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Coal’s black wind: Pregnant women in parts of India advised to stay away

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Staff Writer
Environmental Health News

Nov. 20, 2014

In some regions of India, a married woman will return to her mother’s house for the last trimester of pregnancy and the birth of her child. But in Mettur, pregnant women are advised by their doctors to stay away.

Amritraj Stephen/Community Environmental Monitoring
Children walk among smoldering coal fires in Jharia, India.

“Black wind” from a coal yard wafts constantly across poor neighborhoods, settling on rooftops, walking paths and even indoor furniture. People complain of asthma, wheezing and frequent colds.

In its bid to industrialize, India relies heavily on energy from coal. Accounting for 71 percent of India’s electricity, coal will remain a key player over the next decade, with 455 new plants proposed, according to energy experts.

Amritraj Stephen/Community Environmental Monitoring
Coal plants produce 71 percent of India’s electricity.

The poor pay the highest cost of India’s dependence on coal, said Jennifer Wang of the nonprofit group Health Care Without Harm. Already burdened by chronic disease, poor nutrition and inadequate health care, they also are highly exposed to air and water pollution, she said.

Mettur and other industrial cities throughout India are now mobilizing to document coal’s health impacts on their own residents in an effort to wring environmental protections from local politicians and world leaders.

Coal poses health risks in India at all stages – mining, transportation, storage and use:

♦ In Jharia, famous for its rich coal resources, 700,000 people are exposed to toxic smoke that seeps from the ground as fires from opencast coalmines burn around the clock. Residents suffer from asthma, chronic bronchitis and skin problems.

♦ In Gujarat, on the west coast, fish catches plummeted after the construction of a massive 4,800-megawatt coal plant destroyed mangrove and creek ecosystems by discharging polluted water in the sensitive ecosystem.

♦ Mercury-laced ash from five mega power plants in the Singrauli district in central India is stored in piles five feet thick, polluting air, water and soil.

♦ In Mettur, in southern India, a coal yard where fuel is shipped in by rail and stored for a power plant and factories stands just 100 feet from some homes. Coal dust blows from the yard into neighboring communities. Air pollution levels are high.

Women in Mettur, a city of about 50,000 with a variety of heavy industries, are hit particularly hard. Doctors often recommend that pregnant women leave.

Gonur West Agriculturist Development Union
In Mettur, coal trains unload next to a low-income neighborhood.

About 1,500 mostly low-income households are within reach of the coal yard dust, said Shweta Narayan of Community Environmental Monitoring, an environmental justice group in India.

“Women are told not to have their babies here. The pollution affects not only their daily lives, but their culture,” Narayan said.

“Women are told not to have their babies here. The pollution affects not only their daily lives, but their culture.” –Shweta Narayan, Community Environmental Monitoring, India A 2010 analysis by Narayan’s group found that airborne particles in Mettur were three to four times higher than the World Health Organization’s pollution guidelines. Worldwide, these tiny particles have been linked to increased deaths from lung and cardiovascular disease. Air quality measurements also suggest that Mettur’s air contains metal particles, such as manganese and nickel, which could harm child brain development.

Parents complain that their children are always sick. Kids often miss school due to wheezing. But complaints about sickness are largely anecdotal. Scientific analysis of the health impacts of coal pollution is lacking in Mettur and other communities.

“The health aspect has been largely ignored in India’s energy policy framing,” Narayan said.

Much of the evidence of health effects from coal pollution comes from the United States or Western Europe, which are much cleaner.

Amritraj Stephen/Community Environmental Monitoring
Coal plants have contaminated water and fish in some parts of India.

“There’s a lack of research regarding long-term exposure to air pollution in some of the world’s most polluted places, including India,” said Aaron Cohen, an epidemiologist at the Health Effects Institute in Boston.

“There’s a lack of research regarding long-term exposure to air pollution in some of the world’s most polluted places, including India.” –Aaron Cohen, Health Effects Institute, Boston An estimated 627,000 Indians die prematurely each year from outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease project. A 2012 Greenpeace India report estimated that about 20 percent of premature deaths and more than 20 million asthma cases each year could be attributed to coal pollution.

Next year, the nonprofit Community Environmental Monitoring will begin to screen people near the coal yard for asthma and other lung problems. They’ll also look for other effects in the women because “pollution manifests itself in different forms, including stress and anxiety,” Narayan said.

“Do we need more research to act? No. We know the immediate health effects from generating energy this way and the long-term effects from climate change,” said Dr. Peter Orris, director of the Global Toxics Policy Program at the University of Illinois School of Public Health. “But how do you convince local policy makers to take action? People need to feel a connection.”

Many of India’s coal plants and mines are government-run.

In some ways, energy regulations to curtail fossil fuel burning may be an easier sell in developing countries than in the United States, said Rachel Cleetus, senior economist with the Climate and Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Carbon reduction efforts, such the landmark deal struck this week between the United States and China, are viewed largely as climate-change policies.

Growing concern over polluted air and water in China and India is more immediate. “Air and water pollution may be of concern to us, but to them it’s becoming a public health crisis,” Cleetus said.

The health costs associated with coal-fired power stations cost the European Union about 53 billion U.S. dollars each year, according to a report by the Health and Environment Alliance. No such economic analysis exists for India.

“Coal tends to look cheap when health and environmental costs aren’t taken into account. There is a huge need for monetizing the public health costs, especially in developing countries,” Cleetus said.

Looking to China, Cohen said, “it’s hard to argue that economic development there, in which coal has certainly played a role, hasn’t had significant beneficial effects on poverty reduction and population health. But it’s becoming evident that high levels of air pollution from coal burning and other sources is having an adverse effect on population health and life expectancy and is now an obstacle to continued development.”

Nevertheless, the energy landscape is beginning to change. China and India are the fastest growing markets in the world for wind and solar, Cleetus said.

“It’s not that old static picture anymore that coal is king,” she said. “We see that being challenged both in the U.S. and abroad.”

Follow Lindsey Konkel on Twitter.

EHN welcomes republication of our stories, but we require that publications include the author’s name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN’s version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Editor in Chief Marla Cone at mcone@ehn.org.


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PVC pipe

Residents Sue National Pipe (PVC) NY

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Nearly 50 Endicott, NY residents have banded together in a lawsuit filed last week against National Pipe & Plastics, accusing the manufacturer of having “devastated the neighborhood” where it opened a new plant earlier this year.  The lawsuit claims noise and odors wafting from the polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipe manufacturing plant at 15 Mills Ave. have created an “ongoing public nuisance” to residents of the West Endicott neighborhood.

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Fracking to be permitted in GW National Forest

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NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — Environmentalists and energy boosters alike welcomed a federal compromise announced Tuesday that will allow fracking in the largest national forest in the eastern United States, but make most of its woods off-limits to drilling.

The decision was highly anticipated because about half of the George Washington National Forest sits atop the Marcellus shale formation, a vast underground deposit of natural gas that runs from upstate New York to West Virginia and yields more than $10 billion in gas a year.

The federal management plan reverses an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing that the U.S. Forest Service had proposed in 2011 for the 1.1 million-acre forest, which includes the headwaters of the James and Potomac rivers. Those rivers feed the Chesapeake Bay, which is the focus of a multibillion-dollar, multistate restoration directed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

A total ban would have been a first for America’s national forests, which unlike national parks are commonly leased out for mining, timber and drilling. But some environmentalists were pleased that at least some balance was struck between energy development and conservation.

“We think the decision shows the Forest Service listened to the local community,” said Sarah Francisco, leader of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s national forests and parks program. “The vast majority of the forest is protected in this decision.”

With both sides lobbying hard, Virginia’s Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe told his climate change panel in September that federal officials had assured him fracking was off the table. “I won’t allow it as long as I’m governor,” he said.

But the final word rested with Ken Arney, a regional Forest Service manager. And by Tuesday afternoon, well after the decision was announced, the governor wasn’t commenting.

“We think we’ve ended up in a much better place, which is we are allowing oil and gas drilling,” said Robert Bonnie, the undersecretary for national resources and environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service.

