MAC: Mines and Communities

The Great US Coal Disaster

Published by MAC on 2010-04-18
Source: PlanetArk, YES! magazine

The recent mine disaster in West Virginia has inevitably sparked discussion in the US over current coal mining methods.

As reported on our website, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is tightening regulation of waste disposal from "mountain-top mining". See:

This has led some industry proponents to warn that this type of mining will no longer prove viable; and that 200 million tonnes of annual coal output (around a third of the country's production) will be lost.

Peabody Coal is the world's biggest single miner of the black stuff, with 2009 sales of 244 million tonnes - fuelling 10% of all US electricity generation. But, three months ago, thanks to resistance by the Dine and Hopi peoples, the company suffered a major setback when a judge suspended expansion of its huge Black Mesa strip mine in Arizona. See:

Meanwhile, some environmental lobbyists, while attacking both mountaintop destruction and coal strip mining, seem to under-estimate the health and safety risks posed to workers by increased reliance on underground mining. (If an explosion or rock fall doesn't kill you immediately, pneumoconiosis and emphysema eventually may.)

EPA Administrator, Linda Jackson, says that her Agency's action against mountain top removal "... is not about ending coal mining; this is about ending coal mining pollution".

It's a position that reflects some deep inconsistencies in  government  and US society at large: failing to recognise that "improved" standards of living for some citizens is inextricably tied to the killing, or diseasing, of hundreds of thousands of others.

Big Coal Angry Over EPA Water Standard Rule Change

Steve James


9 April 2010

New federal rules to restrict mountaintop mining are likely to hurt coal production and endanger jobs in poor Appalachian communities recovering from the recession, industry experts, politicians and analysts say.

The move by the Environmental Protection Agency has already sparked a battle pitting mining companies against the Obama administration and even split Republican senatorial ranks. It comes at a time when Big Coal is fighting another major public relations issue -- mine safety -- after a blast in West Virginia this week killed 25 miners.

While environmental groups laud the EPA's move, Wall Street analysts believe tighter rules will make it more difficult for mining companies to operate at a time of surging demand for coal from power plants and steelmakers. Legislators and unions are concerned that jobs will be lost.

Last week, as Wall Street was leaving for a long Easter weekend, the EPA set new water guidelines that Administrator Lisa Jackson said would allow "no or very few valley fills."

That refers to mining companies dumping debris in waterways after blasting into mountainsides for surface mines, which are cheaper to operate than underground mines. The EPA guidelines focus on water conductivity limitations strict enough that one miner, Massey Energy, even suggested Perrier or San Pellegrino bottled waters would fail.

"Let me be clear -- this is not about ending coal mining; this is about ending coal mining pollution," Jackson said.

Luke Popovich of the National Mining Association, an industry trade group, was not convinced. "It could mean the end of an era.

"They talk about coal being important for the future," he said of the Obama administration, "but everywhere we see their actions fall short of their words."

Tighter water controls come six months after the EPA ruled that 79 West Virginia mine permits must undergo further evaluation because of a potential hazard to water. Mining groups complained the hold-ups threaten job security in Kentucky, West Virginia and Ohio that depend on coal mining.

"Devastating impact" on Appalachia

"The EPA policy and guidelines announcement is as dangerous and threatening an action as this region has ever seen," said Bryan Brown, of FACES of Coal, a pro-coal industry group. "This action by the EPA sets standards that most underground mines can't achieve and will have a devastating impact on the Appalachian regions."

Naturally, environmentalists were pleased with the move. The Sierra Club called it "a bold new policy to protect communities and waterways from the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

"By setting tough guidance for mining near streams, the EPA will severely limit this most devastating form of coal mining," it said in a statement.

One miner, Arch Coal, has already sued the EPA over what it calls the agency's "unlawful" effort under the Clean Water Act, to revoke a mining permit it had already issued three years ago.

"The EPA has left us with no other course of action," said spokeswoman Kim Link. She said the 13-year permitting process for the Spruce No. 1 mine had included a full environmental impact statement.

Coal industry analyst Jeremy Sussman of Brean Murray, Carret & Co, said he did not expect to see many new surface mining permits being approved in the future.

"While very little production in 2010 and 2011 will likely be impacted, we see this having a very meaningful impact in 2012 and beyond," he wrote in a research note.

