Coal Tattoo

kessler score

(Photo via screen shot from W.Va. Senate video,)

It wasn’t so long ago that Senate President Jeff Kessler was testifying strongly before the state Public Service Commission about the importance of a major coal-mining operation and power plant in his home up in Marshall County.

But unlike so many West Virginia leaders, Sen. Kessler seems able to grasp that the future of West Virginia’s northern coalfields — where production may remain somewhat stable — is quite different from Southern West Virginia, where no one in their right mind really thinks the market is going to significantly rebound.

That was obviously what was on the senator’s mind last week when he announced his new SCORE initiative, an effort to help jump-start efforts to diversify West Virginia’s southern coalfield economy. Said Sen. Kessler:

Layoffs and mine closings have become almost routine events. This is a time when communities need and deserve serious attention and action from our government officials. It’s one thing to say that we care about these communities. It’s something else to push for a new way of thinking in order to address the issues facing them.

But at the official press conference kickoff, it almost seemed like some of the other senators wandered into the wrong room. Here’s Sen. Art Kirkendoll of Logan County:

For West Virginia and for my area, I want to make it clear that my main concern is still coal … we’ve got to find a way to get back on the market and produce the coal we have.  We’ve got to work to promote coal. I will continue to fight for coal.

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Coals War

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

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

The piece starts out this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Coalfield elections: Asking all the wrong questions


Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

The ongoing campaigns for U.S. Senate and House certainly aren’t doing much to bring about a reasoned debate about the future of the Southern West Virginia coalfields.  Candidates continue to run from issues like the public health dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and insist that climate change simply isn’t our problem.  What little discussion there is about coal mine health and safety is muddled in a string of questionable television ads, and no one wants to be anywhere near the cold, hard facts that the southern coal counties are facing an inevitable decline in that industry, no matter what EPA does or doesn’t do.

This refusal to truly confront and openly discuss important issues was there for all to see in last week’s U.S. Senate debate between Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. It was bad enough that groups like the AARP and the West Virginia Press Association wouldn’t let all the candidates who are on the ballot take part. But they put Hoppy Kercheval in there as the moderator, and allowed Hoppy to simply ignore important questions. This is exactly the way the public discussion was controlled two years ago when public relations executive Charles Ryan — whose firm created the “Friends of Coal” campaign — was the one asking the questions during a West Virginia gubernatorial debate.

I know, I know … Hoppy asked a climate change question. So shouldn’t anyone who dares to think that issue is important walk away happy? Well, maybe we should at least be glad the question on this issue wasn’t something like, “So, Secretary of State Tennant, why do you actually buy into this hoax made up by unethical scientists, thugs at EPA and tree huggers?”

Seriously. Can’t the media in West Virginia at some point start to move beyond asking candidates if they believe the science, as if science was something to either believe or not believe? Apparently not, because Hoppy’s one question about the issue went like this:

Both you and your opponent have spoken out repeatedly against the EPA’s regulations on carbon emissions. The EPA and the Obama administration say they are trying to reduce carbon emissions and get other countries to do follow suit to save the planet. A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded, according to the New York Times, that ice caps are melting, water supplies are coming under stress, heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying, coral reefs are dying. Do you believe these scientists are simply wrong and if they’re not wrong, if they’re correct, don’t we have an obligation to do something about it?

Congresswoman Capito answered:

Well, I think that weaving a balance between the economy and the environment is always difficult and we’re faced with it here in West Virginia, because we are so blessed with the natural resources that power this country. But the EPA overreach from this administration is just unbelievable. The new clean air [rule] for the existing coal fired power plants, not one power plant in the state meets those parameters set out by the president. My opponent supports his policies, so she must support this. So what are we suppose to do? Let’s have something that makes sense. Let’s have technologies that are reachable and affordable. The president says we need to lead on this. Well, if the president is leading the globe on this issue, and China and India Japan and all the other nations are not following, then he’s just taking a walk. And he’s taking a walk and he’s taking a walk at the expense of the men and women of the West Virginia coalfields. Seven thousands jobs and more to come. This is a travesty. We have got to top this. That’s what this election is about.

Then came what might have been the high point in the debate, when Hoppy actually called out Congresswoman Capito for not answering the question.

Hoppy: Point of clarification, do you think the scientists are wrong?

Rep. Capito:  I don’t necessarily think the climate is changing no. I think we have to find a balance and a way to address this without hurting the heartland of this country and without hurting West Virginia families.

For the record, Rep. Capito later told the Gazette’s David Gutman that she misspoke, but in doing so, showed that she has little grasp on the issue, what with not understanding the difference between climate and weather. Regardless, Rep. Capito’s response during the debate gave Natalie Tennant a great opportunity to jump in there and really distinguish herself from Rep. Capito and coal and climate issues, making a strong statement about what it all means for West Virginia’s future.  To her credit, Secretary of State Tennant did manage to get this out:

I have listened to the scientists. I know there is a consensus and I don’t disagree with them.

But then she just had to go on with this:

At the same time, I don’t think we need to choose between clean air and clean coal or clean air and good paying jobs, rather. Because I know that we have the technology that can meet the demands. That’s why I’ve challenged the president. I’ve challenged the EPA. We have the National Energy Technology Lab in Morgantown that can develop carbon capture storage, CCS. I’ve challenged the president to use the $8 billion that’s in the Department of Energy in guaranteed loans that instead of using them as loans, take the money, directly invest, have the technology that’s going to save our jobs, and that’s going to have technology use around the world that will make coal more competitive. That’s why the United Mine Workers have endorsed me. They’ve looked at me in this race and they know I will save their jobs.

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Dirtiest Power Plant

There’s more bad news this week from the Southern West Virginia coalfields, with another round of layoffs apparently on the way at Patriot Coal. Here’s their press release issued yesterday:

Patriot Coal Corporation (OTC Pink: PATCA) today issued WARN Act notices at the Corridor G mining complex located near Danville, West Virginia.  The Corridor G complex, which includes the Hobet 21 Mine and Beth Station preparation plant, employs 360 people and produced 2.3 million tons of thermal coal in 2013.

