Coal Tattoo

We’ve written before on this blog about West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley. He’s not a big fan of environmental regulations, especially those that might improve the handling and disposal of toxic coal ash, and definitely doesn’t like federal regulators.

During a House committee hearing on Friday, there was a fascinating exchange when Rep. McKinley got his chance to question Dr. William N. Rom, who had testified that air pollution protections are important, and told committee members:

The adverse health effects of air pollution are well known and fully documented in the scientific literature. Equally well established are the health and economic benefits associated with reductions in air pollution. For these reasons, the American Thoracic Society strongly urges Congress to reject any legislation that limits, weakens or delays the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to implement the science based standards of the Clean Air Act.

At issue in the hearing was discussion draft legislation from Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., that is billed as “requiring increased transparency regarding the economic impacts of EPA regulations.” Whitefield explains his bill this way:

… The “Energy Consumers Relief Act” would require that, prior to finalizing a rule estimated to cost at least a billion dollars; EPA must first submit a concise cost analysis to Congress. This analysis will provide the public with greater transparency by requiring the inclusion of such things as the impact of the rule on gasoline or electricity prices, as well as any potential job losses.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor, said that the bill:

… Would only reinforce and amplify the problem of under-regulation at the EPA, preventing the agency from addressing many of the environmental and public health risks noted above. This result would no doubt elate corporate interests by helping them protect their already healthy bottom lines. But, the toll it would take on the general public would be unconscionable.

But here’s the part I wanted to get to … Dr. Rom testified about a patient he briefly treated — a man with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — who had the misfortune to end up standing near a tailpipe for about five minutes while waiting for a bus. The man developed acute shortness of breath, and ended up hospitalized, in intensive care, intubated for nine days. “He couldn’t get air in or out of his lungs,” Dr. Rom said. “Air pollution nearly killed him.”

When it came Rep. McKinley’s turn to ask questions, here’s what he asked Dr. Rom:

Did you have any children who ever went outside without a coat on and they got sick for being outside?

I’m just curious, did this person have a level of personal accountability? If he had a pulmonary problem and stood there in front of an exhaust pipe for five minutes that you referred to, didn’t he just step back? Did you ever tell him that? Or did you say let’s blame the government or let’s blame that bus for running there?

Dr. Rom responded:

Well, he was intubated at that point, so I couldn’t raise the question.

Democrats let GOP hijack EPA transparency issue

It was certainly fascinating to watch yesterday as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a confirmation hearing for Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s nominee to be U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator during his second term. We had a story in this morning’s print edition about a few of her comments regarding the coal industry, for those who haven’t seen that yet.

One thing that was clear was that members of the Senate committee were far more interested in hearing themselves talk than in hearing what McCarthy had to say about her vision for running EPA for the next four years. The member opening statements went on and on and on, leaving little time at the end for actual questions — let alone answers — from Ms. McCarthy.

But the other thing that was clear was that the Democrats on the committee didn’t want to go anywhere near actually addressing a pressing issue about how EPA conducts business. I wrote yesterday about this, in a post called Transparency should be a top of EPA pick’s agenda. The best we got from the committee majority was a very brief question from Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., asking if McCarthy would ensure that EPA complied with the federal Freedom of Information Act. McCarthy said she would — but come on, what’s she going to say?

If Chairwoman Boxer was the least bit concerned about actual transparency at EPA, should would have asked McCarthy about some of the issues raised by the Society of Environmental Journalists (full disclosure: I belong to SEJ and recently stepped down after serving 10 years as leader of its Freedom of Information Task Force). Sen. Boxer could have asked why EPA scientists aren’t allowed to talk to the press without public relations “minders” listening in, or why EPA frequently ignores reporters requests for information altogether, or why the flow of information to environmental journalists around the country from EPA local offices has slowed to a trickle — making transparency under President Obama far worse than it was during even George W. Bush’s presidency.

Instead, the Republican committee members were allowed to use transparency issues to try to discredit EPA’s efforts at toughening environmental rules like those that govern air pollution from coal-fired power plants. As the AP reported, the GOP focused their transparency complaints on EPA officials using multiple email addresses — a move that Republican say could avoid public disclosure rules:

Senators sidetracked their confirmation hearing Thursday for Gina McCarthy, President Barack Obama’s nominee to head the Environmental Protection Agency, to discuss secret government email addresses that have been used by senior EPA officials for at least a decade. The agency’s inspector general is investigating Republican charges that the secret accounts — discovered in 2012 — have been used to hide sensitive matters from Congress in its oversight role and the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

Prior to yesterday’s hearing, Republican committee members had sent this letter to Ms. McCarthy, raising issues about information they wanted EPA to make public. In a lengthy back-and-forth with me on Twitter yesterday, John Walke of the Natural Resources Defense Council had this to say about the GOP’s complaints:

These are anti-health, obstruction tactics wrapped in the pleasing garb of transparency concerns that are no such thing.

Walke argued,  for example, that the Republicans were demanding “personal, confidential medical data” about air pollution studies, information that “researchers consider  privileged” and that every administration since 1997 has refused to make public.

Meanwhile, Democrats tried to defend the Obama EPA in the face of the Republican attacks, as the AP explained:

Seeking to defuse the debate, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said at the hearing that EPA officials under the George W. Bush administration also used secret accounts. According to Boxer:

—President George W. Bush’s first EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, used the address “ToWhit.”

—Former deputy administrator and acting administrator Marcus Peacock used a secret alias “Tofu.”

—Bush’s second EPA administrator, Stephen Johnson, used “ToCarter.”

—Marianne Horinko, the acting administrator for five months in 2003, used “ToDuke.”

“All of them have used it,” Boxer said. “I don’t think it is anything nefarious.”

Unfortunately, Sen. Boxer declined to take the high road here … Instead of this, “well, everybody does it” nonsense about the e-mail accounts, Sen. Boxer could have said, “Transparency? OK, you want to talk about transparency, let’s do that … ” and asked Ms. McCarthy some real questions about the long-standing complaints from the press about the Obama EPA’s secrecy (see here and here).

But in Washington, it’s all about the partisan battle.  The Climate Progress blog, for example, complained that the GOP focused too much on questions about the EPA emails, and mentioned nothing about the legitimate media complaints about Obama’s EPA. The mainstream media did little better, refusing to even cover the SEJ complaints. The Washington Post, for example, wrote about the Republican “transparency” complaints, but said nothing about the far more troubling issues facing journalists who try to cover EPA.

About the only story I saw that got into the SEJ complaints was this one from Greenwire, which reported:

In an interview today, Joseph Davis, director of the SEJ Freedom of Information WatchDog Program, hypothesized that the problem stems from a shift of priorities in the press office.

Press secretaries at EPA tend to have gotten their experience from the campaign trail, he said. While 20 years ago the agency used the press to talk to the public about environmental issues that affected them, today it mainly tries to avoid political controversy.

“The tactics are different now, and they say as little as possible,” he said. “The main job of the press office — as the press office seems to see it — is to protect the White House from political attacks … rather than inform the press and public.”

