Coal Tattoo

 

Candidates, from left, Don Blankenship, of Williamson, Bo Copley, of Delbarton; U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., of Huntington, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, of Charles Town, Jack Newbrough, of Weirton, and Tom Willis, of Martinsburg, participate in a debate in Wheeling, W.Va., Monday, April 23, 2018.  AP photo

If you are among those who get a lot of your news from Facebook, you have probably seen a lot of people who aren’t fans of Don Blankenship calling the former Massey Energy CEO a “felon.” Heck, if you are a consumer of a lot of political news from major outlets, you probably saw the word used there a few times as well.

But the fact is that Blankenship, while he is a lot of things, is most certainly not a felon.  No, the charge he was convicted of — conspiring to violate federal mine safety and health standards — is a misdemeanor. That’s because the underlying crime he was found by a jury to have conspired to commit — violating those standards — is a misdemeanor.

The difference is important.  Not only does it mean that the most time Blankenship could have done in prison for that conviction was one year, but also it means that, really, our society considers what he did to be a minor crime.

As West Virginians go to the polls, though, it’s worth thinking about this a little bit more. Especially so since Attorney General Patrick Morrisey decided, just two days before the primary, that it was time to go after Blankenship for his criminal conviction.

Many of the questions at yesterday’s Morrisey campaign press conference focused on the sort of insider stuff that political reporting thrives on:  Why now? Was this some indication Morrisey believed Blankenship was surging in the polls? What if Blankenship wins the primary? Would Blankenship support him against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in the fall?

Buried in there was a question that was actually about what kind of position Attorney General Morrisey would take on a piece of legislation that’s pending in the United States Senate. Here’s the exchange:

Question: 

Joe Manchin has had a bill out that would actually advance the crime from a misdemeanor to a felony of conspiring to violate mine safety and health standards. Do you support that idea?

Answer:

So I actually would support a law if you knew that there was very clear intent on the part of an executive or on the part of an individual. It’s a very, very serious issue when you’re talking about conspiracy to violate mining standards or things that led to death, that I would be very open to making that a felony. But I think it’s really important to make sure that you have very clear intent in terms of the specifics of the allegation, and so I’d want to take a look at that language. But it’s clear to me that everyone must be accountable within the corporate channels.

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What politicians could say when coal miners die

sagocrosses1

 

It’s been 12 years since that early morning explosion in Upshur County. Twelve years since the Sago Mine Disaster. A year for each of the families who lost someone they loved.

But what I can’t stop thinking about is a much more recent coal-mining death. The one that happened on Friday, just a few days after Christmas and a few days before New Year’s Day. As the Gazette-Mail’s Erin Beck reported:

“Preliminary information indicates Thurman A. Watts of Harts, WV, died when a dozer he was operating traveled over the high wall,” the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training said in a prepared statement Friday. Watts died at about 1 a.m. at the Revelation Energy, LLC, Revelation S7 mine in Fayette County.

“I don’t have any information on the surface conditions at the time of the incident,” Samantha Smith, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said in an email. “MHS&T is conducting an investigation.
Exactly one minute after the state mine safety office email dropped into my inbox on Friday, the standard statement came in from Gov. Jim Justice:

“Cathy and I are deeply saddened today after learning of the death of one of our coal miners in Fayette County. It’s heartbreaking when we hear that one of our coal miners has lost their life while on the job. Please join us in praying for the family, friends, and co-workers of Thurman A. Watts and all of our hard working and dedicated coal miners in West Virginia.”

About a half-hour later came the statement from Sen. Joe Manchin:

“All of West Virginia is heartbroken to learn of the loss of Thurman A. Watts today. Yet again, we are reminded of the incredible sacrifices our coal miners and their families make every day. Gayle and I join the entire state in sending our thoughts and prayers to the Watts family during this difficult time.

It’s a lot like the tweet that Sen. Shelley Moore Capito sent out today marking the Sago anniversary:

 

These deaths are tragic. They should remind us of the sacrifices coal miners make. Personally, I think praying for their families is a fine idea.

But coming from political leaders — people with power and authority to ensure coal miners are given a better chance of going home each day — these words are pretty hollow without even the smallest bit of policy or promise of action. Here’s what political leaders who really care about coal miners could say when a miner is killed on the job:

This is another senseless and preventable death in our nation’s mines. We owe it to our coal miners — and the families of those who have suffered these deaths — to redouble our efforts to reach the only goal we should all have: Zero mining deaths and injuries. We know how to keep coal miners safe and there’s no excuse for not doing it.

