President Biden stands up for coalfield communities

Peter Hille
By Peter Hille
, Mountain Association

President Biden signed an executive order Jan. 27 that will put “the full force of the federal government” behind a new commitment to a better future for coal-impacted communities. The order does not mince words: “Mining and power plant workers drove the industrial revolution and the economic growth that followed, and have been essential to the growth of the United States. As the Nation shifts to a clean energy economy, Federal leadership is essential to foster economic revitalization of and investment in these communities.”

The initial steps in this historic undertaking will be outlined in a report to be issued within 60 days by an Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities. This working group, established by the executive order, brings together Cabinet-level leadership across the new administration to address the pressing need for resources to build a new economy in these places that have given so much to the rest of the nation. 

This is welcome news. Community leaders from Appalachia to Wyoming to the Navajo Nation, where people once relied on the coal industry, have been developing and implementing promising solutions to create inclusive, equitable and sustainable economic growth for years. But these leaders have largely lacked supportive public policy and investment at the necessary scale to accelerate this work.

The Mountain Association joined with partners across the nation to develop a National Economic Transition platform, reflecting the interests of labor, environmental organizations, grass roots groups, economic developers and Native American communities. The NET platform identifies seven pillars, key elements to guide policy makers and leaders in building new and more resilient economies in these places, and ensuring that the new economy works for everyone.

These pillars include calling for investment in leadership, restorative economic development, workforce development, reclamation, infrastructure, protection for workers and communities when failing companies declare bankruptcy and direct access to federal resources.

Our coalition presented the NET platform to the incoming administration, and we are greatly encouraged to see our call for economic justice reflected in the far-reaching executive order and in the president’s public announcement: "It's not time for small measures. We have to be bold. So, let me be clear: that includes helping revitalize the economies of coal, oil, gas and power plant communities. We have to start by creating new, good-paying jobs, capping abandoned wells, reclaiming mines, turning old brownfield sites into new hubs of economic growth."

Biden went on to make this further commitment: "We are going to work with mayors, governors, and tribal leaders, and business leaders who are stepping up, and the young people who are organizing and leading the way."

President Biden’s executive order recognizes what people in the coalfields have known for years—that they sacrificed to grow our nation’s economy, and that they now bear the brunt of changes in global energy markets. This announcement gives us new hope that we can accelerate the just transition to a new economy, an economy that can be more diverse, resilient, sustainable and equitable.

We applaud the President’s swift action and engagement on economic transition policy right out of the gate. We look forward to engaging with the Interagency Working Group to help craft solutions that work for the communities and people of Eastern Kentucky as well as coal-impacted communities across the nation. But we know that it will take time, hard work and major investments to get the job done.

To create the future we want, we must make our voices heard and hold the administration accountable. Bold words must be turned into bold action.

Peter Hille is the President of the Mountain Association. Contact him at

Black Lung Victims are Sacrificial Lambs of the Coalfields
By Betty Dotson-Lewis

“The first priority and concern of all in the coal mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource — the miner.” — First sentence of the 1969 Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act

Center for Public Integrity reporter Chris Hamby conducted a yearlong investigation into the failed Black Lung benefit package awarded to disabled coal miners in 1969 legislation. ABC News aired the three-part series beginning October 30, 2013, revealing startling, unethical measures used to help defeat the miner and his widow in their weakest hour.

These methods, driven by money from coal companies, involve the biggest and oldest law firm in West Virginia, Jackson Kelly, and a renowned medical center in this country, Johns Hopkins University. Actions by these revered groups were clandestine and protected by politicians and policy.

This investigation uncovered evidence that this prominent law firm has a long standing record of withholding key evidence in black lung benefit litigation. In 2009, Douglas Smoot, a federal black lung attorney for Jackson Kelly, admitted to withholding key evidence in a black lung case against retired miner Elmer Daugherty. Smoot’s law license was suspended for one year. According to the report, Attorney Smoot felt no remorse for his actions.

John Hopkins University, after the airing of this report, has suspended its Black Lung Reading Division pending an investigation. Dr. Paul Wheeler, who is head of the division in charge of reading black lung X-rays from the coalfields in recent court testimony, said the last time he recalled finding a case of severe black lung also known as complicated pneumoconiosis — a finding that would automatically qualify a miner for benefits under a special federal program — was in "the 1970's or the early 80's.”

The Center reporter reviewed 1,500 cases decided since 2000 in which Wheeler read 3,400 X-rays and did not find one single case of complicated black lung despite biopsy or autopsy-proven black lung in more than 100 of those cases. Wheeler is currently on leave.

Filing for Black Lung benefits is a long, hard road, and many of the miners die before a decision is reached. The rules seem to favor the coal companies even though the law was intended to help the sick miner or his widow. It’s all about money, not about a miner suffering from black lung who worked 25 plus years digging coal for a company, being loyal to that company and having high work standards.

None of those things count when the miner begins having shortness of breath, loses strength in their once strong arms and legs, suffers from panic attacks when in closed quarters because he can’t get a breath, hacking up black phlegm, and a Department of Labor certified doctor tells him he is suffering from complicated coal workers’ pneumoconiosis — Black Lung. He is lucky to find a lawyer and since he’s busy keeping the legal eagles and doctors warm and their offices well lit as well as the rest of this country, he hasn’t the time or resources to attend law school himself.

Often these claimants are assisted in filling out the initial paperwork by lay representatives who work out of Black Lung clinics. The miner, already losing ground because of his deteriorating physical condition, begins the endless struggle with only his wife in the courtroom by his side. He is examined by more doctors paid by coal companies and quizzed until his brains are fried by lawyers paid by coal companies. In the event the miner wins a round or two, coal companies can appeal and it all starts over. In the rare event a miner is awarded benefits and the coal company appeals and wins, the miner must repay those benefits unless the miner can prove hardship.

Black Lung is a debilitating disease caused by inhaling coal dust. There is no cure. It can be fatal. It is preventable. Dust levels are regulated by law. Congress made a promise in 1969 that mining companies would have to keep dust levels down and black lung would be no more. Numbers decreased until the late 1990s. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health data reflect a resurgence in black lung in epidemic proportions, particularly the most severe, fast-progressing type and occurring in younger miners in the “hot spots” in Central Appalachia.

The fine particles of coal dust breathed in by coal miners cannot be destroyed within the lungs nor removed. The particles build up causing thickness and scarring and so the lungs become less efficient in getting oxygen into the blood. As the disease progresses, the miner may develop an enlargement and strain of the right side of the heart which may result in heart failure. Some miners develop emphysema, a disease in which tiny air sacs in the lungs become damaged, leading to shortness of breath, and respiratory and heart failure as a complication of black lung disease. Black Lung is a progressive disease in which damage can spread throughout the lungs even after exposure to the dust has ended.

Black Lung is a debilitating family illness. Depression, anger and resentment are symptoms miners exhibit which may not be listed on the chart. The pain and agony of watching a love one suffocate to death is something not soon forgotten by family members. And to have an organized group of well-educated professionals working around the clock to make sure the miner dies before he can receive black lung benefits to support his family after he is no longer able to work, is an added burden.

As this Center for Public Integrity report points out, in recent years, the number of federal black-lung claims has been increasing, but the miners’ success rate remains low – about 14 percent at the initial level during the 2012 fiscal year. But after appeals, the success rate will be much lower. Black-lung benefits are approximately $600 per month, and a disabled miner with three or more dependents will receive about $1,250 per month to live on.

A Dead Miner’s Black Lung Case Could Change the History of Black Lung Litigation

John Cline, a VISTA volunteer turned clinic worker, turned Black Lung claimant attorney, works out of his home in Piney View, W.Va. In 2006 he agreed to represent Gary Fox, a miner suffering from the complicated form of black lung – progressive massive fibrosis. Fox had worked more than 25 years in the coal mines. His health failed and upon examination by a doctor paid for by the Labor Department indicating he had black lung. He filed for black lung benefits in 1999, but the claim was denied. He represented himself at the legal hearing and the law firm of Jackson Kelly represented the coal company, a subsidiary of now-defunct Massey Energy. The Center for Public Integrity found that fewer than a third of black-lung claimants are represented by attorneys.

