Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

Do bankrupt coal company executives really deserve bonuses?

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016 - posted by brian

Debt-ridden companies are slashing worker benefits, struggling to clean up pollution — and handing out bonuses.

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Early Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr

Why would a bankruptcy judge approve a bonus plan for a bankrupt coal company that was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it?” Photo of West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Alpha CEO Kevin Crutchfield via Flickr.

Before we explore that question, I’ll admit, the immoral logic of corporate compensation used to justify gigantic executive bonuses has always mystified me. I’m not highly educated on the matter, nor am I impartial.

Sure, I’d be willing to entertain an answer in the affirmative. But in the case of Alpha Natural Resources, which is swimming in debt and trying to navigate its way out of bankruptcy, it really seems resources could be better spent elsewhere. Paying taxes, for example. Communities in Appalachia could put millions of dollars owed by Alpha to good use.

But, no, they want their bonuses. So let’s hear them out.

Back in December, lawyers for Alpha asked the U.S. bankruptcy court to approve an “Incentive Plan for Certain Key Insider Employees,” a fancy way of saying $12 million for 15 top executives. Their argument is pretty simple — bankruptcy stinks and high-level employees may decide to cut their losses. The obvious solution: make it seem like they’re not losing — at all costs.

According to Alpha’s court filing, bonuses will go to executives “who are vital to the [the company’s] successful restructuring and the maximization of value for the benefit of all parties in interest.” OK, I can sort of see how this becomes logical for a company in bankruptcy.

Alpha has been struggling for years, though, and these bonuses actually exceed the payouts executives received in years past, even as the company barreled toward bankruptcy. The last time Alpha recorded a profit was in 2011. In the past five years, the company’s stock fell from $65 a share to around 35 cents.

Over the same period, it laid off 4,000 employees and shut down dozens of mines, mostly affecting communities in Central Appalachia where the company operates. Just yesterday, Alpha announced plans to close 10 mining complexes and lay off 886 coal miners and other personnel in southern West Virginia.

But in 2015, the year that Alpha declared bankruptcy with billions of dollars in debt, the maximum bonus pool for top staff was $8.4 million, according to the Casper Star-Tribune. If only Alpha’s balance sheet looked like its executives’ bank accounts.

It’s becoming difficult to give Alpha the benefit of the doubt. We don’t even know the names and positions of these supposedly high-performers keeping the company on course. And it looks like we never will.

Alpha’s lawyers argued that disclosing the executives’ identities, salaries and bonuses “may facilitate the hiring” of those executives away from Alpha “by competing businesses and, therefore, increase the likelihood that the Debtors will lose the valuable services of the [executives].”

Now it’s too hard to fake. Witnessing the irresponsibility and one-sidedness of the major coal bankruptcies in Appalachia and their aftershocks goes to show who has a voice and whose voices the system values.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee's scathing objection to Alpha's bonus plan.

Click to read the U.S. Trustee’s scathing objection to Alpha’s bonus plan.

Last year, Patriot Coal — while in its second bankruptcy — hatched a plan to pay a portion of its legal fees with millions of dollars earmarked for workers’ health care. There is growing concern nationwide that bankrupt coal companies, a group that now includes Arch Coal, won’t be able to afford to clean up their mines. And right now, Alpha is trying to revoke medical and life insurance benefits from retired miners and their spouses to save around $3 million a year.

The U.S. Trustee, a watchdog division of the U.S. Department of Justice, summarized the vast disconnect between what is right and what Alpha wants in its objection to the bonuses:

Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time incurring more than $1.3 Billion in losses for 2015. Alpha seeks this relief while at the same time seeking to cut off the health and life insurance benefits to some 1,200 rank-and-file retirees because it claims it desperately needs to save $3 Million a year. Alpha seeks this relief after demonstrating to this Court that it is so hopelessly insolvent that its shareholders have no chance of seeing any return on their investments into the companies.

Makes sense so far. Go on …

According to Alpha, these executives need these bonuses as an incentive to do the very jobs they were hired to do, that they are already highly compensated for with generous salaries, and which their fiduciary duties already compel them to do. Such bonuses cannot be justified under the facts and circumstances of this case.

Another common argument is based purely on the merits of the bonuses. How can it be possible that the same handsomely compensated executives who took home bonuses while steering Alpha into bankruptcy get sizable bonuses to help Alpha exit bankruptcy? Well, as lawyers for the United Mine Workers of America argue in their objection, the bonus plan was “written almost entirely by the executives who hope to exact almost $12 million of profit from it.”

Until recently, I never thought of “bankruptcy” and “bonanza” as being synonymous. Maybe rather than being mystified I’m just mad, and I can’t claim anything close to the level of outrage or broken trust thousands of Appalachian families can. But, like U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennekens said last week as he OKed Alpha’s bonus plan, “Cash is king.”

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Our hope for the year ahead

Friday, January 22nd, 2016 - posted by tom

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Appalachian Voices is beginning 2016 stronger than ever and positioned to advance a positive future for the region we all love. Standing with citizens from across Appalachia and from all walks of life, we are hard at work and have high hopes for the year ahead.

Since we launched our economic diversification program and opened an office in Southwest Virginia early last year, the conversation about how to hasten a just economic transition in Appalachia has only grown. A forward-thinking plan to expand funding for economic development initiatives is on the table. But for those initiatives to succeed, both political parties must make supporting investments to strengthen Appalachia’s economy a priority.

Beyond advocating for federal investment in workforce training, infrastructure and land restoration, Appalachian Voices is enlisting experts to develop plans for clean energy and other economic development opportunities in the coal-bearing region, including utilization of abandoned mine sites. By adding technical and policy resources where they are they needed most, we’ll further efforts to build the pillars of a healthier, more resilient regional economy.

