Coal Tattoo

Coal mining deaths continue

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Photo from U.S. MSHA / On May 18, a miner was killed at the Pinnacle Mine in Wyoming County when his head hit the mine roof and/or a roof support.

While I was out of pocket last week, another West Virginia coal miner was killed on the job.

The cryptic statement from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training provided little insight into what happened:

The West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training confirms a fatal incident occurred Tuesday, June 13, 2017 at 8:47 p.m., at the Rockwell Mining LLC, Gateway Eagle Mine in Boone County. Preliminary information indicates Rodney S. Osborne of Artie, WV, was operating a continuous miner at the time of the incident.  Mr. Osborne was a continuous miner operator at the mine; he was 32 years old.

Inspectors from the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training have started their investigation. The mine is idle at this time. 

Officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration were more helpful, reporting that Osborne was “fatally injured when he was pinned between the cutter head of a remote-controlled continuous mining machine and the coal rib. The victim was backing the continuous mining machine from the working face when the accident occurred.

The on Monday, down in Alabama, another coal miner was killed on the job.  Local media identified him as Marius Shepherd of Jasper. The preliminary information from MSHA described what happened at the Oak Grove Mine this way:

Two locomotives were transporting supplies into the mine on three rail cars.  While traveling in an inby direction, the locomotives lost control of the load.  The victim was riding on the front locomotive along with a motorman.  The victim was thrown from or jumped from the locomotive and suffered fatal injuries.  An inspector was at the mine when the accident occurred and …  the investigation is ongoing.

Continue reading…

Happy West Virginia Day

ap_17152713058825

Well, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., was the first into my email inbox with a statement praising President Donald Trump for abandoning any global leadership by the United States in fighting the climate crisis. Here’s what the congressman had to say:

President Trump’s decision to withdraw is a bold statement that he will put America first even in the face of intense international pressure. The Paris Climate Agreement is a flawed deal that puts America’s energy needs and economic growth on the back burner, while transferring money and power to unelected international bureaucrats.

Moving forward, the best way to lead on this issue is to prioritize energy research and promote new technologies that will allow countries around the world to use all their resources – including fossil fuels – in the cleanest and most efficient manner.

I urge President Trump to seize this opportunity and champion technology to provide affordable, efficient and reliable energy. This alternative approach will not only benefit America, but will help the billions around the globe who remain in energy poverty.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., wasn’t far behind with this statement:

While I believe that the United States and the world should continue to pursue a cleaner energy future, I do not believe that the Paris Agreement ensures a balance between our environment and the economy.  To find that balance, we should seek agreements that prioritize the protection of the American consumer as well as energy-producing states like West Virginia, while also incentivizing the development of advanced fossil energy technologies.

To be fair, though, I think Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s statement hit Twitter before I saw either of those emails:

Today’s announcement is a major victory for working West Virginia families. My mission is to continue to fight against unlawful regulations that pose a threat to jobs and the success of the Mountain State.

I’m sure other West Virginia political leaders will follow with similar political pandering about the president’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement. And they can talk all they want about how this is going to help the coal industry, and throw around phrases like “prioritize energy research” and “incentivize the development of advanced fossil energy technologies.” But the fact is that the Trump administration wants to gut government spending needed to make “clean coal” — whatever that is, exactly — any sort of reality.

Tons of journalists and scientists — and business people — who are way smarter than me have provided lots of discussion about the very real dangers that this move by President Trump poses to our society (see here, here and here for example).  There are also indications from some that the clean energy revolution is far from over, and that all hope for dealing with climate change isn’t yet totally lost.

Continue reading…

mtrphoto2

 

We had a story in this morning’s paper about the latest ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers to again confirm that mountaintop removal mining has had devastating impacts on water quality in West Virginia’s coalfields.  Meanwhile — in another case that was heard before Judge Chambers — the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was handing a defeat to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

EPA has been fighting to block pending a full appeal a previous ruling by Judge Chambers in a suit in which citizen groups are trying to force federal and state officials to clean up streams that have been contaminated by mining pollution.

