware of any comments that the President-elect made about this issue during the presidential campaign. My request to the transition team for a comment on the matter hasn’t received a response.
That’s the video of last evening’s press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, where Sen. Joe Manchin and other Democrats joined with United Mine Workers of America retirees to continue their push for a longer term legislative fix for the crisis facing tens of thousands of UMWA pensioners.
As we reported online yesterday (and in today’s print edition), the White House weighed in to point out the obvious irony in Republicans who control the congressional agenda not making this issue a bigger priority, while basking in electoral victories that they claim are largely the result of Democrats not caring about this nation’s working class.
Where things stand now is that the four-month extension of health-care benefits is in the “continuing resolution” that is meant to keep the federal government from shutting down late tonight. But that bill has nothing in it about the UMWA pension crisis, and union leaders say the four-month, $45 million in funding for health care benefits for more than 16,000 retirees just isn’t enough.
Now, Manchin and others are pushing for a one-year extension of health benefits, instead of the four-month extension, to be included in the spending bill. Stay tuned …
In this July 17, 2016 file photo, former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., check out the stage during preparation for the Republican National Convention inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. President-elect Donald Trump has picked Elaine Chao to become transportation secretary, according to a Trump source. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Elaine Chao is an excellent choice for transportation secretary. She is a trail blazer with a proven record of leadership. I enjoyed hosting Elaine in West Virginia during the Bush Administration and hope she will visit again in her role as transportation secretary to see why infrastructure is a top priority for the Mountain State.
It was less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York City and at the Pentagon. Speaking at a memorial service in Alabama, Secretary Chao compared the efforts of a dozen miners who died trying to save a coworker to the heroic efforts of those firefighters and police officers who died trying to save 9/11 victims:
In the deepest darkness of these tragedies, we have also seen the best that America has to offer.
Then, Secretary Chao made a promise to the miners’ families:
Whether it be the terrorist attack on September 11 or the mine disaster that claimed thirteen lives this last weekend, we are determined to do everything we possibly can to keep it from ever happening again.
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 governors 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.
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.
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.
New 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.
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.
So I asked Sam Petsonk, a mine safety lawyer with the non-profit firm Mountain State Justice, for some ideas. Here’s what he had to say:
America’s companies have often promised us that, if you work for a living, you will be kept safe and healthy at work and you will have some financial security once you retire. Yet, tens of thousands of miners all across the Appalachian Region are losing health insurance after becoming disabled or retired, and others are confronting safety and health challenges on the job if they are still in the workplace. So, the new presidential administration faces serious challenges in assuring that companies keep those promises to coal miners—both for active workers and for retirees whose healthcare benefits are terminated or denied.
Will our companies and government leaders keep the promise to America’s workers and seniors?
This is an essential question for us to be asking. Coal miners have educated me about several increasingly important challenges as we have advocated together on workers’ and retirees’ rights over the past decade. Here are some of those challenges, and some steps that the new administration could take to address them.
First, coal companies are laying off underground maintenance crews as a way to save money during a downturn in the market. Failing to provide basic levels of safe staffing at underground mines can cause major ventilation problems and other life-threatening hazards. When operators fail to employ ‘outby’ maintenance crews or additional workers to hang ventilation curtains, the remaining workers often find that they do not have enough time to perform all the necessary work to keep the mine safe and productive. We have long relied upon these maintenance crews to keep our mines safe and healthful. Cutbacks on maintenance can cause a mine to lose control of its ventilation system, or to fail to identify and to clean up roof falls and dust accumulations. It takes a good bit of time to maintain the ventilation systems (repairing or plastering stoppings to prevent air leakage, and maintaining other ventilation controls, etc.). It takes more time to conduct comprehensive preshift examinations and other safety-sensitive tasks.
In many mines, the firebosses or preshift examiners cannot be relied upon to accomplish all of their firebossing tasks as well as to make up for non-existent outby maintenance crews. There is not enough time, and critical tasks will be short-changed. These are serious concerns because inadequate maintenance of ventilation structures can cause a lethal mixture of methane gas and coal dust—especially in sensitive areas like dead-air zones and methane mixing chambers. These concerns are also especially acute on a so-called “supersection” where there are two continuous mining machines on a single stream or “split” of air. In that setting, twice as much dust is generated and the need for full staffing is therefore greater.
