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A coal comeback?

Mitch McConnell Declares ‘War on Coal’ Over as Mining Deaths Soar

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The so-called “war on coal” is now over, according to a statement from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who recently praised the Trump administration for its work with the Environmental Protection Agency to withdraw from the Obama-era “Clean Power Plant” rule that limited greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants. The move away from higher regulations has been praised as one that could jump-start domestic coal production.

But any lowering of regulatory measures is a double-edged sword. While jobs have been on the slow climb, in 2017 accidental deaths in coal mines doubled from the previous year, according to the most recently available statistics from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

A more than 100 percent jump in fatalities — from seven last year to 14 in 2017 — does not correspond to the 3.7 percent increase in available industry jobs over last year.

By comparison, in 2015, the number of mining jobs was 69,000 — 30 percent more than today — but the number of deaths among those jobs topped off at 12.

How did we get here?

The previous downward trend in mining fatalities was due in part to processes and procedures put in place by MSHA under President Obama’s pick Joe Main, the agency’s longest-serving chief, who touted record low fatalities by the end of his term last year since he was unanimously voted in at the start of Obama’s first term.

But under Trump, the agency’s reach to issue citations for problematic mine management has been drastically reduced, suggesting recent death trends might be indicative of a bigger problem in how the agency is treating the conditions that could lead to preventable fatalities. Now, rather than issuing official citations, the agency primarily relies on extra training sessions for operators at facilities found operating against code.

Canary in the coal mine.

In recent months, the Senate confirmed David Zatezalo as the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Zatezalo is the former CEO of Kentucky-based Rhino Resources, a coal company with a notoriously dangerous track record of subpar safety conditions. Under Zatezalo’s leadership, the company had previously been hit with two “pattern of violations” citations from MSHA. Too many of these types of violations result in closure, enforced by the very agency Zatezalo now leads.

Zatezalo comes to the MSHA leadership position after it was left open for most of the year, and following the vote of members of Congress, including the three West Virginia U.S. House members, to cut the agency’s operating budget.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said in July that the president isn’t lowering safety standards, but that the administration’s “main focus” is on “creating and growing jobs” in coal country.

Letter of the law.

“The record low fatal injury rate among coal miners in recent years is because of strong enforcement of the law,” Celeste Monforton, who served on a governor-appointed panel that investigated West Virginia’s 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 miners, told CBS news this summer. “It would be a disgrace to see that trend reversed.”

United Mine Workers of America issued a statement acknowledging that “safety suggestions” — like those issued by the agency this summer to help combat accidental deaths specifically among newer miners — do not carry the same weight as previous administrations’ use of hard and fast citations and fines.

“To believe that an operator will comply with the law on their own free will is contrary to historical experience and naive on MSHA’s part,” the letter said.

Others have suggested that this uptick is directly the result of less stringent follow-up on the implementation of these “suggestions” since Trump’s taking office. “I do not believe that the fatalities that we have had to date have been due to a lack of enforcement,” Zatezalo said at the hearing in October. “But I don’t have all the details on that.”

Yet, as thousands of miners look for work, the cocktail of an abundant labor market and the push for more efficient production means that there is less incentive to enforce “safety suggestions.”

The trend of replacing hard and fast guidelines with cost-cutting lax practices does not just show at the national level. Over the summer, Kentucky lawmakers cut back on mine safety inspections and replaced them with coaching sessions on miners’ safety habits, while West Virginia replaced them with “compliance visits and education.”

“In West Virginia we are painfully familiar with the human toll that accompanies a mine accident. I have comforted too many families who have lost loved ones serving our nation in the mines. Strong leadership at the Mine Safety and Health Administration is non-negotiable,” one of the coal industry’s biggest boosters in Washington, Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said in a September statement explaining his opposition to Zatezalo’s nomination.

Lovey Cooper (@loveycooper) is a contributing editor with 100 Days in Appalachia, and reports on the intersection of politics and culture. Her work appears in The Atlantic, Vice, Rewire News and Education Week.

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A coal comeback?

Mine Closure Leaves Some Questioning The Future

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A coal pile. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Hundreds of miners have been laid off this week following the closure of the Pinnacle mine in Wyoming County, and the news has left some considering getting out of the industry altogether.

Bobby Bowman, president of the United Mine Workers of America chapter representing the employees, said the layoffs would take effect Thursday. About 300 employees were set to be let go, a UMWA spokesman said — just months after another 90 had lost their jobs in late July.

Stan East had just come out from underground Monday when the incoming night shift told him the mine’s operating company, Tennessee-based Mission Coal, had filed for bankruptcy. A father of three grown children, East worked at the Pinnacle mine for 10 years, and his dad had worked there, too. But the instability is taking its toll.

“I’m just stressed — just a little stressed about it,” said East, of Princeton. “I’m just gonna do something different. It’s been up and down since I’ve been here. I mean, coal’s good now, but I’m 46 years old, and in three to four years, it could go back the same way, and I could be looking for another job.”

Management at the mine stopped production because water was building up, according to Phil Smith, a UMWA spokesman. Getting the remaining reserves would mean installing a new shaft and other expensive processes. Some buyers were looking into purchasing the mine, but ultimately decided against it.

In a press release last week, Gov. Jim Justice said he hopes the mine can reopen and that he’s “working on it.” He said he’s asked the state Commerce Department to get involved as well. What those efforts might look like aren’t clear.