Judge Chambers had already refused to stay his own decision pending that appeal, and now the 4th Circuit has likewise refused to grant the Trump EPA a stay.

Continue reading…

Alpha unloading more W.Va. assets

Here’s today’s news from Alpha Natural Resources:

Alpha Natural Resources (ANR, Inc.) announces the divestment of substantially all of the assets of two separate operations, a coal mining complex and a natural gas operation, both located in central West Virginia.

The Green Valley mining assets in Nicholas and Greenbrier Counties are being sold to Quinwood Coal Company. The divestiture includes the Number 1 preparation plant and related permits, which have been idle since the second quarter of 2014. In addition to the coal mining complex, the New River Energy natural gas operation is being sold to Kinzer Drilling. The divestiture includes 120 producing natural gas wells in five counties.

Alpha CEO David Stetson said the divestments represent another important step toward reducing Alpha’s footprint:

With these significant divestitures, we will transfer 28 mining-related permits, reduce surety bonding by approximately $3.5 million, eliminate future reclamation spending at these sites, and further reduce our annual holding cost for inactive and idle properties by approximately $1.1 million.  Additionally, $2.7 million in self bonding will be eliminated as part of these sales, which will assist ANR in meeting its obligations to the State of West Virginia.

Stetson added:

As with previous divestitures, Alpha has been able to enter into agreements with third parties that have indicated a desire to restart these operations and restore many jobs to the local community.

The press release added:

Stetson indicated that Alpha will continue to pursue sales of other non-strategic assets in the coming months. Terms of the transactions were not released.

Certainly an interesting announcement, considering some of the remarks in this recent  Taylor Kuykendall story for S&P Global Market Intelligence:

The notion that Contura was getting the crown jewels of the reorganization and that Alpha would remain in business primarily to fulfill duties toward reclaiming legacy coal mining properties, Stetson said, is a bit of a misconception … “We certainly were left with legacy properties, but the fact of the matter is we were left with the best metallurgical mines in the Central [Appalachian] region with significant production,” Stetson said in an interview at the company’s new Kingsport, Tenn., headquarters.

Miners get another week — then what?

Lawmakers and UMWA members held another press conference at the Capitol in Washington on Wednesday.

UPDATE: HERE’S A STORY FROM THE GAZETTE-MAIL ABOUT FINAL ACTION BY CONGRESS ON THE UMW HEALTH-CARE BILL.

Word came out last night that the latest government funding bill does contain language to preserve health-care benefits for more than 22,000 retired United Mine Workers of American members and families … but this new “continuing resolution” would only protect those benefits for another week, through May 5, the term of the government funding resolution itself.

The press release from House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen , R-N.J., said:

This Continuing Resolution will continue to keep the government open and operating as normal for the next several days, in order to finalize legislation to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year. I am optimistic that a final funding package will be completed soon. It is time that this essential work is completed so that critical programs and activities – including national defense – are properly and adequately funded for the year.

Regarding the UMWA issue, the release added:

The legislation also extends the December CR provision for health care benefits for retired coal miners and their dependents for the length of this CR. This provision protects coal miners and their families from losing health care benefits.

For the UMWA’s retirees, and especially for those who understand the importance of the troubled pension plan that involves far more people — something like 89,000 current pensioners and another 29,000 who have vested in the program — this week-long extension is certainly a mixed blessing, and a potential source of more trouble. The concern for the union and its retirees at this point is that the additional time before a longer-term funding bill is approved gives some within the coal industry still more time to try to carve out some language for themselves. That’s because, as mentioned in a recent Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article, some Republican lawmakers have an alternative plan:

The emerging GOP proposal, spearheaded by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair, would divert that money to provide health care benefits for retirees from profitable coal companies that already are providing that coverage.

Rep. Murphy hasn’t yet dropped his proposal as an actual legislative proposal yet, and it hasn’t gotten a lot of media attention. But it was being promoted in some radio ads on stations in Northern West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania over the last few weeks. The ads were funded by a group called the Secure Energy for America Association, which has close ties to CONSOL Energy — a company that has been trying to rid itself of the rest of its coal operations to focus on natural gas.

