Coal Tattoo

Barack ObamaPresident Barack Obama wipes perspiration from his face as he speaks about climate change at Georgetown University in Washington, Tuesday, June 25, 2013.  (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

UPDATED: Here’s the link to the EPA proposed rule, just posted on the agency’s website.

A few hours ago, reporters at The Wall Street Journal broke the story with the first real details of the carbon pollution rules that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to propose tomorrow morning:

The Environmental Protection Agency will propose mandating power plants cut U.S. carbon-dioxide emissions 30% by 2030 from levels of 25 years earlier, according to people briefed on the rule, an ambitious target that marks the first-ever attempt at limiting such pollution.

The rule-making proposal, to be unveiled Monday, sets in motion the main piece of President Barack Obama’s climate-change agenda and is designed to give states and power companies flexibility in reaching the target.

Other stories quickly followed from The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Associated Press  … well, just about everybody.

There are obviously a lot of important details to come, and much debate — along with a lot of blustering and nonsense — but there are a few things to keep in mind right off the bat, tonight, and especially tomorrow as the chest-pounding really gets started by coalfield political leaders.

First, if the reporting so far is right, then EPA is choosing a baseline year for emissions reductions — 2005– that many utilities — including the two American Electric Power and FirstEnergy here in West Virginia — should be pleased with.  As The Associated Press explained:

Environmental Protection Agency data shows that the nation’s power plants have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 13 percent since 2005, or about halfway to the goal the administration will set Monday.

For example, here’s a quick chart (based on data available here) that Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, posted on Twitter this evening, showing West Virginia emissions already halfway to the overall goal:

 

BpFL9OBCUAAyt2a.jpg large

Continue reading…

Dirtiest Power Plant

This photo taken May 5, 2014 shows the stacks of the Homer City Generating Station in Homer City, Pa.  (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

It seems like everybody has some new report coming out this week to try to call attention to one aspect or another of the huge decision expected on Monday from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: The first-ever rules to limit carbon pollution from existing power plants.

Just for example, Tuesday brought this report from Harvard and Syracuse about the public health “co-benefits” of an EPA rule to limit carbon dioxide emissions.  On Wednesday,  there was this report that ranks power plants, power companies and states according to their carbon emissions. And we also heard from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which issued a report outlining lots of scary things it says the EPA’s plans will do to our nation’s economy. EPA shot back with a blog post from an “experienced political operative” who runs the agency’s communications operation, and the Chamber responded on its own blog.

There’s also more than plenty media coverage. Some of it, like this Washington Post story, seems to be reaching to find some little scrap of a scoop about what EPA may or may not put in its proposed rule. Other stories, like this one from Bloomberg, are trying to parse out the various positions taken by different interest groups as this particular big fight begins in earnest. Some stories are hauling out the tired old narrative to speculate about potential political impacts of this battle, while others dug deeper for a more interesting political story.

Locally in the coalfields, expect even more of the nonsense we saw from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce commentary that the Daily Mail published last week. When you see that stuff, be wary of the wild claims about potential job losses and especially increased electrical rates, and before you freak out, read A bogus claim that electricity prices will ‘nearly double’ because of clean coal technology, in which The Washington Post’s Fact Checker dismantles the ad campaign from the National Mining Association:

This is a case study of how a trade group takes a snippet of congressional testimony and twists it out of proportion for political purposes …

There’s little justification for this radio ad to claim that people will see their electric bills nearly double because of the EPA rules on new coal plants. The NMA has seized upon a high-end wholesale estimate for “full recapture” carbon capture and sequestration technologies which the EPA specifically rejected — and then leveraged that factoid to make a wholly unsupported claim that the same increase would be reflected in retail prices. The EPA’s proposed regulations, along with other factors, may boost the cost of electricity, but the NMA should not rely on such bogus, hyped evidence to make its case.

Along those lines, The Economist offered this disclaimer about all of this “war on coal” business:

Republican talk of a “war on coal” is exaggerated. Market forces, from cheap natural gas to dwindling Appalachian coal reserves, have so far killed more mining jobs than green rules have.

And in one of the better pieces I’ve seen in the run-up to the new EPA rules, The Associated Press explained:

Three years ago, the operators of one of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants warned of “immediate and devastating” consequences from the Obama administration’s push to clean up pollution from coal.

Faced with cutting sulfur dioxide pollution blowing into downwind states by 80 percent in less than a year, lawyers for EME Homer City Generation L.P. sued the Environmental Protection Agency to block the rule, saying it would cause it grave harm and bring a painful spike in electricity bills.

None of those dire predictions came to pass.

Instead, the massive Western Pennsylvania power plant is expected in a few years to turn from one of the worst polluters in the country to a model for how coal-fired power plants can slash pollution.

Often, we in the media get so rolled up in the “news” — what’s happening right now — and trying to break some new aspect of the moving story, that we forget about or obscure the longer history of an issue, the real story arc that is probably more meaningful for our society. Trying to think of what our readers might need to know right about now about coal and climate change, I was looking back to a story I did nearly 17 years ago, as the world was beginning talks about the Kyoto treaty. The piece started out:

Thousands of West Virginia miners will go to work this week to help dig the coal that provides half of the country’s electricity.

At the same time, on the other side of the world in Japan, diplomats, scientists and elected officials from 160 nations will make decisions that could determine if many of those miners lose their jobs.

World leaders will gather in Kyoto, Japan, Monday for a 10-day summit to try to come up with a plan to curb pollutants that cause global warming.

Burning coal produces carbon dioxide, the most notorious of the greenhouse gases. Too much of it traps heat near the Earth, studies show. It warms the planet and otherwise tinkers with the climate system.

If greenhouse emissions aren’t scaled back, scientists say, people around the world will face problems that range from bigger blizzards to searing droughts, from flooded coastal regions to freak storms in the mountains and plains.

Here in West Virginia, political leaders, industry and labor worry that the cure could be just as bad, or worse, than the disease.

“It’s a work-to-welfare program for West Virginia,” said Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.

But it also reported:

“West Virginia is not New Hampshire, which has a fairly substantial high-tech component,” said Eugene Trisko, a Berkeley Springs lawyer and economist who studies climate-change policy for the UMW. “It’s not Florida, where the economy is run on retired people.

“Because of the lack of diversity in West Virginia’s economy, you would not expect that West Virginia would have an easier time adapting,” he said.

Still, some studies suggest that if power plants became more efficient, they could keep burning coal. State-level discussions of global warming rarely include examination of these studies.

Industry and labor officials seem focused instead on trying to derail the treaty. No one talks much about how to minimize the harm to coal-mining communities or help miners find other jobs.

“I don’t think anyone is looking at that,” Raney said.

Continue reading…

Will EPA’s carbon rules really be so bad?

Gina McCarthy

It’s not surprising to see that the folks over at West Virginia Metro News are parroting the talking points from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, trying to make the greenhouse gas emissions rules the Obama administration is going to announce next week sound like the end of the world.

