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Germany’s Transition from Coal to Renewable Energy Offers Lessons for the Rest of the World

By Emma Bryce - Ensia, August 10, 2017

The country’s decades-long shift from industrial mining to clean energy has brought both challenge and opportunity.

Seventy-seven-year-old Heinz Spahn — whose blue eyes are both twinkling and stern — vividly recalls his younger days. The Zollverein coal mine, where he worked in the area of Essen, Germany, was so clogged with coal dust, he remembers, that people would stir up a black cloud whenever they moved. “It was no pony farm,” he says — using the sardonic German phrase to describe the harsh conditions: The roar of machines was at a constant 110 decibels, and the men were nicknamed waschbar, or “raccoons,” for the black smudges that permanently adorned their faces.

Today, the scene at Zollverein is very different. Inside the coal washery where Spahn once worked — the largest building in the Zollverein mining complex — the air is clean, and its up to 8,000 miners have been replaced by one-and-a-half million tourists annually. The whole complex is now a UNESCO world heritage site: Spahn, who worked here as a fusion welder until the mine shut down on December 23, 1986, is employed as a guide to teach tourists about its history. “I know this building in and out. I know every screw,” he says fondly.

Zollverein is a symbol of Germany’s transition away from fossil fuels toward renewable energy — a program called the Energiewende that aims to have 80 percent of the country’s energy generated from renewables by 2050. That program has transformed Germany into a global poster child for green energy. But what does the transition mean for residents of Essen and the rest of the Ruhr region — the former industrial coal belt — whose lives and livelihoods have been dramatically altered by the reduced demand for coal? The answer to that could hold some useful lessons for those undergoing similar transitions elsewhere.

As Coal Production Ramps Up, Companies Should Pay Their Debts to Mining Communities

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, August 8, 2017

According to reports from the Energy Information Administration, coal production will be on the rise due to increases in electrical generation from coal fired power plants and coal exports. This means that coal companies, who have come out ahead by shirking their financial responsibilities in bankruptcy court, will be primed to make yet another killing.

For a select group of people living in coal mining regions across the nation, this boom will be a short reprieve from the economic suffering felt during the most recent downturn. But those  “lucky” enough to return to the mines will see that the economic desperation created in the last five years has changed the game. Companies will not be begging for workers as they did in the mid-2000s.  Miners will be competing with each other to get what jobs do come available, and those who are hired will face the constant threat of losing their job to the next desperate miner waiting in line. Coupled with reduced mine safety regulations, a concession given by state legislators to help the industry “create jobs,” coal mining families will be facing some truly dangerous times.

Many of us know this will be one of the last booms, if not THE last boom in the coal industry, especially in Appalachia. There is a long term movement away from coal in the global markets, and what accessible coal is left in our mountains will be retrieved through increased mechanization. Coal will not bring our towns back to life. If anything, it is acting as short term life support.

We need to make sure the coal industry does not come out of this smelling like roses as they always have. It is time we make them do what’s right by the miners who dig their profits out of the ground. Not one ton of coal should be removed until miners have the right to shut down an operation if it’s unsafe…without fear of losing their jobs.

It’s also time we make companies pay their debts to both the land and people where their operations have pillaged our resources. Along with a thorough reform of each state’s coal severance tax system, additional taxes should be levied against every ton of coal and  used to pay for mined land reclamation, developing clean water projects for communities, shoring up pension funds and health care benefit funds for retired miners and their families, building new infrastructure, and providing an honest-to-god just economic transition so people can lead healthier, happier lives in the region—not just participate in more economic development that sets the stage for opportunistic companies to come in and exploit our labor with the ancillary benefit of tax breaks.

It’s time for reparations, and this is our chance to get them.

Citizens living within the coalfields need to watch their politicians like hawks and vote in the people who are going to make sure this happens. This last boom shouldn’t be for the benefit of investors and company officials. This last boom should be about taking care of coal mining communities, just like Donald Trump promised.