Pursuant to the WARN Act, the Company today gave 60-day notice of potential layoffs to all employees that could be affected. 

“The combination of increasing EPA regulations, mild summer weather and low natural gas prices has resulted in thermal coal pricing at levels below operating costs at many Appalachian mines,” said Patriot President and Chief Executive Officer Bennett K. Hatfield.  “Over the next two months, Corridor G management will further evaluate operations and staffing to assess their ability to produce coal at lower costs and determine the extent of actions to be taken.  We deeply regret the impact these actions will have on our hard-working employees and neighboring communities.”

The announcement prompted predictable responses from what Gazette columnist Rick Wilson referred to as West Virginia’s political “ruling class“.

Here’s Rep. Nick J. Rahall’s statement:

It is my fervent hope that, in the coming weeks, as the company watches the coal market and evaluates its operations and staffing, it finds that it can ultimately keep these miners on the job.  Certainly, I will keep fighting with our coal miners to push back against regulatory overreach that is impacting coal, just as I did today with passage of H.R. 5078, legislation to block EPA from expanding its regulatory jurisdiction.

And here’s Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s statement:

The announcement of potential layoffs at the Hobet 21 Mine and Beth Station preparation plant is more tragic news for our miners and their families. We continue to hold out hope that the end result is not as severe as today’s announcement, however we are committed to providing workforce training, continuing education opportunities and other assistance our miners and their families many need during this unfortunate time.

We recognize market trends can play a part in these potential closures; however these trends also reflect the regulatory environment in which industry must operate. We continue our fight for West Virginia’s mining jobs and urge the EPA to reconsider its proposed plan and realize the real impact their proposed CO2 rules would have on West Virginia miners, their families and our communities.  As our national economy grows and more manufacturers expand operations, the use of electricity will rise as well, and West Virginia coal remains the most cost-effective, reliable source of that power.

Give Gov. Tomblin a little bit of credit for at least saying that part about “market trends.” But gosh, when you read on in his statement and see this suggestion that “as our national economy grows” coal will start to boom again … well, you wonder if anybody in state government ever bothers to read coal production forecasts like those published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

As we’ve written on this blog and in the Gazette over and over again, most recently in a story headlined “Win over EPA won’t save Southern W.Va. coal, experts say“:

Coal production in the state’s southern counties, and the rest of the Central Appalachian basin, has plummeted in the past 15 years. Current government forecasts project a steep decline will continue through the end of this decade before bottoming out. While tougher air-pollution rules have played a role, experts cite a variety of more important factors, with competition from cheap natural gas and a long-predicted depletion of the best and easiest-to-reach coal reserves chief among them.

Political leaders and coal industry officials can complain all they want about President Obama and the EPA, experts say, but even if they win that fight, it’s not going to stop the decline in Southern West Virginia’s coal industry.

“It just doesn’t look like coal there is going to boom in the future,” said Robert Milici, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. “The best coal has been mined out. It’s pretty well gone.”

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UMWA backs Tennant in U.S. Senate race

Tennant Power Plant

The Gazette’s Dr. Paul Nyden had the story from yesterday’s Labor Day Picnic down in Racine:

On Monday, Roberts and the UMW announced their endorsement of Secretary of State Natalie Tennant in her race against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., for a seat in the U.S. Senate.

“You stand with us,” Roberts said to Tennant, “so today, we proudly stand with you.”

Here’s the UMWA’s press release:

The United Mine Workers of America’s (UMWA) National Council of COMPAC, the union’s political action arm, last week voted unanimously to endorse West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) in the United States Senate.

“Natalie has been a strong supporter of active and retired UMWA members throughout her entire career, and was an especially strong supporter of our members and their families during last year’s battle to preserve jobs, pensions and retiree health care when Patriot Coal declared bankruptcy,” said UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts in announcing the endorsement today

“She stuck with us in that fight, and I believe the strong support we received from her and other political leaders who came to our side made a huge difference in the successful outcome we were able to achieve at Patriot Coal,” Roberts said. “We will never forget the strength of her commitment to our cause.

“And don’t let anyone fool you – Natalie Tennant is standing with coal miners again in our fight against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) rules that threaten our members’ jobs, our retirees’ security, and our communities’ ability to survive,” Roberts said.

“West Virginia coal miners give their lungs, their knees and their backs to power this country, and they deserve a Senator who will put their health and safety above corporate profits,” said Tennant. “While I am fighting to protect coal jobs and keep our miners working, I will fight just as hard to keep them safe, and protect the health care and pensions they have earned over a lifetime or work.”

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Memo to W.Va. leaders: Not all industry hates EPA

Rally For Coal

Normally, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce provides the state media with a pretty one-sided version of what’s going on in our world. There’s always a lot of attacks on environmental protections and trial lawyers.

But in reporting yesterday from White Sulphur Springs, the Gazette’s David Gutman found a little bit different story coming from the guy who wants to build the huge natural gas “cracker” plant in Wood County:

David Peebles, a vice president for Odebrecht, the Brazilian petrochemical company that owns ASCENT, cited the Bible in discussing his company’s work in West Virginia.

In the parable of the talents, three servants are given talents (a unit of money) by their master.

Two servants traded their money, doubled their investment and were praised. The third servant buried his money and was reprimanded.

“We’ve been dealt a hand here that’s not five talents, I think it’s 1,000 talents, with shale,” Peebles said. “This is going to be a tidal wave that we do not yet understand.”

He talked about developing a regional hub with neighboring states and pointed out that 45 percent of the plastics industry that cracker plant will serve is within 500 miles of the site.

Peebles promised to work with unions and sign a project labor agreement for the cracker complex.

“We cannot think of labor as a commodity, we cannot think of labor as people that we’re going to use up and spit out,” he said.

Addressing environmental concerns, Peebles said his company would, obviously, disturb the environment but promised to use best practices to mitigate its impact.

“We don’t want to avoid regulations, we don’t want to bash the EPA, we don’t want to bash the Corps of Engineers, we want to have a cooperative relationship, because no one wants to breathe bad air, no one wants to drink contaminated water,” Peebles said. “We have to be out front with progressive policies that allow that to happen.”

