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Kentucky’s Secretary of State Turns Up Heat in Fight With Elections Board

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Alison Lundergan Grimes removed the State Board of Elections’ executive director, a longtime critic of her actions, from a national committee on improving the country’s voting systems.

Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes escalated her fight with the State Board of Elections last week when she removed its executive director from a national committee devoted to improving the country’s voting systems and better protecting them from cyberattacks.

Grimes took the action against the executive director, Jared Dearing, just days before he was expected to travel to Memphis, Tennessee, to participate in a meeting dealing with upgrading the voting machines and technology used by states across the country. The meeting is being held by the federal Election Assistance Commission’s Standards Board, and is widely considered to be the most significant meeting of the EAC in years.

Dearing has been a longtime critic of actions taken by Grimes, by law the state’s top elections official, and last year he filed a nine-page complaint with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission accusing Grimes of creating a hostile work environment and overstepping her authority. Dearing’s complaint helped prompt a number of investigations into Grimes’ performance and played a role in the state legislature’s decision last month to strip Grimes of some of her authority over state elections.

Grimes has steadfastly denied the claims against her, calling them politically motivated. Grimes is a Democrat, as is Dearing. In a statement, Grimes’ spokeswoman, Lillie Ruschell, said appointments to the Standards Board remain at the secretary’s discretion, and she made new appointments using “the same routine practice as previous appointments over the past eight years.”

Ruschell said the decision to remove Dearing was based on his “absence from the 2018 EAC meeting.” In a statement, Dearing said he skipped last year’s meeting at the direction of Grimes.

“I was unable to attend the 2018 meeting because the secretary did not give me approval to travel, and at that time the secretary approved all travel requests,” he said. “The Standards Board meetings are an important function of securing the commonwealth’s election systems. The State Board of Elections will continue to do everything in our power to secure our systems whether or not we are in attendance.”

This will be the first time in the history of the EAC’s Standards Board that Kentucky will not be represented by an SBE director. Trey Grayson, a former secretary of state in Kentucky, said “It’s puzzling to see this deviation from Kentucky’s long-standing practice of appointing a staff member from the SBE to this board. And the timing of Dearing’s removal, given his outspoken criticism of her, is curious.”

Dearing was widely expected to be an active participant in the Memphis meeting, and he had been consulting with elections officials across the state and country in preparation. He is being replaced by Assistant Secretary of State Erica Galyon, who has been largely absent from national conversations on voting machines.

Grimes also removed Madison County Clerk Kenny Barger from the Standards Board and appointed Johnny Collier, the clerk from Jessamine County. Barger has also been an outspoken critic of Grimes. Ruschell said Barger was removed because of his lack of “communication” about the meeting. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Collier also did not respond to a request for comment, but his office indicated he would not attend the meeting in Memphis family issues. This has left Grimes’ office scrambling to find another elections official only one day before the meeting begins.

Neither Barger nor Dearing’s term on the Standards Board officially ends until the end of the month, making it unclear to Kentucky’s elections officials why Grimes chose to make appointments only days ahead of a crucial meeting.

“This meeting is huge,” said Gabrielle Summe, the clerk in Kenton County, who is also the president of Kentucky’s statewide clerks association. “It decides the machines Kentucky will be able to buy.”

Summe said Grimes’ replacement of Barger may have been improper. She said national regulations required that “local election officials” select one of their own for the Standards Board. Summe said the Kentucky County Clerks Association was neither told that Grimes intended to dismiss Barger nor consulted about his replacement. The association is taking steps to prevent Barger’s removal. said the KCCA had never before complained about the appointment process.

“There’s no vacancy,” Summe said. “There’s no reason to replace him and he’s got at least a little more experience with the process.”

According to federal and state officials, last September Dearing was in the process of being approved for a security clearance when Grimes abruptly asked the Department of Homeland Security to halt the process. The move came only weeks after Dearing first issued his public grievances with Grimes.

In her statement, Ruschell did not explain why Grimes halted the process but said security clearances were at the secretary’s discretion.

In pushing back against the legislation that reduced her powers over state election matters this year, Grimes had argued that she alone had the security clearance necessary to respond to real or potential threats to election security in the state. In doing so, she failed to mention she had played a role in making sure members of the SBE lacked such clearances.

“At a time when election security is a top concern for our nation, our Republican majority wants to remove the only member of the State Board of Elections with a National Security Clearance from having a voice in protecting Kentucky, placing the process solely in the hands of unelected bureaucrats appointed by the Governor,” Grimes said in a statement last month.

After the 2016 election, DHS allowed the “chief elections official” in each state to apply for a security clearance and to sponsor the applications of two appointees in order to streamline communication between the federal government and the states.

The clearance allows DHS to quickly communicate threats to Kentucky’s elections infrastructure. Without the clearance, Dearing would likely not be among the first to know about imminent risks. The SBE is largely responsible for the day to day management of elections.

Officials indicated the SBE has expressed its intention to ask for additional clearances to be given to its members now that legislation has given the board clearer authority. It is likely this process will move forward.

EAC spokeswoman Brenda Soder said the general counsel is reviewing Grimes’ new appointments to the Standards Board “to determine the right course of action for all involved” and that a decision on how to move forward will be guided by relevant federal law.