My Coal Childhood: Lessons From Germany’s Mine Pit Lakes

By Anica Niepraschk - CounterPunch, August 4, 2017

I grew up one kilometre from the edge of a brown coal mine and surrounded by many others. I remember staring in awe and fear at this massive hole, scared of getting too close after hearing stories of people buried alive because they walked along the unstable mine walls.

My family lives in the Lausitz region of Germany, once home to 30 brown coal mines. Situated between Berlin and Dresden, the region has been shaped by this industry for over 100 years. It was the German Democratic Republic’s energy powerhouse – its Latrobe Valley – with coal mining the largest source of jobs.

That changed with Germany’s reunification, when the economy restructured to a market approach and most of the mines were closed. The only major industry was gone, leaving the countryside punctured with massive holes, and the community with big questions about how to make the region liveable again.

The Latrobe Valley in Victoria is starting to face similar changes. Hazelwood power station and mine shut down a few months ago and the world is moving away from fossil fuels. People are asking the same questions we did in Germany 15 years ago: how do we transition to a more diverse and sustainable economy, while continuing to provide jobs for local workers? What do we do with the dangerous pits left behind?

The same solutions are put forward too. Engie, the owner of Hazelwood, is proposing to fill all or part of the mine pit to become a lake and recreation area. The inspiration comes from the Lausitz, but some of the key challenges of this solution seem not to be given enough attention.

In my early teens, as I watched these massive mines around our house fill with water, I got excited about the prospect of living in an area renamed ‘Neuseenland’, meaning the land of new lakes. But while I was able to enjoy summer days swimming in some of these flooded mines, the process of filling them with water has been very slow. Many have already been filling up for 10 or 20 years, and are still a long way from being safe.

This is in a region of Germany with plenty of water. The huge pits could be filled with combinations of diverted waterways, groundwater access, rainfall and large amounts of reprocessed mining water, transferred from other nearby operating mines.

These water sources are not available to the same extent in the Latrobe Valley. To give a sense of scale, it would take more water than is in all of Sydney Harbour just to fill one of the brown coal mines. Where will all this come from? What are the downstream impacts of taking this much water? Would a lake be safe for the public to use? The Hazelwood inquiry into mine rehabilitation identified these looming challenges, and the Victorian government has created a rehabilitation commissioner and an advisory committee to start finding answers, but right now we just don’t know.

Then there’s the environmental contamination. In the Lausitz, mining had already polluted the waterways with high amounts of iron hydroxides, calcium and sulphates. Flooding the mine pits spread this pollution even further, degrading local ecosystems. Increasingly salty waterways now threaten drinking water supplies to Berlin and surrounds and make water management more expensive. Mining companies are the biggest users of water but don’t even have to pay for it.

For local communities, other major consequences include rising groundwater flooding basements, cracking building structures and shifting the ground.

Landslides are a real worry. In the Lausitz in 2009, a 350-metre wide strip of land – including buildings, a road and a viewing platform – slid into the adjacent pit lake, burying three people. In 2010, in an area where the former mine surrounding was regarded as very stable and settled, 27 hectares of forests sank into the earth. This will come as no surprise to people of the Latrobe Valley, where the Princes Highway was closed for eight months in 2011 due to landslides related to the adjacent Hazelwood mine.

There have been many more such incidents in the Lausitz, and the risk prevents whole areas from being accessed which were used for farmland, wind farms, industry or forests. Yet when the Lausitz is promoted as the poster child of mine rehabilitation through flooding, many of these challenges aren’t mentioned.

Community consultations on the future of the Hazelwood mine will begin in September. So far, the community has expressed many ideas other than filling the mine pit with water but these remain ignored. Engie is unwilling to release the full list of rehabilitation concepts they considered before settling on the pit lake solution. This makes it difficult for the community to understand the recommendation and weigh it up against alternatives.