And if the point wasn’t clear enough, the last line of the Greenwire story explained:

SEJ’s Davis expressed hope that McCarthy, known for her outspokenness, would reverse that course. But until then, an EPA spokeswoman declined to return a request for comment.

As President Obama’s pick to run the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in his second term prepares for a confirmation hearing this morning, there’s a lot of talk about what Gina McCarthy’s leadership would do regarding coal industry issues. As we mentioned yesterday, the group Appalachian Voices put out an early press release to try to head off expected complaints that EPA has been out to destroy the mining industry in the region:

While the data show some variations among coal-producing states, each of the top ten has had more mining jobs on average under the Obama administration than under the Bush administration. Nine of those states saw higher coal mining employment in 2012 than at any point during the Bush years.

Of course, that won’t stop coal-state senators from raising heck about the issue, as Erica Peterson reported Tuesday for WFPL:

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s already been in the news a few times today, but here’s one more story from an environmental perspective: McConnell says President Obama’s nominee for Environmental Protection Agency Administrator will be detrimental to Kentucky’s coal industry.

But there’s one issue facing EPA that everyone who cares about the agency should be focused on today when the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works convenes to question McCarthy about her plans: Transparency.

I recently stepped down after serving more a decade as chairman of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Freedom of Information Task Force, a project formed in the wake of post-9/11 efforts at government secrecy in the name of counter-terrorism. I still serve as a member of the group. Yesterday, SEJ issued a statement about McCarthy’s confirmation, calling on lawmakers to press her on transparency issues. We said, in part:

The Obama administration has been anything but transparent in its dealings with reporters seeking information, interviews and clarification on a host of environmental, health and public lands issues. The EPA is one of the most closed, opaque agencies to the press. Members of the Society of Environmental Journalists – a group of 1,350 journalists who specialize in environmental coverage – face substantial hurdles getting their questions answered about air pollution, water quality, oil and gas operations and other issues.

Reporters who have covered the EPA for several decades say the agency was far more media-friendly and open prior to 2000. But media policies were substantially eroded during the administration of George W. Bush, and they’ve only gotten worse under President Obama.

SEJ has been trying to raise these issues, and work with EPA to improve the agency’s transparency, for years (see here, here and here, just for example), only to have our efforts ignored or worse. Check out this story from the Columbia Journalism Review, which quotes me explaining how we were treated by EPA:

Responding to President Obama’s Open Government Directive, which ordered executive departments and agencies to “take specific actions to implement the principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration,” the EPA launched two websites to solicit public comments about how to fulfill that obligation. In March 2010, SEJ weighed in with a list of nine recommendations. Days later, during the group’s next conference call with the agency, Adora Andy, the EPA press secretary at the time, “scolded us for daring to comment publicly on their transparency policies,” says Ken Ward Jr., chairman of the group’s Freedom of Information Task Force, who participated in the call. Moreover, Andy threatened to break off the discussions between the EPA and the society (she never did, and the talks are ongoing). “I was shocked,” says Ward, a reporter at The Charleston Gazette in West Virginia. “Here we were talking about concerns that journalists have about the lack of transparency. Then we dutifully submit public comments about the way we thought they should interact with the press, and EPA hammers us for it. To me, it showed that EPA just doesn’t get transparency.”

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Patriot Coal: Will industry have to pay its debts?

Whenever there’s any sort of action by the government or by environmental or citizen groups that might somehow — no matter how remotely — curb any practice of the coal industry, I can almost always count on watching my inbox fill up with statements from coalfield politicians criticizing that action and promising to stand up for the coal industry.

Well, yesterday evening, Patriot Coal finally made official what the United Mine Workers union has been warning for months was going to happen. As we reported in today’s Gazette:

Patriot Coal Corp. on Thursday asked a U.S. bankruptcy judge to throw out the terms of the company’s contract with the United Mine Workers union and modify the health-care plan covering thousands of retired miners.

Now, the public can’t really find out exactly what Patriot is proposing. Company lawyers filed this motion asking a federal bankruptcy judge to throw out its union contract, but that document contains few details — and Patriot’s attorneys also filed this motion asking Judge Kathy A. Surratt-States to allow them to file the more detailed proposal under seal. In a press release, Patriot explained its proposal this way:

Patriot’s UMWA labor costs are not competitive with other coal producers that operate under more flexible work rules and a significantly lower labor cost structure. The Company’s proposal seeks to adjust wages, benefits and work rules for its unionized employees to a level consistent with the regional labor market. The Company can no longer afford to pay above-market wages and benefits to its 1,600 union employees as compared to its 1,300 nonunion miners doing exactly the same jobs. As part of the proposal, Patriot intends to offer its union employees the same healthcare benefits it provides to nonunion employees.

Here’s what UMWA President Cecil Roberts had to say about it:

They’re demanding massive changes to the collective bargaining agreement, and they want to scrap the health care benefits our retirees earned through decades of blood and toil. These demands by the company are totally unacceptable to the UMWA, and unnecessary for the company’s survival.

The truth is that the depth of relief Patriot seeks isn’t needed. There is a path forward for the company that does not include drastic cuts at the level the company has proposed and we will demonstrate that in court.

Patriot Coal CEO Ben Hatfield had this to say for his company:

The actions we have taken today are necessary for the survival of Patriot and the preservation of more than 4,000 jobs. Without the cost relief we are seeking, all of these jobs will be lost and it will no longer be possible to provide healthcare for more than 23,000 employees, retirees and their dependents. Our labor and retiree benefit costs have risen to levels that simply cannot be sustained given the challenges facing the Company and our industry. All of our employees and retirees are being asked to make sacrifices to help Patriot emerge from bankruptcy. These sacrifices include reductions in compensation and benefits for salaried, union and nonunion employees.

What Ben didn’t mention was that this proposal comes just a few days before a hearing that’s scheduled on Monday, described by Cecil Roberts and the mine workers this way:

Patriot’s filings come just days before it goes into the bankruptcy court and argues it should be allowed to pay nearly $7 million in bonuses to executives and managers. “That $7 million would pay for a lot of oxygen bottles for the black lung sufferers. If Patriot is successful, these retirees will soon face a cruel decision between getting the oxygen they need to survive or eating,” Roberts said.

Keep in mind the stakes in this particular dispute, as outlined on the website of the UMWA’s Fairness at Patriot campaign:

About 2,000 UMWA members currently work at Patriot operations in West Virginia and western Kentucky. Additionally, more than 10,000 retirees, their dependents and surviving spouses receive health care benefits from Patriot. All told, the UMWA estimates the health care benefits for more than 22,000 people are potentially at risk.

But so far, I’ve only seen one coalfield politician have anything to say about Patriot’s move yesterday. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., issued this statement:

Patriot’s decision is deeply disappointing, and incredibly unjust. These retirees worked day and night, risking their lives and their health, under a pledge that is now broken. Passing my bill to protect these union miners’ health benefits and pensions is now more than just the right thing to do – it’s imperative.

