Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Groups in two states challenge WB XPress

Thursday, February 4th, 2016 - posted by cat

Ben Luckett, Appalachian Mountain Advocates, 304-645-0125,
Kate Rooth, Appalachian Voices, 804-536-5598,
Anne Havemann, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, 240-396-1984,
Kirk Bowers, Virginia Chapter, Sierra Club, 434-296-8673,

On behalf of conservation groups in Virginia and West Virginia, Appalachian Mountain Advocates today filed a formal protest and motion to intervene in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s permitting process for the WB XPress, an $850 million natural gas infrastructure proposal from Columbia Gas Transmission.

The project consists of two new compressor stations, 26 miles of pipeline replacement, and 2.9 miles of new pipeline in Virginia and West Virginia. Construction would impact the Monongahela National Forest, as well as privately owned forest and agricultural lands.

“The WB XPress would fragment prime forest habitat, endanger family farms and homes, and amplify the threats to drinking water and air quality in communities plagued by fracking operations,” explained Ben Luckett, Staff Attorney with Appalachian Mountain Advocates. The WB XPress is intended to boost Columbia’s capacity to pipe fracked natural gas from West Virginia’s Marcellus region. The fracked gas would be sold in markets farther south and perhaps abroad.

“We’re also highly concerned that this project will increase the pressure to build the Mountaineer XPress, which would have even more destructive impacts throughout our region,” explained Luckett. The Mountaineer XPress, proposed by a consortium owned in part by Columbia Gas, involves constructing three new compressor stations and approximately 165 miles of new pipeline in West Virginia.

This fall, these same groups filed similar challenges to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline. These groups hope to shed light on the rash of gas projects currently pending FERC review. “Appalachian communities have been hard-hit by the fracking boom, and now face the threat of a huge build-out of natural gas infrastructure,” explained Kate Rooth with Appalachian Voices. Collectively, the projects involve thousands of miles of pipeline construction and upgrades costing tens of billions of dollars to move fracked gas out of West Virginia.

The massive network of new gas infrastructure proposed for the region has prompted many to call on FERC to perform a comprehensive analysis of the entire planned pipeline scheme. “FERC should perform one comprehensive review of these massive fossil fuel projects so we can see the entirety of the environmental and climate impacts of this proposal — not a fragmented one that fails to recognize the devastating impacts these pipelines would have,” said Kirk Bowers, Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“Taken together, these pipeline projects will lock the region into decades of reliance on a fossil fuel that is just as bad as coal for our climate,” said Anne Havemann, general counsel for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. A new report by the Sierra Club found that just two of the pipeline proposals would trigger nearly twice as much total climate-disrupting pollution as all the existing stationary sources in Virginia combined. Climate-disrupting emissions from the WB XPress project will only add to the problem.

“Every dollar invested in this dirty and dangerous fossil fuel is better spent on clean energy and energy efficiency,” said Havemann. The Chesapeake Climate Action Network has found that for the same cost as building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, for example, a utility could instead install solar panels to power over 400,000 homes.

Columbia Gas Transmission filed its application with FERC earlier this year. FERC is tasked with determining whether the project will serve the “public convenience and necessity” and coordinating an environmental review. Columbia has asked FERC for a certificate decision by Dec. 1, 2016.

Appalachian Mountain Advocates has intervened on behalf the following groups: Appalachian Voices, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the West Virginia and Virginia chapters of the Sierra Club.

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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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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West Virginia Communities Still at Risk Despite Idled Mines

Monday, December 28th, 2015 - posted by tarence

Prayers not pipelines

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

Special to the Front Porch: Welcome to our occasional feature where we invite a guest to “pull up a chair” and share their views on issues important to you. Our guest today is Jill Averitt, who, together with her husband, sisters and in-laws, is raising seven kids, lots of chickens, and vegetables on 130 acres in Nelson County, Va. Jill created the “Prayers Not Pipelines” project to express her concerns about a massive fracked-gas pipeline that is proposed to cut right through her family’s land.


