Coal Tattoo

Bob Murray is at it again

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My friend Michael Gorrell out at the Salt Lake Tribune has reported on some more safety problems at a Murray Energy operation in Utah:

Three “bounces” of coal in Murray Energy Co.’s West Ridge mine, the last of which injured a miner on Saturday, have shut down the mine’s longwall mining machine and sparked a legal fight between the company and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Murray Energy’s Utah subsidiary, UtahAmerican Energy Inc., has asked a federal administrative law judge in Denver to overturn an MSHA citation requiring the company to change its roof control plan before the longwall machine can operate again.

Of course, Murray Energy’s Crandall Canyon Mine was the site of the August 2007 disaster — a “bump” that killed six workers and a follow-up outburst that claimed the lives of three rescue workers.

Continue reading…

Money for nothing?

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My colleague Alison Knezevich reported in today’s Sunday Gazette-Mail about a study by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy that found our state government has given taxpayer-funded subsidies to companies that later cut jobs.

The study, cites only a few examples. But in my experience trying to find out where government economic development money went, I’ve learned that state officials from both political parties are very secretive about these matters. Even when they’re not, state officials have a hard time putting numbers together that show which incentive programs are working and which aren’t — let alone which specific deals worked and which didn’t.

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Remembering the Scotia Mine Disaster

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scotiawidows.gifI just finished reading Gerald Stern’s recent book, “The Scotia Widows: Inside their Lawsuit Against Big Daddy Coal.”

Many of you may recall that Stern wrote a book about his experience as the lawyer for victims of the 1972 Buffalo Creek Disaster, in which a coal-slurry dam failure killed 125 people in Logan County, W.Va.

Stern also represented widows of the Scotia Mine Disaster. And while this new book isn’t as good as the Buffalo Creek one, it is well worth the read.

It’s also a pretty timely book in a couple of ways.

On March 6, 1976, a violent explosion ripped through the Scotia Mine in Eastern Kentucky. Fifteen miners who were working nearly three and a half miles underground were killed. The United States Mine Rescue Association has posted a short description of the disaster on its Web site.

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Lots of news on coal ash

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Federal EPA officials have found that the Tennessee Valley Authority’s huge coal-ash disaster violated the Clean Water Act, according to a story in the Knoxville News.

At the same time, Anne Paine of the Tennessean explains that state officials are making a mountain of new documents about the failed ash dam available to the public.

And over at the Huffington Post, you can view a slide show of photos from the disaster.

We’re going to be hearing about this TVA mess and the whole coal-ash issue for a long time, because the Tennessee disaster has exposed another huge problem facing the coal industry and people who live near it.

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Vicki Smith from The Associated Press has long weekend story about coal slurry, exposing the failure of the state Department of Environmental Protection to figure out whether underground injection of this coal-cleaning waste product is getting into drinking water supplies and making people sick.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman bluntly told Smith that his agency simply doesn’t have the answers that coalfield residents and lawmakers are demanding:

We have some concerns, to be quite honest with you. We have questions we’re trying to get some answers to, to make sure it’s safe.

Smith reports:

The DEP cannot say precisely what’s in that waste, how much is injected annually, or whether and where it migrates.

But incredibly, she goes on:

…coal operators are still permitted to inject slurry at 15 locations.

The Gazette posted this story online Saturday, and I’ve also added it to our Mining the Mountains special section.

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What’s in a name?

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My friend Al Cross over at The Rural Blog reminded me that “Coal Tattoo” is also the name of a novel by acclaimed Kentucky author Silas House.

The 2004 book, set in 1950s Kentucky, is about two girls whose father is killed in a mining accident. Silas House mentions the song and its author, Billy Ed Wheeler, in the book’s acknowledgments.

Longtime mine safety advocate — and expert on coal-mining songs — Tony Oppegard also mentioned to me that he has about three dozen different versions of the song, and that his favorite is Billy Ed Wheeler’s.

I was very pleased to post an MP3 file of Kathy Mattea’s version of “Coal Tattoo” with this blog. I got to know Kathy a little bit while discussing various coal industry issues — from the Sago Disaster to mountaintop removal — with her. And she was kind enough to come and sing a couple of songs last year at the opening reception of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2008 Annual Conference, which I co-chaired.

In any event, here’s some video I found on YouTube of Kathy signing the song. Have a good weekend everybody.

Let’s make a deal II

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I reported yesterday about the big Patriot Coal Corp. settlement with the federal government over water pollution violations at its West Virginia operations.

Among other things, I noted that the company was going to be settling separately with the state Department of Environmental Protection over water pollution violations at Patriot operations that were not part of the company’s acquisition of Magnum Coal. (See Let’s make a deal?)