Of course, the foundation for that renewed economy must be a healthy environment. And without science-based environmental protections that are fully enforced, we fear the movement to diversify the region’s economy will fall short. This year, the last of Obama’s presidency, is our best chance to see a long-awaited rule finalized to protect Appalachian streams from mining waste.

As we push for an effective Stream Protection Rule, we will remain focused on holding polluters accountable. Pursuing the same strategies that led to our landmark victory over Frasure Creek Mining in Kentucky late last year, we’ll sue coal companies that violate clean water laws, and we’ll put grassroots pressure on regulators to step up enforcement of existing protections.

Our goals demand that we stay deeply involved in action at the state level, where we are combatting the continued threats of fossil fuels. In Virginia, the movement to move beyond dirty energy is opposing proposed multi-billion dollar investments in huge pipelines that would lock the Southeast into an increased dependence on natural gas and exacerbate the impacts of fracking. In North Carolina, residents are coming together to fight the threat of fracking and address the ongoing crisis of coal ash pollution.

Appalachian Voices is committed to these important battles. We’re also increasingly focused on securing investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy by promoting policies and technologies that can reduce harmful pollution and create thousands of jobs. As a result of our efforts, rural electric cooperatives in both North Carolina and Tennessee on are the verge of developing cost-saving energy efficiency programs for their members.

We’re sure to encounter obstacles. Successful renewable energy policies in North Carolina will again face attacks by policymakers. Our electric utilities will tout natural gas and attempt to undermine consumer access to cleaner energy options. The familiar partisan battles over coal and climate change will intensify as election season nears. And states, some more reluctantly than others, will take steps toward compliance with the Clean Power Plan. But we know the landmark climate rule will help states expand clean energy and cut pollution — if only they embrace its potential.

The year is just getting started. But the stage is set for 2016 to be a historic year for clean energy, climate action and efforts to diversify economies that have long depended on the coal industry. With your support, Appalachian Voices is working hard to make 2016 a watershed year for the health of Appalachia’s communities, environment and economy.

Please consider joining to donating to support Appalachian Voices today.

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Federal agency considers restricting surface mining in Tennessee

Monday, January 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Charlotte Wray, Spring 2016 Editorial Assistant

speakers at public hearing

Carol Judy of the Clearfork Community Institute and Willie Dodson, right, of Appalachian Voices speak in support of the Lands Unsuitable For Mining designation at a January hearing in Jacksboro, Tenn.

The Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee are home to diverse habitats and headwater streams that are vital to tourism and safe water, but these have been jeopardized by the threat of coal mining.

The federal government is deciding whether to grant the State of Tennessee’s 2010 request to designate a portion of land in East Tennessee unsuitable for surface coal mining.

Stand up for the Cumberland Mountains! Send your comment to the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

In 2010, Tennessee petitioned the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to prevent surface coal mining on land within 600 feet of certain ridgelines in a 67,000-acre area. The land is located north of Knoxville in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and the Emory River Tracts Conservation Easement.

The state contended that surface coal mining would not be in accordance with state or local land use plans for the areas, and that mining operations would “significantly damage the natural systems and esthetic, recreational, cultural, and historic values of the ridge lines and their viewsheds that exist within these fragile lands.”

The federal surface mining agency’s draft Environmental Impact Statement released on Dec. 10, 2015, outlined several possible responses to the state petition. The agency’s preferred alternative would designate the requested ridgetop corridors in the 67,000-acre area as unsuitable for coal mining. Appalachian Voices and our allies, including the Tennessee-based grassroots advocacy group Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, support this ban and urge the federal agency to list the area as “fragile lands” to ensure the greatest protection.

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

The agency’s preferred alternative would also allow certain areas that were abandoned prior to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to be re-mined, if mining companies acquire the necessary permits. SOCM believes that any re-mining should be strictly limited to areas where it is the only solution to the significant environmental problems at the abandoned sites.

At the hearing in Jacksboro, Tenn., on Jan. 14, Tom Chadwell, a resident of Campbell County who lives beside the petition area on land that has been owned by his family since 1872, voiced his support for the ban. He acknowledged the heritage of mining in both his family and Campbell County. His grandfather and grandmother were both in the mining industry before the stock market crash in 1929, he said, but that was a way for economic growth then and it should not be so now.

“Just because Campbell County is having tough times, and we are, doesn’t mean that we do whatever we can whether it’s right or wrong,” he said. “I do believe tourism is a way to go, we have a beautiful county, a beautiful community and I don’t want to see us [risk] our land that nature has spent most of the last 50 years trying to recover.”

This land, including the Cumberland Trail, is a highly valued tourism area, generating $177.4 million per year, creating 1,420 jobs and producing more than $16 million in state and local tax receipts, according to SOCM. Surface mining operations would destroy vibrant lands, clean water and natural resources and negatively impact Tennessee’s growing tourism industry.

The federal agency’s draft Environmental Impact Statement determined that the areas at stake are “fragile lands” that are ecologically significant and contain fish and wildlife habitat and recreational resources that could be severely damaged by coal mining activities.

A final decision on the proposal will be made after the 45-day public comment period ends on Jan. 25.

Submit your comment here.

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Coal, Congress and the art of lying

Monday, January 11th, 2016 - posted by tarence
By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that's finding an audience in Congress.

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that’s finding an audience in Congress.

It’s amazing how much work goes into stretching the truth. It’s even more amazing when media outlets and political leaders latch onto that “truth” and peddle it without scrutiny.

A recent and relevant example: an economic impact analysis of the Stream Protection Rule, commissioned by the National Mining Association and written by Ramboll Environ, which is a member of the NMA. In short, the analysis predicts that the Stream Protection Rule will all but deal a lethal blow to the American coal industry. It is 82 pages of the kind of overblown, headline-grabbing hysteria found in modern politics, filled with doomsday scenarios, disingenuous methodologies and misinformation.