The most important piece of evidence in Gary Fox’s case for black lung benefits was not what was presented as evidence during the hearing, but what was left out. In 1998, a suspicious mass was removed from Fox’s lung to rule out cancer. The hospital pathologist, who did not look for black lung or even know the patient’s occupation, diagnosed a pseudotumor with “numerous anthracotic (coal) deposits.” Jackson Kelly sent pathology slides of his lung tissue to two pathologists in building their case against Fox, and both wrote reports indicating the mass was likely complicated black lung which would have entitled Fox to benefits. The pathologists who wrote these reports were two of the “go-to” doctors for Jackson Kelly. Instead of accepting their expert opinions, allowing Gary to receive black lung benefits in the amount of $704.30 per month to take care of himself and his wife, Jackson Kelly withheld the information. At the time, Fox, the judge and the firm’s own four expert pulmonologists had no idea the reports existed.

Cline had only graduated from law school five years earlier but had seen Jackson Kelly in action for years while working as a lay representative helping miners file black-lung claims. Cline suspected Jackson Kelly was withholding key evidence in the Gary Fox case. The law firm was served with a formal written request asking for evidence not turned over, but it took the filing of a discovery motion with Judge Thomas Burke before Cline received what he was looking for: the reports from the two pathologists indicating the mass likely was complicated black lung. Burke determined Jackson Kelly’s behavior amounted to “fraud on the court,” reopened Fox’s previous claim and awarded benefits dating back to 1997. The firm also withheld an X-ray reading finding complicated black lung a year before the biopsy.

Fox and Cline won, but only for a moment. Jackson Kelly appealed the decision and Fox’s case is still unresolved. A decision in favor of Fox and Cline could change the course of black lung ligation. Although the judge deemed Jackson Kelly’s actions to be a fraudulent scheme that threatened the integrity of the judicial system, a split appeals court vacated that ruling, and the decision is now on pending before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Gary Fox died on April 14, 2009. After his death, doctors opined that Gary’s breathing problems caused his heart to fail, killing him. When a pathologist performed the autopsy, he saw extensive scarring and dark masses in his lungs. It was undoubtedly complicated black lung. It always had been.

Betty Dotson-Lewis is the author of four books on Appalachia – Appalachia, Spirit Triumphant; Sago Mine Disaster, Featured Story; The Sunny Side of Appalachia, Bluegrass from the Grassroots; and The Girl from Stretchneck Holler, Inside Appalachia.

Mine-safety chief says 'I think we can get there' to end black-lung disease

By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The U.S. Department of Labor has made great strides to ensure the health and safety of coal miners, but there is still work to do to make sure all miners make it home each night healthy and free of injuries, Joe Main, assistant labor secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, told an Aug. 22 conference in Lexington, Ky., on black-lung disease.

Assistant Labor Secretary Joe Main
However, Main said at the 2013 Central Appalachian Regional Work Safety and Health Symposium that he didn't know when his agency would finalize stricter regulations that it has proposed to deter recent increases in black lung, especially in Central Appalachia. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says 9 percent of Eastern Kentucky miners screened in one of its programs from 2005 to 2009 had black lung, the highest rate in any state.

That was the primary reason for the conference, held by the Central Appalachian Regional Education and Research Center at the University of Kentucky, in partnership with Eastern Kentucky University. Dr. Edward Petsonk of West Virginia University said he "thought the disease was going to go away" 15 to 20 years ago, when when miners' risk of getting it had dropped by 89 percent. But then it became more prevalent. "and doctors started seeing miners getting severe forms of the diseases at younger ages," Bill Estep notes for the Lexington Herald-Leader.
"Researchers have identified some likely causes, including that miners are working longer shifts; increased mining of thinner coal seams in Central Appalachia, which requires cutting through more rock; inadequate dust-control rules; and failure by coal companies to comply with the rules. Safety advocates and miners also say companies have cheated on dust sampling at times."

MSHA's proposed rules would cut in half the limit on dust that miners can breathe and require them to wear monitors to measure dust constantly. They would also require companies to take samples "over an entire, single shift at production equal to 100 percent of the past 30 shifts. "Now, companies sample for an eight-hour shift, and the dust level is calculated using data from five shifts," Estep notes. "Companies can reduce production during sampling, cutting the amount of dust kicked up."

The National Mining Association opposes the rules, saying that black lung is increasing only in a few areas -- not enough to impose more costs on the entire industry, said Bruce Watzman, the lobbying group's senior vice-president. Petsonk "said NIOSH has documented new cases of black lung in recent years in every state but New Mexico — not the outcome the nation was supposed to see under the 1969 law," Estep reports.

While the number of coal mining fatalities has dropped greatly since 1977, Main said, the government needs to do more. He said his agency must identify “what is we need to do differently to eliminate mining deaths and to reduce injuries and illnesses in this country. The folks sitting in these rooms in 1977 were looking at the number of deaths to get to zero starting at 273. The distance we have to go is far less than what they had to go. . . . If we keep working at it I think we can get there.”

Main said he wants all miners at their end of their careers to have the ability to "do the things that normal people do in retirement, to be able to play with the grandchildren, and enjoy life, and not have an oxygen tank attached to them, and not have a debilitating body that aches badly when they get out of bed.” And of black lung disease, Main said, “I think we all agree it’s time to end that disease.”

Main, the former safety director for the United Mine Workers of America, said that when he took over MSHA in 2009 about half his inspectors had two years or less experience inspecting mines, and there was a backlog of 80,000 citations. Citations are down to about 36,000 now, and the agency' has gained valuable experience since 2009.
“We needed to focus more attention on the kind of things that were commonly taking miners lives," Main said. "We needed to come up with a plan that really focused more attention on everyone on the most common causes of mining deaths.” The agency increased its efforts and its self-examination after the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, he said.

On Aug. 14 the agency announced a new clculator that “enables mine operators who implement a corrective action program to determine if their mine is successfully reducing its significant and substantial, or S-andS violations,” which are violations of a mandatory health or safety standard that "significantly and substantially contributes to the cause and effect of a coal or other mine safety or health hazard," according to a press release. Main said the tool should reduce the number of mines cited for repeat offenses and patterns of violation. “It’s my belief that we should not be issuing patterned violations with the tools and opportunities that are out there,” he said.

Since the department took over regulating mines in 1977, the number of coal-mine deaths in the U.S. has dropped about 86 percent, Main said. In 1977, there were a reported 66 injuries per day at mines, with 273 total deaths, 139 in coal mines. Last year the number of deaths at mines was 36, with 20 of them in coal, the lowest number of fatal coal accidents on record. This year, 23 mine deaths have been reported, 13 in coal. Statistics on coal mining fatalities since 1995 are available on the department’s website by clicking here.

Researcher discusses correlations between mining and health problems, not proven causes

By Ivy Brashear
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The scholar who has done the most to connect mountaintop removal coal mining with public health issues explained and defended his work last week during a lecture at Morehead State University.

The studies by Michael Hendryx and his colleagues at West Virginia University have become controversial because they show correlations between coal mining and public health, not that mining causes health problems. Showing the relationship between two separate things is correlation; showing that one thing causes another is causation.

Hendryx, left, said factors that have the most impact on public health are really basic things, including education, income and poverty. In Central Appalachia, which includes Eastern Kentucky, upper East Tennessee, the southern half of West Virginia and southwest Virginia, those factors are all lowest in places where the heaviest mining occurs. His initial analysis found that mortality rates in the coal-mining region of Central Appalachia are 97 percent higher than in the rest of the region. Among the obvious causes are high rates of poverty, smoking, diabetes and obesity, but Hendryx said he  and his research team found that “There’s something left over that’s unique to mining environment” after controlling data for those other factors.

High rates of chronic heart, lung and kidney disease, and some types of cancer, “are concentrated most in those areas where mining takes place, especially mountaintop mining,” Hendryx said.

The same patterns are seen with birth defects. From 1996 to 2003, birth defects were reported in 235 of every 10,000 births in counties with mountaintop removal mining, compared to 183 in counties with other types of coal mining and 144 in counties without it. The study found a 63 percent higher risk of birth defects in mountaintop-removal mining areas over non-mining areas.