“From a policy perspective, the Forest Service allows fracking on forest lands throughout the country. We didn’t want to make a policy decision or change policy related to fracking,” Bonnie told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

The new plan eliminates the potential for oil and gas leases on 985,000 acres where they could have been granted, and permits drilling only on 167,000 acres with existing private mineral rights and 10,000 acres already leased to oil and gas companies. The private mineral rights are scattered throughout the forest, which hadn’t updated its management plan since 1993.

This lobbying fight was mostly over principle, since no energy company has wanted to actually drill on the land they’re leasing, Bonnie acknowledged. “The economic value of these reserves is very low. We’ve had very little interest on oil and gas on the forest,” Bonnie said.

Also, more environmental analysis and public comment would be encouraged before any drilling is approved, the Forest Service said.

Fracking enables the extraction of oil and gas from otherwise marginal shale deposits by injecting water mixed with chemicals and sand or gravel deep underground at extremely high pressure.

Environmental groups fear the drilling and its waste could pollute mountain streams that directly provide drinking water to about 260,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley. Another 2.7 million people in Northern Virginia and Washington get part of their drinking water from the forest.

“The risks of fracking are well documented, from water, air and climate pollution to the industrialization of special places,” Glen Besa, director of the Sierra Club‘s Virginia chapter, said in a statement.

“Unfortunately, these risks remain for the existing leases in the forest. While the leases may be low value, they are certainly high risk.”

Opponents also argued that the trucks, wells and other infrastructure that would come with gas drilling are incompatible with the forest’s primary attractions of hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, tourism and its abundant wildlife. The forest includes a section of the Appalachian Trail and attracts more than 1 million visitors annually.

The American Petroleum Institute maintains that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely and without risk to groundwater, but the science has not been conclusive.

“Natural gas is an enormously versatile fuel that helps power our nation’s economy. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing is helping to unlock the tremendous economic and job creation benefits that Virginians, and all Americans, need and want,” Virginia Petroleum CouncilExecutive Director Michael Ward said in a statement.

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Chevron’s Sham Remediation in Ecuador: Toxic Oil Pits Continue to Contaminate

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By Karen Hinton

Chevron, Chevron Quite Contrary, How Does Your Garden Grow
With Polluted Soil & Toxic Water
And Wealthy Lawyers All In A Row

During the historic contamination trial against Chevron in Ecuador, the company often took journalists to its so-called “remediated” oil pits to prove that its predecessor Texaco cleaned its “share” of one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, if not the worst.

Chevron’s well-heeled lawyers would sometimes arrange for a nice picnic near the pits to show reporters how green its gardens had grown in the Amazon rainforest since Texaco signed a 1995 agreement with the Government of Ecuador to remediate toxic pits.

But lurking beneath the vegetation was and is pure crude mixed into the soil and underground drinking water and laced with carcinogens, such as benzene and cadmium.

Six different sets of tests have shown that Texaco only dumped dirt on top of the pits to hide the contamination, not clean it.

And, eight Ecuador judges and two U.S. judges who’ve heard evidence related to the 22-year-old lawsuit have either ignored the remediation agreement, thrown it out or stated it had no merit in Chevron’s defense.

Ignoring the evidence, the oil giant continues to tout the agreement as its “get-out-of-jail-free” card, and U.S. reporters continue to use it in their stories as a legitimate response to the Ecuadorians’ charges, while the “remediated” pits continue to leech dangerous toxins into the soil and water that indigenous peoples and rainforest villagers depend on for sustenance.

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The contamination of indigenous’ ancestral homelands and the disease and death left behind is unlike anything you have ever seen. And, even though Ecuador’s Supreme Court has upheld the $9.5 billion judgment against the oil giant, Chevron refuses to pay, arguing the agreement released it from any liability.

So, let’s look a closer look at the agreement and the remediation itself:

Travel to any of the pits that Texaco agreed to clean and dig a few feet under the ground and you will find oil. 

How does Chevron explain this? With classic Chevron chutzpah.

The company maintains that in the dead of night rainforest villagers “spike” the jungle floor with oil by digging holes at the pits, pouring fresh oil into them and covering them up with dirt and vegetation so they can return the next day with a visitor to prove Chevron is lying about the remediation.

With a straight face, Chevron spokesperson James Craig peddles this outrageous story to reporters, including this Miami Herald reporter:

“…Moncayo (an Ecuadorian) plunges his auger into the ground. Within a few inches the dirt gives off the pungent odor of petroleum. Within a few feet the dirt glistens with oil residue. When a few handfuls of the soil are dropped into a bucket of water, a thick oil-slick coats the surface.

“‘This is their (Chevron’s) remediation effort,’ Moncayo says. ‘They’re no better than animals.’

“The (Ecuadorians) say it’s proof that Chevron lied about the cleanup and then got compliant government officials to sign-off on its shoddy work.

“Chevron spokesman…James Craig, said it’s not surprising to find degraded crude at the site. It might be naturally occurring, Moncayo might have dug outside the boundaries of the remediation area, or the plaintiffs might have spiked the ground with oil (emphasis added) to discredit Chevron, he said.

“‘Even if you do find hydrocarbons in the ground, it doesn’t mean that they’re a risk to people’s health or the environment,’ Craig said.”

(Read similar descriptions in The TelegraphAssociated PressBloomberg MarketsWashington PostNY Times and Rolling Stone, among many others.)

Craig’s explanation would be hilarious if the issue of remediation wasn’t so pivotal to the outcome of the litigation battle, being fought now in countries where Chevron’s assets can be seized as payment for the judgment. (Chevron has few assets in Ecuador.)

For the most part, Chevron doesn’t dispute the contamination. One of its local lawyers, Rodrigo Perez Pallares, even admitted the company dumped 15 billion gallons of toxic waste into waterways.

In addition to intentionally dumping toxic water into streams, Texaco (Chevron bought Texaco in 2001) also built over 900 huge, unlined waste pits to permanently store pure crude oil and wastewater laced with carcinogens that are a byproduct of the drilling process.

Instead Chevron’s army of lawyers argues that Texaco cut a deal with the Government of Ecuador to clean a small percentage (162 of 900 or so) of the oil pits in exchange for immunity from future lawsuits.

Yet even upon cursory examination, Chevron’s so-called “release” is not even close to what the company claims.

The agreement, negotiated after the Ecuadorians filed their original lawsuit in the U.S. in 1993, released Texaco only against government claims of contamination. It expressly carved out any claims held by individuals, such as the Ecuadorians’. AMemorandum of Understanding between Texaco and Ecuador’s government, signed in 1994, stated clearly that third-party private claims should not be “prejudiced” by the agreement.

From 1995 to 1998, Texaco conducted its fake cleanup — or cover-up, if you will. During the same time, Texaco’s lawyers waved the remediation agreement in front of the U.S. federal court, hearing the contamination case in New York. But the American judge took no note of it, given that not even Texaco argued at the time that it trumped the claims of private citizens that were pending against the company in the lawsuit.

Later, another federal judge also caught onto Chevron’s subterfuge, in a related arbitral proceeding that ended up in U.S. federal court.

U.S. Judge Leonard Sand analyzed the “release” agreement and, for all practical purposes, said it had nothing to do with the Ecuadorians’ claims.

The learned Judge Sand concluded:

“…it would be extremely difficult for [Chevron] to establish that claims nominally brought by third parties in the Lago Agrio litigation were covered by the 1995 and 1998 Agreements between Texaco and Ecuador: it is highly unlikely that a settlement entered into while (the case) was pending would have neglected to mention the third-party claims being contemporaneously made … if it had been intended to release those claims or to create an obligation to indemnify against them.” (Republic of Ecuador v. ChevronTexaco Corp., 376 F. Supp. 2d 334, 374 (S.D.N.Y. 2005).

Fearful that Judge Sand would expose the release agreement for what it was, Chevron simply pulled its lawsuit back and ended the case.