But if you read the story in today’s New York Times, headlined President Said to Be Planning to Use Executive Authority on Carbon Rule, you sure get a different idea of what major businesses that would be affected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have to say about what’s coming from the administration. For example:

Despite the fierce Republican opposition, a number of officials at electric utilities say they welcome cap-and-trade programs because they offer an affordable and flexible way to comply with the new regulation. “By trading on carbon credits, we’ll be able to achieve significantly more cuts at a lower cost,” said Anthony J. Alexander, president and chief executive of FirstEnergy, an electric utility with power plants in Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and New Jersey. “The broader the options, the better off we’re going to be.”

And then there’s this:

John McManus, vice president of environmental services at American Electric Power, which has coal-fired power plants in 11 states, agreed. “We view cap and trade as having a lot of benefits,” he said. “There’s important design considerations that would have to be factored in, to consider each state’s circumstances. But we think it’s definitely worth looking at. It could keep the cost down. It would allow us to keep coal units running for a more extended period. There are a lot of advantages.”

It’s worth remembering that AEP supported the “cap-and-trade” bill that passed the House, but died in the Senate. And the United Mine Workers of America, while never officially endorsing that legislation, did say that the bill  would ensure that the “future of coal will be intact.”

ftl2014c0405

A newly released photo from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration shows the location of last week’s deaths at Patriot Coal’s Brody Mine in Boone County.

It’s hard to really know where to start with a piece of op-ed commentary like the one the Daily Mail published yesterday from Steve Roberts, the president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

But after skimming it once, then reading it more carefully  two more times, and then talking to some folks about it, I couldn’t help thinking back to a story from nearly a decade ago. It was just after the 2004 general election, and Brent Benjamin had won his seat on the state Supreme Court, with much help from the shameless campaign funded by then-Massey Energy President Don Blankenship. The story was really a very modest effort at reminding readers again who was behind this campaign. Among the people I asked for comments about Don Blankenship was Steve Roberts. As I recall, I wanted to know if the president of the chamber thought Don Blankenship was a good corporate citizen. Here’s what Roberts said:

steveroberts-web1They are a good corporate citizen in the sense that they employ 4,000 to 5,000 people in West Virginia … I believe it is hard for their kind of company to avoid making mistakes, but I think they try to avoid making mistakes. I don’t think they do those things intentionally.

Since then, the evidence — through admissions of Massey officials and mine managers who have pleaded guilty in the federal criminal probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster — has confirmed what many coal industry watchdogs long believed: Some Massey officials were operating through a conspiracy to evade key mine safety and health laws.

What’s that got to do with yesterday’s op ed by Steve Roberts? Well, when I read about the head of the state’s top business lobby group saying that West Virginia political leaders need to “stand strongly for … working people,” I wonder why I never see an op-ed from the Chamber of Commerce calling for tougher workplace protections for our state’s coal miners — or any other of our “working people” for that matter. Just last week, two coal miners died in the sort of preventable incident that claims the lives of far too many workers in the coal and other industries. Certainly, as we reported on Sunday, the dangers of the type of “retreat mining” being conducted when those miners were killed are well known — and there are questions about whether industry and regulators have done enough about those dangers.

It wasn’t so long ago that Steve Roberts and the Chamber were attacking the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd for the senator’s efforts to make it easier for disabled coal miners to get black lung benefits.

And, I certainly wonder why the Chamber of Commerce is promoting the terribly flawed notion that if we can just get President Obama and his EPA off our backs, then the next big coal boom is just around the corner, instead of joining with other business leaders who are increasingly clear that West Virginia needs to embrace the future, and work toward diversifying our economy and living in a world where coal production in the southern part of the state is half what it is now, for reasons that have little to do with EPA or climate change.

 

Continue reading…

Coals War

As West Virginia voters go to the polls in today’s primary election, it’s worth remembering how many of our political leaders — and how many career campaign consultants — are continuing to act like the last election isn’t over yet. Candidates of all parties for any variety of offices are still trying to run as if the person on the other side of the ballot is President Obama.

This trend has sunk in even in the Kanawha County school board race, where candidates are touting their promise to get rid of “common core” – no doubt because some have turned it into the equivalent of “Obama Core,” despite its real roots in what some have called a corporate takeover of our public school system.  You would think some of the candidates might instead focus on explaining why they don’t think that libraries are parasites on our school system.

Obviously, this sort of nonsense continues whenever issues like coal and climate change come up in the campaigns, or whenever they come up at all. Take the story that the Gazette’s David Gutman had in the paper on Monday:

The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that there is a problem.

Among scientists, there is virtually no debate: The earth’s climate is changing, and human activity, specifically burning fossil fuels, is causing those changes.

In West Virginia, where coal dominates political conversation and plays a big role in the economy, it’s more complicated, and politicians are reluctant to even say there is a problem.

A majority of West Virginia’s political leaders either declined to respond or gave evasive answers when recently asked a yes-or-no question, whether they thought human actions were causing climate change.

We’ve been through this exercise before, and the results this time are really no better.  You have to wonder if President Obama gave a speech about gravity if West Virginia political leaders would issue a stream of statements distancing themselves and vowing to fight it.

Seriously now, does Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin think when he’s asked a question about climate change that nobody notices that he answers as if the question was about littering or getting old junk cars out of ditches? He’s what he said about the release of the National Climate Assessment:

We understand the importance of environmental stewardship and are committed to preserving our state’s natural beauty for future generations to enjoy. It is important that we work together to develop reasonable standards that balance the environment and economic opportunity.

Of course, Gov. Tomblin isn’t running for anything this time. So what about the folks who are?  Well, here’s Rep. Nick J. Rahall, who moves ever closer to totally pretending science doesn’t exist:

We know the earth’s climate is ever changing. I believe there are a variety of factors and that those who focus their blame so intensely and entirely on our coal industry are being completely illogical.

We don’t know exactly who “those who focus their blame … entirely on our coal industry” are, but we know it can’t be the Obama administration. Because, gosh, the president’s climate action plan addresses a wide range of greenhouse pollution sources — everything from automobile exhaust to making buildings more efficient.  Maybe Rep. Rahall missed the administration’s initiative on vehicle mileage requirements, for example.

We’ve written before recently about Senate candidate Natalie Tennant’s silly comments about coal policies, and her response to David Gutman’s question was really no better:

Let me be very clear: I will fight President Obama and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs. It’s not my job to argue the science. It’s my job to make sure policy solutions work for West Virginia. I refuse to accept that we have to choose between protecting our air and protecting our jobs when I know West Virginia can lead the way in producing technology that does both.

Continue reading…

nickjoesign1

The climate change disconnect in West Virginia was certainly on display yesterday, as the nation’s scientists and policymakers again made clear the urgent need to act to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, while our state’s elected officials talked more of the same about rejecting science to protect the coal industry.