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Yesterday, the NRDC Action Fund sent out a strong attack on Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, saying:

Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito has received $865,436 from the Mining Industry over the course of her career. This is more money than any other House or Senate candidate besides House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. But, while she hopes to turn this Senate seat from blue to red, it also appears that she plans to turn our air black as she pushes for more coal in our national energy mix.

Mining interests support Capito, and she has supported them by voting numerous times against the health and safety of Americans. In 2013 alone, she voted against safeguards for the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the lands that belong to the American public. She voted to allow coal companies to continue polluting America’s waterways with toxic coal ash, voted to block the federal government from setting protections around hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) for natural gas and oil, and also voted against allowing the Department of Interior to limit methane emissions from oil and gas drilling operations. This is why Capito’s voting record earned her a score of only 4 percent in 2013 from the League of Conservation Voters.

The group continued:

Capito already had an abysmal LCV lifetime score of 21 percent, but it appears that her voting is getting worse and worse over the years. Who knows how bad it will get if she makes it into the U.S. Senate?!

Rather than investing in clean energy jobs to stimulate West Virginia’s economy, she recently supported subsidies for dirty fossil fuels while cutting funding for renewable energy and energy efficiency. And she’s beating the war drum against the EPA’s plan to limit carbon pollution from power plants, showing up to oppose the regulations at an EPA hearing, and being a leading voice in Washington, D.C. in support of coal.

Finally, the NRDC said:

Our advice: While Capito claims to care about the future of America, she consistently votes against the health and safety of her constituents and of all Americans. She should support policies that invest in cleaner jobs for her people and cleaner energy for our future. Keeping Capito as far as possible from the U.S. Senate is the best decision for America’s people – our air, our water, our land, our economy and our health.

OK … but I wondered. What about Capitol’s Democratic opponent in the Senate race, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant? How do the good people at the NRDC feel about Secretary of State Tennant’s campaign ad showing her turning out the White House lights on the Obama administration, or about her campaign’s criticism of a federal program to help make industry in West Virginia more energy efficient, or about her refusal to even talk about the growing science showing that people who live near mountaintop removal mines face increases risk of birth defects, cancer and premature death? Are they happy to see Natalie Tennant take a shot at Republican Mitt Romney’s accurate statements that pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people? (By the way, I’ve been asking Tennant campaign spokeswoman Jenny Donohue if Secretary of State Tennant believes coal pollution doesn’t kill people … and she hasn’t responded).

So I asked. Here’s the response I received from the NRDC Action Fund’s Melissa Harrison:

The #DirtyDenier$ campaign is focusing on members of Congress who cast dirty votes and accept campaign contributions from polluters. Our choice of Rep. Capito has nothing to do with her opponent, rather her poor history of supporting clean air and action on climate change. As you saw in our blog, she has accepted more money from the mining industry than any other House or Senate candidate besides House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In 2013 alone, she voted against safeguards for our air, land and water which earned her a score of 4 percent from the League of Conservation Voters scorecard.

Aside from Rep. Capito, we also have serious concerns about the positions Secretary Tennant has taken about reducing dangerous carbon pollution. We believe West Virginians deserve a Senator who will do all he/she can to protect their health.

Maybe the NRDC just gave the Tennant campaign an idea for their next TV ad, in which they brag about how some Washington environmental group is concerned about her positions …


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

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

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

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

Still, read this part of it again:

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

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

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

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Natalie Tennant

Sometimes these political campaigns seem like they’re just all fun and games — career campaign consultants and opposition researchers searching for a word here or there to try to win that day’s media cycle or at least make some imagined major point against their opponent.

The result?

Public discourse is diverted — and oftentimes terribly polluted — from discussing real issues faced by places like the coalfields of Central Appalachia.

The latest example was this press release, issued earlier this week  by Democratic Senate candidate Natalie Tennant’s campaign concerning plans for 2012 Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney to come to West Virginia to speak out for GOP candidates, including Secretary of State Tennant’s opponent, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito:

Longtime Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito announced today she is turning her back on West Virginia coal miners in favor of Wall Street dollars, as she plans to bring well-known coal enemy, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, to West Virginia for fundraising.  

“The fact that Congresswoman Capito would align herself with someone who believes coal ‘kills people’ just to make a quick buck shows how quickly she will turn her back on West Virginia coal miners to get Wall Street dollars,” said Tennant spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney: Coal’s Public Enemy #1

Mitt RomneyAs Governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney stood in front of a coal plant, said it kills people and worked to shut it down.

“I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people, and that plant — that plant kills people,” Romney said.

Politifact rated claim that Romney  said the coal plant “kills people” TRUE.

But that’s not all . . . the LA Times details Romney’s long record working against coal. In fact Gina McCarthy worked for Romney:

 “Before doing an about-face toward the end of his term as he began to prepare for his first run for president, Romney pushed to close old coal-fired plants, encourage the development of renewable energy and contain sprawl — steps similar to some President Obama has taken.

Indeed, one of Romney’s top environmental staffers, Gina McCarthy, now runs the air pollution unit of the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama. John Holdren, a scientist Romney turned to on at least one occasion to discuss climate change, is the White House senior advisor on science and technology issues.”

The argument could be made that the so-called ‘War on Coal’ started with the 2007 Supreme Court decision that gave the EPA the authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. And guess who brought that suit . . . that’s right, Massachusetts, under Mitt Romney’s administration.

From the LA Times:

“The EPA curtailed greenhouse gas emissions as a result of a 2007 Supreme Court suit, Massachusetts vs. EPA, brought by the state’s attorney general during Romney’s tenure. While Romney played no role in the lawsuit, he wasn’t “hostile to it either,” said Seth Kaplan, vice president of policy at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston.”

Seriously? Wasn’t it enough that Secretary of State Tennant’s campaign tried to criticize Rep. Capito for supporting U.S. Department of Energy programs aimed at helping West Virginia businesses be more energy efficient, and thus reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Now, the Tennant campaign is trying one of the silliest things that President Obama’s re-election campaign tried two years ago.