Doomsday Scenarios

The proposed Stream Protection Rule is intended to protect American streams from the worst environmental impacts of mountaintop removal. It represents an update on science and policy that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has not addressed since 1983, the year the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule was added to the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

The NMA’s analysis of the Stream Protection Rule is grim: between 50 and 95 percent of the nation’s current coal workers will lose their jobs as a direct result of the rule. Its predictions for Appalachia are even grimmer: 30,000 to 52,000 workers, or 60 to 105 percent of the current Appalachian coal workforce, will be cut. 105 percent, that’s truly unbelievable.

According to Jonathan Halpern, a former economist at the World Bank Group and a current professor of energy and infrastructure economics at Georgetown University, the NMA’s projections are seriously flawed. Halpern points out that the NMA relied on unrealistically high coal projections for the 2020-2040 forecast period that do not take into account how factors such as natural gas production, coal seam access and availability, and national policies such as the Clean Power Plan will impact production. Additionally, the study factored in loss of access to coal reserves that are not currently controlled by coal or landholding corporations to project future “losses” in production and employment. As Halpern points out, “[This] inclusion … exaggerates the size of the economic resource base and the consequent ‘loss’ which the study posits.”

In other words, the NMA forecasted a falsely optimistic future for coal, then compared that future to a grim post-Stream Protection Rule future, and projected a doomsday scenario. There is a litany of other problems with the analysis:

  • It uses out-of-date information about the overall financial health of the coal industry. The figures used for coal production, new permits and number of employed miners only go through 2013.
  • It expands the definition of a coal worker to include 20,000 workers not currently employed by the coal industry. The study posits that these workers – which include the freight rail workforce, contractors to the mining companies, and service providers – are employed as the coal mining workforce base, against which the NMA applied employment and income loss multipliers to estimate overall job losses over 25 years. As Halpern points out, this inclusion greatly magnifies the resulting estimates of job loss.
  • It assumes an immediate implementation of the Stream Protection Rule. This is simply not the case, as the rule has not been finalized and won’t be implemented for at least another five years.

Disingenuous Methodology

Ramboll Environ, the NMA member commissioned to conduct the analysis, chose a curious methodology for estimating the Stream Protection Rule’s impact on future coal production. They sat down with 18 unnamed mining companies and asked them how they thought the Stream Protection Rule would impact their bottom lines. It probably doesn’t have to be pointed out that there is nothing scientific or objective about this approach.

Another serious shortcoming of the report is that it rejects any cost-benefit framework. In other words, this is simply a cost analysis. According to Halpern, we would likely see billions of dollars in benefits in the form of safety and health improvements for communities as a result of the Stream Protection Rule. A 2011 study estimated that the public health burden coal operations put on Appalachian citizens costs around $75 billion every year.”

But the NMA refused to take into account any benefits that the rule could provide.

“We don’t know what it’s worth exactly in dollars,” Halpern told me. “But we know what it’s worth in human terms. People are just as afraid of getting sick, of their crops and livestock withering, of their fisheries drying up and their surroundings being degraded, as they are of possible loss of coal mining jobs.”

Misinformation

As mentioned above, one of the biggest fallacies in the NMA’s report is its assumption that the Stream Protection Rule will be implemented immediately, rather than gradually. But to add to this, the study — or at least the coal executives who were polled for the study — assumes a 100-foot buffer zone around streams. This absolutely isn’t the case, and it’s the reason so many clean water advocates are disappointed with the draft version of the rule. (Such a policy would have completely prohibited all mining activities within 100 feet of streams.)

Perhaps the biggest — and most perplexing — fabrication in this report is its claim that the Stream Protection Rule will replace the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule. It will not. The Bush-era rule was tossed out by a federal judge in early 2014, so its inclusion casts further doubt on the validity of the report.

What Communities Really Need

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a study predicated entirely on the fear-inducing prospect of job loss that fails to even consider the potential benefits of environmental protection, of clean water, of lowered risks to health. This fact alone tells us where the NMA’s interests really reside; an organization whose mission is to protect coal mining profits, rather than promote the well-being and empowerment of miners, their families and their communities, can really only claim to be concerned with production loss, rather than job loss. It’s incredible and a little sad that the NMA spent 82 pages trying to convince us that it cares about anything else.

Unfortunately, without a strong policy program to replace lost mining jobs — whether that’s in the form of New Deal-like jobs programs, robust federal funding and grassroots initiatives, or something else entirely — studies like this will continue to impact federal legislation.

For example, this week the House is set to vote on the STREAM Act, which seeks to effectively kill the Stream Protection Rule. Members of Congress who are voting on this piece of legislation will no doubt have seen the headlines, strategically broadcast by the NMA, claiming that the Stream Protection Rule will slash nearly one hundred thousand coal jobs.

Without voices pushing back on this narrative in regional and national media, this disingenuousness has the unfortunate effect of holding back progress for coal miners who may face losing their jobs due to a failing industry, rather than presenting them with tangible solutions.

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Bleak outlook for coal in 2016

Friday, January 8th, 2016 - posted by brian

The new year brings more bad news for a battered industry

It probably comes as no surprise that, after the dismal year coal had in 2015, more hard times for the industry are ahead. Nowhere is the struggle more real than here in Central Appalachia.

The latest look into a window of coal’s burning house comes courtesy of Downstream Strategies. The West Virginia-based environmental consulting firm has been charting Central Appalachian coal’s decline for years and is urging policymakers to plan for a future in which coal is no longer king.

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies "All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?"

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?”

The group’s new white paper, creatively titled “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?,” tells the story of Appalachian coal over the past few decades in five simple charts like the one above. It also considers how coal’s decline contributes to the budget deficits wracking West Virginia. In summary:

Future demand for Central Appalachian coal will likely continue to decline—primarily due to the increasing cost of mining thinner, harder-to-access coal seams and competition from cheaper natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency improvements at homes and businesses. Future environmental regulations on coal mines and power plants, such as the federal Clean Power Plan, may further reduce demand for West Virginia coal.