It’s not entirely clear yet if Sen. Rockefeller’s bill will fix all of the problem for UMWA members and pensioners, or if it will make Patriot be the one to pay these debts. And that’s really what this is all about — a major player in an industry that’s historically tried to externalize its costs of doing business onto its workers, the environment, the communities where it operates, and the global climate. As Temple University business professor Bruce Rader has explained, Patriot’s move here will:

… Ultimately will shift the burden to the general public or in a word socialize the health care benefits since the miner’s ability to pay will not cover this obligation and then the health care burden will be shifted to the government. In essence we will all pay the costs. This is a perfect example of the use of the legal system to socialize the costs and therefore lead to a transfer of costs to the general public from the shareholders of a company.

The question becomes, as a society, do we want to condone this? Should the profitability of these companies be enhanced at the general public’s expense, and what effect will this have on our system of allocating capital? Free-market capitalism is ultimately a system for the allocation of capital in a society and the efficient allocation of capital is the driving force behind the economic growth that this country has experienced. For this system to work, the participants must suffer the consequences and reap the benefits of their actions.

If you look more broadly at Patriot, you can see this … Take the selenium pollution from Patriot’s mountaintop removal mines (many of which — like its retiree health-care liabilities — Patriot inherited from other mine operators). With a series of carefully planned lawsuits, citizen group lawyers from Appalachian Mountain Advocates managed to force Patriot to internalize the costs of that pollution. The company went kicking and screaming at first, but eventually agreed not only to proper pollution treatment plans, but also to a longer-term plan that will get Patriot out of the mountaintop removal business altogether. Back when that announcement was made, Ben Hatfield had this to say:

Patriot Coal recognizes that our mining operations impact the communities in which we operate in significant ways, and we are committed to maximizing the benefits of this agreement for our stakeholders, including our employees and neighbors. We believe the proposed settlement will result in a reduction of our environmental footprint.

But remember that while Ben Hatfield became a household name because of the Sago Mine Disaster, he’s also  a veteran coal operator who worked for many years for Massey Energy’s predecessor, A.T. Massey Coal, a company whose efforts to break union contracts to reduce production costs and increase profits was in many ways the beginning of the sorts of maneuvers that Patriot is making now as part of its bankruptcy reorganization.

In West Virginia, the response to the Patriot selenium deal has been for state lawmakers to pass legislation aimed at ensuring that no other coal companies will have to take responsibility for their selenium pollution. Our House of Delegates couldn’t muster even one vote against that selenium bill — and not for nothing, but the United Mine Workers sent its lobbyist, Ted Hapney to a public hearing to support the industry’s bill.  And, as Taylor Kuykendall at The State Journal made clear in this story, the West Virginia Coal Association was certainly proud of its success with this legislation. Among those patting themselves on the back was Delegate Troy Andes, who used to handle public relations for Massey and Don Blankenship:

Andes said the Coal Caucus has allowed pro-coal legislators to educate the rest of the body on coal issues. As an example, Andes cited the selenium bill that the House passed unanimously March 8. He said the Coal Caucus was able to meet with about half of the legislative body on the bill before opponents were able to “flood the halls of the Capitol with misinformation.”

Andes also touted the major gains of the Republican Party and said that would bode well for the West Virginia coal industry.

“Today we have 46 Friends of Coal in the Republican Caucus,” Andes said. “Thanks to the 2012 election we grew from 35 members to 46 members. That translates to more seats on important committees.”

Rupert Phillips, D-Logan, works at White Armature Works, an electric motor repair company in Southern West Virginia that serves the coalfields. Hamilton said Phillips championed the passage of the selenium bill that recently passed the House.

“(The West Virginia Coal Association) gave me the car to drive,” Phillips said regarding the selenium bill. “I put it in four wheel drive and we took it to the top.”

So far, I haven’t heard any of these “Friends of Coal” talking about what they’re going to do to make sure Patriot lives up to the promises made to UMWA members and retirees. They seem perfectly content to allow the industry they champion to keep “externalizing” its costs onto workers and pensioners and, ultimately, the rest of us. Which brings me back to something that UMWA President Cecil Roberts said about how the union is continuing to fight Patriot in court and to call attention to the situation with protests in the streets:

Lawyers will do what lawyers do, courts will do what courts do,” Roberts said. “What working families do when they fight for justice is get out, get loud, and demand to be heard. We will continue to do that.

And as we do, more and more of our members are wondering which side national, state and local politicians, community leaders and religious leaders are on. For those who haven’t already answered that question, the time is now. Get off the fence and choose.

More inaction on mine safety in West Virginia

On Friday, not long after our West Virginia House of Delegates voted 99-0 in favor of a selenium water pollution bill favored by the coal industry (with the House Judiciary Chairman citing as the main reason to support it simply that it was “an important one for the coal industry), I finished up another in a series of articles in which I’ve been checking up on how Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration is doing  in implementing last year’s “comprehensive” mine safety bill.

Here’s what that story, published in Sunday’s paper said:

The Tomblin administration is not moving forward with language in West Virginia’s new mine safety bill that could require tougher safety training at coal-mining operations that routinely violate state regulations.

Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said his agency has not yet used its authority to take action when coal operators repeatedly allow hazardous working conditions.

That’s right, here was yet another tool that West Virginia’s mine safety regulators really weren’t using — along with better methane monitoring systems, tougher coal-dust control standards, and stiffer fines for safety violations.

Keep in mind that when industry officials and political leaders talk about mine safety, one thing they like to emphasize is improving training and working with companies and with coal miners to ensure that workers know how to work safely in the dangerous environment of an underground coal mine. And with this story, we were looking specifically at a tool aimed at giving state regulators the ability to improve industry training practices at troubled mines. As the story explained:

The new “pattern of conduct” provision was added to West Virginia law as part of a mine safety bill passed in March 2012 and touted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin as “comprehensive” legislation.

Under the change, the state office is now required to take action if the director determines that his inspectors have found “a pattern of conduct creating a hazardous condition at a mine.”

The law says that White’s agency must, after such a finding, notify the state Board of Miners’ Training, Education and Certification of that finding. Then, the board is required to “cause additional training to occur at the mine” to address the safety problems and hazards found at the operation.

During an interview last week, White said his agency has created a new form for inspectors to use when they want to report a “pattern of conduct” to supervising inspectors or agency headquarters in Charleston. So far, though, no such reports have been submitted.

“Has anyone filled one of those out yet? No,” White said.

And Eugene White explained why he’s really not that keen on using this new tool anyway:

White said he wants a state inspector to turn to the “pattern of conduct” provision only when “he feels like he has done all he can.”

White said that, for now, he would prefer not to report mine operators to the training board, and wants his agency and its inspectors to try to address any problems they find at mining operations.

“My whole thing is, before going to the training board, trying to get a mine back on track,” White said. “Personally, I think we fail as an agency if we run to the training board as if there’s nothing we can do.”

Gov. Tomblin likes to pretend that West Virginia is doing everything it can to make our coal mines as safe as possible — yet his administration seems to accept not aggressively pursuing every avenue given to regulators by the Legislature. And incredibly, the Legislature seems to think that’s just fine.

So far, four West Virginia coal miners have died on the job so far in 2013. That’s four times as many as had been killed as of this date in 2012.