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PolitiFact has an analysis out of a recent Senate campaign ad from Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, and the bottom line is they conclude a key statement in the ad is “Mostly False.”

Here’s the ad:

As PolitiFact explains:

Capito comes out swinging against new federal regulations aimed at curbing carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning power plants in an ad released July 29.

“The president’s come out with rules that say ‘no new coal-fired power plants,’ ” Capito says. “But what he’s going to come out with in the next several months is you’re not even going to be able to burn coal very limitedly in the existing plants.”

We tackled the latter statement regarding existing facilities in a seperate fact-check and said it was False. Has the Obama administration banned new coal-fired plants, as Capito claims?

 Their analysis continues:

Obama’s “proposed rule for new coal plants sets a standard that cannot be met without the use of carbon capture and storage technology,” Capito spokeswoman Amy Graham said. This technology, she added, “has not been demonstrated at a commercial coal-fired power plant anywhere in the United States.”

That’s all actually true. The EPA even says the “standards will minimize carbon pollution by guaranteeing reliance on advanced technologies like … efficient coal units implementing partial carbon capture and storage.”

Carbon capture and storage is exactly what it sounds like. Instead of releasing carbon into the atmosphere, power plants must capture and store it. The technology has been around for a while, but on a much smaller scale and not for entire power plants.

It is a costly technology. According to Dallas Burtraw, director of the Center for Climate and Electricity Policy, an energy think tank funded by government, nonprofits and energy companies, carbon capture is estimated to cost electric companies 15 to 20 percent more in the near future.

They go on:

There are some promising developments with carbon capture technology. Southern Company, an energy provider, is already in the process of building a plant with carbon capture technology in Mississippi. The plant enjoys some special perks — including federal tax credits and proximity to an oil field that will pay Southern for its captured carbon to extract more oil — that make it somewhat unique. And there have been holdups. According to a Washington Post story, Southern Company pushed back the plant’s opening date by a year and the project has experienced significant cost overruns. But so far construction is proceeding as planned.

Burtraw said the high costs to get the plant up and running are not uncommon for trailblazers trying new technologies. Usually, costs decrease as competition increases and the building and manufacturing becomes more efficient and standardized. The EPA pointed us to three proposed projects in North America, including two in the United States, that will include carbon capture and storage.

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In Kentucky, more hope for a better discussion

Fancy Farm

Kentucky Secretary of State Allison Grimes speaks during the annual Fancy Farm picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014. A fundraiser for a small Roman Catholic church in western Kentucky, the two-day picnic in the tiny town of Fancy Farm is a throwback to the days before television, when stump speeches were the candidates’ main vehicle to reach voters. (AP Photo/Stephen Lance Dennee)

Over in Kentucky, there have been some interesting moves in recent months politically, as the big U.S. Senate race there continues to include much talk about the coal industry’s troubles. For example, there was the scene last month where Democrat Allison Grimes went to the Hurricane Creek Mine Disaster memorial to talk coal-mine safety:

With signs pointing to a potentially rocky road ahead in coal country, Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes sought to retool her coal message this week, injecting a populist strain into her pro-coal platform.

On a two-day tour of Eastern Kentucky, Grimes traversed counties where she underperformed among Democrats in the May 20 primary, accusing U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of failing to stand up for miner safety while collecting campaign cash from coal companies.

In Hyden on Thursday morning, up roads too narrow and winding for her campaign bus to negotiate, Grimes laid a wreath at the Hurricane Creek mine memorial that commemorates the 38 miners killed there in a 1970 explosion. After touring the memorial, Grimes said the disaster shows “why we need somebody up in Washington looking out for our miners.”

And now, the United Mine Workers, in endorsing Grimes, says they’re planning a big ad campaign on her behalf.  But while the UMWA points to its belief that she will stand more strongly for mine safety and health protections, the union also quickly moves back to the industry’s narrative, which makes the race more about which candidate will fight harder against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:

The United Mine Workers of America endorsed Grimes over the weekend and is planning an undisclosed amount of advertising this fall in Eastern Kentucky, where animosity runs high toward President Barack Obama and his policies on coal.

Union leaders, who declined to back Obama in 2012, are also pulling together two busloads of miners from the western portion of the state and urging hundreds of miners from the eastern region to turn out when Clinton stumps for Grimes in Hazard, Ky., today.

“This is going to be a game changer for this race, particularly in Eastern Kentucky,” said Steve Earle, international vice president for the union’s district 12. “Our people bloc vote, and we figure we are worth about 20,000 votes.”

… Earle, from the UMWA, acknowledged that McConnell is pro-coal but said the union believes Grimes is a better voice for workers and their families, particularly on issues involving health and safety. He said she also believes that environmental regulations are having a detrimental effect on the industry.

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Climate Change EPA Rally

A supporter of coal-fired power plants sits in the stands at Highmark Stadium during a rally to support American energy and jobs in the coal and related industries in downtown Pittsburgh, Wednesday, July 30, 2014.  (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

It’s been a long week for folks at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — and a longer week for West Virginia coal miners. Our state’s mining communities were already hurting, and many folks spent part of their week on the road, since the EPA wouldn’t bother to come to the coalfields to hear what miners and their families had to say about the agency’s climate change rules.

One reader said that the front page of today’s Gazette was like a “punch to the face.” Of course, another reader commented, “Thank you, Gazette, for being Big Coal’s mouthpiece.”

The page featured one story that described the events in Pittsburgh, where EPA held one of its public hearings.  A second story recounted the terrible news that Alpha Natural Resources had warned 1,100 workers at 11 of its surface mines in Southern West Virginia that they might be out of a job come mid-October. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was right when he said that news from Alpha was “heartbreaking and frustrating for our miners, their families and the communities in which they live.”

But the most important story on the page was the one headlined, “Win over EPA won’t save Southern West Virginia coal, experts say.” That story reported:

This week, West Virginia leaders were painting a picture of the rosy future that could await the coal industry, were it not for the Obama administration. Sprinkled among comments criticizing proposed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the state’s elected officials made it sound like the good times could be just around the corner for the coalfields — if only the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would get out of the way.

Speaking to a coal industry rally in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin cited projections he said showed “coal will be the world’s leading source of energy” in 2035.