“This will have a huge impact on the way our state is run,” Summe said. “We need to keep the people there who should be there.”

Update, April 11, 2019: The Election Assistance Commission rejected Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes’ attempt to replace one of Kentucky’s representatives on the commission’s Standards Board. The commission said Grimes lacked the authority to replace Kenny Barger, the local elections representative serving on the Standards Board. Grimes had tried to replace Barger in the days leading up to a major conference on voting machine reform.

This article was originally published by ProPublica.

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Fact-check: Has West Virginia’s Economy Boomed since Trump, Gov. Justice Took Office?

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President Donald Trump, left, reaches out to shake hands with West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, right, at a campaign-style rally at Big Sandy Superstore Arena in Huntington, W.Va., Thursday, Aug. 3, 2017, where Justice announced that he was changing parties to be a Republican. Photo: Susan Walsh/AP Photo

President Trump has established a close relationship with West Virginia, the state that gave him his second-widest margin of victory in 2016. 

On July 21, Trump tweeted a boast about the state’s recent economic success:

“The Great State of West Virginia is producing record setting numbers and doing really well. When I became President, it was practically shut down and closed for business. Not anymore!”

Because the tweet’s vague phrasing is hard to measure mathematically, we won’t be rating the statement on the Truth-O-Meter. Instead, we will look at some key economic factors to get a rough sense of whether the state’s economic performance has turned on a dime since 2017, the year that both Trump and his ally, Gov. Jim Justice, took office.

Broadly speaking, we found that the state’s economic performance has improved during that period — but for several key statistics, that improvement continued the ongoing trend lines in place before Trump and Justice took office. (Justice was elected governor as a Democrat, but he switched to the Republican Party in 2017.)

For instance, here’s a look at the state’s unemployment rate since 2007. As with the other charts below, the red portions denote the tenures of Trump and Justice.

West Virginia’s unemployment rate in August 2019 was 4.6%, the lowest since the start of the Great Recession, and it has fallen from 5.3% in January 2017, when Trump and Justice took office.

However, as the chart shows, the state unemployment rate also fell under President Barack Obama and Justice’s Democratic predecessor, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Indeed, the country’s unemployment rate as a whole has declined during that period, so this pattern was not unique to West Virginia.

We also looked at median household income in West Virginia:

This chart also shows good news for West Virginia — modest gains above the rate of inflation in 2017 and 2018. 

Here too, though, inflation-adjusted median income also rose in West Virginia in 2015 and 2016, before Trump or Justice took office. And the pattern in West Virginia was similar to what it was for the nation as a whole.

Here’s a look at food stamp use — one of the main statistics that measures the extent of poverty in the state and the nation.

The number of West Virginians on food stamps has declined since the start of 2017, which is positive news. However, the decline began several years before Trump and Justice took office, and it mirrors the pattern nationally.

Meanwhile, here’s a chart showing the change in quarterly gross domestic product for West Virginia. That’s a measure of all economic output in the state, compared to the previous quarter.

The quarterly GDP growth is good news, too, for West Virginia. In six quarters, the state saw an increase, compared to three quarters in which there was a decline. The quarterly increases ranged from about 2% to almost 10%.

That said, “it’s hard to attribute economic growth to any president’s policies,” said Eric Bowen, an energy economics specialist at West Virginia University. “In the case of West Virginia’s economic growth, I think you would have to consider the trends prior to the changeover in administration.” 

Perhaps the most striking improvement occurred in the labor-force participation rate. This is a statistic that calculates the percentage of West Virginia’s civilian, non-institutionalized population that is either working or looking for work. Economists say that a higher percentage is always preferable because it shows that a smaller share of the population is unable or unwilling to work.

Here’s a chart showing West Virginia’s labor force participation rate since 2007, about a year before the Great Recession hit. 

The chart shows that prior to 2017, West Virginia’s labor-force participation rate was generally falling or stagnant. But since early 2017, it has risen consistently, even if not to pre-recession levels. 

This improvement is especially notable since the labor force participation rate for the country as a whole has been stable even as West Virginia’s has been rising.

However, it’s worth noting that after rough stability in population in the first half of the decade, West Virginia’s population shrank by about 25,000 people between 2016 and 2018. So while employment did increase, the rise in the labor force participation rate was magnified by the shrinkage in population. 

Having a shrinking population “doesn’t look so good for the economic outcomes in the state,” said Tara Sinclair, a George Washington University economist.

Finally, we looked at data for a specific industry that has been a key focus of policy attention for both Trump and Justice — mining and resource extraction. Both Trump and Justice have advocated easing environmental and regulatory restrictions on the mining and oil and gas sectors. West Virginia ranks near the top nationally in coal and is also a significant natural gas producer.

This chart shows the amount of economic output every quarter from mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction in the state:

The economic output has been on an upward trajectory since the start of 2017, though it also rose — somewhat more gradually — for several years prior.

However, it’s worth noting that the recent gains for the extraction sector are limited. Here’s a chart showing the number of employees in the extraction sector:

In other words, the sector has gained a few thousand jobs since its low point in 2016, but its current level remains far below its pre-recession level and even well below its peak in late 2011 and early 2012.