For data related to regional coal production and projections, Downstream Strategies looked to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Just today, that agency shared its own update on coal prices and production in 2015. While the main lesson from the chart above is probably that it’s best to be skeptical when it comes to EIA projections, the severity of the situation in Appalachia becomes even clearer when the region is viewed relative to other domestic coal reserves.

Screen shot from EIA's Today in Energy "Coal production and prices decline in 2015."

Screen shot from EIA’s Today in Energy “Coal production and prices decline in 2015.”

According to the EIA, the amount of coal produced in the Central Appalachian basin in 2015 was 40 percent below its annual average during the period from 2010 to 2014. Wherever coal is still competitive, less and less of it is coming from Central Appalachia.

Anyway, back to the Downstream Strategies report, which wraps up with yet another firm reminder that coal’s steep decline and its consequences are anything but unexpected. As the authors conclude:

For years, we have known that coal production was likely to drop significantly in southern West Virginia, and that coal production will likely continue to decline in the future. Now that these projections are coming true, the state is grappling with fewer jobs, bankrupt companies, and declining severance tax revenues.

Together, these present unprecedented challenges not just for southern West Virginia counties, but also for the state as a whole.

New approaches are needed.

When it comes to coal, the question for regional policymakers now is not so much how to make it better, but what to do when it gets even worse. If we may suggest a resolution for the new year: Don’t wait any longer. Recognize and respond to the realities of today’s energy market and the economic challenges facing the region.

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Coal’s death knell in Kentucky

Monday, January 4th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Industry’s decline produces a political shakeup in the Bluegrass State

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

The final months of 2015 may prove to be a historic moment for Kentucky’s politics and the state’s struggling coal industry.

When Governor Matt Bevin took office at the beginning of December after a surprise victory over Democratic challenger Jack Conway, he took a brazen shot at environmentalists by appointing former coal executive Charles Snavely to oversee the state’s environmental protection cabinet. Snavely was an executive with International Coal Group (ICG), a company that Appalachian Voices, along with allied groups, sued for covering up thousands of water pollution violations in the state.

To make matters worse, state Representative Fitz Steele was appointed this week to chair the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, after Representative Jim Gooch switched to the Republican party earlier in the week. House Speaker Greg Stumbo greeted the move with this statement: “Rep. Steele has built a strong reputation as a defender of sensible environmental laws and is an excellent choice to lead this committee as we ready for the legislative session.”

Stumbo’s statement is perplexing; back in 2012 Fitz boasted that he “can take [a mountain] down and put it back better than what it is.” If that view of mountaintop removal coal mining is what Stumbo thinks is a “sensible environmental law,” then we really are in trouble.

But it’s not as if Steele is all that different from Jim Gooch, the man he is replacing. For example, here’s Gooch’s statement from Monday on why he left the Democratic Party: “Let my departure from the Democrat Party send a message loud and clear. I stand behind the thousands of Kentuckians who have lost their jobs all across the coalfields.” This is coming from a man who blames impoverished eastern Kentuckians for their water problems, rather than mining companies and coal executives like Charles Snavely.

Gooch’s departure — as well as Bevin’s election win — are hardly surprising if we are to look at West Virginia. In that state, large numbers of Democrats have either left the party or have been voted out, due in part to the industry’s “war on coal” campaign. It has become increasingly clear that this campaign was an incredibly cynical crusade to consolidate political power in an uncertain market environment. The political realignment of West Virginia — and now Kentucky — is proof of that.

As the Bevin administration moves into its first year, and as Central Appalachian coal prices continue to fall, it remains to be seen how the coal industry will maintain political power in the state. However, if recent developments serve any indication, we can almost guarantee that elected leaders in Kentucky will continue using “war on coal” rhetoric to exploit the fears of many, while ignoring the very real issues of clean energy, healthcare access, low wages and environmental catastrophe.

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Budget holds promise for Central Appalachia

Friday, December 18th, 2015 - posted by thom
The federal budget is settled. It’s not perfect. But it’s pretty darn good.

In the spending bill, Congress steered clear of the Stream Protection Rule and increased the budgets of agencies focused on economic development in areas including Central Appalachia.

Look for a deeper analysis on the budget deal from us next week.

Today the U.S. Congress passed a spending bill that covers all federal government expenditures and sets the budgets of agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Labor, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The spending bill is a big deal for Appalachian Voices. And honestly, it looks pretty darn good.

Until President Obama signs the bill, which he said he will do, the details aren’t final. But negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders from both parties have been going on for months, including several straight all-nighters this past week. The horse trading has already happened. So while we can’t be certain that everything in the current draft bill will remain, I’d be shocked to see changes.

Spending bills offer a chance to do a lot of good and a lot of bad. Congress can fund projects to improve and diversify the economy of Appalachia (which it did, more on that later), and Congress can prevent federal agencies from completing much-needed environmental rules (which it did NOT(!), more on that now).

Appalachian Voices has been working for years to get a strong Stream Protection Rule. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) released a draft version of the Stream Protection Rule earlier this year, and while it’s in need of improvements, the rule is still expected to improve safeguards for streams near mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

Naturally, the coal industry and its backers in Congress have fought against the rule. They argue that protecting our streams from coal’s toxic waste will cost more than 100,000 jobs. While that’s absurd, it is true that forcing mining companies to stop haphazardly dumping all of their junk into streams, and instead coming up with plans to repair damage, will cost them money. So the industry has been begging its congressional advocates to block the rule from being finalized.

But the bill does not include a rider preventing OSMRE from completing the Stream Protection Rule, despite a large group of representatives pushing for one. We are relieved, to say the least.