The UMWA’s concern is that, first, this proposal would relieve companies like CONSOL of their obligations to fund health-care benefits under the Coal Act and, second, it would do so by diverting the money that the union’s Miner Protection Act would use to stabilize the UMWA pension plan.

Phil Smith, the union’s spokesman, said this morning that the union is pleased to have its health-care benefits language in the short-term government funding bill, but remains concerned about where the broader issue could be headed, given the language that Rep. Murphy and some in the industry are pushing:

If it’s going to give Congress more time to come to a permanent solution for these benefits and pensions then that’s what it’s going to take. But we’re concerned that a segment of the coal industry appears to be trying to take away the most logical source of funding for pensions going forward just so they can pad their bottom line.

 

 

UMWA benefits extension down to the wire – again

Budget Battle

 

We should know perhaps as early as today how things are going to play for legislation aimed at protecting the health-care benefits and pensions for thousands of retired United Mine Workers of America coal miners at their families.

It seems a stretch at this point to think that when the House GOP leadership makes public the text of its version of the latest continuing resolution — a funding bill to avoid a government shutdown come Friday — that it will include a long-term fix for both the UMWA health-care benefits for more than 22,000 retirees and family members and language that would financially rescue the union’s troubled pension program, which covers 89,000 retirees currently receiving pensions and another 29,000 miners who have vested in the program.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., expressed confidence last week that a long-term fix for the health-care benefits alone could be worked out this week.

But it’s also possible that we may just see another kick-the-can-down-the-road temporary measure like the one that currently expires at the end of the month.

Stay tuned …

The Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster

UBBPortal

 

Seven years ago today, a huge explosion ripped through Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Twenty-nine coal miners died:

Carl Acord

Jason Atkins

Christopher Bell

Greg Brock

Kenneth Chapman

Robert Clark

Cory Davis

Timmy Davis

Michael Elswick

William Griffith

Steven Harrah

Dean Jones

Richard Lane

William Roosevelt Lynch

Joe Marcum

Ronald Maynor

Nicolas McCroskey

Eddie Mooney

Adam Morgan

Rex Mullins

Joshua Napper

Howard Payne

Dillard Earl Persinger

Joel Price

Gary Wayne Quarles

Deward Allan Scott

Grover Skeens

Benny Willingham

Ricky Workman

Wait – What did Capito say about climate change?

FILE - In this Jan. 20, 2015 file photo, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., accompanied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. Senate Republicans discussed a proposal Wednesday to temporarily help millions of people who could lose federal health care subsidies should the Supreme Court annul the aid, which has been a pillar of President Barack Obama’s health care law. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

 

Earlier this week, when President Trump issued his executive order on energy, there was such a flurry of statements from all manner of politicians and various special interest groups that it was hard to keep up. But there was one that stuck out. It came from EPA and was billed as, “What They are Saying About President Trump’s Executive Order on Energy Independence“:

Senator Shelly Moore Capito (W.Va)
With this Executive Order, President Trump has chosen to recklessly bury his head in the sand. Walking away from the Clean Power Plan and other climate initiatives, including critical resiliency projects is not just irresponsible — it’s irrational. Today’s executive order calls into question America’s credibility and our commitment to tackling the greatest environmental challenge of our lifetime. With the world watching, President Trump and Administrator Pruitt have chosen to shirk our responsibility, disregard clear science and undo the significant progress our country has made to ensure we leave a better, more sustainable planet for generations to come.

Wait, what?

Well, before anyone thinks that Senator Capito has come to her senses about climate change … within a little more than an hour, EPA had sent out a corrected press release with a different quote from the senator:

President Trump kept his promise to roll back one of the most harmful acts of overreach by the Obama administration – the so-called Clean Power Plan. If fully implemented, the Clean Power Plan would have completely decimated West Virginia’s vital coal industry while having no meaningful climate impact. Stopping this disastrous plan will preserve America’s coal industry, expand our manufacturing renaissance that is reliant upon affordable energy, and protect American families from unprecedented hikes in their electric bills. I was honored to join the president for the signing of this Executive Order, and I look forward to continuing working with the Trump administration to advance environmentally responsible policies that grow the economy – not kill jobs.”