This disconnect is really nothing new.  One of the reasons I started this blog in the first place was to try to bring together the completely different discussions that were going on about the coal industry. In West Virginia, some residents and almost all elected officials were focused only on trying to preserve coal jobs at all costs. Everywhere else, people were talking about the downside of the coal industry and practically begging for some action, especially on climate change.

And in some ways, West Virginia isn’t as unique as we might think. Check out this report from The Upshot, a new feature of The New York Times:

Perhaps more than people in any other rich nation, Americans are skeptical that climate change is a dire issue. In Pew Research Center surveys conducted last spring, 40 percent of Americans said that global climate change was a major threat to their country. More than 50 percent of Canadians, Australians, French and Germans gave that answer. More than 60 percent of Italians and Spaniards did. And more than 70 percent of Japanese did.

But what’s happening in West Virginia is still a little different. And despite the best efforts of a growing number of individuals and groups (see here, here and here), things seem to be getting worse, especially as we move into the silly season of the off-year elections, and Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., tries to combat the big spending by the Koch brothers in support of his opponent for re-election to Congress from our southern coalfields.

We in the media don’t make all of this any easier on public officials. Take coverage of yesterday’s events. On the one hand, perhaps it’s progress to see West Virginia Metro News and the Daily Mail both actually mention the National Climate Assessment in their stories. But given the long record of  commentary by Hoppy Kercheval and Don Surber dismissing the findings of the world’s scientific community, it’s going to take a lot more than two short daily stories for the damage to Metro News listeners and Daily Mail readers to be undone. And frankly, even when other news media clearly outline the scientific findings — and note the disconnect between science and West Virginia politics — there’s little in the way of constructive policy suggestions being offered and precious little holding our elected officials accountable.

The leadership void here is huge. It’s been more than four years since Sen. Robert C. Byrd urged West Virginians and their coal industry to “embrace the future,” and almost four years since Sen. Byrd passed away. Sen. Jay Rockefeller has tried to tell at least some of the truth about coal and climate issues, but he’ll be gone from the U.S. Senate before you know it — and far too often, Sen. Rockefeller’s comments on these issues are muddied by statements that clearly ignore the inevitable decline of coal in Southern West Virginia and the fact that much of that decline has nothing to do with climate policy or EPA rules.

coalproduction_I121013205100

Continue reading…

COAL TRAIN

A C.S.X. train loaded with coal winds its way into the mountains in this Nov. 21, 2004 file photo taken near the New River at Cotton Hill in Fayette County, W.Va.  AP Photo/Jeff Gentner)

This morning, the Obama administration will be releasing the latest version of the National Climate Assessment, a dense scientific report about the impacts our nation is already experiencing because of global warming pollution. If the initial media reports are correct, the picture isn’t pretty.

Here’s what the AP’s Seth Borenstein reports this morning:

Global warming is rapidly turning America the beautiful into America the stormy, sneezy and dangerous, according to a new federal scientific report. And those shining seas? Rising and costly, the report says.

Climate change’s assorted harms “are expected to become increasingly disruptive across the nation throughout this century and beyond,” the National Climate Assessment concluded Tuesday. The report emphasizes how warming and its all-too-wild weather are changing daily lives, even using the phrase “climate disruption” as another way of saying global warming.

And here’s more from The Wall Street Journal:

Climate change is having a present-day, negative impact on Americans’ everyday lives and damaging the U.S. economy as extreme weather brings flooding, droughts and other disasters to every region in the country, a federal advisory committee has concluded.

The congressionally mandated National Climate Assessment, produced by more than 300 experts overseen by a panel of 60 scientists, concludes that the nation has already suffered billions of dollars in damages from severe weather-related disruptions, which it says will continue to get worse.

As has previously been reported here, here, and here, the roll-0ut of this report (the PR, not the science) is being orchestrated to try to drum up more public support for Obama administration initiatives aimed at curbing climate change. The media narrative is that President Obama has renewed interest, as his time in the White House moves closer to an end, on doing more about climate change. Of course, President Obama has already done a lot on this issue, but given the scale of the problem, he’s done nowhere near enough.

Continue reading…

West Virginia Congress

The political landscape around Wets Virginia’s coal industry gets more silly by the day. We noted this week that U.S. Senate candidate Natalie Tennant just can’t bring herself to get outside of the anti-Obama box that Republicans have pushed Democrats into, and about how the state’s Democratic leaders can’t seem to get their story straight about the Koch brothers.

But one of the continuing underlying false narratives that is driving this year’s elections is the completely ridiculous argument that some Republican activists continue to make that longtime Rep. Nick J. Rahall is somehow against the coal industry. We’ve written about this before  as well, and we’ve noted that none other than the top Friend of Coal among West Virginia broadcast personalities, Hoppy Kercheval, has himself ruled that Rep. Rahall is, in fact, not an anti-coal politician.

Still the narrative gets pushed forward … and of course, Rep. Rahall falls right for this Republican trap, trying to out-flank them on the pro-industry side, something that Democrats just can’t seem to figure out they can’t possibly do.

There’s an interesting piece in the new “Upshot” feature from the New York Times headlined, “A West Virginia Democrat Battles Extinction,” in which the great Derek Willis reports that Rep. Rahall is siding with Republicans more often than ever:

One in every four votes in the current Congress. West Virginia’s congressional representatives tend to vote in opposition to President Obama’s policies, often citing environmental regulation of the state’s coal industry as a main reason. But Mr. Rahall has voted with his two in-state Republican colleagues about half the time in the past year. A spokeswoman for Mr. Rahall did not return a phone call or an email seeking comment on the votes.

Continue reading…

What Natalie Tennant could have said about coal

Natalie Tennant

In this Tuesday Sept. 17, 2013 file photo, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant announces that she will be running for the U.S. Senate in 2014 during a news  conference at Tamarack in Beckley, W.Va.   (AP Photo/The Register Herald, F. Brian Ferguson)

Last September, when I heard Secretary of State Natalie Tennant speak during the  “A Bright Economic Future for West Virginia,” event here in Charleston, there was a glimmer of hope that she might follow a slightly different path than most of our state’s political leaders. As I reported at the time, while generally sticking to the fossil fuel bandwagon, Secretary Tennant did throw in a line about the continuing questions over whether most of the jobs from the natural gas boom are going to West Virginia residents:

… Tennant also spoke strongly in favor of the state trying to continue the boom in Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and production, but said more needs to be done to ensure the jobs that are created go to West Virginians.

So it was pretty disappointing to hear her silly responses to questions from the Daily Mail editorial board about coal issues and the Obama administration.  The Daily Mail helpfully webcasts these meetings, and you can watch it yourself here:

But here’s how it went … Citing yesterday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling backing the Obama administration’s cross-state air pollution rule, the Daily Mail’s Dave Boucher asked what, unfortunately, was a pretty superficial and predictable question:

Obviously EPA’s involvement in West Virginia and throughout the country is something that comes up all the time in West Virginia politics. Given the fact that that the ruling is essentially in the administration’s favor, and there are plenty of more rulings coming from the administration, where do you see the senator’s role, especially the West Virginia senator as helping to either work with the administration or fight the administration when it comes to environmental policy?