Coal and the new Obama EPA/Energy team

President Barack Obama announces in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, March 4, 2013, he will nominate, from left;  MIT physics professor Ernest Moniz for Energy Secretary; Gina McCarthy to head the EPA;  and Walmart Foundation President Sylvia Mathews Burwell to head the Budget Office. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais).

The news is finally out that President Obama has nominated MIT physics professor Ernest Moniz to be his news Energy Secretary and Gina McCarthy to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Here’s the some of the New York Times’ report on the announcement:

Mr. Obama described Dr. Moniz as “another brilliant scientist” to succeed Dr. Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, at the Energy Department. And for the E.P.A., the president said Ms. McCarthy was well suited with her experience as a state environmental official in both Massachusetts — for former Gov. Mitt Romney — and Connecticut. She has “a reputation as a straight-shooter” who “welcomes different points of view,” he added.

Together, Ms. McCarthy and Dr. Moniz are “going to be making sure that we’re investing in American energy, that we’re doing everything that we can to combat the threat of climate change, that we’re going to be creating jobs and economic opportunity in the first place,” Mr. Obama said, implicitly addressing the criticism, especially from Republicans, that environmental policies inhibit the economy.

Here in West Virginia, Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall was first out of the box with a predictable anti-Obama response:

 The outgoing head of the EPA took direct aim at coal miner’s jobs and circumvented Congress, targeting and wreaking havoc on the Appalachian economy,” said Rahall. “It is because of this destructive track record that I believe the country would have benefited greatly from an outside voice at EPA rather than an Agency insider. I hope that Ms. McCarthy brings an understanding of the need for balance in our energy policies but should she chart the same harmful regulatory course as the previous Administrator, I will to fight to the maximum degree against such an ideologically driven agenda that is contrary to the will of Congress, public opinion, and our country’s economic well-being.

Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito was not far behind with this:

I am disappointed, but not surprised, that President Obama has decided to double down on his job killing policies by nominating Gina McCarthy as EPA Administrator. Ms. McCarthy was the force behind many of the anti-coal regulations issued by this administration, including the CSAPR rule that was struck down as unlawful by a federal appeals court.

This nomination represents a missed opportunity for the President to chart a new course that balances environmental regulations with the need for jobs in our local communities.

Coal jobs are not the only ones put at risk by the President’s environmental policy. On Friday another study found that the Keystone pipeline would have no significant environmental impact. Nonetheless, the President continues to delay approval of a project that will create thousands of American jobs and improve our energy security at a time when gas prices climb higher and higher.

It is a shame the President continues to put his extreme partisan agenda ahead of jobs and energy security in West Virginia and across the country. I will continue to fight for a common sense energy policy that takes advantage of American resources to power our future economy.

Oddly enough, though, the headline in the National Journal (not a particularly left-wing publication) read Gina McCarthy, Obama’s ‘Green Quarterback,’ Has a History of Working With Industry:

Gina McCarthy, President Obama’s pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, has been called the president’s “green quarterback” for her efforts to tackle industrial pollution …  throughout McCarthy’s long career as an environmental regulator, she has developed a reputation as a political pragmatist who works with and listens to the polluting industries – even as she writes rules that will force them to change the way they do business.

One passage of the story stood out, and might be important for West Virginians who care about the coal industry to read:

The coal industry and coal-fired power plants will feel the biggest economic pinch from EPA regulations on greenhouse gases. American Electric Power, an Ohio-based electric utility with a fleet of generators that depends heavily on coal, protested the Obama administration’s first-term clean-air rules and is deeply concerned about coming climate rules.

But officials in that company still have grudging praise for McCarthy. “Early on, Gina brought us in to talk about the rules,” said John McManus, AEP’s vice president of environmental services. “We talked about timing, technology, and cost. My sense is that Gina is listening, has an open mind; she wants to hear the concerns of the regulated sector.”

AEP told McCarthy that a rule aimed at cutting soot emissions was so stringent that it would cripple the company. Eventually, McCarthy agreed to loosen a portion of the rule—a move that saved AEP about 10 percent of the cost of meeting the rule’s requirements, McManus said.

“Did she do all the things we thought would be best? No, but we do see that she’s trying to do things that would achieve regulatory balance.”

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Rockefeller, Rahall to introduce UMWA pension bill


This just in this afternoon from Beckley:

Senator Jay Rockefeller today said he plans to introduce legislation, the Coalfield Accountability and Retired Employee Act, that would protect the pension and lifetime health benefits thousands of retired coal miners and their families were promised – and are now in jeopardy. Rockefeller met today with a group of coal retirees, along with United Mine Workers of America  President Cecil Roberts and U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, to discuss the importance of preserving these promised benefits.

Sen. Rockefeller said:

In West Virginia, a promise made is a promise kept. And when it comes to our coal miners – who put their lives, limbs and lungs on the line under the promise of a secure future for them and their families – there should never be any backing away from that pledge. I’ve heard from retirees and their loved ones who are deeply fearful and rightfully angry. This legislation is about human decency, it’s about doing what’s right, and it’s about having the backs of those who have ours deep underground.

Rep. Rahall said:

Clearly, every effort must be made to preserve health care benefits for these retirees who worked so hard to produce the coal that powered this Nation. This effort is about justice, about integrity, and about keeping faith with the federal obligation to the health and welfare of our coal miners.

According to a statement from Rockefeller’s office:

These retirees are facing such uncertainty because the UMWA’s 1974 pension plan, which covers more than 100,000 mineworkers, including more than 35,000 West Virginians, is severely underfunded and on the road to insolvency – a result of the recent financial crisis and fewer contributions to the plan.

In addition, Patriot Coal, a spin-off from Peabody Energy and Arch Coal, is facing bankruptcy and could shed its obligations to retirees. This means more than 12,000 retired miners, including nearly 7,000 West Virginians – the vast majority of whom actually worked for Peabody and Arch – and their dependents would lose health benefits, and the 1974 pension plan would be further crippled.

We’ve written about the problems with the UMWA pension plan before here, and of course the Patriot Coal situation has been in the news a lot lately (see here, here and here).

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I thought I would pass on a few interesting things that crossed my desk about the potential impacts of the budget “sequester” on coal-mining programs run by the federal government.

First, regarding coal-mine safety, Acting Labor Secretary Seth Harris had this to say about the potential effects on the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) will adjust funding to complete 100 percent of its mandatory coal inspections, but it will likely not be able to do the same for the mandatory metal/nonmetal mine inspections. In addition, many of the most effective activities that have caught grave workplace conditions — impact inspections, technical investigations, respirable coal-mine dust inspections, and accident prevention investigations — will be significantly reduced, potentially leading to an increase in the fatality and injury rates amount miners.

The Department remains committed in implementing the recommendations from the Internal Review of MSHA’s actions at the Upper Big Branch Mine, but progress on this will have to be delayed. Both MSHA and the Office of the Solicitor (SOL) will have to scale back work on the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission backlog project, which will likely increase the backlog of current contested cases.

