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Coal Report for January 23, 2015

WV coal miner Tommy Davis, who lost 3 family members, including a son, in the Upper Big Branch disaster, speaks to the WV House of Delegates on a bill that would make it more difficult to sue companies for incidents/injuries that lead to Workers’ Compensation benefits // photo from the WV Legislature, found via https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152771459923347.1073741854.110270818346&type=3

Hard times continue for east Kentucky coal. The Harlan Daily Enterprise reports that two Harlan County coal companies have given some 95 employees notice that they could soon be laid off.  The companies are Fox Knob Coal and JAD Coal, both of which share the same management, in the town of Coldiron, Ky.  The warning was issued on January 5th, and said that workers could start to be laid off on January 23rd. The Federal WARN act, though, typically requires a 60-day notice for warning workers.  The company said the warning was given so last-minute because of “unforeseeable business circumstances.”  Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley called the layoffs “disappointing,” and said “It’s never been more important. . . we have to be looking at ways to diversify our economy.”  The companies expect these layoffs to be permanent.

Even though the coal picture in central Appalachia continues to look bleak, with analysts saying the industry is not likely to bounce back in our region, coal still accounted for 39 percent of electricity nationwide from 2013 to 2014, far more than any other power source.  And Energy & Environment News reports that even with new emissions rules at power plants, by the year 2030, coal is still projected to generate 31 percent of electricity in the US, with natural gas accounting for 32 percent.  That’s still a huge drop in coal’s market share—10 years ago, coal accounted for some 50% of US electricity.  But in this report, an industry analyst said that more than anything else, “natural gas prices are having the biggest impact on coal consumption. If natural gas prices hadn’t dropped that much, it would be a completely different ballgame.”  Despite what many in the industry have called a “war on coal” that they say has been waged by the EPA, Fred Continue reading Coal Report for January 23, 2015

Coal Report for January 14, 2015

photo from MSHA of a continuous miner // found via http://www.msha.gov/media/press/2015/nr-0113.asp

The Obama Administration’s Mine Safety & Health Administration has issued a long-awaited rule that will require that “proximity detection” systems be installed on all continuous mining machines underground to protect miners. Continuous miners are huge, and dangerous—they can weigh 60 tons and use sharp, spinning blades to cut coal. And The Mountain Eagle reports that these machines have been responsible for 35 deaths in US coal mines since 1984, including Arthur Gelentser, who was killed at the Dominion No. 30 mine last February in Buchanan County, Virginia. Proximity detection technology automatically shuts these machines off if miners are detected to be nearby. The new rule requires that these systems be placed immediately on all newly-built continuous miners, and all existing continuous miners must have them installed within 3 years. Other types of heavy equipment underground are still exempt, though. The federal rule proved necessary because individual states had been slow to act on their own—as the Charleston Gazette reports, the state of West Virginia stalled for years on a proximity detection rule until finally issuing one last year under intense pressure from mine safety advocates and family members of miners who were killed.

According to SNL Energy, the vast majority of US mine closures in 2014 took place in central Appalachia, particularly southern West Virginia, more evidence that local coal is having a hard time competing in the current marketplace. Many of the mines that closed last year were metallurgical coal mines, which have been suffering worldwide from a global Continue reading Coal Report for January 14, 2015

Coal Report for January 7, 2015

Va. Governor Terry McAuliffe // photo via wikimedia commons at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Terry_McAuliffe

Two investors who had given start-up money to a Pike County surface mine are now seeking fraud damages that were awarded to them by an arbitrator, because the mine never actually started.  The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that the story started back in 2012, when Nicholas Stodin, of Canada, claimed that he had mineral rights and the required permits to mine 1.6 million tons of Pike County coal, which he said could be done in two years.   He partnered with Gill Steven Brown, of Harlan County, in coal companies called Black Fire Mining and Black Fire Energy that were supposed to do the mining.  Based on this information, the two secured over $900,000 from two Canadian investors, who were told they’d get their money back within two months, and then $11.5 million in royalties.  But the mine never started, and it eventually came out that the operators did not actually have the permits they needed to mine.  So the investors sued, and an arbitrator found the operators guilty of false statements and fraud and awarded the investors $6 million.  But the operators deny doing anything wrong and haven’t paid anything yet.  So now the investors are appealing to federal court to get their money.