He estimates about half of Central Appalachia's (CAPP) roughly 200 million tons per year comes from surface mining. "If the EPA's action holds up, we are essentially talking about the end of CAPP surface mining in the not-too-distant future."

The issue has split Republican senators in two Appalachian states. "The Obama administration's war on coal has taken a costly turn," said Sen. Jim Bunning, of Kentucky. "Thousands of lives will be affected by this one decision that will have a devastating impact on the entire region.

"During these difficult economic times bureaucrats in Washington should be trying to find ways to create more jobs instead of playing political games with the livelihood of the good people in Eastern Kentucky," he said.

But his colleague, Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, actually called for a full ban on the dumping of mining waste into Appalachian streams.

"Coal is an essential part of our energy future," he said, "but it is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops in order to have enough coal to meet our needs."

(Editing by Richard Chang)

The High Cost of Cheap Coal

The West Virginia mine explosion is, unfortunately, only the most recent reminder of the true price of so-called cheap coal.

by Brooke Jarvis

YES! magazine

7 April 2010

Monday's mining disaster in Raleigh County, W. Va.- in which a massive explosion killed at least 25 miners, with four still missing - is a grim reminder of coal's hidden costs.

Coal, according to conventional wisdom, is the cheapest available source of energy-a bargain when compared to renewables such as wind and solar, as well as to oil and natural gas.

But Monday's explosion is, unfortunately, only the latest evidence of the high price we really pay for coal. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, 104,674 people died in coal mining disasters in the United States between 1900 and 2009. Though death rates have slowed dramatically in recent decades, the years between 2001 and 2005-a period that included two record-setting years for lowest mining fatalities in history-still saw an average of 30 coal mining deaths each year.

And these numbers don't reflect other human costs of coal mining. A 2008 study found that people living in mining communities are 70 percent more likely to develop kidney disease, 64 percent more likely to have chronic lung diseases such as emphysema, and 30 percent more likely to report hypertension. Those who live near coal-burning power plants are also at higher risk. It's difficult to put a dollar value on human lives or the health of communities-but at the very least, shouldn't hospital visits and disability coverage be factored into the cost of coal?

Then there are the environmental costs of mining and burning coal. In testimony before the Iowa Utilities Board, NASA scientist James Hansen called coal "the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air," a major cause of global climatic changes that have already displaced an estimated 26 million people. A 2008 study that projected the price tag of climate change in eight U.S. states found that rising sea levels, temperature changes, and drought will have devastating impacts. "Climate change will cost billions in the long run and the bottom line will be red," said Matthias Ruth, director of the Center for Integrative Environmental Research at the University of Maryland and coordinator of the study. "Inaction or delayed action will make the ink run redder." Coal may be cheap now, but that's simply because we're not counting-and don't even know how to count-the long-term costs.

In Kingston, Tenn., not far from where I grew up, fly ash left over from a coal-fired power plant was stored behind an earthen dam. When the dam ruptured in 2008, houses and farms were destroyed as sludge laced with arsenic, uranium, and mercury flooded 300 acres.

Massey Energy, the same company that operates the mine in Raleigh County where yesterday's explosion occurred, stores 8.2 billion gallons of toxic coal sludge behind an earthen impoundment in another part of the county: a constant reminder for local residents that what's cheap today may be very expensive tomorrow. In February, West Virginia's Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of violation because the dam failed to meet safety requirements.

So it's not surprising that many residents of Raleigh County have been fighting for a future free from coal. They formed a group called the Coal River Mountain Wind Project and commissioned a study to compare the impact of Massey Energy's proposed mountaintop-removal surface coal mine with that of their proposed alternative: a 328 megawatt wind farm. The study found that wind would bring the county government $1.7 million in annual revenue indefinitely. Mountaintop removal would bring in merely $36,000 each year for 17 years-while costing an estimated $600 million in health expenses and lost resources following the destruction of the mountain.

Coal River Mountain residents aren't alone in recalculating the true cost of coal and deciding it's simply too high to pay. The Sierra Club lists 127 proposed coal plants in the United States that have been canceled, abandoned, or put on hold in recent years; in a number of cases, activist pressure or market forces compelled companies to abandon coal in favor of other energy sources.

