Conference provides advice for citizens, story ideas for journalists

February 2006

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, W.Va., click here.

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 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 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 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, click here.

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 here.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 10/19/2007