Appalachia is the historical center of the coal mining industry in the United States, providing much of the fuel for the industrial revolution . Today it produces a far smaller fraction of the country’s coal but still has more active mines than any other region in the United States. Older mines tend to be traditional underground mines, which employ large numbers of miners and leave the surrounding area relatively intact. However, many of the newer mines are what are referred to as “mountaintop removal”, which literally disassembles a mountain to retrieve the coal inside. While far more efficient than a underground mines, their environmental impacts are much greater. Much of their efficiency results from the fact that they can mine coal with a fraction of the workers when compared with an underground mine.
ilovemountains.org has done a tremendous effort cataloging the effects that mountaintop removal has had on the Appalachian mountains, as well as the link between electricity usage and enviromental impacts.
October 3, 2014
One of the largest coal mining companies in the United States, Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. has announced the layoff of 250 workers, with the promise that more layoffs are coming. The coal industry is often quick to blame the current Administration’s rules and environmentalists for the downturn. However, the hydraulic fracturing technology which has allowed energy companies to reach tough natural gas deposits is also to blame for the decline in coal mining.
James Stevenson, IHS Energy’s Director of North American Coal estimates that it is a “50/50 split” between regulation and the newfound availability of natural gas causing the decline. However in explaining the impact of markets versus regulations Stevenson cites that “the tipping point really has been caused by cheap gas.” This is because existing coal generation facilities are competitive or economically advantageous over gas units, but new and predicted regulations encourage old coal power plants to close and increase the expense of new coal fired power plants.
Some Coal Markets Analysts believe that the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) have accelerated the closure of the coal fleet. However, analysts predict that remaining coal fired power plants will be “newer, more efficient and cleaner.” Stevenson notes that this decade will see stable retirements, but an acceleration will likely be observed in 2030.
In addition to the regulations and natural gas competition, Appalachian coal mines are seeing changes as a result of technologies that allow higher-sulfur coal to be competitive again with the higher grade coal generally produced in the Appalachia unit. Additional factors like mechanization, geologic constraints, and increased safety standards are to blame for the decrease in cost competitiveness of coal from the Appalachia unit, resulting in fewer jobs and a flagging industry. The higher grade metallurgical coals available in Appalachia will continue to be in demand, but a flagging demand for power supply coal will be noted in the future.
The Powder River Basin is also experiencing a production reduction, however the outlook for production in this this area is still potentially robust, if the coal can make it out of the country given concerns about environmental issues as related to transport in the Pacific Northwest.
Ulimately, analysts believe that for the medium and long term the outlook for energy production and steel (metallurgical coal is used in steel production) is robust.
Read more at: http://www.eenews.net/stories/1060006890
September 9, 2014
Boone County, West Virginia may see more lay-offs, as 360 Patriot Coal Corporation employees were given WARN notices on September 9. The potential layoffs result from market pressure from mild summer weather and low natural gas prices. Patriot’s President, Bennet K. Hatfield, and West Virginia Governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, also cite to the new carbon dioxide rules released by the Environmental Protection Agency as impacting the company.
Read more at: http://www.wowktv.com/story/26487463/patriot-coal-plans-150-layoffs-at-boone-county-mine
August 26, 2014
Blackhawk Mining, LLC, a Lexington, Kentucky company, will purchase a mining unit from James River Coal Company, which is undergoing bankruptcy reorganization. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Kevin Huennekens is presiding over the proceedings to distribute the James River’s declared $1 Billion in assets to pay $800k in debts. The Judge has approved the sale for $52M.
May 28, 2014
A potential indicator of the future of coal can be seen in Salem, Massachusetts where a 720-megawatt coal and oil fired plant that has been open since 1951 will be shutting down permanently on June 1st. The plant will be demolished and replaced with a 674-megawatt gas plant with one-third the footprint. There are also plans for construction of operations for a future offshore wind farm.