And over at the Interior Department, when the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement was announcing its annual abandoned mine reclamation grants to states, OSM officials warned:

The annual announcement of the grants is traditionally done in December. The announcement was delayed by preparations for the potential sequester now scheduled to take place on March 1. The grant amounts announced today make available 90 percent of AML grant funding that each eligible state and tribe would normally receive, because ten percent of the funds are being held back pending the sequester. OSM has worked with states and tribes to provide as much assistance as possible in advance of the release of AML funding, and the bureau will continue to offer support to AML programs nationwide. The hold back of ten percent in anticipation of the sequester will have impacts on communities across the Nation, the American people, and the environment.

The reduction in AML funding means that about 50 abandoned mine land projects will not be reclaimed. This will impact an estimated 22,500 citizens who will continue to be exposed to mine-related hazards such as open mine shafts and portals, mine fires, dangerous highwalls, landslides, and mine subsidence. More than 1,800 acres of polluted or degraded mine lands will not be cleaned up, and over $4.3 million will not be set aside for cleanup of mine-related water pollution. There are economic impacts as well; the reduction in funds means a reduction in contracts and jobs in the local community.

 

Gov. Tomblin steers clear of key coal issues

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, in Charleston, W.Va. W (AP Photo/Randy Snyder)

Last evening, as West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin delivered his State of the State address, a family up in Marion County was suffering, in the aftermath of our state’s latest coal-mining accident.  The last we heard publicly, Glen L. Clutter Jr., 51, of Baxter, was in critical condition and on life support. He suffered severe head trauma while trying to get a mine car back on the rails at CONSOL Energy’s Loveridge Mine near Fairview.

Gov. Tomblin didn’t mention Mr. Clutter. And he didn’t make room in his speech for the two West Virginia coal miners who died on the job in the last week (see here and here). Instead, the governor included a pretty generic, though accurate, statement about our state’s coal miners:

The dedication of coal miners is the work that built our State and the work that sustains it.

But that praise for hard-working miners was just a pretext for the governor to get to what he really wanted to talk about:

We also cannot forget an industry that has been an integral part of West Virginia-and that is our coal industry. This industry continues to enable West Virginia to be a national leader … I believe in the production of coal, its value to our country, and I will continue to do everything that I can to fight the EPA and its misguided attempts to cripple this industry.

First of all, I’m not sure how the governor can continue to insist that West Virginia is a “national leader,” when our state ranks near the bottom of most measures of community health, well-being and quality of life. The governor said so himself, when he outlined the reasons for his proposed changes to our educational system:

Even with all the good things happening in our schools our student achievement is falling behind-and that is not acceptable.

Education Week, in its annual survey, Quality Counts, gave us an F for student achievement, ranking us 49th nationally. That is not acceptable.

The only true national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, ranks us below the national averages in 21 of 24 categories, and many of our scores have slipped lower over the past decade. That is not acceptable.

Our graduation rate is only 78 percent which means almost 1 in 4 high school students do not graduate on time. That is not acceptable.

We have the highest percentage of young people ages 16 to 19 not engaged in school or the workforce. That is not acceptable.

Next, as we reported in this morning’s Gazette, a number of people I spoke with last evening after the speech week were kind of surprised that the governor didn’t mention coal and energy a bit more in his speech, if only to continue his standard cheer-leading for the extractive industries. Most telling, of course, was the governor not talking about any of the pressing challenges that are really facing our coalfield communities: Mined-out reserves, competition from other coal basins, low natural gas prices — not to mention the environmental and public health damage from mountaintop removal.

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Heads in sand: W.Va. leaders keep denying reality

President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

As the reactions started to roll in last night, there really weren’t any surprises in the way West Virginia political leaders responded to the first State of the Union address of President Obama’s second term.

First, there was Democratic Rep. Nick J. Rahall’s comment:

… On the energy front, he is absolutely wrong in his misguided efforts to circumvent the Congress with unilateral regulatory actions that will result in job loss, especially when it comes to the EPA’s unfair and inequitable treatment of coal mining in Appalachia, which the Congress and the courts are rightly resisting. I intend to keep on doing all that I can to promote coal and keep our miners on the job producing affordable energy for the Nation.

And then there was Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito:

President Obama has attacked West Virginia resources from Day One, and it is clear that his extreme energy agenda will only pick up steam in his second term.  He said it himself, if Congress doesn’t act on climate legislation—he will.  He expressly said that he would pick winners and losers in the energy economy, and we all know coal will be in the losing column.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s prepared statement responding to the speech didn’t mention coal, energy policy or climate change, but Sen. Joe Manchin’s statement included this:

I was, however, disappointed that he refused to mention coal when he discussed controlling our energy future. I’ve consistently pushed for an all-of-the-above energy policy and this President must do the same. Any discussion of our nation’s energy future must include coal.

But the one that really got me was from Republican Rep. David McKinley:

The President’s focus on climate change is just code to justify his war on coal and other fossil fuels. While I agree that climate change is taking place, the question is what causes it. Is it man-made or natural? Despite the inconclusive science, the President made it clear he will take action that would cause considerable damage to our already weak economy.

Let’s look at one part of that again:

While I agree that climate change is taking place, the question is what causes it. Is it man-made or natural? Despite the inconclusive science …

It’s possible this is a minor shift in Rep. McKinley’s position. He’s previously appeared to question whether the climate is changing, but now appears to have backed off that (see here and here). But he’s clinging to the next stage of climate denial: That even if the climate is changing, it’s not human activities like burning of coal that is to blame.

So let’s be clear. The overwhelming scientific evidence simply doesn’t support Rep. McKinley on this position either. Scientists are very confident that the global warming and climate changes we’re now witnessing are the result of human activity (see here, here and here, just for example).   And there’s simply no real doubt that burning coal is a major contributor to carbon pollution.

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Way back in October 2011, when he first won a statewide election, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made a promise about how he would govern our state:

My door will be open to all … and I know that the best solutions come from frank and honest discussions and I look forward to having those.

Since then, the reality has been far different, at least when it comes to West Virginia’s relationship with the coal industry, coal’s impact on coalfield communities, and the future of those communities and our state as coal declines in our region. Gov. Tomblin’s public statements — and his policy actions — in this arena have focused on fighting efforts by the federal government to reduce the impacts of coal on our environment, our communities, and the climate. Just last month in his inaugural address, Gov. Tomblin repeated his line of thinking:

I will continue to protect and increase the production of coal in West Virginia … … I will continue to work to improve our job climate.  Unfortunately, for me that means, in many instances, fighting the federal government to get off our backs and out of our way. But it is a fight I will not concede, and I will never back down.

This is not Washington D.C., where the EPA and other governmental agencies engage in back-door policy making that threatens the very livelihood of so many of our fellow citizens. This is West Virginia, where we appreciate the need for reasonable, open environmental regulations but understand the fundamental need for jobs and for low cost, reliable energy developed right here in the United States of America.

Along the way, Gov. Tomblin has said silly things about climate change, ignored the growing science that links living near mountaintop removal to higher risk of serious illnesses, and has tried his best to convince everyone that another coal boom is just around the corner here in Appalachia.