This “corrected” EPA press release included a link to Sen. Capito’s own full statement on her Senate website, and a note saying “A draft released earlier today mis-attributed a quote from another senator to Senator Capito.

If you were wondering, that other quote from the initial EPA press release was what Sen. Tom Carper, D-Delaware, said about the Trump administration action.

 

Obama Mine Explosion

 

Word is that there’s some sort of a deal that would turn the controversial mine safety bill pending in the West Virginia Senate into another “agreed to bill.”

At least that’s what state Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, indicated on Saturday. The actual language of the expected “committee substitute” hasn’t been made public yet, but will apparently be discussed tomorrow during a 1 p.m. meeting of the Senate Committee on Energy, Industry and Mining, which Smith (an official from Mettiki Coal) chairs.

Smith let word of the deal slip on Saturday during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, when he was asking about any progress among various stakeholder groups to work out a deal on a “forced pooling” bill that the natural gas industry very much wants. Smith offered no details, but said of the deal he says he helped work out, “Everybody lost something, but everybody gained something, too.”

Meanwhile, the West Virginia mine safety bill and somewhat similar legislation moving in Kentucky got the attention of the editorial board of The New York Times, which commented today:

President Trump’s vow to bring back the coal industry’s heyday is a delusion. But it’s already inspiring Republican legislatures in Appalachia to resurrect a grim element of those boom times: loose safety laws that endangered miners’ lives and protected owners’ profits.

… Federal safety standards should be adequate, the sponsors airily insist. In truth, both state and federal governments should continue to exercise parallel responsibilities in protecting miners’ health and safety. This is particularly vital now that Mr. Trump’s proposed budget would inflict a 21 percent cut on the Labor Department, which is responsible for federal mine inspections.

… Political pandering is nothing new in Appalachia, where the coal industry has wooed and intimidated generations of state lawmakers to favor mine owners. But this latest bout, launched in tandem with Mr. Trump’s fantasy job promises, can only leave remaining miners in greater danger on the job.

 

Mine safety rollbacks: W.Va. is not alone

Mine Explosion Anniversary

As we reported here yesterday, the West Virginia Senate’s Committee on Energy, Industry and Mining met yesterday to take up SB 582, a bill to strip the state’s inspectors of any real enforcement role in coal mine health and safety (see also the companion bill introduced in the House).

A longer story in today’s print edition (and online here) provides more details about that bill, and explains that the EIM committee sent the measure to a subcommittee for further review.

It’s interesting to note that West Virginia is not alone in its effort this year to roll back mine safety protections under state law.

This is also happening in Kentucky, and it’s already happened in Illinois.

So far, I’ve seen no meeting scheduled for the subcommittee that’s looking at the West Virginia bill … so stay tuned.

 

Mine Explosion

A sign for the Upper Big Branch miners is seen in front of a church in Eunice off of Route 3, W.Va. on Thursday, March 8, 2010. .(AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Rick Barbero)

West Virginia led the nation in coal-mining deaths last year and we’ve seen two coal miners — including one working at one of the governor’s operations — die on the job so far in 2017.

So obviously, it’s a good time for lawmakers at the Capitol to start focusing on coal-mine safety. And what better time to introduce what is certainly the most sweeping mine safety bill in many years than on a Saturday session of the state Senate, right?

After an initial glance at Senate Bill 582, here’s what United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts had to say over the weekend:

We are reviewing the legislation to make sure we fully understand the impact it will have on working miners. This is the first opportunity we have had to see any of this language. The fact that this bill was introduced on a Saturday when it would get the least amount of media coverage tells you all you need to know about how proud its authors are of it. When legislators are afraid of the people finding out what they are doing, something is wrong.

smith_randyThe bill, sponsored by Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker and a Mettiki Coal official, is 106 pages long and is  — to borrow the word used by longtime mine safety advocate Davitt McAteer — “breathtaking” in the extent to which is essentially eliminates any meaningful role for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training in enforcement of  safety and health protections for West Virginia’s miners.

