MAC/20: Mines and Communities

US update

Published by MAC on 2007-03-30


US update

30th March 2007

The US Mine Safety and Health Administration has imposed a record fine against Massey Energy, following the eminently avoidable deaths of two miners just over a year ago. The company's reputation is clearly crumbling: just over a week ago, it was ordered by a judge to halt its hugely damaging "mountaintop removal" in four areas.

[see: http://www.minesandcommunities.org/Action/press1412.htm]

More than fifty mineworkers in Minnesota's Iron Range have been diagnosed as suffering from mesothelioma - which is normally associated with exposure to asbestos.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered twenty states to cut their particulates emissions (largely from coal-fired power plants). However, some environmentalists regard the proposal as a sham, since offenders will be able to purchase "carbon credits" and carry on as before.

Alabama says it will collect "mercury switches" used in vehicles and safely dispose of the toxic metal.

The recent scandal, provoked by revelations that the administration deliberately distorted scientific evidence of global warming, has been compounded by accusations that it has also violated three forest management laws.

Not only that - but a top official in the department of the interior is being indicted for "riding roughshod over numerous decisions by agency scientists concerning protection of endangered species. "

Little wonder, then, that a new Yale University survey shows a sample of US citizens now regarding environmental hazards as on a par with those from "terrorism".

Can it be much longer before the population of the United States realises that the Bush regime has been carrying out its own relentless war of terror on the nation's ecology?


Mining safety agency imposes $1.5M fine on Massey Energy for W.Va. mine violations

By Tim Huber, ASSOCIATED PRESS

29th March 2007

LOGAN, W.Va. – The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has levied a $1.5 million fine against Massey Energy Co. for 25 violations that contributed to the deaths of two West Virginia coal miners in January 2006.

"The number and severity of the safety violations that occurred demonstrated a reckless disregard for safety," MSHA Director Richard Stickler said during a news conference.

The fine is the largest the agency has ever imposed for a coal mining accident, surpassing the old mark of $540,000 for a January 1991 methane gas explosion that killed two miners at another West Virginia mine.

Miners Don I. Bragg and Ellery Elvis Hatfield died Jan. 19, 2006 fire after getting lost in thick, choking smoke inside the Aracoma Coal Co.'s Alma No. 1 underground mine in Logan County. Aracoma is a subsidiary of Richmond, Va.-based Massey.

Lead federal investigator Ken Murray said the severity of the violations prompted the agency mine safety agency to refer initial findings about the fire to federal prosecutors late last March.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Charleston is investigating.

MSHA's investigation largely mirrors the state's conclusions about the fire. State investigators pinpointed a conveyor belt as the source of the fire and concluded that missing walls that control air flow and faulty firefighting equipment were key factors. The state also found that water lines for fire hoses and sprinklers at the scene of the fire were shut off and that fire hoses couldn't be connected because of incompatible fittings, a problem that had been reported to management after a similar fire on Dec. 23, 2005.

The federal agency also determined the mine was not following its approved ventilation plan. Air that should have gone to the face of the coal seam was being pumped in the opposite direction.

Massey Energy said in a prepared statement that it was reviewing the report, but had no specific comments about it.

The company said it would consider the findings as part of its own investigation, and added it remains "deeply saddened by the loss of its two miners and is committed to taking the actions necessary to conduct mining safely."

But Bruce Stanley, an attorney representing Bragg's and Hatfield's widows, said MSHA report indicates just the opposite."It's obvious that at this mine, safety was not a priority," Stanley said.

United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts issued a statement calling the mine a deathtrap.

"The report shows that Massey management at the mine violated multiple safety laws at Aracoma that led directly to the tragic deaths of the two miners," he said. "The report also demonstrates that these conditions were ongoing for weeks and months prior to the underground fire."

The Jan. 19, 2006, fire occurred as the state and industry were still reeling from the Sago Mine explosion that killed 12 men just 17 days earlier.

West Virginia swiftly adopted legislation that requires mines to store extra emergency air packs underground and install two-way communication and tracking systems, among other things. Other coal states and eventually Congress followed suit with the broadest federal mine safety legislation in decades.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the federal legislation alone will cost the industry $128 million – but that figure doesn't include some costs, such as lost production when miners are training.

This past winter, West Virginia approved legislation that permits temporary closure of mines with poor safety records and sets up a rigorous application and review process for mines that want to use so-called belt air for ventilation. Critics, including the United Mine Workers union, say pumping fresh air through shafts that bring coal to the surface fanned the flames at Aracoma, contributing to the deaths of Bragg and Hatfield.

The state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety is working on its own report and potentially more regulations.