If the market picks up again, perhaps companies will start hiring back those maintenance crews and necessary helpers on supersections. But in the meantime, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) can take important steps to assure adequate maintenance. For instance, coal mine operators are currently required to maintain roof control and ventilation plans for their mines. MSHA has the power to mandate that the roof control and ventilation plans provide for more frequent maintenance of ‘outby’ areas, so that stoppings are regularly plastered, spillages and falls are promptly cleaned up, and maintenance crews cannot be laid off. As for supersections, MSHA Assistant Secretary Joe Main has stated that best practices for staffing a supersection include a total of 16 miners: 1 foreman; 2 continuous miner operators; 2 continuous miner helpers that are also responsible for ventilation curtains; 4 shuttle car operators; 2 scoop operators; 4 roof bolter operators and 1 mechanic. This does not include outby maintenance crews, such as stopping builders or supply haulage positions (i.e., miners who are not regularly assigned to work at the mine face). MSHA can also work with the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety, and Training to include similar requirements in the comprehensive safety plans that West Virginia coal operators are required to maintain.
Second, black lung has been on the rise for years, and MSHA should continue addressing that problem by reducing coal miners’ exposure to all forms of breathable coal mine dust (both coal and silica dust)—including by prohibiting companies from ever permitting miners to work downwind from the active cutting of coal.The promise to end the advanced forms of black lung disease has long been a basic tenet of America’s law and policy for coal miners. But miners report that companies routinely force roof bolt crews to spend hours each night drilling into the mine roof while downwind from active mining machines, in flagrant and intentional disregard of the lethal dust exposure for those downwind miners. It is no surprise that we have a new surge in advanced black lung disease in the twenty-first century when we allow coal operators to treat miners in this fashion.
Every miner (non-union and union alike) has the right to complain to management about working in dusty conditions downwind from active mining machines in what is known as “return air.” A growing number of miners are exercising that right, and are outright refusing to work in such conditions. I routinely speak with and represent young men in their thirties or forties who have already worked as roof bolters for over fifteen years in the coal mines of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia. Several of them have banded together to refuse to operate their roof bolt machines in return air at such mines as the Gateway Eagle Mine in Boone County, and others. These miners are demonstrating that it is possible to run good coal and not expose miners to toxic levels of dust.
Despite the courageous efforts of a growing number of miners who are banding together and refusing to bolt in return air, additional action by MSHA is necessary in order to prevent companies from pressuring miners to resume working in return air. MSHA can stop this practice altogether by prohibiting companies from ever permitting miners (roof bolters, buggy men, or anyone) to work downwind while a machine is actively cutting coal on a section. No miner should have to stand for hours just a few feet from a continuous mining machine, breathing unfathomable amounts of highly-toxic coal and silica dust. MSHA has the power to outlaw that type of work practice.
Under the leadership of Assistant Secretary Joe Main, MSHA has taken some very important first steps to address the issue of black lung, such as reducing the permissible exposure limit and mandating better dust monitors. MSHA recently introduced a new generation of dust control technology via the continuous personal dust monitors. These new dust monitors are empowering miners with real-time information about dust exposure. Dust control is a major challenge nationwide, but especially in Central Appalachia, where miners are often forced to work in highly-toxic sandstone and silica dust, mixed with coal dust, in order to access the thin-seam coal reserves that are still left over for mining in this region. The new dust monitors are helping miners to avoid toxic dust exposures that can cause early onset of black lung in young miners. But the monitors alone may not halt the surge of black lung if the new administration does not take additional steps to strengthen enforcement and eliminate acute dust exposure in “return air” downwind from active mining.
President Barack Obama listens to questions during a news conference in the Brady press briefing room at the White House in Washington, Monday, Nov. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Yesterday’s post, “President-elect Trump’s coal con,” got a fair amount of attention and it is indeed a topic that deserves to be talked about by everybody who cares about the coalfields and about our state’s politics.
But it’s worth remembering that the political climate at any place at any particular time doesn’t just materialize out of thin air. The climate is created, by things that human beings (like candidates, party chairs, the media, votes) can control and by things they can’t control.
In West Virginia, the political climate didn’t just suddenly become anti-Obama and anti-EPA to the extent that it has become so. It took years of hard work by Republican activists, career campaign consultants, and coal industry public relations people. The truth is, though, that many Democrats — I’m looking at you, Sen. Joe Manchin, haven’t forgotten that awful ad where you shot the cap-and-trade bill — gave the industry and the Republicans plenty of help along the way.
Still, if you’re one of those West Virginia Democrats who wants to blame various election results on those awful people from the national party you belong to, it is worth trying to think about what really you should be focused on in that regard. Really, what that all goes back to is a little statement buried in a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press release way, way back in 2009. At the time, EPA was announcing a bit of a crackdown (it was never really much of a crackdown) on mountaintop removal coal-mining. Here’s what it said:
Federal agencies will work in coordination with appropriate regional, state and local entities to help diversify and strengthen the Appalachian regional economy and promote the health and welfare of Appalachian communities.