Here’s what Secretary Tennant had to say:

I look at the senator role that I will be doing as a U.S. Senator as someone who says look at West Virginia — someone who is standing up and says you should come to West Virginia. I think it’s unconscionable that when you talk about the EPA, when you talk about Gina McCarthy who would go around the world, go around the country and talk about a listening tour for the EPA and yet doesn’t come to West Virginia where it impacts the lives of West Virginians and the livelihoods of West Virginians.

There has to be a balance when it comes to what the EPA does , but what West Virginia does. Instead of fighting us and taking away our jobs abnd trying to hurt our jobs, invest in West Virginia and invest in expanding what we have.

Continue reading…

Here’s hoping: How coal boosters hold W.Va. back

Coals War

We’ve written many times on this blog about the industry-driven “war on coal” propaganda campaign, as well as about how West Virginia political leaders fall right in line with it, refusing for the most part to question the narrative — or to take the sorts of steps that might help our coalfield communities better deal with the changing energy landscape, and coal’s inevitable decline.

It’s important to remember, though, that much of West Virginia’s media coverage plays right into this as well, perpetuating the many coal industry myths that hold our state back. The latest example came last week, with a nonsensical commentary by West Virginia MetroNews personality Hoppy Kercheval. Hoppy picked up on two news stories — the potential for significant layoffs at two Patriot Coal complexes in Boone County and the announcement of a new natural gas power plant in Marshall County — and turned it into another of his inconsistent rants about the supposed magic of markets and the non-existent invisible hand.

Here’s what I mean. Hoppy opines:

hoppyOne common refrain during discussions about coal’s decline is, “We have to diversify our economy.”  But who is this omniscient “we”? Economies do not respond well to central planning.  The marketplace provides for the willing and efficient exchange of goods and services that creates wealth and spurs economic growth.

True, government provides the necessary infrastructure, but it’s notoriously bad at picking winners and losers.   For example, West Virginia didn’t plan to suddenly create a booming natural gas industry; entrepreneurs utilizing the new hydraulic fracturing technique moved to where the gas was located.

Sounds like Hoppy is taking some courses at the Koch brothers-backed WVU Center for Free Enterprise, doesn’t it? But his analysis just doesn’t add up. Readers and listeners deserve a more honest appraisal of this situation.

For example, when Hoppy writes that,  “West Virginia didn’t plan to suddenly create a booming natural gas industry; entrepreneurs utilizing the new hydraulic fracturing technique moved to where the gas was located,”  he leaves out the part where the federal government spent a ton of our tax dollars to help develop the technologies being used to drill and produce natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

Hoppy also leaves out the fact that natural gas development — like the big cracker plant proposed for Wood county — isn’t happening without the help of some pretty significant tax breaks (the kind of “central planning” boogeyman that Hoppy wants to criticize) pushed for by the governor and legislative leaders. Not for nothing, but the coal industry Hoppy loves so much is also the recipient of major tax breaks that continue to drain the state’s budget and prompt cuts in crucial government services for our most needy.

Continue reading…

Still searching for Cecil Roberts

cecilsenatehearing2010

We’ve written many times in this space about the huge problems, tricky politics, and uncertain future that challenge United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts. See here, here, here and here.

So I’ve been remiss in not mentioning the op-ed commentary that President Roberts had in the Gazette a few weeks ago, in which he opined, among other things:

Downturns are common in the coal industry. But this one may never end because of a host of regulations coming from the Environmental Protection Agency that are slowly but surely putting a stranglehold on the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of coal miners, utility workers, electrical workers, boilermakers, railroad workers and their families.

Power plants that have already spent millions coming into compliance with current emissions standards are closing prematurely. Their owners cannot economically justify spending the millions more it will cost to comply with this new onslaught of regulations. That means jobs are lost, tax revenues are squeezed, public services are threatened, school budgets are slashed.

Some see this as a cause for celebration. I do not. I see the faces of those who will suffer the indignities of unemployment. I hear the voices of those who have provided a good life for their families yet now wonder how long they can hold on to their house. I see the fear in the eyes of retirees who are suddenly threatened with the loss of hard-earned pensions and health care.

The piece went on to conclude:

We must recognize that other nations are not going to stop burning coal to build their economies just because we wag our finger at them and say they should, and that includes a growing list of developed nations like Germany and Poland. The answer to building a future our electronically wired descendants can live happily in is to develop and implement technology that allows the world to continue to use coal to generate electricity in a more environmentally friendly way.

We are on that path to doing that through carbon capture and storage technology, but significant hurdles remain that will require significant government resources to be invested. It’s going to require the kind of technological and engineering innovations – and corresponding resources – it took to put a man on the moon. As important as that effort was, in this challenge, the stakes are much higher.

The op-ed prompted a quick — and not especially thoughtful — response from the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition. Organizer Dan Taylor wrote to ask why the UMWA isn’t focusing on improving worker safety (as if that isn’t something the union does) or taking on “bad actors” like Patriot Coal (as if the UMWA hadn’t just fought a major battle with Patriot and come out with a pretty good deal).

Continue reading…

What next for Murray Energy?

Robert Murray

The first report I saw about the latest news regarding Murray Energy came from the Observer-Reporter in southwestern Pennsylvania:

Murray Energy Corp. confirmed Wednesday it will terminate medical coverage of nearly 1,200 Consol Energy retirees who worked in coal mines that Murray purchased 16 months ago.

It said benefits for those salaried retirees – medical, prescription drug and life insurance – will be halted Dec. 31. The cutoff will not apply to union members, and will affect 161 households in Pennsylvania.

Murray Energy confirmed the move in this prepared statement:

Murray Energy Corporation (“Murray Energy”) has confirmed that, as of December 31, 2014, and in keeping with Murray Energy’s historic practice, it will not be able to provide retiree medical coverage to salaried retirees of Murray American Energy, Inc., formerly Consolidation Coal Company (“Consolidation Coal”).

Murray Energy’s inability to provide these benefits is, in part, due to the destruction of the coal industry, including our markets, by the Obama
Administration and its appointees and supporters, who have eliminated the livelihoods of thousands of coal miners, and their families, by the forced closing of 392 coal-fired electric power plants in America, now and in the immediate future. Due to these actions and devastated coal markets, Murray Energy is unable to support these benefits.

Murray Energy is making this announcement at this time to allow affected salaried retirees of Consolidation Coal the opportunity to make other arrangements. Over eighty percent (80%) of the lost benefits can be made up with Medicare. Also, these former Consolidation Coal retirees have good pension benefits. The Company has provided these salaried retirees with information on and access to alternate coverage.

