Coal Tattoo

Arch Coal emerges from bankruptcy

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Here’s the news out this morning from Arch Coal Inc.:

Arch Coal Inc. today announced that it has successfully completed its financial restructuring and emerged from court protection, with new equity that will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol ARCH.

“Today marks the beginning of a new era for Arch Coal,” said John W. Eaves, Arch’s chief executive officer. “We are extremely pleased with what we have accomplished during our highly expeditious restructuring process, and are eager to move forward with our compelling plan for value creation. I am confident we have all the pieces in place for long-term success – an extraordinary workforce, cost-competitive assets, a high-quality reserve base, a clean balance sheet and an excellent management team.”

Arch emerges as the leading producer of metallurgical coal and the second largest producer of thermal coal in the United States, with a streamlined portfolio of large, modern, low-cost mines. Arch’s operations have a proven track record of generating cash through all phases of the market cycle, with significant upside in rising price environments.

Arch is emerging with more than $300 million of cash on its balance sheet and a debt level of just $363 million, consisting of a new term loan and capital leases. The company’s total debt is just 7% of what it was prior to restructuring. Cash requirements are expected to be modest, with projected capital spending of $55 million in 2017 and projected debt service of approximately $33 million. In addition, the company has third-party surety bonds in place covering 100% of its reclamation bonding requirements.

You can read the full statement here.

 

Jim Justice

 

Maybe we should just be glad that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put out its press release on the water pollution deal with Jim Justice’s companies fairly early on a Friday afternoon, instead of waiting until just before 5 p.m. And oddly, inquiries about this issue were answered far more promptly — and with actual straight answers — than anything else I’ve dealt with the Obama EPA about over the last eight years.

It is a pretty significant story, and it seems hard to imagine it’s not going to quickly become part of the back-and-forth of this year’s gubernatorial campaign. Republican Bill Cole’s people will point to it with statements like this:

Mountain Party candidate Charlotte Pritt’s followers will say the whole thing just shows how Justice is just another coal operator and there’s no difference between Cole and Justice (for those who really are trying to understand if there are differences, former Gazette-Mail political reporter David Gutman gave that story a pretty good shot here).

Just to clear up the facts:  The feds didn’t fine Justice $5 million. The fine in this case was $900,000. His companies are required to put up a $4.5 million letter of credit to ensure funding of new pollution control efforts. EPA says in all those efforts will cost $5 million, and Justice has already spent $500,00. So that’s where the $6 million figure in our story comes from. You can read the consent decree here and the EPA complaint here.

It’s fascinating to watch people who are more interested in partisan politics than in environmental protection (or workplace safety compliance) chatter about this particular story on Jim Justice. Where are their cries that the jackbooted thugs from EPA should let little poor ol’ Jim alone? I’m confused — do we want a strong federal enforcement agency to keep coal industry politics from controlling things, or should the feds leave us alone to run things as we see fit?

Readers who follow these things more closely than the career campaign consultants do will know that these kind of settlements between EPA and major coal producers have not been unusual things. EPA has reached deals in recent years with CONSOL Energy (here and here), Arch Coal (here and hereAlpha Natural Resources, and Patriot Coal, among others. And yes, most of the time, the state Department of Environmental Protection takes part with EPA as a co-plaintiff, a move that allows it some say in the litigation and some share of the fine. In this instance, WVDEP could have pocketed maybe $90,000 from the settlement, if the one-half of the fine going to states had been split five ways instead of four.

Going back through those settlements, the only one I see in West Virginia that the WVDEP didn’t take part in was the one back in 2008 with Massey Energy (see original coverage of that here, here, here and here).

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Coming clean about the Clean Power Plan

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FILE - In this July 1, 2013, file photo, smoke rises from the Colstrip Steam Electric Station, a coal burning power plant in Colstrip, Mont. Most Americans are willing to pay a little more each month to fight global warming, but only a tiny bit, according to a new poll. Still environmental policy experts hail that as a hopeful sign. Seventy-one percent of the American public want the federal government to do something about global warming, including six percent of the people who think the government should act even though they are not sure that climate change is happening, according to a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File)

 

Tomorrow is a big day for coal and energy issues, what with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia set to hear oral argument in the case trying to stop the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

Lots of eyes in West Virginia will be watching, and we’ve covered the implications of this issue before (see here, here and here).

There’s a bunch of stories out there nationally that provide various sorts of previews of tomorrow argument.

The New York Times, for example, takes this angle:

The pitched battle over President Obama’s signatureclimate change policy, which is moving to the courts this week, carries considerable political, economic and historical stakes. Yet its legal fate, widely expected to be ultimately decided by the Supreme Court, could rest on a clerical error in an obscure provision of a 26-year-old law.

That error, which left conflicting amendments on power plant regulation in the Clean Air Act, will be a major focus of oral arguments by opponents of Mr. Obama’s initiative when the case is heard on Tuesday in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The initiative, known as the Clean Power Plan, which Mr. Obama sees as at the heart of his climate change legacy, gave the United States critical leverage to broker the landmark 2015 Paris climate change accord. If the plan is struck down, the United States, the world’s largest carbon polluter over the centuries, will lose its main tool to cut greenhouse gas emissions. If it is upheld, it will transform the nation’s electricity system, closing hundreds of coal-fired power plants and setting in motion a wholesale shift to wind, solar and nuclear power, as well as to improved electric transmission systems.