Sounds great, right? The problem is, the Obama administration didn’t really get moving with a broad and detailed plan for any of that sort of thing until about six years later — in 2015, President Obama’s next-to-last-year in office. In 2015 and again this year, the White House included a major coalfield aid package in its budget proposal to Congress.
We had another story over the weekend examining what the outcome of last week’s presidential election might mean for West Virginia’s coal industry, and more importantly for the coalfield communities that are hurting in the wake of mining’s inevitable decline.
At the same time, there were remarkable reports out of both of the major papers in Kentucky that are worth reading.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell hedged on Friday about when and if Republicans would be able to bring coal mining jobs to Kentucky, saying that is a “private sector activity.”
“We are going to be presenting to the president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said. “Whether that immediately brings business back, that’s hard to tell because this is a private sector activity.”
The interim president of the Kentucky Coal Association was more direct about the future of coal mining in Eastern Kentucky.
“I would not expect to see a lot of growth because of the Trump presidency,” Nick Carter said in an interview. “If there is any growth in Eastern Kentucky, it will be because of an improved economy for coal.”
So, basically, all those politicians and industry officials and career campaign consultants who spent most of the campaign trying to convince the hard-working people of the coalfields that another boom would be just around the corner … Well, I guess we were supposed to take them seriously, but not literally.
Donald John Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States on Tuesday in a stunning culmination of an explosive, populist and polarizing campaign that took relentless aim at the institutions and long-held ideals of American democracy.
The surprise outcome, defying late polls that showed Hillary Clinton with a modest but persistent edge, threatened convulsions throughout the country and the world, where skeptics had watched with alarm as Mr. Trump’s unvarnished overtures to disillusioned voters took hold.
The triumph for Mr. Trump, 70, a real estate developer-turned-reality television star with no government experience, was a powerful rejection of the establishment forces that had assembled against him, from the world of business to government, and the consensus they had forged on everything from trade to immigration.
The results amounted to a repudiation, not only of Mrs. Clinton, but of President Obama, whose legacy is suddenly imperiled. And it was a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters who felt that the promise of the United States had slipped their grasp amid decades of globalization and multiculturalism.
It seems like a long time since Monday evening, when I was flipping around on the television and landed on C-Span, which was showing Bruce Springsteen’s performance at the big Clinton campaign rally at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. One of the songs he did was “Long Walk Home,” which goes something like this:
In town I passed Sal’s grocery, barbershop on South Street I looked in their faces, they were all rank strangers to me Hey Veteran’s Hall high upon the hill stood silent and alone The diner was shuttered and boarded with a sign that just said “gone”
It’s gonna be a long walk home Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me, gonna be a long walk home Hey pretty darling, don’t wait up for me, gonna be a long walk home It’s gonna be a long walk home
Here in West Virginia, the state race was called for Trump literally just moments after the polls closed last evening. Trump’s victory here has long been a foregone conclusion. But looking back now not just at the ultimate result in the Electoral College, but more specifically at the votes of my fellow West Virginians, that song strikes a chord.
The West Virginia that embraces so much fear and hatred isn’t the one I grew up in and continue to try to make a life in and help, in some small way, to improve. I just don’t recognize it. Maybe my heart won’t let me. Maybe I’m blind. I suspect that many West Virginians, including some Republicans, who didn’t vote for Trump feel the same way.
But, I’m also certain that part of the reason that so many West Virginians threw in with Trump is that the West Virginia that’s in front of their eyes doesn’t necessarily look that familiar to them — and really, the country may not look or feel that familiar to them anymore, either. Questions about the nation’s growing diversity and West Virginia’s general lack of diversity, and how that affects our voting patterns, are a bit far afield for this blog, but there’s also something here that relates to our complex relationship with the coal industry that we should all try to think about.
The struggles and pain for families in somewhat isolated pockets of our state where coal has long been the lifeblood — good paying jobs for generations who might not have gone to college, but are hardworking, smart and resilient — is very real. Thousands of coal jobs have disappeared in just a few short years. And most experts provide little if any hope that they’re coming back, despite an expected slight uptick in the met coal market.
What’s emerged though, is an identity politics that’s driven by the coal industry narrative that goes deeper than the much-discussed and highly successful campaign to convince people that the coal industry’s troubles are almost entirely caused by President Obama and his EPA, that Hillary Clinton would continue those policies, and that another president — maybe Donald Trump — would put a stop to that, bringing another huge coal boom that would rescue mining communities.