Testifying at an EPA public hearing in Washington, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., noted that coal is expected to continue to provide at least 31 percent of U.S. power through 2030, and that coal use by other countries, primarily China and India, is growing.

“Coal isn’t going away around the world,” Manchin told EPA officials.

However, what Tomblin, Manchin and other coal industry supporters weren’t saying is that less and less of the coal that gets burned will come from the hills and hollows of Southern West Virginia. Experts agree that coal in the state’s southern counties remains in a long-term downward spiral, regardless of what the EPA does or doesn’t do about global warming.

Coal production in the state’s southern counties, and the rest of the Central Appalachian basin, has plummeted in the past 15 years. Current government forecasts project a steep decline will continue through the end of this decade before bottoming out. While tougher air-pollution rules have played a role, experts cite a variety of more important factors, with competition from cheap natural gas and a long-predicted depletion of the best and easiest-to-reach coal reserves chief among them.

Political leaders and coal industry officials can complain all they want about President Obama and the EPA, experts say, but even if they win that fight, it’s not going to stop the decline in Southern West Virginia’s coal industry.

“It just doesn’t look like coal there is going to boom in the future,” said Robert Milici, a researcher with the U.S. Geological Survey. “The best coal has been mined out. It’s pretty well gone.”

We’ve written this story before, most prominently in a piece that ran during the “war on coal” run-up to the November 2012 presidential election:

During last week’s gubernatorial debate, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin tried to offer an encouraging assessment of where West Virginia’s coal industry is headed in the wake of this year’s string of major layoffs.

“We certainly hope that, as the world economy picks back up, that the demand for coal will go back up, and a lot of these miners will go back to work,” Tomblin said.

In the presidential race, Republican candidate Mitt Romney has touted what experts say are greatly optimistic estimates of the life of the nation’s coal supply — if only regulators from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would let it be mined and burned. Likewise, President Obama has promoted what he calls “clean coal” as part of an “all of the above” energy plan. Running for re-election, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., insists West Virginia coal can help America become “energy independent.”

Across West Virginia’s southern coal counties, such talk suggests that coal’s best days might be just around the corner, if regulators can be made to back off or new technology can capture dangerous emissions.

There’s just one problem: Analysts agree that much of the best coal in Southern West Virginia has already been mined. Thinner and lower quality seams are left, meaning production and productivity are dropping. Tough competition from inexpensive natural gas and other coal basins makes matters worse. New environmental restrictions only add to coal’s problems, and production is headed down regardless of air or water pollution restrictions.

Overall, production from Central Appalachia — meaning mostly Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky — is projected to be cut in half by the end of this decade, according to the latest U.S. Department of Energy forecasts.


These facts are starting to make it into the narrative just a little bit. Heck, in his press release about the Alpha layoff notices, Gov. Tomblin even commented that, “we recognize market trends can play a part in these potential closures”. But the governor was quick to pivot back to his real talking points, saying:

… However these actions also show the real-world impact of the regulatory environment in which industry must operate. Today’s announcement, in part related to power plant closures as a result of past EPA regulations, is why we remain concerned about the EPA’s current proposals regarding CO2.

For years, we have tried to warn the EPA of the consequences of its irresponsible mandates and today, our fears have unfortunately become our reality. I again urge the EPA to reconsider its proposed plan and realize the real impact these new rules have on West Virginia miners, their families and our communities.”

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, whose district will be hard hit by the Alpha actions, did the same thing in his statement:

The announcement is further evidence of the toll that market forces, including the low cost and abundance of natural gas, have taken on coal jobs.  But it is also incredibly frustrating to have an agency like the EPA being so purposefully blind to the effects of its policies on the economy and the lives of hard-working families.  I stand firm with our coal miners and will continue, at every opportunity, to help advance legislation in the House to block job-killing regulations.  I hope the Senate will follow suit.

But it’s pretty had to get any of these public officials to talk to their constituents about the real problem of what to do even if they beat the EPA rules and coal continues to decline anyway in our state’s southern counties. I asked Chris Stadelman, the governor’s communications director about this serious problem, and the statement did not even really acknowledge the issue:

Governor Tomblin’s plan for the entire state is to grow jobs with a highly trained work force, world-class education system and competitive tax structure, and all of those initiatives will help southern West Virginia as well. At the same time, special outreach efforts such as job retraining assistance and Reconnecting McDowell are being used to provide additional assistance to the southern part of the state to ensure future generations have the resources and skills they need to succeed. The governor’s goal has been, and continues to be, improving the quality of life for all West Virginians.

Still, public officials seem to have no problem saying things that seem aimed at convincing West Virginians that coal would be booming again, if only President Obama and his EPA would leave us alone. Take the speech that Gov. Tomblin delivered at this week’s big coal industry rally in Pittsburgh. The original, as delivered, version of this speech contained this line:

According to the Energy Information Agency, coal will be the world’s leading source of energy, surpassing oil by 2035.

Turns out that was a mistake, and the speech should have referenced the International Energy Agency and that organization’s World Energy Outlook 2013. The thing is, here’s the section that was being cited:

The power sector adjusts to a new life with wind and solar Renewables account for nearly half of the increase in global power generation to 2035, with variable sources – wind and solar photovoltaics – making up 45% of the expansion in renewables. China sees the biggest absolute increase in generation from renewable sources, more than the increase in the European Union, the United States and Japan combined. In some markets, the rising share of variable renewables creates challenges in the power sector, raising fundamental questions about current market design and its ability to ensure adequate investment and long-term reliability of supply. The increase in generation from renewables takes its share in the global power mix above 30%, drawing ahead of natural gas in the next few years and all but reaching coal as the leading fuel for power generation in 2035. The current rate of construction of nuclear power plants has been slowed by reviews of safety regulations, but output from nuclear eventually increases by two-thirds, led by China, Korea, India and Russia. Widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology would be a way to accelerate the anticipated decline in the CO2 emissions intensity of the power sector, but in our projections only around 1% of global fossil fuel-fired power plants are equipped with CCS by 2035.

