MAC: Mines and Communities

US update

Published by MAC on 2007-06-15

US update

15th June 2007

Atempts in Congress last week to secure decisions on a package of energy bills hit the rocks, as Republicans staged a last-ditch stand against Democrat proposals to impose a mandatory 15% contribution to power generation from "renewable" sources.

In yet another judicial decision, the extremely damaging practice of "mountaintop removal" by coal companies has been found to contravene the Clean Water Act.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set aside legislation which might have exposed those voluntarily cleaning-up abandoned mine sites to financial penalties, while at the same time not precluding legal action against the companies responsible (if they can ever be brought to court.)

The global mining industry wouldn't survive for long without the services of US-based Caterpillar, the world's biggest producer of earth moving equipment and ancillary services. Nor of course, would Caterpillar crawl for long without dependence on the minerals industry.

Over the past few years, Caterpillar (colloquially kown as "Cat") has been the target of vehement protests for allowing its bulldozers to be used to demolish homes in Israeli-occupied Palestine.

At this year's AGM, however, it also came under fire from coal mining companies and other utilities, for joining a corporate initiative to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

[for our previous story on this see:].

Energy, Smelly Farms and Spotted Owls

By J.R. Pegg


15th June 2007

A Congressional debate over energy took center stage in Washington this week, revealing deep partisan differences over the nation's energy future as well as splits within the Democratic majority on climate change and fuel economy. The Bush administration pushed plans to assess the dangers of some toxic chemicals, to measure factory farm air pollution, and to reduce protected habitat for the spotted owl, while federal courts rebuked the White House for a trio of environmental policies.

Debating Energy

Senate Democrats had hoped to make serious progress this week on a broad package of energy bills, but found themselves stymied by Republicans over a proposal to force electric utilities to generate 15 percent of their power from wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy sources by 2020.)

The provision drew the ire of Republican senators from the Southeast, who argued that their states do not have the renewable resources to meet the standard and will have to pay to comply.

A Republican alternative to allow nuclear and hydroelectric power to count toward the standard was killed by Democrats, but the dispute left the issue in limbo and delayed further action until at least Tuesday.

The hard work on the bill has only just begin. Republicans are expected to push for inclusion of language to boost domestic oil and natural gas production and a debate looms over a $14 billion tax package that will be added to the bill next week. The tax provisions boost support for renwables, paying for the subsidies largely by eliminating oil industry tax breaks.

Democrats are bracing for a fight over fuel economy. The energy bill currently raises standards for cars and trucks to 35 miles per gallon, mpg, by 2020, with four percent annual increases from 2021 to 2030.

Their allies in Congress, notably Michigan's Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow, have authored an alternative plan that lowers the overall fuel economy increase. It would set the mandated increase at 36 mpg standard for cars and 30 mpg for trucks by 2025 and remove the subsequent increases. It also calls on federal officials to take into account when implementing the new standards.

President George W. Bush already has issued a veto threat because of the fuel economy increase and over language to stiffen penalties for oil companies involved in price gouging.

On the other side of the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, reiterated her pledge to bring up a package of energy bills after the July 4 recess. But House Democrats disagree over climate change, particularly how federal and state governments should regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.

Language in a draft bill before the House Energy and Commerce Committee would block California from implementing its own greenhouse gas limits for automobiles and would also prohibit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, from approving state climate regulations.

Committee chair John Dingell of Michigan contends the bill is needed to prevent a patchwork of confusing climate regulations by state and federal agencies, but Pelosi says she will block the measure from consideration by the full House unless the controversial language is removed.

Courts Reject Bush Policies

Federal courts have frequently rejected the Bush administration's environmental policies and three decisions issued this week continued that trend.

On Monday, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the administration in a Superfund case, deciding that companies that voluntarily clean up hazardous waste sites can sue the federal government and other potentially responsible parties to recover remediation costs.

Two other decisions were further rebukes of controversial policies involving the protection of wild salmon and the regulation of a form of strip mining used by coal companies in Appalachia.

