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The National Mining Association doesn’t speak for coal communities

By Erin Savage - Appalachian Voices, October 5, 2017

Last month, West Virginian Bil Lepp authored a letter in the Charleston Gazette-Mail regarding the U.S. Department of the Interior’s decision to halt a review of research linking mountaintop removal coal mining and impacts to human health.

In his letter, Lepp calls out the National Mining Association and cites its skepticism of the review, which was led by the National Academy of Sciences and already well underway.

“The National Mining Association is saying that because mountaintop removal is such a small part of the mining industry, the people affected by it simply aren’t worth worrying about,” Lepp wrote. “They are saying, ‘Even if this process is bad for the people who live near it, who cares? There are not enough of them to matter to us.’”

In response, National Mining Association President Hal Quinn submitted his own letter to the Gazette-Mail. In it, he claims that because the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences already reviewed some of the studies, the additional review by the NAS (which is independent and non-governmental) is unnecessary. “We applaud and support legitimate efforts to improve health and safety in and around mines, but this study was a symbolic gesture left over from an anti-coal administration,” Quinn wrote.

Quinn wants it to seem like the NMA cares about miners and coal communities. But nothing could be further from the truth. The NMA openly opposes multiple efforts that would benefit coal communities.

The National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences study Quinn mentioned in his letter does not actually make additional review unnecessary. Rather, that study concluded:

Improved characterization of exposures by future community health studies and further study of the effects of MTR mining chemical mixtures in experimental models will be critical to determining health risks of MTR mining to communities. Without such work, uncertainty will remain regarding the impact of these practices on the health of the people who breathe the air and drink the water affected by MTR mining.

The much more robust review being conducted by the NAS was a step toward conducting some of that work.

More than two dozen peer-reviewed studies show strong links between living near mountaintop removal mines and suffering from negative health effects. The industry likes to suggest that regional health disparities are due to other problems, but researchers control for these socioeconomic factors. Poverty and public health issues are critical problems in Central Appalachia, but they have been problems for decades, even when the coal industry was booming. An economy based on a single extractive industry has done little to lift the region out of poverty, despite what the industry may claim.

One example of how the NMA is holding coal communities back is its opposition to the RECLAIM Act, a bill that would direct $1 billion from the Abandoned Mine Land Fund over the next five years to reclaim post-mined land for the economic benefit of the region. All five members of West Virginia’s congressional delegation are co-sponsors of the RECLAIM Act.

Not only does the NMA oppose the RECLAIM Act, it opposes the Abandoned Mine Land Fund as a whole. The fund is dependent on a tax on current coal production, and the revenue is spent on mines abandoned by coal companies prior to the passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act in 1977. Without the fund, taxpayers would likely be responsible for the cleanup of these sites.

The NMA claims that the fund has been mismanaged since coal companies have paid in more than $10 billion while only $2.8 billion has been spent on priority sites. Priority 1 sites pose a direct risk to human health and safety — an open mine portal or unstable land near communities, for example. Thankfully, these sites do not make up the majority of abandoned mine lands. Much of the land does not pose a direct threat to people, but it does hamper economic growth; it may be unsuitable for development in its current condition or deter nearby growth. Many sites have ongoing problems with soil and water contamination, erosion and revegetation.

In reality, $8 billion of the fund has been distributed, including $5 billion distributed to states and tribes and more than $1.4 billion transferred to the United Mine Workers of America Health and Retirement Funds. So, the NMA is upset that $1.4 billion has been spent to ensure that miners have health care and retirement benefits, rather than for Priority 1 sites...

Mesoamerican Movement Against the Extractive Mining Model (M4) Reportback

From Mesoamerican Movement Against Mining translated by Earth First! Journal - October 3, 2017

Just like the past five years in the Syrian Valley in Honduras, the communities, peoples and organizations that make up M4 have met from September 22 to 25 in the City of San José in Costa Rica to recognize and reaffirm ourselves in the struggle against the extractive mining model.

