Is US coal coming under control?
Some justice has finally been meted out to the families of 29 US miners, killed last year in the country's worst coal disaster for a quarter of a century See: US: Massey tries escaping penalties for killing employees
Washington State has joined Oregon in approving a plan to phase out coal-fired power - propelling the Pacific Northwest to becoming the nation's first coal-free region.
The campaign to ban coal fly ash dumping is mounting.
Massey: W.Va. mine families offered $3M deals
4 May 2011
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Massey Energy Co. has offered families of the 29 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion $3 million apiece to settle their claims, according to a document filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
The detail included in the filing is Massey's first confirmation of the size of its settlement offers. The Virginia-based company hadn't detailed the offers publicly, though family members had set the offers at $3 million.
The document is a proxy statement jointly filed in conjunction with rival coal producer Alpha Natural Resources' proposed $7.1 billion takeover of Massey. The deal is due to close after shareholders of both companies vote June 1.
"Five families have filed wrongful death suits," the companies said in the document. "Massey has also made a settlement offer of $3 million to each deceased miner's family."
The April 5, 2010 Upper Big Branch explosion was the deadliest in the U.S. coalfields since 1970 and remains the target of civil and criminal investigations.
The filing also references the retirement last year of Massey Chief Executive Don Blankenship. He accepted a $12 million retirement package as the company was weighing a growing number of buyout offers last winter.
It also details Alpha's pursuit of Massey in competition - and at times in conjunction - with other unnamed coal companies. The proxy was filed Friday with the SEC.
The document shows the companies first talked about a deal in 2006. Alpha decided to try again immediately after the explosion, when Chairman Mike Quillen was dispatched to meet with Blankenship on April 26, 2010.
"Mr. Blankenship informed Mr. Quillen that it was Mr. Blankenship's view that a potential business combination with Alpha was not in the best interests of Massey's stockholders at the time," the companies said.
Talks resumed in August and several unnamed companies got involved. But by January, Blankenship had departed and Massey was weighing offers from Alpha and another company.
It chose Alpha.
"There was less certainty in Company C's ability to close the transaction, operate the combined entity effectively, realize synergies and achieve their respective financial projections of cost savings," the companies said, referring to a losing bidder.
Blankenship retired abruptly Dec. 3, but the companies now say he'd been contemplating leaving for months and discussed the idea informally with board members last summer and fall.
The board had begun thinking about his departure too and assessed whether he was the company's best option.
"In connection with these discussions, Mr. Blankenship elected to submit his resignation," the companies said.
The same day Massey announced Blankenship's retirement, the document shows, officials called Alpha and continued negotiating.
Coal Mine Victims' Kin May Get ‘Federal Crime' Status
25 April 2011
Relatives of the 29 coal miners killed on April 5th 2010, at the Massey Energy Co's Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, West Va., have been told by the FBI that they be classified as victims of a federal crime.
A letter to the families signed by FBI agent Joseph I Ciccarelli of the Charleston field office said that "As you may be aware, the FBI has instituted an investigation into various activities at UBB in an effort to determine whether any Federal crimes have occurred. In connection therewith, you may be a victim of a Federal crime."
Among other things, victims of federal crimes are entitled to updates from the government about the status of their case, the right to be heard at certain court proceedings, and to protection from the accused, according to an article in The Charleston Gazette, which was cited by Allen Lengel on his Tickle the Wire blog.
The letter further said that "This investigation can be a lengthy process and we request your continued patience while we conduct a thorough investigation."
Stuart Fronk assistant special agent in charge of FBI operations in West Virginia said the correspondence was a standard letter, but refused to answer other questions. The Gazette said US Attorney Booth Goodwin of the Southern District of West Virginia would not comment. Nor would Massey officials.
The letter from the FBI was not entirely surprising, since it has been known for a year that the mine disaster triggered an investigation into possible criminal wrongdoing, as Main Justice reported last May.
Washington Governor Signs Law to End Coal-Fired Power in the State
Environmental News Service (ENS)
4 May 2011
OLYMPIA, Washington - Washington Governor Chris Gregoire Friday signed legislation to phase out coal-fired energy production at the TransAlta power plant in Centralia, the only coal-fired power plant in the state. The move will end coal-fired power in Washington state in the next 14 years.
More than 70 percent of the electricity consumed in Washington is generated by hydroelectric dams, with natural gas and nuclear power making up most of the remainder. Electricity generated from non-hydro renewable sources such as biomass, wind, waste, and landfill gas accounted for a little less than two percent.