On the positive side, there are elements of the POWER+ Plan in the budget. The Department of Labor will receive an additional $19 million in 2016 to aid displaced coal mine workers, which is a bigger problem in Central Appalachia than anywhere else. The Appalachian Regional Commission got a huge boost to its budget, from less than $90 million all the way up to $146 million. The agency has recently been concentrating its funding more towards economic development in the coalfield areas of Appalachia. We expect that trend to continue considering its exciting and unexpected 62 percent boost in funds.

Most surprisingly, the bill includes $90 million for abandoned mine cleanup in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The money is designed to be a pilot program that can later be applied to other states, and we can’t wait to see it expand to Virginia and Tennessee. The interesting part about the funding is that it’s not just about patching up abandoned mine sites, but also focuses on our region’s transition away from a coal-based economy. The purpose of the money is to create jobs and support projects that will aid business development in areas hit hardest by coal’s decline. We have been working hard to see these sorts of projects happen, and while this short-term funding is definitely not enough, we’re excited about the new direction.

So the federal budget is settled. The government won’t close down. Our federal agencies can continue their work to protect Appalachia from mining waste. And our region just got tens of millions of dollars tossed its way for economic development.

It’s not perfect. But it’s pretty darn good.

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What to expect for Virginia’s energy policy in 2016

Friday, December 18th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Ahead of the 2016 General Assembly session, Virginians gathered in Richmond to call for greater commitments by their leaders to address climate change and advance renewable energy.

Ahead of the 2016 General Assembly session, Virginians gathered in Richmond to call for greater commitments by their leaders to address climate change and advance renewable energy.

Around this time of year, we usually offer a Virginia legislative preview, looking ahead at the issues that will arise in the upcoming session of the General Assembly. Recent events relate to some of those possible policy changes, thickening the plot and making this session one worth watching and engaging in — especially for customers of Appalachian Power Company.

Legislation Attacks the Clean Power Plan, Again

With the McAuliffe administration in the lead, Virginia is now drafting a plan to comply with its carbon pollution reduction target as set by the federal Clean Power Plan. Many central elements of the state plan remain in question, including whether reductions will be based on the rate of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of energy generated, or on the total mass of emissions, as well as whether Virginia will trade emissions with other states.

On Tuesday in Richmond, an open meeting of an official group of Clean Power Plan stakeholders was held in the Department of Environmental Quality office. While public comment is not taken in these meetings, they are a key opportunity to follow the process and let decision-makers know how important their work is to you, so stay tuned for future meetings.

Even as these policy experts, advocates, and business and utility representatives invest time and energy into constructively discussing Virginia’s carbon-reduction plan, there are those who are focused on stymieing this effort. Recently proposed legislation would require General Assembly approval of our state Clean Power Plan. The bill (HB2) would hold up our progress and could result in the federal government telling Virginia how to meet its carbon-reduction targets, removing the flexibility that many parties believe makes these emissions reductions economically doable.

As the players at the table shape state plans, it is resulting in some interesting shifts in political activity.

AEP Drops ALEC

American Electric Power, the parent company of Virginia’s second-largest utility, Appalachian Power Company, announced last week that it is ending its relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. A widely known climate denial front organization, ALEC currently has half a dozen pieces of model legislation opposing the Clean Power Plan that it’s pushing in state legislatures. By way of explaining its termination of membership, an AEP spokesperson said the company is reallocating resources as it focuses on working with states around the Clean Power Plan.

AEP says it supports the federal plan and renewable energy, and has “long been involved in the reduction of greenhouse gases.” Still, reporters pointed out the company’s significant reliance on coal in its generation mix, although projections show its coal use declining in the near future.

So what is subsidiary Appalachian Power (APCo) planning to do to meet demand with clean energy in its Virginia service area?

APCo’s 2015 Long Range Resource Plan

APCo customers that read this blog will be aware that we have followed the company’s release of its latest long-term plan for meeting demand in its service area, and that media have reported on some important ways this plan is distinguished from what we have seen the utility propose in the past.

APCo proposes 510 megawatts of solar and land-based wind development in the coming years. Oddly, the predicted growth in its customers’ self-generated energy from solar arrays is low. APCo offers no assessment of the overall costs and benefits of rooftop solar, nor steps to encourage residents and businesses to go solar.

Prompted to comment, an APCo representative made the interesting point that managing demand by offering customers ways to save energy and reduce their bills is an approach that may cost less than developing energy generation. That sentiment may ring a bell for regular readers of this blog: it’s an argument that Appalachian Voices has been stressing for years. Now we’ll be holding onto that nugget of brilliance and keeping the utility on track to live up to those words.

More energy bills this session: solar purchasing, resilience and the pipeline fight

In September, the State Corporation Commission considered a case about APCo’s proposed program for customers looking to go solar. Schools, churches, nonprofits and other non-residential entities were the most affected by the program, which would provide one way for a customer contract for solar power with a system installed and owned by a third party. Such customers in Dominion Virginia Power’s territory can go solar with no upfront costs, thanks to innovative financing for this type of arrangement.

But under APCo’s program, the utility would act as middleman, paying back lower-than-usual credits to the customer and charging higher-than-normal fees. It all adds up to an uneconomic deal that’s likely to deter use of this option and diminish the ability of customers to realize their energy goals and environmental preferences, while slowing job growth in Virginia’s solar industry.

Businesses and concerned customers are now coming together behind legislation that would remove many of the hurdles that are currently hampering solar development in Virginia. Watch for updates on this bill.

A bill to join Virginia into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is again being introduced, with important differences from last year’s version. Notably, through the auction of emissions allowances, the wVirginia Coastal Protection Actwould raise approximately $250 million in the first year of Virginia’s membership, more than $20 million of which would be allocated for economic development in southwest Virginia.