When the Atlantic Coast Pipeline was first announced, it took us a few months to understand the reality of the proposal. The original route was going through our friends’ property on Shannon Farm and it seemed unreal. We decided to get involved because we could feel their anxiety and wanted to help.

Soon after, the pipeline route was moved. A victory! We thought. Until Dominion announced the new proposed route was going through our property, which we share with my in-laws, my two sisters and their families. And not just our home, but right through the middle of the land where we had begun building our dream project – a nature-oriented resort.

The pipeline would clear our forests and put our lives in jeopardy if there was an explosion. We have seven children between us and four homes on 130 acres where we have spent the last ten years raising our kids. No amount of money can replace that.

We really got into the fight at this point. There are many nights of anger, fear and frustration from being bullied by Dominion. It has more money, it seems to be heard more quickly and have a special immunity to accountability. My husband, Richard, has worked tirelessly, reaching out to our senators, congressmen, Board of Supervisors, and governor’s representatives, not to mention the endless meetings with advocacy groups and lawyers trying to find angles to fight this behemoth.

I have been sad and physically sick a lot of nights after talking all day about our fight. I wanted to do something positive and uplifting for my family and community who have been spending any little time they have in their busy lives experiencing the same emotions.

So I came up with the idea of the prayer project that was later named Prayers Not Pipelines. This is what I sent to a few friends:

“I’m thinking of creating an art piece on both sides of Route 151 where the pipeline would intersect the road. Imagine a ‘wall’ of white gauzy fabric on both sides of 151 that you can see through to the trees, but blocked enough to imagine their loss. It would be 125-feet long, the width of the path of the proposed pipeline.

“In front of that white wall we would stand hand in hand with our ‘No Pipeline’ shirts. We would line both sides of 151. As we filter in and out to take turns, we could set up a station at the Rockfish Valley Foundation Natural History Center to hand out information flyers. While the community is waiting their turn to stand, we would have a table for folks to create their own prayer flag. We would have white squares of cloth with markers and people can make their own statement, intention, artwork or prayer. We will collect them and pin them to a ribbon and hang them on the wall. One for each side.

“Our intention for this is to send out positive messages to the community and the forest. Blessings and protection, if you like. So what is left is not a bunch of ‘No Pipeline’ signs, but prayers going out to the world that this is a protected and sacred place.”


After sending this out, the project took on a mind of its own, and in 12 days our community hosted the Prayers Not Pipeline event. It was a fantastic event that was covered by four news stations, three newspapers and several websites. But mostly it did exactly what we intended it to do and it continues to reverberate those feelings every day. You can’t drive past the wall of flags without feeling that this energy is real and that the pipeline is not coming through this area.

After the event, we left the fabric wall up for two days. By the third day it started to rip and I took it down, leaving the prayer flags to blow in the wind and do their thing. I called the Virginia Department of Transportation to ask them to let me know when they wanted to take the flags down because I wanted to keep them. They said I could leave them up.

That lead me to the second half of this project, which is happening right now.


Each week I go to Trager Brothers Coffee at the Rockfish Valley Community Center in Nelson County to collect the flags that folks have made during the week and I add them to the others. As I approach, the flags flapping with each car that flies by, I can feel the power of the collective intentions. It’s strong and with every blast of wind, I can feel the expansive release of blessing rushing around me. It fills me with a sense of calm that is hard to come by for those of us working on this fight. I have come to realize that tending to the wall has allowed me to hold my intentions firm in times when I start to lose faith. I close my eyes, take a deep breath and feel that protection.

I will keep pinning up these flags and making sure they fly securely to remind us all not to lose faith or give up hope. This pipeline will not come through our county and I believe it will not be built at all. How that happens or what it looks like I do not know, I just have faith that our collective work will stop it. Our community in Nelson County is the most loving, caring, sharing community I have ever lived in. That has a lot of power.