“For a variety of reasons — mostly due to low natural gas prices and a falloff in coal exports — the election year of 2016 was a particularly bad year for the state’s coal mining industry, and we have seen some rebound since then,” Bowen said. “But mining employment and production are still well below what they were as recently as 2011.”

The Bottom Line

Key economic statistics show that West Virginia is on an upward course. The most impressive turnaround since Trump and Justice entered office has been in the labor force participation rate.

Other statistics also show gains during their tenures, but in many cases those continued the trend lines seen under their predecessors, calling into question how much credit either can claim for the economic progress.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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While “Zombie” Mines Idle, Cleanup And Workers Remain In Limbo

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Larry Bush, a retired coal miner and mine inspector, grew up hunting squirrels on this hill near Keokee, Virginia, which was since stripped and has been only partially reclaimed by companies linked to the governor of West Virginia. Photo: Mark Olalde/Ohio Valley ReSource

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The sound of metal banging against metal broke the calm on the high mesa separating Colorado’s Paradox and Big Gypsum valleys. An old rusted headframe marked the entrance to an abandoned uranium mine that, from a distance, looked as if its workers were simply off on a lunch break.

Jennifer Thurston, a local environmentalist, paused at the edge of the dirt road, wondering what caused the noise. Then she walked closer, finding ample evidence of the site’s long disuse. Ore sat in a hopper, likely untouched since the mine — known as Van 4 — last produced in 1989. Any loose metal and wiring had long since been stripped from two buildings, one of which looked ready to collapse.

“They’re just sitting out there doing nothing,” Thurston said of the uranium mines dotting southwestern Colorado. “They’re zombies.”

Jennifer Thurston, an activist with the Information Network for Responsible Mining, tours the long-idled Van 4 mine. She won a court ruling in July that called for cleanup to begin. Photo: Mark Olalde/Ohio Valley ReSource

Meanwhile, about 1,500 miles away, out-of-work coal miners spent weeks this summer protesting, camped out on Kentucky railroad tracks, demanding a paycheck they earned but lost when their operator went bankrupt. Though separated by a generation, along with most of a continent, these Eastern miners are linked to their Western counterparts by a seismic shift in the nation’s electricity generation.

Their mines once fueled the coal and nuclear power plants that kept America’s lights on. Now, cheaper natural gas and renewables are helping push them into the red.

But instead of properly closing the mines, their owners are idling them indefinitely, throwing workers into limbo and side-stepping legally mandated, but costly, environmental cleanup.

Several dozen U.S. uranium mines and more than 150 coal mines sit idle and have not produced for years, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. Also idled long-term are facilities such as processing plants, including more than 40 in the coal industry. Mine owners have exploited regulatory loopholes to warehouse their operations, changing the status of their permits on paper while little to no activity happens on the ground.

Mining is a cyclical, boom-and-bust industry, so state and federal laws allow companies to pause work while prices rebound. In the coal industry, where the relevant permit status is usually called “temporary cessation,” this pause rarely has a cap — although regulators attempt to track the number that have been idled for at least three years. In uranium mining, where operations usually wait in “standby,” the limits differ by state — 10 years in Colorado but indefinitely in Utah if “good cause” is shown, for instance.

But many of the mines identified in this investigation have remained “temporarily” paused for decades at a time, despite occasional increases in commodity prices.

And most will likely never produce again.

Uranium and coal are the mines most often idled for long periods, but the investigation also identified about 120 quarries and five Western gold mines paused for three or more years.

Mine owners argue they’re operating within the law, saying higher prices will eventually rescue them. Though government regulators have at times attempted to crack down, their hands are often tied. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which oversees coal mining, began rewriting weak federal regulations in 1991; faced with industry pushback, it never finished. The agency killed a more recent effort two months after President Donald Trump took office.

Regulators acknowledge that some companies have abused vague laws. “There were applications where a company had applied to get a temporary cessation status, and they were just trying to keep from having to do any further mining or reclamation,” said Davie Ransdell, a retired Kentucky coal mine inspector.

The Four Corners region — where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet — is home to much of the country’s historical uranium industry, now largely dormant. These sites add to the air and water pollution and low-grade radioactivity that have been linked to local health problems for decades. In Central Appalachia, heavily mined for 150 years, the omnipresent but dying coal industry has sheared off mountaintops and buried streams.

Larry Bush, a retired coal miner and mine inspector who lives in southwestern Virginia near idled operations, is among those fed up with the lack of cleanup.

“They’re destroying everything on Earth and under it,” he said.

Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

Radioactive legacy

Remnants of America’s nuclear past litter the Grants Mining District in northwest New Mexico: signs warning of radioactivity, a spiked drill bit outside the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants, businesses offering to help retired miners get U.S. Department of Labor health benefits.

Mount Taylor — “Tsoodzil” to the Navajo Nation — towers over the landscape. At the base of the 11,305-foot-tall inactive volcano sits the Mount Taylor Mine, idled in 1990 and allowed to flood

The heyday of Southwestern uranium mining lasted just 30 years. Much of the industry, including this mine, has since remained in standby.