Show your support for this measure and stay tuned for more ways to educate yourself and your legislators about legislative solutions and threats as the General Assembly 2016 approaches.

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An end to Frasure Creek’s water violations in Kentucky — finally

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 - posted by Erin

The Settlement

Late Monday evening, Appalachian Voices finalized a historic settlement in a case against Frasure Creek Mining. The settlement follows a five-year-long legal battle to protect eastern Kentucky’s waterways and bring a coal company notorious for violating environmental laws to justice.

The agreement is notable not only for the large penalty imposed, but also because it effectively bars Frasure Creek from further mining in Kentucky. It also marks a welcome, if uncommon, collaboration between clean water advocates and state regulators. The settlement was crafted through cooperation between the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, citizens groups — including Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance — and Frasure Creek.
FrasurePondandSign
The settlement includes a total potential penalty of $6 million – the highest environmental fine ever levied against a coal company by the Kentucky cabinet. Frasure Creek will not have to pay the fine, however, as long as it does not mine in the state. Regardless of whether the company hopes to ever mine coal in Kentucky again, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to admit to its violations and immediately pay $500,000. If Frasure Creek fails to pay the $500,000, it will be liable for the full $6 million fine.

During the course of settlement negotiations, Frasure Creek transferred its remaining Kentucky mining permits to Liberty Management. The mines were no longer producing coal, but were in the process of reclamation and still had active Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and Clean Water Act permits.

If at some later point Frasure Creek or its owners wish to apply for new permits, they must first pay $2.75 million before their mining application will be processed by the state. Essentially, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to either leave the state of Kentucky for good or pay a fine sufficient enough to deter it from returning to its illegal practices.

The Cases

Though this settlement arose out of a notice of intent to sue sent in 2014, the story begins a half-decade earlier.

In 2010, Appalachian Voices began an investigation into the two largest surface mining coal companies in Kentucky. After reviewing discharge monitoring reports (DMRs) – Clean Water Act compliance reports submitted by coal companies to state agencies – Appalachian Voices determined that Frasure Creek Mining and another company, International Coal Group (ICG), were duplicating reports. We later discovered that the third largest coal company in Kentucky at the time, Nally & Hamilton, was also falsifying data in its DMRs.

This pattern made it clear that ignoring regulations is common in the coal industry. In another case of falsified water pollution reporting, a lab employee of Appalachian Labs in West Virginia pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act. The lab conducted sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia. At least four different water-testing labs were involved in the duplicate data cases in Kentucky.

When we first discovered the duplicate reports at ICG and Frasure Creek, we took steps to file a citizens’ lawsuit against the companies under the Clean Water Act. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed its own case against the companies in state court, effectively preempting our case. We intervened in the state’s case to ensure diligent enforcement by the state — a right of citizens that was ultimately upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

In 2011, we filed an additional suit against the companies for permit limit violations that arose when both companies began reporting more accurate data. State officials once again preempted our case, but this time the cabinet filed its case in the Kentucky Office of Administrative Hearings. The cabinet and Frasure Creek then entered a slap-on-the-wrist settlement, over our objections and despite our right to intervene in the case. That settlement was thrown out last year on the grounds that it violated our due process rights. The cabinet has appealed that decision.

In 2014, Appalachian Voices again discovered that Frasure Creek was duplicating DMRs, this time with a different water testing laboratory. Once again, the cabinet failed to identify the problem until we filed a notice of intent to sue over the violations. This time, when the cabinet filed a case in its administrative court, we were granted intervention and allowed much more input in the settlement. The result is the historic settlement filed earlier this week.
FrasureGraph
Finally, not only did the cabinet allow meaningful citizen input, it pursued an enforcement action that may actually be strong enough to prevent this problem from happening again, at least with Frasure Creek. Unfortunately, the settlement was entered on the last day of Governor Steve Beshear’s term and the progress we made with the Beshear administration is not guaranteed to continue during Governor Matt Bevin’s time in office.

The Agency

It is too early to determine how friendly the new Bevin administration will be toward coal companies that flout regulations, but there is already reason to be concerned. Former Gov. Beshear appointed Len Peters as Secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet. On paper, Peters had many of the right credentials for the position — he is a scientist and an academic with broad experience working for universities, nonprofits and the federal government. Despite these qualifications, under his leadership, the cabinet still routinely allowed coal companies and other industries to violate environmental regulations with minimal consequences.

In contrast, Bevin’s appointment for cabinet secretary, Charles Snavely, spent the past three decades climbing the corporate ladders at several major Central Appalachian coal companies. Last I checked, the Energy and Environment Cabinet includes not just the division of mine permits, but also the divisions of water, air quality, and renewable energy, among others. Apparently running a company in one of the dirtiest industries in the county now qualifies you to protect communities and ecosystems from that industry, in Kentucky at least.

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin's appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin’s appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

It gets worse. Not all coal companies are equal. While I would argue that no surface mining coal company in Kentucky is particularly good for Kentucky, some are worse than others. Snavely has worked for both Massey Energy and Arch Coal. In September 2010, he was named the executive vice president of mining operations at ICG.

That’s right — when Appalachian Voices and our partners sued ICG for falsifying DMRs, Snavely was a member of the company’s senior management.

According to news reports, at the time, he was responsible for “all ICG mining operations and corporate oversight of safety and compliance performance.” Before this, when Snavely was just a run-of-the-mill vice president at ICG, 12 miners were killed in an explosion at ICG’s Sago Mine in West Virginia. Family members of the victims claimed the mine had violated safety regulations. In 2011, ICG settled a wrongful death suit.

Despite the current decline in the coal market in Central Appalachia, Governor Bevin seems just as beholden to the industry as many politicians who have preceded him. But appointing an industry insider to regulate the industry will not be enough to save it.