While Chevron ran for the hills to avoid Judge Sand, it convinced federal Judge Jed Rakoff that the underlying claims case should be tried in Ecuador rather than in the U.S. To get the case transferred to Ecuador, the company filed no fewer than 14 sworn affidavits praising Ecuador’s judicial system as “independent” and “fair”. In 2003, per Chevron’s request and Judge Rakoff’s order, the villagers re-filed their lawsuit in Ecuador.

By 2013, after an arduous trial that produced 105 expert reports documenting Chevron’s pollution, three layers of Ecuador’s courts — trial, appellate, and Supreme Court — had ruled against the company. No fewer than eight appellate judges held Chevron responsible for the contamination and ruled that the 1995 remediation agreement did not apply to the private claims in the case and thus was without merit as a defense.

Even though Chevron had previously promised Judge Rakoff and three U.S. appellate judges that it would accept Ecuador’s jurisdiction and abide by its court decisions in exchange for moving the case to Ecuador, Chevron has refused to pay and continues to argue in any court that will hear its complaints that the remediation agreement frees it from all responsibility for the damage it caused.

But, if that’s really the case, why doesn’t the remediation agreement have words to that effect? Or have the signatures of the villagers who brought the case? Even if a court ruled that the agreement released the claims (none has), the problem with the remediation itself remains. Why?

At best, it was terribly inadequate. At worst, it never happened. In either event, it was a sham.

Most likely, Texaco’s contractor dumped dirt over the pits to cover up the oil and called it a day. Over time, some vegetation grew on top of the dirt and that’s why Chevron began having picnics to show reporters how green its gardens grew.

Which brings us back to Chevron’s James Craig and the band of merry Ecuadorians digging holes under full moons in the jungle to “sabotage” Texaco’s so-called remediation.

Six different field tests taken by different parties, including those taken by Chevron, prove the remediation was a fraud. The so-called “cleaned” pits are just as contaminated as those not cleaned. See here for information about the field tests described below.

1) Chevron’s own tests taken at Texaco’s remediated well sites show illegal levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH). For example, Chevron found 13,000 parts per million (ppm) of TPH levels at the oil well site, known as Shushufindi 48. Ecuador requires the TPH level to be below 1,000 ppm; the average U.S. standard is even lower, at 100 ppm.

2) Chevron also took additional tests in March 2009, as the trial was coming to a close. Chevron’s expert Marcelo Munoz tested eight purportedly “remediated” sites and found illegal levels of contamination at two. Chevron refused to pay Munoz for his report, even though the oil company requested that he conduct the tests.

3) In 2003, five years after the fake cleanup, Ecuador government auditors reported they had discovered pits oozing with oil and concluded the government had “erred in certifying” the cleanup. “Texaco has caused irreversible damage,” stated a report by the General Controller, a government agency that audits public contracts. “The environmental remediation and repair agreement goes against the country’s interest.” The auditors’ tests found that over 85% of pits tested had toxic levels higher than 1,000 ppm of TPH. They also found oil seeping out of 41 “remediated” Texaco waste pits and said 59 pits had been left uncovered.

4) In 2009, an Ecuador prosecutor ordered yet another series of tests. Of the 20 tests conducted at nine sites, 16 returned with toxic levels higher than the Ecuadorian standard of 1,000 ppm, and of those, 13 had levels higher than 5,000 ppm.

5) The Ecuadorians also did a series of tests at the “remediated” pits and found TPH levels higher than 30,000 ppm.

6) And, in 2013, a U.S. environmental engineering firm, The Louis Berger Group, did additional tests for the Government of Ecuador and found, once again, high levels of contamination. The American company also reviewed the work of Chevron’s experts at the so-called remediated sites and found numerous flaws and incorrect conclusions. See pages 35 to 42

All of this evidence adds up to one thing: Texaco committed fraud against the Ecuador government. And Chevron has done the same by lying about the remediation to Ecuador and U.S. courts.

Chevron is responsible for what Texaco did. It’s also responsible for what Texaco never did — which was cleanup its toxic mess that is literally killing or threatening to kill thousands of people from cancer.

Follow Karen Hinton on Twitter: www.twitter.com/KarenHinton

DuPont_copy_jpg_800x1000_q100

Plant Where Workers Died Reported Recent Violation

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A plant where four workers died early Saturday after a chemical leak has a record of safety violations that dates back several years, a Texas Tribune review of state records shows.

The DuPont chemical plant in La Porte, 30 miles southeast of Houston, makes products like alcohol resins and a popular insecticide called Lannate. The workers died after an estimated 100 pounds of the chemical methyl mercaptan leaked due to a faulty valve, the company told local media. Methyl mercaptan, a primary component of Lannate, can cause nausea, vomiting, fluid buildup in the lungs and other symptoms; even in small amounts, exposure to it can be deadly.

DuPont spokesman Alan Woods said in an email, “We’re working closely with local, state and federal authorities as they conduct a thorough investigation into the incident.”

State records show that in the last five years, the plant has been cited at least two dozen times by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for violating state law. It has failed to perform routine safety inspections, keep equipment in proper working order and prevent unauthorized pollution leaks, according to violation notices issued by the agency. In a few instances, the agency demanded fines of a few thousand dollars from DuPont for more serious lapses.

At least one of the previous fines levied against DuPont was issued for a pollutant leak thatoccurred in October 2009 — also at a unit of the plant that manufactures Lannate. Too much pressure had built up in a vent system, causing a relief valve to open and spew out 3,700 pounds of methylene chloride, a “hazardous air pollutant,” according to state records. More commonly known as dichloromethane, exposure to it in high enough concentrations can cause lightheadedness, nausea and vomiting. It’s also considered a potential carcinogen.

At that time, the TCEQ fined DuPont about $10,300 for failing to prevent the release and for reporting the incident five days late. The company ultimately paid $8,269, with the rest deferred “upon timely and satisfactory compliance,” records show.

DuPont gave its employees additional safety training after that incident and added more information about potential dangerous leaks to the safety records for its Lannate manufacturing unit, according to state records.

But it wasn’t the plant’s last violation. In August 2013, the company reported that malfunctioning equipment leaked 40 pounds of chlorine — also a component of Lannate that can cause significant health impacts. In March, DuPont told the agency that a gas vent had inadvertently opened and released 110 pounds of the toxic gas carbon monoxide into the atmosphere.

In another incident in late September, the chemical plant released 36,500 pounds of sulfur dioxide in three hours, well above its allowed limit. DuPont told the TCEQ that an inexperienced operator had not spotted a malfunctioning valve and that the company was investigating the incident. While sulfur dioxide isn’t toxic in gas form, it is a contributor to ozone pollution.

The TCEQ reports that DuPont is in “satisfactory” standing in terms of following the state’s environmental laws. Spokesman Terry Clawson said the agency’s emergency responders are on-site at the plant.

“The TCEQ’s investigation of DuPont’s compliance with environmental statutes and regulations will begin in earnest,” Clawson said, after investigators determine that DuPont “is no longer in an emergency status.”

Marcos Vanetta and Alexa Ura contributed to this report.

frack free zone

Those who say it cannot be done, should get out of the way of those that are doing it.

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Calvin Tillman, Mayor Emeritus, Town of DISH, TX wrote this note after a major win in Texas against the gas industry. I felt his words deserved to be heard beyond my and others in his networks in box. Thank you Mayor Tillman for your dedication to the people you served.

On November 4, 2014, there was a historical vote in Denton, TX, which of course was when the residents voted to ban hydraulic fracturing within the corporate limits of the city. This is a bit shocking considering the political make up of this area and the amount of funding that the industry sunk into defeating this measure. Another interesting thing is the margin of victory for this measure, for all the money that was sunk into this election by the industry, they were not even close to victory. What is also shocking is that candidate races in the area still went heavily to republicans. In the Texas State Representative race for House District 64 which encompasses Denton, the republican Myra Crownover easily won with 64 percent of the vote. So is clear that a large number of republicans supported this ban.