The country’s last operational underground uranium mine shut in 2015, and open-pit mines haven’t produced in decades. Only one mill in Utah and four in-situ-leach operations, in which ore is dissolved belowground and pumped up, are still active. Two other mills and 15 in-situ-leach sites are either officially in standby or not producing. The American uranium industry employed only 372 people last year, down from 1,120 two decades earlier. Production from U.S. uranium mines fell 85 percent during that period, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At current prices, mining uranium in the Four Corners remains untenable.

But now the Mount Taylor Mine is reopening, at least on paper. Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, has been fighting the long-idled mine in court. “What we’re asking for is what the Legislature demands: that the mine either start producing or it start reclaiming,” he said, speaking at his home office, boxes of paperwork and his dog’s chew toys competing for space. Out front, a bumper sticker on his car said, “Uranium — Leave it in the ground.”

The Mount Taylor Mine’s first standby permit was issued in 1999. That means this October the site exhausts the maximum 20 years of inactivity New Mexico allows. In December 2017, the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division, later backed up by the New Mexico Mining Commission on appeal, allowed the mine to re-enter “active” status even though the mining company’s application noted it required eight years to restart production.

Jantz said state regulators “seem to bend over backwards to accommodate the mining interests’ needs, at the same time minimizing, belittling and, a lot of times, ultimately dismissing community concerns.”

Susan Torres, spokeswoman for the state Environment Department, wrote in a statement that companies can’t clean up their site while in standby. The mining division “approved the Permittee’s proposal to resume active status for the purpose of undertaking partial reclamation operations,” she wrote.

In its court filings, General Atomics subsidiary Rio Grande Resources, which owns the Mount Taylor Mine but didn’t make anyone available to comment, said the plaintiffs spread “revisionist history” and that “in light of the several intervening permit actions that have long since become final,” standby status didn’t begin when mining stopped. In an appellate decision in late July, a state court affirmed the state mining agency’s decision to allow the non-producing mine to switch its permit status to “active.”

A sign warns of an abandoned uranium mine. Two such mines, in addition to a former mill site, surround the Red Water Pond Road Community in the Navajo Nation. Photo: Mark Olalde/Ohio Valley ReSource

Twenty miles southeast, the Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine, once the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine, is now a Superfund site. In the broader Four Corners region, the U.S. Department of Energy is supposed to clean up more than 20 such Cold War relics, from former mills to waste piles. Some leak arsenic, lead, uranium and other toxic substances into groundwater. Recently, hoofprints were found leading from an unfenced pollution control pond near Slick Rock, Colorado, indicating that cattle likely drink from it.

Just inside the southeastern corner of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, an unsettling sign hangs from barbed wire: “DANGER. ABANDONED URANIUM MINE,” a pile of mine waste looming behind it. Residents here in the Red Water Pond Road Community are surrounded by two abandoned uranium mines and a mill.

A cold wind blew dust across the landscape from the pale yellow mounds of waste. Some landed on a modest home where a trickle of cars pulled up one morning in May, carrying researchers from the University of New Mexico and the Southwest Research and Information Center. They’d come to collect blood and urine samples for a project studying whether zinc supplements could reduce the impacts of exposure to the heavy metals in uranium mine waste.

Living around or working in uranium mines can worsen, or even trigger, autoimmune disorders, kidney disease, respiratory issues, hypertension and cancer. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the University of New Mexico and Navajo agencies found that Navajo Nation citizens, including infants, had elevated levels of uranium in their bodies.

Paul Robinson, Southwest Research and Information Center’s research director, has tracked the industry for more than 40 years. While the New Mexico Mining Act mandates that waste rock and other infrastructure be stabilized before entering standby status, it allows operators to delay reclamation while mining is paused, he said.

“Leaving the wastes that are generated at a mine uncovered is one of the ways to ensure airborne or waterborne release,” Robinson said.

Thompson Bell, a member of the Navajo Nation, spent five years as a mechanic in a uranium mine. Many of his coworkers have since died from cancer, he says. Photo: Mark Olalde/Ohio Valley ReSource

Thompson Bell, a member of the Navajo Nation who spent five years as a mechanic in a uranium mine, grew up here and returned for the study. He said many of his mining coworkers died from lung cancer. The sheep and cattle that used to graze here have all but disappeared, the flocks given up for fear of contamination.

“The thing about uranium, we found out: It destroys humans and land,” Bell said.

Opinion remains split locally about whether the return of relatively high-paying mining jobs — if that ever happened — would be worth the human and environmental consequences. Christine Lowery, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a commissioner for the county where the Mount Taylor Mine is located, said she welcomes a cleaner economy.

“Those mines were open for one generation,” she said. “The legacy lasts forever.”

“Wolves are at my door”

More than 20 years ago, Todd Adams followed his father, uncles and grandfathers into the coal mines of Harlan County, Kentucky. The area has a history of bloody labor fights. But even so, he was shocked by what happened after his employer filed for bankruptcy protection on July 1: Blackjewel quietly clawed his final paycheck out of his bank account.

Blackjewel is part of a private coal empire until recently owned by Jeff Hoops, an avid user of temporary cessation. Workers around the country lost their jobs and final paychecks when several of his companies, including another operator called Revelation Energy, sought bankruptcy protection.