Well, this afternoon, my e-mail inbox started bulging with more public notice announcements about the comment period for DEP’s separate settlements with more than a dozen Patriot subsidiaries.

We don’t know the details of these settlements, because DEP’s enforcement chief, Mike Zeto, refuses to post the settlement documents themselves on the agency’s Web site. And, the public notices simply say things like:

The WV Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) and Jarrell’s Branch Coal  Company have proposed a settlement of an Administrative Consent Order which resolves violation(s) of the WV Water Pollution Control Act. In accordance with the proposed Consent Order, Jarrell’s Branch Coal Company has agreed to pay administrative penalties and to comply with the Act. Final settlement is subject to comments received during the thirty (30) day period ending March 13, 009. Further information about this administrative Consent Order is available by contacting the Chief Inspector, WVDEP/Environmental Enforcement, 601 57th Street SE, Charleston, WV 25304, (304) 926-0470. 

But Kathy Cosco, DEP’s communications officer, was kind enough to type up, scan and then e-mail to me  a list of the total penalty amounts for each company involved. I’ve posted that here.

The bottom line: eight of 14 Patriot companies involved will pay a total of $337,900 in penalties. We don’t yet know how many violations were involved, or how serious those violations might have been.

Hopefully, I can get my hands on the actual settlement agreements next week. If I do, I’ll post them all here.

And if you have comments — or think DEP should post these documents online for everybody to see –  see the address and phone number above. Or, you could call Mike Zeto directly at 304-926-0499, ext. 1324. Or e-mail him at Michael.A.Zeto@wv.gov.

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Dina Cappiello of The Associated Press is reporting  that the Obama administration will seek more stringent controls on mercury pollution from the nation’s coal-fired power plant, “abandoning a Bush administration approach that the industry supported.”

The news is also being reported by Reuters, and  is making the rounds of environmental-issue blogs.

David Baron, an attorney with Earthjustice, issued this statement about Obama’s decision:

“Today’s news signals an end to years of attempts by the Bush administration to undermine Clean Air Act protections against mercury  and comes not a moment too soon. The Bush policies have allowed coal plants to release more than 700,000 pounds of mercury pollution during the past eight years.”

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Six workers were injured Tuesday when a coal-dust silo exploded at this We Energies power plant near Milwaukee.

Folks in coal country usually think of coal-dust explosions as something that happens underground, and as one of the biggest dangers that coal miners face every day on the job.

But reports in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and Wisconsin Public Radio explain that Tuesday’s blast was different. The silo, one of nine at the plant, is used to collect coal dust that accumulates from coal that is brought to the plant by train. The dust is compacted and, like coal itself, is burned for fuel. The Journal-Sentinel’s coverage included a cool graphic of the silo and how it is used.

Continue reading…

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The Associated Press is reporting that a coal miner was killed today at a strip mine in West Virginia. We’ve got the AP story on our Web site. 

State officials have identified the miner killed as William Wade, 70, of Bloomingrose. Wade was an employee of Medford Trucking.

Here’s the report I just got in from Amy Louviere at the Mine Safety and Health Administration:

A fatal accident occurred around 9:00 am today in District 4 at the Republic Energy mine. Preliminary information indicates that a contractor operating a coal truck lost control of the truck while traveling down grade on a paved haul road.  An eyewitness saw the truck travel a short distance up an embankment and then flip over.  The driver was ejected from the truck and was fatally injured when he was pinned under the cab.  The victim expired around 12:50 pm after efforts began to rescue him from his trapped position.

Republic Energy is listed as a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy.

As I have written before, these kinds of trucking accidents at large strip mines are far too common, and are often very preventable.

We’ll have more on this death in Saturday’s print and online editions of the Saturday-Gazette-Mail.

New mine death reports

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The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration this week issued reports on two of last year’s 29 coal-mining deaths, including one that occurred at CONSOL Energy’s Robinson Run Mine in Marion County, W.Va.

Underground mine locomotive operator Gary A. Hoffman, 55, of Rivesville, was killed on June 5, 2008, when he lost control of a 20-ton locomotive and two flat car. He was delivering roof-support “cribs” into the mine, located near Mannington. Hoffman apparently fell, jumped, or was knocked off the locomotive

MSHA investigators reported that Hoffman “was unable to maintain control of the locomotive and loaded flat cars due to condensation and moisture on the rails.”

Previously, the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training cited CONSOL, saying that a sand application system — meant to reduce the moisture that naturally builds up on track systems in underground mines — wasn’t working properly on Hoffman’s locomotive. State investigators reported that a “drop tube” on that system was plugged:

“This sander is required for the safe operation of the locomotive. Evidence indicates that this violation contributed directly to the accident.”