And here’s The Washington Post:

President Obama’s signature effort to combat global warming will be in the hands of federal judges this week, as an appeals court in Washington weighs the legality of the administration’s plan to force sharp cuts in power plants’ carbon emissions and push the nation toward cleaner energy sources.

Even after a marathon hearing Tuesday, the legal questions about the Clean Power Plan are almost certain to remain unresolved when Obama leaves office. But the outcome of the case ultimately could shape the president’s environmental legacy and influence how millions of Americans get their electricity.

“It’s the big kahuna,” said David Doniger, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which backs the proposal.

The sprawling, unpredictable legal battle — which has attracted attention from the Supreme Court — pits the nation’s leading environmental groups, climate scientists and even tech giants such as Apple against more than two dozen states, industry groups and conservative lawmakers.

There are many others, including pieces from EnergyWire, The Wall Street Journal, and The Daily Caller.

Locally, the Daily Mail editorial page had an op-ed from West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is among those challenging the EPA rule, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting had a brief preview that included these comments from the AG:

We know that over the last number of years that the regulatory onslaught has play a part in the onslaught of the loss of coal jobs. There are other factors, I would concede, but the regulatory onslaught has been a factor.

It was nice to see AG Morrisey acknowledge the “other factors” that have led to coal’s decline, something we’ve certainly tried to convince public officials to face up to over these last few years (see here, here and here, for example). As with election stories these days, it’s often easy for public officials — and voters — to get away with spouting the coal industry line without ever being confronted by journalists with facts about coal’s decline and the reality of the challenges faced by coalfield communities — even if the AG and his allies manage to win the day in court.

MSHA to miners: ‘Stop and take a breath’

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Here’s an announcement just out from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Since October 2015, eight fatalities and more than 1,100 nonfatal accidents have occurred in the nation’s coal mines, resulting in restricted duty, missed days at work, and permanent disabilities for the miners who worked there.  While injury rates have been fairly consistent during this time period, records indicate a trend in accidents resulting in more serious injuries. The circumstances in at least 30 of the accidents might have led to fatalities.

MainMarch2011MSHA continued:

Beginning today, the Mine Safety and Health Administration is issuing a call to safety to coal miners working in underground and surface mines around the country. Inspectors will engage coal miners and mine operators in “walk and talks” through Sept. 30, reminding them to “stop and take a breath” before proceeding with the next task at hand.

The most common outcomes of the more than 1,100 mining accidents – 250 of which occurred at surface operations – were injuries to the back, shoulders, knees and fingers.  In the near-fatal accidents, the majority were attributed to powered haulage, electrical and machinery classifications.

The majority of non-fatal accidents occurred in West Virginia, with 419; Kentucky, with 191, and Pennsylvania, 130.

MSHA chief Joe Main said:

These walk and talks are intended to increase miners’ awareness of recent accidents, encourage the application of safety training and raise hazard recognition.

 

 

Friday roundup, Aug. 26, 2016

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In this Aug. 10, 2016 photo, Vincent Montant, director of facilities for Allegany Public Schools, shows the long-handed shovel that is used to remove coal ash from the furnace at Braddock Middle School in Cumberland, Md. are exhibited for inspection as the academic year approaches. (Michael A. Sawyers/Cumberland Times-News via AP) WHAG-TV OUT; MANDATORY CREDIT

 

In this Aug. 10, 2016 photo, Vincent Montant, director of facilities for Allegany Public Schools, shows the long-handed shovel that is used to remove coal ash from the furnace at Braddock Middle School in Cumberland, Md. are exhibited for inspection as the academic year approaches. (Michael A. Sawyers/Cumberland Times-News via AP)

Another week, and another New York Times story that oversimplifies the current situation in the nation’s coalfields … This time, it was a story headlined “Alienated and Angry, Coal Miners See Donald Trump as Their Only Choice.” It started this way:

Deep in the belly of an Appalachian mountain, a powerful machine bored into the earth, its whirring teeth clawing out a stream of glistening coal. Men followed inside the Maple Eagle No. 1 mine, their torches cutting through the dank air. One guided the machine with a PlayStation-like controller; others bolted supports in the freshly cut roof.

They were angry. The coal industry that made West Virginia prosperous has been devastated. Every day, it seemed, another mine laid off workers or closed entirely. Friends were forfeiting their cars, homes and futures.

For these men, this season’s presidential campaign boils down to a single choice. “I’m for Trump,” said Dwayne Riston, 27, his face smeared in dust. “Way I see it, if he wins, we might at least stand a chance of surviving.”

Few places in America offer such a simple electoral calculus as the rolling, tree-studded hills of West Virginia.

Yeah, OK. Few places are as often pigeonholed and depicted as devoid of any nuance — through a simple journalistic calculus without any effort at all at context — than the coalfields of West Virginia when the big-time, out-of-state political correspondents parachute in to enlighten the world. I have to check again to make sure Times reporter

Sure, the miners are angry. Yes, many of them see voting for Donald Trump as their only hope. But does anyone really believe that most of this story wasn’t already written in the correspondent’s head before he got off the plane or hopped in a rental car?

These stories are hard for the national media to resist, and a look at any of the projections for Trump’s sure victory in West Virginia explains part of the reason for that (see here or here). My point isn’t that Trump is not going to win here. That seems obvious.

