Paper in heart of Appalachia tackles mining issues

Small newspapers in Central Appalachia do relativetly little reporting on environmental issues, unless there is a disaster, but the Williamson Daily News is breaking out of that mold. In late 2005 and early 2006 it published a three-part series on the coal industry and its labor issues, a reporter's column criticizing the area's main coal company for its attitude toward news coverage, and a two-part series on coal-waste impoundments like the one that burst in 2000, creating the largest environmental disaster in the Southeast.

Daily News Staff
LOBATA — There are at least 12 communities in Mingo County that have coal slurry impoundments located above them, according to official sources.
Many local residents are probably unaware that the dams are holding back billions of gallons of coal sludge, or that the impoundments even exist.
Regardless, many environmentalists and other experts believe that citizens of Appalachia still face the threat of spills and other impoundment failures.
Some of these coal impoundments in Mingo County are near Rawl, Ragland, Bias, Kermit, Thacker, Lobata and Dingess.
Two large impoundments are located on Ben Creek in Mingo County.
The most recent major breach was on Oct. 11, 2000, when Martin County Coal Corporation’s coal-waste impoundment broke through old mine workings and released 250 million gallons of slurry into a tributaries of the Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River near Warfield, Ky. and Kermit, W.Va., which buried parts of the community under 7 feet of coal sludge. It eventually bled into the Big Sandy and Ohio Rivers.
During that spill approximately 1.6 million fish were killed.
More than 27,000 people had their public and private water supplies contaminated, according to Jack Spadaro, a former inspector for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), who investigated the spill.
Spadaro says that about 225 of the coal-slurry impoundments are sitting on top of abandoned underground mine workings with the potential for breaks like the one that took place in Martin County.
These impoundments are built after waste is created during the process of cleaning coal and must be permanently disposed of in a man-made facility, usually an earthen dam.
Larger materials, such as rocks and pieces of coal, are defined as coarse refuse. Slurry, a combination of silt, dust, water, bits of coal and clay particles, is considered fine refuse, and is the most common material held in impoundments.
Some impoundments are constructed using natural basins, but they are often built up on an embankment at the mouth of a watershed. Then they are reinforced with coarse refuse and are similar to a typical dam.
After the waste is spilled into the basin, the coal particles settle to the bottom, leaving the leftover water on top. Many times this water is often recycled and used again by the preparation plant operations.
Other settling ponds are constructed nearby to catch the runoff of excess water through a pumping system, and excess water from these ponds is discharged into a local waterway.
The worst disaster from a slurry dam occurred in 1972 in nearby Logan County on Buffalo Creek, when 125 people drowned after an impoundment burst.
Some engineers feel that undermining where an impoundment has been built a few feet above a mine can weaken the ground beneath it, causing it to seep through. This is considered a major risk for failure.
Breakthroughs into underground mine workings have been the cause of more recent catastrophic failures.
(To check on where coal slurry dams may be in your area, go to www.coalimpoundment.com.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a 2-part series on coal impoundment dams located in the area.)
Daily News Staff
DELBARTON — Billions of gallons of coal slurry and water sits behind earthen dams throughout southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky.
What would happen if one of these facilities were to break above a populated community?
Many people worry about this potential hazard. Walter and Carol Young, who live on Hell Creek near Delbarton, have been concerned for several years about such a structure above their community.
One is located at Hell Creek (Bias) near Delbarton, while the other is at Ragland.
“It looks like if the trend keeps going like it is,” Mr. Young said, “we will have so many coal waste impoundments that we will be one of the most dangerous places in the world to live.”
The Mountain State has over 130 coal slurry impoundments, many in the southern counties. In neighboring Kentucky, several impoundments are located in both Pike and Martin counties.
“I’m really concerned about this and have been for about four years,” Young added. He said that the Delbarton Mining Company applied and received a permit for a 56-acre slurry dam above Hell Creek.
“If it were to break, it would come down through this community, into Pigeon Creek and all the way to Naugatuck,” a concerned Young says. “We would be buried alive under coal sludge.”
“Lots of people in the area don’t even know these exist,” he added.
He is also worried about sludge being injected into old, underground, worked-out mines, and thus affecting the water supplies for hundreds of people. He said the people of Lick Creek and Rawl have suffered a similar plight.
The www.coalimpoundment.com Web site has information on all of the slurry dams throughout the region. It is complete with contact information for the coal companies, emergency services and evacuation routes.
Young says that the Mingo County Emergency Services office has been working on an alert system and an evacuation plan. It is up to the county and local emergency services to implement such a strategy, in case a break did occur.
Jack Spadaro was asked by the Clinton Administration to investigate the Martin County slurry spill in 2000. He is a former MSHA inspector and now a consultant.
His Web site says, “He is an expert witness services related to mining accidents and environmental damage caused by mining. He conducts investigations and provides testimony in administrative, local, state and federal courts on behalf of citizens and workers who have been adversely affected by mining activities.”
He is also a lecturer and speaker and conducts workshops in the academic environment to educate high school, college and university students and the general public, regarding the adverse environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining and other damaging types of mining practices.
“There were conflicts into that investigation that are well documented,” he added.
“The fact remains, that Massey Energy, the company responsible for the spill, has one of the poorest environmental records in Appalachia,” Spadaro says. “They have a less desirable mine health and safety record.”
Spadaro noted that while Massey was being investigated on the spill it contributed $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“Massey was ultimately fined $5,600 for the Martin County coal slurry spill,” Spadaro says.
He worries that other accidents like the one in eastern Kentucky can happen in others states, especially West Virginia. Spadaro also investigated the Buffalo Creek disaster in Logan County.
Will another accident like that ever happen? Or even a spill like the one in Martin County, which didn’t claim lives, but damaged property and was a major environmental disaster?
Many experts like Spadaro, and residents like the Young\s at Hell Creek in Mingo County, think that it is a distinct possibility.
They all just cross their fingers and hope for the best. But they know that once the structures are built, they will never go away.
The slurry coal impoundments will be there forever, always looming over mountain communities in Appalachia.