Before more planning proceeds on the assumption that a pit lake is the only option, the lessons learned from the experience in the Lausitz should be aired and discussed in the Latrobe Valley. It’s important to avoid the potential negative consequences of flooding mine pits as best as possible from the beginning, and to make sure the mine owners pay for the precious water they are taking, like everybody else does.

Most of all, the community needs to have a bigger say in what happens to retired mine pits. Like me, the children of Morwell, Moe and Traralgon in Victoria will grow up surrounded by massive, dangerous holes in the ground. Their families have the most at stake in what happens, so they should have the loudest voice in shaping the region’s future, not the corporate mine owners who shaped its past.

The Ongoing Fight Against Media’s Misrepresentation of Appalachia

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, August 2, 2017

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Daniel Flatley from Bloomberg News. He was working on a story aimed at understanding why coal miners were not retraining into healthcare careers as the healthcare industry grew in Appalachia. I tried my best to answer his questions and give a broader understanding of miner retraining and economic development issues in the region. Unfortunately, the article was published just as I was heading back home to help with a family emergency. I became aware of it just today.

Let me start by saying that I am beyond angry with the title of the article and the image Bloomberg chose. The photo was a quick snapshot, catching two coal workers off guard with the intent of portraying them as senseless animals being enticed with a treat. Is it any wonder that we are upset with urban elitism and the so called “left” media? As I stated in my Yes! Magazine article, stereotyping Appalachians (in this case as being unintelligent) feeds directly into the divisive rhetoric spread by conservative politicians and coal industry associations. It is often so brazen, I honestly wonder if this isn’t the intent.

In terms of my quotes, I did NOT infer that people were actively avoiding retraining or other careers because of gender stereotypes and gender roles within the region. My quote, like the photo, was a snippit of a conversation that lasted 15 minutes. The issue is complex and leaves a great deal of room for speculation.

There is a lot of pride and heritage in coal mining, but very few coal miners would stick with a career in the mines if job alternatives with similar wages and benefits were available in the region.

When it comes to why miners weren’t jumping at job opportunities created by the health care industry, I did state that miners who were already involved in local emergency medical services and rescue squads could easily transition into such work, but there are many miners who would not consider it. This was not to say that they are incapable of the job, or that they have been institutionalized by the coal industry. I tried to explain that it would be a different environment to work in, and many would not pursue it for the same reason a large portion of our population does not pursue jobs in the healthcare industry. It takes a specific type of person to engage in the duties fulfilled by nurses and surgical staff.

I did speculate that many miners were holding out hope for Trump bringing back coal jobs and that many do not participate in retraining because of the lack of jobs available as they exit retraining. I also mentioned that some may fear that companies would not hire them if officials believed they were pursuing career alternatives. The coal industry has a very captive workforce at the moment, and they are seeking only the most dedicated miners to exploit.

This article is just more media misrepresentation of Appalachia not unlike what Ivy Brashear spoke to in her article “Why Media Must Stop Misrepresenting Appalachia.” Speaking of which, stay tuned as I will be addressing Hillbilly Elegy in the near future.

Citizens Begin Reclaiming Coal Country After Decades of Corporate Land Grabs

By Emma Eisenberg - Yes Magazine!, July 2017

Across central Appalachia, once-thriving mining communities have been ravaged by the collapse of the coal industry and the flight of jobs from the region. For a region that remains rich in natural resources, Appalachia’s local governments continue to struggle to fund basic services such as housing, education and roads.

One significant factor in the region’s decline is the land. Since the coal industry began its decline, and even beforehand, millions of acres have essentially been removed from the region’s economic production and tax rolls, and nothing has replaced them.

“Land is the most important thing to us, yet it’s not clear at all who owns it,” says Karen Rignall, assistant professor of community and leadership development at the University of Kentucky. “Without broad-scale knowledge of the patterns of land ownership this region cannot work together to move forward. But who owns it on paper is not always who owns it in actuality. That takes time and money to find out.”

