MAC/20: Mines and Communities

US update

Published by MAC on 2007-08-30


US update

30th August 2007

In (hopefully) one of the last attempts by the Bush regime to defend indefensible practices by the US minerals industry, the adminstration plans to legalise the devastating practice of "mountaintop" removal - thus exempting coal mining companies from a 24-year old environmental protection Act.

In contrast, the Democrat-led Congress is expecting to pass stricter laws on health and safety in coal mines which may also apply to other types of mining.

Asarco - among the country's worst-ever polluters - has agreed to settle just over US$23 in claims for historical environmental damages. However, the estimated total amount required is around twenty times as much.

A July accident at Doe Run's St Louis smelter "robbed" the company of 6,500 tonnes of lead. Nonetheless, the company says it will meet the shortfall from its notorious La Oroya smelter in Peru.


"What this Rule Change Amounts to is a Declaration of War Against the Appalachian People": Opponents of Mountaintop Removal Decry Bush's New Mining Rules

Democracy Now

24th August 2007

http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=07/08/24/1321257

The Bush administration is poised to issue regulations today that would legalize and expand the controversial coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal. The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams. We speak with Appalachian activist Vernon Haltom of Coal River Mountain Watch. [includes rush transcript]

The Bush administration is poised to issue regulations today that would legalize and expand the controversial coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal. The technique involves blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams. The regulation was drafted by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. If enacted, coal operators would be exempt from a 1983 law that prohibits surface coal mining activities from disturbing areas within 100 feet of streams.

Environmental activists say the rule was ignored for years and has already caused two thousand miles of streams to be permanently polluted. They warn that the rule change will only accelerate the pillage of vast tracts of land in central Appalachia and hasten the annihilation of perennial streams. Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder called the proposed rule "a disgrace."

RUSH TRANSCRIPT

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Bush administration is poised to issue regulations today that would legalize and expand the controversial mining practice known as mountaintop removal. The techniques involve blasting off the tops of mountains and dumping the rubble into valleys and streams.

The regulation was drafted by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. If enacted, coal operators would be exempt from a 1983 law that prohibits surface coal mining activities from disturbing areas within 100 feet of streams.

Environmental activists say the rule was ignored for years and has already caused 2,000 miles of streams to be permanently polluted. They warn that the rule change will only accelerate the pillage of vast tracts of land in central Appalachia and hasten the annihilation of perennial streams. Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder called the proposed rule a "disgrace."

AMY GOODMAN: We're now joined on the phone from West Virginia by Vernon Haltom. He's the co-director of Coal River Mountain Watch, which is an Appalachian grassroots group fighting for social and environmental justice for people living near mountaintop removal sites. Vernon, we welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you talk about what is being proposed today, these regulations by the Bush administration?

VERNON HALTOM: Basically, what the rule change would do would be to make legal what has been illegal for twenty years. The rule change uses terms like "avoid" and " practicable" and "minimize" and "be no larger than needed." Basically, what the -- you know, what the rule essentially does is remove any protections to the streams. It pretty much explicitly allows valley fills. And these valley fills are not just, you know, tiny little piles of rubble. These are sometimes miles long. You know, when you talk about thousands of miles of streams being polluted, well, burying the streams is a very extreme form of pollution.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if these laws have been in place now for more than twenty years, why have so many streams continued to be polluted? About 1,200 miles of streams since 1992 alone in Appalachia?

VERNON HALTOM: Yeah. Of those 1,200 miles, 700 miles have been just buried. What happens is the permitting agencies grant variances, and they grant variances just pretty much willy-nilly. All the coal operator has to do is request a variance, and they're granted pretty easily. Unfortunately, you know, this rule change would remove even that requirement.

And what we've been wanting, what we've been wanting for years, is that the existing rule be enforced. A couple of years ago, in 2005, when we had hearings and the Office of Surface Mining asked us what -- you know, what we wanted to see in the moving forward of this rule and what we'd like them to examine, we asked them, "We don't want you to waste taxpayers' money doing another environmental impact study. We know the environmental impact. It's devastating. Enforce the existing rule." But they've ignored that.

AMY GOODMAN: Vernon Haltom, can you explain what mountaintop removal is? Explain exactly how it works.

