MAC: Mines and Communities

US pro-coal companies turn to even dirtier tactics

Published by MAC on 2012-07-17
Source: New York Times, Mother Jones,

US coal mining shares have plummeted of late, as the price of natural gas tumbled to the lowest in a decade. See: USA: The biggest climate victory you never heard of

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed new rules to drastically curtail the construction of new coal-fired power plants. See: Green groups sue US EPA over coal ash pollution

And Greenpeace has filed a lawsuit against the EPA, aimed at forcing the Obama administration to finalise new regulations for the containment and disposal of power plant coal/fly ash. See: US: Further legislation will curb dependence on coal

These initiatives appear to have spurred supporters of the coal industry into propagating even more false information than earlier. See also: US coal lobby goes naked into the conference chamber

Appalachia diseased

According to a New York Times' contributor, "mountain top removal"  companies in Appalachia have been "buy[ing] off individual communities and leaders, exchanging meager payouts for silence or even support against the more adamant activists."

Formerly, says author Jason Ward, the "presence of the United Mine Workers of America helped stymie such tactics".

But now, "with a mere 25 percent of miners belonging to the union, the allegiance of miners has largely shifted to the coal companies."

According to a recent study, diagnosed cases of black lung disease (pneumoconiosis) among US mineworkers has doubled in the past decade. The detection rate of advanced stages of the disease has also quadrupled since the 1980s in central Appalachia.

The report says that the disease was almost eradicated following legislation introduced in 1969.

However, over the past 40 years, there has been "systemic exploitation of coal dust measurement by mining companies, and weak enforcement by regulators."

Appalachia Turns on Itself

By Jason Howard, Op Ed Contributor

New York Times

8 July 2012

ANYONE traveling on Interstate 77 just north of Charleston, W.Va., can't miss the billboard perched high above the traffic, proclaiming "Obama's No Jobs Zone," a reference to increased regulations on the coal industry and mountaintop removal mining.

Like countless other bits of pro-coal propaganda that have sprouted over the last few years across Appalachia, the sign is designed to inflame tensions - and by all counts, it's working.

Appalachia is engaged in a civil war of sorts over coal, with miners and their families pitted against environmental activists. The central issue is mountaintop removal, a radical form of strip mining that has left over 2,000 miles of streams buried and over 500 mountains destroyed.

According to several recent studies, people living near surface mining sites have a 50 percent greater risk of fatal cancer and a 42 percent greater risk of birth defects than the general population.

Despite the evidence, the coal industry and its allies in Washington have persuaded the majority of their constituents to ignore such environmental consequences, recasting mountaintop removal as an economic boon for the region, a powerful job creator in a time of national employment distress.

Of course, since mountaintop removal is heavily mechanized, the coal industry is the real job killer - and, until recently, miners would have been suspicious of any claim to the contrary. For decades the companies had fought the miners' efforts to unionize, resulting in violent strikes.

After finally recognizing the union, King Coal opposed its demands for things like a living wage, health insurance, safety precautions and measures to curb the alarming rates of black lung disease. The strategy was simple: the companies would buy off individual communities and leaders, exchanging meager payouts for silence or even support against the more adamant activists.

The presence of the United Mine Workers of America helped stymie such tactics. But now, with a mere 25 percent of miners belonging to the union, the allegiance of miners has largely shifted to the coal companies.

The old divide-and-conquer strategy is back. This time, it's a matter of pitting workers against their erstwhile allies in Washington: increased environmental regulations - a hallmark of the Obama Environmental Protection Agency following eight years of lax guidelines and enforcement under President George W. Bush - are branded as a war on coal miners.

At the same time, dissent against King Coal is increasingly greeted with open hostility and harassment.

Larry Gibson, who has been fighting for years to save his ancestral land and family cemetery from being mined, has faced vandalism and arson; two of his dogs were killed, and he says someone tried to run him off the road. Bullet holes are visible on the side of his trailer, the handiwork, he says, of angry miners misled into believing that he was the enemy.

Judy Bonds, an activist who died last year, was physically attacked by a miner's wife during a 2009 rally against a leaking three-billion-gallon sludge pond perched just 400 feet above an elementary school. An outspoken grandmother, Ms. Bonds faced repeated death threats and intimidation, inspiring her daughter to give her a stun gun for Christmas.

In 2010, mountaintop removal supporters in Kentucky erected a giant poster disparaging the actress Ashley Judd, an Appalachia native and activist, following a speech critical of the practice. The sign featured a photo of a semi-nude Ms. Judd and read: "Ashley makes a living removing her top. Why can't coal miners?"

Perhaps the most disturbing story of anti-activist harassment is that of Maria Gunnoe. A native of Boone County, W.Va., Ms. Gunnoe once found her photograph on unofficial "wanted" posters plastered around her hometown. In another incident, last month, while testifying before Congress, Republican staffers accused her of possessing child pornography after she tried to present a photograph of a 5-year-old girl being bathed in contaminated, tea-colored water.