This deeper narrative, perpetrated by career campaign consultants, isn’t just that coal isWest Virginia. It’s that coal is all there is to West Virginia. Too many of us have become convinced not just that coal has beena way of life here for many families and communities, but that it’s the only possible way of life for those same families and communities. This narrative has been used to stoke fear — fear of the future and of the unknown, fear of outsiders and of the entire outside world, fear of a president with a funny name who doesn’t look like most of us, and fear of a “nasty woman” we already weren’t sure we trusted.
Perhaps most importantly, it seems impossible to imagine that a gubernatorial election that features Jim Justice as a candidate will involve the sort of real discussion about coal’s past and our future that West Virginians so desperately need …
At this rate, we’re going to end up with another election that features nonsensical advertising campaigns over which candidate is more pro-coal and more anti-EPA. If the career campaign consultants have their way, every 2016 race in West Virginia will again be about President Obama, who won’t be on the ballot.
For the most part, the fall campaign played out this way. There were some minor bright spots during the May primary, when rival Democrats Jeff Kessler and Booth Goodwin tried to steer the discussion toward the future, rather than some imagined future that is wrapped up in mostly holding onto the past. But we’ve again managed to get through an election cycle by letting the coal industry and its political friends get away with making the campaign about who will do more to save an industry that is in major decline, with little hope of a significant rebound, and with precious little of the discussion focused on how to move forward with hope, not fear.
I think I’ve gotten two of these anti-Jim Justice fliers so far, both mailed to the house by the Republican Governors Association’s PAC.
“Billionaire Jim Justice Polluted Our Environment,” they scream, before listing environmental violations at Justice’s mining operations and noting a lawsuit against the Democratic gubernatorial candidate by the Sierra Club.
This is how silly this election is — certainly in West Virginia, but also elsewhere in the coalfields and beyond.
As we’ve written here before, though, these kinds of violations are — unfortunately — pretty routine in the coal industry, where violations of environmental standards and worker health and safety rules are, really, part of the basic business plan. Most of the major coal producers in the state have entered into similar deals with EPA. The only difference with this one (other than it involving a gubernatorial candidate’s company) is that the EPA required some specific financial commitments, given … well, probably given the well-documented pattern of Justice not to pay his bills.
Since the local Republicans so desperately want every single election this cycle to be about President Obama and the EPA, and their supposed effort to eliminate the coal industry, shouldn’t the GOP be lining up with Jim Justice here, to protest the outrageous overreach of those bureaucrats who want the Clean Water Act enforced, and don’t think the coal industry should be above the law?
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
Despite some of the recent talk about coal and energy issues in the presidential race between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, it seems that the United Mine Workers of America union’s political arm is going to stay out of the fray.
UMWA spokesman Phil Smith told me this morning that an endorsement of either candidate is “highly unlikely” at this point.
So far, Smith said, no state UMWA political councils have recommended such an endorsement to the union’s national political council, which is made up of members of the UMWA International Executive Board. That national council is the body that would vote on any presidential endorsement, Smith said.
In the UMWA’s political work, the endorsement process starts with area political councils, which make recommendations to state councils on state races. State councils then make recommendations to the national council for federal races. But Smith noted that all of the state council meetings for this election have already occurred. There’s still a chance of some movement that would result in a national council vote, but again, Smith said that is “highly unlikely.”
Readers may recall that, after endorsing Democrat Barack Obama in 2008, the mine workers did not make a presidential endorsement in 2012. And as we discussed four years ago, a non-endorsement isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary for the UMWA.
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.
Second, 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.
A CSX train loaded with coal winds its way into the mountains in this photo taken near the New River at Cotton Hill in Fayette County, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)
There’s an important new study out that goes to the heart of the political discussion in West Virginia about the coal industry’s decline. Here’s the press release from the authors at Case Western University:
Cheap shale gas produced by fracking has driven the decline in coal production in the United States during the last decade, researchers at the Great Lakes Energy Institute at Case Western Reserve University have found.
Power plants, which use 93 percent of the coal produced nationally, have been operating under the same EPA regulations signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. Proposed new rules since then have all been challenged in court and not implemented until June 2016, when the EPA’s restrictions on mercury and other toxic emissions were approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Consumption of coal continued to grow under those 1990-era EPA rules until 2008, and then went into steady decline, dropping by 23 percent from 2008 thru 2015.
The data show the drop in those years to be correlated with the shale revolution, as natural gas production increased by a factor of more than 10 and its price dropped in half, the researchers say. And, due to the continuing–and in some cases accelerating–technological and economic advantages of gas over coal, the decline in coal is expected to continue at least decades into the future.