Mine Explosion Congress

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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mooney

 

When we last left Rep. Alex Mooney, the West Virginia Republican was voting with the state’s other House members in favor of a budget cut for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Today, Rep. Mooney is set to be pushing another mine safety measure — this one aimed at eliminating the requirement that publicly traded mining companies report certain mine safety information when they file financial disclosures with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Rep. Mooney is the lead sponsor of H.R. 4289, which was introduced just a week ago, but it on the fast track with a markup scheduled this morning in the House Financial Services Committee. It’s on a long list of nearly two dozen bills the committee plans to take up today.

It doesn’t appear that Rep. Mooney issued a press release to announce this legislation, and so far a spokesman hasn’t provided any answers to my questions about the bill.   UPDATE: See below for some answers from a spokeman for Rep. Mooney. (I did get an emailed statement in which Talley Sergent, a candidate in the Democratic primary for Rep. Mooney’s seat, criticized the legislation as an effort “to repeal crucial mine safety measures” and the congressman “a hypocrite” who “tweets condolences to deceased coal miners and then betrays their memory by repealing mine safety measures”).

Some readers may recall that these safety reporting requirements were added to mandated SEC disclosures back in 2010, after the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, in a move by then-Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and as one of the last legislative actions by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

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FILE - In this Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton listens to a home care worker during a roundtable discussion in Los Angeles. Calling for a “new college compact,” Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday, Aug. 10, will unveil a $350 billion plan aimed at making college more affordable and reducing the crushing burden of student debt. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

 

We certainly wrote a lot about it at the time she said it. That quote from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that was so taken out of context by the coal industry, Trump supporters and West Virginia political leaders (see here, here, here, here and here).

Now, more than 10 months after the general election, Clinton herself has a few things to say about that comment. There’s a whole chapter about it in her new book, “What Happened.” She called the chapter, “Country Roads” and said that it was the campaign comment that she regrets the most from the entire race:

Stripped of context, my words sounded heartless. Republican operatives made sure the clip was replayed virtually nonstop on Facebook feeds, local radio and television coverage, and campaign ads across Appalachian for months.

… The point I had wanted to make was the exact opposite of how it came out.

As Clinton recounts, she was answering a question about how she would win support from working-class whites who normally vote Republican. Here’s the full answer:

Instead of dividing people the way Donald Trump does, let’s reunite around politics that will bring jobs and opportunities to all these under-served poor communities. So, for example, I’m the only candidate who has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right, Tim? [That’s Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio, who was in the audience]

And we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories. Now we’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.

In the book, she explains:

If you listened to the full answer and not just that one garbled sentence pulled out of it, my meaning comes through reasonably well. Coal employment had been going down in Appalachia for decades, stemming from changes in mining technology, competition from lower-sulfur Wyoming coal, and cheaper and cleaner natural gas and renewable energy, and a drop in the global demand for coal.

I was intensely concerned about the impact on families and communities that had depended on coal jobs for generations. That’s why I proposed a comprehensive $30 billion plan to help revitalize and diversify the region’s economy. But most people never heard that. They heard a snippet that gave the impression that I was looking forward to hurting miners and their families.

The book does a lot of blaming the media for all of this, and anyone who reads my blog (see here and here  especially) knows I don’t really disagree with that basic point.

But perhaps another reason that most people didn’t hear about the Clinton plan to save the coalfields is that she didn’t really talk about it that much. And, of course, others in her party — I’m looking at you, Sen. Joe Manchin — want to just keep talking about coal, coal coal, as if the next boom is right around the corner. And Clinton is wrong to try to rewrite history to suggest that Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t propose his own coalfield rescue plan (see here). President Obama had such a plan, of course, but as we’ve discussed before, it was really too little and too late and wasn’t promoted nearly enough by Obama or any Democrats.

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Water from Addicks Reservoir flows into neighborhoods as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

 

The first thing Monday morning, as we were all still trying to grasp what has been happening on the Gulf Coast of Texas, the press release came from Gov. Jim Justice:

Governor Jim Justice announced Monday that the Mountain State is prepared to send resources including West Virginia National Guard assets and personnel as needed in areas deluged by what has become Tropical Storm Harvey.

“West Virginia stands ready, willing and able to provide first responders to assist our fellow Americans in Texas and in other areas along the Gulf Coast as they continue to deal with the massive flooding and devastating damage being caused by Tropical Storm Harvey,” Governor Justice said. “I encourage all West Virginians to join Cathy and I as we pray for their safety and well-being.”

