provides advice for citizens, story ideas for journalists
mine-safety experts and regulators discuss health and
Two of the three mine-safety experts who spoke at "Covering
Coal," a one-day seminar for Central Appalachian
journalists in South Charleston, W.Va., on Nov. 18,
2005, were among the witnesses at a special hearing
held by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee
on Labor, HHS and Related Agencies in Washington
on Jan. 23 in the wake of the Sago Mine disaster.
Those experts included J. Davitt McAteer, a longtime
mine-safety advocate who was assistant secretary of
labor for mine safety and health, heading the Mine
Safety and Health Administration, during the
Clinton administration. McAteer is now a vice president
of sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University,
where he overees the Coal Impoundment Project, and is
overseeing West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin's investigation
into the disaster at the Sago Mine, which killed 12
In one of the opening sessions at the November conference,
held at the Graduate College of Marshall University,
McAteer said the current boom in coal prices, and companies’
plans to expand production, provide an opportunity for
the coal industry to show that it can mine responsibly.
McAteer was scheduled to speak at an afternoon panel
on mine safety at the conference, but had to leave early
because of a medical condition. The panelists were Chris
Hamilton, a vice president of the West Virginia
Coal Association, who also spoke at the Jan.
23 hearing, chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. Hamilton
was joined on the conference mine-safety panel by Wes
Addington, an attorney with the Appalachian
Citizens Law Center in Prestonsburg, Ky., whose
clients inclose coal miners.
The conference was held by the Institute for
Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based
at the University of Kentucky. West
Virginia University and Virginia Tech
assisted with the conference. Paul Nyden, the award-winning
Charleston Gazette reporter who moderated
the opening panel, said the conference was "probably
a unique event" because he had never seen such
a diverse group of people on such a program. For the
impressions of citizen-journalist Betty Dotson-Lewis
of Summersville, W.Va., click
Coal boom offers opportunity
to steer future development in Appalachia
Owners of mountains about to be mined for coal should
"tell the coal companies what to put on your property"
after mining, the man who issues strip-mine permits
in West Virginia said at the "Covering Coal"
conference for journalists covering the industry.
"It’s time for landowners to take control
of their property and decide what the future is,"
said Larry Alt, assistant director of the Mining and
Reclamation Division of the West Virginia Department
of Environmental Protection. He said the state
"missed the boat" on post-mining land uses
during the 1970s coal boom, and "We can’t
let this one go by and not develop something for the
future." Alt also cited potential for coordination
of mining and construction of the proposed Coalfields
Expressway through southern West Virginia. Two months
after the conference, two coal companies took over planning
for the Virginia section.
The boom may not bring as much coal out of Appalachia
as some might think, because the region’s reserves
have been greatly depleted, coal consultant Alan Stagg
suggested. "All the thick and clean coal is gone,"
he said. "All that’s left is either thick
and dirty or clean and thin. . . . We can’t supply
our historic markets now."
Industry in transition: Coal
production falls as prices, demand rise
"The coal industry is in a major transition right
now," said Stagg, president of Stagg Natural
Resource Consultants of Cross Lanes, W.Va.
Not only have many companies gone out of business because
they could not adapt to market conditions, "There
hasn’t been a coal boom like this since 1974,"
and this one has already lasted longer than that one,
But Stagg said depletion of reserves in southern West
Virginia has created a situation he has never seen before
– production falling while prices and demand rise.
Farther south, coal from Venezuela is being brought
into Alabama because U.S. prices are so high, he said.
Other problems in Appalachia include lack of railroad
capacity and a shortage of miners. The industry "lost
a generation of miners" in the last two decades,
and many of the few young people willing to work in
the mines can’t pass drug tests, he said.
Stagg predicted that "the big producers and the
big players" in the U.S. coal market will be in
the low-BTU lignite fields of Texas, North Dakota and
Montana; the sub-bituminous fields of the Powder River
Basin of Wyoming; and the Illinois Basin, which reaches
into Southern Indiana and Western Kentucky. Illinois
Basin coals are high in sulfur, but use of scrubbers
and newer technology at power plants is spurring development
there, he said.
Stagg’s remarks provided story ideas. "No
one is covering the business side of the coal industry
very well," said Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston
Gazette, one of the closing presenters. "It’s
a huge hole."
Other speakers at the conference included Bill Caylor,
president of the Kentucky Coal Association,
and Jack Spadaro, a former U.S. Mine Safety and Health
Administration official widely known for his conflicts
with the current administration.
Mountaintop removal comes under
fire, is defended by industry executive
Much of the discussion dealt with mountaintop removal,
a form of mining that has generated much controversy
in Central Appalachia. Spadaro and Dave Cooper of Kentuckians
for the Commonwealth attacked the practice,
and McAteer, disputing Bill Caylor, president of the
Kentucky Coal Association, said large-scale
mountaintop mining was not contemplated when the federal
strip-mine law was passed in 1977. "I was in the
room," he said.