Separately, the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training is pursuing disciplinary action against seven Aracoma employees. The state wants to strip five of the miners of their mining certificates and suspend two of them.

The two miners' widows also are suing Massey, two subsidiaries and Chief Executive Don Blankenship in Logan Circuit Court, seeking unspecified damages.

Massey is the nation's fourth-largest coal producer by revenue and operates 19 mining complexes in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky.

Massey Energy shares fell 40 cents, or 1.7 percent, to $23.70 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.


Rare cancer found in Iron Range miners

Associated Press

29th March 2007

ST. PAUL -- A rare form of cancer linked to asbestos exposure has been found in another 35 miners on the Iron Range, the Minnesota Health Department reported Wednesday, and the state said it planned two studies to examine potential health concerns.

One study would focus on the health of mine workers in the region. The other would assess the potential effect of airborne mineral fragments created during ore processing.

The cancer, known as mesothelioma, is seen almost exclusively in people who have been exposed to asbestos. In a 2003 study, state researchers identified 17 diagnosed cases of mesothelioma in a group of 72,000 people who worked in Minnesota's iron mining industry between the 1930s and 1982.

Further analysis found 35 additional cases of mesothelioma in that group, raising the total number to 52, the department said in a prepared statement. Officials said the additional cases aren't surprising because it can take 40 or 50 years to develop mesothelioma after exposure to asbestos.

The earlier study found the 17 original mesothelioma cases were most likely caused by exposure to commercial asbestos used in mining and other industries. The cases aren't unique to ore mining.

"The mesothelioma issue has been with us for a long time," Health Commissioner Dianne Mandernach said in a statement. "There are important, unresolved questions that we need to address, and we believe this new study will help us provide some of the answers."

The mining study will focus on the same group of workers, comparing those who have developed mesothelioma with those who did not. Officials hope to determine what aspects of their jobs might have put workers at risk.

That study is projected to cost as much as $1 million over three years. The state will seek federal funding from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and other sources.

The second study, estimated to cost $250,000, would assess health risks associated with airborne mineral fragments from ore mined in some parts of the region. Officials hope to set airborne exposure limits to protect the public from potential health effects, the department said.

The relationship between respiratory disease and mining work has been a concern for people in northeastern Minnesota, where unusually high rates of mesothelioma have been reported among males, the department said. Between 1988 ind 2005, 136 cases of the cancer were diagnosed in men who live in that part of the state -- more than twice the expected number.

Some of the elevation can be explained by the fact that more than 5,000 people once worked at an asbestos ceiling tile factory in Cloquet. It's not clear how many of the 136 cases occurred in men who were among the 72,000 miners studied in 2003, the department said.

There has been no elevation in mesothelioma rates among women who live in the region.

Also Wednesday, Ohio-based Cleveland-Cliffs Inc. announced it will fund a health study of current and former workers at the Babbitt iron ore mine and Silver Bay processing operations currently operated by Northshore Mining Co.

Cleveland-Cliffs said in a statement that the study will be conducted by an independent firm approved by the state health department and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The Cleveland-Cliffs study is designed to identify whether there are potential health risks associated with mining and processing ore.

A spokesperson for Cleveland-Cliffs did not immediately return a phone message seeking further comment.

_______________________

EPA Tells 20 US States Cut Air Pollution by '08

PlanetArk US: 30 March 2007

WASHINGTON - The US Environmental Protection Agency Thursday finalized rules directing 20 US states to slash levels of tiny particles spewed by power plants, cars and other sources by 2010.

About 88 million people in more than 200 counties -- mostly clustered around big cities like Los Angeles and New York -- live where "particulate" levels exceed legal limits set by the agency.

The offending particles -- 30 times smaller than the width of a human hair -- are linked to premature death from heart and lung disease, as well as chronic bronchitis and asthma.

Governors of affected states must give EPA their cleanup plans by February 2008, and designated areas must lower particulate pollution to what the agency considers to be a safe level by 2010, the rules said.

Clean air advocates called the rules "a dirty power industry protection plan," and said they may actually hamper states' ability to clean up air pollution.

That's because plants could comply with requirements by purchasing emission credits established by a nationwide "cap-and-trade" program proposed by the White House.

"This is a flagrant gift to the electric power industry," said Frank O'Donnell of Clean Air Watch, an advocacy group.

Such comments "take the rule out of context," said Steve Lomax, manager of air quality programs at the Edison Electric Institute, which lobbies for most big US utilities, including American Electric Power, Southern Co. and Duke Energy Corp.

Utilities will spend US$50 billion to install technology to comply with new clean-air standards set by the Bush administration, which require them to cut emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by 70 percent, Lomax said.

The Clean Air Act already allows states states to require additional cuts, if they wish, an EPA spokesman said.