The Future

This settlement, and the commitment of groups like Appalachian Voices and our partners to bring polluters to justice, demonstrate to the new administration that citizens will hold the state accountable. But it’s not clear that Governor Bevin is getting the message. During his campaign, Bevin courted the coal industry and criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In October, at the height of the campaign, Bevin even chastised his opponent for saying coal can be done “cleaner.” If he had any downtime on his inauguration day, we hope Bevin read the news.

Coal is rapidly declining in Central Appalachia. But that does not mean the industry, or its influence, will disappear anytime soon or that enforcement of environmental regulations around mining will become any less important. If anything, the thin economic margins of coal companies operating in Central Appalachia today provide an incentive to break rules intended to prevent negative impacts on water, land and communities. As the region envisions a new economy that is not dominated by coal, oversight of mining’s impact on the region is as important as ever.

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Documenting Appalachia

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

Filmmakers Discuss Their Work in the Region

Movie still from “Blood on the Mountain” provided by Mari-Lynn Evans.

Movie still from “Blood on the Mountain” provided by Mari-Lynn Evans.

By Elizabeth E. Payne

It has been almost forty years since “Harlan County, USA” (1976) brought attention to the miners’ strike at the Brookside Mine in southeast Kentucky. Since then, dozens of films, including “Justice in the Coalfields” (1995), “Sludge” (2005) and “The Last Mountain” (2011), have explored the challenges facing Appalachia.

Three new films continue this long tradition. “Blood on the Mountain” and “Overburden” take different approaches to investigating the grip that coal has on West Virginia. And “Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television” explores the role that Hollywood played in creating the “hillbilly” stereotype and contrasts this stereotype with real men and women from the region.

The directors of these documentaries discussed their films and how they approached representing the region and its people authentically.

Blood on the Mountain (2014)

Protesters at the March on Blair Mountain in 2011. Movie still from “Blood on the Mountain” provided by Mari-Lynn Evans.

Protesters at the March on Blair Mountain in 2011. Movie still from “Blood on the Mountain” provided by Mari-Lynn Evans.

On April 5, 2010, while Mari-Lynn Evans was promoting her film “Coal Country,” an explosion in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va., killed 29 miners. Evans quickly returned to filmmaking hoping to answer her own questions about what led to this tragedy.

Her latest film, “Blood on the Mountain,” co-directed with Jordan Freeman, seeks these answers with what Evans describes as “a 150-year autopsy of the state of West Virginia.” The film tells the history of West Virginia’s environmental and labor movements, from the state’s creation during the Civil War until the current day, focusing on the steady pattern of resource and wealth extraction by outside corporations and efforts by the labor movement to protect the health and livelihoods of workers.

The film depicts how events such as the labor uprising in 1921, known as the Battle of Blair Mountain, were systematically omitted from the traditional history of West Virginia in favor of presenting an image more hospitable to industry. According to Evans, who is from West Virginia, “Our history has always been censored to us.”

Documentary Digest

Several other recent and forthcoming documentary projects are listed here. More are available through Appalshop, a nonprofit Kentucky-based cultural organization focused on documenting Appalachia.

Coal Ash Chronicles

In a book and series of short documentaries films, this project collects stories from people across the country, speaking with those impacted by, and working to solves problems created by, coal ash waste.
In production.
A transmedia project by Rhiannon Fionn-Bowman. Official website: coalashchronicles.com.

Hollow

The residents of McDowell County, W.Va., have faced many challenges including population and job loss. Through photos, videos and music clips, this interactive online documentary tells the stories of 30 inspiring individuals who call this county home.
Directed and produced by Elaine McMillion Sheldon. Official website: hollowdocumentary.com, best viewed with Google Chrome web browser

In the Hills and Hollows

The individuals documented in this film face an uncertain future. In rural West Virginia, where the coal industry has had an impact for over a century, many residents are now also affected by the extraction and transport of natural gas. In production.
Produced and filmed by Keely Kernan. Official website: inthehillsandhollows.com.

Herb Key: Nurturing American Heritage

The great talent and DIY spirit of master luthier and renowned musician Herb Key comes through in this short documentary film.
Directed by Rebecca Branson Jones and Jim Lloyd. For more information, email rebeccajonesb@gmail.com

Evans makes it clear that as a documentary filmmaker and an activist, she hopes to not only educate people through her films but also to motivate them to work for change. “What’s happened to the people of West Virginia and to Appalachia has been a great injustice,” Evans says. “And justice is what the people in our film, and the people of the region, are fighting for.”

According to Evans, she feels a responsibility to capture and tell the stories of the people she documents. She has been motivated by a concern that, “If I didn’t capture these stories, if I didn’t do this work as a documentary filmmaker, … no one would ever know who we were and no one would remember us.”

Throughout her career, Evans has fought against stereotypical portrayals of her native state. She undertook her first documentary, “The Appalachians,” a three-part television miniseries that first aired in 2005, in part because “I thought, someone needs to make a documentary about who we really are because I am so sick and tired of people asking me if my grandfather made moonshine and I was married to my brother.”

To Evans, the origins and motives of these stereotypes are linked to corporate interests that have historically been eager to “dehumanize” the region. “It’s easier to take the land and lives of people that you don’t view as equal.”

“What I hope the take-away [of this film] is, is to see that all of us that live in the region, all of us that work in the region, we have common ground,” Evans says. “We’re human beings. And this is our story, and this is our struggle.”

“Blood on the Mountain” is currently screening at film festivals, with broader distribution expected in spring 2016. Runtime 91 minutes. Visit bloodonthemountain.com.

Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television (expected 2016)

Hillbilly,” a documentary still in production and directed by Sally Rubin and Ashley York, aims to contrast the traditional Hollywood “hillbilly” stereotype with portraits of individual artists, writers, activists and others. According to Rubin, the film will illustrate “what Appalachia is and what Appalachia isn’t, simultaneously, in the same film.”