Many years ago, during a meeting with the industry, I voiced my displeasure with the manner in which they did business and told them that if they continued down this path, that no one would want this industry doing business near them. I hate to so I told you so, but I did. Now the question is will they ever learn, and the initial response is “no”, they will never learn. After getting their tails kicked pretty badly in an election where they had all of the advantages, they chose not to change their business practices, and truly try to be the good neighbors they say they are on TV, but they filed a lawsuit. This makes it clear that they’re never going to try and be a good neighbor. Instead of running to make amends for their wrong doings, they try force their way into the neighborhoods, continuing to be bad actors.

At least in places like Denton, this probably could have all been avoided if this industry had one ounce of compassion for the communities they do business in. However, they chose to violate the wishes of the community, resulting in the ban on a technique that was developed a few miles up the road from here. Denton is also a town that has a large industry presence, with several of these companies having offices and other facilities there. However, when you trample all over people private property rights, kill their property values, and destroy their quality of life, you should expect something like this.

Instead of trying to work with the communities that they were pissing all over, the industry runs to Austin for help. To which the Texas Railroad Commissioners came running with bells on. Unfortunately, the trio better known as the three stooges here in Texas, did nothing more than what the industry did, which was like pouring “gas” on a flame, and made the situation much worse. Did anybody ever give those who were working on the ban any respect for their complaints? No, they all just insulted them even more, accusing them being buddies with Putin, and other false and misleading statements, which of course didn’t work, but again fanned the flames.

I was taught something at young age which was; when you find yourself in a hole…stop digging. However, the oil and gas industry and their supporters must have missed that little piece of common sense. The results are that they gave a couple goofballs $800,000.00, which turned out to be a big waste of money. I know this may be a shock to those in the industry, but after years of misleading and lying to people, nobody trusts you. Therefore, when you give money to someone that lies on your behalf, that makes them paid liars, and even a fool can spot a paid liar.

What is even more damning for the industry is that the paid liars are losing the battle in other areas as well. A total of 4 bans on hydraulic fracturing were passed around the country. And these bans were not implement with millions of dollars from Russian backed environmental groups, but rather by a small group of local citizens. Normal people who have regular jobs, but are tired of seeing their property rights trampled all over by an industry who couldn’t care less. One of my most trusted advisers says “there is a billion dollars beneath our feet and they don’t care who they trample on to get it”. This is truly a case of Goliath being taken down with a slingshot and smooth stone.

Of course, the Texas Railroad Commission is not the only one running to the industry’s aid, the other prostitutes will come running with their aid as well. The Texas Land Office has joined the industry filing a lawsuit. The Texas Land Office mission states: “The Texas General Land Office serves the schoolchildren, veterans, and all people of Texas by preserving their history, protecting their environment, expanding economic opportunity, and maximizing state revenue through innovative administration and prudent stewardship of state lands and resources.” Not sure what makes them think they have dog in this fight, other than the fact that most of the Texas elected officials at the state level fight over the opportunity to pimp themselves out to this industry.

State Representative Phil King, of Texas House District 61, who serves on the Energy Resources Committee, has already committed to introducing legislation that removes a Texas municipality’s right to ban hydraulic fracturing. Of course Representative King, is another who will fight for the opportunity to pimp himself out to the industry, and never look his citizens in the eye while doing it. Texas House District 61 encompasses the Azle, TX area where they have had the rash of earthquakes caused by the fracking waste injection wells. However, Representative King did not show up at the meetings held by the state, and has thus far refused to talk with his citizens about these earthquakes. It must be noted that Representative King has multiple ethics violations and is therefore technically a “crook”. He also refuses to look me in the eye when I testify before the Energy Resources committee; therefore, I take him as a coward. He also refuses to take a stand to protect the property rights of hard working Texans.

It is strange that Representative King would choose to remove local control when on his website he states that “Local control and limited government must be the first resort not the last”. However, it is clear that those positions go out the window when we are talking about the Oil and Gas industry. When it comes to this subject, it appears that the Austin cronies are good with an overbearing state government, which takes away local control from municipalities. It is also clear that the Austin Cronies like Representative King, are more than willing to ignore a valid election, and overturn the will of the people. I guess when you are a prostitute for the oil and gas industry, things like local control and limited government, are just buzzwords.

One thing that is missed in all of this by the industry and their prostitutes is that the people who are affected by all of this have property rights also. Our private property rights start where our property line begins, so why doesn’t the industry consider keeping their noise, odors, bright lights, and hazardous chemicals on their side of the fence? They trespass their crap on our property and expect us to take it. The hardworking, honest Texans who voted for this ban don’t want a noisy, smelly industrial site, 200 feet from the backdoor, and those other than the industry and their cronies understand that fact.

The people of Denton passed an ordinance that would have helped protect people’s private property rights, and the industry ignored their wishes. What exactly did the industry expect? Don’t blame the people of Denton for this ban, blame the industry and the prostitutes who support them. Common sense tells you that you cannot keep ramming this stuff down the throats of the people without consequences. So if you’re in the oil and gas industry or are one of their elected prostitutes, it was you who got yourself into this, not environmental groups funded by Russia, but you. The blame is yours, so take the whipping that you deserve.

Calvin Tillman, Mayor Emeritus, Town of DISH, TX

Oil and gas operations are booming in northern Colorado

Fracking sand in oilfields stirs up a serious health risk for workers

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By Nancy Lofholm
The Denver Post

Health concerns about oil field fracking have been focused on the mixed brew of chemicals injected into wells. But it is another innocuous-sounding substance — sand — that poses a more serious danger to workers.

Government overseers of workplace safety first highlighted the problem three years ago and issued a hazard alert a year later warning that high levels of fine quartz sand around fracking operations could lead to silicosis and other lung illnesses.

Health, science, regulation

But efforts to update the 44-year-old exposure limits on sand dust are dragging on. Engineering solutions to the problem are still being researched. And, while many energy companies are taking steps to lessen the amount of what is referred to as “respirable crystalline silica” by scientists or “frac sand” by oilfield workers, the industry, with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is also opposing much in proposed new regulations.

“The proposed rule does not address significant risks, nor provide significant benefits, and is neither technologically nor economically feasible. Accordingly, the Chamber believes the proposed rule must be withdrawn,” reads a 33-page comment letter from the chamber to the Department of Labor.

The dust danger on drilling pads became an issue after a government researcher visited a fracking operation in 2011 to look at exposures to fracking-fluid chemicals. But Eric Esswein’s attention was diverted by the clouds of dust.

At the time, Esswein, an industrial hygienist with the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety, was familiar with silicosis and other health problems caused by breathing in fine silica, so he focused his research on that instead.

He and other NIOSH researchers measured the airborne sand during 11 fracking operations in five states, including several in Weld County. From samples around workers’ heads, they found that each site had silica-dust levels that exceeded occupational health exposure limits. Some exceeded limits by 10 or more times.

“Risks for silica exposures during hydraulic fracturing appear to be the most important exposure risk based on the work we’ve done to date,” Esswein said in an interview with The Denver Post.

The industry doesn’t dispute that silica is a hazard — only with the need for government rules focused solely on the fracking industry.

“It has the potential to be a hazard. If it were to go ignored, it could be a serious problem,” said Encana spokesman Doug Hock, who noted that Encana was already starting to take measures to address the problem of worker exposure to silica prior to the government’s focus.

Years to develop

Silicosis, a disease that damages the inside of the lungs and causes breathing problems, has a long history of sickening workers in mining and masonry occupations. Incidences of silicosis have been lessened through protective measures and health monitoring.

The drilling-pad danger of silicosis has emerged in the past decade since the directional drilling associated with fracking has become a widespread practice. Now, millions of pounds of sand can be pumped into the ground in a single fracking operation to prop open fractured shale. The sand must be the very fine variety of silica to work properly, and it is that type of sand that is most damaging to lungs.

What happens to the sand above ground is where the danger occurs for workers. Caravans of trucks bring loads of sand to drilling pads during fracking operations, and clouds of dust can be stirred up. The sand must then be loaded into sand movers and transferred by conveyor belts to hoppers where it is blended with fracking fluids before it is injected into the ground.

When NIOSH issued its hazard alert about fracking sand, the industry responded by quickly forming a national task force called the Respirable Silica Focus Group. That group continues to have twice-yearly meetings to discuss issues related to sand and to try to solve the frac sand problem.