If Gov. Tomblin truly was interested in “frank and honest” discussions about coal-related issues, here are things he could do in his speech tomorrow night:

— Start with a frank acknowledgement that the science clearly shows that the world is warming, most of the warming is caused by human activities (including coal), and that the impacts of this warming are likely to be disastrous for our society.  Then, propose that West Virginians stop ignoring the problem and start doing something about it.

— Tell the state’s coal industry something they don’t want to hear: That a growing body of science shows that mountaintop removal is not only harming the state’s environment, but indicates that residents who live near these mines face an increased risk of serious illnesses, including cancer and birth defects. As governor, Tomblin could easily mandate that the state Department of Environmental Protection begin taking this science into account — or at the least convene officials from DEP and the state Bureau of Public Health to learn about the science from the researchers who have been publishing it.

— Be brutally blunt about the ongoing decline of the coal industry, and the fact that it seems unlikely that another boom is coming for the Appalachian mining sector — and start serious discussions among state leaders and residents about how West Virginia can begin to plan a more diverse economy that includes a far lesser role for coal.

— Admit that so far the administration has dropped the ball on implementing its own coal-mine safety bill (see here, here, here and here), acknowledge that the legislation wasn’t really so comprehensive in the first place, and take another shot this session at serious reforms.

The speech is at 7 p.m. tomorrow and will be streamed live on the governor’s website.

 

It’s that time of year, when the media goes crazy with various takes on what President Obama might or might not say in tonight’s State of the Union address. So I guess Coal Tattoo should get in on the action, right?

First, let’s remember that “clean coal” — whatever that is — got a mention in President Obama’s first three State of the Union speeches in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Usually, the line went something like this:

But to truly transform our economy, protect our security, and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy.  So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.  And to support that innovation, we will invest fifteen billion dollars a year to develop technologies like wind power and solar power; advanced biofuels, clean coal, and more fuel-efficient cars and trucks built right here in America.

Then, coal was left out of the 2012 address. And we all know that the mining industry waged a hard-core fight trying with its money and its disinformation to defeat the president’s re-election bid — and wasn’t able to succeed. So now what? Well, here’s what the National Mining Association is hoping to hear tonight:

“The economy and jobs remain the American public’s top two priorities for the White House and Congress. The National Mining Association urges President Obama to support a forward-looking minerals policy that opens up access to our strategic supply of minerals and streamlines antiquated permitting processes, which discourage investment and related jobs. These critical minerals are vital to our global competitiveness and to our national security.

“We also call on the president to support a balanced approach to our nation’s energy policy that continues America’s economic recovery through a diverse energy mix that includes coal to provide stable, affordable and technologically-advanced power. American coal, which currently generates more than 42 percent of the nation’s electricity, consistently provides our most affordable and reliable energy. America’s abundant domestic coal resources can be a partner in America’s energy future—using advanced technologies to provide affordable, reliable and cleaner energy for the next generation. 

“America’s mining industry has a broad impact on the national economy providing high-value jobs and making significant economic contributions in all 50 states, including directly and indirectly generating more than 1.98 million U.S. jobs. That’s because as a fundamental industry, mining supports jobs throughout the supply chain—in manufacturing, construction, energy, transportation and technology.” 

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Earlier this week, a collection of House Democrats in Washington re-introduced legislation aimed at requiring the federal government to more fully examine the growing science that links living near a mountaintop removal mine with increased risks of series illnesses and premature death. We’ve written about this legislation before here and here.

Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky. and one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said:

Mountaintop removal coal mining destroys entire ecosystems and contaminates the water supplies in mining communities, making people sick and jeopardizing their safety. This legislation will provide families in these communities the answers they need and the protection they deserve. If it can’t be proven that mountaintop removal mining is safe, we shouldn’t allow it to continue.

Yarmuth’s press release correctly explained:

Evidence is mounting that people living in communities near mountaintop removal coal mining sites are at an elevated risk for a range of major health problems. While there has long been anecdotal evidence to support this conclusion, recent peer-reviewed research has examined the question more systematically and revealed compelling results.

One alert Coal Tattoo reader wondered what Rep. Nick Rahall — whose district is home to more mountaintop removal than any other — made of this renewed legislative effort. Of course, we had a long interview with Rep. Rahall about this a while back (nearly two years ago now) here on this blog.  A couple of key points made at the time by Rep. Rahall:

As the study says, additional investigation is necessary, and if these threats are proven, we need to be informed, we need to do whatever we can to reduce these threats. We ought to know more. We ought to be open to exploring solutions.

That blog post continued:

Fine … so what exactly is Rep. Rahall doing to try to encourage or even require such additional studies and investigations? Remember — most of the mountaintop removal is occurring in his district, his home, the Southern West Virginia coalfields he’s represented in Washington since 1977. Has he contacted any agencies or requested a review by anyone of the findings?

I have not yet, because I’m ascertaining as to which are those relevant agencies, and which could do the best job.

Exactly how are you trying to ascertain that?

Just getting professional opinions, which we’re in the very exploratory stages of doing now, as to who can be the … who knows the issues, who has the background. That’s something I can’t say off the top of my head.

Well, that was back in July 2011. Surely Rep. Rahall has had some time to get some professional opinions and find out what agency should be dealing with this, and take some action, right?

So this week, when the legislation was reintroduced, I asked Rep. Rahall’s office some questions along these lines: Why isn’t Rep. Rahall a co-sponsor of the bill?  Why are members of Congress from outside of the district where most MTR occurs the forces behind this effort to protect the health of area residents? What steps — if any — has Rep. Rahall taken to either evaluate the health impacts of MTR or take action to reduce those impacts?

I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’ve always found Rep. Rahall very open with the media, and very gracious with his time in answering my questions. But this time, it took repeated emails and phone calls to get even this from spokesman John Noble:

Don’t have any comment for you on this and sorry for the delay in responding.

When will W.Va. plan for ‘after coal’?

Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp

As I write this, I’m also listening to a variety of state officials and lawmakers as they meet with the statehouse press corps in the AP’s annual “Legislative Look Ahead” event in preparation for this year’s legislative session. There’s a lot of hand-wringing about the state of the coal industry, with most of it focused on whether a downturn will mean problems for the state government budget.

What there’s very little talk about is exactly what West Virginia is going to do — and when we might actually start doing it — to enable the state to better deal with the ongoing decline of the Central Appalachian coal industry.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin continued to keep his head firmly lodged in the sand, insisting that better days for the coal industry are just around the corner. Tomblin’s budget officials focused on the importance of maintaining a state rainy day fund to keep government functioning during downturns in the natural “boom-bust” of an energy economy — as if West Virginia has no other options but to submit itself to that boom-bust cycle. And Republican legislative leaders took their chance to continue to pretend that the Obama administration’s environmental policies are the only thing causing coal’s decline.

Oddly enough, I took a trip down memory lane earlier in the week, thanks to a press release in which West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey announced he had hired State Journal managing editor (and former Huntington paper reporter) Beth Gorczyca Ryan as his communications director. The release noted:

Before joining The State Journal, Ryan was the special projects reporter for The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington for three years. While there, Ryan was the lead reporter on two award-winning series, “West Virginia After Coal,” which was honored by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, and “Home for Good,” which looked at the outmigration of young people from West Virginia and the impact it has on the state.