Caylor said mountaintop mining creates flatter land
for development, reforestation and habitat for wildlife,
including elk that have been reintroduced to Kentucky.
He noted that landowners must give permission for their
mountaintops to be removed, and are paid fees that often
total more than the value of the land. Showing color
slides of green, reclaimed mountains, Caylor said photographs
with newspaper stories on the topic usually show active
mining, with all vegetation removed. "Hell, I think
it’s ugly," he said.
Cooper said Eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia
don’t need more flat land, and should try to capitalize
on the beauty of the mountains, as has the area around
Asheville, N.C., which has no coal. He said mountaintop
removal has already “flattened” 95,000 acres
in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia “enough
to last 3,000 years at the current rate of development.”
He said such sites are often difficult to develop due
to a lack of infrastructure, and that the idea of bringing
factories to such places is “a strategy from 20
Cooper also cited Kinetic Park, alongside
Interstate 64 near Huntington, where the top of a coal-bearing
hill was planed off for commercial and industrial development
but led to a landslide on the neighborhood below and
the location of only one business so far -- a Bob Evans
restaurant. (SouthWings, a flying service
based in Asheville, will take journalists on flights
to see and photograph mountaintop-removal sites. Call
800-640-1131 or go to http://www.southwings.org.)
In mountaintop removal, the mined rock and dirt are
placed in valley fills, some of which impound large
ponds, often containing coal slurry, the waste from
coal washing. People who live downstream from such impoundments
know the least about them, because coal companies keep
people off the property, McAteer said. His Coal
Impoundment Project assembles data on the impoundments,
including emergency-response plans that are required
in West Virginia but not in Kentucky, which has 240
such impoundments – almost half the total in Appalachia.
There are 110 in West Virginia, 64 each in Ohio and
Pennsylvania and 25 in Virginia.
McAteer said the October 2000 slurry spill in Martin
County, Kentucky, in which the bottom of a pond broke
through an abandoned underground mine and sent millions
of gallons of sludge downstream, showed the lack of
training for coal-company employees who inspect impoundments.
Foresters and soil scientists have found that mined
mountaintops can actually grow larger trees than the
original mountaintop, if the rock and soil are left
relatively loose and not compacted. The technique was
described by Patrick Angel of the U.S. Office
of Surface Mining and Carl Zipper of the Powell
River Project at Virginia Tech. Jeff Skousen of West
Virginia University discussed acid mine drainage.
Angel said reclaimed Appalachian mountaintops "may
make the best springboard for the American chestnut,"
a new blight-resistant strain of which is being developed
to rebuild the species. Alt was skeptical that there
will be commercial forestry on such sites. "I don’t
think we’re going to see very many, because it’s
very onerous to do," he said.
Alt provided a memorable moment during Marshall University
journalism professor Marc Seamon’s presentation
of his study on coverage of mountaintop removal. Seamon
explained that "God" came to be one of the
"frames" used by journalists because some
official had said of the mountains, "We can’t
stack ‘em as high as God did." Ken Ward Jr.
of the Gazette immediately pointed to Alt, who said,
"I said it!" For a summary of Seamon's research,
Ward told journalists that simply quoting both sides
in coal stories is "bracketing the truth,"
and more work is often called for. "It’s
really important to get out and listen to people,"
and to spend time looking through records, he said.
Ward suggested several story ideas, including who will
be responsible for mine sites where reclamation failed
after passage of the 1977 law. Pre-1977 mines are supposed
to be reclaimed with money from a federal severance
tax, but federal policymakers have held back some of
the money, and Ward said some is being used to reclaim
non-coal sites in the West and build a new geology building
at the University of Wyoming, which he called "an
The road ahead: Coal for now,
alternative fuels and nuclear later?
Caylor, of the Kentucky Coal Association,
said he sees more of a corporate attitude in the coal
industry these days. "That corporate mentality
is to comply with the laws, whatever they are."
He said the average Kentucky coal miner is now safer
than the average Kentucky worker, and the numbers of
mine fatalities and injuries continue to decline, but
"None of us are going to be happy until we see
a year with zero fatalities."
While Caylor and Stagg touted new technology for burning
coal, Cindy Rank of the West Virginia Highlands
Conservancy said "The myth of clean coal
. . . is clouding our vision to those hidden costs"
of coal production, and is hindering development of
alternative energy sources such as household solar panels,
but has not improved the economy of southern West Virginia
and Eastern Kentucky.
Caylor replied that development of new coal-burning
technologies will allow solid waste to be burned with
coal in power plants. "Coal may not be the best
source of energy – I think it is – but it
will take us where we need to be in terms of technology."
In the long term, perhaps 75 years, nuclear power seems
to be the chief alternative, he said.
Rank said she would like to see electric-generating
wind turbines atop mountaintop-removal sites, but acknowledged
that the region’s tourism industry could be hurt
by the presence of the huge windmills, and asked, "Is
it a net gain?"
One of the reporters that attended the "Covering
Coal" conference was Kyle Lovern of the Williamson
Daily News. To see some of his work, click