Last week, another hotshot Times correspondent focused on “Beyond Coal” issues in Appalachia (mostly Kentucky) without mentioning the fact that the Obama administration was trying to throw billions of dollars at the region’s economic problems. This time, the Times makes hardly a mention of any of the local efforts at finding a path forward, with this:

Yet the people of Mingo County have forged their own brand of resilience, one born of the tight-knit rural values that draw embattled citizens together. For some, that means planning for a better future: Dr. Dino Beckett, a local physician, has spearheaded initiatives to grow healthy food locally and reduce diabetes. For others, it means lifting a defiant finger to the outside world.

For anyone who knows Dr. Beckett, that line makes it clear that the Times reporter didn’t spend enough time in the area (or with Google, for that matter), to understand that people are far more complex than either on the one hand spearheading forward-looking initiatives or, on the other hand, “lifting a defiant finger to the outside world.” West Virginians can both be trying to improve local public health and be tangled up with characters like jailed former Massey CEO Donald Blankenship (some readers may recall that the Hillary Clinton was likewise confused by finding actual nuance in Mingo County).

Then there was this line:

With salaries starting at $70,000 a year, a job in the mines was long considered the local jackpot. Mingo County’s breathtaking valleys and hollers — narrow creeks bordered by high hills — are lined with spacious homes, swimming pools and gleaming vehicles. Now, there is a palpable fear that the good life is gone, perhaps for good.

The local jackpot? That makes it sound like working in a coal mine isn’t incredibly hard work, not to mention incredibly dangerous work. This would have been a nice place for the Times reporter to make some mention at all of the downsides of the coal industry — things like black lung disease, mine explosions, water pollution … I could go on. Why is it that the Times is unable to show its readers that when one travels West Virginia, one finds incredible beauty and then, just around the bend, a moonscape or an orange stream? Why must we be “the other” place, a one-dimensional hollow that these “journalists” can’t seem to understand and are certain their cosmopolitan readers won’t get either.

More importantly, this story — like last week’s Times piece — chooses to make no effort at all to explain the complex reasons behind the decline in our region’s coal market. All this latest story gave us was this:

Political fury in Mingo County focuses squarely on the Environmental Protection Agency and President Obama, who is seen as having started a “war on coal.”

Why is it considered good journalism to cite all this “political fury” without providing any context to explain what’s really going on? It’s not like the Times doesn’t know about the context — they’ve published stuff about this very recently (see here and here).  It’s as if the Times believes politics and facts really should be separate things — and that political journalism shouldn’t involve ever providing context, especially if that context undermines the narrative or what voters are saying. There’s nothing wrong with giving the angry miners a voice. But that’s only part of the story.

Reporting on the fury, without reporting on the context — the constant drumbeat of campaign and issue ads that have for eight years now promoted the one-dimensional view of what’s hurting coal — simply helps to ensure that this same fury continues, and that no one understands what’s really going on.

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Sometimes victories are so rare for the people of the coalfields that it’s tempting to jump on just about anything to try to celebrate some movement forward. At least it seemed that way this last week or so.

Take the announcement on Monday by the Kanawha Forest Coalition, described in the Gazette-Mail by Rick Steelhammer:

A two-year struggle by the Kanawha Forest Coalition to halt a strip mine operating adjacent to Kanawha State Forest has ended in a bittersweet victory for the citizens group, after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection ordered a permanent end to mining at the Kanawha Development No. 2 Mine.

Under the terms of a DEP consent order signed late last month after a year of negotiations between the coalition and the permit holder, Keystone Industries of Jacksonville, Florida, “no additional mineral removal activities may occur” on the 413-acre surface mine permit. “Activity is exclusively restricted to actions necessary to achieve phased release of the permit,” including rebuilding sediment ditches that are leaking or that contain acidic material, and mapping the locations of containment areas for selenium-bearing or acidic materials, according to the consent order.

Bittersweet for sure. On the one hand, this situation certainly showed how citizens can play a vital role in enforcement of the federal surface mining law. And how DEP– in this case especially its inspection and enforcement staff — can do right by the citizens, especially if the citizens focus on the science and the law and are honest advocates, playing it straight with the many allies they have inside the agency, and don’t let up.

But the question that can’t be avoided here — not if any lesson is to be learned — is why in the world did the DEP issue this permit in the first place? Citizens opposed the permit. They appealed it. They warned that something about like what ended up happening was likely to happen if DEP pushed forward.

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small2Hopefully, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman is asking his staff some hard questions about how the permit review process — not to mention the appeal process (in which sometimes agency lawyers act like they’re defending a murder case, making the litigation far more adversarial than it need be, given that the public is the ultimate client) — was handled in this instance.

DEP staff are human and can make mistakes (like writing congressional testimony that throws environmental justice under the bus or advocating a rule that cuts off important avenues for public involvement, or underestimating public concern  about or forgetting the long history and context of a rulemaking about cancer-causing chemicals in our rivers and streams) that aren’t always the result of politics or agency capture or something like that. Sometimes DEP officials just disagree with citizens, though – and sometimes citizens don’t do as good of a job as they might making their case.

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Really, Hoppy? ‘Blood money’?