That’s right, this was a report that said the power section was adjusting “to a new life” with wind and solar increasing their market share, and coal declining. It wasn’t, as the governor’s original speech said, any sort of indication that coal in West Virginia would rise again if our political leaders win their fight with EPA. The governor’s office has updated the text of the speech, so it now says:

According to the International Energy Agency, coal will be the world’s leading source of energy, surpassing natural gas and renewable sources by 2035.

The  sourcing is right, but the context still isn’t. I don’t want to make too much of this. It was just a mistake, and anyone who writes a lot of words quickly should understand that sort of thing happens. But perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned, that not everything West Virginia leaders believe is true — and tell us is true time and again — is really based in reality. Or, as Sen. Robert C. Byrd advised us not so long ago:

… The time has come to have an open and honest dialogue about coal’s future in West Virginia.



Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp

Earlier this week, I wrote about West Virginia’s Democratic Senate candidate, Natalie Tennant, and the ridiculous campaign ad she’s running in her effort to out anti-EPA Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. But don’t think for a minute that I’ve forgotten the absurd comment that Democratic House candidate Nick Casey made last week in his meeting with the state’s largest business lobby groups. Here’s how it was reported:

Both candidates attacked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over recent regulations on coal-fired power plants that would reduce coal’s share of the nation’s energy profile from 39 percent last year to 30 percent by 2030.

Mooney stressed his “concerns about regulations coming out of Washington” related to the Clean Water Act, the EPA and “other regulations approved by Congress.”

Mooney also said he doesn’t believe that the science on climate change is settled, despite a vast majority of scientists who believe that man-made global warming is real. Earlier this year, a National Climate Assessment from 300 independent scientists detailed how climate change is already affecting the nation’s weather, communities and commerce.

Casey said of climate change, “It’s not our problem,” because it’s an international issue.

That’s right … “It’s not our problem” is what Nick Casey has to say about climate change. Like so many West Virginia leaders, he’s hiding behind the lack of a binding international program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions around the globe as his excuse for not supporting the state of some action to curb the U.S. coal industry’s carbon dioxide contributions.  Perhaps one of his campaign staff needs to give Nick Casey a briefing on the latest Associated Press investigation, which exposed how U.S.-mined coal that’s being exported is a growing part of the climate crisis:

Coal from Appalachia rumbles into this port city, 150 railroad cars at a time, bound for the belly of the massive cargo ship Prime Lily. The ship soon sets sail for South America, its 80,000 tons of coal destined for power plants and factories, an export of American energy — and pollution.

In the U.S., this coal and the carbon dioxide it will eventually release into the atmosphere are some of the unwanted leftovers of an America going greener. With the country moving to cleaner natural gas, the Obama administration wants to reduce power plant pollution to make good on its promise to the world to cut emissions.

Yet the estimated 228,800 tons of carbon dioxide contained in the coal aboard the Prime Lily equals the annual emissions of a small American power plant. It’s leaving this nation’s shores, but not the planet.

“This is the single biggest flaw in U.S. climate policy,” said Roger Martella, the former general counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush. “Although the administration is moving forward with climate change regulations at home, we don’t consider how policy decisions in the United States impact greenhouse gas emissions in other parts of the world.”

So, if indeed we should be just as worried about all the coal that gets burned in China or South America, shouldn’t we think about whether shipping our coal there is such a good policy? Why isn’t that part of what Nick Casey talks about, instead of just saying it’s “not our problem”? Or is his “not our problem” routine just a way of brushing off the EPA proposal without having to really engage in a thoughtful policy discussion about the climate crisis?

Some people will try to tell you that Casey is better on this issue than his Republican opponent. They’ll say he’s more likely to perhaps eventually support a climate change bill in Congress. They point to things like this:

Mooney also said he doesn’t believe that the science on climate change is settled, despite a vast majority of scientists who believe that man-made global warming is real.

So the test is whether or not someone will make a huge show of denying science, and if they at least don’t flaunt their anti-science attitude, then that is a mark in their favor? Isn’t that setting a pretty low bar for candidates, and putting West Virginia on a course to forever being stalled on these issues, and not taking any steps at all to the future?

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154654 kanawha forest mining

Photo by Vivan Stockman, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, flyover courtesy of Southwings.

Over the weekend, we broke the story in the Sunday Gazette-Mail about something that many insiders have known for a while: The Obama administration put the brakes on some key U.S. Geological Survey research into the public health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining in Southern West Virginia. As our story reported:

Two years ago, Bill Orem and his team of researchers were setting up air monitors in the yards and on the porches of residents in Artie, a small Raleigh County community surrounded by mountaintop removal mines.

Orem, a chemist with the U.S. Geological Survey, was trying to piece together evidence about exactly what caused residents who live near Southern West Virginia’s large-scale mining operations to face increased risks of serious illnesses, including birth defects and cancer, and of premature death.

Since starting their work, Orem’s team has added much to what was already known about the issue: Air quality in communities near mountaintop removal is quite different from air quality in non-mining areas, with more particulate matter and higher concentrations of certain contaminants. Mountaintop removal neighbors have higher rates of certain respiratory diseases, including lung cancer. Also, air pollution particles in mining communities show higher levels of certain elements that indicate the dust is coming from “overburden,” or the rock that mountaintop removal operators blast apart to get at the coal underneath.

“The data is pretty startling for some of these things,” Orem said last week. “To me, it’s compelling enough that a more targeted health study needs to be conducted in these areas.”

However, if that more in-depth study is going to ever be done, it won’t be by Orem and his USGS team. Last year, the Obama administration quietly put the brakes on any new field work to gather data on the potential public-health threats posed by mountaintop removal.

Without warning, the USGS Energy Resources Program in February 2013 pulled its funding for the project. Agency managers diverted Orem and his team to research on the health and environmental effects of unconventional oil and gas extraction, such as hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia.

For those who still read the paper the old fashioned way, there was quite an interesting contrast between reality and politics on Sunday’s front page. At the top left was my story about the USGS bean counters ending this important research. At the bottom of the page was David Gutman’s story headlined, “As TV ads kick off in W.Va.’s U.S. Senate race, coal is still the theme.” David reported:

Tennant Power PlantWest Virginians have seen more ads for the Senate campaigns in neighboring states than the one happening in the Mountain State. That will begin to change Monday, but the primary tenor of the campaign — promises from both candidates to stand up for coal and fight Environmental Protection Agency regulations — will not.

Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant has bought about $120,000 of television time to show an ad — the first from any candidate in the race — in which she, literally, turns the lights off at the White House.

The ad, which the Tennant campaign says will reach 75 percent of West Virginians, opens on a scene of the White House with Tennant asking, “Where do they think their electricity comes from?” The camera pans to power lines leading back to a coal-fired power plant.

“You and I know it’s our hard-working West Virginia coal miners that power America,” Tennant says, as she cuts the power and the lights go out with a boom at the White House. “I’ll make sure President Obama gets the message.”

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Coal control: How safety board members get picked


Industry members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety include West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton, right, and Patriot Coal’s Terry Hudson, center. To the left is now-former board member Charles Russell of Arch Coal.

When we last left the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety, board members had just managed to somehow pass a rather watered-down version of a rule to eventually require mine operators to install life-saving proximity detection systems on at least some underground mining equipment in our state’s coal industry. Board members did this after months of pleas from the widow of a miner whose life could have been saved by such technology, and after struggling with something the board wasn’t used to — and didn’t seem to care for — public involvement in its deliberations and transparency of its discussions and decisions.

That was more than three months ago. Fast-forward to Monday, when the board had a regular monthly meeting scheduled over at the Charleston Civic Center.

When the meeting started, there was a new face at the table:  Brian Keaton, a safety official with Alpha Natural Resources. Keaton had been appointed to the seat that had previously been held by Arch Coal official Charles Russell. Now, there was no indication that I’ve heard of that Mr. Russell wanted off the board. And it appeared that even some fellow board members were surprised — or at least acted surprised — at the change. When board member Terry Hudson of Patriot Coal came into the room, for example, he said, “Where’s Charlie?”

So, I wondered what was going on. My first inquiry to the office of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who appoints the board members, produced this emailed response from deputy press secretary Shayna Varner:

Gov. Tomblin is responsible for thousands of appointments on boards and agencies and consults with key leaders to make those appointments, as appropriate.

In order to provide as many qualified citizens as possible with an opportunity to serve West Virginia and with the expiration of Charles Russell’s term, the governor has appointed Brian Keaton to serve on the Coal Mine Safety Board. Brian’s experience and expertise will be a great asset to improving mining safety in the Mountain State.

 Gov. Tomblin is extremely appreciative of Mr. Russell’s service.

OK … now the problem with all of that is that Charlie Russell wasn’t the only board member whose term had expired. In fact, Terry Hudson was the only board member whose term hadn’t expired.  Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton’s term expired on June 30, 2009.  So did the terms of United Mine Workers representatives Carl Egnor and Gary Trout.  UMW member Terry Hapney’s term expired two years before that, in June 2007.

So why did Gov. Tomblin replace only Charles Russell, and leave the terms of four other board members — on both sides of the table — expired?

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As I was writing  this Wednesday morning, I’m listening in on today’s big U.S. Senate committee hearing on the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to reduce greenhouse pollution from coal-fired power plants. There was quite a lot of political theater, though, and my mind kept wandering back to yesterday’s Senate HELP Committee hearing about black lung benefits.

This was a hearing called to address the many issues raised about the legal system and our medical system by Chris Hamby’s amazing, Pulitzer Prize-winning series about the way the coal industry and its lawyers and doctors work to keep miners from getting black lung benefits. We had a story on the hearing here, quoting retired coal miner Robert Bailey from Princeton, W.Va (shown in the photo above).:

Living with black lung is thinking about every breath you take. Policies and laws need to be changed to give hope and life to those who don’t have time for stall tactics.

But it’s worth checking out Chris’s piece, which reports:

In an extraordinary rebuke to a doctor at one of America’s top hospitals, the U.S. Department of Labor has informed about 1,100 coal miners that their claims for black lung benefits may have been wrongly denied because of the actions of a powerful physician at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, the department’s deputy secretary told senators Tuesday.

That doctor, Paul S. Wheeler, systematically found that miners did not have black lung when, in fact, many of them did. Medical opinions by the doctor should be assumed not to be credible, senators and affected miners were told.

What I couldn’t stop thinking about was why West Virginia’s political discourse doesn’t focus more on these black lung issues. Why aren’t Republicans here constantly asked why their party blocked for many, many months the Obama administration’s effort to enact new rules that would help eliminate black lung disease? Why don’t Democratic candidates like Natalie Tennant talk almost constantly about this terrible important issue, and the disgraceful way our nation has handled it?

Black lung surfaced briefly as an issue in the Republican effort to unseat Rep. Nick J. Rahall. But gosh, it’s just not in the forefront of what Democrats campaign about.  Wouldn’t  stopping black lung and fixing the benefits program be both good politics and have the odd benefit of being the right thing to do? If political leaders wanted to actually talk about the issue, they just have to borrow these words from Sen. Jay Rockefeller:

One of the most troubling aspects of the public debate over Black Lung disease is that many people believe it is a thing of the past – that somehow coal miners are no longer at-risk of developing the disease. The sad reality, however, is that the disease is very real and on the rise in coal mining communities throughout the country.

In the 1970s, shortly after Congress passed the first major legislation to combat Black Lung disease, 6.5 percent of all active coal miners had the disease. By the 1990s, that number had dropped to 2.1 percent. But, in the 2000s, we saw the prevalence of Black Lung disease increase to 3.2 percent – the first increase of the disease in three decades. Between 1999 and 2009, almost every single region in the country saw an increase in the percent of miners suffering from Black Lung disease. Some areas in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky are seeing rates as high as 9.0, 10.0, and even 13.2 percent.

Sadly, research is showing that younger miners are now developing more progressive forms of the disease earlier in their careers. These findings were confirmed as part of the investigation into the Upper Big Branch disaster, which took the lives of 29 coal miners in West Virginia. Autopsies of 24 victims revealed that 17 of them, or 71 percent, also suffered from Black Lung disease. Even more alarming is that five of those victims with Black Lung disease had been working for less than 10 years underground, including one miner who was only 25 years old. So, while the explosion that took their lives did so almost instantaneously, another disaster, hidden from view, was taking their lives more slowly – but just as tragically.