What’s interesting about the release is that, while Murray blames its action on President Obama’s policies, the statement notes that dropping these retiree health-care benefits is “in keeping with Murray Energy’s historic practice.”  I asked Murray Energy media director Gary Broadbent about this, but he declined to comment about this internal contradiction, saying in an e-mail message:

You have our statement.  That is all we have to say.

Another very interesting development was this statement issued by CONSOL Energy:

As part of the transaction, which closed in the fourth quarter of 2013 where Murray Energy acquired CONSOL Energy’s five West Virginia coal mines, we insisted that Murray Energy continue to provide retiree health insurance to our former salaried employees for at least one year.  CONSOL Energy’s hope and expectation was that Murray Energy would honor these obligations beyond the one year period that was negotiated as part of our agreement.  While we respect the fact that Murray Energy is a different company with different priorities, this is an unfortunate and disappointing decision.

Have I missed all of the commentary from West Virginia political leaders about this particular turn of events impacting coal industry retirees?

Haven’t West Virginia leaders learned a thing?

Coals War

It’s still remarkable to think that the West Virginia Legislature passed a decent piece of legislation in response to the January spill of a coal-cleaning chemical into the Elk River water supply serving 300,000 state residents.

But if you keep watching closely, you might get the idea that some of our state’s top elected officials haven’t really learned anything from that disaster. Despite seeing clearly the results of the anti-regulatory zeal, they are keeping up the drumbeat about the “war on coal.”

Take the action this week by most of our congressional delegation both in voting to block the Obama administration from writing a better stream-buffer zone rule and to the news that the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t take up Arch Coal’s fight against the EPA veto of the Spruce Mine permit.

Here’s Rep. David McKinley, talking about how he voted to “stop job-destroying coal regulations” in the House:

The Obama Administration continues to regulate based on ideology and not science. They fail to take into account the impact the excessive regulations have on our economy. Dozens of regulations on the coal and energy industry continue to harm hard-working Americans with the loss of thousands of jobs, higher energy bills, and uncertainty about their future.

This Administration has already wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on this overreaching regulation that will cost thousands of jobs and negatively impact energy production. This needs to stop. Today, the House took another step to push back against the EPA and stop the War on Coal.

And here’s Sen. Joe Manchin, talking about the Spruce Mine case as if were really a make-or-break matter for the nation:

I am extremely disappointed that our country’s highest court declined to hear such a monumental case that not only affects West Virginia coal mining jobs, but also impacts business decisions across the board. After the Corps of Engineers approved Spruce Mine’s permit, the company spent almost five years spending millions of dollars to comply with the EPA’s regulations as they moved forward with this project that would have created about 200 good-paying jobs with benefits. 

How can any business confidently invest, when the EPA regularly changes the rules? No one should be allowed to change the rules in the middle of the game. Once a permit has been approved, it should not retroactively be revoked. American investment and business confidence start with consistency in our laws and certainty in the marketplace. We simply cannot afford to stifle energy production and good-paying jobs.

Not to be outdone, here’s what Rep. Nick J. Rahall had to say:

This issue is a threat to coal industry jobs and our economy.  But it also impacts any commercial activity in this country that requires a Clean Water permit.  Nobody is safe under circumstances where after appropriate review a permit is issued that could, some day years later, be revoked by the EPA.

Fundamentally, this debate is about jobs.  Good paying jobs in West Virginia and other areas of the Appalachian Region.  And it is about our economy, whether it be providing needed flat land for agriculture or industrial facilities or saving millions of dollars by providing a ready-made roadbed for a new highway as has been done and is continuing to be proposed in Mingo County.

Oddly enough, the flashing photos on Rep. Rahall’s website switch back and forth between his comments attacking the EPA and another press release in which he professes to care about clean water for West Virginians.

For most households, safe and reliable water from the tap is taken for granted. Turning on the faucet is done without a second thought … However, in too many communities, people, sadly, experience a much different reality.

It’s too bad West Virginia’s leaders haven’t quite figured out how to connect the dots.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin

It seems almost impossible to believe that West Virginia lawmakers have passed and sent to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin a decent piece of legislation that will do much to remedy the many inactions (see here, here and here) that played a role in the January chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water supply for 300,000 of us.

Somehow, lawmakers held off any effort to seriously undermine the great improvements that the House made to SB 373, and they even went back on Friday night and took out an ill-conceived amendment that even sponsor Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo did not even understand. Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, certainly nailed it when he explained what happened this way:

I think Senate Bill 373 is an example of how the system is supposed to work.

In the House, credit the leadership for working this bill extremely hard — through three different committees and multiple hearings — and especially Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin, D-Marion, who said in a statement early Sunday morning:

While this bill is a direct response to the causes of water crisis here in Kanawha County and the regulation of above-ground storage tanks, just as importantly it puts in place source water protection plans and monitoring for the entire state.

Major parts of the bill are really simply forcing state agencies to do things they already had the ability and the information to do — such as actually look closely at what sorts of pollutant sources exist upstream from water intakes, and plan for what would happen if those sources actually reached the water supplies. It also requires DEP to more closely inspect those pollutant sources, and to create a whole new program to monitor above-ground chemical storage tanks. And — thanks in large part to Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, the bill forces the state Bureau for Public Health to study the long-term health effects from chemical exposure from the Freedom Industries spill. Delegate Poore said:

This legislation is critically important not only to the people of my district who were so deeply affected by the spill,  but also to the well being and safety of all West Virginians. This legislation is the beginning of an extensive process to enact better protections and produce answers.

There are clearly some remaining problems with the bill. It contains language that would require only that the state consider important chemical safety recommendations from the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, stopping way short of actually mandating that state agencies actually follow the CSB’s advice. The final version contains three unnecessary exemptions to the state’s Freedom of Information Act that — if abused by state officials — could seriously hamper the ability of the public to do its part in ensuring drinking water supplies are protecting better moving forward. And lawmakers simply refused to consider the possibility that future state agencies won’t do what’s required of them by the bill (despite readily available evidence that agencies do this all time time), and allow a clear legal framework to allow citizens to go to court to force agency action.

And keep in mind that lawmakers left an awful lot of decisions up to DEP going forward. Agency officials will, for example, spell out the specific rules for chemical tank safety in regulations that DEP officials will write.

Continue reading…

West Virginia leaders sing the same old tune

Coals War

Here in Charleston, we’re about to see — with final actions one way or the other on chemical tank/water quality legislation — how much state lawmakers and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin learned from the terrible chemical spill in January that contaminated the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians. It’s coming down to the wire, and there are sure to be many efforts by industry lobbyists and their elected official friends to weaken what is already quite a compromise of a bill.