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And to think I was bothered when Sens. Manchin and Capito just had to take a swipe at President Obama’s environmental regulations on the day when the administration made good on a promise to pump some money into helping coalfield communities figure out what comes next.

hoppyBut wow. Hoppy Kercheval’s “commentary” today is really something. Maybe he should have waited for tomorrow’s traditional “steam release” segment to go on this rant about yesterday’s announcement of nearly $40 million in federal grants to coalfield communities and groups. Here’s what he wrote, under the headline, “Obama’s handout to coal country“:

… There is also a “blood money” feel to it, a payoff from the Obama administration to ease consciences over the damage done, handouts spread throughout the region to tamp down the misery index the White House helped create.

Blood money? Wonder why he put it in quotes? So he can pretend it wasn’t really him saying it? Who knows with Hoppy. He long ago went so round the bend about coal issues, climate change and President Obama that it’s hard to know whether even he believes what he says and writes.

You have to start with the headline, and Hoppy’s use of the word “handout.” It’s surely not by accident that Hoppy’s playing into the false notion that the administration’s Power Plus Plan is some sort of welfare — checks written to unemployed miners, rather than seed money to help local communities find ways to diversify their economies and communities for long-term success.

Then there’s Hoppy’s single-minded insistence that what’s happening in the coalfields is caused almost exclusively by government regulations. To try to avoid being accused of ignoring the facts, Hoppy makes a brief feint toward acknowledging the role of cheap natural gas. But in the end, Hoppy doesn’t tell the truth on these issues, because he ignores the long-standing warnings that someday the good coal was going to run out, that even a defeat of EPA wouldn’t save the Southern West Virginia mining industry, and that global warming is a major threat to human society — and a significant contributor to disasters like the June floods.

Not for nothing, but it’s worth pointing out here that while Hoppy crusades in favor of returning coal to its supposed heyday, Hoppy hasn’t exactly focused his attention over the years on the many downsides of our state’s relationship with coal:  Slurry dam disasters, mine explosion disasters, black lung disasters … or on the very real legacy liabilities that Hoppy’s as-few-regulations-as-possible philosophy have allowed to now be foisted on our state, like underfunded coal miner pension plans and giant messes left behind when the mountaintop removal is done.

Maybe the best thing to say about this from Hoppy is that at least he’s consistent — consistent at getting this story wrong, obfuscating the truth and just carrying the water of a powerful industry whose warts he likes to ignore. But then again, he’s not really consistent.

Hobet2_sm

It wasn’t so long ago that Hoppy was complaining when the Obama administration didn’t give West Virginia some of this “blood money.” In January, his column was headlined, “WV thumped by Obama green agenda yet again,” and objected when the federal government rejected the state’s request for $140 million from a program meant to help communities become more resilient to the kinds of natural disasters — floods, hurricanes, etc., — expected to become more likely and more damaging because of climate change. Hoppy explained:

The proposal was called “Adjust, Adapt and Advance,” and it included detailed plans for water, sewer and infrastructure improvements, land use planning that lowered risks to the environment, and housing, school and business developments on old surface mine sites that would be out of the flood plain.

So yeah, it’s “blood money.” But if Hoppy can use the rejection of a state grant for some more of that unseemly stuff to attack the “Obama green agenda,” then logic and reason and any sort of consistency go out the window.

What Hoppy didn’t make clear was that most of the money the state requested  in that earlier application — $110 million of it — was to be used for the last part of that, the development of old surface mine sites.

Hoppy writes that the “irony is self-evident” in President Obama providing money to help struggling coal communities. Really, though, Hoppy is a bit irony impaired on all of this. What’s really ironic is the whole idea that now that the mountains have been blown up, the streams polluted, and the riches of the coal hauled away to some other place, we have to invest public resources to make those flattened mountains into someplace businesses might locate, schools might be built, and families might be able to live.

I don’t know about you, but I remember the constant jingoism from coal supporters that mountaintop removal was good because when the mining companies were done there would be something valuable left over. And what’s really ironic is that the whole reason we don’t have more development on former mountaintop removal sites is that the anti-regulatory forces championed by Hoppy kept the portions of the federal surface mining act that required such development from being properly enforced.

And finally, really, what’s ironic is that the mess West Virginia is in now is largely of our own making. It’s a creature of our relationship with coal, our reliance on one industry, and our refusal to heed decades of warnings that we needed to branch out and get ready for this day. And commentators like Hoppy want to make it so that the Obama administration is damned if they don’t help us out of this hole, but also damned if they do help us out of it.

Putting politics ahead of helping the coalfields

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Photo by Sam Owens — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (center) and other state and federal officials announced federal grants for West Virginia in Huntington on Wednesday.

There was good news for the coalfields coming out of Huntington today, with the announcement of nearly $40 million in new money to help diversify the communities hard hit by the long-expected downturn in the mining industry.

The Gazette-Mail’s Andrew Brown was there and had the story:

Millions of dollars are being disbursed to groups in West Virginia and other coalfield communities throughout the country as part of President Barrack Obama’s POWER initiative.

State and federal officials gathered in Huntington Wednesday to announce more than $38.8 million in funding for groups in West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Alabama.

Groups in the Mountain State will receive around $16.4 million, or more than 40 percent of the federal money, which will help advance efforts in education, infrastructure improvements, business development, manufacturing expansions and workforce training.