This rise in Black Lung disease is unacceptable. Congress and the Administration have a solemn obligation to provide coal miners with every protection from this debilitating, incurable, but preventable disease. That is why I was proud to join Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez in West Virginia in April to announce the finalization of new rules that – for the first time in 40 years – will lower coal miners’ exposure to the respirable dust that causes Black Lung disease. The Administration should be commended for taking this major step forward. With strong enforcement and implementation, these rules will undoubtedly save lives and improve the quality of life for current and future generations of coal miners.

Oh, and not for nothing … but there was another congressional hearing going on today. It was supposed to be about how to streamline the process of environmental regulation, but it included this important testimony from Appalachian Voices, talking about another coal country health crisis:

What is so notable about the science linking mountaintop removal to elevated death rates and poor health outcomes in nearby communities is not the strength of any individual study, but rather the enormous quantity of data from independent sources that all point toward dramatic increases in rates of disease and decreases in life expectancy and physical well-being.

Despite this overwhelming amount of peer-reviewed scientific data, however, regulatory agencies in Appalachian states have so far refused to consider these new studies in assessing the impact that permitting new mountaintop removal mines could have on the health of nearby residents.

Rally For Coal

Perhaps you didn’t catch one of the latest press released from the office of Sen. Joe Manchin.  I thought it was pretty interesting. The headline said, “Manchin hosts energy roundtable with WV stakeholders in Charleston.”  The release explained:

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) today hosted an energy roundtable with West Virginia state leaders in the coal, gas and utility sectors, as well as state government officials and education representatives. Senator Manchin met with representatives from nearly twenty industry officials and organizations to discuss the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new proposed greenhouse gas rule for existing power plants, update participants on his ongoing efforts to find a balance between economic and environmental concerns, and hear from energy leaders across West Virginia.

That’s right … “find a balance between economic and environmental concerns.”  We all know that Sen. Manchin is never, ever happier than when he’s finding a balance of some sort — bringing together people of different views and, through his own power of personality, getting them to work together. Right? Sure … just look at what he says in that press release:

We need the EPA to develop commonsense solutions that strike a balance between a prosperous economy and a cleaner environment.

Well, if that’s the case, then surely Sen. Manchin’s “stakeholders” meeting included representatives of a wide variety of groups, right? There must have been some environmental groups there, or folks from citizen organizations who are concerned about coal’s impacts on our global climate and our local environment and public health …

If you thought that, you’d be wrong.

I asked Manchin’s office about this, and spokesman Jonathan Kott told he would check into the attendance list, but added:

… This was an energy discussion and only energy groups were in attendance.

After he checked into it, Jonathan told me:

There were no environmental groups invited to the meeting. Senator Manchin wanted to speak directly with coal, gas and utility leaders to hear their views and concerns about the proposed greenhouse gas rule.

Jonathan noted that Sen. Manchin has encouraged West Virginians to submit public comments to EPA about the federal agency’s rule to reduce carbon pollution from power plants. He said the senator “has also recently met with environmental leaders on a variety of topics including the water situation and he will continue to have meetings will all groups.” I asked for some examples of those recent meetings, but I never heard back from Manchin’s office.

So it turns out that Sen. Manchin’s idea of a “stakeholder” meeting is really little different from the sort of meeting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his staff had in mind when they were crafting their version of a chemical storage tank bill following the Freedom Industries spill: Get together the usual suspects from your industry lobbyist friends. No need to listen to a broad range of views or try to hear from those you might disagree with, or who might challenge your own thinking.

In some ways, Sen. Manchin’s move here is kind of surprising. As noted in the comments section of this Coal Tattoo post (about Gov. Tomblin avoiding meetings with citizen groups), Sen. Manchin would often meet with environmental groups when he was governor, even coming out to talk to protesters who turned up in his office at the Capitol. In the end, though, it’s hard to imagine how Sen. Manchin can ever find the “balance” he claims to seek if he only hears from one side of the argument.


Gazette photo by Chip Ellis

It’s not surprising to see the drumbeat from most West Virginia media outlets (see here, here and here) in opposition to the Obama administration’s fairly modest effort to fight climate change.  After all, the media apparently thinks its job is simply to repeat what our elected officials tell us, regardless of whether it makes any sense or has any basis in fact.

One of my absolute favorites is how public officials and media personalities here parrot the notion that it’s somehow wrong for President Obama to direct an agency of the executive branch of government to promulgate a rule under authority given to that agency by the Congress (see here and here). The coal industry and its friends seem to keep forgetting that their “war on coal” campaign against President Obama didn’t work — that he’s the one who won the November 2012 election.

Here in West Virginia, and in neighboring Kentucky, politicians from both parties raced to attack EPA’s proposal. Despite some suggestions otherwise, the hysteria was pretty much bipartisan. It’s true that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin did actually speak the words “diversifying our economy.”  But Gov. Tomblin did so only after blasting the EPA proposal — which his Department of Environmental Protection hadn’t yet fully read or analyzed — as realizing  “our worst fears” because it might mean power plants would “use less West Virginia coal.”

A statement yesterday from Sen. Joe Manchin might have seemed a tad tame, but that’s only because just last week the senator was declaring that people “are going to die” because of EPA’s efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions — and because Sen. Manchin’s past reactions to proposals to fight climate change have involved turning firearms on a defenseless piece of legislation.

It’s true that the state’s top Republican — Attorney General Patrick Morrisey — promised “to review every line, of every paragraph, of every page of this proposal” to find a way to have it thrown out in court.  But the two best hopes of the Democrats to retain a U.S. Senate seat or pick up a House seat — Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and House candidate Nick Casey — both promised to do everything they could, if elected, to block the EPA proposal from being finalized. As for Rep. Nick Rahall, his office has resorted to using the unnecessary rhetoric of the coal industry, inserting “war on coal” into its press releases on these issues.

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