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Welcome to a review of King Coal in the news during the week of April 26 - May 2, 2010. Come on in and sit a spell. Take a look at the Good, Bad, and Ugly when it comes to the dirtiest of dirty energy. Stop by the Activist Corner for how to lend your voice to the demise of King Coal.

The news of the week was dominated by the death of two miners in Kentucky and the firestorm growing around Massey Energy. Check out the time lapse photography of coal plant emissions in the video section.

In the immortal words of Mother Jones, "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."

>>>>> THE GOOD

Moving children out of Massey's way

The perfect symbol for the contempt and disregard by the coal companies for the communities around mines is the plight of the Marsh Fork Elementary School, which is not far from the Upper Big Branch mine. The school is under siege by Massey Energy, which operates a 9 billion gallon coal sludge pond above the school, a coal treatment plant next to the school, and a mountaintop top removal mine in the hills surrounding the school. A failure of the dam would destroy the school and everyone in it in a matter of minutes. Here is the description from Coal River Mountain Watch:

Marsh Fork Elementary School is located in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia.  Goals Coal, a Massey Energy subsidiary, owns and operates a coal processing plant and a massive toxic waste storage facility (sludge dam) near the school.  This seeping dam sits 400 yards from the school, and a coal silo ominously looms 150 feet from school grounds.  This silo loads powdered coal onto trains and sprays it with a chemical binding agent.  Another Massey subsidiary, Independence Coal, operates a 1849-acre surface strip mining operation above and around the school and dam.

Photographs documenting the spread of Massey's operations around the school can be found here.

The good news is that Governor Manchin announced that the 8.6 million dollars required to rebuild the school out of Massey's malignant reach has finally been raised, thanks in large part to a recent contribution from the Annenberg Foundation. More than 5 million dollars of the cost has come from the people of West Virginia.

Clean coal myth meets reality

Two large doses of empirically-based pessimism about the potential for sequestration of carbon dioxide on the scale generated by coal-fired power plants. The potential for sequestration rests largely on small-scale demonstration projects, but the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated from coal-fired power plant over a 40-year plant lifespan is a more daunting task.

First, a peer-reviewed simulation study found that the amount of carbon dioxide that can be stored in a fixed space such as depleted gas well or saline aquifer is substantially lower than previous estimates. The prevailing assumptions are that between 1-10% of a geologic storage site can be filled with carbon dioxide in a chemically fixed form. This study suggested the limit is likely to be under 1% of a storage site.

Second, the Netherlands cut their estimated carbon storage capacity in half. The Dutch have conducted the most extensive studies of the storage potential for sites in their country. Dutch geologist Fillip Neele summarized the issue issue as follows in a must-read New York Times article by Paul Voosen.

In some cases, Neele would not be surprised to see storage estimates fall by up to 95 percent compared with the original projection. Though even then, he added, the capacity would be still large thanks to the vast size of the available storage formations.

"This is likely to be true for any large-scale inventory of storage capacity," Neele said. "If you look at a country scale and try to assess the storage potential, you're very likely to grossly overestimate the storage potential."

The article also describes other logistic and technical challenges that will also make the costs of cleaning up the emissions of coal prohibitive.

Andrew Revkin highlights the zero sum game when it comes to energy research and development.

But every billion-dollar carbon-capture project, in the meantime, is raiding money that might otherwise go into basic research and development aimed at advancing solar technology or large-scale energy storage or other fields where breakthroughs could help lay the groundwork for a post-fossil global energy system – instead of providing a dicey Band-Aid to keep societies  stuck on the coal rung of the heat ladder a while longer.

Clean coal will never exist but pursuing the myth will keep coal alive in the energy mix at the expense of clean renewable sources.

Southern Company abandons new coal plant in Mississippi after state approval

Southern Company was granted permission to build a coal gasification plant, but decided to abandon the project. The sticking point was the requirement by state regulators for the plant to be delivered on budget.

The most significant condition was a $2.4 billion cap in the amount of construction costs the company would be able to charge to rate payers.

Cost overruns at a coal gasification plant being built by Duke Energy in Indiana have been 50% higher than original projections. Mississippi had the good sense to demand a real cost estimate. Coal gasification is the much-hyped cleaner coal plant technology. The costs are high enough to make clean renewable energy more attractive.

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>>>>> THE BAD

Two more coal mine fatalities

Two miners were killed in a mine roof collapse in Kentucky on April 29.

Justin Travis, 27, and Michael Carter, 28, were found about 4 miles inside the Dotiki Mine near Providence in eastern Kentucky, according to Eb Davis, general counsel for mine operator Webster County Coal.