For example, instead of conducting “inspections” at the state’s mines, the office would only perform “compliance visits and education.” Actual enforcement actions could only be taken against mine operators if a state employee discovers conditions that present imminent danger to workers — unless, of course, the infraction was committed by an individual miner. The state’s “Individual Penalty Assessments,” which target mostly mid-level foremen and not companies or corporate agents, would remain part of state law, under the bill.

Oddly, in a state where coal industry officials and their politicians have spent so much time bucking any role for the federal government in regulating mining, the bill also eliminates a long list of West Virginia safety and health standards and says that instead of those standards, mine operators must simply follow U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rules.

There’s a lot of other stuff in this bill, including some confusing provisions about the Department of Environmental Protection’s Special Reclamation Fund, a program that is of growing importance as the state faces the decline of the coal industry and the legacy liabilities that often poorly regulated mining has left behind.

The bill is on the agenda today for a 1 p.m. meeting of the Senate Energy, Industry and Mining Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Smith. Two of the bill’s other three sponsors are also on the committee, if that gives you any idea whether this legislation is set to get moving.

This would be the third year in a row that West Virginia lawmakers have moved to weaken coal mine safety and health protections (see here and here). And before you blame the Republicans, recall that a Democratic-controlled Legislature and a Democratic governor didn’t exactly pass meaningful mine safety reforms in the wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster.

Stay tuned …

Later today, the U.S. Senate will almost certainly vote to approve a resolution to block a last-minute Obama administration rule aimed at replacing the long-controversial stream “buffer zone” rule. The House passed the resolution yesterday afternoon. Once that resolution makes its way to the White House, President Trump will sign it.

Presumably, it won’t take long after that before all of the coal miners in West Virginia who have lost their jobs over the last few years will get called back to work.

Well, at least that is what coalfield political leaders, industry officials — and now the most powerful man on the planet — would have residents of places like Boone and Logan counties in West Virginia believe.

Here’s Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., during yesterday’s House floor debate on the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement rule:

Simply put, it was President Obama’s attempt to drive a final nail into the coffin of an industry that made America great. Look, enough is enough. This war on coal has to come to a stop, and I think this election set the tone for that. Now that we finally have a President who understands the painful impact of excessive and unnecessary regulations,

It is time to give the families of the coalfields all across America a chance to get relief from the unelected bureaucrats in Washington.

Here’s Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., during that same floor debate:

Stopping this rule matters to West Virginians, to our miners, to our families, to our consumers. We produce 95 percent of our electricity from coal. It is reliable and it is affordable … My State can’t afford to lose any more jobs, and I know that goes for other coal States.

It fell to Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, to bring some reality into the discussion:

… If there is a war on coal, it is being led by the natural gas industry who produces a cheaper product at a lower cost. And if  there is any trouble that coal is in, it is directly attributed to the free market and that competition.

Continue reading…

What we can learn from the Blankenship appeal

Mine Explosion Congress

 

This morning, when I looked a the calendar to see what the day ahead would be like, I saw the date: Jan. 19. I was reminded of a Jan. 19 more than a decade ago, when the day took a terrible turn and two men working at one of Don Blankenship’s coal mines ended up dead.  I’m sure it’s another hard day for the families of Don Bragg and Elvis Hatfield. The calendar can be like that for mining families. The winter months especially are way too full of dates that mark one awful disaster or another.

Then shortly after I got to the newsroom, an email alert showed up from the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, noting a new document filed in the Blankenship appeal:

PUBLISHED AUTHORED OPINION filed. Originating case number: 5:14-cr-00244-1.

I clicked, called up the opinion, and hurried to scroll down to the key passage:

Defendant Donald Blankenship (“Defendant”), former chairman and chief executive officer of Massey Energy Company (“Massey”), makes four arguments related to his conviction for conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws and regulations. After careful review, we conclude the district court committed no reversible error. Accordingly, we affirm.

We’ve got a lot of changes coming our way in this country. Come tomorrow, Donald Trump will be sworn in as our President. Already in West Virginia, we’ve seen what is likely a similarly significant change. On Monday, Jim Justice stood at the Capitol and took the oath as our new governor.