Though birth defects were seen in all organ systems, heart defects were the most prevalent. Over time, heart and lung defects occurred 181 percent more in areas where mountaintop removal mining occurs.

Much criticism about Hendryx’s studies comes from them being about correlations, not causations.

“Dr. Michael Hendryx is an anti-coal ideologue who is masquerading again as an ‘objective researcher’,” Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said in an email. “From speaking engagements to environmental activists to a failed attempt to influence the Kentucky General Assembly, his research always comes to a conclusion against the mining of coal to fit his personal bias and political objectives."

In an editorial in West Virginia’s State Journal, Bissett said Hendryx uses public health data to “make leaps of causality that the unhealthy lifestyles in Appalachia are connected to coal mining.”

At Morehead, Hendryx noted several times that his studies reveal correlations, and said he would be the first to admit the studies are limited. But he also said the studies don’t reveal just one set of correlations, but an entire pattern of correlations.

“We have a correlation that shows the people that live in these areas have this set of health problems, they don’t have this other type of health problems,” Hendryx said. “It’s not just because of smoking or poverty or age. It’s stronger as levels of mining go up, it’s stronger as levels of mountaintop mining increase.”

He added that mining-specific effects for diabetes go away when studies are controlled for age, weight and other health indicators. Those mining-specific effects don’t go away for some cancers, chronic heart, lung and kidney disease or birth defects.

Hendryx said he’s now working with other researchers at WVU and the U.S. Geological Survey to find environmental evidence to support the correlations he’s found in his previous studies.

The USGS is collecting air, water and soil samples from mountaintop mining areas. Hendryx will analyze the data from those collections. He said this study is different from past studies because collections are being made in residential areas. Most other studies haven’t done that, he said.

Dust samples have been taken at non-mining areas and mountaintop removal mining areas, and examination of those samples reveals they consist mostly of what would be in overburden, or rock and other material exploded to expose coal seams. The process releases heavy metals like silicon, sulfur, aluminum and iron, Hendryx said.

Animal studies have been conducted with some samples. Hendryx said scientists allow rats to inhale an amount of the dust equivalent to three years of exposure. In one study, cells in the rats’ hearts died, and in another, the blood vessels were damaged, reducing their ability to expand and contract normally.

Hendryx acknowledged that the studies are very preliminary, but said they will be helpful in going beyond ecological studies that only show correlations between where people live and the health outcomes. He said environmental studies would eventually be linked to direct biological measures.

He said all of his studies are limited, but that even if the exact causes of Appalachian health disparities aren’t known, it would be “unethical and inappropriate” to ignore the correlations.

“We need to act now and do the things that we can to try and improve those conditions,” he said.

Ivy Brashear, a native of Viper, Ky., and a former reporter for the Hazard Herald, is a graduate student in the Department of Community and Leadership Development in the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky and an assistant in the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in UK’s College of Communication and Information.

Hydraulic fracturing rare in Ky., but Appalachian Forum poses questions about regulation and pollution of gas drilling

By Ivy Brashear
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Geologists, professors, activists and experts came together for the Appalachian Forum on Hydraulic Fracturing last night at the University of Kentucky to discuss fracking as a means of natural-gas extraction in the state.

Kentucky gas wells usually go about 5,000 feet below the surface, much shallower than the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, where there has been the most controversy about hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.

The development of those shales and others, through horizontal drilling and hydrofracking, has greatly boosted U.S. gas resources, and shale gas is expected to make up 49 percent of U.S. gas production by 2035.

The shales in Kentucky have much more clay, and that discourages hydrofracking in the state because water makes clay formations swell, inhibiting the release of gas. Instead, Kentucky drillers frack with liquid nitrogen. “Every shale well in Kentucky is fracked,” said Rick Bender, vice president of BlackRidge Resource Partners, a Lexington firm with gas wells in Ohio. “Without fracking, we couldn’t get the gas out.”

Bender, former longtime director of the state Division of Oil and Gas, said nitrogen fracking creates little waste because chemicals aren’t used, and nitrogen fracking is “generally very safe.” After fracking, the nitrogen is released into the atmosphere, which is 71 percent nitrogen, an inert gas.

Drilling it right

Faulty well construction presents the biggest risk for groundwater contamination during drilling and fracking, Bender and other experts said. He said 99 percent of the wells drilled when he was director of the division, from 1995 to 2007, were properly constructed.

Division of Oil and Gas Director Kim Collings said it’s the agency’s job to protect the mineral owners and preserve and protect oil and gas wells. Inspectors make sure the well site and drill hole are at the proper distance from property lines and other wells. Gas companies must obtain permits and submit casing and cementing before drilling for the division's review.

The division issues notices of violation, oversees well transfers from one company to another, reviews annual production reports and plugs abandoned wells when necessary, using bonds forfeited by drillers. “The industry does a really good job” of preventing pollution and constructing wells properly, Collings said.

The division’s field inspectors are its “first line of defense” against faulty wells and bad operators, she said, acknowledging that budget cuts have reduced the number of inspectors to 14 from 20. More than 1,100 wells were permitted in the state last year.

If a company is operating illegally, Bender said, the division will shut it down. Companies aren’t fined, but are required to fix faulty wells within 45 days. If they don’t comply, their bond is forfeited, and once they forfeit, they may not be able to get another bond.

Moderator Al Cross observed that oil and gas regulation in Kentucky is lighter than that applied to strip mining, the main environmental concern in Eastern Kentucky. UK rural sociologist Dwight Billings, who specializes in Appalachia, asked why Eastern Kentuckians should trust the gas industry and its regulators considering the region’s long history of exploitation by the coal industry.

Bender said gas drilling causes less impact, and added “It’s up to the citizens to decide whether or not it’s a good industry.” He said the division has scored well in its two analyses by STRONGER (State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations), a nonprofit group formed by states and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Brandon Nuttall, senior geologist for the Kentucky Geological Survey at UK, said Eastern Kentucky wells produce 98 percent of the state’s annual gas production, and since nitrogen fracking began in the 1970s, the state has produced 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Last year, gas production brought $25 million back to the state through severance taxes.

He said Kentucky has 40,000 to 45,000 producing gas wells, most in Pike, Knott, Letcher, Floyd and Perry Counties. EQT Corp., the state's largest production company, has recently announced it won’t drill any more wells in Kentucky, and is moving operations into the richer Marcellus formation. That will cost the division money in permit fees, Collings acknowledged.

Environmental concerns

Two other scientists on the panel, which was assembled by the university's Appalachian Center, discussed broader environmental aspects of gas drilling.

Eastern Kentucky University geology professor Melissa Dieckmann cited a study from Duke University in which methane gas released during fracking in the Marcellus and Utica shales was found in shallow groundwater, and a new study from the University of Texas Energy Institute that found the primary concerns for groundwater contamination are bad well casings, spills on the surface that go underground, and vibration caused by fracking.

As a greenhouse gas, methane is 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, the primary gas involved in global warming, but it lasts for about 10 years in the atmosphere while CO2 lasts up to 200 years. UK chemistry professor Marcelo Guzman cited a study from Colorado which estimated that 4 percent of methane from wells leaked out, twice as much as the industry standard of 2 percent, raising concerns about increased gas production. Natural gas has been touted as a "greener" fuel because it generates about half as much CO2 when burned as a comparable amount of coal. Bender said much work is being done to develop closed-loop systems to capture methane.

Pat Banks, director of Kentucky Riverkeeper, an environmental group that fights water pollution, said citizens need to know all the facts surrounding gas drilling in Kentucky. “Fracking is the new sexy source of energy extraction,” she said, and the technology is moving faster than the regulators.

Banks said it is hard for citizens to hold companies accountable when something goes wrong, because the burden of proof in a lawsuit in high, and suits are settled privately. She said multinational companies control gas reserves and will put gas into the global market, she said, which won’t necessarily reduce costs for Kentucky consumers in Kentucky. “Natural gas is promised to be safer, cheaper, cleaner and we’ve got the science to do it,” she said. “But should we?”