Frankly, I’m ashamed to say I had forgotten about the “West Virginia After Coal” series. But I was able to find a few of the stories still online here (look for the September 2000 Herald-Dispatch stories), and reading them was kind of strange. Why? Because in many ways, these same stories could have been written today. For example, one story, headlined, “Peering into a murky future,” starts out:

John Bias always thought his future was underground. For generations, men in his family worked the mines of Boone County. It was hard work and good pay. For 11 months, Bias followed in their footsteps. Then last year he was laid off. Now 20 and unemployed, Bias sits in downtown Madison in Boone County hoping to find another job that pays as well. It ’s not easy. To Bias and others, Boone County and much of southern West Virginia seem unprepared for coal’s decreasing role in their economy. Little has been done, Bias says, to court new jobs. Little has been done to prepare young people for a life without mining. Now state and county leaders are realizing that needs to change. Soon.

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We broke another story this morning on the Gazette’s website about how the Tomblin administration’s efforts at “comprehensive mine safety” reform are stalled. This one (following up on previous stories here and here), reports:

Tomblin administration representatives are still putting the finishing touches on a rule to implement an increase in civil penalties that was part of the governor’s much-touched mine safety legislation passed last year, officials confirmed this morning.

Under the bill, signed into law by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last March, the maximum monetary fine for most mine safety violations was to be increased from $3,000 to $5,000.

The state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training has not been using its authority for the increased fines, pending finalization of the rule, agency director Eugene White said. “That will take place when the rule is promulgated,” White said.

As noted in the story, an initial rulemaking aimed at implementing the increase in fines was withdrawn by the administration in the face of criticism from the West Virginia Coal Association. In emails on file with the Secretary of State’s office, association vice president Chris Hamilton explained his concerns about the initial rule:

… This section of law raises the maximum penalty from $3,000 to $5,000. The change to this section was not intended to raise penalties across the board. All evidence behind this change to state law only references an increase in the “Maximum” penalty. My understanding is that rules are being drafted that would effectively raise all penalties, including the minimum penalty by approximately 60 percent.

If you take a look at the initial rule, especially at Table 1 on the last page, it indicates that, through changes in the civil penalty formula used to get the maximum penalty from $3,000 to $5,000 — as mandated by the Legislature — state agency officials also ended up with very small increases in the other, non-maximum fines. For example, a violation that previously drew a $60 fine would not result in a $100 fine. A violation that previously brought a $504 fine would result in a penalty of $840.

But the most interesting thing here is to read the state agency’s description of the real impact of these changes in maximum fines allowed under state law:

It is expected that the increase in the maximum civil penalty … will result in minimal impact on revenues because the maximum penalty was increased from $3,000 to $5,000 which is not a dramatic increase over the previous maximum penalty … while an increase in the maximum civil penalty does result in corresponding increases in the civil penalties for lesser violations … it is not expected that the increases will have a significant impact on revenue because again they are relatively minor.

Do we need to get President Obama off our backs?

One of the tenets of the “War on Coal” campaign is that coal states like West Virginia need desperately to get President Obama, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal regulators off our backs. Is this true?

Well, consider the story we ran in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, which details a new notice of intent to sue filed with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition:

National and state citizen groups are threatening to sue the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for not stepping in to force West Virginia regulators to clean up hundreds of polluted streams.

On Friday, lawyers for the Sierra Club, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition sent their formal notice of intent to sue to EPA headquarters in Washington.

Technically, the threatened suit focuses on EPA’s failure to act within the required 30 days to approve or reject the state Department of Environmental Protection’s list of polluted streams that need cleaned up.

But the suit brings to light a simmering controversy over DEP not including hundreds of streams on that list, based largely on a coal industry-backed bill passed during last year’s legislative session.

The bill, signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, ordered DEP to abandon its existing methods of measuring stream health and come up with a new set of rules to define when streams are considered biologically impaired. DEP has yet to write those rules, and agency officials declined to add to last year’s cleanup list hundreds of streams that might otherwise have been included.

“We need someone to call a stream polluted when it is, and if the West Virginia DEP won’t do it, then the EPA must,” said Jim Sconyers of the state Sierra Club chapter.

As explained in a news release from the citizen groups:

The Clean Water Act (section 303(d)) requires states to periodically submit lists of polluted waterways to the EPA, which then has 30 days to review the lists. West Virginia’s most recent list failed to include numerous streams that are known to be highly polluted, mainly from mountaintop removal coal mining. January 22, 2013 marked 30 days since West Virginia submitted the list, and the EPA has not rejected it.

The deficient list of polluted waterways stems from the West Virginia legislature’s recent attempts to change the state’s water quality standards. The state formerly used scientific surveys of aquatic insects to determine which streams are biologically impaired. Now, because of the legislature’s actions, the state claims that it must develop new methods for determining impairment. Rather than use the previous assessment method in preparing the updated list of impaired streams, the state opted to not conduct any assessment at all. Had the state used its previous method, it would have identified an additional 173 streams as impaired. And had the state used the method directed by the EPA, it would have identified 546 streams as impaired.

In the notice letter, citizen group lawyers Joe Lovett and Mike Becher say that WVDEP “was brazen in its refusal to comply,” but that EPA responded with only a request to have a conference call with state officials. Commented Lovett and Becher:

Such a weak response is not permitted by the Clean Water Act. EPA’s must assert its authority in the face of WVDEP’s intransigence; further appeasement will only encourage more defiance by WVDEP.

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Coal priorities: Rockefeller, Manchin offer contrasts

 Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., announces his plans to not seek re-election for a sixth term, in Charleston, W.Va. Friday Jan. 11, 2013. (AP Photo/Tyler Evert)

It’s the time of year when federal and state political leaders make big announcements about their legislative agendas for the coming year. And in just a few sentences in their respective press releases on the matter, West Virginia’s two U.S. Senators offered a clear contrast about their values and the direction they want to take our state.

First, Sen. Joe Manchin.  In his news release yesterday, Sen. Manchin listed this among his legislative priorities for the new Congress:

EPA Fair Play Act: This bill would rein in EPA’s overreach, preventing the agency from revoking permits that have already been legally granted, protecting jobs and investments in West Virginia and promoting American energy independence and security.

In case anybody isn’t clear on this, here’s the Congressional Research Service description of the “EPA Fair Play Act” (at least the version introduced in the last Congress):

Amends the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (commonly known as the Clean Water Act) to remove the authority of the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prohibit the specification of any defined area as a disposal site for discharges of materials into waters of the United States, or to restrict the use of any defined area for specification as a disposal site, once the Secretary of the Army has issued a permit for dredged or fill material.

That’s right, Sen. Manchin considers stopping EPA from doing what it did in the Spruce Mine case to be one of the top eight issues (that’s how many priorities he listed) facing the United States of America, right up there with stopping the war in Afghanistan and creating a commission to examine the causes and possible solutions to mass violence like the massacre of school children last month in Newtown, Conn. While Sen. Manchin sometimes talks a good game about creating a ‘balanced’ national energy policy that includes coal, doing so isn’t among his legislative priorities for the new Congress. Making sure that those troublesome folks at EPA keep their nose out of the coal industry’s business, though … Sen. Manchin wants Congress to get moving on that.