There is no easy resolution to the fraught relationship between the coal industry and the people of Appalachia, many of whom rely on it for jobs even as it poisons their region. But it is imperative that the industry's leaders and their elected allies lay down their propaganda and engage in an honest, civil dialogue about the issue. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

Jason Howard is a co-author of "Something's Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal."

"Jet Li" Loves Coal Ash: A Case of Astroturfing?

A pro-coal-ash petition has a lot of suspicious names on it.

By Kate Sheppard

Mother Jones

5 July 2012

Either there are a lot of people of Chinese heritage that love coal ash in Colorado, or something is up with the White House's citizen-led petition page. Add to this the fact that these Chinese Americans have names that would translate as "Small Steamed Bun," "Big Steamed Bun," and "Most Handsome Guy," and things start to look really weird.

Back in September 2011, the group Citizens for Recycling First launched a petition on the White House's "We the People" page, a site designed to allow Americans to flag issues of importance to them for the Obama administration.

If petitions on the page get 5,000 signatures in 30 days, the administration will respond to them. The petition in question deals with the regulation of coal ash - the stuff left behind when you burn coal to generate electricity - and asks the Environmental Protection Agency not to classify the ash as "hazardous waste" that requires special disposal.

The EPA is currently considering a new rule that could affect how the waste, which contains toxic elements like arsenic, mercury, and lead, is handled. But the agency has met backlash from groups aligned with the coal ash industry who believe that the designation will create both extra costs and a stigma for recyclers that use the stuff to make drywall, landfill material, and even bowling balls.

Steamed Bun Older Sister, Come to China Donkey, and Jet Li were just a few of the names included on the petition.

This petition has 5,402 signatures, which earned it a response from the assistant administrator of the EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. But when the group Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) looked at the petition, staffers noted that hundreds of the signatures were in Chinese characters. That seemed weird, so they hired a Mandarin-speaking translator to look it over. He found that many of the Chinese words weren't names at all, but were foods, animals, phrases involving the word "handsome," or solicitations to visit China. That included:

Steamed Bun Older Sister, Steamed Bun Little Sister, Small Steamed Bun, Big Steamed Bun, Big Bear, Big Grey Wolf, Little Duck, Little White Rabbit, Yellow Tiger, Come to China Big, Come to China Cat, Come to China China, Come to China Donkey, Come to China Little Girl, Handsome Six, Handsome Eight, Handsome Good Looking, Handsome Dragon, and the Most Handsome Guy.

There were also names of famous people form Chinese politics, literature, and history, like Lianjie Lithe - real name of Chinese movie star Jet Li - who signed it twice. Many of them indicated that they were from Aurora, Colorado, as did a number of other Chinese names that were written in English. EIP flagged the petition, wondering what was going on here - was the petition spammed, or was someone using the fake names to boost the number of signatures on the petition? "There's either a very large Mandarin-speaking community in Aurora, Colorado, with a passion for coal ash, or it just seems pretty sloppy," said EIP director Eric Schaeffer. (According to the Census Bureau, 4.9 percent of Aurora is of Asian descent though most of them probably aren't named "Big Steamed Bun.")

Citizens for Recycling First denied that there was any malfeasance here, and instead turned the blame on unnamed environmental groups. "I have no idea how the Chinese characters got on the White House website," John Ward, the group's chairman, told Mother Jones on Monday. He referred my questions to the White House, since it's their site that hosts the petition. "For all I know, they may have been put there by an environmental group seeking to embarrass us."

"If somebody found a way to hack a bunch of names and still be able to get through that verification process with the White House, I don't know how to do that," he continued. "If we were the ones trying to cheat, why would we do something so obvious as using Chinese characters? I don't even know Chinese characters."

The White House didn't respond to several requests for comment about what might have happened with the petition, and whether anyone was looking into it. But it seems like spamming the site it is at least moderately difficult. You have to create an account before you can sign a petition, which requires a valid zip code and email address, as well as the ability to type out the "captcha" phrase and prove you're not a robot. Then you have to verify your account by clicking on a link in an email sent from the site, and then enter the password contained in that email on the site.

This whole affair would seem rather silly, but the regulation of coal ash is a major issue for the EPA that's been caught up in interagency dispute for nearly three years. In October 2009, the EPA proposed a rule that would have reclassified coal ash as hazardous waste.

The companies that recycle coal ash balked, arguing that this classification would make their products less appealing. The rule was sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which reviews agency rules, and when it emerged there were actually two proposals - one that would classify it as a hazardous waste, and one that wouldn't. I wrote about that whole affair back in December 2010, and nothing has changed; since then there's still no new rule for dealing with coal ash. So the effort to sway those rules is still underway.