So please stop by to participate in this amazing collection of blessings and add yours. I can see thousands of flags flying and yours is one of them. You can stop by the Natural History Center on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 to 4 p.m. Enjoy a scenic walk on the nature loop while you’re here. Or stop and have a coffee at Trager Brothers in the Community Center and make your prayer flag there.

(Email Jill here.)

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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West Virginia Communities Still at Risk Despite Idled Mines

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 - posted by interns
An aerial drone video from Coal River Mountain Watch shows the Edwight Source Mine and Shumate coal sludge impoundment in fall 2015.

By Tarence Ray

As of the end of November, Alpha Natural Resources will have idled two of its coal mines near the community of Naoma, W.Va, citing “adverse market conditions” as their reason in both instances. In early October, 92 miners received notice of the impending layoffs. The decision follows Alpha’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August.

One of the mines, the Edwight Source mountaintop removal mine, has affected several nearby communities in addition to Naoma, such as Sundial, Pettry Bottom and Edwight. The 2.8 billion gallon Shumate coal sludge impoundment is located 400 feet above the now­-abandoned Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial.

The Shumate coal sludge pond, which holds roughly twenty times the amount of coal sludge that was released in the fatal Buffalo Creek flood of 1972, is fed by Alpha’s Goals prep plant. It remains to be seen whether Alpha will idle operations at this prep plant.

The impoundment is listed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as a Class C dam — the type of dam “located where failure may cause a loss of human life or serious damage to [buildings and roads].” A report by the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation found that if the Shumate impoundment were to fail, it would release a wall of sludge more than 20 feet high. Within five minutes, the sludge would reach the community of Edwight a half-­mile downstream. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials have also cited the dam for safety violations on multiple occasions.

Map layer courtesy West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, design by Haley Rogers

Map layer courtesy West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, design by Haley Rogers

In April of this year, Appalachian Voices published a study of 50 communities in central Appalachia that are similarly “at risk” of the worst impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

These impacts include, but are not limited to, increased blasting, diminished water quality, and negative health, wealth and population trends. Sundial is Number 25 on this list of “Communities at Risk.”

According to Vernon Haltom, executive director of Naoma-­based Coal River Mountain Watch, these risks do not often get reported in local, or even national, media. Haltom references a recent New York Times article that claims “mountaintop removal…has all but ground to a halt.” “I wish somebody would tell Alpha that,” Haltom says. He points out that, although Alpha is idling its Edwight mine and recently filed for bankruptcy, it is still applying for permits in the area, including a new mountaintop removal mine one mile upstream from Sundial.

“Bankruptcy doesn’t mean that you go out of business,” Haltom says. “It means you get some special financial treatment, a loan from Citibank. Yeah you shut down, you lay some people off. But they don’t just immediately shut down and go away.”

According to Haltom, the back and forth between idling mines and re­applying for permits has had depressing effects on local communities like Sundial. “You see For Sale signs on a number of houses,” he says. “There’s houses been for sale for five or six years at least. So there’s nobody rushing in to buy it up. But people shouldn’t have to leave. You shouldn’t have to be a refugee.”

“It’s one thing to go someplace else to find work,” Haltom says. “It’s another thing to leave because you can’t live there because it’s toxic.”

To view maps and information about other communities at risk from the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, visit:­at­risk

Mountain Music Trail Winds Through WV

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

Following U.S. Route 219 through Monroe, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Randolph and Tucker counties in West Virginia, the Mountain Music Trail highlights the old-time music of the Mountain State.

Inspired by Virginia’s heritage music trail, the Crooked Road, The Mountain Music Trail connects musicians and musical venues along this scenic highway. Participating musicians include The Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys and Aurora Celtic, and venues range from the Pocahontas County Opera House in Marlinton to The Purple Fiddle in Thomas.

“Economic development is one of the primary reasons we wanted to start this project,” Cara Rose, executive director of the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “But it’s also about preserving the music. It’s about sharing the music of our region and our culture.”

