Coal Report June 5, 2012

Coal Report 06-05-12Some 2,000 people gathered on Saturday in Abingdon, Virginia to show support for the coal industry. The Bristol Herald-Courier reports that an array of mostly Republican politicians told the crowd that they support deregulation of the mining industry, and that government—in particular the Environmental Protection Agency—threatens not only jobs but a way of life. Governor McDonnell, US Representative Morgan Griffith, the state Lieutenant Governor and the Attorney General were there, along with a host of other politicians and former Governor George Allen, Jr., who is running for the US Senate. Politicians, coal industry figures and miners from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Tennessee also attended.

American Electric Power’s Big Sandy plant has been in the national news recently. The big coal-fired power plant sits beside the river near Louisa, Kentucky. It is one of the dirtiest power plants in the nation. When new air pollution rules were enacted last year it was clear that something would have to change. AEP announced that, following the lead of many other utilities, it would switch the plant to gas. AEP’s chairman Michael Morris said that economics was behind the switch, “The math screams at you to do gas.” That sparked a storm of criticism from the coal industry and its supporters. Powerful State Representative Rocky Adkins, for example, told chairman Morris, “Have you lost your mind? You cannot wave the white flag and let the environmentalists and regulators declare victory here in the heart of coal country.”

So AEP changed its mind and agreed the Big Sandy plant could go on burning coal. That would require a huge upgrade of the aging facility, costing a billion dollars, and that would translate to a 30 percent rate hike for AEP customers. The controversy prompted a front-page story in The New York Times. That in turn set off another storm of protest, from consumers, large industrial customers, and the Kentucky attorney general, who argued there are cheaper ways to produce the power cleanly. So AEP changed its mind again. Last week it withdrew its request for the rate hike. The Lexington Herald-Leader reports an AEP spokesman saying the company wants to “evaluate everything going forward” in the “ever-changing energy landscape.”

The whole episode points up the strains bearing down on the Appalachian coal industry. The argument for coal and scrubbers (rather than gas) is that it would save jobs in eastern Kentucky enough to justify even a billion-dollar expense. But the Kentucky attorney general’s office testified to the Public Service Commission that if scrubbers are installed, most of the coal then used would be from the Illinois Basin, not eastern Kentucky. That’s because Appalachian coal is steadily getting more expensive. A plant with scrubbers installed can burn the cheaper west Kentucky coal and still meet air pollution rules.     Meanwhile the Big Sandy plant will keep burning coal, reports the Herald-Leader. The new air-quality rules don’t take effect for another two years.

A Harlan County mine was closed for nine days following a safety inspection that found a wide variety of serious problems, reports the Louisville Courier-Journal. K&D Mine No. 17 near Highsplint was cited for a wide variety of potentially life-threatening violations. Two of the operators of the K&D mine were also operators of the Kentucky Darby No. 1 mine that exploded in 2006, killing five miners. The Courier-Journal reported earlier this year that the two operators, Ralph Napier and John D. North, still owe $700,000 in unpaid fines from that disaster. The Courier reports that before last month’s incident, K&D Miming owed over $400,000 in unpaid safety f9ines.

Alpha Natural Resources has introduced us to Ginny, the world’s first mine rescue dog. The Bristol Herald-Courier reports that the 2-year old Dutch shepherd has trained for a year. In an underground disaster she can follow a human scent and help rescuers find trapped miners. She wears a protective vest and carries an infrared camera. She also carries a gas detector and is trained to retreat to safety if it goes off. Rick McAllister, Ginny’s handler, says she is the world’s first mine rescue dog but likely not the last.

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