This coal-fired plant is just one of hundreds set to close nationwide by 2020, according to the Department of Energy. As the gas boom continues throughout the United States and tight restrictions are imposed on carbon emissions, the future of coal appears to be facing some tough roads ahead.
May 13, 2014
Two coal miners working for Patriot Coal died Monday evening while working at Patriot’s Brody Mine No. 1 in Boone County, West Virginia. This brings to the total of five coal miners dying nationwide on the job so far this year.
Eric D. Legg, 48 and Gary P. Hensley, 46 were both “retreat mining” in that they remove coal pillars in the mine that hold up the roof. In this instance, the roof collapsed on top of both workers and neither coal miner survived.
Read article at http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20140513/GZ01/140519765/1419
May 5, 2014
Over 8,000 tons of coal derailed in Bowie, Maryland last Thursday morning. This is the third major Mid-Atlantic spill for the CSX railroad in under a week. The incident highlights the dangers of transporting fossil fuels over rail lines that can have devastating and hazardous consequences on humans and wildlife.
April 29, 2014
The Supreme Court today upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to place regulations on pollution caused from coal-fired power plants that are emitted from 27 Midwestern and Appalachian states. This is a major victory in reducing power plant pollution and highlights a decade long battle by the EPA to find a way to limit smog pollution that has been plaguing the eastern seaboard.
This ruling will require coal power plants to reduce their smokestack pollution in an effort to clean up air quality for downwind states. The EPA stated that this ruling would prevent more than 30,000 premature deaths and hundreds of thousands of illness each year.
April 24, 2014
After the devastating February 2nd spill that released toxic sludge for over 70 miles on the Dan River, Duke Energy is under pressure to remove all coal ash that borders North Carolina’s rivers and lakes. Environmental groups are citing the need for Duke Energy to remove all of their coal ash to lined landfills in order to avoid the environmental degradation that occurred on the Dan River.
Duke Energy is alleging that this removal of coal ash would cost over $10 billion dollars and take decades to clean up. Furthermore, Duke Energy has stated that the majority of these costs for paying for coal ash clean up would come from its electricity customers.
April 10, 2014
National Geographic discusses the argument that clean coal is nothing more than a myth. The article discusses the idea of capturing the CO₂ and how long can these deposits actually store the carbon dioxide.
There is evidence from leading Geophysicists that often, the injection of the carbon dioxide is put into reservoirs with brittle rock. This leads to small earthquakes, which cause cracking in the overlying shale rock and leads to CO₂ leaking from the storage facilities.
Read article at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2014/04/coal/nijhuis-text
April 8, 2014
Richmond, Va-based James River Coal filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in order to restructure and save the Coal company’s declining business. The company has secured a $110 million dollar bankruptcy loan.
James River Coal stated that this decline for both James River and coal companies in the central Appalachian region is directly attributable to the new natural gas boom associated with fracing. The change to natural gas has led to a decline in the coal industry including mine closures and layoffs throughout Appalachia.
March 24, 2014
Arch Coal suffered a set back today when the United States Supreme Court declined to hear their challenge to the Obama administration’s blockage of an environmental permit for the Spruce No. 1 mining project in West Virginia.
The EPA in an unprecedented move vetoed a permit for Arch Coal despite the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers had given approval for the mine. The permit would have allowed Arch Coal to discharge coal associated waste into local waterways. The case will now be returned back to the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.
Read article at http://www.cnbc.com/id/101519586
See document at
February 4, 2014
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released findings related to coal leasing and the need for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to enhance the appraisal process. GAO found that the BLM consistently failed to explain the rationale for accepting bids for coal leasing on federal land that at least initially were far below the actual fair market value presale estimates.
The report stated that the state offices of the BLM did not allow independent review of these leasing agreements with coal companies. Additionally, GAO cited that the BLM failed to take advantage of an independent third party appraisal within the Department of the Interior (Office of Valuation of Services). Lastly, GAO was highly critical of the BLM’s failure to provide even limited information to the public on federal coal leasing.