The trail also provides an opportunity to highlight local businesses along the route, including several microbreweries. The organizers have also partnered with the Mountain Dance Trail, a project celebrating West Virginia’s vibrant tradition of community square dancing.

The West Virginia Division of Tourism and West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Mountain Stage collaborated to produce a virtual tour of the new music trail. The website provides videos of stops along the trail, streaming music of featured artists and an interactive map. It is an invitation to spend at least a weekend exploring West Virginia.

For more information and to take in the sounds and sights of the virtual tour, visit

Former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship guilty

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial in Whitesville, W.Va. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

The Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial in Whitesville, W.Va. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

“Kingpin” of coal conspiracy faces a maximum of just one year in prison

After a six-week-long trial that included 27 witnesses and hundreds of exhibits, followed by a week and a half of dramatic deliberations, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has been found guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws.

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Blankenship could face up to one year in prison.

Blankenship was indicted in November 2014 of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws, a misdemeanor, and cover up violations by giving workers advance notice of inspections. He was also charged with lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to investors in an effort to stop plummeting stock prices following the April 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners.

He was found not guilty of the charges related to securities fraud.

The prosecution was led by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia Booth Goodwin and Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby. If you haven’t been following the trial, Ruby summarized the government’s case against Blankenship in six sentences.

“If you violate the laws and gamble with the lives of your workers, you will be held accountable,” Goodwin said at a press conference after the verdict was announced.

Prosecutors argued that Blankenship was the “kingpin” of a vast conspiracy operated by “yes men” that he oversaw using intimidation, fear and propaganda.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts called the verdict “a measure of justice.”

“The truth that was common knowledge in the coalfields — that Don Blankenship cared little for the safety and health of miners working for his company and even less for the laws enforcing their rights – has finally been proven in court,” Roberts said in a statement.

The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, which works to improve safety conditions for coal miners, hopes the conviction will bring industry-wide changes.

“The verdict should broadcast to coal industry management that business as usual must change — if the resurgence of black lung and horror of disasters such as Upper Big Branch does not wake them up, then perhaps criminal convictions will,” the group stated.

Blankenship was not specifically charged in the explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine in Whitesville, W.Va. But the investigation into the disaster resulted in four convictions that led up the Massey corporate chain — and eventually to Blankenship’s indictment.

As the prosecution repeatedly pointed out during the trial and in its closing arguments, however, hundreds of serious and preventable safety violations occurred at Upper Big Branch, including “the most unwarrantable failure orders of almost any coal mine in America.”

Through emails, memos and recorded phone calls, the prosecution also argued that Blankenship knew that the Upper Big Branch operation was systemically violating mine safety laws.

A 2011 report commissioned by West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin called the story of Upper Big Branch “a cautionary tale of hubris” and concluded that responsibility for the explosion lies with Massey management.

Judy Jones Peterson, the sister of Upper Big Branch victim Dean Jones, has been particularly visible throughout the trial. Today Peterson told reporters that the verdict “sends a message to all CEOs and operators.”

“Even if Don Blankenship wasn’t convicted of all of these crimes, he is guilty, my friends,” she added.

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Understanding the Stream Protection Rule

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 - posted by Erin

SPR Meme 1

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a long-awaited draft Stream Protection Rule. While it’s far from perfect, the proposed rule is a long-overdue update to protections for both surface and groundwater from mountaintop removal coal mining. It also provides much-needed clarification regarding a host of other issues, including reclamation standards and bonding requirements.

Not surprisingly, the industry is fighting the Stream Protection Rule tooth and nail. Instead of focusing on the substance of the rule though, opponents’ rely on tired “war on coal” talking points. The industry also argues these regulations are unnecessary and will undermine an otherwise viable industry — even though several large coal companies have declared bankruptcy. Let’s examine those claims.

First, this new rule was developed to update the rule currently in use — the 1983 Stream Buffer Zone rule — based on new science and realities on the ground. The past 32 years have provided ample time for additional research to prove what many Central Appalachian residents already know: that burying streams with mining waste permanently damages waterways and that mountaintop removal is linked to a host of other environmental and health problems. The Stream Protection Rule aims to address a number of current problems.