“If I can work in this industry another 20 years, that’s good for me,” said Adams. He participated in this summer’s railroad protest but believes the industry will disappear from Harlan within a few decades. “But this younger generation, I don’t know what the county holds for them.”

U.S. coal production has fallen by a third in the past decade, and temporary cessation has emerged as an escape route for cash-strapped owners. One in five non-abandoned coal mines now sits idle. Hoops’ companies have idled coal operations more often and for longer than nearly anyone, and the Blackjewel and Revelation bankruptcy proceedings offer a master class in avoiding liability in a dying industry.

Near the scene of the miners’ protest in Harlan Co., KY. Photo: Curren Sheldon

Central Appalachia — covering portions of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia — was once the heart of U.S. coal. Its share of production halved in the past 15 years, and as the industry dissolved, the region became the epicenter of long-term idling. About half the country’s 415 idled coal mines and related facilities, and half of those idled for more than three years, are located here, according to Public Integrity’s analysis of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data. That’s likely an undercount, but state and federal data are incomplete and not often comparable.

Long-term idling brings huge layoffs. Coal mines and the plants serving them that have been idled for at least three years had 85 percent fewer full-time employees after switching into idle status than they did a year before, Public Integrity’s analysis found. Management often promises that jobs will quickly return, miners say, encouraging workers to stay in towns with few other prospects.

This mainly happens in the East; out West, just eight coal operations sit idle, with only three workers still employed between them.

Union mines are not immune to idling and benefit losses, but some union contracts grant members call-back rights if their mines reopen and priority to transfer to other operations under the same owner, if not.

Glenn Sykes, a Vietnam veteran, spent 32 years mining Central Appalachian coal. Even though the industry was stronger then, Sykes wasn’t a union miner, and whenever one job dried up, the company’s support was “cut off right then. All my benefits were gone.”

“They’d say this job was gonna last 20 years. You were lucky if it lasted three. I was always moving around from job to job,” Sykes said. He has silicosis, a deadly lung disease likely caused by the fine dust kicked up in mines, and is fighting to preserve his benefits.

Data before the early 2000s was spotty, but it appears to indicate an uptick in temporary cessation during the 1990s. As the industry wanes, so too does the number of producing mines. Fifteen years ago, 61 percent of coal mines were producing, not including abandoned sites, which were largely jettisoned before the federal coal mining law was passed in 1977. That number has since fallen to 42 percent.

And though coal regulators knew that temporary cessation could be used as a loophole, they failed to enact meaningful changes.

First in 1991 and again in 2011, Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSMRE, proposed to write new rules to better regulate the practice. The first attempt was withdrawn a year later after the mining industry and several state agencies called it unnecessary. The second attempt was halted by the Trump administration.

Internal notes made by OSMRE staff in 2010, recently obtained by Public Integrity, showed that not-so-temporary closures were bedeviling regulators around the country. A survey sent to all state and federal agencies overseeing coal mining found that a majority “experienced problems administering temporary cessation. Most States believe there should be a maximum time limit.”

The agency’s Tennessee office told OSMRE officials, “The temporary cessation concept has been abused for years by operators desiring to retain viable permits but not conducting mining operations” and that efforts to compel either reclamation or mining “have failed for lack of … clearly defined regulations or policies.”

As the industry shrinks, long-term idling can be used as a stepping stone to forfeiture, passing cleanup responsibilities to the government and taxpayers. That may happen to some of Hoops’ mines. As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, Hoops and his family walked away from most of their companies.

Hoops specialized in scavenging, buying often unprofitable mines after a series of bankruptcies hit the country’s largest coal companies in 2015 and 2016.

Twenty-one of his coal mines and related facilities were temporarily idled as of mid-August, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data, seven of them for at least three years.

Photo: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

Potential buyers appeared interested last month in some of the mines owned by his companies in bankruptcy proceedings. But what would happen to the rest was unclear. If unpurchased, they would likely fall to states to reclaim — first with the inadequate funds companies set aside for that purpose, and after that with taxpayer money. At least 16 additional Central Appalachian operations owned by other companies in bankruptcy are idle.

Records from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet showed that more than 20 percent of permits idled in the state are tied to Hoops or were until July’s bankruptcy.

Cabinet spokesman John Mura said state legal staff is actively engaged in the bankruptcy proceedings, adding that the state is not concerned about temporary cessation because only 10 percent of Kentucky coal permits are currently idle.

Reached by phone, Hoops declined to comment. Numbers listed to Lexington Coal Co., where his wife Patricia is an executive, were disconnected.

About 1,100 Central Appalachian miners lost their jobs during the bankruptcy. Brandon Fleming, a Virginia miner who lived and worked not far from Harlan County, was one of several who said their employer sharply cut costs beforehand. Fleming said that workers were told: “If you find a pair of safety glasses lying in the mud, if you need a pair, wipe them off and use them. If you need gloves, go buy your own. And if you didn’t like it, go get another job.”

When he cashed what turned out to be a bad check from Blackjewel, his bank initially threatened legal action against him. He’s since been given several months to pay the money back, money that he earned. Now he’s working at a car dealership for half the pay and three times the commute.