Mingguo Hong, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Case Western Reserve and co-author of the study, said:
Some people attribute the decline in coal-generated electricity to the EPA’s air-quality rules, even calling it ‘Obama’s war on coal . While we can’t say that the EPA rules have no impact — as, for example, discouraging the building of new coal power plants because of the expectation that tougher air-quality rules will clear the courts — the data say the EPA rules have not been the driving force.
Hong and co-author Walter Culver, a founding member of the Great Lakes Energy Institute Advisory Board at the university, say the data show that shale-gas competition is what’s been hurting coal as of today. They expect that, as wind and solar sources of electricity continue to improve, they will be tough competitors to coal in the not-distant future. According to Culver:
If you’re a power plant operator and you see gas supply is continuing to increase and natural gas can do the job cheaper–by a lot–the decision to switch from coal is pretty easy. As we look toward the future, we see no natural mechanisms that will permit coal to recover.
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)
If coal and energy issues are at the top of the list of things you care about, you had to sit through a lot of other stuff during last night’s presidential debate, but eventually you heard from Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton on this issue.
It was the next-to-last question from an audience member:
What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?
Over at West Virginia MetroNews, Brad McElhinny ran through their responses in a piece posted earlier this morning. Brad also cited “fact-check” stories by the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press. They mostly focused on the question of whether Secretary Clinton wants to put all of the nation’s coal miners out of work, an issue that is more political theater than policy or reality (see my previous analysis of this whole question here).
The thing that really needs fact-checked from this whole exchange is this from Mr. Trump:
There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country.
Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country? Really? Wow.
Remember this from four years ago? That time that then-GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney said, in an ad attacking President Obama’s “war on coal”, said: “We have 250 years of coal, why wouldn’t we use it?”
In new campaign ads criticizing the Obama administration’s coal policies, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney cites an estimate of the nation’s remaining coal reserves that has been increasingly questioned as overly optimistic.One of two new Romney ads includes footage of his visit last month to an Ohio coal mine, with a voiceover of a Romney speech where he says, “We have 250 years of coal, why wouldn’t we use it?”
Various industry publications have cited that same estimate, saying, “The United States has more than a 250-year-supply of coal if it continues using coal at the same rate at which it uses coal today.”
But in a major report five years ago, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the best estimate it could confirm was that U.S. coal reserves would last less than half that long.
“The United States is endowed with a vast amount of coal,” said the report, written by a panel of geologists, engineers and industry officials for the National Academy’s National Research Council.
“Despite significant uncertainties in generating reliable estimates of the nation’s coal resources and reserves, there are sufficient economically mineable reserves to meet anticipated needs through 2030,” said the report, written at the request of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. “Further into the future, there is probably sufficient coal to meet the nation’s needs for more than 100 years at current rates of consumption,” the report said. “However, it is not possible to confirm the often-quoted suggestion that there is a sufficient supply of coal for the next 250 years.”
… 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.
It is a pretty significant story, and it seems hard to imagine it’s not going to quickly become part of the back-and-forth of this year’s gubernatorial campaign. Republican Bill Cole’s people will point to it with statements like this:
Mountain Party candidate Charlotte Pritt’s followers will say the whole thing just shows how Justice is just another coal operator and there’s no difference between Cole and Justice (for those who really are trying to understand if there are differences, former Gazette-Mail political reporter David Gutman gave that story a pretty good shot here).
Just to clear up the facts: The feds didn’t fine Justice $5 million. The fine in this case was $900,000. His companies are required to put up a $4.5 million letter of credit to ensure funding of new pollution control efforts. EPA says in all those efforts will cost $5 million, and Justice has already spent $500,00. So that’s where the $6 million figure in our story comes from. You can read the consent decree here and the EPA complaint here.
It’s fascinating to watch people who are more interested in partisan politics than in environmental protection (or workplace safety compliance) chatter about this particular story on Jim Justice. Where are their cries that the jackbooted thugs from EPA should let little poor ol’ Jim alone? I’m confused — do we want a strong federal enforcement agency to keep coal industry politics from controlling things, or should the feds leave us alone to run things as we see fit?
Readers who follow these things more closely than the career campaign consultants do will know that these kind of settlements between EPA and major coal producers have not been unusual things. EPA has reached deals in recent years with CONSOL Energy (here and here), Arch Coal (here and here) Alpha Natural Resources, and Patriot Coal, among others. And yes, most of the time, the state Department of Environmental Protection takes part with EPA as a co-plaintiff, a move that allows it some say in the litigation and some share of the fine. In this instance, WVDEP could have pocketed maybe $90,000 from the settlement, if the one-half of the fine going to states had been split five ways instead of four.