Billy Redden, who played the banjo boy in “Deliverance,” is interviewed in “Hillbilly: Appalachia in television and film.” Movie still provided by Sally Rubin and Ashley York

Billy Redden, who played the banjo boy in “Deliverance,” is interviewed in “Hillbilly: Appalachia in television and film.” Movie still provided by Sally Rubin and Ashley York

Both directors have strong ties to Appalachia. York is from eastern Kentucky. And Rubin, whose previous work includes “Deep Down: A story from the heart of coal country,” which she co-directed with Jen Gilomen, has family from the mountains of Tennessee. Yet both Rubin and York now live in Los Angeles, which provides them with a simultaneous closeness to and distance from their topic.

“We talk about that a lot in the film, how leaving the region affects your view of it, what it’s like to be someone who’s from the region and then leaves and then comes back,” says Rubin. Such issues of regionalism and identity will be interwoven with their discussion of media portrayals of Appalachian stereotypes.

Appalachia at the Movies

Hollywood films such as the iconic 1972 thriller “Deliverance” have often represented Appalachia through negative stereotypes. But a recent wide-release film is breaking new ground by presenting a more nuanced and authentic view of the region.

“Big Stone Gap” — starring Ashley Judd and Whoopi Goldberg — is a 2014 movie based on a novel by Adriana Trigiani. Trigiani, who also directed the film, grew up in Big Stone Gap, the small Virginia town that gave this fictional portrayal its name.

Set in 1978, “Big Stone Gap” centers on Ave Maria Mulligan, an unmarried pharmacist whose life changes forever when she learns a family secret. This romantic comedy is as much a love story of this small town as it is of the characters themselves.

“People all over the world think they know something about Appalachia, because they’ve seen ‘Deliverance,’” wrote Silas House, award-winning novelist and former Appalachian Voices board member, in an October article published by Salon magazine. He adds, “Movies have taught us that all rural people are racist, homophobic and misogynistic.”

“Big Stone Gap” defies these stereotypes by portraying characters who are diverse, accepting and well-read. “These may seem like small victories,” wrote House, who is also NEH Chair of Appalachian Literature at Berea College, “but for Appalachian people, this portrayal is revolutionary.”

Rubin is excited by the level of support the project is receiving within Appalachia, noting that the film was recently awarded a grant from the West Virginia Humanities Council. Individuals supporting the film either as advisors or as interviewees include such well-known Appalachian personalities as Silas House, Chad Berry and bell hooks.

According to Rubin, she and York value these collaborations and are proud that the film will be “produced all, totally, within the region, with the partnership and support of people who live there.”

In one of the film’s interviews, Virginia Tech professor Barbara Ellen Smith summarizes how the stereotypes about the region have benefited those who extract the region’s resources. According to Smith, because popular culture sees Appalachia as “a region of people who are depraved, not part of the American dream, [and] don’t really deserve the kind of resources and wealth that lie beneath the land of Appalachia, particularly coal, [then] of course we can dispossess them of their land.”

Rubin has found that outside the region, many have questioned why there is a need to investigate representations of Appalachia. “There’s a reason that the hillbilly stereotype is so prevalent, and I would even say so popular, in popular culture and media,” she says. “We’re trying to overturn something that people, in many ways, don’t want overturned.”

“Hillbilly: Appalachia in film and television” is in production, with release expected in late 2016. Runtime approximately 90 minutes. Visit hillbillymovie.com.

Overburden (2015)

Betty Harrah featured in “Overburden.” Movie stills provided by Chad A. Stevens

Betty Harrah fights to increase miner safety in “Overburden.” Movie still provided by Chad A. Stevens

Driven by a desire to help stop mountaintop removal coal mining, Chad A. Stevens began work on his new film “Overburden” in 2006. His story begins by following two environmental activists — Lorelei Scarbro and Rory McIlmoil — as they work to save Coal River Mountain, W.Va., from mining by pushing instead for a wind-power project. The film takes a dramatic turn when the April 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine disaster leads to an unlikely alliance between Scarbro and Betty Harrah, a pro-coal advocate who begins fighting for greater miner safety after her brother was killed in the explosion.

As a filmmaker striving to tell this story as authentically as possible, Stevens emphasizes how important it is to let the people in his film have their own voice and avoid imposing his own preconceived narrative onto the film. “Ultimately, it’s about respect,” he says. “Respecting where they’re coming from and then [having an] openness to that.”

Stevens’ respect for the two main women in his film is evident.
In describing his years-long collaboration with Scarbro while making the film, Stevens notes that as early as 2008 she was using the term “mono-economy” to describe the lack of opportunities residents in her area had outside of the coal industry.

“I look back at that and see how insightful she really was at that time, and I didn’t even get it then. I didn’t get that until later in the process,” Stevens says.

He was also deeply affected by his interactions with Harrah. While he remains opposed to mountaintop removal, he says he now has a more nuanced view of the situation. Despite her efforts to increase miner safety, Stevens says that Harrah remains “ultimately pro-coal.”

“I think it’s because it’s the only option she can see for families like hers to survive there,” he says. “And I can understand that now, having worked with her over time. So, she really changed my thinking in a pretty big way.”

Lorelei Scarbro fights to increase miner safety in “Overburden.” Movie stills provided by Chad A. Stevens

Lorelei Scarbro fights to increase miner safety in “Overburden.” Movie still provided by Chad A. Stevens

Stevens sees Scarbro and Harrah, not the environmental and social justice themes, as the emotional heart of the film. “The most important thing to me is that these two women are really on opposite sides of the struggle. And they find this common ground,” he says. “And I think that that’s hopefully inspiring and a model that can be used by others.”

“Overburden” is currently screening at film festivals, with broader distribution expected in early 2016. Runtime 65 minutes. Visit thecoalwar.com.