And Citizens for Recycling First isn't just some lay group of Americans that want to protect their right to drywall made from coal ash. Ward is a consultant to the coal industry, as well as the government relations committee chairman of the American Coal Ash Association, the lobbying group that represents the coal ash industry. Its membership is made up of both major coal-burners like Southern Company and American Electric Power, and companies that turn the ash into products. Until recently, the ACAA was based in Aurora, Colorado, which many of these Chinese-speaking supporters claimed as their hometown. (It is now based in Farmington Hills, Michigan.)

So what's going on here? EIP's Schaeffer thinks the petition is an industry-backed attempt to astroturf support for weaker rules from the EPA. "I don't doubt there are genuine people with an interest in recycling coal ash on the petition," he says. "But it shows what happens when these front groups. They get away with stuff because they put the right sounding name on their masthead, they drum up what appear to be petitions."

Black lung disease returns to coal mines

By Cecilia Jamasmie

9 July 2012

Black lung disease, the common name for underground coal worker's pneumoconiosis, has now been linked to workers who take part in surface coal mining, according to an investigation by NPR News and the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), with additional reporting by the Charleston Gazette.

The illness is the direct consequence of inhaling coal dust, which progressively builds up in the lungs until it can't be removed by the body. This leads to inflammation, fibrosis and, in the worse cases death.

The study shows that diagnosed cases in the last decade have doubled, while the detection of advanced stages of the disease has quadrupled since the 1980s in central Appalachia, which includes the states of Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia.

NPR and CPI report that increased regulation - and near eradication of the disease - following a 1969 law gave way to systemic exploitation of coal dust measurement by mining companies, and weak enforcement by regulators.

Federal data obtained by NPR and CPI indicates that thousands of coal miners were exposed to excessive levels of mine dust despite the strict limits established 40 years ago.

A lawyer quoted by The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., hinted the high percentage of black lung tied to Appalachian surface mines might be linked to the shortage of unionized mines in the region. "Non-union miners are job-scared," the professional told The Courier. "[Black Lung Disease] is a product of non-union workplaces. It's sad, really."

The three states with the most cases of black lung disease, also pay the most in Black-lung claims. Based on data published by the U.S. Department of Labour, West Virginia paid $46 million in black lung claims in 2011; Kentucky, $34 million and Virginia, $23 million.

Share prices for Alpha, Arch & Peabody going down

By Matt Daily and Caroline Humer


9 July 2012

Patriot Coal Corp filed for bankruptcy on Monday, the first U.S. coal producer to seek court protection since prices began to plummet as electricity producers turned to cheaper natural gas.

The company and nearly 100 affiliates were part of the Chapter 11 filing in the U.S. bankruptcy court in Manhattan. Patriot said it had $3.57 billion of assets and $3.07 billion of debts, and has arranged for $802 million of financing to help it continue mining and shipments during the reorganization.

Coal producers' shares have plummeted as natural gas prices tumbled to the lowest in a decade this year, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules that would make it nearly impossible to build coal-fired power plants.

Patriot said these factors, weaker economies worldwide and the cancellation of customer contracts led to reduced liquidity and financial flexibility.

While still the largest single fuel for electricity, coal's share fell to 36 percent in this year's first quarter from 45 percent a year earlier, according to the Energy Information Administration.

"The coal industry is undergoing a major transformation and Patriot's existing capital structure prevents it from making the necessary adjustments to achieve long-term success," Chairman and Chief Executive Irl Engelhardt said in a statement.

Patriot had also been hurt by its admission in May that a key customer might default on a sales contract, forcing the St. Louis-based company to seek a new loan package.

Shares Plunge, Drag Down Rivals

Shares in Patriot slid 72.1 percent on Monday, closing down $1.58 at 61 cents, after Bloomberg News reported that a bankruptcy filing was imminent.

Patriot shares had traded as high as $24.99 last July. Its 8.25 percent notes maturing in 2018 closed down 8.5 cents on the dollar at 34.5 cents, yielding 35.7 percent, according to the bond price reporting service Trace.

The selloff drove down shares of rivals Alpha Natural Resources Inc, Arch Coal Inc and Peabody Energy Corp, which fell a respective 7.5 percent and 6.7 percent and 6.2 percent.

Spun off from Peabody in 2007, Patriot has 12 active mining complexes in Appalachia and the Illinois Basin, and controls about 1.9 billion tons of proven and probable coal reserves.

Patriot said Citigroup Inc, Barclays Plc and Bank of America Corp's Merrill Lynch unit will provide bankruptcy filing.

In May, Patriot said it had hired Blackstone Group LP to work on a new financing package. It also installed Engelhardt as chief executive, replacing Richard Whiting. Patriot hired Davis Polk & Wardwell as its law firm.

The case is In re: Patriot Coal Corp, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York, No. 12-12900.

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