The coal industry of central Appalachia has been on the decline for more than 30 years, with West Virginia and Kentucky losing more than 38,000 coal jobs in that time. As coal companies pulled out, they took with them the dollars that small towns used to use to fund their schools and infrastructure, and left behind abandoned mines, polluted rivers and vast swaths of vacant land.

All over Appalachia, communities and organizations are working around the clock to come up with a way to “justly transition” the Appalachian economy to whatever comes next.

Rignall and postdoctoral researcher Lindsay Shade are collaborating with a growing group of citizens that think a part of the answer to a post-coal economy may lie with an old land ownership study—and have been inspired by it to do a new one.

Maintenance, safety, and the drive for production

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, July 19, 2017

I just read an article about Daniel L. Couch Jr., a mine maintenance chief who pleaded guilty to falsifying safety documents. Before people go throwing him under the bus, it’s important to understand a few things about mine maintenance, safety, and the push for production.

Certified mine electricians don’t just repair electrical equipment and perform maintenance, they are also required to inspect electrical equipment to ensure operational safety, electrical safety, and permissibility (the ability to operate in a methane-air mixture without igniting said methane and causing an explosion). It involves everything from checking the brakes, safety canopies, motor compartments for flammables, fire suppression systems, dust control system, and all of the explosion proof enclosures, cable entrance glands, lights and so on using feeler gauges to ensure tolerances of anywhere from .002 to .005 inches on said enclosures. We also had to hand check upwards of 500 feet of the electrical cable feeding the machine, searching for cuts and punctures to the insulating jacket, sometimes in mud one foot deep. We called them permissibility checks, and they had to be performed weekly and recorded with our signature under 30 CFR Part 75.512.  If the equipment in question wasn’t inspected and signed off on, violations were issued to the company and fines were levied.

As you can imagine, a mine electrician has a lot of responsibility. Not only do you have the responsibility of making sure people aren’t killed operating large pieces of equipment powered by 3 phase voltages from 480 Volts up to 990 “ha-ha” Volts (ha-ha because it’s always over 1000V, but they say 990V to keep from having to comply with regulations for high voltage), but electricians are also the first line of defense in keeping the company out of trouble with the law—and the company doesn’t hold back from pointing fingers if someone does get hurt or they get fined for a violation.

The problem as I encountered it, came when the company didn’t hire enough electricians, or give them enough time to do all required maintenance and safety inspections. They stretch hours out and work people mandatory over time which reduces both their mental acuity and, for some, their work ethic. The mine where I worked, gave us only 6 hours to effect major repairs, perform maintenance, and inspect equipment between production shifts. If we had to advance the section or “belt up,” we were also tasked with shutting down the high voltage feed and moving the section power center (sub station) forward in the mining process. If I’m not mistaken, the manual for a Joy continuous mining machine states it should take more than 10 hours to perform the proper permissibility checks. Things get missed, and the electrician takes the fall.

So how or why the belt drive inspections weren’t performed at Paradise No. 9 is still a mystery to the public. Whatever it was, it led Couch to falsely sign the books saying the inspections had been done to avoid fines. Perhaps he thought he could get by with it, perhaps he was feeling pressured, or maybe he was just looking for an “attaboy.” Still, I can’t help but wonder if a lack of maintenance personnel was a factor.

Against Our Own Best Interest: Why Working People Shouldn’t Elect Businessmen Into Office

By Nick Mullins - The Thoughtful Coal Miner, June 28, 2017

In my experiences, I’ve run across many people who believe business executives are a good choice to be our lawmakers. Many of these same people also complain about the poor treatment of employees and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, decisions that are often made by business executives.  So why exactly do people elect them into public office?

After getting into a variety of debates, I’ve found many people’s logic can be summed up in this statement, “Business leaders are smart people and hard workers who know how to make the right decisions to build companies from the ground up. They are good employers and will use their expertise to fix our government and provide more and better jobs.” If these were the businessmen and women that actually made it into office, I might consider the notion, but this is rarely the case.