As a candidate, President-elect Trump certainly talked a lot about doing away with government regulations, especially those he says were killing the coal industry. Governor Justice has promised to fight federal environmental regulations that get in the way of his industry, and says under his leadership. West Virginia will mine more coal than ever before.

There’s obviously a lot of evidence that suggests the coal revival that’s being promised is very unlikely to happen. But today’s events, and the history of what happened today back in 2006, should make us think about this from another perspective.

Continue reading…

TomblinAs he did with his last State of the State address a year ago, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin today offered some straight talk about the future of our state’s coal industry:

While we all continue to hope that the coal industry will rebound, that hasn’t happened quickly and it likely won’t ever return to the levels that we once saw.

The governor continued:

We continue to work to diversify our economy and I know the improvements we’ve made will pay long-term dividends in job growth and investment.

Gov. Tomblin also touted his major effort at trying to diversify our coalfield communities:

It was here in this chamber, one year ago during my State of the State Address, where I announced plans for the largest development project in West Virginia’s history at the former Hobet surface mine site.

Since last year at this time, we have worked every day and we have made tremendous progress on this project, which is now known as Rock Creek Development Park.

We have worked with local landowners, who are generously donating land that will result in more than 12,000 developable acres for Rock Creek, which is the size of the city of Huntington.

Continue reading…

Manchin receives pension ‘assurance’ from Trump

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)

 

Here’s the latest from the office of Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.:

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) today released the following statement on his conversation with President-Elect Donald Trump on securing healthcare for retired miners.

“Today, I spoke with President-Elect Donald Trump and he assured me that he will help fight to secure a permanent health care solution for our retired miners, as guaranteed in the Miners Protection Act. I look forward to working with him, his administration and my colleagues in order to keep America’s promise to our miners and make sure they receive the healthcare they have earned and deserve.”

blacklungminer2

 

If you happened to be a regular reader of the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, yesterday’s bombshell about black lung disease was enough to frighten you.

In the paper, researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reported that they had confirmed a cluster of the mostly deadly form of the disease — Progressive Massive Fibrosis, or PMF — at a clinic in the Kentucky coalfields. This cluster hadn’t been discovered during the regular NIOSH routines that track black lung, and raised serious questions that the extent of the crisis was far worse than previously explained:

… Cases in this report were not identified through standard coal workers’ pneumoconiosis surveillance, and whether similar clusters of cases exist in other communities is not known. Thus, the actual extent of PMF in U.S. coal miners remains unclear.

But if you happened to be listening to NPR’s All Things Considered later in the day, you heard the results of a new investigation by the great Howard Berkes:

Across Appalachia, coal miners are suffering from the most serious form of the deadly mining disease black lung in numbers more than 10 times what federal regulators report, an NPR investigation has found.

The government, through the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, reported 99 cases of “complicated” black lung, or progressive massive fibrosis, throughout the country the last five years.

But NPR obtained data from 11 black lung clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, which reported a total of 962 cases so far this decade. The true number is probably even higher, because some clinics had incomplete records and others declined to provide data.

The reaction from experts in the field — people who have spent their adult lives studying black lung and trying to fight the disease — was nothing short of terrifying.

Robert Cohen of the University of Illinois, Chicago:

I can’t say that I’ve heard really anything worse than this in my career.

Edward “Lee” Petsonk of West Virginia University:

I’ve spent much of my career trying to find ways to better protect miners’ respiratory health. It’s almost like I’ve failed.

Scott Laney, one of the authors of the NIOSH paper:

The current numbers are unprecedented by any historical standard. We had not seen cases of this magnitude ever before in history in central Appalachia.

I guess it’s still early, but the thing I notice is that my email inbox is pretty empty today.

Where are the formal statements from West Virginia political leaders expressing their outrage at this situation? Where are the press releases demanding action?

When anyone releases a new regulation aimed at fighting climate change or trying to curb mountaintop removal pollution, the last place you want to be is between any of our state’s politicians and a microphone or camera. But 1,000 cases of the most severe and deadly form of a disease that has killed 78,000 coal miners since 1969?