But in Washington, West Virginia’s elected officials are doing their best to show that they haven’t paid any attention at all since Jan. 9. Despite how the chemical spill made more clear than ever the folly of our leadership’s anti-regulatory, anti-environment, anti-public safety — and even anti-worker safety — attitude, the drum beat goes on. Here’s the latest news from our nation’s capital:

A bill that would curb the ability of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on carbon emissions from power plants cleared a hurdle in the House of Representatives on Thursday.

I’ll give you three guesses how West Virginia’s House members voted … and the first two don’t count.

Republican Reps. Shelley Moore Capito and David McKinley were for the legislation, with McKinley issuing this statement about it:

We’ve heard from numerous business leaders that tell us that excessive regulations are holding back job growth. We need to create an economic environment where businesses feel confident about their future in this uncertain economy as the Obama Administration continues to bypass Congress with its ever-changing government regulations.

One of the problems our coal, gas and oil industries face are the ideologically motivated regulations they are required to adhere to even when the technology isn’t yet available. Other nations don’t impose the same burdensome policies and regulations. These amendments will make certain the United States remains competitive on a global scale.

Ideologically motivated regulations? I thought Rep. McKinley fashioned himself as someone who cared about science … wonder why there’s nothing in his statement about the latest report from the National Academy of Sciences, which warns us:

Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time. It is now more certain than ever, based on many lines of evidence, that humans are changing Earth’s climate. The atmosphere and oceans have warmed, accompanied by sea-level rise, a strong decline in Arctic sea ice, and other climate-related changes.

And the West Virginia Democrats aren’t doing much better. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., was one of only 10 members of his party to vote with the Republicans on this one. His rhetoric was more out of control than Rep. McKinley’s:

Those of us from the coal-producing regions of this country have become sick and tired of this EPA churning out anti-coal regulations, while showing little or no appreciation for how those regulations will affect the lives and livelihoods of the real people who have to live and work under them. We have been frustrated as the EPA has used slanted science, and inflated claims about the benefits of their regulatory agenda.  We have to question whether this EPA is actually using good, sound science, or if it is picking and choosing science that sounds good to meet whatever ends the agency desires.

I’m guessing that people whose water was contaminated by that coal-cleaning chemical spilled by Freedom Industries into the Elk River aren’t necessarily “sick and tired” of government regulations. They might just like to see the ones on the books enforced, and maybe even some new ones to prevent that kind of disaster from happening again.

And for you folks who think that Secretary of State Natalie Tennant offers some sort of progressive alternative to Rep. Capito to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Rockefeller … well, not on issues that have to do with the environment or public health and safety. The “Tennant for West Virginia” campaign put out this statement about the House vote:

I will fight President Obama and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs. Instead of attacking coal with regulations, we should be working together to invest in advanced coal technologies that will support coal jobs for years to come.

Continue reading…

Fat possums: Water bill coming down to the wire

ELKRpaddlers

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

It was another late night for the House of Delegates, as members spent a couple of hours working and reworking through amendments to SB 373, the legislative response to the Freedom Industries chemical spill that contaminated the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians.

Delegates carefully put back in some important provisions that the House Finance Committee had summarily removed.  A long-term health study of residents impactedby the Crude MCHM contamination, tougher WVDEP permitting for facilities located within the critical zone near drinking water intakes, and better “early warning” systems to detect contaminants near the Elk River water plant that serves the region are all back in the legislation that passed the House unanimously.

Another vote by the House put back in the bill language to require a new state water system study commission to examine the U.S. Chemical Safety Board’s recommendation for a state chemical accident prevention program. That requirement had somehow disappeared from the version that passed out of the House Judiciary Committee. What’s amazing here is that it takes an act of the Legislature for state officials to actually even really consider the CSB’s very sensible recommendation — made by the CSB twice more than two years ago following fatal accidents at two Kanawha Valley chemical plants.

poore_mesheaDelegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, deserves special credit for her work on several of these issues. It was particularly smart of Delegate Poore to change one of her amendments to calling for a “long-term medical study” of residents in the spill region from its original language calling for “medical monitoring.” The anti-lawsuit crowd has wrongly turned “medical monitoring” — something that can be awarded only under very limited conditions in lawsuits in West Virginia courts — into such a bugaboo that many lawmakers were standing against it, without really being able to articulate what it was they were against.

Other amendments that could have strengthened the bill were defeated, often without really much of an argument against them. For example, lawmakers overwhelmingly voted down a proposal for a specific provision allowing citizen lawsuits to make state agencies actually — horror of horrors — enforce the various duties the bill puts on those agencies. Lawmakers quibbled with exactly who could bring such suits under the amendment, but I didn’t hear anyone explain why it’s a bad idea to allow courts to step in when agencies blatantly ignore duties to protect our health and safety.

As with the medical study amendment, the anti-lawsuit crowd has made so many lawmakers misunderstand the civil justice system that most of them don’t get the idea that over and over and over again it’s taken citizen lawsuits to force corporate and government action on environmental and public safety threats. Don’t think so? Read the story today about the big U.S. EPA deal with Alpha Natural Resources, and take note of the role citizen suits played in bring about that settlement. West Virginia history is full of examples where citizen suits were the only reason we improved our educational system, reformed conditions in jails, gave coal miners the workplace safety they deserve, and complied with the mandates of federal environmental laws to clean up our streams.

While it was delayed for hours, the House debate last night provided some hopeful examples that West Virginia leaders are learning a little bit from what’s happened over the last few months.

There was the scene, for example, when Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin was trying to amend back into the bill language to outlaw the WVDEP’s longstanding practice of allowing many industrial facilities to get stormwater pollution permits through a streamlined “general permit” process. A major report by the West Virginia Rivers Coalition and Downstream Strategies proposed this reform, noting that the Freedom Industries site got little regulatory scrutiny under this WVDEP practice.

Delegate Kevin Craig, D-Cabell, didn’t like this amendment. He was concerned it put too much pressure on construction operations, which currently receive stormwater pollution authorization through general permits. Chairman Manchin proposed an alternative, but when it wasn’t enough for Delegate Craig, the two got together and came up with a fairly reasonable compromise. The approved amendment requires more rigorous general permits for pollution sources that are located near drinking water intakes and that have above-ground storage tanks regulated by the new bill.

Continue reading…

What kind of water protection bill will we get?

KANRIVER1

Gazette photo by Lawrence Pierce

It’s not been so terribly long ago that West Virginia leaders were focused on turning the page on Massey Energy and the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.  The result was lawmakers passed a terribly weak coal-mine safety bill that’s never been fully enforced, and our state’s miners continue to die on the job (see here, here and here, for example) — the inevitable result, some of our leaders would have us believe, of doing “the heavy lifting” for our nation.

There was also a rush a few years ago to move on from discussing serious issues about the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling boom, following passage of a much-weakened piece of legislation Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his staff worked out with industry lobbyists.  This legislative session, we’ve seen quite a push on to legalize the Department of Environmental Protection’s move to assure gas drillers a place to put the huge amounts of waste their practices generate. But, we’ve seen precious little from lawmakers about the many critical issues that weren’t addressed during that special session in December 2011 (see here, here, here and here).