Continue reading…

Let’s make a deal?

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Environmental groups are asking some interesting questions about the federal government’s new Clean Water Act settlement with Patriot Coal Corp.

Joe Lovett, executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, told me that citizen groups he often represents will probably challenge the deal, after going along with a similar settlement (including a record $20 million fine) last year with Massey Energy.

I spelled out the basics of the $6.5 million deal with Patriot in a story for our Print edition today. And now, I’ve posted the EPA/Department of Justice complaint against Patriot here and the consent decree here.

Continue reading…

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 byrd_1501.jpgSen. Robert C. Byrd is trying to make  “Friends of Coal” out of some of President Barack Obama’s top advisers

The West Virginia Democrat met separately earlier this week (in HIS office) with new Energy Secretary Steven “Coal is my worst nightmare” Chu and with new EPA adminstrator Lisa Jackson.

Byrd appeared to be signaling that Obama should rethink any plans to bypass Congress and have EPA try to set binding limits on carbon dioxide emissions through new regulations.

According to a press release from Byrd’s office:

In his meeting with Secretary of Energy Chu, Byrd told the Secretary that he wanted to “feel comfortable” that the Secretary recognized the importance of coal to our energy future, noting that “coal supplies half our nation’s electricity needs,” and it is not going anywhere anytime soon. Byrd’s comments were directed to Secretary Chu in light of Chu’s previous statement that coal was his “worst nightmare” and his questioning of the feasibility of clean coal technology.

Byrd’s office said that Chu committed to support the $4.6 billion for so-called clean coal technology that was inserted into the economic stimulus package that is currentlymaking its way through Congress.

As for EPA’s Lisa Jackson, Byrd’s office said:

Byrd asked the Administrator how she would go about balancing the costs of environmental enforcement (such as job loss and higher energy rates) against the need to protect the public health. Byrd told the EPA Administrator that “we must do better than just respond to the immediate political need.” Administrator Jackson noted that “coal is vital to our country now and if we are smart, it will remain so in the future.”

Byrd apparently urged the Obama administration to “proceed with caution” as it works with Congress on climate change legislation.

Those who have followed climate change issues for a while will recall that Byrd played a major role in blocking any Senate ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Byrd said, “To be successful, a national climate change effort must have broad public support, and that it cannot be achieved by the regulatory actions of an agency, and that Congress has a much broader mandate that includes protecting jobs, communities and livelihoods.”

Hansen on Coal River Mountain: Go Tell Obama

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For more than 20 years, James E. Hansen has been one of the nation’s preeminent climatologists and a leading voice about the dangers of global climate change. Now, Hansen has weighed in on the growing battle over whether Coal River Mountain should be home to a strip mine or a wind-energy facility.

Earlier this week, Hansen posted a short paper, “Tell President Obama About Coal River Mountain,” on his Web site:

“Coal River Mountain is the site of an absurdity. I learned about Coal River Mountain from students at Virginia Tech last fall. They were concerned about Coal River Mountain, but at that time most of them were working to support Barack Obama. They assumed Barack Obama would not allow such outrages to continue.”

Hansen explains the “absurdity” this way:

The issue at Coal River Mountain is whether the top of the mountain will be blown up, so that coal can be dredged out of it, or whether the mountain will be allowed to stand. It has been shown that more energy can be obtained from a proposed wind farm, if Coal River Mountain continues to stand. More jobs would be created. More tax revenue would flow, locally and to the state, and the revenue flow would continue indefinitely. Clean Water and the environment would be preserved. But if planned mountaintop removal proceeds, the mountain loses its potential to be a useful wind source.

As regular Gazette readers know, Coal River Mountain Watch and other environmental groups are promoting a wind-energy facility as an alternative to Massey Energy’s plans for a mountaintop removal operation. Hansen’s commentary was posted to his website on Tuesday, the same day that 14 people were cited for trespassing in two protests aimed at that particular Massey operation. (Some folks in the coal industry have recently contacted me, questioning the findings of a study that touted the economic impacts of the wind proposal. I plan to look into those complaints, and report back to readers on what I find).

Last June, Hansen told Congress and then the National Press Club that the United States needed to outlaw coal-fired power plants that don’t capture their carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

In his commentary on Coal River Mountain, Hansen says Obama supporters are already becoming “restive” and that he’s been asked to speak at a variety of actions around the country calling for faster action by the new president to deal with climate change and coal. “I don’t know what to say,” Hansen says. “I feel that more time must be given. But these people are right — the directions that are taken now are important.”

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We’ve posted a story on the Gazette Web site about some fairly big news, involving Patriot Coal Corp. agreeing to a $6.5 million Clean Water Act settlement with EPA and the Justice Department.