Kyle’s Korner ... Where were Massey officials?

Many people are asking where Massey officials were during the most recent mining tragedy in Logan County.
CEO Don Blankenship was no where to be seen. Director of Human Resources, Jeff Gillenwater, who has been handling the duties of public relations, was also visibly absent from the press conferences, as was any other executive from one of the state’s leading coal producers.
Unlike the Sago mine accident, where CEO Ben Hatfield and other International Coal Group officials briefed the media and appeared several times during updates of the rescue efforts, no one from Massey Energy did this during the Aracoma incident at Melville.
Indications are that Massey’s top brass relegated any communications to the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA). Still, they could have been more visible, it was the least they could have done.
It seems that Massey tries to distance itself from any negative news. If there is a sludge spill into a creek or river, a minor accident, or something as major and tragic as the death of two miners, they appear to hide from press coverage.
Recently I heard on our scanner that there might have been an injury to a local miner at a Mingo County mine, which is a Massey subsidiary. When I called the mine, the person hung up on me, when all I did was ask if they had an accident.
I then called Gillenwater’s office, left a message about the situation, but never received a call back.
However, when Massey has its big company outing for its employees in Logan, or their Christmas giveaway for the underprivileged in the area, they want all the news coverage they can get.
That seems to be a double standard to me and many others.
We don’t mind reporting the positive side of the coal industry. I recently wrote a story about how West Virginia is still one of the leading coal producers in the country.
Our newspaper and others media outlets have given Massey their due when they make a donation or do something for the community.
Still, they can’t dodge the media when something bad happens, especially something of this magnitude.
During the tragic events, no Massey representative spoke with the press in any official capacity. State and federal mine safety and health officials handled all press conferences during the rescue efforts in Logan County.
Gov. Joe Manchin, Congressman Nick Rahall and U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller also spoke with the media and helped handle communications.
Then on Sunday, Massey finally issued a written statement to the press.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the two members we lost today, Don Bragg and Ellery “Elvis” Hatfield,” the statement read. “Words cannot express how deeply saddened our company and community are by this tragic event.
“Our collective efforts must now shift from the rescue operations to comforting the families and colleagues of our members and helping them through this tragedy.
We also would like to express our profound appreciation to all the state and federal agencies, to the mine rescue teams and to the members of the community who contributed to the efforts to rescue our members.”
But what really surprised me — Sunday evening was when WCHS-TV Charleston reported that the mine reopened on Sunday afternoon, less than 24 hours after the two men were found dead inside the Aracoma mine.
I know that the cleanup must begin, and eventually they must start mining coal again. But couldn’t that wait a few days. The families, the Melvlle community and the entire state of West Virginia is still in shock.
We have had two disasters that claimed 14 lives in less than two weeks in the Mountain State, and one in nearby Pike County, Ky. That is 15 coal miners who lost their lives on the job.
Countless lives have been touched by these tragedies, let alone the wives, children and families of these brave coal miners.
There is a time for work and a time for mourning.
And there is also a time to face the consequences.
Sometimes we have to take the bad with the good. This was one of those times for Massey Energy.