Senate Bill 5769 enacts into law an agreement reached after two years of negotiations among the Sierra Club, Governor Gregoire and the Canadian company TransAlta to close the state's only two coal boilers, the first in 2020 and the second in 2025.
"The Centralia power plant has long been a critical part of the regional economy," Gregoire said at the bill signing ceremony at the power plant, attended by TransAlta employees and executives, legislators, and members of the environmental and labor communities.
"I want to thank our partners at TransAlta, our environmental community, and labor for coming together to be part of Washington's clean energy future," the governor said. "I'd also like to thank our legislators, who gave this bill bipartisan support."
The nearby Centralia coal mine provides about 85 percent of the annual 5.5 million ton fuel burn at the TransAlta power plant. (Photo courtesy TransAlta)
In 2009, Gregoire signed an executive order directing the Department of Ecology to work with TransAlta on an agreement that would apply the state's greenhouse gas emissions performance standards by no later than December 31, 2025.
"TransAlta is a progressive power company that strives to produce more electricity with less environmental impact, every day," said TransAlta President and CEO Steve Snyder. "We are proud to play a leading role in this unique collaboration of industry, government, community and environmentalists to chart a new energy future for Washington State. With this bill, TransAlta will be able to continue powering this community with new investments in power production and new jobs."
TransAlta is Canada's largest producer of wind power, operating more than a third of Canada's installed 3,549 MW wind capacity. Over the last two years TransAlta has constructed three new wind facilities and completed expansions of two existing facilities.
"This is what significant progress fighting climate disruption looks like," said Andrew Rose, a Sierra Club volunteer who worked on the multi-year effort by the national grassroots environmental organization. "Coal is the worst climate and health polluter in the world and today, Washington is taking a big step toward finally moving beyond coal."
"This victory is a testament to the hard work of dedicated community members and passionate volunteers who simply want to protect their neighborhoods and their family's health from coal's toxic pollution," said Doug Howell, Washington representative for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign.
The Sierra Club worked with conservation, public health, faith and clean energy advocates, including the Northwest Energy Coalition, the Washington Environmental Council, Climate Solutions, the National Parks Conservation Association, Earthjustice and Earth Ministry to advocate for sensible solutions to the problems presented by TransAlta's pollution.
The coal-fired power plant endangered public health and the environment in Washington by emitting toxic pollutants such as mercury, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter into Washington's air and water.
"Coal is incredibly dangerous to our health, and coal's pollution contributes to four of the five leading causes of death in the United States," said Rose. "This agreement is both literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air for families across the state."
Bruce Nilles, deputy conservation director for the Sierra Club, said, "Today, we are one significant step closer to being truly free from coal in the Northwest, which will bring about a cleaner, safer, healthier and more prosperous future."
Under the new law:
- In 2013, TransAlta will install additional air pollution control technology to further reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides at the plant. The TransAlta plant is the state's largest single industrial source of nitrogen oxide emissions. Nitrogen oxides are one of the causes of visibility-limiting regional haze in national parks and on federal lands.
- TransAlta agrees to contribute $30 million in a community investment fund to help with economic development and energy efficiency projects, as well as $25 million in an energy technology transition fund, to be spent on supporting innovative energy technologies and companies in Washington state.
- TransAlta will be allowed in the interim to sell coal power under long-term contracts within Washington, which will give the company the financial stability needed to transition to a cleaner source of energy.
- "I am proud for many reasons, but mainly because I have never seen such collaborative work evolve in this fashion during my 13 years of work at the Legislature," said state Senator Phil Rockefeller, a Democrat. "I believe what made this agreement possible was the respect and dedication each party brought to the table. The result is a cleaner energy future, with power, jobs, health and environmental benefits that all can share."
"When this bill had its final hearing, business, labor, environmental and health advocates were all sitting side by side at the testimony table," said state Representative Dave Upthegrove, a Democrat. "They were asking us to move forward with this, and we listened."
Washington now joins Oregon in approving a plan to phase out coal-fired power, setting the Pacific Northwest on a path to becoming the nation's first coal-free region.
Coal ash review vowed
DEC head says agency will scrutinize plan to ban ash at Ravena cement plant
By Brian Nearing
3 May 2011
ALBANY -- Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens said Monday his agency will "carefully" examine a long-delayed proposal to ban a Ravena cement plant's use of coal fly ash.