Jason Walsh, a White House policy adviser, noted at today’s event that there’s been bipartisan support for this kind of federal assistance. This bipartisanship, once difficult to find on these issues, is especially key on some of the administration’s big-ticket items — like billions of dollars to rescue the United Mine Workers pension and health-care plans and to pump more money back into cleaning up abandoned coal mines, legacy liabilities that, if not fixed, could forever hold back coalfield communities here. Support from Reps Evan Jenkins and David McKinley, both R-W.Va., is a great example.

To their credit, Rep. Jenkins and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin didn’t go overboard in trying to use any mention of Obama and coal to repeat tired, worn-out advertising slogans about EPA.

Rep. Jenkins said in his formal statement today:

These grants are critical to helping revitalize communities hurt by the downturn in coal. The Coalfield Development Corporation has developed innovative programs to help workers learn new skills and start their own small businesses, and I know this grant will help them offer their important services to even more entrepreneurs and communities. The Hobet mine site has unlimited potential for economic growth, and this grant will allow the state to develop a strategic plan to make this potential a reality.

And Gov. Tomblin said:

With the downturn in the coal industry, we in the state and federal governments owe it to those who have lost jobs through no fault of their own to do everything possible to create new economic growth. These POWER grants represent a positive step toward that goal. The projects being funded envision a West Virginia where promising new job opportunities are a reality. I am especially proud that the Hobet project is being supported as we continue planning for the best ways turn that site into an economic engine for Southern West Virginia.

But, unfortunately, then there’s the joint statement issued by Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito. Neither of them could tone it down for a day — even a day when the administration was handling out millions of dollars to their constituents.

Here’s Sen. Capito:

Years of onerous regulations that have targeted our state, have put many West Virginians out of work and hurt local communities. For more than a year, I have worked to ensure that economic development officials, including Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development Jay Williams and the Economic Development Administration, clearly understand the needs of West Virginia.

And here’s Sen. Manchin:

West Virginia has been devastated by this Administration’s harmful regulations and we must continue to fight to keep our coal jobs and to make sure every out-of-work coal miner has access to meaningful job opportunities.

And West Virginians wonder why we have a hard time being taken seriously on the national stage.

blankenshiphearingleaving

 

There’s an interesting op-ed in The New York Times today by civil rights lawyer and author Chase Madar about the use of criminal prosecutions in major public safety disasters. It mentions the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, and the successful prosecution of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship:

The latest criminal charges of public officials in the contamination of the Flint, Mich., water supply seem righteous. After so much government ineptitude with such hideous consequences — tens of thousands of Flint residents poisoned; elevated blood lead levels in nearly 5 percent of the city’s children, many with possibly irreversible brain damage — surely these criminal charges will bring, at long last, justice for Flint.

Not really. Though these sorts of charges fulfill an emotional need for retribution and are of great benefit to district attorneys on the make, they are seldom more than a mediagenic booby prize. Prosecutorial responses fill the void left when health and safety regulations succumb to corporate and political pressure.

Take the collapse at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in 2010. Flouting safety regulations was an integral part of the corporate culture of the mine’s owner, Massey Energy, and last year its chief executive, Donald L. Blankenship, was convicted of a misdemeanor carrying a one-year sentence. Although some portrayed this as a blow for social justice, it’s difficult to see how it had much impact on mine safety.

Far more significant was the West Virginia Legislature’s passage last year of the Creating Coal Jobs and Safety Act, the first statutory loosening of mine safety standards in state history. While on its deregulatory binge last year, the state almost entirely rolled back aboveground chemical-tank safety standards enacted in response to the Elk River contamination disaster of 2014 – which made the water of 300,000 people undrinkable.

The general point is that criminal prosecutions won’t stop mine disasters, or water pollution, or food contamination — and that the media give far too much attention to criminal trials in these incidents, at the expense of coverage of the many failings of our civil and administrative regulatory systems that are supposed to protect the public. Attorney Madar opines:

Our prosecutorial response tends to be reactive. Volkswagen will pay at least $15 billion for cheating on emissions tests on its diesel vehicles, and may face criminal charges. The tiny research center that caught the discrepancy is now facing cuts to its $1.5 million annual budget.

A well-enforced regulatory regime lacks the TV-movie narrative arc of a criminal trial. But none of these crimes could have been committed if the government had been doing its job properly.

OK. Now one glaring problem with this whole line of thinking is that, while telling readers that these prosecutions are little more than a “mediagenic booby prize”  that we mere news reporters fall for every time, Attorney Madar seems to be getting his information about the glaring holes in regulatory systems that aren’t explained to the public from — that’s right, the mainstream media.

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Friday roundup, Aug. 19, 2016

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Secret Service agents stand post as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a coal mining roundtable at Fitzgerald Peterbilt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Glade Spring, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

 

Secret Service agents stand post as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a coal mining roundtable at Fitzgerald Peterbilt, Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2016, in Glade Spring, Va. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

This week, I’m going to try to get back into the habit of doing a post every Friday that tries to provide a quick look at a few coal-related news stories from around the Internet that I found interesting.

First off this week is the much-shared New York Times piece, “Beyond Coal: Imagining Appalachia’s Future.” Written by Times Mid-Atlantic Bureau Chief Sheryl Stolberg, the piece starts out like this:

Here in the heart of central Appalachian coal country, an economic experiment is underway inside an airy renovated Coca-Cola bottling plant. Most days, Michael Harrison, a former mine electrician and “buggy man” who once drove trucks 700 feet underground, can be found hunched over a silver laptop, designing websites for clients like the Pikeville tourism board.