And certainly, if there has been any talk at the West Virginia Legislature about the climate crisis, it’s been through pandering resolutions aimed at doing little but playing politics and continuing the do-as-little-as-possible approach to these sorts of problems that results in disasters like the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical spill that contaminated the drinking water of 300,000 West Virginians in a nine-county region.

Today on the House floor, we’ll get to see if the West Virginia Democrats who run that part of our government have learned anything in the last few months — let alone in the last few years, since that day in April 2010 when 29 coal miners got blown up at Upper Big Branch.

As I have written before, there are a lot of good things about SB373:

Like previous versions, it greatly expands on what was extremely limited language in West Virginia Code, simply giving the Department of Health and Human Resources authority to write rules concerning drinking water protections. Among the more significant moves by Chairman Tim Manchin is to strike from the bill most of those controversial exemptions that were originally proposed by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, included in the governor’s bill, and carried over by the Senate and one previous House committee.

Largely, the bill would require state government to start doing what most experts say should have been done all along — actually take chemical inventory information, the location of various threats to public drinking water, and use that information to plan how to be sure those precious water supplies are protected.

The bill even had the West Virginia Environmental Council — seldom a group that’s satisfied with what lawmakers are doing — offering some support, with lead lobbyist Don Garvin saying at the end of last week:

Frankly, folks, there are a lot of good things included in this Judiciary draft bill. Is it perfect? No. But the provisions already included would provide significant new regulation for protecting water supplies across the state.

Now is not the time to start over. Now is the time for the House to pass their version of SB 373, and send it back to the Senate for its consideration.

Let’s get it done.

That was even before House Judiciary made some significant improvements, such as adding a requirement for long-term medical monitoring of residents impacted byt he Freedom Industries’ spill. But it was also before Tuesday evening’s actions by the House Finance Committee, removing that medical monitoring provision, eliminating a mandate for better “early warning” systems on West Virginia American Water’s Elk River Plant, and amending out a provision to block polluters located near drinking water intakes from getting streamlined water pollution permits like the one that allowed Freedom Industries to go without any significant inspections by the state Department of Environmental Protection. Commenting on the Finance Committee’s amendments, Gary Zuckett of West Virginia-Citizen Action said:

The treatment of the water bill in House Finance was in stark contrast to the deliberation of the other two committees. Whereas Health and Judiciary took two weeks to improve the Senate bill, Finance flushed their hard work down the drain in a few hours.

Right now, the legislative website lists at least 10 amendments scheduled to be considered today on the floor, including one that would put the long-term health study back in, another that would reinstate the early warning pollution monitoring, and another to allow for citizen enforcement of the new water law.

Continue reading…

Crunch time coming for chemical spill bill

freedom aerial

Photo by Commercial Photography Services of West Virginia, via U.S.Chemical Safety Board

It’s been nearly two months since the coal-cleaning chemical Crude MCHM poured into the Elk River, contaminating the drinking water supply for 300,000 West Virginians. And we’re now just a week out from the end of the regular, 60-day session of the West Virginia Legislature. Clearly, crunch time is approaching for lawmakers.

There have perhaps been some modest improvements in the way political leadership at the Capitol is handling things in the wake of the Freedom Industries disaster.  A coal industry and WVDEP-backed weakening of the state’s water quality standard for aluminum appears to have been killed off. Some insiders say no one wanted to be out in front pushing a lessening of such standards right now, but it’s important to remember that the first instinct of some lawmakers — specifically the Senate Natural Resources Committee — was to go right along with what industry wanted, with few questions asked.

Clearly, there hasn’t been any wholesale movement — at least not yet — away from the typical way we do things, which is to talk a good game about protection water quality and public health, all the while going full-steam ahead with actions that do just the opposite.

But there’s also a very important opportunity to, at least where drinking water and the potential threats to it, especially from above-ground chemical storage tanks, are concerned take very real steps in a different direction — toward the public interest.

Late yesterday afternoon, the House Judiciary Committee’s leadership and staff unveiled the latest version of SB 373, the main legislative response to the water crisis. My colleague, David Gutman, describes the committee meeting in a Gazette story here, and the Daily Mail’s Dave Boucher has a story on the latest version of the bill here.

There’s much to like about the latest version of the bill. Like previous versions, it greatly expands on what was extremely limited language in West Virginia Code, simply giving the Department of Health and Human Resources authority to write rules concerning drinking water protections. Among the more significant moves by Chairman Tim Manchin is to strike from the bill most of those controversial exemptions that were originally proposed by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, included in the governor’s bill, and carried over by the Senate and one previous House committee.

Largely, the bill would require state government to start doing what most experts say should have been done all along — actually take chemical inventory information, the location of various threats to public drinking water, and use that information to plan how to be sure those precious water supplies are protected.

Conspicuously absent from the bill right now, though, is any movement by the state to implement the previous recommendations by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board for a new chemical accident prevention program, both in Kanawha County and — perhaps — statewide.

Among the odd things that’s come up in the last few days is this development, as described by David Gutman:

Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, asked Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call for the special session to focus solely on the water bill. She was joined by a bipartisan group of 26 other Delegates, including Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

“We will miss a golden opportunity to produce legislation that will instill a renewed sense of confidence in the administrative and legislative branches of West Virginia’s governance structure,” Poore said in the letter. “[A] resolution requires more time and concentration than the regular session affords.”

But House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, and Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin, D-Marion, both said the special session was unnecessary.

“I regret that these members want to give up on passing a bill during the regular session when we still have plenty of time to perfect it,” Miley said in a news release.

On the one hand, there is an odd group of delegates supporting Delegate Poore’s request to delay this bill and deal with it during a special session. You have to wonder whether some of them have different motivations than simply providing time to write a better piece of legislation. Do some of the Republican simply hope to delay, and give industry more time to weaken the bill? Or is this at least partly about partisan politics, and trying to dredge up some squabbling between Democratic House leaders and their members?

Still, the reaction from Speaker Miley and Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin was a bit over the top. You have to wonder why they simply didn’t respond by saying something like, “You know, a special session isn’t out of the question. But let’s see how far we can get, and then cross the bridge when we come to it.”

There’s no question that Chairman Manchin and his staff have put in a lot of time on their version of the bill.  They held a “stakeholder” meeting last weekend, and actually bothered to include environmental groups — something Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and his people didn’t bother to do when they wrote their version of the legislation. Still, it was not a public meeting of the Judiciary Committee that anyone could attend or listen to on the Internet. The result is an 80-page “committee substitute” bill that was drafted in private, rather than molded through a public process of debating and voting on amendments to the version that was already on the table.