Major Contributor

Pinnacle was one of the largest employers in Wyoming County and draws a workforce from McDowell and other neighboring counties. According to the Wyoming County assessor, the county will likely see a $1.37 million dollar loss in machinery, equipment and inventory tax revenue and another $51,000 in real estate taxes. The school district will lose an estimated $1 million from its budget.

Wyoming County Schools Superintendent Deirdre Cline is trying to remain hopeful but said the situation is bleak.

“It does have a very detrimental impact on our families … the children that we serve whose parents work or have livelihood from that coal company, but also in a general sense to our whole economy of southern West Virginia, specfiically in Wyoming County,” she said.

Bowman, of the UMWA local, one of the largest chapters in southern West Virginia, has been sharing regular updates with the Pinnacle community on his Facebook page and by phone.

“You’re looking at Wyoming, McDowell, Mingo, Tazewell County, Mercer County, and Raleigh County — [they’re] gonna take a bit hit when the money that normally comes into these counties per year by the people who work there [doesn’t]. It’ll be a large, large hit,” he said in an interview.

He predicted that about 3,200 jobs could be affected by the mine closure, counting auxiliary jobs that support the industry.

The union has had two meetings with the UMWA career center to help displaced workers.

“A lot of people have quit and went and found other jobs in mining,” Bowman said. “There’s a lot of them there at the moment. So the impact, for some, won’t be as bad.”

Updating Resumes

But some, like Stan East, are leaving the industry altogether. He said he’ll get $5,000 from the career center to help train for a new job. Bowman said he’ll probably move on, too.

In an interview earlier this month, James Mullins, another Pinnacle miner, described a stressful situation for his wife and three kids, and he’s also thinking of getting out of the field.

“Right now, I’m updating my resume and hoping I can find a job soon, I’m not really prepared,” he said.

A message left in person for the mine manager went unreturned, but Mission Coal did send a statement. It didn’t mention Pinnacle by name but said the bankruptcy was quote “a continuation of its efforts to stabilize its business.”

According to Smith from the UMWA, Pinnacle employees will be paid any wages they’re owed even though the company is in bankruptcy because the company’s filing includes a provision to allow for that. They’ll get six months of health insurance coverage from the layoff date. The company will keep 60 workers to run the on-site preparation plant.

Mission Coal was formed in January through a reorganization that consolidated Seneca Coal Resources, LLC and Seminole Coal Resources, LLC.

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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A coal comeback?

U.S. Coal Production Rose in 2016. Now it’s Falling Again.

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A national bump in coal production that started in mid-2016 may be pausing or even coming to an end, although overall job growth and production in Central Appalachia continues to grow.

The downtick in production figures was reported Thursday by SNL Energy, a publication produced by S&P Global Market Intelligence. SNL analyzed major producers reporting second-quarter figures to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. The decline in production from the first quarter was felt across most regions but especially in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, which produces by far the most coal in the country.

Appalachia produces only about a quarter of the coal in the U.S., but fetches substantially higher prices.

Even with the drop from quarter to quarter, however, coal production is up substantially from the same quarter one year ago. The second quarter of 2016 marked the bottom of a sharp if short-term decline in coal production from 2015.

Both steam coal, used for generating electricity, and metallurgical coal, used in making steel, saw growth over the past year, driven largely by a growing export market. Coal exports grew by more than 50 percent from the first quarter of 2016 to the first quarter of 2017.

“The increase in production from Central Appalachia mines paired with increased overall employment suggests coal companies may be going after more labor-intensive production as international pricing for metallurgical coal has improved,” wrote SNL reporter Taylor Kuykendall.


Industry associations remain optimistic despite the quarter-to-quarter decline in production.

Luke Popovich, the National Mining Association’s vice president of external communications, noted in an email that China restricted its metallurgical coal production last year, which increased prices and led to more demand for U.S.-mined coal. Steam coal benefited from international demand as well.

“The export picture has really picked up,” Popovich wrote. “Met coal exports through May of this year are up 27 percent [according to commerce department data]. Meanwhile, steam coal exports have nearly tripled this year—and like met coal they’re up in all regions. And surprisingly, our steam coal exports to Europe have risen 120 percent through May.”

Chris Hamilton, senior vice president at the West Virginia Coal Association, said he sees potential for more exports with President Donald Trump attempting to rework the North American Free Trade Agreement. He said he hoped that increased demand paired with a loosening of regulations should spur the industry.

“We have to take full advantage of that to get more people back to work and try to return to the levels of production and employment where we were seven or eight years ago,” Hamilton said. “That’s a challenge but we’ve seen on the ground some of the increases in production and employment are the direct result of President Trump’s actions.”

The increases in production and employment started with the second quarter of 2016, before November’s presidential election.

Trump has paid lip service to the coal sector, but he’s also encouraging increased production of natural gas and oil, which are competitors of steam coal. Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives passed bills this week to streamline permitting for natural gas pipelines, and the Senate looks likely to approve Trump’s nominees for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which would allow for the approval of a backlog of energy infrastructure projects, opening the door for natural gas to become an even more powerful player in the energy market.

Neither Hamilton nor Popovich said they were worried by that prospect. Trump’s loosening of regulations has already flattened the playing field and given coal a better chance to compete against its energy rivals in the future, they said.

“When the playing field is uneven, as it was, tilted against Central Appalachia, then I think you see the decline that we experienced,” Hamilton said. “When some of those restrictions are removed and mine permits are issued in a timely manner, and the regulatory climate is even, some of the other pressures against utilities are backed off, then I think Central Appalachia holds its own.”

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