Most states that violate federal clean air rules are clustered around the Midwest, which has the most coal-fired generation, and in Northeast states between Washington, D.C., and New York, the EPA said.

Other counties with unhealthy levels are in Southern California and near Atlanta, Georgia, it said. Counties with the most severe problems -- like those around Los Angeles -- could get a five-year extension, delaying attainment until 2015, the EPA said.

Story by Chris Baltimore

REUTERS NEWS SERVICE


Court Throws Out Bush Forest Management Regulations

SAN FRANCISCO, California, (ENS)

30th March 2007

The U.S. Forest Service can no longer use forest management regulations put in place by the Bush administration in 2005, because they violate three laws, a federal judge in California ruled today.

The ruling, by U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the U.S. District Court for Northern California, invalidates regulations that changed the land management planning process for national forests by eliminating mandatory protections for wildlife and clean water and removing public participation in the process.

Among the measures discarded by the Bush administration was a key regulatory guarantee of wildlife viability in the national forests that had been in place since the Reagan administration.

"The national forest planning rules are like the Constitution for our National Forests, and the Bush administration tried to throw out the Bill of Rights," said attorney Trent Orr of Earthjustice, who argued the case before Judge Hamilton. "The Bush rule changes made any wildlife provisions in forest management plans purely aspirational, but the nation's wildlife deserve more than a 'hope and a prayer' planning system."

Earthjustice, representing Defenders of Wildlife, The Wilderness Society, the Sierra Club and Vermont Natural Resources Council, filed a legal challenge to the Bush administration rule changes in October 2004.

"The Bush administration’s rules would have undone 20 years of protections for wildlife and clean water," said Sierra Club Forest Policy Specialist Sean Cosgrove. "This ruling is a huge victory for all Americans who hunt, fish, and enjoy our National Forests."

Judge Hamilton ruled that the Bush regulations violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Administrative Procedures Act.

"These regulations were designed by a former timber industry lobbyist," Cosgrove said. "They put the timber industry first and citizens and wildlife last. They would have silenced the voices of citizens in local forest planning, and allowed destructive projects to move forward with little oversight."

The judge's ruling prohibits the Bush administration from "implementation and utilization" of the new forest planning regulations. "The court verified what we already knew - that the Bush administration has used every angle possible to undo protections for our wildlife, forests, and clean water," said Cosgrove. "At a time when wildlife face mounting threats, we need to move towards responsible forest management that protects our public lands for future generations instead of giving them away to special interests."


Alabama Promotes Mercury Switch Recovery Program

MONTGOMERY, Alabama, (ENS)

30th March 2007

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management, ADEM, is making an effort to reduce mercury releases to the environment.

ADEM officials met with automotive recyclers March 20 in Montgomery to review a new, voluntary program to remove mercury switches from vehicles. The program is designed to collect and properly dispose of mercury before the automobiles are crushed or shredded for recycling.

"We are pleased to be involved in this project," said ADEM Director Trey Glenn. "We are making a concerted effort to reach Alabama’s automotive recyclers to educate them on the specifics of this program to help safeguard our environment." Earlier this month, ADEM mailed more than 440 letters to automotive, steel, and scrap industries to announce the program.

End of Life Vehicle Solutions (ELVS), a non-profit organization established to collect switches and properly dispose of the mercury, will pay recyclers for collecting and turning in the switches.

Many vehicles manufactured prior to 2003 have mercury switches in lighting and antilock braking systems. If the switches are not removed before recycling or the steel melting process, the mercury can be emitted into the air.

To prevent this, the National Vehicle Mercury Switch Recovery Program was started last August. The program is a collective effort of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Environmental Council of the States, state environmental agencies, automotive steel and scrap industries, and environmental groups. Across the country, the EPA estimates 67 million switches are available for recovery.


Interior Assistant Secretary Manipulated Endangered Species Science

WASHINGTON, DC, (ENS)

29th March 2007

A report released today by the Inspector General of the Department of Interior, IG, found that Assistant Secretary of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Julie MacDonald, who has no biological training, rode roughshod over numerous decisions by agency scientists concerning protection of endangered species.

The report also found that MacDonald violated federal ethics rules by sending what the IG's office called "nonpublic information" to industry lobbyists with groups such as the Pacific Legal Foundation. This self-proclaimed "national leader" in the effort to reform the Endangered Species Act has successfully mounted a number of legal challenges to critical habitat reviews on behalf of their clients such as the California Farm Bureau, the Washington Farm Bureau, and the Arizona Cattle Growers' Association.

The report was conducted at the request of Congressman Nick Rahall, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. The Inspector General was asked to investigate based on an anonymous report that MacDonald had "bullied, insulted, and harassed the professional staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service to change documents and alter biological reporting regarding the Endangered Species program."