The salmon decision, issued by a district court judge in Seattle, rejected the Bush administration's 2004 decision to include hatchery-raised salmon in endangered species assessments. (Hatchery Salmon Don't Count as Wild

"It is clear that hatchery fish have important differences from wild fish," U.S. District Judge John Coughenour said in his ruling.

And a federal judge in West Virginia issued yet another rebuke to the administration's support for a controversial form of strip mining.

The practice - labeled mountaintop removal mining by environmentalists - is at best an inelegant, if efficient, way to mine for coal. The tops of mountains are literally blown off, allowing for easy access to coal deposits.

The technique creates massive amounts of debris and waste rubbish that coal companies bulldoze into nearby valleys and streambeds - a practice that has polluted and destroyed hundreds of miles of Appalachian waterways and thousands of acres of forests.

The decision issued this week said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lacks the authority to allow this kind of mining without Clean Water Act permits. It is the latest in a series of similar decisions rejecting the administration's position that such permits are not needed. Critics of the practice contend it would be prohibited if the Army Corps complied with the Clean Water Act.

Chemicals, Farm Smells, and Owls

The EPA this week released its draft list of 73 chemicals it plans to further evaluate for their potential to disrupt the endocrine system - a decade after the agency was required to do so.

Congress ordered the EPA to compile the list in 1996 with the passage of the 1996 Food Quality Protection Act. Inaction by EPA prompted the Natural Resources Defense Council to file suit in 1999 to force the agency to publish the list.

The chemicals in question are believed to impact the growth and development, as well as hormonal and thyroid functions. Testing on the chemicals will not begin until at least next year, EPA officials said.

The EPA also announced the start of a voluntary program to study air emissions from massive poultry, dairy and hog farms - known as concentrated animal feeding operations, CAFOs. The 30 month, $14.6 million study will measure levels of hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, ammonia, nitrous oxide, volatile organic compounds and other gases from livestock facilities.

The research will be conducted at 24 sites in nine states. Participants have been granted immunity from past and present Superfund, Clean Air Act, and Community Right to Know Act violations, as well as violations that may occur while the EPA is finalizing regulations over the next several years.

The program has been criticized by environmentalists, who argue there is ample data for the EPA to regulate air emissions from CAFOs under both the Clean Air Act and the Superfund law.

EPA also released proposals for cleaning up New Jersey's Passaic River, one of the nation's most polluted waterways. The river is laden with toxic chemicals and metals, as well as sewage and urban runoff.

The agency suggested either dredging or capping toxic sediment in the river. The proposed solutions would cost between $1.5 billion to $2.3 billion. The EPA plans to make a decision by October.

The proposals come in the wake of a report by the National Academy of Sciences that found little evidence that dredging projects carried out by the agency are successful. The study said EPA needed much better monitoring of such projects and should consider both the short-term and long-term effects of dredging.

It was largely a quiet week for the Interior Department - bar the release of a controversial plan to cut 1.5 million acres of protected habitat for the northern spotted owl. (See Spotted Owl Old Growth Habitat Protection Cut Back)

The plan is likely to re-ignite the bitter dispute over the threatened species as it could reopen large swaths of old growth Northwest forests to logging.

Environmentalists argue the plan is intended to do just that, noting that big chunks of the removed habitat are on federal land already being considered for renewed timber production. A final decision on the owl plan is due by June 2008.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.

Good Samaritans Can Clean Orphan Mines Without Liability


11th June 2007

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is setting aside legal roadblocks that stop Good Samaritan volunteers from cleaning up orphaned hardrock mine sites. The runoff from these abandoned mines is responsible for degrading water quality throughout the western United States.

"Through EPA's administrative action, we are reducing the threat of litigation from voluntary hardrock mine cleanups and allowing America's Good Samaritans to finally get their shovels into the dirt," said U.S. EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson.

The agency is issuing the "Interim Guiding Principles for Good Samaritan Projects at Orphan Mine Sites," a set of policies and model tools, so that EPA and volunteer parties will be able to enter into Good Samaritan settlement agreements.