Mr. Harrison, 36, is one of 10 former mine workers employed at BitSource, an internet start-up founded by two Pikeville businessmen determined to prove a point: that with training and encouragement, Kentucky miners can learn to code.

“We told them, ‘Quit thinking of yourselves as unemployed coal workers; you’re technology workers,’” said Rusty Justice, a founder of BitSource. He called his pep talks “reimagination training.”

Times Appalachia coverAnd then there’s what we like to call nut graphs:

Nearly 13,000 coal jobs — and countless more in related industries — have disappeared in Kentucky since President Obama took office; coal employment is at its lowest level since 1898. In Washington, Democrats and Republicans remain locked in a feud over whether Mr. Obama’s aggressive environmental regulations amount to a “war on coal.” On the presidential campaign trail, Donald J. Trump is vowing to “put our miners back to work.”

But across central Appalachia, and especially here in eastern Kentucky, elected officials, business leaders, environmentalists and community advocates are looking beyond politics to wrestle with a question essential to the region’s survival: What comes after coal?

I guess it’s a decent enough story, as far as it goes. And it’s certainly good to see many of the grassroots people who are working hard on these issues portrayed for the huge audience that will see a big Times feature like this.

Giving the Times a break, I’m not even going to go into the fact that the story doesn’t bother to point out the other factors — besides environmental regulations — that are killing the Appalachian coal industry. But I couldn’t help thinking that one thing that the story desperately needed to point out was that the Obama administration — which the story went to pains to note is constantly criticized in the region — is trying hard to help these grassroots people get to work diversifying the Appalachian coalfield economy. Even more importantly, this story absolutely needed to make note — given the political situation it chose to include very high up in the narrative — that there is bipartisan support for the major pieces of President Obama’s plan that would protect coal miner pensions and increase spending on abandoned mine cleanups, two areas of legacy liabilities that must be addressed for the region to move forward.

And if you’re wondering why the story focused more on Kentucky, don’t forget that statewide political leaders there made diversifying the coalfield economy a major issue, with the SOAR initiative.

Here in West Virginia, Sen. Jeff Kessler tried to get a similar program moving. But Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was slow to step up, and his main project is trying to find some way to make use of the mountaintop removal-ravaged Hobet site along the Boone-Lincoln county line — an effort that faces huge challenges that were clear from the start and have been made more clear by Andy Brown’s reporting for the Gazette-Mail (see here and here).

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As the National Academy of Sciences begins to gear up for its review of the health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining, the scientist who really brought this issue to light has a new study out that’s worth checking out.

The study, co-authored by Michael Hendryx, is called “Unintended consequences of the Clean Air Act: Mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining communities.” Here’s the summary:

The 1990 amendments to the US Clean Air Act (CAA) encouraged the growth of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining in Central Appalachia. This study tests the hypothesis that the amendments had unintended impacts on increasing mortality rates for populations living in these mining areas. We used a panel design to examine adjusted mortality rates for three groups (all-cause, respiratory cancer, and non-cancer respiratory disease) between 1968 and 2014 in 404 counties stratified by MTR and Appalachian/non-Appalachian status. The results showed significant interactions between MTR status and post-CAA period for all three mortality groups. These differences persisted after control for time, age, smoking rates, poverty, obesity, and physician supply. The MTR region in the post-CAA years experienced an excess of approximately 1200 adjusted deaths per year. Although the CAA has benefits, energy policies have in general focused on the combustion portion of the fossil fuel cycle. Other components of fossil fuel production (e.g. extraction, transport, and processing) should be considered in the comprehensive development of sustainable energy policy.

Mine Explosion Congress

 

In case you missed it, we posted a story very late last night based on a quick glimpse through the federal government’s response brief, filed in Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s appeal, which is pending at the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals:

Federal prosecutors on Monday urged an appeals court to uphold last year’s landmark conviction of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for a mine safety conspiracy.

“The only thing novel about the charge against defendant is that, in this case, it was pursued against the CEO of a major mining company, instead of against low-ranking miners,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby wrote in a brief filed with the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Late Monday night, Ruby filed a 97-page legal brief with the 4th Circuit, spelling out the federal government’s response to Blankenship’s appeal of his conviction.

“Defendant may believe himself to be more important than those past defendants, and perhaps though that his position insulated him from legal scrutiny,” Ruby wrote. “But there is nothing new about the legal authorities that were brought to bear in his prosecution.”

You can read the brief for yourself here (and you can read Blankenship’s appeal brief here).

Here’s another interesting quote from Ruby’s brief:

Defendant suggests that because 29 coal miners were killed at UBB, he must have been convicted because of the emotion and public outcry that the UBB explosion aroused, not because of his own rampant law-breaking.  Defendant raised this theory in a pretrial motion that the trial court rejected and whose denial, again, he does not appeal. That motion detailed his intricate fantasies that he was prosecuted because of an internet video he released touting his theory of the UBB explosion, or because of a vaguely described political conspiracy to frame him for the explosion. Id. The trial court found not a shred of evidence to support any of it. Defendant may be correct that not every mine where workers die is the scene of law-breaking, but the  evidence showed that this one was, and that he was behind it—and a jury of his peers fairly convicted him of his crime.