The mine was cited for structural problems before the accident.

MSHA cited the Dotiki Mine 17 times since January 2009 for failing to adequately secure roofs and walls against falling rock and coal, agency records show. The fines total $15,700, and $4,500 has been paid.

Statement released by President Obama:

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of two miners in Kentucky, and my thoughts and prayers are with the loved ones they left behind.  As I said after the tragedy in West Virginia, I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply the cost of mining.  It is the responsibility of all of us, from mine operators to the federal government, to prevent such tragedies from happening again.  That is why my administration is taking steps to demand accountability for safety violations and strengthen mine safety so that all of our miners are protected.”

The very ugly backstory to the tragedy are revelations that Kentucky governor Beshear has a close relationship with Alliance Resource Partners, the owners of the Dotiki Mine, and has appointed Alliance officials to state regulatory agencies.

Utah defends sloppy environmental assessment of coal strip mine next to Bryce Canyon National Park

Hearings were held last week over the fast-track approval that was given to a coal strip mine. The hearings brought to light a $10,000 bribe campaign contribution by the coal company the day it met with the Utah governor.

Alton Coal Development got fast-track approval after complaining in a meeting with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert that regulators were taking too long to make a decision. A company representative sat down with Herbert Sept. 17, the same day the governor's campaign was depositing a $10,000 contribution from the coal company. Critics assert the donation influenced the Herbert administration's decision, but the governor's office has said he never ordered regulators to give their approval and wasn't aware of the donation.

A 33-page memo from the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining said the result of the coal company's September meeting with the Republican governor was to fast-track a decision by regulators. Priscilla Burton, a chief environmental scientist for the agency who wrote the memo, noted regulators had a full year to make a decision and agreed to wrap things up Oct. 15. Approval came four days later.

Also revealed during the hearings was that regulators never bothered to verify impacts on groundwater (primary source of drinking water for the area).

Under questioning Thursday from lawyers for the environmental groups, Dean acknowledged regulators didn't try to verify any of the scientific studies submitted by certified labs on the strip mine's groundwater impacts.

The mine will be near the far southwest border of the Bryce Canyon National Park.

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>>>>> THE UGLY

The sordid tale of Massey Energy grows darker by the day

Massey Energy has long thumbed its nose at federal regulators, refused to fix violations, appealed fines, and made sweetheart deals with prosecutors in mine fatality cases. Maybe the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch mine was too much for investigators to look past or slap the company on the wrist. On Friday, it was announced that the US Attorney for the Southern district of West Virginia had initiated a criminal investigation of Massey. Early reports focus on the company's failure to respond to hazardous conditions and falsification of records, violations found in previous investigations of Massey.

Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate and former regulator who practices law in Kentucky, said prosecutors would look at whether Massey employees knew of hazardous conditions and decided not to fix them. Such conduct would be a criminal misdemeanor under federal mine laws.

Prosecutors also would likely check to see whether employees falsified records in which they are supposed to note any hazards in preshift reports or other reports filed during work hours. Falsifying such records is a felony.

A National Public Radio reported that the investigation included possible bribery of Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors.

Sources familiar with the investigation say the FBI is looking into possible bribery of employees of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that inspects and regulates mining.

The FBI denied that bribery of safety inspectors was part of the investigation (sort of).

A federal law-enforcement source is denying that the Mine Safety and Health Administration is being investigated as part of a larger probe into the circumstances surrounding the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia.

Reading between the lines, the statement does not rule out the inspectors being offered bribes. If inspectors are not under investigation, it means that they did not take the bribes. Ken Ward Jr of the Charleston Gazette said his sources flatly deny that bribery is a focus of the investigation. Ward also notes that two investigations were started a year before the Upper Big Branch accident.

Another piece of the puzzle is Massey Energy announced a generous compensation package to the families of the miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. This is unprecedented for Massey and far more generous than compensation given to families of other miners killed in Massey mines. According to the company, it is being offered without legal strings attached.

Massey is paying the benefits without requiring families of the 29 miners to settle any legal claims, Foglesong said.

There are also reports that Massey offered family members $3 million on top of the compensation package.

Massey Energy Co. is offering $3 million to each of the families of 29 men killed in an explosion at its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, the daughter of one of the victims said Thursday.

The offer came a week earlier when Massey officials visited the family, said Michelle McKinney, daughter of Benny Ray Willingham. McKinney said other families have received the same offer.

Payments this large probably do come with legal strings attached to short-circuit civil lawsuits. Perhaps Massey anticipates a large criminal judgment that would increase the risk of large civil damages. Note that $3 million exceeds the civil damages awarded to widows of the 2 miners killed in the Aracoma mine fire in 2006, but Massey was offered a plea deal in that case that limited damage awards.

The final piece of puzzle is downright peculiar. The media and family members of miners killed in the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion have been complaining that state and federal investigations are being conducted behind closed doors. And here is where the story gets particularly strange. MSHA is excluding everyone from investigator briefings - family members, Massey, and the media. The state investigation also excludes family members and the media, but includes Massey lawyers. There is speculation that MSHA is trying to keep Massey in the dark about the direction the investigation is headed, although interviews conducted with company personnel will probably give Massey a very good idea of what the feds are interested in. If true, then MSHA would have to keep state investigators in the dark as well since those hearings are open to Massey. Here is part of a press release from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press:

The Reporters Committee, joined by The Associated Press, the Radio Television Digital News Association, the American Society of News Editors, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Charleston (W.V) Gazette, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors and the National Newspaper Association urged MSHA to comply with the wishes of at least two families involved in the accident and conduct hearings. Under the law, such hearings must be accessible to the public, as opposed to interviews that involve government investigators and company representatives but bar access to the public.

“The public interest in what happened at the Upper Big Branch Mine is monumental,” the letter said. “The presence of government investigators cannot substitute for the role of the press in examining MSHA’s enforcement of the law at the mine, and whether the accident is properly investigated.” Should the MSHA refuse to conduct an open hearing, the news media organizations asked that, at the very least, the interview recordings or transcripts be released to the press as soon as they become available, and not after MSHA completes its final report.

One hopes that the secrecy stems from a criminal investigation rather than state and federal officials trying to keep regulatory shortcomings out of the public eye.

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>>>>> Tale of the Tape

Stock prices for the major mining companies were all down but the biggest loss was for Massey Energy on news that a criminal investigation is underway.

Company% change for week
Arch Coal-4.09
Consol Energy-0.67
Massey Energy-17.62
Peabody Energy-2.91

>>>>>  Video Pick of the Week

This is a great illustration of coal plant emissions (although the background music is as discordant as the visual images.)

Timelapse Coal Fired Power Plant from Jeff Grewe on Vimeo.

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>>>>> Get To Know

There are many environmental and social justice groups fighting against King Coal. Their work in documenting the abuses and violations of the coal industry is nothing short of heroic. This week I want to highlight Coal River Mountain Watch:

Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW) is a grassroots organization begun in 1998 in response to the fear and frustration of people living near or downstream from huge mountaintop removal sites.  We began as a small group of volunteers working to organize the residents of southern West Virginia to fight for social, economic, and environmental justice.  From our humble beginnings, we have become a major force in opposition to mountaintop removal.  Our outreach coordinator, Julia Bonds, was the 2003 Goldman Prize winner for North America.  CRMW's efforts figure prominently in Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.'s book Crimes against Nature.  We have been active in federal court to challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permits for valley fills and made regional news with demonstrations against a sludge dam and preparation plant near Marsh Fork Elementary School.

>>>>> Activist Corner

1. Support the Appalachia Restoration Act

The Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696) is a bill in the U.S. Senate which will sharply reduce mountaintop removal coal mining and protect clean drinking water for many of our nation's cities. It will protect the quality of life for Appalachian coalfield residents who face frequent catastrophic flooding and pollution or loss of drinking water as a result of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Contact your Senators to support the Appalachia Restoration Act

2. Urge EPA regulation of coal ash as a hazardous waste.

The EPA will announce its decision on regulating coal ash as hazardous waste in April. At the moment, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is holding up the release of new regulations. The OMB and EPA are being barraged with pleas from the coal industry, utilities, business groups, state regulatory agencies, and politicians opposing classification of coal ash waste as a hazardous material. It would be extremely helpful if you would take a moment to drop a line to the OMB to encourage them to move forward with regulation of coal combustion waste as a hazardous material. Remind them that the patchwork of state regulatory agencies has failed to protect the public against spills and contamination, there is overwhelming evidence of heavy metal toxic contamination in water on or near containment sites, and secondary uses need to be tightly regulated using a national standard to prevent contamination of water resources.

Use this form from the Natural Resource Defense Council to provide feedback to the OMB: NRDC form

Use this form from Earth Justice to provide feedback to President Obama: Earth Justice form

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Thanks for stopping by.

Originally posted to DWG on Mon May 03, 2010 at 11:44 AM PDT.


Chances a criminal investigation of Massey will target management

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