"Through interviewing various sources, including FWS employees and senior officials, and reviewing pertinent documents and e-mails," the IG wrote, "we confirmed that MacDonald has been heavily involved with editing, commenting on, and reshaping the Endangered Species Program's scientific reports from the field."

MacDonald admitted that her degree is in civil engineering and that she has no formal educational background in natural sciences, such as biology.

Nevertheless, the report found that MacDonald interfered with field reports such as the sage grouse risk analysis, a critical habitat decision for endangered bull trout, a designation of California's northern and southern tiger salamanders as distinct populations, a decision about California's delta smelt, and an analysis of California's vernal pools as critical habitat.

In a number of e-mails and comments on the bull trout critical habitat decision, an agent of the IG's office wrote, "MacDonald forced a reduction in critical habitat miles in the Klamath River basin from 296 to 42 miles."

A former Endangered Species Director, not named in the IG's report, said that overall, "MacDonald did not want to accept petitions to list species as endangered, and she did not want to designate critical habitats."

A former Interior Department assistant secretary, not named by the IG, who was interviewed for the report, said, "she had a fundamental suspicion of FWS employees because of her belief that they were close with the environmental groups."

"When we interviewed Julie MacDonald," the IG's office reported, "she said she is responsible for reviewing, commenting, and at some times editing critical habitat designation reports and five-year endangered species reviews.

"She admitted that she is not always right, as in the case of the vernal pools, but added, 'The figures were a mistake and very embarrassing, but they didn't make a difference in the outcome of the review.'"

"It's a travesty that a high-level political appointee with no training in biology is rewriting the conclusions of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists," said Melissa Waage, legislative director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

"The Bush administration has an unwritten policy to systematically deny protection to imperiled wildlife, dooming them to extinction."


Poll: Global Warming as Big a Threat as Terrorism

NEW HAVEN, Connecticut, (ENS)

29th March 2007

A new Yale research survey shows that 83 percent of Americans now say global warming is a "serious" problem, up from 70 percent in 2004.

The survey of 1,000 adults nationwide released earlier this month shows that 63 percent of participants agree that the United States "is in as much danger from environmental hazards, such as air pollution and global warming, as it is from terrorists."

The survey reveals growing concern about dependence on Middle Eastern oil, with 96 percent of those interviewed saying this is a serious problem. As a result, the survey shows overwhelming support for increasing the use of alternative energy, including solar and wind power, as well as investing more in energy efficiency.

Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, which commissioned the survey, says the United States is in the midst of a "revolution," in which the business community is embracing the profit potential of a burgeoning green consumer movement.

"There's been a dramatic shift in the business community's attitude toward the environment," observes Esty. "Rather than seeing environmental issues as a set of costs to bear, regulation to follow and risks to manage, companies have begun to focus on the upside, recognizing that society's desire for action on climate change, in particular, will create a huge demand for reducing carbon-content products.

More Americans than ever say they have serious concerns about environmental threats. Ninety-three percent are concerned about air pollution, up from 87 percent in 2004, while 92 percent are concerned about toxic soil and water, up from 85 percent in 2004.

Eighty-nine percent of those surveyed are worried about deforestation, up from 78 percent in 2004, and 83 percent are concerned about the extinction of wildlife, up from 72 percent in 2005.

The survey indicates that while 70 percent of those surveyed believe that President George w. Bush does not do enough for the environment and should do more, many are ready to act on their own. Seventy-five percent recognize that their own behavior can help to reduce global warming, and 81 percent believe it is their responsibility to do so.

The results show that many of those questioned want greener products and are ready to spend money to try new technologies that will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Seventy percent indicated a willingness to buy solar panels, and 67 percent would consider buying a hybrid car.

"The coalition supporting action on climate change has broadened considerably," said Gus Speth, dean of Yale's environment school. "With the public ready for carbon controls and business stepping up to the climate change challenge, it is disappointing that our political leadership is lagging so badly on this issue."

"It's clear that the public is not waiting for the government to take the lead," said Esty. "Americans no longer think it's entirely the domain of government to solve environmental problems. They expect companies to step up and address climate change and other concerns."

The survey suggests that the public's reasons for wanting investments in alternative energy and action on climate change vary widely. For 49 percent, concern stems from the rising cost of gasoline. Nine-three percent want the nation to be free of imported oil. Forty-three percent believe that preventing global warming is a religious duty.

The survey was conducted on behalf of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies by Global Strategy Group from February 5 to 11, 2007. The survey has an overall margin of error of ±3.1% at the 95% confidence level.

The survey questions and full results are online at: www.yale.edu/envirocenter.

 

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