Since then, we confirm that the extractive mining model has been imposed as the megaproject with the greatest territorial impact and enslavement of human rights, land grabbing and destruction of Mother Earth in Latin America.

During the days of the Mesoamerican Movement against the Extractive Mining Model (M4) meetiing, representatives of 13 countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Haiti, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Sierra Leone, United States), agreed hat mining activity in our territories has advanced under the protection of politicians and technocrats who are poorly informed or ineffective, if not corrupted, by the imposition of corporate interests on the collective interest, by personal appetites and complicit silences. In this sense, we consider that mining in our territories is the result of a deficit democratic model that, operating under the logic that having power is to be right, inevitably places the people in a situation of vulnerability. We have the clarity to affirm and denounce that mining would not be possible without an institutional framework that brings the cause of a development model that – through the irrational extraction of natural common goods – favors the logic of reproduction, accumulation and centralization of capital.

To achieve their productivity goals, mining companies outsource their costs by taking advantage of the permissiveness of legislation and government corruption. The mining companies take advantage of the poverty of the people and the absence of alternatives, which usually facilitates the exploitation of labor and nature. Mining corporations get cheap or free kickbacks and channel their energies into the political lobby. This process is reinforced by international financial institutions and governments from the Global North, who, through “structural adjustment measures”, force countries such as ours to stimulate exports of what they often call “natural resources” through tax exemptions and other financial incentives.

It is this logic of accumulation by dispossession that has led us to face one of the most severe crises of violations of human rights in Latin America. The M4, its members and its organizations have been victims of extractive violence. On March 3, 2016, in Honduras, as part of the exchanges and alliances facilitated by our movement, our comrade Berta Caceres, leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was murdered; in the same episode, Mexican comrade Gustavo Castro, a Latin American referent of the social movement for the defense of land and territory and the principal promoter and promoter of the Mesoamerican Movement against the Extractive Mining Model (M4), was wounded and, as a victim , criminalized by the government of Honduras. However, we are standing, we exist because we resist.

A year of resistance against coal extraction: support the Ffos-y-fran 5!

By Mitch - Reclaim the Power, September 22, 2017

Reclaim the Power’s 2016 camp focussed on the issue of coal with a mass trespass against Ffos-y-frân coal mine closing it for the day. But that was far from the end of the story…

Ffos-y-frân is the UK’s largest opencast coal mine, it is very close to Merthyr Tydfil and is operated by Miller Argent. The main consumer of the coal for most of its existence has been Aberthaw power station near Barry in South Wales.

In December 2016 Reclaim the Power, Coal Action Network, Bristol Rising Tide and United Valley’s Action Group began a series of actions to close Aberthaw power station.

The first action against Aberthaw was a short and creative blockade of the only access road. Check it out in this short film which shows what happened and explains why we are targeting Aberthaw.

Aberthaw power station was the dirtiest power station in terms of nitrogen oxides in the UK, with the UK government allowing it to breach European Union air quality standards. The levels of toxins were more than double those from other power stations because Aberthaw burnt Welsh coal which is less flammable but supported Welsh mining jobs. In 2016 environmental lawyers, Client Earth, brought a case to the European Court of Justice which ruled against the UK government for allowing Aberthaw to kill 400 people a year through poisonous emissions.

Within two weeks of the opening action activists were back at Aberthaw, this time with a more serious blockade of the power station’s only access road. This time for four hours, entirely blocking the road with two tripods, causing a large tail back of lorries, before campaigners left with no arrests. It was unclear whether the power station was actually asking the police to remove the blockade as its workers and bosses were absent.

Aberthaw is run by the utility company RWE nPower whose head offices in Swindon were visited within a month of the previous action. There was a visual presence at the enormous offices which resulted in a security shut down (although one person still managed to get inside). The protest raised awareness of the opposition to the power station amongst employees and in thelocal media.

The next action in part organised by Reclaim the Power involved many more people; 150 made it to a stony south Wales beach in January to show their opposition to the power station. Marianne Owens from the PCS union said, “It’s working class people who suffer from this dirty energy,” as she addressed the crowd from the sea wall. At the demonstration demands were made for a Just Transition for coal workers to sustainable jobs.