Then, there’s Sen. Rockefeller. In his press release this week, he included among his legislative priorities:

Protect workers’ safety and benefits.  Rockefeller will continue working to make sure that West Virginia’s miners and workers are safe while on the job.  Early in the new Congress, he will reintroduce his comprehensive mine safety bill to better protect coal miners’ health and safety.  He will also continue to fight to prevent companies from unfairly cutting the health and retirement benefits that West Virginians have earned throughout their careers.

Use our energy resources safely and effectively.  Rockefeller is working to make sure that West Virginia’s growing natural gas industry is as safe as possible, focusing on truck and transmission pipeline safety, particularly in light of the explosion in Sissonville.  And he is also working to secure coal’s future by developing new legislation aimed at clean coal technology deployment.

So, Sen. Manchin wants to be sure to get the federal government off the coal industry’s back, while Sen. Rockefeller wants to make sure federal mine safety regulators have all the tools they need to prevent another Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster and otherwise ensure the safety and health of our nation’s miners. Sen. Manchin talks a lot about coal mine safety, and I don’t doubt that he’s sincere. But the fact is he doesn’t list more safety reform legislation among his top legislative priorities for the new Congress.

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What will Obama’s 2nd term bring for coalfields?

President Barack Obama receives the oath of office from Chief Justice John Roberts as first lady Michelle Obama (L-R) and his daughters Malia and Sasha listen at the ceremonial swearing-in at the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

If you were listening closely, you might have heard that the nation’s coal miners got a mention in inaugural poet Richard Blanco’s One Today, recited not long after President Obama was sworn in for his second term:

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk

of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat

and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills

in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands

digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands

as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane

so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

But most people were probably paying more attention when President Obama said in his inaugural address:

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.

There’s  been a lot of commentary in the last few days and weeks about what President Obama could, should, or might — or might not — do about climate change. I linked previously to Jeff Goodell’s Rolling Stone piece, but there were others out there, including this from Andrew Revkin at Dot Earth, this from Tom Zeller at The Huffington Post, and this from Suzanne Goldenberg at The Guardian.

Obviously, a lot of questions might be answered once we see what kind of appointments President Obama makes to replace top administration officials who are leaving, including EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. For broader coal issues — especially mine safety — we should also watch to see who replaces Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, whose term has been a great disappointment on workplace safety, despite a rather fluffy outgoing interview with The Nation magazine.

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How to oversimplify coalfield politics (and policy)

Earlier this week, the National Journal published a piece called The Shift Of King Coal: The coal industry still dominates in Appalachia, and that’s bad news for the Democratic party. Here’s how it started out:

When West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller formally announced his decision to quit the Senate on Friday, he opened the next chapter in one of the few true historic shifts taking place in American politics. Even before his announcement, Republicans were eyeing his seat as a prime pickup opportunity, a reflection of the ascendance of the Republican Party in Appalachia, a shift in which working-class white voters who have reliably cast ballots for Democratic politicians for the better part of a century are moving inexorably, and perhaps permanently, toward the Republican Party.

That’s because in Appalachia, coal is still king.

The piece reminded me of the one that the Wall Street Journal published way back in June 2001, in which it explained George W. Bush’s victory in West Virginia with this similar, one-issue narrative.  Several observers of Appalachian politics and culture commented on Twitter about the National Journal piece. For example, Elaine McMillion (the filmmaker behind the interactive piece, “Hollow“) wrote:

This shift is much more complex than ‘coal and guns’.

And poet Crystal Good tweeted:

This red and blue article totally ignores the possibility that WV could have voted white against black.

One thing that jumped out at me from this National Journal piece was the map shown above (which is you go to their site is actually interactive, and shows blue counties changing to red over the years). The story explained the map this way:

President Obama won just 30 of the 421 counties that belong to the Appalachian Regional Commission, according to a National Journal analysis of election results. Just one of those 30 counties, Elliott, was in Kentucky; Obama lost every county in West Virginia. He only came within ten points of Republican nominee Mitt Romney in three of the state’s 55 counties.

The problem with this analysis is that, of those 421 counties that belong to the Appalachian Regional Commission, only 118 of them are considered “major coal-producing counties,” according to this report prepared for the ARC by the University of Kentucky. It’s hard, given that, to make the case that the National Journal “analysis” really helps make the case the article puts forward. And as I tried to get at just after last November’s election, looking at races across the nation’s coalfields makes this all even more complicated:

… Look around the country at other places where Republicans and the coal industry tried to play the Obama “war on coal” game: Outside of West Virginia, Democrats who were endorsed by the United Mine Workers, but painted as not pro-coal and anti-Obama enough by their opponents, won six crucial U.S. Senate races in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio, Montana, New Mexico and Indiana. Or consider that in southeastern Ohio, while the major coal counties all backed Romney, turnout in those counties dropped by 7 percent over 2008, meaning there simply weren’t enough votes there to help Romney overcome the Obama advantage in other parts of the state.

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In his inaugural address this afternoon, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin offered no real surprises on coal policy, with the possible exception of his promise that he would see to it that West Virginia’s coal production heads the opposite direction from what just about every industry forecast projects. Here’s the key line:

I will continue to protect and increase the production of coal in West Virginia.

The governor has taken this rhetorical route before, pointing to small blips in natural gas prices as what he believes is evidence of a coming coal rebound in Central Appalachia. Maybe he’s right. But we certainly haven’t seen industry experts agreeing with him, and it seems more likely that coal’s challenges in West Virginia will continue. And if today’s speech is any sort of preview, Gov. Tomblin doesn’t plan to try to lead the state toward any sort of a reasonable discussion about dealing with those challenges.

That, of course, gets us to the other part of Gov. Tomblin’s coal soundbite, his pledge to continue to “protect” the coal industry — which he presumably was elaborating on when he said one of West Virginia’s biggest challenges is to get the federal government “off our backs”:

… I will continue to work to improve our job climate.  Unfortunately, for me that means, in many instances, fighting the federal government to get off our backs and out of our way. But it is a fight I will not concede, and I will never back down.

We’ve talked about this stuff before here on Coal Tattoo in The cognitive dissonance of coal politics in West Virginia. During last year’s State of the State address, Gov. Tomblin had this to say about the federal government:

This is not Washington D.C., where uncontrolled spending has led to uncertainty, a lack of confidence, and a fundamental breakdown in the operation of government. This is West Virginia, where we figured out in a realistic way to cut waste, balance the budget, reduce the tax burden, and commit to our citizens and our businesses, that this is a great place to work, live, and play.

This is not Washington D.C., where the EPA and other governmental agencies engage in back-door policy making that threatens the very livelihood of so many of our fellow citizens. This is West Virginia, where we appreciate the need for reasonable, open environmental regulations but understand the fundamental need for jobs and for low cost, reliable energy developed right here in the United States of America.

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