VERNON HALTOM: OK. It's a pretty easy process. First they remove all the vegetation, all the forest, so they clear cut thousands of acres of trees and usually burn or bury the timber. Then they use explosives to blow up chunks of the mountain, a chunk at time. Mostly what they use is ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, the same mix that Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City. And this is -- you know, that's a big portion of our fight, because the quantities of explosive used are devastating to communities.

According to the US Geological Survey's explosives yearbook, from 2000 -- in 2005 in West Virginia alone, 474,000 metric tons of explosives were used. And that seems like a big number, but to put it in more tangible terms, that's the explosive force of twenty-seven Hiroshima-style atomic bombs. The mainstream media won't report that, but no region can withstand that kind of bombing year after year after year.

And so, you've blown up chunks of the mountain, cracked and destroyed the waters -- you know, the aquifers in the mountain, and then you dump the rubble into streams and valleys. And that's -- and if you think of a mountain as being like a layer cake with the coal as the icing in between the layers, they do that, and they throw away the cake, get the icing, throw away the cake, and get the icing, until it's all gone.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the impact on the communities surrounding these mountains? And what's been the social cost of this kind of mining?

VERNON HALTOM: Oh, the social costs are that this area of Appalachia is being depopulated. I mean, we're treated as a third world resource colony.

One of the, you know, extreme problems resulting from this is the flooding. When you remove thousands and thousands of acres of trees and remove the topsoil and root systems and natural contours of the mountain, you have extreme runoff. Federal studies have shown that the runoff is increased, and in practical terms what that amounts to is flooding in these communities. In 1997 and in year 2001, some of these communities were horribly flooded: homes were destroyed, people were killed. So, you know, that's a horrible social cost to pay for someone else's profits.

You know, we hear about coal being cheap. Well, coal is not cheap when you consider all the externalized costs that are borne by these communities. It's really -- it is unbearable. And so what you have, you have depopulation, you have decreased jobs. Mountaintop removal requires fewer miners, and therefore fewer jobs.

AMY GOODMAN: Vernon Haltom, how does this tie into -- these regulations that are being released today on coal mining, mountaintop removal -- how do they relate to what we're seeing in Salt Lake City, the six miners who appear to have been lost, never have been found?

VERNON HALTOM: Well, what we're seeing is the coal industry is going to use this as -- to use those deaths to try to justify more mountaintop removal. And I believe I've seen at least one editorial that mountaintop removal is safer, so you'd never have to worry about someone being buried in it. And, you know, from '99 through 2003 or 2004, the, you know, most fatalities occurred on the surface, so mountaintop removal is not safer, when underground mining safety regulations are enforced and complied with. And it's certainly not safer for the communities. I mean, the communities around here are paying the price for this. And, you know, when the industry has some people die in an underground mine that's had several safety violations, they say that we have to do mountaintop removal because it's safer. That's simply not the case. So that's how it's tying in. The industry is going to use those deaths as a public relations gimmick to promote mountaintop removal.

They're also saying it's for energy security. There's nothing secure about having this warfare going on in your homeland, because what this rule change amounts to is a declaration of war against the Appalachian people. It is -- you know, I don't want to candy-coat anything. This is a very, very serious situation. And we're tired of one industry that really employs a small fraction, actually, of West Virginians and Appalachians dominating both our politics and our lives.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And if there's so much opposition from the local communities, why have the political -- what's been the role of the political leadership in West Virginia and other Appalachian -- other states where the Appalachians are located?

VERNON HALTOM: The political leadership in Appalachia is owned and operated by the coal industry. I'll just say that straight up. In West Virginia, very, very few of our legislators are willing to take a stand, because the industry has so much money and they put so much into political campaigns and propaganda.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you name the companies that benefit?

VERNON HALTOM: Companies that benefit, you have Massey Energy, you have Arch Coal. Most of these companies, or at least a large number of them, are headquartered outside the state. The companies benefit, the politicians benefit, and the people suffer.

AMY GOODMAN: We're going to leave it there, but I want to thank you for being with us. We'll continue to follow this story. Vernon Haltom is co-director of the Coal River Mountain Watch, an Appalachian grassroots organization, as the Bush administration issues today regulations that will expand the coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal.

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New mine safety bills cause some concern

Metal Bulletin, Washington

30th August 2007

A pair of mine safety bills are causing the steel industry some concern.

While primarily aimed at coal mining operations, the industry is concerned the bills could have a negative impact on companies operating iron ore mines. Both bills are expected to be taken up by Congress when it returns from summer recess in September.