Some will say that’s just the way things are done, and in fact the only way things can get done, given the part-time nature of our Legislature, and the meager staffing and resources that lawmakers have at their disposal. But at some point process matters, and the process we’ve used for decades in West Virginia hasn’t always served us very well.

Several years ago, Chairman Manchin heroically spent many, many months in open committee meetings trying to craft a strong bill to regulate the Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling boom in West Virginia, only to see that product severely weakened by Gov. Tomblin, whose office had previously refused to release its correspondence with industry lobbyists about how the Marcellus boom should be regulated.

That’s why one part of the new version of SB 373 that is most puzzling is 22-31-7, which is somewhat ironically titled, “Public Access to Information.” This is part of a section of the bill that requires the state to put together a list of potential contaminants located in the “zone of critical concern” near public drinking water intakes It starts out well enough:

… The public shall have access to all documents and information submitted to the agency … “

But, it goes on to say that if any such information:

“… Is requested to be kept confidential and good cause is found to grant the request, for reasons of security or other legitimate public interest concern, the protected information shall be redacted from public view and kept confidential, and it shall not be subject to public release in response to a Freedom of Information Act request … “

Not for nothing, but the state FOIA already contains at least 9 exemptions that were added after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that are perfectly adequate to protect any secret squirrel information that needs to be kept confidential to protect our water supply from some evil-doers. But the bill as written creates a completely different test — “good cause … for reasons of security or other legitimate public interest concern” — than the difficult test for concealing any public records under our existing state FOIA, which mandates “the fullest possible disclosure.”

The way this version of SB 373 is written, Freedom Industries might very well have been able to conceal from public view any information about what it was storing at the Elk River site prior to last month’s chemical spill. It’s hard to believe that’s what Chairman Manchin and his staff intended.

Gov. Tomblin criticizes ‘unreasonable’ EPA rules

TomblinMcCarthy

This news just out from the office of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin today met with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy to provide an update on the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s (WVDEP) remediation efforts and the state’s continued recovery following the January 9 Elk River chemical spill. 

 “Since January 9, we have been working day-in, day-out to ensure public health and safety for the 300,000 West Virginians affected by the Elk River chemical spill,” Gov. Tomblin said. “This event is not only a significant public health issue, but also an environmental and economic development issue. I am grateful for the help from the EPA and our federal partners who have provided us with guidance and who have been with us every step of the way.”

But wait … there’s more:

During the meeting, the Governor also shared recommendations for establishing carbon dioxide emission guidelines for existing power plants.

“We understand the importance of environmental stewardship and are committed to preserving our state’s beauty for generations to enjoy,” Gov. Tomblin said. “We also understand the importance of a hard day’s work, but up to this point, I believe there has not been sufficient consideration of the real life adverse consequences of economically unfeasible greenhouse gas regulations on West Virginia and many other states. An unreasonable regulatory structure could destabilize our once reliable power grid, increase energy costs to vulnerable ratepayers, further burden industrial employers, and devastate coal mining families and communities.” 

The Governor offered to work with EPA officials in developing reasonable standards that balance the environment and economic opportunity.

Here’s a copy of a Feb. 21 letter from the governor to EPA about the carbon dioxide emissions guidelines.

West Virginia Gov. Tomblin’s water crisis Catch-22

Special Gubernatorial Primary Election

The front page of today’s Daily Mail included a story headlined, “Tomblin ready to focus on recovery.”  Under the headline, reporter Dave Boucher explained:

After more than 40 days in a state of emergency following a massive chemical spill last month, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he believes West Virginia is almost ready to officially focus on recovery.

“We are looking at the end of the state of emergency,” Tomblin said Tuesday, following a press event at the state Capitol.

Those remarks came the same day that the governor’s office issued another after-hours press release to announce this:

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling today sent a letter to Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to formally request the CDC, or its partners, immediately conduct further epidemiological and/or toxicological studies and address ongoing population surveillance or monitoring as a result of the January 9 Elk River chemical spill. 

“I am committed to the health and well-being of West Virginians and believe there is a pressing need to further study the potential health effects resulting from exposure to water contaminated with crude MCHM and PPH,” Gov. Tomblin said. “It is critical this study is funded and that work begins immediately.”

The governor’s letter to the CDC offered a pretty confusing explanation of exactly what the state was asking the federal government to do:

Like you, we are committed to the health and welfare of our citizens. Due to the limited number of studies on Crude MCHM and PPH, we are formally requesting the CDC, or its partners, immediately conduct further epidemiological and/or toxicological studies. In addition, there is a specific need to address ongoing population surveillance or monitoring. It is critical this study be funded and that work begins immediately.

There’s a lot that’s confusing here. Exactly what epidemiological and/or toxicological studies does the governor want done? How is that work different that the studies announced last week as part of the governor’s plan for testing home plumbing systems? The letter is also not clear in terms of who the governor wants to do which studies, and whether he wants federal funding for this ongoing monitoring of the population exposed by the Freedom Industries chemical spill into the Elk River.

Even more confusing is this: If the DHHR believes that ongoing monitoring of the exposed population is so crucial, why did that agency stop (as of Jan. 24) keeping track of — and making public numbers about — residents reporting to hospitals for medical care potentially related to MCHM exposure? Surely, continuing that monitoring would have helped move any sort of surveillance study forward.

But really, to understand how confusing the position Gov. Tomblin is taking — and the predicament he’s gotten himself into — fully, you have to go back to something the governor said at that big, much-promoted press conference he held with officials from the CDC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Remember this quote, which came near the beginning of the event, from the mouth of our governor:

Science says the water is safe.

Over and over at that press conference, Gov. Tomblin dismissed the suggestion that maybe some of the water he was telling people to drink — the stuff actually coming out of our taps — should be tested, to see if any of the chemicals from the spill had somehow been absorbed into home plumbing systems. Hours later, his spokeswoman, Amy Goodwin, begin telling reporters the governor had directed his team to put together a plan for home testing.

And then the following morning, the governor’s staff issued a press release in which Gov. Tomblin criticized the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s refusal to continue providing resources to state and local agencies to do things like, well, provide bottled water:

I am extremely disappointed by FEMA’s initial response, and I share the frustration and anger of West Virginians who have endured this crisis. I have personally contacted FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate to express my concern over this decision. We are committed to providing the detail necessary to demonstrate the assistance needed by the public safety agencies that have provided support to citizens since this crisis struck more than one month ago.

The governor’s comments made me wonder if FEMA was disappointed or frustrated or angry to be taking a beating from West Virginia political leaders for simply refusing to help provided bottled water to replace tap water that none other than West Virginia’s governor had proclaimed to be safe. Seriously. If you’re FEMA, why would you want to do what Gov. Tomblin asked you to in this situation? And what’s the logic behind Gov. Tomblin saying the water is safe, but expecting the federal government — a federal government West Virginia leaders love to criticize for not being able to balance a budget or for daring to try to protect the planet from global warming — to provide more money for more bottled water?

Continue reading…