It was hard not to think about another quote from Gov. Justice, the one where he was commenting on what a nice, warm day it was when he took the oath of office back in January:

You know, it’s phenomenal to think about it. How could we have weather like this on this day?

Gosh, Governor. How could we possibly have had weather like that in January? Then, as now, Gov. Justice doesn’t have it in him to confront — or even admit — one of the most daunting challenges facing humanity. He’s not alone.

As there usually is when a coal miner dies a completely preventable death in West Virginia’s mines, there’s a lot of prayer going on among our state’s political leaders:

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Five things about President Trump and coal

 

FILE- In this May 5, 2016 photo, Coal miners wave signs as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Charleston, W.Va. Trump's election could signal the end of many of President Barack Obama's signature environmental initiatives. Trump has said he loathes regulation and wants to use more coal and expand offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

 

This evening’s visit to Huntington by President Donald Trump will undoubtedly involve the president talking up the coal industry and touting what he continues to insist is a major rebound that will only keep growing.

But here are some things to remember about President Trump and coal:

1.   Be wary of assertions or predictions (like this remarkably misleading boasting by Gov. Jim Justice) that another huge coal boom is underway or is just around the corner. Production actually dropped somewhat in the second quarter of this year. And while jobs are up a bit, much of this is in the highly volatile steel-making coal market, and most experts see little evidence that this is going to drive the sort of turnaround that many folks in the coalfields dream is coming.

2. While professing to just absolutely love coal miners, President Trump is overseeing what could be the start of a significant dismantling of many important safety and health protections for coal miners. His Labor Department is working out a settlement of an industry challenge to an important rule that toughened enforcement in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and the recently announced regulatory agenda for the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration delays or drops some key rulemaking initiatives.

3. Coal mining deaths are up so far under the Trump administration. As of this morning, there have been 10 reported coal-mining deaths nationwide in 2017. That’s more than the eight mining deaths that occurred in all of 2016.  Meanwhile, the only new effort by MSHA to respond to this is one of those voluntary compliance assistance programs, a program that is drawing criticism from the United Mine Workers union.  And not for nothing, but the president still hasn’t appointed anyone to serve as assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health.

UPDATED:  MSHA has confirmed this afternoon that another coal miner was killed on the job last evening in Colorado, pushing the number of fatalities this year to 11.

4. While the science continues to show serious environmental damage from coal-mining (and potentially grave threats to public health), the Trump administration is working hard to dismantle new standards aimed at reducing the impacts.  Getting rid of the Interior Department’s stream protection rule wasn’t enough, though. Just this week, as the administration prepared for the president’s trip to West Virginia, Interior was touting a move to streamline processing of new mining permits.

5. Black lung is a real worker health crisis in Appalachia.  NPR’s Howard Berkes continues to document this disaster (see here and here), but there is little response from policy makers and certainly not from the president who claims to care so much about coal miners.

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Well, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., was the first into my email inbox with a statement praising President Donald Trump for abandoning any global leadership by the United States in fighting the climate crisis. Here’s what the congressman had to say:

President Trump’s decision to withdraw is a bold statement that he will put America first even in the face of intense international pressure. The Paris Climate Agreement is a flawed deal that puts America’s energy needs and economic growth on the back burner, while transferring money and power to unelected international bureaucrats.

Moving forward, the best way to lead on this issue is to prioritize energy research and promote new technologies that will allow countries around the world to use all their resources – including fossil fuels – in the cleanest and most efficient manner.

I urge President Trump to seize this opportunity and champion technology to provide affordable, efficient and reliable energy. This alternative approach will not only benefit America, but will help the billions around the globe who remain in energy poverty.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wasn’t far behind with this statement:

While I believe that the United States and the world should continue to pursue a cleaner energy future, I do not believe that the Paris Agreement ensures a balance between our environment and the economy.  To find that balance, we should seek agreements that prioritize the protection of the American consumer as well as energy-producing states like West Virginia, while also incentivizing the development of advanced fossil energy technologies.

To be fair, though, I think Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s statement hit Twitter before I saw either of those emails:

Today’s announcement is a major victory for working West Virginia families. My mission is to continue to fight against unlawful regulations that pose a threat to jobs and the success of the Mountain State.