There are an estimated 500,000 orphan mines in the United States, most of which are former hardrock mines located in the West.

Thousands of watersheds and stream miles are impacted by drainage and runoff from these mines, one of the largest sources of water pollution in the region.

In many cases, the parties responsible for the pollution from orphan mine sites no longer exist or are not financially viable.

There are nonprofit organizations, state and local governments that are willing to clean up these abandoned sites although they are not responsible for the pollution. But potential Good Samaritans worry that they may be held liable under the Clean Water Act and CERCLA, which have prevented many cleanup projects from moving forward.

These agreements provide key legal protections to Good Samaritans as non-liable parties including a federal covenant not to sue under the Superfund law, also known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, CERCLA, and will provide protection from third-party contribution suits.

The EPA has also issued a model "comfort letter" intended for Good Samaritan parties.

The administrative tools preserve the idea under CERCLA that responsible parties should pay for cleanup. These tools do not, nor are they intended to, absolve responsible parties of their liability under existing federal law for any environmental pollution.

At many orphan mine sites and processing areas, disturbed rock and waste piles contain high levels of sulfides and heavy metals. Exposed to air and water, these piles undergo physical and chemical reactions that create acid drainage. As this drainage runs through mineral-rich rock, it can pick up other metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, mercury and zinc.

When this runoff enters local streams and rivers, it can degrade water quality and damage or destroy insect, plant and animal life, so the EPA is willing to assure the Good Samaritans that they will not be held liable for this damage.

Cleanup projects using the model Good Samaritan Settlement Agreement will require evidence of the Good Samaritan's financial responsibility to conduct the cleanup - either up-front financial assurances, or a description of financial assurances that will be obtained after the agreement is signed, but prior to the start of any work - subject to EPA approval.

The EPA says these voluntary Good Samaritan cleanups will most likely not solve all of the problems at the abandoned mines but the agency wants to encourage making incremental improvements that benefit the ecosystems impacted by these mines.

Illinois Clean Coal Power Plant Wins First Permit


11th June 2007

Illinois has issued the nation's first permit for a commercial clean coal generating plant. The air pollution limits set by this permit are much lower than those for conventional coal plants because high-sulfur Illinois coal will be turned into a synthetic gas before it is burned.

The air permit authorizes Christian County Generation to build the $2 billion coal gasification plant known as the Taylorville Energy Center, TEC.

"The Taylorville Energy Center will turn coal into a gas that can be more cleanly burned to generate power, which helps protect public and the environment," said Illinois EPA Director Doug Scott, announcing the new permit June 5.

TEC is a proposed 630 megawatt facility that would be among the world's most environmentally friendly coal plants.

"Illinois has among the largest reserves of coal in the world and being able to safely use this domestic energy source is a critical part of my energy plan," said Governor Rod Blagojevich.

"The Taylorville Energy Center, using cutting edge clean-coal gasification technology, is a great example of how we can grow our economy and create good paying jobs while protecting our environment," he said.

"The air we all breathe will be cleaner because gasification plants remove pollutants and impurities prior to combustion, resulting in significantly lower mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions than conventional coal plants," Scott said.

The project, near the small central Illinois city of Taylorville, still requires legislation. State Representative Gary Hannig, a Taylorville Democrat, has sponsored the Clean Coal Program Law, which would let developers enter into long-term, regulated cost-based contracts with large Illinois electric utilities.

If that bill passes during this session, construction on the plant could begin later this year, and could be operational soon as 2012, officials say.

Unlike conventional coal-fired power plants, IGCC plants have the future potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing carbon dioxide that can be permanently stored underground in mature oil fields or deep saline aquifers.

In addition to vast coal reserves, Illinois' geology is well-suited for carbon sequestration, making Illinois an ideal place to build coal gasification plants.

"This is a landmark day for the State of Illinois and the Taylorville Energy Center. This permit sets the standard by which other IGCC power plants will be judged," said Greg Kunkel, vice president of independent power producer Tenaska, the managing partner of Christian County Generation.