Martens, speaking during the annual Earth Day lobby day at the state Capitol before various environmental groups, said DEC will look at "a broader context" for the agency's two-year-old proposal to stop allowing use of ash in the making of cement.
That answer failed to satisfy Jim Travers, a member of Selkirk Ravena Coeymans Against Pollution, who had asked Martens about the ash rule, which was returned to DEC by Gov. Andrew Cuomo after languishing since October 2008 in the Governor's Office of Regulatory Reform during the administration of former Gov. David Paterson.
"I don't know what 'a broader context' means," said Travers. "And I don't understand why it is being revisited by DEC, when it was DEC that pushed it up to the governor for action more than two years ago."
Coal fly ash, which is a residue by the burning of coal by power plants, is used at the Lafarge North America cement plant in Ravena. The ash contains mercury, which is released into the air during cement making; the Lafarge plant is the state's second-largest source of airborne mercury.
Plant officials said that the amount of mercury in the ash is relatively small, and note that a new plant, being planned to open by 2015, will no longer use the ash.
The former head of the Open Space Institute, a not-for-profit land conservation group, Martens was confirmed as the new DEC head in March. He got a positive reception from the environmental advocates, who fanned out that day to lobby lawmakers to support a package of bills, including a greenhouse gas pollution cap, a requirement by utilities to support expanded solar power through purchase of renewable energy credits, and mandated disclosure of the chemicals used in the natural gas technique of hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.
Martens also urged the groups to support a proposed law by DEC that would require anyone proposing to withdraw more than 100,000 of fresh water a day to first obtain a state permit. That bill could also impact the future of hydrofracking, which is still being studied by the DEC.
"This bill would be good for business and would protect existing users of water," said Martens.
Hydrofracking consumes large amounts of water, which along with chemicals and sand, is injected into deep underground rock formations to shatter rocks and free trapped gas bubbles which then come to the surface of the well.
If DEC eventually gives its approval for hydrofracking to begin in the state, Martens said his office likely will need additional staff to review what could be a deluge of permits for wells and water withdrawals. The state is home to the gas-rich Marcellus Shale, an underground formation that runs from the western Catskills and through the Southern Tier nearly to Buffalo.
The state Assembly was expected to act on the environmental bills late Monday evening, said Assemblyman Bob Sweeney, a Long Island Democrat who is chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee.
Sweeney said he also expected the Assembly to vote on a proposal to extend a moratorium on horizontal hydrofracking, which expires in mid-May, through June 2012.
Later Monday, anti-hydrofracking protesters held loud protests outside the governor's offices and outside both legislative chambers in which they demanded that the technique be banned outright.
Reach Nearing at 454-5094 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greene Twp. residents, officials rally against coal ash dump site
Beaver County Times
4 May 2011
GREENE TWP - Residents, local government officials and national environmentalists are rallying against a state agency's decision to extend coal ash dumping at a Beaver County site.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, in a letter dated May 2, granted Ohio-based FirstEnergy Corp.'s request for a two-year extension to deposit coal ash in the "Ditch 6" expansion site of the Little Blue Run Residual Waste Disposal Impoundment, centered in Greene Township.
DEP approval came without community input.
"This should be part of the democratic process and (the democratic process) was really just crushed," said Roni Kampmeyer, a township resident and representative of the Citizen's Against Coal Ash group said Wednesday during a Greene Township Supervisors meeting.
Greene Township supervisors voted unanimously to send a letter to the state DEP asking for a public meeting.
"By all means, the state shouldn't have moved forward without coming through us first," supervisor Russell Morgan said.
The Environmental Integrity Project, the Sierra Club and the Citizens Against Coal Ash also sent a co-signed letter to the state DEP requesting a "public comment period."
"We feel as though some problems need to be addressed before expansion goes forward," Lisa Graves Martucci of the Environmental Integrity Project said before Wednesday's Greene Township meeting.
The Environmental Integrity Project letter to the DEP, which was authored by Washington, D.C., -based attorney Lisa Widawsky, said that Little Blue Run "has a history of ongoing problems, including elevated arsenic in multiple monitoring wells for several years."
Widawasky's letter also alleged that one failure in Ditch 6 suggests that "it should not be allowed to continue ... without at least an opportunity for public comment."
Kampmeyer urged residents attending the supervisor's meeting to contact county, state and federal representatives.
"As a community, we really need to rise and say we're done with this," she said.