Nuttall said water pollution is always a possibility when a well is drilled, but there are no multinational corporations drilling in the state, and called drillers “our neighbors” who "drink the same water." he said very few wells in Kentucky have been fracked with chemicals, and the chemicals used in many states are listed on, a website maintained by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

Ky. coal mine permits objected to by EPA

BDCC Holding Co., Cornettsville, Perry County; Blue Diamond Coal Co., Slemp, Perry County; Clintwood Elkhorn Mining Co., Phyllis, Pike County; Czar Coal Corp., Debord, Martin County; Blackhawk Mining LLC or FCDC Coal(preparation plant), Printer, Floyd County; Frasure Creek Mining, Hazard, Perry County; Laurel Mountain Resources, Craynor, Floyd County; Leeco Inc., location unclear; Martin Co. Coal Corp., McClure, Martin County; Matt/Co Inc., Banner, Floyd County; Mine Rite Coal Co., Redbush, Johnson County; Naly & Hamilton Enterprises, Redfox, Knott County; Robinson Coal Co., Manchester, Clay County; Sandlick Coal Co., Coldiron, Harlan County; Sidney Coal Co., Sidney, Pike County.

EPA's Southeast administrator defends concern for environmental justice at Ky. conference

By Ivy Brashear
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
Sept. 27, 2011

Some big names headlined the agenda at the 35th annual Governor's Energy and Environment Conference in Kentucky on Monday, and all agreed that communities and industry would have to work together to find solutions to environmental problems facing the state.

Perhaps the biggest name on Monday's program was Gwen Keyes Fleming, southeast regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, which has come under attack from officials and political candidates in the region for such actions as tighter controls on mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal.

Fleming said she was striving to find mutual respect and understanding between industries and the communities where they operate in order to find the best way to craft a solution for those communities, by combining environmental stewardship with economic good sense.

"With all of these challenges, it's important for us to turn to each other and not on each other," she said. "It's important for us to listen and to include the community and their views in those discussions about energy and extraction."

She said she's spent much time in Kentucky dealing with issues related to surface coal mining, including a recent tour with members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and said the message she heard from KFTC may not be what the energy industry would expect. She said the group doesn't want mining to end, but wants companies to be mindful of protecting the water and air - things the community needs every day.

Fleming said one of her main goals as Region 4 administrator is environmental justice, reaching out to communities that are unserved and underserved. "People ask: Why is the EPA delving into this? First and foremost, it's the morally right thing to do. If you look at the statutes, it is a constitutional right that they apply to everybody equally. It doesn't say clean water for some or clean air for others."

She added that environmental justice is also important for economic development, saying that as long as certain communities were dealing with undue burdens of pollution, sustainable businesses that could strengthen the economy would not want to locate in those areas.

Her regional office is dealing with a wide variety of difficult issues, Fleming said, but more than anything, she said her staffers are committed to making sure they understand the issues, that they are asking tough questions, and that they are finding the best solution for everyone.

"We are dealing with issues of importance that we simply can not turn away from," she said.

Len Peters, secretary of the state Energy and Environment Cabinet, said the goal of the conference was to bring people from a diverse range of interests and expertise together to focus on the issues. "This dialogue is very important and it can be very constructive," he said.

Dr. Lee T. Todd Jr., recently retired president of the University of Kentucky, was the keynote speaker. He focused on accomplishments made by UK during his 10 years as president.

He touted UK's Center for Applied Energy Research, which he said has conducted $68 million worth of research to "address the environmental impact" of mining and burning coal. The center is also working on carbon-capture technology, including studies of algae as an energy source.

He said he was very proud of the university's willingness to partner with the coal and natural-gas industries, and added that with the proper amount of research and regulations, Kentucky could change its economy with the energy industry.

"Too many times, universities want to do what they want to do," Todd said, "and they don't want to solve the problems that industry has." He said UK's "carbon research management group," has partnerships with various energy companies, including American Electric Power, Duke Energy, East Kentucky Power Cooperative, LG&E and Kentucky Utilities.

Todd said legislators and donors had to be convinced that investing in universities - UK and the University of Louisville, specifically - would produce returns because they are researching concepts that can be implemented across the state. He said UK is involved in an energy project in every county in the state right now.

His main focus, though, was building partnerships between industry and non-industry people. He used an incident that happened after the announcement of the new UK men's basketball dorm, to be named the "Wildcat Coal Lodge," as an example. He said the announcement won him a meeting with "15 very bright students" who came to his office to talk about the issue.

"One thing that I told them was that, you can stand on one side and yell, 'coal, coal, coal,' or you can stand on the other side and yell, 'green, green, green,' but that's not going to get this country a solution," Todd said. "We've got to have somebody who can look at all the things that can move us toward a solution that can be tolerated."

The future of strip mining in Appalachia may depend on conductivity, so what is it?

By Jon Hale
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
March 11, 2011

The future of surface coal mining in Appalachia could depend on a scientific standard that the Obama administration has adopted as a sort of litmus test for water pollution but one that the coal industry says hasn’t been proven in the field.

In January the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vetoed what would have been the largest mountaintop-removal coal mine ever, Arch Coal’s Spruce No. 1 Mine in southern West Virginia’s Logan County. At the heart of EPA’s veto was conductivity, a measure of stream health, which the agency announced last April it would consider in mountaintop removal permitting.

EPA says research has proven that high conductivity, which indicates a high level of salts, damages aquatic life in streams. The coal industry says that research is far from conclusive.

“EPA says it’s basing [permitting decisions] on science,” said Steve Gardner, president of Engineering Consulting Services in Lexington, Ky. “It’s more political science than hard science.”

For Rick Handshoe, who has been using the science to test streams in Eastern Kentucky’s Floyd County, EPA’s word on conductivity is good enough.

“I think that President Obama has said that this [permitting] is going to be done on sound science,” said Handshoe, a retired state-police employee and a leader in Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which opposes mountaintop-removal mining. “I have to believe the EPA has done their research and background on this.”

In its veto of the Spruce Mine permit, EPA said “Conductivity itself is not a pollutant, but is an excellent indicator of the total concentration of all ions,” created by dissolved salts in the water. Conductivity can be measured instantly on site with a meter, without laboratory analysis, “and is precise and accurate,” EPA said.

Handshoe uses such a meter, which he calls “a tool that can be used by a common person like me.”

While conductivity reveals the amount of solids dissolved in water, it does not reveal what those solids are. When Handshoe found elevated conductivity readings in the stream near his home, the Sierra Club paid for testing that revealed elevated levels of manganese, zinc and aluminum in the water.

Handshoe said his meter “doesn’t tell you what is in the water, but it tells you something is there.”

The food chain

EPA says conductivity is a valid measure of a stream’s health because of its effect on invertebrates, animals without backbones. Those living in water must maintain certain levels of ions in their blood and tissues. Since aquatic organisms in undisturbed Appalachian streams are accustomed to water with relatively low amounts of dissolved solids, EPA said, minerals released from surface mines’ valley fills “can have a toxic effect.”

In vetoing the Spruce Mine permit, EPA said the elevated conductivity and selenium from the proposed valley fills would have a devastating effect on mayflies, stoneflies and caddisflies, and declines in those invertebrate populations would hurt salamanders, fish, birds and bats that feed on them.

Gardner says the theory of effect on the food chain and downstream waters is not proven: ”The science has not been done to support that argument.”

But EPA’s independent Science Advisory Board found in September that the agency was correct in concluding that valley fills increase conductivity in downstream waters, threatening stream life.

“This independent review affirms that EPA is relying on sound analysis and letting science and only science guide our actions to protect human health and the environment,” said Pete Silva, then the EPA assistant administrator for water.

Measuring conductivity

Conductivity is measured in microSiemens per cubic centimeter. EPA has set a range of 300 to 500 microSiemens per cc as the level consistent with protecting life in Appalachian streams. The agency says mining proposals with predicted conductivity levels above 500 would impair streams, which the federal Clean Water Act does not allow. For permits with predicted conductivity between 300 and 500, EPA says it will require mitigation to ensure conductivity does not exceed 500.

