Coal Tattoo

Court won’t consider mercury appeal

The U.S. Supreme Court said this morning that it would not consider overturning a decision that invalidated a Bush administration rule on toxic mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Justices listed the case, Utility Air Regulatory Group v. New Jersey, 08-352, among a long collection of cases that they declined to consider.

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This undated AP photo shows the W.R. Grace vermiculite mine near Libby, Mont.

After years of delays, the people of a Montana mining town are getting their day in court to see a major chemical company face federal charges accusing it of poisoning their homes and schools with asbestos, according to The Associated Press.

W.R. Grace and Co. and five of its executives are charged by federal prosecutors with knowingly exposing the residents of Libby, Mont., to the fibrous mineral linked to cancer.

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(AP photo/A woman is assisted by family and friends as she grieves for her 18-year-old son, who was killed in a mine explosion, at the Tunlan Coal Mine in Gujiao, in China’s Shanxi province, Monday, Feb. 23, 2009.)

Seventy-four miners were killed Sunday in a series of explosions at a coal mine in China, according to an Associated Press report. The explosions also injured 114 workers, 26 of them seriously.

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W.Va. streams impaired

acid_mine_drainage.jpgOnly about one-sixth of all West Virginia streams are currently clean enough for all of their designated uses, according to a new report from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

On Friday, WVDEP announced that the federal Environmental Protection Agency had approved the state’s latest Integrated Water Quality Monitoring and Assessment Report.  (EPA approved the report on Jan. 17, but for some reason WVDEP didn’t announce the action until Friday).

The report is intended to comply with the requirements of Section 303(d) and  Section305(b) of the Clean Water Act.

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Suing Salazar II

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In Suing Salazar Part I, we learned about a new lawsuit against the Interior Department over its approval of a West Virginia rule change to weaken stream protections from damage caused by coal mining. That post went through a lot of history about stuff like cumulative hydrologic impact assessments and material damage and other alphabet soup of mining regulations.

But it’s important to understand that this issue about how Interior’s Office of Surface Mining defines “material damage” isn’t new. In fact, the Democrats in Congress have had their chance to step in and do something about it, and have simply ignored the issue.

rahall_photo.jpgBack in July 2007, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing to mark the 30th anniversary of the passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.  The committee’s chairman, Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., served on the conference committee that wrote the final version of SMCRA.

Among other things, citizen groups who traveled to Washington, D.C., to testify told Rahall’s committee about problems with the way OSM and the states were defining “material damage.”

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Suing Salazar I

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Sometimes, trying to understand strip mining lawsuits becomes an exercise in alphabet soup — AOC, CHIA, PMLU — it’s daunting for even experts, let alone citizens, to try to understand. But it’s all pretty important, and how terms like those are defined decides the level of protection that streams and forests receive from state and federal regulators.

Lawsuits have been fought for 30 years over how some of those terms are interpreted, as Obama Interior Secretary Ken Salazar  (pictured above) is about to find out.

Take the term “material damage,” for example…

When Congress passed the federal strip mining law in 1977, lawmakers directed that “material damage to the hydrologic balance outside the permit area” be prevented, and that disruption to the hydrologic balance in the mined area be minimized. But what the heck does material damage mean?

Walt Morris, a Charlottesville, Va.,  lawyer has been fighting West Virginia regulators and the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement, over that very issue for years.

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Gov. Joe Manchin’s energy bill has been introduced at the West Virginia Legislature.

The Senate version is SB 297.

The House version is  HB 2682.

For more, see Early Thoughts on Manchin’s Energy Plan and Coal as Alternative Fuel?

I’d be interested to see any thoughtful reactions to Manchin’s proposals.

Friday roundup

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News from around the coalfields …

— The on-again, off-again legal fight between federal regulators and Murray Energy Corp. over safe mining practices in the company’s West Ridge coal mine is back on again, according to Mike Gorrell at the Salt Lake Tribune.

— Evidence suggesting black lung disease is on the rise among Appalachian coal miners who increasingly cut through rock containing silica is strong enough to warrant action by mine operators and regulators, reports Tim Huber of The Associated Press.

— West Virginia mine safety director Ron Wooten wants to expand his agency’s jurisdiction, but is short on funding and needs to add inspectors, according to various media reports.

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Court won’t hear Massey safety appeal

Playing catch up a bit on a case where Massey Energy was challenging a mandatory $100,000 fine for coal operators that do not reporting serious mining accidents to state officials within 15 minutes.

We had a story about this in our print edition and the Gazette Web site a few weeks ago, and I see now that the state Supreme Court has voted 5-0 to hear the Massey appeal.

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Coal ash update

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Buried in an Associated Press interview with Obama EPA chief Lisa Jackson that focused on greenhouse emissions rules, there was some news about coal ash. According to the story byAP’s Dina Cappiello, EPA will act before the end of the year on coal-ash regulations:

Another question the EPA is hoping to answer soon is whether it will regulate coal ash as either a solid or hazardous waste, Jackson said. The EPA chief vowed to look at the issue after a spill at a Tennessee power plant covered 300 acres with up to 9 feet of toxic muck.

Eight years ago the agency said it wanted to set a national standard for ponds or landfills used to dispose of wastes produced from burning coal, but it has so far not taken any action.

Jackson said a decision would occur by the end of the year.

“I think EPA, rightly so, should be looked to to say once and for all whether this material needs to be regulated as a solid or hazardous waste,” Jackson said. “It can’t be years, it has to be months.”

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Coal production is expected to fall by 4.4 percent in 2009, and then increase by 2.5 percent in 2010, according to new reports from the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Gov.  Joe Manchin is known for being a pretty optimistic guy. And, of course, he’s a big Friend of Coal.  But it’s hard to figure exactly what the governor is up to with his efforts regarding “post-mining land use” of mountaintop removal sites.