Rural conservatives have a strange admiration for business executives as being job creators. Yet, these are the same people who make the big company decisions like downsizing, placing freezes on pay increases, reducing healthcare benefits while increasing employee insurance premium contributions, requring mandatory overtime, all while giving the green light for human resources to treat everyone like a literal resource—or as a threat if they have been harassed or injured in the workplace. Business executives loyalty is always to the stockholders and other investors. They are legally bound to make a profit. If this means eliminating labor overhead, they do.

Our national business culture breeds a superiority complex among corporate executives, making it difficult for them to be kind to their laborers. The free market mandates competition, which good or bad, results in a survival of the fittest mentality that ends up in a quest for the cheapest sources of both labor and materials (like coal). This is the mentality that drives people beyond having a conscious when it comes to the average laborer. For some well-to-do business leaders, it translates into the divine right to take a massive dump on anyone beneath them because, after all, “It’s just business.”

People also seem to forget the golden rule of business that allowed many of our now elected officials to make their fortunes—”It takes money to make money.” The majority of the super wealthy who own the majority of businesses, did not come by their fortunes through a rags to riches story. It came from prior wealth inherited from their predecessors.  They have never had to work hard just to survive and provide for their families. They have no understanding of the people who work for them, and therefore, no reason to care about them.

Using Miners for Political Gain is Nothing New, Still Repulsive

By Rob Byers - CounterPunch, June 9, 2017

Earlier this spring, I was asked a question about my late father, who had been a coal miner in the 1970s and ’80s. It had to do with a familiar romantic storyline:

Did he feel at home underground? Was it a calling that tugged at him during the layoffs, a longing to get back to the job he loved?

Short answer: No. Long answer: Hell, no.

Best I could tell as a kid, he hated it. It was back-breaking, dangerous, cold, dusty, dirty. He did it for the same reason miners do it today – because it was the best-paying job around for a man with a high-school education.

As a coal miner’s son, you might think I would be proud of all the attention miners are getting nowadays from President Trump and the media. You’d be wrong, though. Actually, I find the whole thing pretty demeaning, as the coal miner is used as a political pawn and an excuse to trash the planet.

Then again, maybe I should be used to it by now. The miner-as-economic-victim thing has been hanging around for quite a while.

After the first Obama election in November 2008, Republican lawmakers, industry groups and political strategists needed a human face for their cause, which was eliminating environmental regulations and ignoring climate change. The noble miner, toiling away underground to power America, was perfect.

Never mind that the cause was much more about making money for political donors and industry partners than it was about any miner’s paycheck.

Now, how about a nice, sound-bite slogan? One that mining families and local politicos could easily spout. Enter the “war on coal” — a purely fictitious battle, of course, but nobody ever said politics was about honesty. And talk about effective marketing. So catchy.

The villain? Well, that was really too easy. Everybody was blaming Obama for everything anyway. Plus, it was a two-for-one deal: They could bash the union at the same time after the UMWA backed Obama in 2008.

Fast forward to 2016 and an out-of-context Hillary Clinton quote later (“we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”) and it was time to trot out the “war on coal” political machine once more.

Trump plays dress-up in a hard hat at a rally at the Charleston Civic Center, feigns what he thinks it must be like to hold a shovel and fakes his way to the White House.

And so, at long last, the Republicans – and many West Virginia Democrats — are getting what they want as Trump rolls back Obama environmental laws and ignores climate change.

By backing out of the Paris climate agreement, Trump gets to act like he’s helping out his base in West Virginia, while really doing nothing – except, of course, forfeiting America’s well-earned perch as the world’s problem solver. And all the while, our congressional delegation dutifully stands back and applauds.

True help for unemployed miners and other West Virginians would mean tackling climate change head-on, embracing renewable energy and re-training people to work in the emerging industries.

But Trump is a champion only for himself … and his golf courses and hotels.