“I’ve done lost just about everything, and the wolves are at my door,” Fleming said. His wife’s car was repossessed, and he couldn’t afford to buy his fourth-grade daughter new school clothes. “It breaks my heart.”

Paperwork shuffling

The calendar pinned to the wall read “April 2009,” although it was actually May 2019 at the abandoned office of the Sunday Mine, 17 miles southwest of Naturita, Colorado. Cobwebs covered an empty desk in the next room, and paperwork spilled out of a box onto the dusty floor.

“This mine is not going to come back to life,” Thurston, the activist, said as she viewed the mess.

The Sunday Mine is part of a complex of five uranium operations owned by Western Uranium & Vanadium subsidiary Pinon Ridge Mining. Now, president and CEO George Glasier, a titan of American uranium mining, hopes to restart them after years of idling.

Legal battles are being fought across the Uravan Mineral Belt in southwestern Colorado. Modern uranium miners, including Glasier, want to revive their operations, while Thurston, a mine watchdog with the Information Network for Responsible Mining, believes final reclamation should begin. As she whipped her car through the region’s valleys, she noted with a flash of dark humor that she’s stared at the same piles of waste rock her entire life.

In July, the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with the environmental group in one case. A panel of judges ruled that the Van 4 mine — the old site above Paradox, near the Sunday Mine and also owned by Glasier — had overstayed its allotted time in temporary cessation.

In the Uravan Mineral Belt, 31 lease tracts managed by the Department of Energycover about 25,000 acres. A federal court in Colorado lifted a long-standing injunction against new mining activity in March. Two months later, the mines were still far from production. At one called C-JD-5, equipment and buildings were badly damaged from years of theft.

Republican state Sen. Don Coram is part-owner of Gold Eagle Mining, which holds C-JD-5 and several other mines that haven’t produced since he bought in more than 20 years ago. Over breakfast in May, he said it comes down to the markets.

“It’s a big waiting game right now,” he said.

Bullet holes pockmark a sign showing the location of buried uranium mill waste in southwest Colorado. Photo: Mark Olalde/Ohio Valley ReSource

C-JD-5 is “abandoned,” according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data. But the Department of Energy considers it “actively leased.” Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety records show Coram switched the permit out of “final reclamation” in the most recent annual report.

That’s why environmental activists call such operations “zombie mines” — it’s impossible to say whether they’re alive or dead.

Mining law’s complexity makes this possible.

Coal mining falls under a federal law that mandates only that mining companies notify regulators when a permit will be in temporary cessation longer than 30 days. Twenty-one of the 23 states still producing coal wrote their own laws. But some barred themselves from enacting rules stricter than the federal government’s, and most long-term idling occurs in those states.

The federal government leaves it to the states to impose limits on uranium-mine idling. The resulting patchwork of state rules are largely anchored on a 147-year-old federal law aimed more at promoting mining than managing it.

Over time, uranium production has dropped, stockpiles remained large, nuclear power’s share of the country’s electricity production fell, and power plants bought more uranium from overseas. Still, mine owners hope for a revival.

Uranium producers banked on a petition to Trump that would have effectively subsidized the industry by compelling 25 percent of uranium used in American power plants to be produced domestically. But in July, the administration announced that importing uranium didn’t threaten national security, punting the question to a working group for further review.

While the industry awaits a decision, companies hold off on final reclamation. Groundwater monitoring at the Sunday Mine Complex has found heavy metals, although Glasier says the mine is above the water table and any water problems are naturally occurring.

“Once you reclaim something, it’s a lot harder to start it,” Glasier said at his ranch, which covers tens of thousands of acres along the San Miguel River. The impressive home he purchased with the profits from a successful mining career stands at the end of a long tree-lined driveway. “Once you shut the industry down,” he said, “it’s going to take you 10, 15 years and a high price to bring it back.”

Both Glasier and Coram believe another element might save their mines first. Vanadium, which often occurs alongside uranium in the Uravan, can be used in powerful batteries. Glasier believes his mines have high concentrations; he recently restarted sampling at the Sunday Mine Complex.

Neither man considers himself part of the industry’s history of pollution. They said they would willingly begin reclamation when their temporary cessation permits run out, if uranium and vanadium prices haven’t risen enough.

“The reason it got so messed up to begin with: It was totally the rush of the federal government,” Coram said. “We were in a wartime situation and were going to produce this at all costs.”

Cleaning up after the governor

As uranium mining pockmarked Colorado’s valleys, the coal industry eviscerated low peaks and forests in the Appalachian Mountains.

“Remembering how it was and how it is is depressing as hell,” said Bush, the former coal miner and mine inspector.

Except for time spent serving in Vietnam, Bush is a lifelong resident of southwest Virginia, where the commonwealth melts into Central Appalachian coal country. Area streams once teemed with minnows, he said. Now they’re choked by silt running off unreclaimed mines.

He grew up hunting squirrels on a hill above his home, but a strip mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family now dominates the landscape. Today, Bush lives just up the road, where the hill above that home, too, has been leveled by a Justice operation.