"Debates are raging on which one's worse," one steel industry lobbyist said. "It's a tough call." The main complaints are that the bills are too onerous, are aimed at coal mines but would apply to much safer iron ore and other mining industries, and are basically unnecessary.

The first bill, called the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-Miner), is intended to speed up the implementation of provisions in an already-passed 2006 bill. Among other things, the S-Miner would speed up the date by which mine operators have to install improved underground communication systems and refuge chambers, require the installation of underground gas and smoke monitoring systems, and require miners to be equipped with new personal dust monitors.

Another bill, the Miner Health Enhancement Act, requires the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to adopt the Occupational Safety and Health Administration asbestos standard, utilize the hazard communication standard used under former President Clinton's administration and require MSHA to update the list of permissible exposure limits in the air contaminants standard to reflect the recommended exposure limits established by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Rep. George Miller (D., Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the bills were necessary to "clean up years of neglect and backsliding by this administration and an industry that had become, by its own admission, overly complacent."

The National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association called the S-Miner Act premature. "Imposing another layer of regulation on an industry that already is highly regulated and has shown continued safety improvements at this time would create confusion and threaten further progress," Jennifer Joy Wilson, president and chief executive officer of the association, said in a statement.

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Asarco out $27.3 mil to settle Colo. suit

Max Jarman, The Arizona Republic

30th August 2009

Tucson-based Asarco LLC said Wednesday that it will pay $27.3 million to settle more than $200 million worth of environmental claims stemming from the company's century-old mining operations in Leadville, Colo.

The settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Colorado and other parties has been approved by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Corpus Christi, Texas, where Asarco's two-year-old Chapter 11 bankruptcy case is being heard.

Asarco has about 3,000 Arizona employees and the state's third-largest mine owner, behind Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. and Southern Copper Corp. The company has three operating mines and a smelter in Arizona that are producing huge profits because of prolonged high copper prices. The profits are the basis for cash to be used to settle the claims.

The agreement sets the stage for the eventual settlement of as much as $11 billion worth of environmental claims that have been filed against the Arizona copper producer.

The claims, including $2.6 billion from employees of a former asbestos plant, contributed to the company's decision to seek Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Settlement of the claims is necessary for the company to emerge from bankruptcy, and a number of companies have expressed interest in buying Asarco when that happens.

The Texas court will hold hearings through November to validate and attempt to settle the claims.

The Leadville case involves a Superfund site known as California Gulch, where gold, silver, lead and copper were mined from the early 1860s until 1999. Asarco operated a smelter in the area from 1899 to 1960.

Under the settlement approved Tuesday, Asarco won't oppose $19.3 million in claims that the U.S. and Colorado governments will file in the bankruptcy case. The company will pay $2 million in cash to its joint-venture partner in its Colorado mining operations. That partner, Resurrection Mining Co., also will get an uncontested $6 million claim in Asarco's bankruptcy case.

Although Asarco is nominally owned by Mexico City's Grupo Mexico SA, it is being operated by a committee of its creditors. The operating group recently sued 13 executives of its Mexican parent, accusing them of mismanaging the company and improperly stripping away its valuable assets before placing it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The suit says Grupo primarily was interested in Asarco's valuable 54.2 percent stake in Southern Peru Copper Corp., now Southern Copper Corp. Once it was stripped away, Grupo isolated billions of dollars of environmental liabilities in Asarco and ran it into the ground, the suit alleges. The creditors earlier this year sued to recover the stock in Southern Copper, which they allege was sold for hundreds of millions of dollars below its value.


Doe Run lead production loss put at 6,500 tons

Metal Bulletin, New York

31st August 2007

Doe Run Co., St. Louis, has lost 6,500 tons of lead output since an accident July 13 knocked out one furnace for several weeks and subsequent problems forced it to idle both furnaces at its Herculaneum, Mo., plant Aug. 22.

The company restarted one of the furnaces Tuesday but has not provided an estimate of when the second furnace will resume production. The nation's only primary lead producer has originally expected to have both furnaces back in operation by the end of August.

Doe Run said it is making efforts to cover its customers' needs from other sources.

"We're working with them directly to meet their needs," Jim Grubbs, the company's vice president of sales and marketing, said. "A significant part of the shortfall is being met by providing product from sister operations in Peru and from other sources."

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