Three-part series examines Central Appalachian coal industry, labor issues

Willliamson Daily News
CHARLESTON — Currently there are not enough trained miners to supply the demand for the employees needed for the coal industry. Somehow during the last 20 years the number of coal miners has declined dramatically.
With the recent deaths of 12 miners in northern West Virginia, and one in neighboring Pike County, Ky., the problem could get worse.
Estimates are that there is now a shortage of 4,500 employees combined for the mining industry in West Virginia and Kentucky.
Everyone knows that underground mining is one of the most dangerous jobs on earth. Coal companies have been scampering over the past five years in an effort to find enough workers.
Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association (KCA), recently spoke to a group of journalists in Charleston, W.Va. He said a lack of trained miners has hindered the industry in filling the positions created by an upswing in the coalfield economy.
“Part of the problem,” he said, “is a false perception that coal mining is more dangerous than other occupations.”
He said that perception will be fueled by the West Virginia mine disaster. “This will reinforce that image that the coal industry is dangerous,” Caylor says. “If you look at statistics, coal mining is actually safer than many other occupations.”
Jobs in manufacturing and construction, Caylor said, have far more workplace injuries and deaths.
With a whole generation of miners close to retirement, the situation could get worse. The money is good and even with a high school education, with little or no college, young miners can earn as much as $50,000 per year, said Bill Rainey of the West Virginia Coal Association.
Some coal producers have been offering pay hikes, improved benefits and bonuses in an effort to attract new miners. There is actually a move to keep existing employees, and companies are scrambling for ideas on how to attract the few young miners that are coming into the business.
Central Appalachia’s largest coal operator, Richmond, Va. based Massey Energy Co., is offering bonuses, zero-premium health insurance and discounted auto and home insurance policies among its perks, according to sources.
Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College (SWVCTC) has secured $3 million U.S. Department of Labor grant to train new miners. Allyn Sue Barker, Vice President for Economic, Workforce and Community Development at Southern, was instrumental in securing the funds.
She and SWVCTC officials are working on securing a location for the facility. The local college already has a Gas and Oil Well Tenders training program in place on the Boone County Campus.
“We have been asked by the coal industry to technically train their future workforce,” said Cindy Crigger, Communications Director for the college. “Over the next five years, there will be numerous miners retiring and the coal industry is looking for trained workers to fill those jobs.”
Still, the thought of accidents and even death always looms on many minds when thinking of working deep inside a mountain, sometimes two or three miles from the entrance.
Although mining deaths and accidents have decreased over the past few years, the recent explosion in Upshur County could rekindle old fears.
There were 14 underground mining deaths in 2005 and 2004, and 22 overall last year including surface mine accidents. Compare this with 32 in 2001, or 47 in 1993. In years past, the numbers were far greater, according to statistics on the msha.gov web-site.
Since 1993, West Virginia has had 139 coal mining related deaths, while Kentucky was second with 131 fatalities, according to MSHA.
Caylor thinks that many mining companies may reinstitute their mine rescue teams, in response to the recent tragedy at the Sago mine.
“Many of them disbanded them, but I think they will form again.”
The KCA says he looks for many revisions in mine rescue, stemming from the West Virginia accident, which will improve safety. “Proper training will help eliminate future accidents,” he said.
The federal government stepped in last month to help ease the miner shortage in Appalachia, providing grants totaling $6 million to train new coal miners in Kentucky and West Virginia.