Both mines have sat inactive for years at a time, fouling local waterways. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and four states filed legal action in 2016 against Justice and his companies, listing thousands of violations relating to inadequate environmental monitoring and water pollution, including elevated levels of iron and manganese flowing from these mines.

Justice and his family idle more permits than any other U.S. coal mine owners, according to Public Integrity’s analysis of federal data. Miles of ridgeline on the Virginia-Kentucky border lie barren after Justice mines went dormant.

It’s difficult to separate the environmental and health impacts caused by idled mines from those triggered by active operations, said Emily Bernhardt, a professor at Duke University who researches human impacts on ecosystems. Modern surface mining in Central Appalachia has been linked to health problems ranging from cancer to birth defects. And in a 2012 study, Bernhardt estimated that surface mining impaired about one in three miles of southern West Virginia’s rivers.

But idling poses other risks, Bernhardt said. When toxic waste piles — either solid rock or liquid confined behind earthen dams — are left unaddressed, the potential increases for “catastrophic failure,” she said, even as opportunities to use the land for new purposes are delayed.

“You can’t actually make any improvements when you’re just on hold,” she said.

In Central Appalachia, tens of thousands of acres, mostly former forests, lie barren at these idled coal operations, according to a Public Integrity analysis of satellite data compiled by environmental group SkyTruth. Communities that hope to grow outdoor recreation or other post-mining industries can’t move forward.

Ransdell, the former Kentucky mine inspector, said regulators can reject applications for idled status if they catch noncompliance and ongoing pollution. But problematic mines can slip through the cracks. She recalled a permit in eastern Kentucky that was put into temporary cessation for a decade because its underground workings were on fire. And the longer that surface mines are left exposed, the more likely that acid will leak into waterways, ponds holding polluted runoff will overflow and massive waste impoundments destabilize. 

“Coal companies know [long-term idling is] a viable option,” Ransdell said. “It’s something that can be abused easily because there are vague guidelines.”

Thirty-three mines and a preparation plant owned by the Justice family’s companies were idled as of mid-August, and 15 of them have been idled for at least three years, according to data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. One mine in McDowell County, West Virginia — Justice’s home state — has been paused since 2010.

And in Virginia — where two of his family’s coal operations have been idled on and off since 1984 — the Justice companies have only one mine still producing. They’re years behind on several of the original cleanup deadlines the state set.

“The end goal is to meet environmental obligations required by law in the state of Virginia, so we’ve given them dates and specific instructions of what needs to be reclaimed by when,” said Tarah Kesterson, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Idling permits is “standard practice” in the industry, a spokesman for the Justice companies, Brian Walsh, said in an emailed statement. “The Justice companies are proud to be one of the region’s leading job creators and environmental leaders within the coal industry” and have reclaimed several thousand acres in recent years, he said.

A broken down bulldozer rusts in 2018 on a Virginia strip mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family. Photo: Mark Olalde/Ohio Valley ReSource

Regulators in Virginia have few options. Justice mine cleanup liabilities in Virginia total as much as $200 million, and taxpayers could get stuck with a large share of that if the state takes over. That’s because those companies have put up only about $51 million for cleanup if the operations are abandoned. Half of that amount would likely be worthless in that scenario because, state records show, it is backed against the value of the companies. A pool of money Virginia set up to close gaps like this at 150 permits across the state, including some of Justice’s, has less than $10 million in it.

The state requires that mines covered by that shared funding pool increase the amount of money they set aside for reclamation once they’re idled longer than six months. But funding shortfalls persist.

All told, nearly a third of permits in Virginia are in some degree of temporary cessation, according to Kesterson.

This makes Bush angry: It’s created wastelands, he said.

An August visit to the Justice mine above his childhood home found reclamation still unfinished. Puddles dotted the site. Grass and weeds poked up through the exposed rock, in stark contrast to the lush surrounding forest. Near the treeline, a broken-down bulldozer sat abandoned, rusting.

Mark Olalde reported and wrote this story, and Joe Yerardi produced the data analysis. Brittany Patterson, energy and environment reporter with the Ohio Valley ReSource, contributed to this article.

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W.Va. Counties Implement ‘Family Treatment Court’ Hoping to Reunify More Families

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Mondays are reserved in the Boone County courthouse for child abuse and neglect cases. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Spend a Monday at the Boone County, West Virginia, courthouse, and you’ll see judges and public attorneys overwhelmed with a surging number of child abuse and neglect cases.   

Mondays are reserved in Boone County for abuse and neglect hearings. Circuit Judge Will Thompson for Boone and Lincoln counties said he usually gets about 30 hearings each week. On his busiest days, he’s dealt with around 50.   

Each week’s docket is made of several families who are in a different place in the abuse and neglect process: parents who have just been served petitions threatening termination of parental rights; parents working on an improvement plan, issued by the judge, to avoid losing their kids; parents who have veered from the plan and some close to finishing; parents who get their kids back and those who relinquish that right. There are adoptions, but many kids end upwards of the state until they reach 18.    

There are often what the judge refers to as “empty chairs”— about half of the hearings last Monday, Aug. 26, were no-shows, in which parents didn’t attend their own hearings.    