Of course, the belief that "Coal is still the least-cost, most viable, and technically feasible option" (as World Bank president Robert B. Zoellick put it in a letter to U.S. lawmakers who challenged a $3 billion Bank loan to build a coal-fired power plant in South Africa) is still widespread. But even in South Africa, where power shortages have been a serious issue in recent years, there are some who don't believe coal power is cheap enough to be worth its hidden costs.

Residents of South Africa's Limpopo Province, together with Earthlife Africa and groundWork, yesterday filed a complaint with the World Bank Inspection Panel-a forum for claims from those adversely affected by the Bank's policies-to stop the construction of the plant on the grounds that it would threaten their water, health, and farms. Even among members of the Bank's board, which will vote on funding for the coal plant this Thursday, the decision is unusually contentious, with the United States likely to abstain or even cast a rare "no" vote. According to an article in The New York Times, analysts say the debate "is sending a strong signal that the World Bank will have to do more to encourage renewable energy and may even have to sideline loans for future coal plants."

The myth of cheap coal can't stand up to the sad evidence of coal's hidden costs to our lives, our health, and our planet.

Brooke Jarvis - Brooke Jarvis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine's web editor.

Black Mesa mine mess

Caitlin Sislin

High Country News

12 April 2010

A controversial clean water permit for a coal mine complex sited at a Navajo and Hopi sacred mountain is once again up for review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Peabody Western Coal Company seeks a renewal of its water quality permit for the Black Mesa/ Kayenta Mine Complex, despite the mine's impact on water quality and local public health over several decades because of discharges of toxic heavy metals and pollutants into the water supply. EPA invites the public to submit comments through April 30th on the previously-withdrawn National Pollution Discharge Elimination System Permit pursuant to the Clean Water Act, which requires that all industrial dischargers of wastewater obtain and maintain a permit.

EPA granted the contested polllution permit in August 2009 and then withdrew it in early December 2009, after an appeal from a coalition of environmental and indigenous groups cited the mine's numerous and egregious violations of the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental statutes. Appellants asserted that in granting the permit, EPA failed to adequately analyze the environmental impacts of leaking waste ponds, properly account for the discharge of heavy metals and pollutants into the water sources for nearby communities as well as the concomitant acidification of water and soil, or provide local residents with meaningful opportunities for public participation.

EPA claims the proposed new permit will compel the mine to uphold water quality standards, by establishing runoff limits pursuant to the Clean Water Act. The agency also says the permit will set forth new requirements for reclaimed mine areas, and will allow for increased management of sediment and seepage from stormwater treatment ponds. The Black Mesa Mine continues to operate under its prior permit -- issued in 2000 -- to this day.

After the December 2009 withdrawal of the new permit, Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition said that "our community was shut out of the permitting process and our requests for public hearings on the permit denied. If a new permit is issued, the agency must ensure that impacted communities are meaningfully involved in environmental decision-making." In response to the community's contention that EPA failed to adequately ensure public participation, EPA held two public hearings about the permit on Navajo and Hopi lands this February.

Groups like Black Mesa Water Coalition and their allies have worked for years to protect the Navajo Nation's water from misappropriation by Peabody, whose operations have drained billions of gallons of clean, drinkable groundwater from the Navajo Aquifer beneath the mine in order to "slurry" (move) coal to affiliated power plants. Peabody's pumping operation substantially diminished the most important source of water in the region -- in 2006, three of four continually-monitored gauging stations showed a decline of at least 50% from normal levels of water discharge.

While the Mojave Generating Station, the primary recipient of slurried coal, was shut down in 2005 due to the sustained efforts of grassroots leaders, the continued operation of the mine persists in threatening water quality and the health of humans and the biotic community. It is incumbent upon concerned citizens to meet the public participation mandate set forth by affected communities, and to ensure that any permit granted by EPA for pollution discharges at the Black Mesa Mine Complex meets maximum standards for water quality and safety.


Caitlin Sislin, Esq. is the Advocacy Director for Women's Earth Alliance, where she coordinates the Sacred Earth Advocacy Network -- a network of pro bono legal and policy advocates in collaboration with indigenous women environmental justice leaders. For more information about participating in the Advocacy Network as a pro bono advocate, or our three 2010 Advocacy Delegations.

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