The Stream Protection Rule aims to improve methods for monitoring for and preventing damage to surface and groundwater. It’s important to note that the rule still allows for mining activities, including waste disposal, in streams. The new rule is actually weaker than the 1983 rule in this regard. The ‘83 rule prohibited mining disturbances within 100 feet of streams and prohibited damage to streams by mountaintop removal mining. In practice, however, states routinely grant variances to the ‘83 Stream Buffer Zone rule, allowing valley fill construction and other mining impacts to streams on a regular basis. This is often done by allowing companies to remediate other areas of streams that have already been degraded as a substitution for the stream miles they will bury or otherwise damage.

While it does not include a stream buffer zone requirement, the Stream Protection Rule does provide a number of added benefits for aquatic resources. New requirements include enhanced baseline monitoring data for both surface and groundwater. The availability of such data will make it easier to identify damage caused by mining. Under existing regulations, coal companies too often escape liability for damage to waterways because there is no baseline data to prove pollutants were not present before mining began. The draft rule also includes a definition of “material damage to the hydrologic balance”, which was never previously defined. Clarifying language like this is an important part of making sure that rules are enforceable on the ground.

An important question to ask is whether this type of regulation is necessary. In this case, the additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed. Research over the past decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. A recent study examined coal companies’ success in restoring or recreating streams as a form of “trade” for other streams damaged or buried during mining. The study found that 97 percent of these projects failed optimal habitat scores for aquatic life. This is strong indication that rebuilding a stream’s form will not necessarily restore its function. Additionally, the study found that a majority of these restoration projects were completed in perennial streams, while mining damage was mostly occurring in intermittent and ephemeral streams. This is important because intermittent and ephemeral streams often provide unique habitat and food resources critical to the survival of many species.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

The science clearly indicates the need for more protection of streams and other environmental resources, but would the cost of these protections be justifiable? Do the benefits to streams — and people, and tourism, and recreation, and … — outweigh the impact that the rule may have on the industry? The industry would like you to believe that this new rule will be so costly that it will create an unwarranted burden on an otherwise beneficial Central Appalachian industry. The OSMRE attempted to answer this debate through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which includes cost-benefit analyses. In most scenarios, the OSMRE expects minimal job loss due to the new rule, in part due to jobs created through the need to comply with the rule.

What the EIS doesn’t adequately do is take into consideration the larger context of surface mining in Appalachia and the impacts it has on local communities. First, the coal industry already has a net negative impact on the economies of the states where it occurs. Several different studies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky indicate this. In 2006, the coal industry cost the state of Kentucky $115 million. In 2009, the coal industry was estimated to cost the state of West Virginia $97.5 million and the state of Virginia $21.9 million.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

The EIS also does not consider surface mining’s global impact. The burning of coal in power plants releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Surface mining in Central Appalachia also exacerbates climate change through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, forests in the region will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by the year 2035. This is due both to deforestation during the mining process and grassland reclamation. The Stream Protection Rule improves reclamation requirements so that more mined lands are returned to native forests, instead of the now-prevalent grasslands.

Lastly, the EIS does not consider the negative health outcomes associated with mountaintop removal. The prevalence of health problems the region is well documented. Most recently, a study showed that dust from surface mines can promote the growth of lung tumors. The negative impacts to the health of communities near mines alone should be enough to justify an end to mountaintop removal.

It is true that the coal industry in Central Appalachia is facing a particularly difficult time. Unlike previous boom and bust cycles, this downturn looks to be permanent. This is exactly why additional safeguards are necessary to protect public water. Companies desperate to turn a profit in a more competitive energy market may be more inclined to bend rules or ignore regulations all together. This time marks a critical and exciting opportunity to address economic diversification throughout the region. Protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region will be integral to a successful transition.

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