The plant would create 1,500 construction jobs, 120 permanent jobs at the plant and 160 new mining jobs.

The Regional Development Institute at Northern Illinois University says that, once operational, the plant would add $356 million annually to the area's economy, and create nearly 800 additional indirect jobs in central Illinois.

John Thompson, director of the Coal Transition Project for the Clean Air Task Force, said, "If this plant breaks ground, people from around the world will come to Illinois to learn how we can solve some of the most significant global environmental problems facing the 21st century."

US Senate Set to Act on Renewable Utility Plan

PlanetArk US

15th June 2007

WASHINGTON - The fate of a proposal in the US Senate to require US utilities to get 15 percent of electricity supply from renewable sources by 2020 could come down to which way the wind blows - literally.

The proposal by New Mexico Democrat Jeff Bingaman has drawn opposition from lawmakers from states that don't have the prevailing wind currents to justify building giant wind turbines, which will be key for utilities to meet the target.

Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, wants to add a "renewable portfolio standard" to pending energy legislation that would require utilities to produce electricity from sources like wind, solar or geothermal, or pay a penalty.

Environmentalists, officials from the wind and solar industries, and lawmakers from windy states in the Great Plains say the bill will spur cleaner power supply and reduce greenhouse gases attributed to global warming.

Lawmakers from states with low wind energy potential - notably the Southeast and Midwest - are up in arms, and say Bingaman's plan could cost state consumers billions of dollars in higher electricity prices.

"You can't impose the same wind requirement on states that have no wind," said Sen. Pete Domenici, New Mexico Republican. Even though his state's utilities could benefit from the plan, he has offered a competing amendment that would allow electricity from nuclear power plants, new hydropower dams and fuel cells to count toward the 20 percent requirement.

The Senate could vote on the measures as early as Thursday. Domenici's alternative plan would allow states to opt out of the requirement, while Bingaman's plan would allow the Energy Department to waive the requirements if compliance is "beyond the reasonable control of the utility."

Proponents say the bill will cut emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases - which scientists say are causing the Earth's temperatures to rise dangerously -- by 400 million metric tons, the equivalent of taking 71 million automobiles off the road.

"It's cheap, it's clean, it's a solution to the climate change issue," said Sen. Jon Tester, Democrat from Montana, which is among over 20 US states that have enacted their own renewable requirements for their incumbent utilities.

Opponents of the bill said 16 mostly Southeast states could see US$175 billion in extra costs by 2030, based on a study done by Global Energy Decisions on behalf of the Edison Electric Institute, which lobbies for big US utilities.

"This is a massive wealth transfer" from the states to the federal government, which would collect fees from utilities and spend them on clean-energy research, said Sen. George Voinovich, Ohio Republican.

The federal Energy Information Administration said costs for electricity and natural gas will be US$18 billion higher than normal. Spending on electricity would rise by less than 1 percent if the plan is enacted, the EIA said.

Atlanta-based Southern Co., which provides power for more than 4 million customers in four Southeast states, said the plan could cost it an extra US$3.8 billion (in 2007 dollars) by 2030.

Southern could build about 900 megawatts worth of renewable capacity that turns biomass and methane from landfills into electricity, far short of the 6,000 megawatts of capacity needed to comply with the rules, a company spokesman said.

Story by Chris Baltimore


Protesters force Caterpillar to cut annual meeting short


14th June 2007

ST. CHARLES, Illinois - A handful of protesters waving Palestinian flags and chanting "Take responsibility and do the right thing" on Wednesday disrupted the annual meeting of Caterpillar Inc., prompting the company to adjourn 30 minutes early.

The disruption came after the Peoria, Illinois-based heavy construction and mining equipment manufacturer had reaffirmed its full-year sales and earnings outlook and voted on all shareholder proposals tabled for the meeting. The protesters, who oppose Caterpillar's sale of tractors that are used by the Israeli Army to demolish the homes of Palestinian civilians, were quickly hustled out of the remote country club conference centre 65 kilometres west of Chicago.