Energy In Depth, an organization created by the American Petroleum Institute, along with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have both argued in lengthy, detailed comments that the government’s proposal for dealing with fracking sand wouldn’t provide significant benefits and is not technologically or economically feasible.

An e-mail statement from Energy in Depth stated that the industry is handling the silica problem by instituting its own workplace safety programs, researching new controls and developing new standards.

Encana is a case in point. The company recognized the problem in 2010, Hock said, and began researching ways to engineer better controls that now includes using vacuums to pull dust into bags before it gets into the air. In 2012 Encana started silica awareness training for workers. Workers are now required to wear respirator masks and to stay out of “no go” zones.

Even with that, three Encana fracking operations had airborne silica above Occupational Safety and Health Administration levels since the beginning of 2013.

Encana and most other oilfield companies have not opted to switch to more costly but more environmentally friendly systems that use gravity rather than pneumatic systems to move sand on fracking sites.

Cameron Oren with a Houston-based company, SandBox, said his company developed such a system after witnessing “the ungodly conditions” of heavy sand clouds at a fracking operation.

SandBox uses closed boxes of sand that are moved on a conveyor before being mixed with fracking fluids. Oren said there are no dust clouds with this method that is now being used at several locations in Weld County.

“I would assume in the future its going to be mandatory to go with something like this that doesn’t jeopardize workers’ health,” he said.

How many workers might be having health problems related to fracking sand is not known and probably won’t be for another five or 10 years. It takes a decade or more for the most common type of silicosis to develop. And there is no worker monitoring, such as the lung tests used with miners, to give the medical community any indication of early lung changes.

“Right now I don’t think any of us has a good handle on this,” said Dr. Lisa Maier, chief of theDivision of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at National Jewish Hospital.

She said physicians at National Jewish are not yet seeing cases of silicosis or other lung diseases related to fracking. But that doesn’t mean they don’t think damage is happening in the oilfield just as it has in other industries.

“That (silica) is a material we really worry about,” she said.

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Coal Mines Keep Operating Despite Injuries, Violations And Millions In Fines

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Jack Blankenship was pinned facedown in the dirt, his neck, shoulder and back throbbing with pain.

He was alone on an errand, in a dark tunnel a mile underground at the Aracoma Alma coal mine in Logan County, W.Va., when a 300-pound slab of rock peeled away from the roof and slammed him to the ground. As his legs grew numb, he managed to free an arm and reach his radio. For two hours, he pressed the panic button that was supposed to bring help quickly.

“I couldn’t hardly breathe,” Blankenship remembered four years later. “I’d black out and come to. I was waiting to die. I’d already had my little talk with God.”

Aracoma Alma and then-owner Massey Energy had a history of serious safety problems, including falling rock. In the two years before Blankenship’s accident, the mine was cited by federal regulators more than 120 times for rock fall violations, according to records from federal regulators. That included inadequate roof support and deficient safety checks for loose rock.

Citations and the fines that go with them are key components of the federal law designed to protect miners. They are supposed to make violations expensive — costing hundreds of thousands of dollars for the most serious offenses — and create an incentive for mine owners to keep workers safe.

Yet on that December day in 2010, as Blankenship lay pinned and in pain, Aracoma Alma owed $200,000 in overdue mine safety fines, federal records show. The penalty system that is designed to discourage unsafe practices failed Blankenship, and his story is not unique.

Dangerous Delinquents

A joint investigation by NPR and Mine Safety and Health News found that thousands of mine operators fail to pay safety penalties, even as they continue to manage dangerous — and sometimes deadly — mining operations. Most unpaid penalties are between two and 10 years overdue; some go back two decades. And federal regulators seem unable or unwilling to make mine owners pay.

Our joint investigation looked at 20 years of federal mine data through the first quarter of 2014, including details about fines, payments, violations and injuries. We used raw Department of Labor data and delinquency records provided by the Mine Safety and Health Administration to calculate the number of injuries and injury rates, and violations and gravity of violations, at mines with delinquent penalties while they were delinquent.

Among the findings:

  • 2,700 mining company owners failed to pay nearly $70 million in delinquent penalties.
  • The top nine delinquents owe more than $1 million each.
  • Mines that don’t pay their penalties are more dangerous than mines that do, with injury rates 50 percent higher.
  • Delinquent mines reported close to 4,000 injuries in the years they failed to pay, including accidents that killed 25 workers and left 58 others with permanent disabilities.
  • Delinquent mines continued to violate the law, with more than 130,000 violations, while they failed to pay mine safety fines.

Most mine operators pay their penalties, our investigation found. Delinquents account for just 7 percent of the nation’s coal, metals and mineral mining companies. But that small subset of the industry is more dangerous than the rest, federal data show.

The violations at delinquent mines included 40,000 that are labeled in government safety records as “Significant and Substantial,” which means serious injury or illness were likely if inspectors hadn’t intervened. More than 15,000 violations were the kind found in fatal accidents, major disasters or mining deaths, the records also show.

And when those safety records are compared with other government data on coal production, it shows that some of the top delinquents continued to mine coal and reap millions of dollars in revenue while their safety fines remained unpaid.

“Most folks out there, including me, are totally shocked when they find out that … you can actually just sit around and not pay the fine and keep producing coal and put money in the bank,” said Tim Bailey, Blankenship’s attorney and a West Virginia native with three generations of coal miners in his family.

A Formula For Catastrophe

Mine safety advocates say the mix of delinquency, violations and injuries is a formula for catastrophe.

“To the people who continue to run an operation that puts people at risk on a daily basis, this is a bonanza,” said Davitt McAteer, a former assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health and an independent investigator of three recent mine disasters.

“This is to them, ‘I can beat this system,’ ” McAteer added. “This is the kind of attitude that leads to mine disasters.”

Officials at the National Mining Association, the industry’s lobbying group, declined to be interviewed, but NMA said in a written statement that it “believes that all truly delinquent fines should be paid.”

The group also said the government, not industry, should address this issue.

The federal agency responsible for regulating mines is the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in the Department of Labor. MSHA conducts regular inspections — four a year for underground mines — looking for safety hazards such as excessive and explosive coal dust, loose rock, electrocution threats, volatile methane gas and weak ventilation.

Serious violations must be fixed before mining can continue. But even minor violations can result in citations and fines, which can range from $112 to $220,000, depending on the violation.

An appeals process gives mine owners the chance to challenge fines they consider unfair. Any fine that is unchallenged or upheld on appeal but still not paid is deemed delinquent by regulators.

When a fine becomes delinquent, MSHA sends out letters requesting payment. If necessary, the Treasury Department follows up with letters, phone calls and referrals to collection agencies. Sometimes, the Justice Department is asked to seek federal court orders demanding payment.

Joe Main, the current head of MSHA, said the delinquency problem looks worse than it really is, because the agency’s records don’t include payments that may take time to process. To compensate, NPR and Mine Safety and Health News excluded from the analysis any delinquency less than 90 days old.

Main also said his agency is focused more on rooting out and correcting dangerous workplace conditions than on collecting fines.

After a 2010 disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 people, MSHA began to apply greater scrutiny and sanctions to mines with persistent patterns of dangerous violations. The agency has also staged hundreds of extra blitz inspections at targeted mines. That rigorous enforcement prompts some delinquent mines to close eventually because sanctions can make it difficult to operate, Main said.

“I don’t want folks who hear this to think that this is an agency that doesn’t care about mine operators paying their fines,” Main said. “But we have to place our priorities where they are most impacting, and it’s going to be protecting that miner that’s out there at risk today.”

Still, other current and former regulators say that without rigorous enforcement and collection, citations and fines don’t prevent mine owners from operating unsafely.

“If they don’t pay their fine, you’ve only done half your job,” said Michael Wolford, who inspected coal mines for MSHA for 23 years. “You caught them doing something but … they will do it again. It’s having the law and no punishment connected to it.”

A personnel carrier that once carried miners underground at the Kentucky Darby mine was left crushed and twisted by a 2006 explosion, which left five workers dead.

