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The first indictment has been issued in a criminal probe into last year’s explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine that left 29 coal miners dead.

The mine’s Chief of Security Hughie Stover has been accused of lying to investigators and trying to destroy mine records, reports the Charleston Gazette.

Stover is accused of falsely telling federal agents in January 2011 that Massey’s Performance Coal Co. had a policy dating back to 1999 that forbade security guards from giving advance notice of inspections. The indictment alleges that Stover “had himself directed and trained security guards … to give advance notice by announcing the presence of an MSHA inspector over” the mine radio.

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It’s been one week since a group of protesters ended their sit-in at Governor Steve Beshear’s office. A group of 14 protesters spent the weekend in Beshear’s office protesting the surface mining technique commonly called Mountaintop Removal. The sit-in ended with the annual I Love Mountains Day rally in Frankfort on the 14th.

Kentucky author Silas House was among the 14. An essay about the experience and mountaintop removal was published in Saturday’s New York Times.

From House’s op-ed:

The news media and the rest of the country typically think of mountaintop removal as an environmental problem. But it’s a human crisis as well, scraping away not just coal but also the freedoms of Appalachian residents, people who have always been told they are of less value than the resources they live above.

A few days after the rally, the U.S. House of Representatives voted on a spending bill that weakens the federal government’s ability to regulate mountaintop removal, though the bill may not pass the Senate.

The House debate over EPA spending overlapped with the state Senate’s Natural Resource and Energy Committee vote to declare Kentucky a “sanctuary state” that’s exempt from EPA regulation. That legislation also faces an uncertain future.

Fourteen protesters have ended their three-day sit-in at Governor Steve Beshear’s office. And while the protesters didn’t get the concessions they wanted from the governor, they say the effort was worthwhile, in part because of the response they received from the public.

The group, known as Kentucky Rising, occupied the governor’s office from Friday morning through Monday morning to protest Beshear’s support for the mining process commonly called mountaintop removal.

“I’ve mined coal. And I’ve got friends right here that’s done the same thing. We are here because we want to keep our mountains and water in the condition they were given to us by the good Lord above. And I’m a firm believer that he entrusted us to keep them this way,” says protester Stanley Sturgill.

“We’ve heard from people in Argentina, Germany, all over the United States. 500 farmers in Vermont.signed their names to a letter of support and sent it. Churches all over the south reported they were holding prayer services for them,” says group spokesperson Silas House.

Supporters brought so much food for the group that the demonstrators couldn’t eat it all and donate some of it to a local women’s shelter.

They emerged to a boisterous welcome from the roughly one thousand demonstrators who gathered on the steps of the state Capitol for the annual I Love Mountains Day rally. Beshear did not change his positions regarding mountaintop removal, but he did agree to tour mountaintop removal sites at the group’s request.

by Graham Shelby

Fourteen protesters will be spending the weekend in the office of Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear.

They belong to an environmental group called Kentucky Rising that gathered in the governor’s office this morning to demand a meeting with the governor. Beshear met with the demonstrators, who voiced their objection to mountaintop removal mining and their concerns about the environmental damaged caused by coal mining in eastern Kentucky.

In his State of the Commonwealth speech last week, Beshear called for the EPA to get off the backs of the state and the coal industry. One of the protesters, Jason Howard, objected to that.

“It’s not the EPA and the federal government that needs to get off your back. It’s the coal industry and your administration that needs to get off our backs,” said Howard.

Beshear didn’t offer to change his positions. The group decided to continue their protest in the governor’s office. They were prepared to be arrested at the end of the day on Friday.

Instead, the governor told them they can stay as long as they like. The group plans to stay through Monday when other environmental activists will gather in Frankfort for a rally called I Love Mountains Day.

by Tony McVeigh

A citizens group protesting mountaintop removal has met with Governor Steve Beshear.

Around 20 members of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth began a sit-in protest this morning in the lobby of the governor’s office. They said they wouldn’t leave unless they got an audience with Governor Beshear. Beshear initially said his schedule wouldn’t permit it, but finally emerged and fielded questions for about 30 minutes. The group wants an end to surface mining in Kentucky, but Beshear says he cannot support that.

“I understand where you’re coming from. I do think we can surface mine in a responsible way and reclaim the land and protect the water,” he said, eliciting laughter from the demonstrators. “I didn’t laugh at you when y’all were talking, so I would appreciate it if you would give me the same respect,” replied Beshear.

Among the protesters, who remained even after the governor went back to work, are author/poet Wendell Berry and novelist Silas House.

“I don’t think that we’re anywhere near the conversation that we’re going to have to have before we’re satisfied.  We represent a side, and it’s an authentic side, with substantive issues that need to be dealt with,” said Berry.

by Graham Shelby

Author Wendell Berry is one of a group of protesters staging a sit-in in the office of Governor Beshear at this hour. The group is demanding a meeting with the governor to discuss ending the practice of mountaintop removal mining and creating a new economic model for Kentucky.

The group of twenty calls itself Kentucky Rising and says Beshear has refused previous meeting requests. They say they plan to stay in the governor’s office until he meets with them or orders them removed from the building.

In addition to Berry, the protest group includes Kentucky authors Silas House and Erik Reece as well as activists and retired coal miners.

Beshear’s office tells WFPL the governor is willing to meet the group, but will not have time today.

Demonstrator Jason Howard is tweeting from the sit-in.

We’ll have more on this as it develops.

A federal judge has determined that the widows of two men who died in a mine fire in West Virginia five years ago cannot hold federal mine inspectors responsible for the deaths.

The ruling comes in spite of an internal review that found the inspectors culpable.

From NPR:

U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver accepted that “stinging assessment,” as he called it, but still dismissed the lawsuit Bragg and Hatfield filed against MSHA officials.

Copenhaver said he couldn’t “impose a legal duty” on MSHA and its inspectors and managers because that “would directly conflict with Congress’ decision to place the primary responsibility for mine safety on mine operators.”

 

Safety measures for coal mines may cost money, but so does poor safety. Massey Energy (soon to be sold to Alpha Natural Resources) took a net loss of $166.6 million last year. The company made more than $100 million in profits last year, and had higher revenues last year.

The reason for the loss–the Upper Big Branch disaster.

The April explosion focused attention on the company’s record of safety violations and drew intense scrutiny from federal mine safety regulators. Massey has cited the increased oversight, an ongoing mine disaster investigation and resulting production declines as reasons for its losses. The company also blamed its lower productivity on difficulty in finding enough mine workers.

In the last quarter of 2010 alone, the company’s losses totaled $70.1 million.

 

United Mine Workers of American president Cecil Roberts has generally positive things to say about Alpha Natural Resources’s move to purchase the troubled Massey Energy.

In a post on the UMWA website, Roberts says Alpha does not have a perfect safety record, but the record is better than Massey’s. Roberts goes on to say Alpha will inherit Massey’s problems (mine closures due to poor safety and the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch disaster), but he seems optimistic the company’s purchase will be a net gain for miners.

For two years, no new coal-fired power plants have been started. The Rural Blog and Washington Post attribute the stoppage to tighter EPA regulations, banks’ unwillingness to finance new projects and the changing market:

After nine years in which power companies started construction of 20 generating units, the U.S. has just gone through two years in which not a single plant has been started, because of “a combination of low natural gas prices, shale-gas discoveries, the economic slowdown and litigation by environmental groups,

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