The Herald-Leader also reports that 2014 saw the lowest number of deaths in US coal mines in recorded history.  This record, though, came as coal production and employment were both down in central Appalachia, which has traditionally been one of the most dangerous regions.  And still, 16 men lost their lives in coal mines this year, including two in Kentucky.  This was also a record.  But among them was an East Kentucky miner who had moved to Western Kentucky to Continue reading Coal Report for January 7, 2015

Coal Report for December 26, 2014

a wall of coal ash–that is 20-25 feet tall in places–left over after the spill near Kingston, TN in 2008 // photo from wikipedia, via http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kingston_Fossil_Plant_coal_fly_ash_slurry_spill#mediaviewer/File:Kingston-plant-spill-swanpond-tn2.jpg

2014 could end up seeing an all-time low number of fatalities at US coal mines, the AP reports. 15 miners have been killed on the job so far this year. The previous record low was 18 in 2009. MSHA says that this possible new record is the result of new, more aggressive policies they’ve instituted since the Upper Big Branch disaster of 2010. They began identifying mines that demonstrated a so-called “pattern of violations” and placing them in a special program that allowed for more frequent inspections and even possible shutdowns if problems weren’t corrected. MSHA chief Joe Main said “I do think we’re seeing a cultural change in the mining industry that’s for the better.” However, the possible record low in fatalities comes as coal production and employment has sharply declined in central Appalachia, a region which historically has been home to many of the country’s most unsafe mines. Only 82 underground mines operated in east Kentucky in 2014, as compared to 161 in 2010, and West Virginia has also seen a steep drop. Despite this drop, still more than half of this year’s 15 fatalities—8—happened in Appalachian mines.

A group of laid-off coal miners from Wise County, Virginia has settled a class-action lawsuit with Justice Energy, The Harlan Daily Enterprise reports. Justice Energy is owned by West Virginia billionaire coal operator Jim Justice, and groups of miners filed two lawsuits against Justice last year after about 150 coal miners were fired without being given a 60-day warning notice, as required by federal law. The miners also claimed that no response teams were sent to help those who Continue reading Coal Report for December 26, 2014

Coal Report for December 19, 2014

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Patriot Coal’s Highland Mine in Union County, Ky., where a coal miner was killed last week

Another coal miner has been killed on the job, this time in Western Kentucky. The Lexington Herald-Leader reports that Eli Eldridge, who was 34, was killed on December 16th at Patriot Coal’s Highland #9 mine in Union County. Eldridge was reportedly killed after being hit by a ram car underground. And as SNL Energy reports, he and every other worker at the Highland mine had just recently been notified by Patriot that they could soon be laid off due to large-scale cutbacks. He became the 15th coal miner killed at work in the US this year, and the 2nd in Kentucky.

In other news, there have been more coal layoffs in central Appalachia, as the market for metallurgical coal, which is used to make steel, continues to slump. In West Virginia, The Bluefield Daily Telegraph reports that the company ArcelorMittal will be laying off 58 miners at 3 mines in McDowell County—the XMV, Concept, & Extra Energy mines. ArcelorMittal is an international steel conglomerate that is headquartered in Luxembourg, and they mine metallurgical coal to make steel. The company blamed poor market conditions and decreased coal demand for the layoffs. Outside of McDowell County, the Continue reading Coal Report for December 19, 2014

Coal Report for December 3, 2014

the interior of the Kentucky Darby Mine in Harlan County, Ky., the site of a fatal explosion in 2006. the mine's two owners didn't pay safety fines issued after the accident, and they are part of a group that owes, collectively, $2.9 million in unpaid mine safety fines // photo from MSHA

According to a new investigation, over the past twenty years, coal operators across the country have racked up some $70 million dollars in unpaid fines for health and safety violations.  National Public Radio reports that, according to their findings, about 7% of mines that are operating have been doing so with fines left unpaid.  These delinquent mines have an injury rate that is 50% higher than normal, and in all, they accounted for some 40,000 significant and substantial violations and 4,000 reported injuries over the past twenty years, including accidents that killed 25 miners and permanently disabled 58 others.

Of the ten coal operators nationwide with the most unpaid fines, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that six of them come from eastern Kentucky.  The biggest offender was the D&C mining company in Harlan County, Ky., which by itself owed some $4.7 million in fines as of the end of September.  Their fines largely stemmed from a 2009 fatal accident at the D&C mine, and the company in all produced some $50 million worth of coal while it left its fines unpaid.  A group that includes two former owners of the Kentucky Darby mine, where five miners were killed in a methane explosion in 2006, owed the second-highest Continue reading Coal Report for December 3, 2014