“We’re drowning in child abuse and neglect cases,” said attorney Leonard Scott Briscoe. Briscoe is appointed by Thompson to serve as a guardian ad litem for Boone County, meaning he represents the children in these abuse and neglect cases and in juvenile cases. Briscoe said on Monday he’s working with roughly 300 cases.   

“It’s more than (Child Protective Services) can handle, it’s more than the prosecutor can handle, and it’s more than the judge can handle. It was never a part of the docket like it is now.”   

Boone County, like the rest of West Virginia, has complex social and economic problems. Most of the families in the judge’s abuse and neglect docket are dealing with substance use disorder — several reports have emerged showing Boone County as one of West Virginia’s most hard hit by the opioid crisis. That includes a report from the American Enterprise Institute in March 2018, which shows Boone County had the highest cost per capita when it comes to dealing with the opioid crisis.

Judge Thompson, a Boone County native, doesn’t have the magic answer to all of his community’s problems, but, starting after Sept. 2, his court and two others in the state are trying something new.   

“We will start taking referrals for family treatment court,” Thompson said. “And it’s a court where we’re going to apply the lessons we’ve learned in our drug courts to the abuse and neglect model.”  

Family Treatment Court is a Type of ‘Problem-Solving’ Court  

Family treatment court and drug court are two types of “problem-solving courts” that exist nationwide, where the court implements a sort of “behavior modification” strategy instead of incarceration. 

West Virginia has had drug courts for several years. Judge Thompson himself leads a few drug courts for adults and juveniles in Boone County.   

Boone, Randolph and Ohio counties will be the first in the state to offer family treatment court to their residents. Thompson said he’s grateful to the West Virginia Legislature for passing House Bill 3057 in the most recent session, which allows for the creation of family treatment court. The program has also received support from the state’s Supreme Court.   

In drug court, participants can avoid jail time by following a plan from the judge, designed to turn their lives around. Requirements can include treatment, finding employment or going back to school.   

Child abuse and neglect cases differ from drug offenses in that they’re not criminal charges — parents don’t risk going to jail, they risk losing parental rights.   

But with most abuse and neglect cases being addiction-related, Thompson says family treatment court is what some parents need to kick addiction and reunite with their kids.   

“We want to be able to put these children back with their families in a safe and loving environment,” Thompson said. “We are in the midst of an incredible crisis. For every child we can put in a good home, that’s a victory for that child.” 

Boone County Circuit Court Judge Will Thompson was involved in bringing the first family treatment courts to West Virginia. Photo: Emily Allen/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Thompson says family treatment court will be a more involved process for parents than the existing abuse and neglect system. In the traditional model, Thompson meets with families trying to get their kids back every six to eight weeks to address any roadblocks.  

Those meetings will become weekly in family treatment court.   

“The court — that being me, as well as the treatment team — is going to know on a weekly basis how that family is doing,” Judge Thompson said.  “And how that will help is, if the family’s not doing well, what do we need to fix that? Do we need to increase the services? Do we need to have more involvement with that family? Or, if that family is doing well, what do we need to further this case along?”  

Parents will have access to more resources for treatment, and parents will see their kids more regularly. Right now, Thompson said some parents must go through several drug screenings before having even a supervised visit with a child.   

“We have decided from the beginning that we’re not going to use visits as a behavioral response, where it’s not going to be a sanction or a reward because we’re not sanctioning the children for their parents’ conduct,” he said.   

Thompson said kids will be involved in the process as much as they safely can. He said there will be dedicated professionals available to talk with the parents and supervise visits.   

“The children will be encouraged to talk to the supervisors to say how a visit went,” Thompson said. “Their needs and wants are going to be addressed as much as possible.”  

Many Aren’t Sure What to Expect from Family Treatment Court   

A week before the court was expected to begin taking referrals, many in the courtroom who are usually present for abuse and neglect hearings said they couldn’t spell out how they hope the system will change with family treatment court.  

“I, at this point, am willing to try anything and everything,” said Briscoe, who’s in the courtroom every Monday. “I hope that a better focus and more time spent with these families, with a better quality system, will improve the rates of success with reunification, for the family.”

Kassie Ball is a public defender appointed by the court to help parents in these abuse and neglect cases. 

“There’s so many unknowns right now, going into it,” she said of family treatment court. “I’ve read the plan of what my clients would be expected to do. My clients, when they see a long list of things, they can get overwhelmed, so they think, ‘Oh, I could never do that.’ I think the challenge for me would be condensing that [list], so it sounds like something they can do.”   

Ball said she’s also concerned about the commitment her clients will be making when many are experiencing homelessness, making communication difficult. 

Thompson says he and others hope to know more about family treatment court in about a month. Boone County will hold a press event from the courthouse in Madison on Oct. 7 to provide an update on the program. By then, Thompson says he hopes to have about 10 to 12 families participating.   

Many people working in the Boone County courthouse said they do not believe family treatment court is about reaching record numbers of families, but rather it’s about helping as many children as possible.   

“You know, everybody’s talking about the numbers of foster care children,” Judge Thompson said. “Children don’t care about numbers. So, for every child that I’m able to put back, that’s a huge victory for that child. Every time I do that, that’s a big victory for that child.”  

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member. 

This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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