Crickets.

Of course, nobody really much campaigns around these parts on a platform of promising to protect the health and safety of coal miners. Those days are gone, especially now that Ken Hechler has passed.

We’re hearing a lot right now from politicians and the political media echo chambers about the middle class, the working class, people who live in middle America. What I can’t understand is how it is that issues like black lung — or any number of a long list of worker health and safety threats — isn’t really talked about like it’s a working class issue.

During this year’s presidential campaign, Democrat Hillary Clinton did mention black lung, but only briefly on her website and in context of protecting the program that provides benefits to victims of black lung. She didn’t propose more steps to end this terrible disease. Secretary Clinton did talk a bit about coal miner safety, after former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship showed up at an anti-Clinton rally. She expressed her support for making crimes like Blankenship’s a felony, instead of a misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in prison.

If President-elect Donald Trump talked about black lung, I must have missed it. But does anyone really believe a Trump administration will make tougher regulations and enforcement of mine safety and health protections a priority?

When mine safety and health came up during our state’s gubernatorial campaign, it was in the form of a ridiculous attack by the United Mine Workers on Republican Bill Cole and in defense of Democrat Jim Justice, our now-Governor-elect who can’t seem to pay all his mine safety fines on time, and over a bill that was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

What people who are truly friends of coal miners ought to do is make sure that all of our elected officials have to sit down and listen to what it sounds like for Mackie Branham — one of the coal miners Berkes interviewed — just trying to breathe.

Will President-elect Trump help retired coal miners?

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)

 

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)

Late last week, a group of Senate Democrats — led by West Virginia’s Sen. Joe Manchin — took things down to the wire to try to squeeze a long-term fix for the troubled United Mine Workers of American’s health care and pension programs into an emergency government funding bill. They weren’t successful.

But as we reported on Friday night, Manchin is turning his attention on this matter to the future, saying he will push for President -elect Donald Trump to step in and make the UMW retirees a priority once the Republican takes office on Jan. 20.

Other West Virginia leaders are also making it clear they believe this issue needs a long-term solution. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said on Friday:

While it’s disappointing to see only a short term extension of benefits at this time, this issue was way too important to offer false hope and risk our miners walking away with nothing. This CR has now given us a chance to fight another day.  I have already spoken to members of House Leadership, incoming Chairman Frelinghuysen and incoming Chairwoman Virginia Foxx and received a commitment to work toward a long-term solution for healthcare and pensions early in the next Congress. It’s time to work together and give our miners peace of mind so they know their benefits won’t be jeopardized by politics.

And Sen. Manchin isn’t the West Virginia political leaders turning to President-elect Trump for help on this. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., said late Friday night:

Preserving retirement benefits for our nation’s coal miners is among the most important and pressing items on the congressional agenda

Sen. Capito sent this letter to the President-elect, telling him:

Your recent election has provided hope in West Virginia communities. I look forward to working with you on policies that will help put our miners back to work and rebuild local economies that rely on energy production. It is just as important that we act to preserve health care and pension benefits for retirees who have suffered from the down turn in the coal industry. I ask that you work with me and a bipartisan group of my congressional colleagues to enact the Miners Protection Act early in the 115th Congress.”

I’m not aware of any comments that the President-elect made about this issue during the presidential campaign. My request to the transition team for a comment on the matter hasn’t received a response.

Push continues for UMWA benefits fix

That’s the video of last evening’s press conference outside the U.S. Capitol, where Sen. Joe Manchin and other Democrats joined with United Mine Workers of America retirees to continue their push for a longer term legislative fix for the crisis facing tens of thousands of UMWA pensioners.

As we reported online yesterday (and in today’s print edition), the White House weighed in to point out the obvious irony in Republicans who control the congressional agenda not making this issue a bigger priority, while basking in electoral victories that they claim are largely the result of Democrats not caring about this nation’s working class.

Where things stand now is that the four-month extension of health-care benefits is in the “continuing resolution” that is meant to keep the federal government from shutting down late tonight. But that bill has nothing in it about the UMWA pension crisis, and union leaders say the four-month, $45 million in funding for health care benefits for more than 16,000 retirees just isn’t enough.