A personnel carrier that once carried miners underground at the Kentucky Darby mine was left crushed and twisted by a 2006 explosion, which left five workers dead.

Department of Labor/MSHA

‘They Keep Letting Him Do It’

One glaring example of a failure to pay and a failure to collect stems from a coal mine explosion at the Kentucky Darby Mine in Harlan County, Ky., in 2006 that killed five men.

State and federal records list Ralph Napier Sr. as Kentucky Darby’s co-owner and legally responsible corporate official. The mining company he and some partners once operated still owes $500,000 in penalties for the Kentucky Darby disaster. Napier also controls eight other mines that have $2.4 million in delinquent fines.

One of the workers killed at the Kentucky Darby mine was Roy Middleton. His wife, Mary, became a coal miner’s widow at age 31.

“It’s like they died in vain, like their life didn’t matter,” Mary Middleton said.

“You get a speeding ticket … and you don’t pay and they’ll want to put you in jail,” Middleton added. “But this man — it’s people’s lives and injuries, and then they just keep letting him keep doing it and doing it.”

Napier did not respond to repeated requests to discuss his mines’ violations. We tried to reach him through two of his attorneys and his son, and left notes at properties he owns in Kentucky.

The Kentucky Darby explosion illustrates another finding from the NPR/Mine Safety and Health News investigation: Even after major disasters with multiple deaths, the owners of delinquent mines can continue to operate. MSHA does not shut them down even if they continue to commit violations, even when there are more injuries.

The mines that Napier controlled mined 1.4 million tons of coal while they were delinquent, according to federal records. That’s more than $89 million worth, based on average prices in that part of Kentucky reported by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“They’re just sticking their finger in the eye of the federal enforcement agencies,” said California Rep. George Miller, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. “They continue to run and produce coal and make money.”

This photo of Roy Middleton working underground at the Kentucky Darby mine now sits on the mantel in the Middleton home in Harlan County, Ky. He was killed after an explosion in 2006.

This photo of Roy Middleton working underground at the Kentucky Darby mine now sits on the mantel in the Middleton home in Harlan County, Ky. He was killed after an explosion in 2006.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch/NPR/Original photo courtesy of the Middleton family

Napier and his partners haven’t paid the Kentucky Darby fines despite a federal court order to pay, according to federal records. And in 2012, Miller made a public demand for payment for some of the group’s delinquent fines.

An attorney for the mine owners told Miller at the time that his clients could not afford to pay safety penalties because they spent their money on salaries, benefits, operating costs and mine safety.

Miller told NPR that the situation shows mining companies can operate “with complete impunity.”

He added: “The current law isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Unable To Collect 

NPR and Mine Safety and Health News identified 34 cases in which MSHA or the Treasury Department tried to collect penalty payments by taking the matter to federal court or negotiating settlements. So far, just 13 percent of the judgments and settlement amounts yielded by that process — $783,000 out of $5.8 million — have been paid, according to information provided by MSHA.

Regulators and investigators often lack the resources to be more aggressive, said Davis Sledd, a former assistant U.S. attorney in eastern Kentucky who specialized in civil and criminal cases involving coal mines.

“Coal mine regulation is not a high-profile area of law enforcement,” he said. “It’s not like guns or drugs. It’s not the drama of a jury trial in federal court. It’s a fairly low priority.”

Enforcing federal court orders and settlements can be particularly difficult, Sledd added, because investigators often struggle to find clear connections between mines, mine owners and assets worth seizing.

“My experience was that sometimes these people who are identified as operators were not really running the show,” Sledd said. “And the people who were running the show kept their identities concealed.”

Court documents and former MSHA investigators indicate that “ghost controllers” were sometimes listed as operators of mines. In some cases, a girlfriend, a secretary and assorted relatives were named in official government filings as the owners of record.

American corporate law can also help shield mine owners from having to pay, according to Ed Clair, who served as MSHA’s top lawyer for 23 years.

“There is no way to ultimately hold them economically accountable for their violations,” Clair said, given the fact that corporations go in and out of business, mines go in and out of production, and some mineral rights are leased rather than owned.

Sledd, who retired in 2011, said he didn’t have the expertise or tools to collect on court judgments and settlements during his 20 years in the U.S. attorney’s office. “And my experience was that U.S. attorney’s offices, within the office itself, don’t have those resources,” he said.

Without the support of federal prosecutors, the burden of enforcement falls back on MSHA, its investigators and attorneys at the Solicitor’s Office of the Labor Department, who represent MSHA in federal court cases. The Labor Department declined repeated requests for interviews with officials in the Solicitor’s Office.

The Treasury Department is better prepared to collect delinquencies, said Jay Mattos, MSHA’s assessments and enforcement director. Treasury became the primary debt collector for all government agencies in 1996.

“That core competency we no longer have,” Mattos said.

Treasury collectors have more threatening authority. They can “seize” payments to federal contractors who also have delinquent penalties. They can withhold tax refunds from delinquent companies. They can also declare unpaid fines to be taxable income. Then, if tax isn’t paid on that income, Treasury can seek garnishment of wages and other sanctions, including criminal charges.

Overall, Treasury collected 31 percent of the $97 million in delinquent penalties referred by MSHA during the 2006 to 2013 fiscal years. Treasury also declined requests for on-the-record interviews.

Largest Delinquents

The biggest delinquent, according to MSHA’s records, is D&C Mining in Harlan County, Ky., with a total debt of $4.4 million, mostly stemming from violations at a single mine. Court records also show that D&C has a $2 million default judgment against it for some of that debt.

Even mine owners with considerable resources have delinquent mines. Jim Justice is a billionaire and philanthropist who owns the historic Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. As of March 31, mining companies owned by Justice owed nearly $2 million in delinquent penalties. His delinquent mines have an injury rate more than twice the national rate. Those same mines committed more than 4,000 violations while fines went unpaid. Since NPR contacted Justice, the company has begun paying the fines at a rate of $100,000 a month.

Jim Justice, a billionaire from West Virginia, owns Southern Coal Corp., which has 71 mines that have racked up thousands of violations and millions of dollars in fines.

Jim Justice, a billionaire from West Virginia, owns Southern Coal Corp., which has 71 mines that have racked up thousands of violations and millions of dollars in fines.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

We asked MSHA’s Main why he doesn’t shut down mines that fail to pay their penalties, especially after more violations and injuries.

“You have to have the fact of law behind you,” Main responded. “We have no silver bullet. I mean, we don’t have the authority to go in and shut down a mine because of ‘X.’ “

MSHA can force mines to close temporarily while dangerous violations are fixed. That happened at one of Napier’s mines two years ago. But government records show the mine reopened in six days. Furthermore, MSHA data show that the fines that resulted from the violations have yet to be paid, and that more violations occurred.

“Not paying the fines … perpetuates this whole system of lawlessness,” said Tony Oppegard, a former state and federal mine safety regulator and an attorney who represented widow Mary Middleton during the Kentucky Darby accident investigation.

“If I don’t have to pay a fine, what incentive do I have to provide a safe workplace? I’m going to do it as cheaply as I can [and] cut as many corners as I can,” he said.

Mary Middleton became a coal miner’s widow at age 31 and keeps her late husband Roy’s memory alive with a mantel filled with photos.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch/NPR

This year, Napier and his son registered a new mining company in the state of Kentucky. It’s not clear whether they’ll actually mine coal there. But there’s nothing in the law that would stop them, despite the $3 million in delinquent penalties at mines Napier once controlled.

“It’s almost unbelievable that you can have a horrendous accident such as Kentucky Darby, an explosion that would kill five people, and still the company would be able to still mine coal in the state of Kentucky and not pay their fines,” said Tracy Stumbo, who spent 17 years as Kentucky’s chief mine accident investigator.

“And, you know, it’s pretty hard to explain to the families why this continues to go on,” he added.

Stumbo investigated the Kentucky Darby disaster and briefed Middleton.