Oral argument in the appeal is set for Oct. 26 in Richmond, Virginia.

Contract vote a relief for UMWA, Murray Energy

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The news Friday evening was certainly welcome for both the United Mine Workers of America union and Murray Energy:

Rank-and-file members of the United Mine Workers of America voted Friday to approve a proposal for a new contract with the Bituminous Coal Operators Association, whose major member company is Murray Energy.

According a statement issued by the UMW, 60.3 percent voted in favor of the new collective bargaining agreement at six Murray Energy mines in West Virginia and Ohio.

As our story noted:

Murray has previously warned that finalizing a new contract with the UMW is a crucial part of his company’s plan to avoid financial default, and has hinted that without a deal he might consider bankruptcy court protection.

While the UMWA membership earlier this summer voted down an earlier contract proposal, the last thing union leaders want is to face a Murray Energy bankruptcy that would certainly not help their current battle to preserve union pensions and health-care benefits.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts said:

This was a tough vote for our members to take. The coal industry is in a depression and more than 50 companies have filed for bankruptcy in the last few years. Thousands have been laid off. The pressures on those who are still working are tremendous and growing.

But despite all that, our members took a courageous stand by voting to try to keep their company operating while maintaining the best wages, benefits and working conditions in the American coal industry.

And Murray CEO Bob Murray said:

This is a good day for Murray American’s UMWA-represented employees, as this agreement will go a long way toward ensuring that our coal mines can keep operating, and our employees working, even in the current depressed coal marketplace.

Bob Murray: MSHA inspections ‘total harassment’

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Yesterday, Hoppy Kercheval had Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray on the MetroNews show “Talkline,” ostensibly to talk about the growing financial challenges faced by Murray Energy and the vote coming up on Friday by United Mine Workers of America members on a second contract proposal with Murray.

Murray said, as he has before, that a new contract to replace the UMWA deal that expires at the end of the year, is essential to his company’s survival. The MetroNews summary of his comments went like this:

“The United Mine Workers turned it down last time. It is essential, the approval of it, to complete our four step program to avoid financial default in October,” Murray said.

Murray announced in July that 4,400 employees, 80 percent of his workforce, could lose their jobs. WARN notices were sent out.

But things veered away from that pretty quickly into another attack on the Obama administration and its efforts to better regulate coal mining.  Here’s Murray, responding to Hoppy’s softball questions:

I’ve worked night and day for 29 years building this company and creating these jobs only to have them destroyed by Barack Obama and his excessive regulations. Those regulations are coming out against coal, against the utilization of coal as well as the mining of coal faster than we can read them.

Murray went on:

Talk about harassment. In the first two days of this month, our mines had 89 federal inspectors from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration run by former UMWA safety man Joe Main. Eight-nine inspectors.

That means I had to take 89 management people off of inspecting the mines, off of doing safety training. It has nothing to do with safety. It is total harassment. Eighty-nine inspectors for 15 mines … All of which are cut back in production because they keep hiring these inspectors. They have nowhere to put them. It’s all harassment. It works against safety. There are so many ways that this federal government, under Obama, which Hilary Clinton has said she will continue trying to drive the coal mines out of business. It has nothing to do with safety. It has to do with eliminating underground coal mining.

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Trump keeps pandering to the coal miners

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 

Certainly, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s statements about the coal industry aren’t the comments that are getting the most attention the last couple of days.  Still, for coalfield residents thinking ahead to this fall’s campaign — and not only to the presidential race, but others as well — looking at what Trump is trying to sell is worthwhile.

Chris Mooney at The Washington Post revisits it in a piece headlined, “Dear Donald Trump: This is what is really dismantling the coal industry.”

As Mooney notes, Trump talked about coal during his big economic speech Monday in Detroit:

Also critical to our economic renewal will be energy reform.

The Obama-Clinton Administration has blocked and destroyed millions of jobs through their anti-energy regulations, while raising the price of electricity for both families and businesses.

As a result of recent Obama EPA actions coal-fired power plants across Michigan have either shut down entirely or undergone expensive conversions. The Obama-Clinton war on coal has cost Michigan over 50,000 jobs. Hillary Clinton says her plan will “put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business.”

We will put our coal miners and steel workers back to work.

Clinton not only embraces President Obama’s job-killing energy restrictions but wants to expand them, including going after oil and natural gas production that employs some 10 million Americans.

But, citing the latest U.S. Energy Information Administration data, Mooney explains:

Sure, some Obama era regulations have been bad news for the industry. More broadly, coal is in a uniquely poor position, among energy sources, in the new environmental era that the world is now entering. Any utility company making decisions about its future energy mix will be thinking about this.

But equally bad news for coal has come in the form of  very cheap natural gas, which has arrived in this country precisely because the fracking-driven shale gas industry — with which Trump is also seemingly aligned — has thrived during Obama’s presidency.

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Miner dies after Wyoming County ignition

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Mine Explosion

 

Here’s the information we have so far from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training about a West Virginia coal-mining death:

The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training confirms Donald Workman of Gilbert, W.Va., died last evening from injuries he sustained from a mine incident that occurred on Friday, July 29, 2016.  The incident occurred at Spartan Mining’s Road fork 51 Mine  Road Fork #51 Spartan Mine in Pineville, Wyoming County.  Mr. Gilbert was a maintenance supervisor at the mine; he was 58 years old. The incident was reported to the Mine and Industrial Rapid Response System at 12:47 p.m. on July 29th

Initial reports indicate there was an ignition in the shaft of this underground mine.  The miner was on the surface at the time of the incident. 