If EPA’s standards remain in place, coal companies will find it difficult or impossible to win approval for mountaintop-removal permits like those issued in the past, industry and agency officials agree.

“Minimizing the number of valley fills is a very, very key factor,” EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said when the agency announced its new guidance for permitting. “You’re talking about no or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet standards like this.”

And that is one thing on which the industry agrees with Jackson. “The standard being imposed is really a low standard that is going to be very difficult to comply with without new techniques and new mining processes,” said Gardner, who as a mining engineer is in the business of designing such techniques.

Procedure questioned

Because EPA called the new standard “guidance” for federal and state agencies that actually issue the permits, not a new regulation, it did not have to receive formal public comment before going into effect, and that has brought complaints from the industry and its allies in government.

“The EPA has turned the permitting process, which is already cumbersome to deal with, into a back-door means of shutting down coal mines,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wrote in a commentary sent to newspapers. “That is outside the scope of their authority and the law, and represents a fundamental departure from the permitting process as originally envisioned by Congress.”

The industry argues that the new standard will discourage companies from mining in areas that have already been mined, because the downstream waters have already been degraded and will be difficult to bring into compliance.

“The mining we are doing today, which is in many cases re-mining of old areas, can in fact improve the quality of water due to the reclamation techniques we are performing today,” Gardner said.

In the April document announcing the conductivity standard, EPA said that if a new mine is proposed near streams that already exceed the threshold of 500 microSiemens per cubic centimeter, the agency “will coordinate with the permitting authority on a site-specific basis to ensure these new discharges will not cause or contribute to a violation of water quality standards.”

For some, the new challenges facing surface-mining permits are too strict, regardless of the science behind the new standards. McConnell and others argue that EPA is unnecessarily putting Appalachian coal jobs at risk to protect the environment.

Opponents of mountaintop-removal mining say they understand the region’s need for those high-paying jobs, but also believe federal and state officials have an obligation to enforce the Clean Water Act. “I’m not against coal,” Handshoe said. “I’m against this method of mining, because I’ve never seen it done right.”

Jackson says her agency isn’t trying to end surface mining in Appalachia.

“This is not about ending coal mining,” Jackson said in a conference call after the agency announced its conductivity guidance in April. “This is about ending coal mining pollution.”


The writer is a graduate assistant at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, as an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues, and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see

After coal, what? Appalachians look to Wales for answers

By Sylvia Ryerson
Special to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Scholars, community organizers, activists and students gathered at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., Oct. 14-16 for “Appalachia and Wales: Coal and After Coal,” a symposium focused on the historical ties and parallel trends in production between coal-mining regions in Appalachia and Wales over the last century.

Like Central Appalachia, Wales has a long history of coal mining. Yet most of the mines in Wales shut down in the 1980s, forcing former mining regions to find alternative ways to sustain their communities. And now, coal production in Central Appalachia is declining, and market experts expect the trend to continue – and perhaps accelerate, depending on the regulatory environment for the industry.

“Given the issues going on around the Appalachian coalfields right now, we need to look at what has happened in Wales since the closing of the mines from about 1986 on,” said Pat Beaver, director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at ASU and co-organizer of the event. “The experience of Wales could inform how we think about the future of Appalachia and a sense of urgency about thinking about the future in Appalachia.”

Author Jeff Biggers delivered the keynote address on Thursday evening, discussing the importance of developing an economically responsible plan to decrease the nation’s dependence on coal, oil and other fossil fuels, coupled with a plan to bring new renewable energy jobs to coal-mining regions in the United States. Dr. Helen Lewis, a founding scholar in the field of Appalachian studies, began the second day of the conference by telling the history of organized exchanges between Welsh and U.S. coal miners, which stemmed from her research and filmmaking in Welsh coalfield communities in the 1970s. Beaver got Appalachian State involved in these early international exchanges, and since the late 1970s the university has had annual study-abroad and service-learning programs in Wales.

Dr. Hywell Francis, an author, activist and the Labour Party member of Parliament for Aberavon, Wales, since 2001, has been collaborating with Lewis and Appalachian State since the exchange project first began. Francis explained how when the pits closed in Wales, miners were entitled to redundancy money, training programs and incapacity benefits.

“There should be lifelong learning opportunities for those people who change their careers – whether voluntarily or whether it’s compulsory,” said Francis. “And in the case of the serious economic dislocation caused by mass pit closures, then there ought to be proper educational training opportunities within those communities, within travelling distance. And for those educational training opportunities to be not necessarily using the same skills, but developing new skills in the creative industries.”

Guest speaker Mair Francis founded one such initiative in the Welsh coalfield, a women’s training center in Dulais Valley, Wales. Working in collaboration with the Welsh university system, the center provides part-time course enrollment, free child care, and transportation – key elements, Francis contended, for making it possible for many women to complete courses.

“This was the first time that a city-based university was locating itself in the valleys on a permanent basis, in one of the most deprived places in the area,” Francis said. “We were able to build links then with the local college in the town, and with the workers educational association to develop a curriculum so that things could progress from one course to another.”

During the time when the mines were shutting down, the center provided a critical public space for women to develop their own skills “so that they created jobs for themselves, rather than defending the jobs of their husbands or their sons or their fathers,” Hywell Francis explained.

The other speakers at the symposium were Dr. Ronald Lewis, emeritus professor of history at West Virginia University, specializing in the history of the coalfields in Appalachia and Wales; Dr. William Schumann, lead teacher in Appalachian State’s study-abroad program in Wales since 2003, and Amanda Starbuck, director of the coal-finance campaign of Rainforest Action Networks.

In addition to the speaker presentations, Appalachian coalfield residents engaged in roundtable discussions with representatives from Welsh coal communities. Representatives from many coalfield organizations, including the Alliance for Appalachia, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, JOBS in Mingo County, W.Va., and the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, were present. The discussions focused on what lessons can be learned from the initiatives and organizing strategies used in Wales after the mines closed, and how this knowledge can inform the ongoing work for a just economic, social and environmental transition in Appalachia.

Sylvia Ryerson is an VISTA volunteer at WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky. Her full report on the symposium can be heard here.

Permit ruling shows how EPA allows mountaintop mining to continue, with new techniques

In its conditional approval for a new mountaintop-removal coal mine in southern West Virginia, the Environmental Protection Agency has illustrated how the practice can continue under stricter regulations and different engineering, mining and reclamation methods.

EPA said it would allow the Army Corps of Engineers to issue a Clean Water Act permit for Arch Coal Inc. subsidiary Coal-Mac Inc.'s Pine Creek Surface Mine near Omar, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reported: "EPA officials praised the company for taking steps to reduce downstream water pollution, but said they also want the company to agree to build its valley fill waste piles one at a time. Coal-Mac cut its stream impacts by 22 percent, agreed to haul waste rock and dirt for disposal on an adjacent mine site rather than in streams, and increased the deck of its valley fills in another move to reduce the length of waterways buried."

A key word in the regulatory process is "practicable." EPA's regional environmental assessment director, John Pomponio, told orps District Engineer Robert D. Peterson in a June 21 letter, "Where practicable, the applicant has maximized the amount of spoil returned to the mine bench and minimized the amount of excess spoil that must be disposed of in streams." But Ward also reports that a recent study by EPA and University of Kentucky scientists "found that ditches mine operators build to channel runoff do not replicate the important ecological functions of headwater streams." (Read more)

Hazard takes readers through a coal seam and a mystery

By Lu-Ann Farrar
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Hazard, the first novel by Gardiner Harris, is about a location and a state of mind. Set in the mountains near Hazard, Harris’s Eastern Kentucky has gun toting, coal mining, marijuana growing, and nerve pills, which do contribute to a tremulous life. But Harris, a New York Times reporter who covered Eastern Kentucky for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, has a more complicated story to tell.

The book opens graphically, with a grisly mine explosion that kills eight miners and an inspector at the Blue Gem mine. Will Murphy, a federal inspector whose glory days were in high school and is now a sad drunk, is given the job of investigating the disaster. The mine is owned by his brother Paul, who now controls the family mining company because an earlier mine explosion involving Will caused a deep family rift. Another key character is miner Amos Blevins, who escaped the explosion at Blue Gem but is forced to take flight for reasons made clear late in the book.