Just Transition for the coal industry is expensive – but cheaper than failure to address the needs

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, September 5, 2017

July 2017 saw the release of  Lessons from Previous Coal Transitions:  High-level Summary for Decision-makers , a synthesis report of case studies of past coal mining transitions in Spain, U.K., the Netherlands, Poland, U.S., and the Czech Republic – some as far back as the 1970’s.  Some key take-aways from the report:  “Because of the large scale and complexity of the challenges to be addressed, the earlier that actors (i.e. workers, companies and regions) anticipated, accepted and began to implement steps to prepare and cushion the shock of the transition, the better the results”; “the aggregate social costs to the state of a failure to invest in the transition of workers and regions are often much higher that the costs of not investing from an overall societal perspective.” While the level of cost details varies in the case studies, it is clear that costs are significant.  For example, the case study of Limburg, Netherlands states that the national government spent approximately 11.6 billion Euros (in today’s prices) on national subsidies to support coal prices and regional reconversion, in addition to  several 100 million per year in EU funds. “One estimate also suggested that in the Dutch case, all told, regional reinvestment in new economic activities also cost about 300 to 400 000€/per long-term job created.”  Limburg is also cited as “remarkable for the relatively consensual nature of the transition between unions, company and government.”  (see page 10).

The Synthesis report and individual case study reports of the six countries are available here . These are the work of the Research and Dialogue on Coal Transitions project, a large-scale research project led by Climate Strategies and the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) , which also sponsors the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project.  Future reports scheduled for 2018: a Global report, and a Round Table on the Future of Coal.

From the Abused Heart of Coal Country, Warnings and Lessons on Next Steps

By Lucy Duff - The Washington Socialist, July 31, 2017

This June I traveled to the heart of coal country in southern West Virginia, my native state.  Over recent years films and news stories have exposed the ravages of mountaintop-removal mining on that land and its people’s health and livelihood.  The documentary Blood on the Mountain, a feature last year and this in our metro DC LaborFest, is one such source.  It portrays this most intensely mechanized technology as an acceleration of a century of Appalachian exploitation by the mining industry.  Shaving off mountain tops, it now extracts many more tons of coal with fewer workers. That has shrunk the scope for comparatively well-paid work that the United Mine Workers (UMWA) long struggled hard to negotiate. Mountaintop-removal has intensified risks of damage from flooding, blasting, ambient coal dust, sludge storage and water pollution.  State – and now federal – officials fail to enforce what regulations exist against workers’ risks, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  Fracked cheap natural gas nevertheless outcompetes coal.

Well before mountaintop-removal sped up mining’s harmful impact, federal-state partnerships had been aiming to “tune up” the core Appalachian industry for “more desirable social outcomes,” but with modest funding and negligible effect (John Alexander Williams, Appalachia: A History, 2002).   It was in large part an economic draft that swept many young millennial mountaineers into our military. Those who returned from duty in Iraq or Afghanistan were apt to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, for which they were prescribed opioids. Today the southeastern coal region looms as a national epicenter both of rural poverty and of addiction.

I wanted to see and hear for myself just how bad the situation there is, and what the people make of their prospects.  Van Jones’ recent watchword to an anti-Trump audience- “I don’t like coal but I love coal miners, ‘cause they go down in holes”- was on my mind.  How to think distinctly about moving to green energy and yet dealing justly with fossil-fuel workers? 

For my short visit I’d arranged an appointment with staff of Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), based in Raleigh County at Naoma, not far from Beckley, WV.  For nearly twenty years this small nonprofit has pursued its main goals: to halt permits for further mountaintop-removal mines and to reduce violations by current operators of clean-water and occupational-safety law. Thus I got to speak with two among the relatively few local people who actively resist the coal-industry ties of business and government. One is Debbie Jarrell, CRMW Co-Director. The younger activist, Junior Walk, drove me on a brief tour with distant views of mountaintop removal in action and of a former reclaimed mine site.