Read article at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-140
See document at http://www.gao.gov/assets/660/659801.pdf
October 22, 2013
Michael Hendryx of West Virginia University recently released a report that highlights the severe emotional toll that the coal industry’s practice of mountaintop removal takes on the people living where these extraction tactics take place.
The study released showed that of 8,591 adults living in Central Appalachia, 17% of respondents in mountaintop removal mining areas suffered from major depression. This was compared with 10% of respondents diagnosed with major depression in non-mining areas.
See document at http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdfplus/10.1089/eco.2013.0029
January 31, 2013
Citizen’s groups in Kentucky recently rose a public objection to what they claim is the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet making back-room deals with Frasure Creek Mining. The agreement is to determine fines levied against Frasure Creek mining for hundreds of water pollution violations. The citizens groups are claiming that the state of Kentucky is allowing Frasure Creek Coal’s threat of forfeiture to get off the hook for $440,000 of the $660,000 penalties for intentional polluting of Kentucky waterways.
This is just another example of citizen groups alleging that they are being excluded from all negotiations while the coal industry is being allowed to settle pollution violations through private, non-public negotiations.
See document at http://appvoices.org/aww/Frasure_OAH_Settlement_Objections.pdf
December 12, 2012
According to a report released by Downstream Strategies, the state of Virginia in 2009 lost an estimated $22 million in revenues as a result of the coal industry. The coal industry was the largest expenditure to the state of Virginia and is said to receive over $37 million a year in tax breaks within the state.
This article emphasizes the need for reform in the tax structure associated with the coal industry and the drain these tax breaks are taking on local economies. Downstream Strategies also discusses the decline of coal production in Virginia and the rising costs associated with coal mining expenses.
National Center for Environmental Assessment, Ofﬁce of Research and Development, EPA/600/R-10/023F, www.epa.gov/ncea, March 2011
This report describes a method to characterize the relationship between the extirpation (the effective extinction) of invertebrate genera and salinity (measured as conductivity) and from that relationship derives a freshwater aquatic life benchmark. This benchmark of 300 µS/cm may be applied to waters in Appalachian streams that are dominated by calcium and magnesium salts of sulfate and bicarbonate at circum-neutral to mildly alkaline pH.
Improving EPA Review of Appalachian Surface Coal Mining Operations Under the Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act, and the Environmental Justice Executive Order. Published July 21, 2011.
May 31, 2011
The results of the April 2011 MSHA “impact” inspections have been announced, resulting in a total of 161 citations and orders being issued against eight different coal mining operations. All cited mines were in the eastern region of the US, including Shoemaker and Randolph in West Virginia, the No. 2 and #68 mines in Kentucky, as well as one mine in each of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee and Alabama.
Among the worst offenders in the sweep were the Vision Coal’s No. 2 mine, which received 37 citations and orders that documented (among other things) that Vision wasn’t properly drilling bore holes to test for methane, and that it was creating a risk of a collapse by not following its ceiling reinforcement plan. Inman Energy’s Randolph mine received 25 citations, 21 of which were the most serious “S&S” citations indicating an immediate danger to the mining crew. The impact inspections grew out of an increased enforcement push by MSHA after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine. Impact inspections target mines that have a history of violations.
Read article at http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/2011/05/31/msha-announces-results-of-latest-inspection-sweeps/ and http://www.wfpl.org/2011/06/01/two-kentucky-mines-cited-in-msha-inspections/. Read MSHA press release at http://www.msha.gov/MEDIA/PRESS/2011/NR110531.asp See the list of inspected mines at http://coaldiver.org/documents/master-inspection-list-targeted-enforcement-msha-april-2011
Reports from MSHA Office of Accountability reviews of MSHA inspectors in region 1.
Reports from MSHA Office of Accountability reviews of MSHA inspectors in region 2.