The latest twist?

In his new energy bill (yet to be introduced, but available in draft form here), Manchin proposes to give triple credits toward meeting the proposed renewable energy standard to companies that put renewable projects onto reclaimed mine sites.

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A Hopkinsville, Ky., man was killed earlier this week at a surface coal mine in Illinois.

Local press reports identified the worker as 27-year-old Jarod Kacer.  Kacer is the second U.S. coal miner killed on the job in 2009.

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Stalling on selenium?

In early December, U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers declined to hold Apogee Coal Co. in contempt of court for continuing to stall the cleanup of selenium pollution from a mountaintop removal mine in Logan County. But Chambers indicated he was running out of patience with the Patriot Coal subsidiary, and would hold Apogee officials to a June 30, 2009, compliance deadline.

Recall that federal officials have found widespread selenium violations downstream from mountaintop removal operations, and the nation’s leading scientist of the issue warns that at least one West Virginia waterway is on the “brink of a major toxic event” because of selenium violations.

Earlier this month, Apogee lawyers filed a monthly report with Chambers, and told the judge the company was “attempting to comply in good faith” with the court’s deadlines.

But now, internal company documents filed in the case indicate Apogee has been, in effect, keeping two sets of books.

Apogee has been giving Chambers one calendar, showing that it will meet the court’s deadlines.  At the same time, the company’s consultants have been keeping a “realistic schedule” that delays compliance until at least September — three months after the court’s deadline.

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Actress Ashley Judd had some strong words about mountaintop removal, when she added her voice to the fight against the practice during a protest in Kentucky on Tuesday:

Mountaintop removal coal mining is a scourge on our land and on our people. Nothing, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the sheer trauma of seeing mountaintop removal coal mining sites.

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I wanted to point out to Coal Tattoo readers several parts of a new Gazette feature, Mountain Memories, that may be of interest.

One is a story by my colleague Susan Williams about the repeated mining disasters to hit the Raleigh County community of Eccles.

Susan explains:

Tragedy struck one tiny Raleigh County community four times. Each time, miners lost their lives, and community members braced themselves to find out how many.

In the first mine explosion, in December 1910, five miners died. Four years later, a staggering 181 miners died. In 1925, three people died, and in 1926, 19 died.

The other is an op-ed commentary by Dianne Bady of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition about concern that mountaintop removal mining is destroying or at least limiting access to community cemeteries across the coalfields.

Two major coal operators have been named to a “Climate Watch List” of companies that are lagging behind their industry peers in responding to the business challenges presented by global climate change.

CONSOL Energy and Massey Energy were included in the list issued by CERES, a coalition of investors and environmental groups.

“These climate watch companies are ignoring a major business trend that will influence their competitive position for years to come,” said Mindy S. Lubber, president of CERES. “Given the political shift in Washington, all companies should be minimizing climate risks and maximizing clean energy opportunities. Companies that miss this trend are setting themselves up to fail in the 21st century low-carbon economy.”

Here’s what the watch list had to say about CONSOL:

Given that coal combustion accounts for about one-third of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. and given the growing regulatory momentum to reduce emissions from power plants, the New York City Pension Funds filed a resolution with the Pittsburgh-based company requesting a report on how the company is responding to growing regulatory and competitive pressure to significantly reduce GHG emissions. CONSOL is the nation’s largest bituminous coal producer.

And here’s what it said about Massey:

The Virginia-based coal company continues to resist shareholder resolutions requesting the company to develop and disclose a strategy for responding to climate change. Thirty percent of shareholders voted in favor of the resolution last year. Given that coal combustion accounts for about one-third of all GHG emissions in the U.S., the New York City Pension Funds filed a resolution, for the third consecutive year, requesting a report on how the company is responding to growing regulatory and competitive pressure to reduce GHG emissions. Massey is the nation’s 4th largest coal producer.

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Coal industry officials and their supporters are understandably pleased with last week’s big ruling by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But the company whose permits were at direct issue in the case — Massey Energy — doesn’t seem to really have thought the lower court injunction was that bad after all.

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Coal Symposium starts today

Gov. Joe Manchin and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito are among the features speakers at the 36th Annual West Virginia Mining Symposium, being held over at the Charleston Civic Center.

The event gets started today, with sessions on mine safety and environment. The event continues Thursday and Friday.

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As his administration signals its plans to issue regulations on greenhouse emissions, President Barack Obama is talking about coal, carbon capture and tar sands — a form of oil production that might remind Appalachians of mountaintop removal coal-mining.

(Photo by The Associated Press: Mining trucks are loaded with oil-laden sand at the Albian Sands project in Ft. McMurray, Alberta.)

For those who don’t know, tar sands (also known as oil sands) area combination of clay, sand, water, and a heavy, black viscous oil called bitumen. Tar sands can be processed to extract the oil-rich bitumen, which is then refined into oil. But the bitumen in tar sands cannot be pumped from the ground in its natural state; instead, tar sands deposits are mined, usually using strip mining or open-pit mining.

But the process is energy and carbon-intensive. Experts say producing a barrel of oil from tar sands results in emissions three times greater than a conventional barrel of oil. And the footprint of tar-sands mining is huge, as described in a story in this month’s National Geographic magazine:

 Nowhere on Earth is more earth being moved these days than in the Athabasca Valley. To extract each barrel of oil from a surface mine, the industry must first cut down the forest, then remove an average of two tons of peat and dirt that lie above the oil sands layer, then two tons of the sand itself. It must heat several barrels of water to strip the bitumen from the sand and upgrade it, and afterward it discharges contaminated water into tailings ponds like the one near Mildred Lake. They now cover around 50 square miles.

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