Now, Manchin and others are pushing for a one-year extension of health benefits, instead of the four-month extension, to be included in the spending bill. Stay tuned …

Friday roundup, Dec. 2, 2016

In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a man takes a picture near a coal mine which has trapped dozens workers in Qitaihe City, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. The managers of an apparently unregistered coal mine in northeast China are under questioning as rescuers tried Thursday to reach workers trapped for a third day. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)

 

In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, a man takes a picture near a coal mine which has trapped dozens workers in Qitaihe City, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. The managers of an apparently unregistered coal mine in northeast China are under questioning as rescuers tried Thursday to reach workers trapped for a third day. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)

Earlier this week, the New York Times had a story headlined, “Despite climate change vow, China pushes to dig more coal,” reporting:

America’s uncertain stance toward global warmingunder the coming administration of Donald J. Trump has given China a leading role in the fight against climate change. It has called on the United States to recognize established science and to work with other countries to reduce dependence on dirty fuels like coal and oil.

But there is a problem: Even as it does so, China is scrambling to mine and burn more coal.

A lack of stockpiles and worries about electricity blackouts are spurring Chinese officials to reverse curbs that once helped reduce coal production. Mines are reopening. Miners are being lured back with fatter paychecks.

China’s response to coal scarcity shows how hard it will be to wean the country off coal. That makes it harder for China and the world to meet emissions targets, as Chinese coal is the world’s largest single source of carbon emissions from human activities.

In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers and workers attend a briefing before conducting a search and rescue operation for workers trapped inside a coal mine in Qitaihe City, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province. The managers of an apparently unregistered coal mine in northeast China are under questioning as rescuers tried Thursday to reach workers trapped for a third day. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)

In this Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2016 photo released by Xinhua News Agency, rescuers and workers attend a briefing before conducting a search and rescue operation for workers trapped inside a coal mine in Qitaihe City, northeast China’s Heilongjiang Province. (Wang Song/Xinhua via AP)

Interestingly enough, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

A deadly quarry collapse in northeast China this week reflects a surge in dangerous mining activity across the country as coal prices soar, following a government warning that the rally poses increased casualty risks.

The warning, in a report in early November, came as informal data have shown sharp increases in colliery casualties this year, with November the deadliest month so far.

On Tuesday, 22 workers were trapped when a shaft caved in at Qitaihe City Jingyou Coal Mine, a desolate outpost in China’s northeast, state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted rescue workers as saying on Wednesday. The cause wasn’t immediately known, nor was it clear whether any of those trapped had survived.

Last week, a coal-mine fire in neighboring Liaoning province killed 26 miners.

The Work Safety Committee of the State Council, a government agency, also said it would step up surprise inspections, including at night, to counter “illegal practices” at mines that put lives at risk.

“As coal prices go up, mines tend to go beyond the usual safety limits to get at the more dangerous coal, and accidents increase,” saidKeegan Elmer, a researcher for the Hong Kong-based watchdog China Labour Bulletin.

Also this week, Mother Jones had this important story:

As the clock ticks down to the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, the Obama administration is moving to enact one final measure aimed at cutting coal pollution. According to a spokesperson for the Interior Department, the administration intends to release an update to a decades-old regulation protecting streams from the impacts of mining before Obama leaves office on January 20.

Obama’s climate and environmental policies have largely been defined by a slew of executive actions and new regulations, including limits on carbon and mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants; new fuel efficiency standards; and a moratorium on new coal leases on public lands. In recent weeks, the administration has finalized a rule that seeks to limit methane emissions from oil and gas facilities and has placed a chunk of the Arctic off limits to further offshore drilling.

… Derek Teaney, senior attorney with the nonprofit Appalachian Mountain Advocates, says environmentalists have been waiting years for the rule to be strengthened. It was last updated by the Bush administration in 2008, and critics complained those changes left coal companies with too many loopholes. The Bush-era revisions were challenged in court by environmental groups, and the Interior Department withdrew them in 2014 … The “Obama administration has frittered away its time,” said Teaney.

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