Life underground is told through Will’s investigation and Amos’s experiences. Especially claustrophobic is a description of Amos crawling into a coal seam just large enough to lean on his elbows, under an unsupported roof of coal, to set dynamite. Harris has been in such mines and knows it’s one mighty hard way to earn a living.

The novel contains a little bit of everything: a murder mystery, a Pentecostal revival (alas, no snake handling), basketball, environmental activism, love and lust. The novel includes real places (Hell-for-Certain, Blackey) and real organizations (MSHA, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association). Readers outside Kentucky may not believe the lengths that Murphy’s wife goes to make sure their daughter plays basketball for the right team.

Will talks to a lot of people, finds old maps and travels up into several creepy hollows as he unravels the disaster. The book has one or two too many characters to follow, but Will and Amos are compelling enough to keep the pages turning. The women all seem to lead lives of quiet desperation and are tangential to the story. Amos’s girlfriend, Glenda, is the most interesting; too bad she’s addicted to pain killers.

The book is probably most effective for those of us who know little of the reality of underground coal mining and know Eastern Kentucky only from TV. A novel about mining, crazy pot growers and women on nerve pills may seem like a trip to another planet. But life in Eastern Kentucky is more than those things, and Hazard is an intriguing glimpse into that world.

In a review for The Washington Post, Patrick Anderson wrote that the author's goal "is to show us the day-to-day reality of men who mine coal and the women who share their dangerous lives. Harris is well qualified to tell the story. . . . His prize-winning reporting [in Kentucky] was credited with helping pass laws that strengthened the state's mine-safety rules." (Read more)

29 wooden crosses
By Betty Lewis

On Monday, April 5, 2010, at 3:27 p.m. an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia, killed 29 coal miners. Twenty-nine miners taken forever from their families, friends and the mining workforce. Twenty days later a memorial service is held in honor of the miners and in support of the families.

Twenty-nine white wooden crosses stood in front of the stage at the Beckley Conference and Convention Center on Sunday, April 25. The crosses placed there for the miners’ memorial service stretched from one end of the stage to the other. The crosses symbolized the connection between God and each of the 29 miners.

One Biblical reference to the cross is found in Colossians 1:20 (King James Version): “And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven.”

Twenty days after the mining tragedy and the after the memorial service I attended, I reflect.

When I walked out of the Beckley arena following the service, a reporter for USA Today stopped me. He wanted to know if one of the dead miners was a family member. I told him, “No.”

He asked, “Why did you come?”

“I am from a coal-mining community in this area. I came to support the miners and their families. We are ONE: One family, One community.”

I traveled to Beckley from Summersville early Saturday morning to get a ticket for the memorial service. A long line was already in place when I arrived. Attending this service was one way the citizens of West Virginia could show support for their fallen miners and their families. On Sunday, those of us holding blue tickets were sent to the soccer field to park.

The Wilkesboro (Kan.) Baptist Church group, dressed in bright red and white, stood on the rise of a high hill above the stop light were turned to the soccer field. Members of the group were holding large signs, “God Hates Dead West Virginia Coal Miners.” They swayed their big, black, bold lettered signs back and forth and yelled as I made the turn. We were shuttled to the Convention Center by an alternate route, bypassing the protestors.

In the sacred makeshift temple honoring our dead miners, poster-size photos of the 29 miners adorned the walls. Supporters could leave notes for the families. The grins on the faces of young men in baseball caps who looked too young to shave, members of the “Old Man’s Club,” and all ages in-between made you stop and think, “Is he really gone? He looks so alive. How could this happen to so many at one time from our small mining communities?”

By 3:30 the Center was filled to capacity. Rescue and recovery teams who searched for the missing miners and recovered the dead were seated near the front of the stage. Each unit wore a particular color shirt some wore tan, some wore blue. They had a somber demeanor. Occasionally one would get up from their seat and shake hands with a dignitary dressed in a suit but they remained seated and very quiet for the service. They carried a heavy load. They had endured so much physically and emotionally.

The first 30 minutes of the service, called “Gathering,” consisted of the welcome and opening prayer followed by beautiful musical selections performed by local musicians including students from nearby Appalachian Bible College; Terry Gunter; and Trap Hill Middle School Choir.

One song that hit home was titled “The Coal Miner's Bible,” sung a capella by Rose Fisher. The song said the coal miner placed his riches in his heavenly home instead of here on earth. The song spoke of the Bible that was smudged with coal dust from the coal miner as he thumbed through the pages over the years. He kept it in the nightstand next to the bed. The coal miner’s Bible would bring comfort and guidance to the widow as she read through the pages reading the verses he had underlined and highlighted.

I sat in the upper balcony. Family members of Adam Morgan, 21, who was killed in the explosion, sat behind me. Jean Cook of Pineville, Adam’s aunt, asked me for a stick of gum. I handed her a piece of Big Red. She then showed me the new tattoo on her shoulder in memory of Adam. The tattoo, a butterfly with a body made of a football and antennae of fishing poles, was inked onto her shoulder with the young miner's name below it. The family talked among themselves about their sister’s young son. Jean said that Adam’s voice was on his family’s voice mail. She talked like Adam. “Hello, this is Adam. We ain’t home right now.”She said that Adam’s daddy would never take that message off the phone.

A couple wearing black t-shirts with the words “In memory of Steven Harrah” were seated in front of me.

At 3:30 pm the Memorial Service of Hope and Healing honoring the fallen Upper Big Branch Miners began with the first lady of West Virginia, Gayle Manchin, saying the name of each miner. The miner’s picture flashed on big screens as his name, familiar to us all three weeks after their deaths, rang throughout the arena. The miners’ families entered the stage area with heads bowed, slowly approaching the white wooden crosses. Mothers carried babies in their arms. Young children hung back as if they understood beyond their years, and a little girl dressed in a pretty pink dress repeatedly asked for her daddy. Some day soon she would know her daddy was never coming home. Some were elderly and already broken without this heavy burden. They needed assistance in just getting up to the cross.

A member from each family was given a miner’s hat to place on the cross, then, the family was seated in the front. One young boy, about 8 or 10, took the miner’s hat and carried to the cross representing his daddy. I wondered if he will follow in his daddy’s footsteps and become a coal miner when he grows up.

Protestant and Catholic clergy prayed for the 29 miners and their families. State and local politicians praised the fallen miners and offered hope and comforting words to their families.

Gov. Joe Manchin reminded the families and all the citizens of West Virginia of their courage and strength. He spent a great deal of time with the families as they waited for news on their men, and then when the news came he spent time with them as they begin their grieving.

“These were strong men,” Manchin said in his welcoming statement. “Today is our chance to be strong in their honor.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, with his New York accent, spoke about what it means to be a coal miner in West Virginia. "They don’t know how strong our miners are, how strong you need to be to survive," he said. "They do not understand that, despite the dangers, despite the worries it brings a miner’s family, despite it all – mining gets in a miner’s blood."

He continued to speak about the dangers in mining to keep America running with power each and every day. "West Virginia is in pain, and we are angry. But we will find solace and bind together as a community," Rockefeller added. "Because that is what West Virginians do. We will find a way to go on by finding strength in one another. That is who we are."

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall followed, talking about the events that unfolded from hours into days after the explosion. "On that spring day, West Virginia lost 29 men who worked hard and earned an honest wage," he said. "Our loss is heaven's gain."vRahall represents Raleigh County, where the Upper Big Branch mine is located.

West Virginia State Police Chaplain Rev. James Mitchell sat with the families as they waited to hear the fate of their loved ones. And while ultimately their hope fell short, families were still clinging to their faith, Mitchell told those in attendance at the memorial service.

Mitchell held back tears as he talked about losing his father to cancer 10 years ago. He talked about what his father meant to him as he shared one of their last conversations they had about how the world was changing, but he reminded the mourners that God is constant and a source of comfort.