CRMW aims to save what’s left of Coal River Mountain — the tops of its neighbors Cherry Pond and Kayford Mountains having been blown away– and to salvage the community’s quality of life. Its strategy is largely on the legal front.  Since state mine inspectors do no more than a pro forma job, the nonprofit has enlisted citizens to help its staff monitor mining activity that erodes mountainsides and pollutes streams and drinking water. Some volunteers are mapping a watershed plan to keep impurities out of Marsh Fork, a tributary of Big Coal River.  CRMW files lawsuits against the most flagrant violations and publicizes judicial outcomes.  It campaigns for stronger measures to contain massive toxic coal sludge. It succeeded in getting closure of an elementary school located near a strip mine and sludge impoundment and building of a new school at a safe distance.  This summer it has been testifying at hearings about the health impacts of surface mining for a study currently underway by a National Academy of Sciences panel.  CMRW is one of about a dozen advocacy grassroots member groups of the Alliance for Appalachia, joined in multi-state pushback against the coal industry.  Yet it views these efforts as mainly a “holding action;” to carry on much more against entrenched powers would be an act of futility.   

After years of decline, the crippling disease is rebounding, worse than before

By Dan Radmacher - Appalachian Voices, August 22, 2017

“There is an epidemic here in Southwest Virginia, in Eastern Kentucky, in Southern West Virginia,” says Ron Carson, director of the Black Lung Program at Virginia’s Stone Mountain Health Services. “Miners are getting sicker and dying at a much younger age. A lot of people are going to be shocked when they see the numbers.”

Carson has been working with researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to put hard numbers to this deadly resurgence, and he says they have been astounded by the number of cases Carson’s clinic is seeing of progressive massive fibrosis cases, the most serious form of black lung disease.

In a report from similar research released last December, NIOSH researchers found a cluster of 60 such cases from one Eastern Kentucky radiology practice over a nine-month period — three times the number of cases the national Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program found from 2011 to 2016.

Around the same time the NIOSH report was released, an NPR investigation by Howard Berkes aired that identified more than 1,000 cases of progressive massive fibrosis during the past decade — 10 times the number officially recognized by the federal government.

Complicated black lung is debilitating in the extreme, Carson says. “Some young miners come in to this clinic in wheelchairs because they don’t have enough breath to walk,” he says. “We have miners at age 28 with eight years of exposure to coal dust waiting for a lung transplant.”

Progressive massive fibrosis, like other forms of black lung disease, cannot be cured and is eventually fatal. Carson says the clinic focuses on easing the miners’ suffering. “We make every effort to give them a better quality of life,” he says. “Therapists do pulmonary rehab and work on patient education. They talk to them about winterizing their lungs — cold air has drastic effects on this condition.”

Jill Hutchison, the first director of the Black Lung Clinics Program in West Virginia and retired CEO of the West Virginia Primary Care Association, said the number of miners treated in West Virginia’s 18 black lung clinics increased by 26 percent last year.

“Black lung is not going away,” she says. “It is an ugly disease. It’s heart-breaking to watch a miner struggle just to breathe. The clinic’s helping black lung patients use medicine, dietary recommendations and exercise to improve their quality of life as much as possible.”

The Mono-Economy of Coal or: How to Maintain a Captive Workforce

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

There has been no drought of media attention about coal, coal miners, and Appalachia over the past year. I myself have fielded more than a dozen calls from media outlets wanting to know more about the region, each looking for new angles or “ins” with coal mines and coal miners. Though a few have done a decent job contextualizing Appalachia’s deeper issues, many still manage to skip over some very important details about our situation—and that’s a problem. It’s this lack of depth that allows authors like J.D. Vance, and his book Hillbilly Elegy to reach national best seller status and thereby define our existence among an international audience.

So here is something for everyone to consider—the forces that control Appalachia’s economy also seek to maintain a captive workforce aimed at exploiting miners and their families.

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.

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