Ironically, Caterpillar had moved its annual meeting to the small town of St. Charles from Chicago last year, in part to avoid protests that have marred that event in recent years.

Caterpillar reiterated its forecast that full-year sales should reach between $42 billion US and $44 billion. Earnings per share should range from $5.30 to $5.80.

The company also said in a statement it is on track to meet its 2010 goal of more than $50 billion in sales and revenue, plus annual earnings per share growth in a range of 15 per cent to 20 per cent.

Earlier in the meeting, Caterpillar shareholders rejected two proposals backed by corporate governance reformers that would have separated the roles of chief executive officer and chair and forced directors to win the endorsement of a majority -- rather than a plurality -- of the voting shareholders.

Shareholders and others attending this year's annual meeting had to run a tight series of security checks before gaining admittance to the event, including two security checkpoints and magnetometers.

Protesters at the meeting included those who rallied in memory of Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist who was killed a few years ago by Israeli soldiers driving a Caterpillar bulldozer while she was protesting a home demolition in Rafah, a Palestinian town in the Gaza Strip.

Corrie's parents are suing Caterpillar over their daughter's death in a drawn-out lawsuit.

Protesters decry Caterpillar's support of CO2 limits

13th June 2007

By Bob Tita

(Crain’s) — Dozens of business and public policy groups urged Caterpillar Inc. Wednesday to withdraw its support for proposed limits on carbon dioxide emissions.

Opponents of the plan say U.S. industrial businesses — including some that are Caterpillar suppliers or customers - would face steep expenses that would make them less competitive. "For you to promote carbon caps it's going to increase costs," said Deneen Borelli, a representative of Project 21, conservative think tank for African-American owned businesses, during Cat's annual shareholders meeting in west suburban St. Charles.

Project 21 was one of 60 signers of a letter to Cat CEO James Ownens that chided the company for joining the United States Climate Control Partnership, a coalition of businesses and environmental groups supporting a so-called cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon dioxide emissions.

Companies whose emissions fall below their designated levels would be able to sell emissions credits to companies that did not meet the standards. Advertisement

Smoke-stack manufacturers, like steel companies, mining companies and chemical producers are expected to have the most difficulty complying with the limits, which aim to reduce carbon emissions, also known as greenhouse gas, by 23%.

Others signing on to the letter included former Attorney General Edwin Meese III and the Illinois Policy Institute.

Opponents of the plan predict U.S. coal production would drop by 43% because coal users would likely switch to cleaner-burning fuels rather than invest in emissions reduction systems.

Murray Energy Corp. an Ohio-based coal company, recently notified Cat that it would no longer purchase mining equipment from Cat in protest of Cat's support for cap-and-trade.

Mr. Owens said he was "disappointed that (Murray's) not going to buying our products anymore," but stressed that businesses can no longer simply refuse to go along with emissions reduction strategies.

He said the cap-and-trade system offers a degree of flexibility and cost controls that will help businesses remain competitive.

"We believe that some climate change legislation is likely," he said. "Clean air and less carbon dioxide in the air are going to cost money. We just want to get it done in the most economical way."

Mr. Owens also used the meeting to make pitch for free trade, warning that Cat and other U.S. companies would he harmed if the Democratic-controlled Congress approves restrictive legislation.

"There's a tremendous anti-trade sentiment and anti-global sentiment, which concerns us," he said. "The biggest risk to global prosperity is turning inward. You can't build a wall to the year 2050, you've got to build a bridge."

Middle East peace activists once again renewed their opposition to the continued use of Cat construction equipment by the Israeli military in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

Mr. Owens reiterated Cat's position that it has no control over how its equipment is used, explaining that the U.S. military purchases Cat equipment and distributes it to governments throughout the Middle East as part of an ongoing aid program.

"It's for construction purposes," he said. "We don't do anything to militarize it."

The meeting ended abruptly when peace activists in the audience stood up in unison and began chanting: "take responsibility and do the right thing" as they displayed Palestinian flags.


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