I’m sure other West Virginia political leaders will follow with similar political pandering about the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. And they can talk all they want about how this is going to help the coal industry, and throw around phrases like “prioritize energy research” and “incentivize the development of advanced fossil energy technologies.” But the fact is that the Trump administration wants to gut government spending needed to make “clean coal” — whatever that is, exactly — any sort of reality.

Tons of journalists and scientists — and business people — who are way smarter than me have provided lots of discussion about the very real dangers that this move by President Trump poses to our society (see here, here and here for example).  There are also indications from some that the clean energy revolution is far from over, and that all hope for dealing with climate change isn’t yet totally lost.

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Miners get another week — then what?

Lawmakers and UMWA members held another press conference at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.

UPDATE: HERE’S A STORY FROM THE GAZETTE-MAIL ABOUT FINAL ACTION BY CONGRESS ON THE UMW HEALTH-CARE BILL.

Word came out last night that the latest government funding bill does contain language to preserve health-care benefits for more than 22,000 retired United Mine Workers of American members and families … but this new “continuing resolution” would only protect those benefits for another week, through May 5, the term of the government funding resolution itself.

The press release from House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen , R-N.J., said:

This Continuing Resolution will continue to keep the government open and operating as normal for the next several days, in order to finalize legislation to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year. I am optimistic that a final funding package will be completed soon. It is time that this essential work is completed so that critical programs and activities – including national defense – are properly and adequately funded for the year.

Regarding the UMWA issue, the release added:

The legislation also extends the December CR provision for health care benefits for retired coal miners and their dependents for the length of this CR. This provision protects coal miners and their families from losing health care benefits.

For the UMWA’s retirees, and especially for those who understand the importance of the troubled pension plan that involves far more people — something like 89,000 current pensioners and another 29,000 who have vested in the program — this week-long extension is certainly a mixed blessing, and a potential source of more trouble. The concern for the union and its retirees at this point is that the additional time before a longer-term funding bill is approved gives some within the coal industry still more time to try to carve out some language for themselves. That’s because, as mentioned in a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, some Republican lawmakers have an alternative plan:

The emerging GOP proposal, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair, would divert that money to provide health care benefits for retirees from profitable coal companies that already are providing that coverage.

Rep. Murphy hasn’t yet dropped his proposal as an actual legislative proposal yet, and it hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention. But it was being promoted in some radio ads on stations in Northern West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania over the last few weeks. The ads were funded by a group called the Secure Energy for America Association, which has close ties to CONSOL Energy — a company that has been trying to rid itself of the rest of its coal operations to focus on natural gas.

The UMWA’s concern is that, first, this proposal would relieve companies like CONSOL of their obligations to fund health-care benefits under the Coal Act and, second, it would do so by diverting the money that the union’s Miner Protection Act would use to stabilize the UMWA pension plan.

Phil Smith, the union’s spokesman, said this morning that the union is pleased to have its health-care benefits language in the short-term government funding bill, but remains concerned about where the broader issue could be headed, given the language that Rep. Murphy and some in the industry are pushing:

If it’s going to give Congress more time to come to a permanent solution for these benefits and pensions then that’s what it’s going to take. But we’re concerned that a segment of the coal industry appears to be trying to take away the most logical source of funding for pensions going forward just so they can pad their bottom line.

 

 

UMWA benefits extension down to the wire – again

Budget Battle

 

We should know perhaps as early as today how things are going to play for legislation aimed at protecting the health-care benefits and pensions for thousands of retired United Mine Workers of America coal miners at their families.

It seems a stretch at this point to think that when the House GOP leadership makes public the text of its version of the latest continuing resolution — a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown come Friday — that it will include a long-term fix for both the UMWA health-care benefits for more than 22,000 retirees and family members and language that would financially rescue the union’s troubled pension program, which covers 89,000 retirees currently receiving pensions and another 29,000 miners who have vested in the program.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., expressed confidence last week that a long-term fix for the health-care benefits alone could be worked out this week.

But it’s also possible that we may just see another kick-the-can-down-the-road temporary measure like the one that currently expires at the end of the month.

Stay tuned …

Wait – What did Capito say about climate change?