"You shared with many the stories of your loved ones," said Rev. Mitchell. "These were stories that illustrated the solid character, sense of humor, love for God, country, family and friends, and love for life itself."

Due to the close, faith-based relationship Mitchell had developed with the miners’ families he was chosen as the pastor to provide the sermon before President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden delivered their remarks.

The chaplain read from the Gospel of John, Chapter 14, about Christ's conversation with his disciples before he was crucified. The chaplain said that story teaches that there is hope of life after death in Heaven: "This is not the end. This is only the beginning. This is the commencement," he said as the families cheered.

Mitchell concluded by asking for God's blessing over the miners of the state, the families of the 29 lost, and the state of West Virginia.

Vice President Biden unceremoniously approached the speaker’s podium. He was serious and down to earth in his words. He told the grieving families he understood. He told them it never goes away but after some time, the pain will subside and be replaced with beautiful memories. Most in the audience knew Biden was drawing from his personal tragedy.His wife and 13 month old daughter were killed in a car accident one week before Christmas 1972, when the senator-elect from Delaware awaited his first term. Sons Beau and Hunter, toddlers then, were critically injured. With their father's constant care and attention, both recovered. Biden has first-hand experience in suffering and grief.

Biden called the West Virginia miners "the spine of this nation" and "roughneck angels." He said the time would come to account for the safety conditions that led to the disaster.

"As a community, and as a nation, we would compound tragedy if we let life go on unchanged," he said. "Certainly, no one should have to sacrifice their life for their livelihood."

President Obama followed Biden. The President of the United States came to Beckley to be with the miners’ families and to deliver the eulogy. He received a warm welcome. The President and Vice President had lunch with family members prior to the service. Obama won many West Virginia hearts with his sincerity, understanding and commitment to follow through with improved safety measures, and to get to the bottom of this tragedy by conducting a thorough investigation.

“How can we fail them? How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them?" Obama asked. "How can we let anyone in this country put their lives at risk by simply showing up to work, by simply pursuing the American Dream?"

The President told those attending he gained most of his knowledge about mining from U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. (Byrd, 91, was present but issued a written statement to the families instead of speaking publicly.)

Obama described the miner: "In coveralls and hard-toe boots, a hardhat over their heads, they would sit quietly for their hour long journey, 5 miles into a mountain, the only light the lamp on their caps, or the glow from the mantrip they rode in. Day after day, they would burrow into the coal, the fruits of their labor, what so often we take for granted: the electricity that lights up a convention center; that lights up our church, our homes, our school and office; the energy that powers our country and powers the world. Most days, they would emerge from the dark mine, squinting at the light. Most days, they would emerge, sweaty, dirty, dusted with coal. Most days, they would come home. Most days, but not that day."

“We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now,” Obama said in closing. “Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy. To do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners the way they treat each other – like family. For we are all family. We are Americans.”

Both President Obama and Vice President Biden noted that the mining industry is more than a source of jobs in coal country – it’s what keeps the lights on in this country.

The president presented not only a sense of caring for the fallen miners and their families but he offered hope that he will not forget this tragedy. Hope that miners will have a safe place to work. Hope that miners will not be killed following the American Dream.

The president told the families of the workers killed in the Upper Big Branch mine, “the nation would honor their memories by improving safety in the mines.”

The ceremony closed with Matthew Jones singing “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” Gov. Manchin read the Coal Miner’s Prayer and Martin Luther King Male Chorus members walked to the front and turned on the miner’s light attached to the hardhat on the cross as the soloist sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

President Obama and Vice President Obama walked with the miners’ families out of service.

Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, owner of the Big Branch Mine, sat on the first level near the grieving families.

Betty Lewis is a freelance writer.


Carl Acord * Jason Atkins * Christopher Bell * Gregory Steven Brock * Kenneth Allan Chapman * Robert Clark * Charles Timothy Davis * Cory Davis * Michael Lee Elswick * William Griffith * Steven Harrah * Edward Dean Jones * Richard K. Lane * William Roosevelt Lynch * Nicholas Darrell McCroskey * Joe Marcum * Ronald Lee Maynor * James E. Mooney * Adam Keith Morgan * Rex L. Mullins * Joshua S. Napper * Howard D. Payne * Dillard Earl Persinger * Joel R. Price * Deward Scott * Gary Quarles * Grover Dale Skeens * Benny Willingham * Ricky Workman

New rules for mountaintop mines will allow few or no valley fills, EPA administrator says

The Environmental Protection Agency took unprecedented steps today to reduce the environmental damage from mountaintop-removal coal mining. Chief among the changes, "EPA is warning that water pollution from these mining operations dangerously increases the electrical conductivity of streams — and setting up a much more rigorous mandate that coal operators and state mining regulators face up to this looming and long-ignored problem," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes on his Coal Tattoo blog, calling the announcement "a bombshell."

The more salts in water, the better it conducts electricity. Valley fills made from rock and dirt blasted in mountaintop removal contain many salts. EPA cites work from agency scientists in determining that streams with more than 500 microsiemens per centimeter, a measure of salinity, are impaired. That is about five times normal levels, and a new study by the agency’s Office of Research and Development warns that levels as low as 300 ms/cm might cause damage to aquatic life.

"No or very few valley fills that are going to be able to meet this standard," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson told reporters in a conference call, available via Ward's blog. "The people of Appalachia shouldn't have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them," Jackson said. "This is not about ending coal mining, it is about ending coal mining pollution." She noted that EPA recently negotiated changes in the permit for the huge Hobet Mine, which she said will not have valley fills.

"R. Bruce Scott, the commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, said conductivity levels at many mine sites in Eastern Kentucky are significantly higher than the new EPA target. Because of that, he said the EPA's action raises serious questions about the future of mining in Eastern Kentucky," The Courier-Journal reports. "He also said he doesn’t know what the announcement means for a new state policy, developed last month, that sought to crack down on conductance on a permit-by-permit basis." (Read more)

Bill Estep sums it up for the Lexington Herald-Leader: "The number of Appalachian streams buried during surface mining should drop significantly under new guidelines, the nation's top environmental regulator announced Thursday in a move hailed by environmentalists." (Read more)

EPA's guidance on stream conductivity goes into effect immediately, but is open for public comment after which the agency will decide whether to amend the standard. "EPA may block new permits or demand significant changes in mining plans where mining proposals are projected to cause conductivity downstream to exceed 500," Ward writes. (Read more)

"Industry groups blasted the new regulations, calling them job-killers that would further depress one of the country's poorest regions," Patrick Reis reports for Environment & Energy Daily (subscription only), quoting a statement from the National Mining Association: "EPA continues to point to 'new science' that has been found to be both flawed and limited in its findings and application as justification for today's announcement." But Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia said, "I am pleased that EPA Administrator Jackson took our concerns about the need to provide clarity very seriously and has responded with these guidelines."

EPA also released two scientific studies documenting the negative effects of mountaintop removal mining on water quality and announced it will create a Web site where the public can track permits subject to its coordination with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issues Clean Water Act permits.

UPDATE, April 2: The Corps announced it will start writing new rules to conform. The leading candidates for the Democratic nomination for senator from Kentucky, who have clashed over coal issues in the past, issued statements that were not all that different. Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo issued a press release calling EPA's move a selective "declaration of war on Kentucky's coal industry," adding, "If this ruling were applied to other industries like farming, road construction, commercial development and housing, it would shut down our economy. This anti-coal decision by the EPA Administrator does not reflect what is necessary to protect the health of Kentuckians, but her own deep seated bias against the coal industry." Asked for his view, Attorney General Jack Conway said in an e-mail, “We need to mine coal responsibly and that the EPA should not legislate. That is the role of Congress and yesterday’s announcement demonstrates that Washington does not understand the importance of coal to Kentucky’s economy. . . . I will not support any measure that will cost Kentucky jobs and make it more difficult to keep electricity rates low for our working families, including cap and trade legislation.”