Inspectors from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training are investigating the incident and the cause of the ignition. Further details will be released when the investigation is complete. 

And here’s additional information, just provided by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Coal District 12 was notified that a miner who was seriously injured on July 29, 2016, at the mine listed below, passed away yesterday.  Preliminary information indicates the following:

On July 29, 2016, two miners were performing welding repairs on a dewatering pump located on the surface near a shaft. The miners were welding threaded blocks that would be used to fasten guarding for the shaft.  One miner heard a roaring noise and moved away from the shaft.  The other miner was in the direct line of fire and received 2nd and 3rd degree burns and was transported to a medical facility.  The miner who was not burned said he saw a large blue flame exit the shaft.

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This just in from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement:

At the request of the State of West Virginia, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) will fund an independent examination of existing research concerning the potential correlation between increased human health risks and living near surface coal mine sites in Central Appalachia. The $1 million study will be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) over a two-year period.

You can read the full press release here.

This announcement by OSM (which has otherwise ignored the growing concerns about human health effects of large-scale strip mining) comes more than a year after agency director Joe Pizarchik and his boss, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, promised to try to put together this sort of scientific review.

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman kind of triggered a lot of this, after he said publicly that the growing body of peer-reviewed science on the topic deserved a closer look by regulators. Huffman and state Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta then announced a state review of the science, and asked federal officials for assistance.

Jim Justice

 

Here’s an unexpected announcement that just came in from the Jim Justice for governor campaign:

Yesterday, businessman Jim Justice visited Bridgeport High School in Harrison County and announced his plan to retrofit West Virginia’s older schools, public buildings, and commercial properties. In Harrison County alone, 19 school facilities have been upgraded and are already seeing lower energy bills.

By making older structures more energy efficient, Justice wants to cut costs and put people to work. His initiative is budget-neutral and aims to lower utility costs by retrofitting public schools, hospitals, college campuses, airports, libraries, state agencies, and other old buildings across West Virginia.

Justice said:

At The Greenbrier we’ve cut costs and put people to work by investing in energy efficiencies. I want to retrofit buildings across the state so that we can cut utility bills and create new jobs.

The Clarksburg paper had this story about the event yesterday.  And as Andrew Brown from the Gazette-Mail has reported, energy efficiency programs have not exactly been the most popular topic among political leaders and regulators in West Virginia.

It’s a pleasant surprise to hear Justice talking about an important, but not very sexy, issue like energy efficiency. He’s also presented what — for a candidate who has been harshly criticized for not really talking much about specific policies — is a somewhat detailed plan for tackling this initiative.

More broadly, though, it’s hard to understand how Justice can on one hand be promoting major energy efficiency efforts and then insisting that he’s somehow going to to make sure that West Virginia produces more coal than ever before.

But maybe this announcement is just a prelude to a really major move by Justice in which the Democratic candidate and coal operator will renounce his refusal to acknowledge the climate crisis and pledge to do all he can to help West Virginia do its part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Democratic platform opposes mountaintop removal

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A story is making the rounds today that brings the focus back again to the potential public health impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.  Writing for The Conversation website, Roberta Attanasio, a Georgia State University biologist, explains:

The U.S. coal industry is in rapid decline, a shift marked not only by the bankruptcy of many mine operators in coal-rich Appalachia but also by a legacy of potential environmental and social disasters.

As mines close, states, the federal government and taxpayers are left wondering about the costs of cleaning up the abandoned land, especially at mountaintop removal sites, the most destructive type of mining. As coal companies go bankrupt, this has left states concerned taxpayers may have to pick up the environmental cleanup costs.

But there are also societal costs related to mountaintop removal mining’s impact on health and mental health. As an immunologist, I reviewed the research literature for specific effects of mountaintop removal mining on the immune system. I did not identify any pertinent information. However, I did find plenty of clues suggesting that health and mental health issues will pose enormous challenges to the affected coal communities, and will linger for decades.

At the same time, a press release from the Alliance for Appalachia pointed out something to me that I wasn’t aware of — this language from the Democratic Party platform:

 

 

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump puts on a miners hard hat during a rally in Charleston, W.Va., Thursday, May 5, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

 

A lot of the news out of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been rightly focused on his comments attacking the parents of a Muslim American soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, and then on his remarks Monday night in which he called Hillary Clinton “the devil.”

But Trump is still talking about coal mining, and here’s what The Hill reported he said Monday during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania:

“I have friends that own the mines. I mean, they can’t live,” he said.

“The restrictions environmentally are so unbelievable where inspectors come two and three times a day, and they can’t afford it any longer and they’re closing all the mines. … It’s not going to happen anymore, folks. We’re going to use our heads.”

It’s not really clear what environmental inspections Trump is talking about that involve inspectors visiting mines two or three times a day. Complete safety inspections of underground coal mines are required once per quarter — and sometimes those inspections take so long that MSHA has people at larger underground operations every day. But surely Mr. Trump, a champion of coal miners, isn’t thinking about cutting back on safety inspections.

Here’s more via a CBS News Twitter feed: