Coal Tattoo

Friday roundup, Aug. 2, 2013

China Daily Life

A worker levels the coal on a freight train in Taiyuan in northern China’s Shanxi province Wednesday, July 31, 2013.  (AP Photo)

Here’s a story from CNN’s website that might sound familiar to many West Virginians:

Four months after he built a new, two-story brick house in his village in northern China’s Shandong Province, Xiao Guoqiang was alarmed to find a huge crack on the living room wall.

Having seen homes in neighboring villages sink, Xiao realized his long-held fears were coming true.

“I knew the day was coming, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon,” said Xiao, who has been forced to move from the land — on which four generations of his family have lived — as a consequence.

Xiao’s hometown, Jining, is one of China’s “coal cities,” whose mineral wealth helps light up the night skies of the world’s most energy-hungry country. The land here is honeycombed with coal mines, which can form massive sinkholes that leave thousands of homes uninhabitable every year.

And here’s an interesting piece from the U.S. Midwest:

A proposed surface coal mine spanning 1,500 acres of southwestern Indiana’s coal country would threaten an adjacent national wildlife refuge used by migratory birds with heavy metals and sediments exposed by mining and earth-moving operations, three environmental groups warn.

Evansville-based Vigo Coal Co. is seeking a federal permit under the Clean Water Act to develop the proposed Vigo Sunna Mine in an area about 30 miles northeast of Evansville. Its permit application states that it would remove 18 miles of waterways, 29 acres of open waters and seven acres of wetlands in Pike County to expose the region’s underlying coal deposits.

The Sierra Club, Hoosier Environmental Council and Conservation Law Center contend that the company’s request is devoid of information about the vegetation, fish, aquatic insects and other wildlife that exists in the habitats it would destroy to reach the area’s coal seams.

Without that data, they say the company’s proposal to restore the area’s habitat following mining, as is required under federal law, rings hollow.

“You have to know what the quality of the resource was, how it’s functioning and what’s there. You can’t just say, ‘We’re going to impact so many linear feet or so many acres and then we’ll restore it,'” said Tim Maloney, the Hoosier Environmental Council’s senior policy director.

Continue reading…

Report details move from coal to natural gas

Why It Matters Climate Change

There’s a new report out today from SNL Financial that tells us:

As environmental regulations continue their forward march and gas prices remain low compared to historic rates due to increased domestic supply, the number of power plants changing their primary fuel source to natural gas has increased dramatically. In 2011 and 2012, just more than 5.5 GW of power plant capacity switched to burning primarily natural gas from another form of fossil fuel, according to an SNL Energy analysis of U.S. Energy Information Administration 860 data.

You can read the whole thing, and see charts of the plants involved, here.


Coal Ash Spill

In this Dec. 22, 2008 file photo, an aerial view shows homes that were destroyed when a retention pond wall collapsed at the Tennessee Valley Authorities Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tenn.  U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan ruled Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 that The Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for the huge spill of toxin-laden sludge. Varlan said in a written opinion that TVA was negligent in its conduct and will be liable for damages to be determined later. (AP Photo/Wade Payne, File)

Earlier today, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the latest version of a bill from Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., to block the federal Environmental Protection Agency from regulating toxic coal ash from the nation’s power plants. As Erica Peterson explained for WFPL, the vote was 265-155.  West Virginia’s other two House members, Democrat Nick Rahall and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, are both co-sponsors of the bill.

McKinley2Rep. McKinley said today:

For 33 years Congress has wrestled with how to deal with coal ash but has failed to find an answer. The bill that passed the House today is a common sense solution for how to recycle and dispose of this unavoidable byproduct of burning coal.

Keep in mind that the bipartisan Congressional Research Service has offered tough criticisms of the legislation, and Earthjustice has likewise said the legislation is far too weak, with the group’s coal-ash expert, Lisa Evans saying just this week:

This bill falsely claims to address the nationwide toxic threat from coal ash dumping. But in reality, the bill will make the problem much worse.

Continue reading…

Corps seeks comments on Blair Mountain mining

In this June 6, 2011 photo, this historical marker along W.Va. Route 17 in Blair, W.Va., is the only visible sign of the 1921 battle here between thousands of armed, unionizing coal miners and the thousands of law enforcement officers and security guards hired to defeat them. At least 16 men died on the mountain, which could be turned into a strip mine. (AP Photo/Vicki Smith)

There’s a new public notice out from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that looks pretty interesting:

The purpose of this Public Notice is to identify consulting parties who would be interested in assisting with the development of a Programmatic Agreement (PA) that would govern the implementation of the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ (Corps) responsibilities under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) for undertakings that may affect the Blair Mountain Battlefield, a historic property.  The scope of the proposed PA would be limited to requests for Department of the Army (DA) authorizations submitted by the three applicants listed below for projects that would be subject to the Corps’ regulatory authorities under Section 10 of the Rivers and Harbors Act (RHA) of 1899 and Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (CWA).

The applicants are: WPP LLC, Aracoma Coal Co. (Alpha Natural Resources) and Mingo Logan Coal Company (Arch Coal).

The notice goes on to say:

The Blair Mountain Battlefield is an approximate 1700-acre district located in Logan County, West Virginia. The Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places has determined the Blair Mountain Battlefield is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The applicants have requested the Corps negotiate a PA in accordance with 33 CFR 800.14 for activities that meet all three of the following criteria:

a) the activity is proposed by one or more of the applicants listed above;

b) the activity would require DA authorization; and

c) the activity may affect the Blair Mountain Battlefield.

This PA would describe the procedures that would be followed to implement Section 106 of the NHPA for any Corps undertaking that meets all three of the criteria listed above. The purpose of the PA would be to establish a program for consultation, review and compliance with Section 106 of the NHPA when agreed upon criteria are met and procedures are followed.

Comments are due by Aug. 11 to this address:

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

ATTN: CELRH-RD-E, Blair Mountain PA

502 8th Street

Huntington, West Virginia 25701-2070

SNL Financial has the sad news:

A 35-year-old coal miner was killed July 2 at Peabody Energy Corp.‘s Wildcat Hills underground mine in southern Illinois, according to a company spokeswoman.

The name of the victim was not released. The spokeswoman said the fatality was the “result of a coal haulage incident.” The Wildcat Hills mine has been idled pending investigation, and appropriate officials with the state and federal government have been notified, she said.

That’s the 10th coal-mining death so far in 2013, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Another way to help plan West Virginia’s future

Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp

It’s great that West Virginians are spending so much time and energy celebrating our state’s last 150 years. But it’s also important to look to the future, as the Gazette tried to encourage readers to do by collecting ideas about making West Virginia even better in the next 150 years.

And this afternoon, the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy and the Union of Concerned Scientists announced a new way that everyone can get involved to help move West Virginia forward:

In an effort to focus on moving West Virginia forward, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the Union of Concerned Scientists will convene a forum seeking to spark an honest, objective, and open discussion about the potential for future economic development in the state. Our goals are threefold:

  1. to provide a relaxed atmosphere for diverse perspectives and exchange of views;
  2. to identify needs and pathways for moving the state forward; and
  3. to celebrate the successes of local communities in creating new economic opportunities.

Attendees will include local community leaders, elected officials, industry executives, academics, policymakers, union leaders, and advocates.

The event will be held at the Walker Theater of the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, One Clay Square, Charleston, WV, 25301.

Continue reading…

The breaking news is out that a U.S. bankruptcy judge has ruled in favor of Patriot Coal’s motion to reject its contract with the United Mine Workers union and to alter its retiree health-care plant.

You can read the 102-page decision from Judge Kathy A. Surratt-States here. This is the “conclusion” section at the end of the ruling:

Was Debtor Patriot Coal Corporation created to fail? Maybe not. Maybe. Maybe the executive team involved at Debtor Patriot Coal Corporation’s inception thought the liabilities were manageable and thus the reality of Debtors’ bankruptcy was more attributed to unwarranted optimism about future prospects. Unions generally try to bargain for the best deal for their members, however, there is likely some responsibility to be absorbed for demanding benefits that the employer cannot realistically fund in perpetuity, particularly given the availability of sophisticated actuarial analysts and cost trend experts. Further, Congress could have incorporated pre-funding requirements for health benefits as it did for pensions when Congress enacted ERISA, but it did not. “The legacy of unfunded retiree medical benefits was itself the result of Congressional inaction, a changing manufacturing landscape, and the benign neglect and false hopes of companies and unions alike.”

UPDATED: The UMWA has issued this statement, which says in part:

The ruling announced today by Judge Kathy Surratt-States of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court of the Eastern District of Missouri in favor of proposals by Patriot Coal to eliminate its collective bargaining agreements and cut off retiree health care is “wrong, unfair and fails to fully recognize the coming wave of human suffering that will be experienced by thousands of people throughout the coalfields,” United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts said today.

 “As often happens under American bankruptcy law, the short-term interests of the company are valued more than the dedication and sacrifice of the workers, who actually produce the profits that make a company successful,” Roberts said.

UPDATED 2: And here’s what Patriot Coal had to say:

“This ruling represents a major step forward for Patriot, allowing our company to achieve savings that are critical to our reorganization and the preservation of more than 4,000 jobs,” stated Patriot President and Chief Executive Officer Bennett K. Hatfield.  “The savings contemplated by this ruling, together with other cost reductions implemented across our company, will put Patriot on course to becoming a viable business.”

“For the coming days, we plan to continue operating in the normal course under our current UMWA contracts.  Patriot management will continue diligent negotiations with the UMWA leadership to address their concerns about our court-approved proposals,” continued Hatfield.  “While the Court has given Patriot the authority to impose these critical changes to the collective bargaining agreements, and our financial needs mandate implementation by July 1, we continue to believe that a consensual resolution is the best possible outcome for all parties.”

UPDATED 3: West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller said:

I join the thousands of miners in our state who are deeply disappointed with today’s ruling. Once again we are seeing how the bankruptcy system is stacked against the American worker. I will continue fighting to put workers and employers on a level playing field by closing the legal loopholes that allow companies to pad their profits while abusing the legal system to escape from the promises they made. It’s tragic to watch how some industries treat their workers after they’ve given much of their lives to these companies.

Today promises to be a busy one for coal-related news. Thousands of Patriot Coal miners and retirees are anxiously awaiting the decision from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kathy A. Surratt-States on Patriot’s efforts to throw out the terms of its contract with the United Mine Workers and modify its retiree health-care plans.

Dan Lowrey explains for SNL Financial News:

Still at odds over proposed changes to collective bargaining agreements, Patriot Coal Corp. and the United Mine Workers of America await a decision by a federal bankruptcy judge, implications of which hold the future to the company and its thousands of workers and retirees.

Judge Kathy Surratt-States of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Missouri is scheduled to issue a ruling by May 29 on Patriot’s proposal to restructure health care and pension benefit obligations owed to union members and retirees. Patriot has warned that if the union does not accept concessions to help it restructure, it will be forced to liquidate and lay off 4,000 employees.

… The UMWA and Patriot are still far apart in negotiations. The UMWA is seeking a 57% equity stake in a reorganized Patriot in exchange for changes to union health care benefits agreements. Patriot offered the UMWA a direct 35% equity interest in the company post-bankruptcy if it consents to reductions in health care benefits. Patriot has said the equity stake could be monetized to help the union fund a voluntary employees’ beneficiary association, which would administer health care costs and be funded through profit sharing, up to a maximum of $300 million. Patriot has post-retirement benefit obligations of approximately $1.51 billion owed to employees, a figure the company says it must reduce.

Meanwhile here in Charleston, hearings begin today at the West Virginia Public Service Commission on FirstEnergy’s proposal to transfer ownership of its Harrison Power Station to its West Virginia subsidiary, Monongahela Power (see previous coverage here and here). Just in time for the hearing, Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists has a new blog post out about this case. He writes:

The bottom line is that the shale gas boom and resulting low natural gas prices, along with renewable energy standards like Ohio’s, have made the 40-year-old Harrison coal plant less profitable for the company. It is proposing that Mon Power pay over double the actual value of the plant, as calculated by the PSC’s own analysts, and is clearly grossly overpriced compared to similar recent power plant transactions.

This misguided deal amounts to a bailout of FirstEnergy — paid for directly by Mon Power’s customers, and by extension, Potomac Edison customers, who are subject to the same rate decisions applied to Mon Power by the WV PSC.

Estimates suggest this deal would raise electricity rates for Mon Power and Potomac Edison customers by 6 percent. For its part, FirstEnergy recently responded to these criticisms, suggesting the plant is needed to meet projected capacity needs; but simply put, the company has not made any attempt to consider other options for meeting those needs. Instead of rushing this deal through, the WV PSC should insist that the company instead issue a request for proposals (RFP) to find the least costly alternative.

More than three months ago, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals issued a ruling that paved the way for the widows of two miners killed in the 2006 Aracoma Mine fire to pursue their lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Labor over lax enforcement of federal mine safety standards at the operation.

That was early February — more than seven yeas after the deaths of coal miners Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield.  But now here we are in May, and Department of Justice lawyers representing the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration are again trying to keep widows Delorice Bragg and Freda Hatfield from having their day in court. Those government attorneys have filed this motion, asking the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to schedule more legal briefing, so they can again try to keep the case from ever being heard on its merits.

A little history is needed to understand what MSHA’s lawyers are up to here:

… The Bragg and Hatfield families sued MSHA under the federal Tort Claims Act, alleging federal officials were partly responsible.

In February 2011, U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver threw out the case, concluding that it wasn’t allowed because under West Virginia law a private person in circumstances similar to MSHA’s would not have been held liable. Under the FTCA, the federal government is liable in the same manner, and to the same extent, as private individuals would be in similar situations.

Then, in July 2012, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it found “no clear controlling West Virginia precedent” on the issue, and asked the state Supreme Court to consider the matter.

So what happened?

In a 5-0 ruling, the justices said that a private party conducting mine inspections is liable for the wrongful death of a miner resulting from that private party’s negligent inspection.

“A private inspector who inspects a work premises for the purpose of furthering the safety of employees who work on said premises owes a duty of care to those employees to conduct inspections with ordinary skill, care, and diligence commensurate with that rendered by members of his or her profession,” said the ruling, written by Justice Robin Davis.

Continue reading…

Appeals court sides with EPA over Spruce Mine veto

This just in: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has reversed a lower court ruling that overturned EPA’s veto of the Spruce Mine mountaintop removal permit in Logan County, W.Va.

I’ve posted a copy of the ruling here, and we’ve posted a news story on the Gazette’s website here.

Readers may recall that EPA vetoed the Clean Water Act permit, prompting an appeal by Arch Coal, which led to a ruling by U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson that overruled the agency’s action. EPA appealed, and today’s decision by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson concludes:

… The Congress made plain its intent to grant the Administrator authority to prohibit/deny/restrict/withdraw a specification at any time … Thus, the unambiguous language of subsection 404(c) manifests the Congress’s intent to confer on EPA a broad veto power extending beyond the permit issuance.

MSHA celebrates law it took 32 years to enforce

When I was writing a post earlier today about the latest disclosure of inaction by the Tomblin administration on mine safety issues, I was reminded of how the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration likes to brag about “using all of its tools” to protect the health and safety of miners, while at the same time the record shows MSHA for many years ignored many of its toughest tools — like citing companies for a “pattern of violations” or seeking court injunctions to close down renegade mining operations, or issuing “flagrant penalties” for the worst kinds of violations.

Of course, you wouldn’t know about MSHA’s long history of inaction on many of these things if you read agency chief Joe Main’s commentary in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail touting the anniversary of the 1977 mine safety act.  The commentary, for example, touted the addition of the “pattern of violations” enforcement tool, without mentioning that MSHA just finally got around to actually using that tool:

It creates effective enforcement tools that allow MSHA to issue citations and orders for “unwarrantable failures” by the mine operator and to address chronic violators — mine operators who establish a “pattern of violations” of mandatory safety or health standards.

And, in the commentary, MSHA pats itself on the back for finally beginning to stand up for the rights of coal miners to not be punishes for complaining about poor safety conditions, again without explaining why it took so long for this part of the law to finally be enforced:

The law also includes provisions that protect miners against loss of pay for the time a miner’s representative spends accompanying a federal inspector during an inspection and provides compensation during periods when a mine is idled because of a withdrawal order (which temporarily ceases production) issued by MSHA.

It enhances anti-discrimination provisions and, for the first time, provides miners an opportunity for temporary reinstatement to their jobs while pursuing complaints.

Maybe it’s unfair to expect Joe Main, now that he’s running MSHA, to actually talk about the agency’s warts, especially since he has actually begun to make progress on some important changes, such as the new pattern of violations rule finalized in January.

I gather the goal here is for MSHA to launch its latest public relations blitz, an effort to celebrate the anniversary of the 1977 Act’s passage. You can check out a new section of the MSHA website dedicated to this effort here, with an explanation of the law’s impacts here and the changes made by the 1977 law over the 1969 law here.

But as the 3rd anniversary of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster approaches, it’s worth remembering the key things that led Congress to update the 1969 coal-mine safety law with the 1977 mine safety law. And MSHA makes reference to these things on its website:

Following that [1969]  legislation, mining tragedies continued. On March 9, 1976, 15 men died in the first of two explosions at the Scotia Mine. Two days later, 11 more men were killed at the mine. Among those who died were three Federal mine inspectors. A few years before that, on May 2, 1972 at the Sunshine silver mine in Idaho, a fire engulfed the mine and ninety-one workers lost their lives from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. These metal/nonmetal miners were not protected by the 1969 law.

Congress decided that more needed to be done to end tragic mining disasters and to provide metal/nonmetal miners with the same protections as coal miners – and enacted the 1977 Federal Mine Safety and Health Act. Its effective date was March 9, 1978 – two years to the day after that terrible tragedy at Scotia.

But if you read the legislative history, you learn that Scotia wasn’t just some unavoidable tragedy:

Section 105(d) provides a new sanction which requires the issuance of a withdrawal order to an operator who has an established pattern of health and safety violations which are of such a nature as could significantly and substantially contribute to the cause and effect of mine health and safety hazards. The need for such a provision was forcefully demonstrated during the investigation by the Subcommittee on Labor of the Scotia mine disaster which occurred in March 1976 in Eastern Kentucky. That investigation showed that the Scotia mine, as well as other mines, had an inspection history of recurrent violations, some of which were tragically related to the disasters, which the existing enforcement scheme was unable to address. The Committee’s intention is to provide an effective enforcement tool to protect miners when the operator demonstrates his disregard for the health and safety of miners through an established pattern of violations.

Among the lessons learned from the deaths of those 29 men at Upper Big Branch is that MSHA simply hadn’t done its job regarding the POV provisions of the 1977 law. As an Inspector General’s report concluded after the disaster:

MSHA has not successfully exercised its POV authority in 32 years. Administration of this authority has been hampered by a lack of leadership and priority in the Department across various administrations.

In another commentary posted by the Department of Labor under the heading, “From the Assistant Secretary’s Desk,” Joe Main explained the successes of the 1977 law:

In 1977, there were 273 mining fatalities in the United States. Last year, we brought that number down to 35. Between 1977 and 2011, the fatality rate dropped from .0645 to .0114, a decrease of 82%. In 2011, we saw the lowest fatal injury rates in history, and 2012 preliminary data show those numbers to be better than 2011 and a historic low. Simply stated, the 1977 Mine Act is an act that saves lives!

Just think how many more lives could have been saved if MSHA hadn’t waited 32 years to enforce that landmark law.

AP reports: Greenhouse gas levels up in 2012

Here’s the latest, just out from Seth Borenstein at The Associated Press:

New federal figures show the amount of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the air jumped dramatically in 2012, making it very unlikely that global warming can be limited to another 2 degrees. Many governments set a 2-degree increase as the upper limit.

Scientists say the rise in CO2 reflects the global economy revving up and burning more fossil fuels, especially in China.

U.S. government scientists report that carbon dioxide levels jumped by 2.67 parts per million for a total of just under 395 parts per million compared to 2011.

That’s the second highest rise in carbon emissions since records started being kept in 1959. Only 1998 had a bigger increase.

Scientists say hopes of limiting warming to 2 degrees are fading away to almost nothing.


Photo courtesy of Gov. Tomblin’s Office. Gov. Tomblin calls for statewide mine safety stand down during press conference at the State Capitol.

Last year, West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining death, as our state did  in 2010, 2008, 2006 and 2004. Over the last decade, at least 127 West Virginia coal miners have died on the job (not counting the far greater death toll from black lung disease) — far more than the closest other state, Kentucky, which has recorded 86 mining deaths between 2002 and 2013.

Often on this blog, I’ve quoted the words of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who observed the ritual that political leaders, the industry, labor and we in the media seem to go through following coal-mining disasters — a ritual in which we all play our little roles, professing that we’ll do whatever we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again, hurrying through the process so we can get back to whatever else we have going on … and so the industry can get back to mining coal:

I’ve seen it all before. First, the disaster, then the weeping and then the  outrage. But in a few weeks, when the outrage is gone, when the ink on the editorials is dry, everything returns to business as usual.

West Virginia political leaders appear to perfecting a new part of this ritual, the “safety stand down” of the sort that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced yesterday afternoon.  Some in the media are providing a little recent context to this, writing:

Former Gov. Joe Manchin ordered a similar temporary stop in production after an April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 men. He also ordered one in 2006, after the deaths of 16 miners in the back-to-back explosions of International Coal Group’s Sago Mine and Massey’s Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine.

But this whole thing is probably worth just a little bit more discussion.

Continue reading…

Still no proximity detection rules from MSHA

That’s the photo that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration distributed today, as part of its “fatalgram” about the Nov. 30 death of 27-year-old coal-mine electrician Steven O’Dell in another senseless mobile equipment accident in one of our nation’s underground coal mines.

The MSHA fatalgram includes a list of recommendations for ways to avoid these sorts of fatalities, including:

Install proximity detection systems on all mobile face equipment.

MSHA has sent these kinds of warnings out before, including one earlier this year that reported:

Since January 1, 2010, eighty five miners have been injured by mobile equipment including eight miners who were killed in accidents involving mobile face equipment. Of the total number of miners injured, twenty six were permanently partially or totally disabled from accidents involving mobile equipment and fifty one had lost time accidents involving continuous miners, shuttle cars, ramcars, mantrips and scoops.

Agency officials in that warning had also recommended:

Install and maintain electronic proximity detection devices.

And, the agency refers us to its special webpage about these devices, where we learn:

Proximity detection / collision warning is a technology that can be installed on mining machinery to detect the presence of personnel or machinery within a certain distance of a machine. These systems can be programmed to send warning signals and stop machine movement when the programmed areas are breached. We use the term “proximity detection” to refer to underground mining applications which often are designed to inhibit machine movement. We use the term “collision warning” to refer to surface machinery applications that typically provide warning signals only. MSHA has assisted the industry in the development of this technology on a variety of machinery, both underground and surface.

The problem here, of course, is that the Obama administration’s Labor Department, MSHA and the White House (or some combination of officials at all three places) continue to sit on two different rules (see here and here) that would require coal operators to install life-saving proximity devices in underground mines.

CONSOL miner update: Body found in dozer

Here’s the latest word from CONSOL Energy, issued this morning:

Dive and rescue teams completed a series of pipe dives over the weekend that helped to more clearly define the exact position and location of the bulldozer in the Robinson Run Preparation Plant impoundment. With this new information, the teams repositioned the pipe and adjusted the water jets late last evening, in preparation for a dive this morning. This morning an opening was cut in the canopy of the bulldozer and the divers confirmed that our employee is inside the bulldozer cab.

As CONSOL Energy stated previously, this is a complex recovery effort that requires precision and time to execute safely and properly. We do not have an estimate on how long it will take to recover our employee from the bulldozer.

CONSOL Energy continues to provide regular updates to the family.

Investigation into the cause of the accident by MSHA, the West Virginia Department of Mines, CONSOL Energy and other parties, which began on Tuesday morning, is ongoing.

 And here’s what has been released today by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Divers have been in the water and have seen the cab. Efforts will continue today.

And later from MSHA:

Divers have confirmed that the victim is inside the cab of the dozer.  Recovery efforts continue.


Blankenship re-emerges with donation to M.U.

Nearly two years after he “retired” from Massey Energy, Don Blankenship still fascinates a lot of people. Well, maybe fascinates isn’t the right word. But anyway, people ask me all the time if I know what he’s up to — if he’s really getting back into the coal business, for example.

I haven’t been able to find any federal political donations by Blankenship since September 2011 [UPDATED: Blankenship did donate $500 to W.Va. House of Delegates candidate Fred Joseph) and there’s no word on whether the Kentucky coal company he bought is going to actually start mining. He said last year that he had moved to Johnson City, Tenn., and he appears to have registered to vote there.

The last we heard from Blankenship, he was giving us a morality lecture in the Daily Mail. But this week, he’s back again, with a donation to the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine at Marshall University.  The school’s press release reported:

Donald L. “Don” Blankenship, a 1972 Marshall University graduate, has generously committed $300,000 over a three-year period for scholarships at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

Blankenship made the pledge in honor of his mother, Nancy Marie McCoy, who passed away in 1995. The first $100,000 gift was received in early September.

Blankenship is quoted:

The demographics of southern West Virginia mean that there will be a continuing and increasing need for high quality local doctors. I am fortunate to be able to contribute in a small way toward fulfilling this need, while at the same time honoring my mother’s memory, helping my alma mater, and helping these gifted students to achieve their dreams of becoming doctors.

Under the program:

Ten second-year medical students who meet the financial scholarship requirements and exhibit high academic achievement will each receive $10,000 to help defray the cost of medical school tuition. The awards will be renewed for each student annually for two years, pending satisfactory academic progress.

Good for Blankenship.  But oddly enough, there’s no mention in the release of the connection between needing medical care and working in the coal industry or living near a mountaintop removal mining operation.

Instead, Linda Holmes, director of development and alumni affairs, was quoted:

We are grateful to Mr. Blankenship for his support of the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine and specifically his commitment to helping our students. His generous gift will go a long way in assisting our students achieve their dreams.

The press release also mentions:

Don Blankenship is a recipient of Marshall University’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, and he was inducted into the College of Business Hall of Fame in 1999. Additionally, he was the recipient of the West Virginia Society of CPAs’ 2002 Outstanding Member in Business and Industry award.

The words “Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster” don’t appear in the release.

SMCRA anniversary ‘not a time of celebration’

So yesterday was the 35th anniversary of the day then-President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. It looks like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and OSM Director Joe Pizarchik marked the event with some sort of ceremony.

Not mentioned on the OSM website’s promotion of the event, though, is this letter in which Kentucky Resources Council Director Tom FitzGerald turns down on behalf of that group the agency’s award called ECHO — “an acronym of the principles underlying OSM’s mission; Environment, Community, Humanity, and Ownership”. Here’s the text of the letter:

I’m writing to respectfully decline acceptance of the first ECHO Award. While I appreciate the recognition of the coal-related work of the Kentucky Resources Council, the 35th Anniversary of the enactment of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act is not a time of celebration of achievement, but rather, a somber reminder that after 35 years of implementation, and fifty-five years after grassroots efforts to see enacted a national program for controlling surface coal mining operations, the promises made to the people of the coalfields remain largely unkept.

The enactment of SMCRA represented the culmination of heroic efforts by coalfield citizens, grassroots organizations and national environmental groups to bring to heel the abusive mining practices of the coal industry, and the bipartisan efforts of moderate legislators. The law promised to curb abusive mining practices with the goal of protecting landowners, the public, and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations.

In substantial measure, these promises have been betrayed, and across the nation’s coalfields, communities have borne the burden of the breach of these commitments. The citizens of the coalfields of the eastern and western United States have waited through successive administrations since 1981 to see the promises that Congress made in 1977 fulfilled. In a number of key areas, the failure of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to assure full and fair implementation of the law has betrayed the promise Congress made to those who live in coalfield communities– that they would be protected from harm, that mining would be a temporary use of land, that reclamation would contemporaneously follow excavation of coal, and that the amount of time between disturbance of the earth and completion of reclamation would be minimized. Though Congress intended that the choice of technology would follow, rather than dictate, environmental protection, the coal industry has over the decades systematically

replaced the workforce with larger machines more indiscriminate to the terrain, and key concepts in the law have been weakened by regulatory interpretations in order to accommodate this shift.

The tools needed to restore this agency to its potential, to minimize the heavy footprint of coal on the land, water, people and communities of the coal-producing regions, and to fulfill Congress’ promise to the citizens of the coalfields, awaited an Administration that it was hoped would help a troubled agency recover a potential that existed for a brief period of time between 1978 and 1981. It appears that the waiting has been in vain, since the current Administration has had fully three years and more to undo the damage done to this law and regulatory program by 30 years of management that ranged from hostile to indifferent to Congressional intent, yet has done precious little of substance.

OSMRE remains compromised by inadequate funding to support its mandate, and a DOI proposed merger of functions that will further weaken the capacity and dilute the mission of an agency intended by Congress to be independent.

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Coal plant retirements expected to continue

Here’s the latest from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration:

Plant owners and operators report to EIA that they expect to retire almost 27 gigawatts (GW) of capacity from 175 coal-fired generators between 2012 and 2016. In 2011, there were 1,387 coal-fired generators in the United States, totaling almost 318 GW. The 27 GW of retiring capacity amounts to 8.5% of total 2011 coal-fired capacity.

The coal-fired capacity expected to be retired over the next five years is more than four times greater than retirements performed during the preceding five-year period (6.5 GW). Moreover, based on EIA data, the approximate 9 GW of coal-fired capacity retirements expected to occur in 2012 will likely be the largest one-year amount in the nation’s history. The record is, however, expected to be short-lived as almost 10 GW of coal-fired capacity are expected to retire in 2015.

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Bad news this morning here in West Virginia. Here’s all the information we have right now, from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training:

A move crew employee died this morning at approximately 4 a.m. from crushing injuries he received at Coal River Mining LLC Fork Creek #10 Mine.  He was 35 years old, and had 1 year and 14 weeks experience, all at this mine. The mine is in Boone County. 