UPDATE, April 5: In one of the two studies EPA included in its announcement, the agency focused on "direct damage to streams that are buried and on pollution downstream from valley fills," Ward reports for The Charleston Gazette, but the the report also "warns that damage to ecologically important forests is greater than some routinely cited statistics suggest." Previous EPA studies have projected that 1,200 miles of streams would be lost to valley fills and associated mining activities from 1992 to 2002, Ward writes, but the new report explains those numbers don't account for loss of other headwater ecosystems. (Read more)

The Herald-Leader also concluded in a Sunday editorial that "Kentuckians who care about the future should thank EPA" for its new guidelines. Heartland Institute fellow Ross Kaminsky disagrees, writing the new guidelines are "the inevitable outcome when government puts environmental radicals in charge of writing regulations."

Scotia mine disasters get historical marker; The Mountain Eagle's coverage is posted online

On March 9 and 11, 1976, explosions in the Scotia Coal Co. mine in Letcher County, Kentucky, killed 26 miners and mine inspectors. The first one killed 15 miners, and the second killed 11 miners and inspectors who were on a mission to investigate what happened. On the 34th anniversary of the first blast, a historic highway marker about the double disaster was placed on US 119 at Oven Fork, on the southeast side of Pine Mountain.

The disasters, caused by poor ventilation and a buildup of methane, led to new federal and state laws and regulations to make coal mines safer. That effort goes on; a Labor Department official said at a public meeting in Letcher County yesterday that the Mine Safety and Health Administration "is trying to have new regulations to limit miners' dust exposure ready for public hearings in the fall," reports Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Gregory Wagner, the deputy assistant secretary of labor for MSHA policy, said the miners and inspectors died at Scotia because "production was chosen over the lives of the men who mined the coal. . . . We're here to remember why it happened and to make sure it never happens again."

Some of the best reporting on Scotia was done by the local weekly newspaper, The Mountain Eagle. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues has posted on its Web site PDFs of the paper's initial coverage. Click these links for the story on the initial disaster and its continuation. The following week's coverage was spread over five pages: the front, Page 2 (with editorial), Page 6, Page 16 and Page 22.

A time-lapse view of mountaintop removal

By Al Cross
Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

If you use the aerial/satellite view in online mapping programs and know something about the landscape of Central Appalachia, it's not hard to pick out areas that are being mined or have been mined. But rarely do we get a time-lapse view of the expansion of a big operation, like the Hobet Mine in southern West Virginia. The folks at NASA's Earth Observatory have done just that, with a series of images that begiun and end with the pictures below. The mine is shown in 1984, shortly after it opened; then in 1991 and 2002, and finally in 2009, with helpful notations of reclaimed and permitted areas. Of course, these views are two-dimensional and don't indicate changes in elevation.

Earth Observatory's Rebecca Lindsey wrote this description: "Below the densely forested slopes of southern West Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains is a layer cake of thin coal seams. To uncover this coal profitably, mining companies engineer large—sometimes very large—surface mines. . . . In 1984, the mining operation is limited to a relatively small area west of the Coal River. By 2009, it is has expanded across more than 10,000 acres (15.6 square miles) to the south and west. Most of the mine lies within the upper watershed of the Mud River, which flows northwest through the area. Coal companies dispose of mining waste rock by building rock and earth dams called valley fills in hollows, gullies, and streams. The longest valley fill at this mine appears to have been the near-complete filling of Connelly Branch from its source to its mouth at the Mud River. . . . In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency intervened in the approval of a permit to further expand the Hobet mine into the Berry Branch area (white outline) and worked with mine operators to minimize the disturbance and to reduce the number and size of valley fills." Go to this page to click through year-by-year images of the site and Lindsey's full article.

Reclaimed Appalachian strip mines have environmental effect after bonds are released

By Jon Hale and Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Reclaimed surface mines in Central Appalachia have continuing environmental impact after their reclamation bonds are released but are not commonly monitored by state and federal regulators, says a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The non-partisan investigative arm of Congress cited poor reforestation efforts, contaminated streams that harm aquatic organisms, water-flow issues and failure to restore approximate original contour to sites that may be called “mountaintop removal” but are actually permitted as area mines.

State officials, who enforce strip-mine laws with oversight by federal officials, called the report overbroad, but its sponsor endorsed it.

"Mountaintop-removal mining has lasting and far-reaching effects on surrounding lands and streams," Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who requested the study, told Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "This GAO review documents the extent of these effects and the mechanisms now in place to evaluate their impacts over time.”

The report, coupled with one in December on mountaintop removal, could help inform the debate about surface mining in Central Appalachia, a debate that has intensified from both sides but one that is often dominated by opinion rather than fact.

The report studied surface mining in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, where surface mining disturbed approximately 400,000 mostly forested acres between 1994 and 2008. From 1985 to 2005, almost 1,000 miles of headwater streams were estimated to be buried by valley fills made from rock blasted and excavated to reach coal seams.
The latest report focuses on a core principle of the 1977 federal strip-mine law, which requires coal companies provide a bond ensuring that money will be available for state or federal officials to reclaim mined land if the company fails to do so.

In 2008, the Environmental Protection Agency “reported that aquatic life downstream from 27 active and reclaimed mountaintop mines with valley fills showed subtle to severe effects compared with aquatic life downstream in similar, but unmined, West Virginia watersheds,” GAO reports. Investigators also reported concentrations of selenium exceeded standards in post-reclaimed streams. Selenium, found in coal and some shales, is in an essential nutrient in small amounts but is toxic in large amounts.

A 2003 study showed “poor vegetation development with time was typical of the reclaimed sites, with significantly lower tree diversity on the mined sites than in adjacent forests,” GAO reports. The report’s authors concluded “mining reclamation procedures limit the overall ecological health and inhibit the desired growth of native tree and shrub species on the site.”

Studies by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining from 1999 and 2001 showed that mine sites required to be returned to the approximate original contour in Kentucky and West Virginia varied little from mines that had been given the “mountaintop removal” exemption to the rule. GAO noted that OSM had commissioned another study of contour policies in 2008, but results were not yet available.

One West Virginia study of mining activities’ effect on flooding recommended, among other things, the state, “prohibit any increase in surface water discharge over pre-mining conditions and modify certain requirements for valley fill construction,” GAO reports. In 2003 West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection began requiring permits to include a storm water runoff analysis, one of several steps GAO noted that state and federal agencies have taken to remedy some of the post-reclamation problems.

While federal agencies generally applauded the report’s thoroughness and characterized it as helpful, state regulators found much to dispute.

“We believe this document is overly broad in its generalized statements,” Carl E. Campbell, commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources, said in his formal response. “Terms and phrases are used interchangeably so as to confuse the issues and written in a manner that appears to misrepresent and sensationalizes the issues.”

“Problems are site specific and any proposed modification to regulatory approaches should account for such site-specific conditions,” Stephen Walz, director of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, said in response. “Across the board, one size fits all changes to the regulatory program may not be appropriate for all sites in all states.”

Each of the four states has different bond requirements, with West Virginia using an alternative bond system that combines a variety of funding sources to cover reclamation costs. In Tennessee, where OSM alone regulates strip mines, a full-bond system requires the company to supply to total cost. Kentucky and Virginia use a combination of the two approaches.

West Virginia officials took issue with the limitation of the report to bond issues in only the four central Appalachian states.

“Bonds and or financial assurances are required in all states and are not unique to the four states chosen for the report,” Lewis A. Halstead, deputy director of the West Virginia DEP, said in his response to the report. “It seems the GAO is artificially implying that there is a bonding or financial assurance problem in the four states and that mines with valley fills are the only mines that have the potential to cause environmental harm.”

To obtain a bond release under the 1977 law mine operators must “be able to demonstrate to agency inspectors that revegetation, water quality and other standards are being met,” GAO reports. This process generally occurs five years after the last reclamation activity. Many state and federal officials told GAO that satisfying this requirement meant there was no need to monitor the site after the bond had been released.

GAO investigators also concluded several current laws could be used in limited circumstances to govern reclaimed mine sites after bonds had been released, but agencies reported they rarely if ever used that power.

Despite the states’ objections, Bingaman told Ward the report was a call to action. “The results reinforce my belief that we need to take a close look at the quality of long-term monitoring and the financial assurances we require from the industry to ensure that any problems are promptly remediated.”