“Where’s the breaking point?” Middleton asked. “I know the Bible says vengeance is God’s, he will repay. But you think, ‘Why are they not being punished?’ “

Congress Fails To Act

Rep. Miller has legislation pending in the House that would give MSHA the authority to force mines to close six months after they fail to pay delinquent fines. An identical bill was introduced in the Senate.

Tom Lusk of Southern Coal Corp., a West Virginia-based mining company owned by billionaire Justice, argues: “That’s not a good option.”

Lusk said market conditions may make it difficult for some companies to pay on time. An automatic shutdown “will do great harm to our economy, to our country and … miners.”

The proposed legislation would allow delinquent companies to continue mining if they work out a payment plan. Mines that close due to the deadline would be required to pay their miners for at least 60 more days.

Main said MSHA supports the measure, which includes broader reforms in mine safety regulation. But the bill has no traction, according to Miller.

“Some people see this as the continuation of the ‘war on coal,’ ” Miller said, referring to the battle cry in coal country over tighter limits on emissions from coal-fired power plants. “I’m not even sure a tragic new accident would change the Congress’ attitude on this.”

Some propose a more fundamental change to mine regulation, pointing to more restrictive requirements for mine ownership and operation in other major mining countries.

In Australia, for instance, “You have to be able to prove that you can operate that mine in a safe way,” said Tom Hethmon, director of the Center for Mining Safety and Health Excellence at the University of Utah. “It’s called a safety case.”

The “safety case” must identify risks in the mine, Hethmon said, and describe a safety system that not only complies with regulations but also assures the safety of miners.

That might weed out the smaller and independent mining companies that also are among the biggest and most persistent delinquents. But Hethmon, who is also a safety consultant for the mining industry, expects resistance.

“We are a country that’s been built on the entrepreneurial spirit of small businesses, families and small groups of entrepreneurs who have built mines,” he said.

Still, Hethmon concluded, “It shouldn’t be OK to operate a coal mine and have a long-term history of failure to protect your most valuable asset.”

Police direct traffic at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va., after an explosion there killed 29 men in April 2010. Upper Big Branch had delinquent mine safety penalties at the time of the explosion.

Police direct traffic at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va., after an explosion there killed 29 men in April 2010. Upper Big Branch had delinquent mine safety penalties at the time of the explosion.

Jeff Gentner/AP

Church And Forest Lawn

That was precisely the case for the Aracoma Alma mine and Massey Energy, its owner in 2010, as Jack Blankenship lay trapped under a massive slab of rock.

Earlier that year, and just 20 miles away, Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine exploded, killing 29 workers. In interviews and accident reports released after the explosion, investigators blamed a corporate culture that put production before safety. In 2006, a fire killed two miners at Aracoma, resulting in corporate criminal charges.

Massey was bought by Alpha Natural Resources in 2011. Alpha eventually paid Massey’s delinquent mine safety fines, including those at Aracoma, as part of an agreement with the Justice Department that avoided corporate criminal charges for the Upper Big Branch disaster.

Alpha declined to answer questions about the Blankenship accident, but the company agreed to a confidential settlement with Blankenship in 2011.

Blankenship still suffers from pinched nerves in his neck and back. He has a fractured spine and a reconstructed shoulder, and is in constant pain. He can’t work. He can’t sit long enough to watch his son play basketball. He can’t stand or walk long enough to take his daughter hunting. Some days, he says, he can barely get out of bed.

His attorney, Tim Bailey, blames, in part, an enforcement mechanism that has no enforcement.

“You’ve got to have an economic disincentive to be unsafe,” Bailey said. “And right now, even though the fines can be hung on the wall and we can all tally them, if you don’t have to pay them … it’s just a toothless tiger you’re not scared of anymore.”

Blankenship, 41, says he has few expectations for the rest of his life.

“Church and Forest Lawn,” he said, referring to the cemetery where his family has burial plots. His daughter is in college, and he’d like to see his son graduate from high school. “He’s got about five years, so I’ll take it one day at a time until then.”

Some nights, he said, he wakes up struggling to breathe, as if still trapped in the darkness and the dirt.

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40 years after toxic mix-up, researchers continue to study Michiganders poisoned by PBB

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More than 40 years ago, people in Michigan were poisoned. Researchers are still following those people today.

In 1973, a fire-retardant chemical called PBB, polybrominated biphenyl, accidentally got mixed into livestock feed.  It took a year to discover the accident.

Studies estimate 70-90% of people in Michigan had some exposure to PBB from eating contaminated milk, meat and eggs. The MDCH says the “overwhelming majority of those who were exposed to PBB received very low levels.”

Other people had higher levels of exposure.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta are studying the long-term health effects of exposure to PBB. The team was in Michigan this past weekend to continue the study

A multi-generational study

Michele Marcus is a professor of epidemiology, environmental health and pediatrics at Emory University Schools of Public Health and Medicine, and she’s the lead scientist on the research team. She’s interested in studying how the exposure has affected the children and grandchildren of people who ate contaminated food.

“We are particularly focusing on people who were exposed in early childhood or perhaps while they were in the womb,” she says.

The Emory researchers have been studying the PBB contamination of Michiganders for more than 15 years. Marcus says their research has shown that the chemical had effects on the endocrine systems of people who were exposed to it during “critical periods of development,” such as in the womb or early childhood.

“So we found among the daughters of women with high exposure that they experienced their first menstrual period a full year earlier than girls who were not exposed. And now that they are adults, they do have a very high risk of miscarriages. And the boys who were exposed in the womb have reported more urinary and genital problems and slower growth and pubertal development,”  she explains.

Marcus’s team is studying the third generation — the adult grandchildren of  people who consumed the tainted animal products.

“We are seeing health effects, particularly reproductive health effects like the miscarriages. And we know from animal studies that in fact, some of these endocrine disrupting chemicals can affect multiple generations, up to four and five generations down the line.”

What to do if you think you might’ve been exposed to PBB

Marcus says people who are concerned that they may have been exposed to PBB should educate themselves about the possible health effects of that exposure, and then discuss the issue with their doctor.

On Emory’s Michigan PBB Registry site, you can find a health care provider sheet, and a one-page summary of the research that you can print out and take with you to your physician.

The website also provides information on how to obtain a blood test to determine if you were exposed to PBB. According to the site, it takes 15 years, on average, for half of the PBB in the body to be eliminated and there are no known treatments that will reduce the levels.

**Clarification – an earlier version of this post said, “About 4,000 people in Michigan ate contaminated milk, beef, and eggs.” That number was intended to describe the study cohort – those people who signed up to be part of the PBB Registry. The copy has been clarified above.

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The real story of US coal: inside the world’s biggest coalmine

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n the world’s biggest coalmine, even a 400 tonne truck looks like a toy. Everything about the scale of Peabody Energy’s operations in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming is big and the mines are only going to get bigger – despite new warnings from the United Nations on the dangerous burning of fossil fuels, despite Barack Obama’s promises to fight climate change, and despite reports that coal is in its death throes.

At the east pit of Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle mine, the layer of coal takes up 60ft of a 250ft trough in the earth, and runs in an interrupted black stripe for 50 miles.

With those vast, easy-to-reach deposits, Powder River has overtaken West Virginia and Kentucky as the big coalmining territory. The pro-coal Republicans’ takeover of Congress in the mid-term elections also favours Powder River.

“You’re looking at the world’s largest mine,” said Scott Durgin, senior vice-president for Peabody’s operations in the Powder River Basin, watching the giant machinery at work. “This is one of the biggest seams you will ever see. This particular shovel is one of the largest shovels you can buy, and that is the largest truck you can buy.”

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Video: Look inside Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle, the world’s biggest coalmine

By Durgin’s rough estimate, the mine occupies 100 square miles of high treeless prairie, about the same size as Washington DC. It contains an estimated three billion tonnes of coal reserves. It would take Peabody 25 or 30 years to mine it all.

But it’s still not big enough.

On the conference room wall, a map of North Antelope Rochelle shows two big shaded areas containing an estimated one billion tonnes of coal. Peabody is preparing to acquire leasing rights when they come up in about 2022 or 2024. “You’ve got to think way ahead,” said Durgin.