(Editor’s Note: This is the second of a 3-part series on the coal industry in Appalachia.)
Daily News Staff
One of biggest problems facing coal companies today is the growing drug and alcohol use by their workforce.
In fact, during the current Kentucky legislative session, there will likely be a bill passed concerning the subject, according to Bill Caylor, President of the Kentucky Coal Association.
“I think it will pass,” Caylor said from his Lexington office. “Generally, I think the coal industry will favor this trend.”
However, Caylor thinks that many believe this should be a bill that will involve all businesses, even retail department stores like Wal-Mart.
One of the biggest factors in finding a younger work force for the coal mining industry is the drug and alcohol addiction, according to Caylor.
“These workers deal with heavy equipment and machinery in a confined area,” Caylor said of coal miners. He indicated they need to be at their best when working in the conditions a coal miner faces on a daily basis.
At the same time, Caylor said there would have to be some flexibility with the drug screenings. “A man might be cutting his grass over the weekend, and strain his back doing yard work,” Caylor said.
“Then he may take one of his spouse’s Lortabs just to ease the pain. When he goes to work the next Monday, and they do a random drug test, he would fail.”
“That would be up to the individual coal company to make an assessment on that kind of situation,” he added. Caylor said someone in that situation should be honest, and maybe even mention up front, and it could avoid a potential complication that could arise from an innocent person.
New coal miners are required to take a physical before being employed. If they were to fail a drug screening, they may never get hired.
With the mining industry having a shortage of workers, this has probably become an obstacle for Human Resource offices.
Caylor indicated that many companies would like to hire younger workers, to take the place of many of the men who will soon retire.
With the prescription drug abuse on the rise in Appalachia, statistically this would bleed over to the mining industry.
Of course marijuana and even cocaine addiction can also be a major problem for coal companies.
The past high unemployment rates could have led to some addictions, Caylor said.
Now there is a large need for coal miners because production is up, because the price of coal has increased. The demand for coal has also risen.
There was a decrease during the 1990’s which led to a drop in the jobs available. The industry suffered many layoffs.
“We peaked production in 1990,” Caylor says. “Our work force got older, now our average miner is 49 years of age.”
However that is not the situation today, and the industry wants and needs more trained coal miners, in good physical shape.
“We’re looking for more young miners, especially at the entry level positions,” he added.
Hopefully several training programs planned by community colleges will ease that gap, and the available laborers for the work force will increase in the near future.

(Editor’s Note: This is the third of a 3-part series on the coal industry in Appalachia.)
Daily News Staff
CHARLESTON — West Virginia still remains the top producer of underground coal mining in the United States, and is second only to Wyoming in overall production, according to the West Virginia Coal Association (WVCA).
The majority of coal mining in the western states is extracted by surface mining techniques.
Kentucky ranks third in coal production behind West Virginia,with the majority mined in the eastern part of that state. The two neighboring states have many things in common, including the coal companies that own the reserves, and the type of mining used to extract the mineral.
West Virginia’s coal is the finest bituminous coal found anywhere in the world, according to experts in the industry.
Coal from the Mountain State is shipped to 25 countries and the state provides 50 percent of all American coal exports.
West Virginia transports coal to 33 states and the District of Columbia and over half of the electricity produced in the United States comes from coal fired power plants.
In this state, 99 percent of the electricity generated is by coal, at an average of 8 cents per kilowatt hour, the Coal Association stated in a recent publication.
Mingo County still has 3,046, 352,124 recoverable coal reserves, the group says. The major seams of coal in the county are Alma, Cedar Grove, Freeport, Williamson and Winifrede.
Known as the “Heart of the Billion Dollar Coal Industry,” Mingo County is still third in the state in overall coal production, behind Boone County and Kanawha County. Neighboring Logan County is fourth, the WVCA says.
Mingo-Logan Coal Co., Coal Mac Inc., Premium Energy, White Flame Energy Inc. and Laurel Creek Coal Inc. are the largest producers in Mingo County.
Mingo County has 1,287 employees in the coal industry, the report says. The WVCA says that for every coal mining job, this generates between five and six other jobs in the local economy.
Massey Energy Co. and their subsidiaries is the largest coal producer in the state. Consul Energy, Inc. is second followed by Arch Coal, Inc.
In fact, the coal industry currently does not have enough miners for the positions needed.
The mining industry produces millions of dollars in severance taxes. Revenue for the year 2004 for Mingo County’s five municipalities was $7,878 for Williamson, $1,149 for Matewan, $1,093 for Delbarton, $962 for Gilbert and $482 for Kermit.
There is no doubt that coal mining and the related businesses are still the major part of Appalachia’s economy.
Even with diversification in our job market, and modernization in the coal industry, this state will always depend on the coal industry.
And the country will depend on West Virginia coal to generate electricity and light the world.



Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
College of Communications & Information Studies

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone 859-257-3744, fax 859-323-3168

Questions about the web site: Contact Al Cross, Institute director, al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: Feb. 23, 2006