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Welcome to a review of King Coal in the news during the week of May 3 - May 9, 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 big news of the week was the announcement by the Environmental Protection Agency that coal ash should be regulated as hazardous waste but the Obama administration is afraid of the implications. Quote of the week belongs to Sen. Robert Byrd, who says mountaintop removal mining should be halted:

The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land. If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.

>>>>> THE GOOD

Say What Again!!!

There are times that I wish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was run by Samuel L. Jackson instead of Lisa Jackson. Last week was one of those times.

The EPA announced that it still had not decided whether to regulate coal ash as high or low risk hazardous waste. The Agency is asking for public comments about whether to regulate coal ash under Subtitle C (toxic waste requiring special handling) or Subtitle D (industrial waste) of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The decision was greeted with groans from environmentalists and cheers from industry representatives. It also sparked speculation that Lisa Jackson was bullied by industry lobbyists and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). There is little doubt OMB held up the regulations and was the target of an intense lobbying effort by coal interest groups. And there is every reason to believe the culprit was the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the OMB, run by Cass Sunstein.

How lamentable, then, that her first notable reversal was administered not by Mother Nature, Congress, the economy, or even her own mistakes, but rather by an unnamed squad of number-crunching economists working in the bowels of Peter Orszag’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and specifically within the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), headed by Cass Sunstein. And what a nasty reversal it was. Taking a page out of the George W. Bush Administration’s playbook, the economists decided to second-guess Jackson’s judgment on how to deal with 1,000 or so leaking, unstable coal ash dump sites threatening communities across the country.

The analysis that Jackson was bullied by someone several rungs down the ladder from her without a seat at the big table with the boss falls short. Rather than bullied, she was more likely overruled by the person at the head of the table and forced to delay the decision. If she was bullied, particularly given the big money players opposed to regulation of coal ash as toxic waste, she would have agreed to lesser regulation under Subtitle D and gone off to fight other battles. Instead, she opted for a guerilla campaign. As the battle with OMB heated up last fall, she published a report in December that provides the strongest evidence to date of the potential toxicity of coal combustion waste using state-of-the-art toxicity measures. The Bush administration buried a less damning 2002 report, which only surfaced after the administration left office. Jackson published the OMB edits of the proposed regulation in the Federal Register, putting the ham-handed handiwork of the economists on display for perpetuity. In fact, the entire catalogue of documents deposited in the Register is stunning in the ammunition it provides to proponents of regulation.

There is blood in the water. The case for toxicity is growing. Here is how Earth Justice summarized the evidence made available by the EPA.

Plain and simple, the EPA’s data indicate that some coal combustion wastes, when they come in contact with water, can release very significant quantities of hazardous chemicals.  The toxic chemicals released are the same pollutants that the EPA required removed from the flue gas emissions emitted from the smokestacks of the power plants.  It is contrary to public policy and sound science to allow, through the mismanagement of coal combustion waste, the concentrated release of these same deadly pollutants to water near power plants and dump sites where communities, both human and aquatic, can be harmed by the toxic chemicals.  In the upcoming rule, the EPA must require that these pollutants be disposed in a manner that permanently prevents their release at levels harmful to human health and the environment.  Otherwise the Clean Air Act requirements have simply traded water pollution for air pollution—a truly unwise and dangerous deal for human health and the environment.  

Cass Sunstein is the master of the cost-benefit analysis. More than likely he discovered that forcing coal-fired power plants to prevent water contamination from combustion waste and air contamination from stack emissions would kill the financial viability of coal as an energy source. The publicity surrounding coal ash toxicity alone would sink the "clean coal" publicity campaign.

On a related note, the EPA announced that the closure of a 6-mile section of the Emory River in Tennessee will be extended  to clean up the toxic coal ash spilled because of utility negligence and hapless state regulation.

Mine regulators get serious

The recent surprise safety inspection blitz by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) netted some dirty fish.

May 6 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration said it ordered six coal mines in Kentucky to close after an “inspection blitz” last month.

The MSHA is also getting tough on the games mine operators play to hide violations.

The Labor Department said that it filed suit against Manalapan and Left Fork after personnel called to their mines to let operators know that inspectors were at the locations.

The sweep also turned up 16 safety violations at Colorado's most accident-prone mine.

Foidel Creek, located between Hayden and Oak Creek in northwest Colorado, is Colorado’s most productive coal mine, but it also had the highest number of injuries and safety violations in 2009, tallying 29 of the 88 injuries statewide. The mine is operated by Peabody Energy.

The kids are alright

Too many universities rely on coal-fired power plants for electricity generation. Now students are starting to fight back.

Students at the University of North Carolina convinced the university to transition to other fuel sources over the next decade and avoid coal from mountaintop removal mines. Remarks by the Chancellor indicate residual skull thickness.

“It’s pretty much a model of how to do things,” he said. “Nonetheless, there are coal cars pulling up on rail up to the plant and that’s not particularly good symbolism for a university that teaches people about climate change and the frontiers of energy research.”

Sir, the pollution generated by burning coal is tangible rather than symbolic. Burning coal while teaching about climate change and researching clean energy is hypocrisy.

A similar campaign has now been launched by students at the University of Iowa to dump coal.

Go, Tar Heels. Go, Hawkeyes.

Now if onlyPurdue can get a clue...

Southern Company accidently tells the truth

Southern Company applied for a permit to build a new generation coal-fired plant in Kemper County, Mississippi. The Mississippi Public Service Commission approved the permit but stipulated that the integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) plant must be delivered on budget. Southern Company had promised delivery for $2.4 billion, but when the utility commission capped the cost, the company said it was going to abandon the project. Last week, the company petitioned the utility commission to reconsider the price cap. The company feels that 800 million dollars is acceptable cost overrun.

Mississippi Power officials testified during hearings they were "confident" Kemper could be built for $2.4 billion. In a later filing, however, the utility proposed a $3.2 billion as an acceptable price cap for the Kemper County IGCC.

Remember that coal gasification is the first component of so-called "clean coal" technology. Even without sequestration, the costs are prohibitive. Add in the costs of managing coal combustion wastes and coal becomes the most expensive power source.

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>>>>> THE BAD

More mining deaths

On the heels of mining disasters in the U.S. and China, an explosion in the largest coal mine in Russia killed 60 miners and leaving another 30 still trapped. The governor of the region offered a depressing assessment of the prospects for the rescuing the trapped miners two days ago:

Aman Tuleyev, governor of Kemerovo region, said time was now running out to rescue those trapped in areas of the mine where anti-flooding systems had failed.

"God willing, they are still alive," he said in remarks shown on Russian television. "That possibility still exists, but ... we only have 48 hours until it floods."

That 48 hour period is almost up and it will take a miracle for 30 miners still trapped to survive. The family and friends of the miners are in my thoughts and prayers.

Methane and coal dust are thought to be responsible for the twin blasts that crippled the mine, the same suspects in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia on April 5.

More question about hearings behind closed doors

MSHA continues to face criticism from the media and miner's families about the investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine accident in West Virginia. The most recent press release from the agency suggests that the criminal investigation of Massey Energy is the reason.

At all times, however, MSHA will take steps to ensure that its activities do not risk interfering with any potential or ongoing criminal investigation and may have to adjust its proceedings accordingly.

"I am confident that from the wide range of public meetings and internal and independent investigations, we will learn what happened at the Upper Big Branch Mine so that we can prevent another such tragedy from occurring," said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis.

Prior to and in preparation for the public hearings, MSHA and the state of West Virginia will conduct a physical examination of the mine and private interviews of miners, mining officials and others with knowledge and information about the disaster. The contents of these investigative interviews will be made public at the conclusion of the interview process, unless an interviewee requests confidentiality or it would otherwise jeopardize a potential criminal investigation. In addition, MSHA has established a confidential hotline to allow those with information relevant to the investigation to provide it to investigators.

If the criminal investigation does not lead to charges being filed against Massey, there will be many questions about the need for secrecy.

Bad news mixed with better news from China

China announced last week that coal consumption rose by 17% in the first quarter of the year. This makes China the largest consumer of the dirtiest of dirty energy in the world. The same report also noted that energy production from wind power increased by 99% during the period.

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>>>>> THE UGLY

The intrusion of the OMB into the regulation of coal ash was truly ugly. To counter the mountain of scientific evidence of the toxicity of coal ash in impoundments, landfills, and structural fills amassed by the EPA, the OMB turned to the Office of Information and Regulatory Analysis (OIRA) to buttress the industry position. In effect, the OIRA is attempting to manufacture a case for regulating a toxic material as simple industrial waste.

Perhaps the most blatant intrusion was the editing of regulations of coal combustion waste as a hazardous material under Subtitle C. Hazardous waste became "special" waste. It was creative whitewash for a high volume industrial waste with high constituent levels of heavy metals.

The handiwork of the OIRA was also evident in the cost-benefit analyses comparing the two regulatory approaches. In base models, there was no difference in the range of overall cost-benefit ratios between Subtitle C (hazardous) and Subtitle D (industrial) approaches. That parity was achieved by (a) assigning a low value for public health and groundwater contamination benefits, (b) assigning a high value for ash accumulation for secondary uses, and (c) assigning no value for plant, wildlife, and surface water protection. The second set of cost-benefit models looked at the mythical "stigma" attached to hazardous waste classification. Since the benefit values in the base model are weighted for secondary use of coal ash, the presumption that hazardous rating would virtually eliminate secondary use and tilt cost-benefit ratios to favor weak regulation. In other words, the assumptions are gratuitous, particularly in the "stigma" case. To place this nonsense on the same empirical basis as the EPA's scientific evidence of biological hazard is simply absurd.

Here is small taste of how Cass Sunstein and his crew of economists at the OIRA think:

To promote evidence-based regulation, those who produce the relevant numbers must respect scientific integrity. It is also vital to have a process of public scrutiny and review, allowing assumptions to be revealed and errors to be exposed and corrected. Imposition of serious burdens and costs must be justified, and any effort at justification should attempt to measure and quantify benefits; the process of analysis might reveal that a particular approach cannot be justified and that a less stringent (or more stringent) approach is better. Appropriate analysis should attempt to quantify relevant variables, to promote cost-effective choices, and to explore and evaluate different alternatives.  As we have noted, some variables are essential to identify and consider but difficult to monetize; examples include improvements in the water quality of rivers, protection of endangered species, and measures designed to decrease the risks of terrorist attacks. A sensible approach to cost-benefit analysis recognizes the limits of quantification and insists on presentation of qualitative as well as quantitative information. If, for example, a regulation would prevent a specified range of deaths and injuries from occupational accidents, a proper analysis would present that range as well as the monetary equivalents.

Let's be clear. Forcing the coal power industry to protect the public from contamination from heavy metals leaching out of coal combustion waste would speed the transition to alternative sources of energy. After more than 40 closed door meetings with the industry and a barrage of lobbying from business groups and their political allies, the OMB fabricated a favorable "economic" case for weak regulation. As noted in the documentation, industry sees no benefit to their profit margin in regulating coal combustion waste.  

Representatives of the utility industry have stated their view that CCRs cannot be practically or cost effectively managed under the existing RCRA subtitle C storage standards, and that these standards impose significant costs without meaningful benefits when applied specifically to CCRs.

All of this comes a week after Energy Secretary Steven Chu blamed environmentalists rather than high cost for obstructing coal gasification plants.

“We know darned well that even though the Sierra Club and others are shutting down new coal-fired IGCC plants in this country, China’s building them, India’s building them.

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>>>>> Tale of the Tape

Stock prices for all the major US coal companies were down for the week as mine safety issues continue to make the news.

Company% change for week
Arch Coal-11.78
Consol Energy-14.10
Massey Energy-9.88
Peabody Energy-12.39

>>>>>  Video Pick of the Week

Coal ash - it's the heavy metals, stupid.

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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 http://ilovemountains.org/. This is an umbrella organization combines the resources of multiple organizations to fight mountaintop removal mining.

Local, state, and regional organizations across Appalachia are working together to end mountaintop removal and create a prosperous future for the region. Through iLoveMountains.org, members of the Alliance for Appalachia have come together to use cutting edge technology to inform and involve Americans in their efforts to save mountain and communities.

>>>>> 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 OMB has successfully delayed regulation of coal ash by the EPA, giving industry more time and opportunity to lobby. It is time to encourage the Obama administration to respect the science and allow the EPA to protect public health.

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

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Originally posted to DWG on Wed May 12, 2010 at 12:51 PM PDT.

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