In the fossil fuel jackpot that is Wyoming, it can be hard to see a future beyond coal. One of the few who can is LJ Turner, whose grandfather and father homesteaded on the high treeless plains nearly a century ago.

Turner, who raises sheep and cattle, said his business had suffered in the 30 years of the mines’ explosive growth. Dust from the mines was aggravating pneumonia among his Red Angus calves. One year, he lost 25 calves, he said.

A cattle farm near North Antelope Rochelle mine in WyomingLJ Turner on his cattle ranch near North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming. Photograph: Mae Ryan/Guardian

“We are making a national sacrifice out of this region,” he said. “Peabody coal and other coal companies want to keep on mining, and mine this country out and leave it as a sacrifice and they want to do it for their bottom line. It’s not for the United States. They want to sell it overseas, and I want to see that stopped.”

As do some of the most powerful people on the planet. About 120 world leaders met at the United Nations (UN) in September to commit to fighting climate change – many noting that the evidence of warming was occurring in real time. Obama last year proposed new rules that will make it almost impossible to build new coal power plants.

Last week, an exhaustive UN report from the world’s top scientists warned of “severe, widespread and irreversible impacts” without dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

Coal is also facing competition from cheap natural gas. Peabody had a very bad year in 2013, losing $525m (£328m) as global demand for coal flatlined.

But despite the promises from Obama and other world leaders the use of coal for energy rose again last year in America, Europe and in Asia – and so did the emissions that cause climate change.

Peabody continued to post losses this year. But extraction and revenue from the Powder River Basin mines went up – and company officials say they could ship out even more coal if they could just get the trains to run on time.

On an average day, 21 long freight trains full of coal leave North Antelope Rochelle bound for 100 power plants across the country. But the company says that’s still not enough. As for climate change – that’s hardly Peabody’s concern.

The company is deeply reluctant to even mention the words. Durgin, who refuses to appear on camera, introduced himself an “active environmentalist, not an environmental activist”.

Chris Curran, a Peabody spokesman, refused to talk about climate change or the effects of Obama’s efforts to cut carbon emissions on the company’s profits. “They are only proposed regulations right now. Nothing is going on,” he said.

It takes a call to the senior vice-president of corporate communications, Vic Svec, at the head office in St Louis before the company will discuss climate change. As it turns out, the company’s official position is that there is no such thing as human-caused climate change. “We do not question the climate changing. It has been changing for as long as man has recorded history,” Svec said. Climate change was a “modelled crisis”, he went on.

“What we would say is that there is still far more understanding that is required for any type of impacts of C02 on carbon concerns.” Asked whether he saw climate change as a threat, Svec said: “Climate concerns are a threat to the extent that they lead to policies that hurt people.”

Peabody’s official position on climate science is divorced from scientific reality. But their grasp of the politics of coal clearly is not.

Everyday about 21 trains filled with coal leave Peabody's North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming, which is one of the biggest surface mines in the world.Everyday about 21 trains filled with coal leave Peabody’s North Antelope Rochelle Mine in Wyoming, which is one of the biggest surface mines in the world. Photograph: Mae Ryan/The Guardian

America gets about 40% of its electricity from coal – and by far the biggest share of that coal comes from Powder River. According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), its use of coal for energy rose 4.8% last year, in part because of the Arctic blasts of the polar vortex. Carbon dioxide emissions from energy registered one of their steepest rises in the last quarter century.

Australia, where Peabody has three mines and which has the world’s second largest reserves of coal, has ramped up production 37% since 2000, helped by up to $3.5bn in government subsidies to the entire fossil fuel industry, a forthcoming report from the Overseas Development Institute and Oil Change International will say.

China has doubled its use of coal over the last decade. India is preparing to open its large coal reserves to foreign mining companies to meet a promise to hook up the 400 million without electricity on to the grid in the next five years.

Coal use in Germany rose last year for the third year in a row, even as the country met its ambitious targets to transition to wind and solar power. Poland has been promoting its coal as an alternative to Russian natural gas.

Overall global coal use rose 3% last year, faster than any other fossil fuel, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy.

That’s a disaster in the making, scientists and energy experts say. The International Energy Agency has concluded that two-thirds of all fossil fuels will have to stay in the ground if the world is going to avoid crossing the 2C thresholdinto dangerous climate change.

Obama agrees. Burning all of those fossil fuels would trigger “dire consequences”for the planet, he told an interviewer last June. “We’re not going to be able to burn it all.”

But the reality is that Obama has spent the last six years expanding coal, oil and gas production under his “all of the above” energy strategy.

“We quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the earth and then some,” Obama told a rally during his 2012 re-election campaign.

Coal exports have risen on Obama’s watch, with mining companies shipping some 100m tonnes a year for each of the last three years. Mining companies are actively pursuing plans to expand coal ports and ship more coal overseas, as a back-up market should the incoming Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules on carbon pollution make it harder to burn coal for electricity.

Meanwhile, the federal government, under Obama, gave away $26m last year in tax breaks to the coal industry, according to the Overseas Development Industry report.

Even if the president wants to do more to curb coal, the Democrats’ heavy defeat in the mid-term elections means there will be no pull in that direction from Congress. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans’ leader in the Senate ran on a slogan of “Guns, Freedom and Coal”.

But even before the mid-terms, campaigners say the rise in coal use under Obama undermines his climate agenda and could wipe out efforts by other countries to fight climate change. Last July, a judge in Colorado agreed, throwing out a mining permit granted by the Bureau of Land Management on the grounds that it would worsen climate change.

What’s especially frustrating, campaigners say, is that Powder River Basin coal is on public lands, which means that Obama could intervene to limit future mines.

“This whole notion that you can just address the smoke stack is wishful thinking at the end of the day. Why wouldn’t you address the problem from cradle to grave? Why wouldn’t you trace it all the way back to where it is being produced rather than just look at the stack?” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy director from Wild Earth Guardians.

Campaigners say they see little evidence Obama has tried to curb coal use. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees extraction on public lands, shows little sign of incorporating Obama’s climate change directive into future planning.

A truck That can holds more than 440 tons of coal at Peabody Energy North Antelope Rochelle coalmine, north of Douglas, Wyoming, US, October 2014

A truck that can hold more than 440 tons of coal at Peabody Energy’s North Antelope Rochelle coalmine, north of Douglas, Wyoming, US. Photograph: Mae Ryan/The Guardian

The agency came in for scathing criticism from government auditors earlier this year who said the BLM gave up too much control to the mining companies, and sold coal too cheaply, to the detriment of US taxpayers.

Those low prices are crucial to Peabody’s business model. “It’s a high volume, lower priced product and we can still ship literally across the country and compete,” Durgin said. In 2012, the company acquired the rights to mine an additional billion tonnes of coal, paying just $1.11 a tonne. Peabody also pays 12.5% royalties to the US federal government, once the coal is mined.

Campaigners say such prices represent a giveaway that allows mining companies like Peabody to keep the prices for Powder River Basin coal artificially low.

Campaigners also argue low coal prices make it harder to ramp up production from renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

“We have never seen leases of more than a billion tonnes and we are starting to see that under the Obama Administration,” Nichols said.

The Department of Interior, which has final authority over public lands, refused to respond to multiple requests for comment on its efforts to implement Obama’s climate policies.

Instead, a stock email attributed to Jessica Kershaw, the interior spokeswoman, confirmed that Obama was committed to mining more coal.

“As part of the Obama Administration’s all-of-the-above energy strategy, the Department of the Interior and specifically the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is committed to the safe and responsible development of both traditional and renewable energy resources on public lands,” the email read.

“The BLM also recognizes that coal is a key component of America’s comprehensive energy portfolio and the nation’s economy.

The email did not mention climate change.

For Peabody though, the aim is expansion. The company produced 134m tonnes of coal from its combined Powder River Basin mines last year, and was on track to increase production this year, Durgin said.

“I’ve been asked when is the end of the mine,” said Durgin. “I don’t know. Economics will tell us that.”

So long as Obama pursues policies that keep coal cheap, that end is unlikely to come soon.