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate Republicans discussed a proposal Wednesday to temporarily help millions of people who could lose federal health care subsidies should the Supreme Court annul the aid, which has been a pillar of President Barack Obama’s health care law. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

 

Earlier this week, when President Trump issued his executive order on energy, there was such a flurry of statements from all manner of politicians and various special interest groups that it was hard to keep up. But there was one that stuck out. It came from EPA and was billed as, “What They are Saying About President Trump’s Executive Order on Energy Independence“:

Senator Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va)
With this Executive Order, President Trump has chosen to recklessly bury his head in the sand. Walking away from the Clean Power Plan and other climate initiatives, including critical resiliency projects is not just irresponsible — it’s irrational. Today’s executive order calls into question America’s credibility and our commitment to tackling the greatest environmental challenge of our lifetime. With the world watching, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have chosen to shirk our responsibility, disregard clear science and undo the significant progress our country has made to ensure we leave a better, more sustainable planet for generations to come.

Wait, what?

Well, before anyone thinks that Senator Capito has come to her senses about climate change … within a little more than an hour, EPA had sent out a corrected press release with a different quote from the senator:

President Trump kept his promise to roll back one of the most harmful acts of overreach by the Obama administration – the so-called Clean Power Plan. If fully implemented, the Clean Power Plan would have completely decimated West Virginia’s vital coal industry while having no meaningful climate impact. Stopping this disastrous plan will preserve America’s coal industry, expand our manufacturing renaissance that is reliant upon affordable energy, and protect American families from unprecedented hikes in their electric bills. I was honored to join the president for the signing of this Executive Order, and I look forward to continuing working with the Trump administration to advance environmentally responsible policies that grow the economy – not kill jobs.”

This “corrected” EPA press release included a link to Sen. Capito’s own full statement on her Senate website, and a note saying “A draft released earlier today mis-attributed a quote from another senator to Senator Capito.

If you were wondering, that other quote from the initial EPA press release was what Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, said about the Trump administration action.

 

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.

Here’s Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., during yesterday’s House floor debate on the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement rule:

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.

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TomblinAs he did with his last State of the State address a year ago, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin today offered some straight talk about the future of our state’s coal industry:

While we all continue to hope that the coal industry will rebound, that hasn’t happened quickly and it likely won’t ever return to the levels that we once saw.

The governor continued:

We continue to work to diversify our economy and I know the improvements we’ve made will pay long-term dividends in job growth and investment.

Gov. Tomblin also touted his major effort at trying to diversify our coalfield communities:

It was here in this chamber, one year ago during my State of the State Address, where I announced plans for the largest development project in West Virginia’s history at the former Hobet surface mine site.

Since last year at this time, we have worked every day and we have made tremendous progress on this project, which is now known as Rock Creek Development Park.

We have worked with local landowners, who are generously donating land that will result in more than 12,000 developable acres for Rock Creek, which is the size of the city of Huntington.

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Manchin receives pension ‘assurance’ from Trump

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)

 

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.”

Will President-elect Trump help retired coal miners?

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)

 

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

Sen. Capito sent this letter to the President-elect, telling him:

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.

Push continues for UMWA benefits fix

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 …

Trump: Getting the old band back together

FILE - 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)

 

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)

It was certainly interesting to see Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s statement about President-elect Donald Trump’s plans to nominate former Labor Secretary Elaine Chao as his transportation secretary:

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.

When I heard about this particular cabinet pick, my own memories went back to the speech that Secretary Chao gave after 13 coal miners were killed in a massive series of underground explosions at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Alabama, in September 2001.

Of course, President-elect Trump has already nominated Wilbur Ross — who owned the Sago Mine when it blew up and killed 12 miners — to be his commerce secretary. And now Chao. It certainly takes those of us who follow mine safety issues back in time.

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.

Of course, that wasn’t exactly what Chao did at Labor, or what the Bush administration’s pick to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, Dave Lauriski, did either.  The Bush administration’s record on mine safety speaks for itself, really … After Jim Walter came Sago, Aracoma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon … Forty-one coal miners killed in those disastrous — and preventable — incidents alone.

The Bush administration had quietly stopped work on more than a dozen regulations aimed at improving mine safety, promoted budget cuts at MSHA, and encouraged regulators to regulate less and cooperate more with a highly hazardous industry with a history of death and disaster. The results eroded the ability of MSHA to protect the health and safety of miners, and a series of the agency’s own internal reviews reflected lack of resources and political will to do the job Congress had set out for its inspectors. MSHA was left unable to perform its most basic task — the mandated quarterly inspections of all of the nation’s coal mines.

I wonder why Sen. Capito didn’t mention any of that in her statement on Secretary Chao.

Jim Justice is all in with Trump’s coal con

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at this part again:

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

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

Continue reading…

Sago Mine owner eyed for Trump posts

sagocrosses1

 

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

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

As we reported in the Gazette at the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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