Coal River Mining is controlled by James O. Bunn and Franklin D. Robertson.

This makes 12 coal-mining deaths in 2012 nationwide, and this is the third in West Virginia.

UPDATED:  We just got this additional information in from MSHA —

At approximately 4:15 a.m., a midnight shift move crew member received fatal crushing injuries when he was reportedly caught between the conveyor boom of the continuous mining machine and the right rib in the number four entry on the No. 2 Section. It appears that the continuous mining machine was being set-up for the day shift when the accident occurred.  The continuous mining machine was apparently being trammed from the number 4 right crosscut backwards, down the number 4 entry.

UPDATED: The miner has been identified as Johnny Mack Bryant II of Lenore, W.Va.


Mr. President, I rise today in the shadow of one seemingly narrow Senate vote — the Inhofe resolution of disapproval of the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules on mercury and air toxics — to talk about West Virginia. About our people – our way of life, our health, our state’s economic opportunity – and about our future.

Coal has played an important part in our past and can play an important role in our future but it will only happen if we face reality.

This is a critical and contentious time in the Mountain State. The dialogue on coal, its impacts, and the federal government’s role has reached a fevered pitch.

Carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear in the hearts of West Virginians and feed uncertainty about coal’s future are the subject of paid television ads, billboards, break room bulletin boards, public meetings, letters and lobbying campaigns.

A daily onslaught declares that coal is under siege from harmful outside forces, and that the future of the state is bleak unless we somehow turn back the clock, ignore the present and block the future.

West Virginians understandably worry that a way of life and the dignity of a job is at stake. Change and uncertainty in the coal industry is unsettling. But my fear is that concerns are also being fueled by the narrow view of others with divergent motivations – one that denies the inevitability of change in the energy industry, and unfairly leaves coal miners in the dust.

The reality is that many who run the coal industry today would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions.

Instead of facing the challenges and making tough decisions like men of a different era, they are abrogating their responsibilities to lead. Consol’s Bobby Brown, was never timid, especially when he and the United Mine Workers turned around labor management relations in the central coal fields.

Scare tactics are a cynical waste of time, money and worst of all coal miners’ hopes. But sadly, these coal operators have closed themselves off from any other opposing voices and few dared to speak out for change – even though it’s been staring them in the face for years.

This reminds me of the auto industry, which also resisted change for decades. Coal operators should learn from both the mistakes and recent success of the auto industry. I passionately believe coal miners deserve better than they are getting from operators and West Virginia certainly deserves better too.

Let’s start with the truth. Coal today faces real challenges, even threats and we all know what they are:

—  First, our coal reserves are finite and many coal-fired power plants are aging. The cheap, easy coal seams are diminishing, and production is falling – especially in the Central Appalachian Basin in Southern West Virginia. Production is shifting to lower cost areas like the Illinois and Powder River Basins. The average age of our nation’s 1,100-plus coal fired plants is 42.5 years, with hundreds of plants even older. These plants run less often, are less economic and the least efficient.

— Second, natural gas use is on the rise. Power companies are switching to natural gas because of lower prices, cheaper construction costs, lower emissions and vast, steady supplies. Even traditional coal companies like Consol are increasingly investing in natural gas over coal.

—  Third, the shift to a lower carbon economy is not going away and it’s a disservice to coal miners and their families to pretend that it is. Coal company operators deny that we need to do anything to address climate change despite the established scientific consensus and mounting national desire for a cleaner, healthier environment.

Despite the barrage of ads, the EPA alone is not going to make or break coal. There are many forces exerting pressure and that agency is just one of them.

We need real world solutions to protect the future of coal.

Two years ago, I offered a “time out” on EPA carbon rules — a two-year suspension that could have broken the logjam in Congress and given us an opportunity to address carbon issues legislatively.

But instead of supporting this approach, coal operators went for broke when they demanded a complete repeal of all EPA authority to address carbon emissions forever. They demanded all or nothing, turned aside a compromise and in the end got nothing.

Last year, they ran exactly the same play, demanding all or nothing on the cross-state air pollution rule – refusing to entertain any middle ground, and denying even a hint of legitimacy for the views on the other side. And they lost again, badly.

So here we are with another all-or-nothing resolution destined to fail. This foolish action wastes time and money that could have been invested in the future of coal. Instead, with each bad vote they give away more of their leverage and they lock in failure.

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