provides advice for citizens, story ideas for journalists
Leading mine-safety experts and regulators
discuss health and safety trends
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 miners.
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,
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, he said.
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
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 years ago.”
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
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,"
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 outrage."
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