That story is here, and the government’s press release is here.

This comes more than a year after Massey Energy agreed to a record $20 million fine in a similar case.

Details on the Patriot deal are still coming out. The government doesn’t seem to have posted the actual settlement agreement yet, and it hasn’t been added to the federal court Pacer system either.

We’ll have more on this later, probably in tomorrow’s print edition and on the Gazette Web site.

Capito, climate and coal

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Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced today that she’s been named to a key House committee that will play a big role in energy policy and in congressional debates over global warming.

In a press release, West Virginia Republican said she will “bring a coal state perspective” to the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming.

“Our energy future should be at the forefront of the national discussion, and I’m excited to bring a West Virginia voice to those issues as a member of this committee,” Capito said. “From clean coal to wind energy and other alternative technology, our state has an important role to play.”

This particular committee was set up by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in early 2007 “to add urgency and resources to the commitment of this Congress to address the challenges of America’s oil dependence and the threat of global warming” according to the committee Web site

Last year, Capito flunked the League of Conservation Voters annual scorecard of congressional votes on environmental issues. As I wrote when the scorecard was published:

Capito received poor marks in part for her votes with the GOP minority against incentives for wind, solar, plug-in vehicles and other renewable energies. She also voted in favor of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

Continue reading…

Welcome to Coal Tattoo …

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I’ve lost track of how many blogs there are that deal in some way with the swirling issues and growing controversies surrounding the coal industry. So does the world really need another one?

Well, I sure hope so.

Coal helped to build industrial America, powered our nation through two world wars, and is still an important part of the economy in coalfield communities from West Virginia to Wyoming. And, as industry supporters and their billboards remind us, coal keeps the lights on in about half of all American households.

But the downside of coal becomes more and more apparent each day.

Over the last three years, a string of mine disasters — Sago, Aracoma,  Darby and Crandall Canyon — reminded us of the very real human cost to miners and their families.  Just before this past Christmas, the collapse of the TVA coal-ash dam in Tennessee showed us again that there’s really nothing that clean about coal.

Earlier this week, the New York Times’ blog, Green Inc, observed that it’s been a tough week for coal. Among other things, the Times cited the Air Force’s cancellation of plans for a coal-to-liquids fuel plant in Montana, Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s call for a moratorium on new coal plants, and a $140 million Clean Air Act settlement by utilities in Kentucky. (Closer to home, the Times also noted yesterday’s big protests against Massey Energy, and a new lawsuit over contaminated drinking water supplies).

But with a few exceptions, most of the blogging out there about coal comes from either the industry’s most vocal opponents (see Coal is Dirty or the Front Porch) or from coal industry boosters such as Behind the Plug.

So maybe it’s time for one of the few daily newspapers in the country that still covers the coal industry on a regular basis to get into the game, to take the leap into the blogosphere.

We’ll still be doing plenty of coal stories in the daily print edition, as well as longer projects on the industry in the Sunday edition. But the blog format will allow the Gazette to get information out more quickly, and to help foster the growing national — really, international — discussion about the future of coal.

With that in mind, one thing that I want to note is that it seems that there are really two separate discussions going on about coal.

One of them is out there in the broader world. Scientists, policymakers and even investors are becoming more and more convinced that the downsides of coal have to be addressed. One way or the other, coal-fired power’s contribution to global warming must be dealt with. To these folks, the question is: Can coal have a place in our energy mix in a carbon-constrained world?

The other discussion is happening here in West Virginia, and in other coal communities. Locally, the issues are different, and in many ways much more emotional. It’s a battle between families who rely on coal to put food on their tables and send their kids to college, and folks who live near coal mines and are tired of blasting, dust, and water pollution. To these folks, the questions are: How can we protect coal’s future or how can we shut down mountaintop removal?

These two discussions are starting to intersect a little bit. Activists who don’t like mountaintop removal are talking more and more about climate change. But there’s still a huge disconnect between the way the broader world talks about coal and the way we here in the coalfields do.

Perhaps the scientists and activists who understand what coal burning is doing to our climate should try to understand a little more about how a third-generation coal miner in Eastern Kentucky feels. And maybe that coal miner should be a little more open to hearing what the world would be like if we don’t do something about rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  Most importantly, maybe the policymakers in Washington need to understand what the economic impact of climate change regulations is going to be on places like West Virginia and Wyoming. And maybe politicians and government officials in places like Charleston, W.Va., need to come to terms with the fact that change is coming to this industry.

I hope this blog contributes a little bit to helping these discussions along. I welcome thoughts, comments, suggestions and criticisms on how to get this job done.