After all, we’ve watched him propose gutting the Appalachian Regional Commission, Legal Aid, low-income heating aid, college tuition assistance and other programs that benefit West Virginians.

I find no value in the argument that West Virginians, miners and other working-class communities across the nation are getting what they deserve. It’s precisely that kind of divisiveness that landed us in this mess.

It’s not foolish for someone to vote for a candidate who promises to represent their specific interests. It’s not surprising for someone to pine for an earlier time, a time they perceive to have been better. That’s been going on since the first time anyone referred to the “good ol’ days.”

In a place where drug abuse and unemployment are rampant, it can be easy to look back instead of ahead. It’s simpler to think back fondly to the busy, bustling mines — and conveniently forget about the slag heaps and polluted streams. The men, women and children buried alive by coal waste at Buffalo Creek. The dust that turns lungs black and slowly chokes lives away.

It’s even simpler when the powerful spend lavishly to make damn sure it happens.

Coal mining can be a dirty business. But so is toying with West Virginia’s hope.

Getting Out of Our Coal Hole

By Oscar Reyes - CounterPunch, May 11, 2017

When you’re in a hole, it’s usually best to stop digging. But when President Trump told supporters at his 100th day rally in Pennsylvania that “we are putting our coal miners back to work,” he just burrowed deeper into the bed of administration lies on energy.

The truth of the matter is that climate regulations aren’t a “war on coal,” and no amount of presidential photo-ops will bring mining jobs back. A recent report from the Center for Global Energy clearly shows why.

The demand for U.S. coal has collapsed in the past six years, it explains, following big improvements in energy efficiency (like better lighting and appliances), cheaper gas and renewables, and a decline in coal exports as other countries look to cleaner sources of energy.

Three of the four largest coal mining companies have filed for bankruptcy, while Bob Murray — CEO of the largest remaining one — recently warned Trump that coal jobs are unlikely to return. The CEO should know, as Murray Energy’s formula for avoiding bankruptcy has largely involved slashing jobs, compromising safety, and worsening labor conditions.

America’s main competitors get the point and have already planned to phase out coal. On April 21, the United Kingdom met its energy needs without burning any coal at all — for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. And the country’s last coal-burning power station will close within the next decade.

Meanwhile, a majority of energy companies in the European Union have promised to stop investing in new coal plants by 2020.

China is also fast reducing its reliance on coal. It recently canceled over 100 planned new coal-fired power plants, as well as slashing production at state-controlled coal mines. China has pledged to reduce coal production by 800 million tons per year by 2020, more than the entire annual output of all U.S. mines combined.

Instead of trying to revive the mining sector, in short, we should be planning for its replacement.

Will supporting carbon capture help coal mining communities?

By Nick Mullins - Thoughtful Coal Miner, March 20, 2017

I just read an article stating the National Resource Defense Council and the Clean Air Task Force, two well known, well funded environmental organizations, are now showing support for carbon capture technology at coal fired power plants.

My question is, how will this help a just transition for Appalachia and other areas impacted by coal mining?

Let’s recap the coal industry’s impacts on their employees and local communities:

  • Billions of dollars of coal have left coal mining communities throughout the nation and those communities continue to be among the most economically depressed, unhealthiest, most disadvantaged areas in the nation.
  • Coal companies continuously seek ways to eliminate their debts to coal miners and their families by terminating retirement benefits including healthcare.
  • Coal companies spend money appealing black lung benefits awarded to coal miners.
  • Coal companies also get out of cleaning up the messes they leave behind, including acidic mine drainage, coal slurry impoundments, land subsidence, and terrible surface mine reclamation jobs.

In summation, aside from creating a handful of jobs that take away our long term health, the coal industry is a plague.

Supporting carbon capture gives lease to the coal industry so they may continue their operations. It is a poor solution to treating a symptom rather than addressing the source of our problems—excessive energy use. Why is it so difficult to implement and support behavior based energy efficiency education, and to invest in energy efficiency technology that could provide thousands of jobs?

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