News

01-blankenship-041_custom-12691ceb94f9615b696330cb9306dda3c5710c27-s1000-c85

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

Print

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.

v152eh01

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

Print

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.

f4ee469b-2732-48a0-a75a-c674009af168-1020x612

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

Print

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.”

0:00
/
0:00

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.

YourVoteCounts

Under the Republican Congress, All Environmental Politics Will Be Local

Print

Steven Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, discusses last week’s election and its impact on environmental politics in a Huffington Post blog entry. Read more here.

pregnant-363668_1280

Childhood Leukemia from Power Lines

Print

We previously reported an association between childhood leukemia in Britain and proximity of the child’s address at birth to high-voltage power lines that declines from the 1960s to the 2000s. We test here whether a ‘corona-ion hypothesis’ could explain these results. This hypothesis proposes that corona ions, atmospheric ions produced by power lines and blown away from them by the wind, increase the retention of airborne pollutants in the airways when breathed in and hence cause disease. We develop an improved model for calculating exposure to corona ions, using data on winds from meteorological stations and considering the whole length of power line within 600 m of each subject’s address. Corona-ion exposure is highly correlated with proximity to power lines, and hence the results parallel the elevations in leukemia risk seen with distance analyses. But our model explains the observed pattern of leukemia rates around power lines less well than straightforward distance measurements, and ecological considerations also argue against the hypothesis. This does not disprove the corona-ion hypothesis as the explanation for our previous results, but nor does it provide support for it, or, by extension, any other hypothesis dependent on wind direction. Read more.

Screen Shot 2014-11-07 at 11.55.31 PM

Pesticide levels on food unknown due to poor government testing

Print

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not perform enough pesticide residue tests — on either imported or domestic foods – to say whether the American food supply is safe, according to federal auditors.

The Government Accountability Office report, which was released Thursday, said FDA is testing less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all imported fruits and vegetables and less than 1 percent of domestic fruits and vegetables. Federal auditors said the agency’s pesticide testing program is not “statistically valid,” making it impossible for it to meet one of its mandates, which is to “determine the national incidence and level of pesticide residues in the foods it regulates.”

Read the full story from Kimberly Kindy at The Washington Post.

chen

Visionary Leaders Issue a Renewed Vision for Protecting Children’s Environmental Health

Print

The Children’s Environmental Health Network convened a diverse group of visionary leaders to chart a renewed vision and blueprint for protecting children’s environmental health.

We believe that the next generation must be better off than the last. We believe that it is our moral obligation to protect and nurture our children’s health.

October 30, 2014

Last week, a historic meeting was convened by the Children’s Environmental Health Network at Wingspread, headquarters of the Johnson Foundation in Racine, Wisconsin. Visionary leaders representing perspectives from science, non-profit advocacy, environmental justice, child health, urban planning, academia, public health, business, economics, public policy, law, and agriculture gathered in urgent recognition that children are now being gripped by an epidemic of illnesses and chronic diseases linked to environmental exposures.

This diverse group of leaders drafted a dynamic vision statement calling for transformative change through renewed and collective action to provide all children with the protections from harm that they deserve. Meeting participants also developed an outline of a blueprint for action that will place children at the center of all key decision-making moving forward, and will continue to finalize this framework for action to make the vision a reality. The text of the vision statement is as follows:


A Vision for Protecting Children’s Environmental Health

(Wingspread Statement)

We believe that every child has an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Fundamental to that vision is the right of all children to play and learn, to breathe, eat and drink, and to dream safely cradled by their families and communities. All children should live free from violence, racism, poverty, hunger, life trauma, and poisons that will keep them from living up to their full potential. Indeed, society’s soul is truly revealed by the way in which it treats its children.

We believe that the next generation must be better off than the last. We believe that it is our moral obligation to protect and nurture our children’s health. And we believe that their health is a state of physical, mental, and social well-being, not merely the absence of disease.

We have gathered in urgent recognition that our children are gripped by an epidemic. It is a surge of illnesses and chronic diseases linked to environmental exposures. This may be the first generation of Americans to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. We know that too many hazards in our homes, schools, childcare facilities, businesses, and communities are threatening the health and well-being of our children and our nation. The water our children drink, the air they breathe, the food they eat, the schools and childcare facilities in which they learn, the parks where they play, and the communities in which they live are in too many cases threatening their health during childhood and later in life. The security of their families, communities, and our nation’s future is further imperiled by climate change. We know that children are uniquely susceptible and especially exposed to too many toxics. We also know that many of these threats stem from parents’ exposures to pollutants before conception and children’s exposures throughout childhood and into late adolescence – and that these early exposures can trigger diseases and disrupt development, learning, and behavior both in childhood and later in life.

Based on these facts, we unanimously support the following principles:

  • All children have the right to breathe clean air, eat safe and healthful food, drink pure water, and enjoy toys and products free from environmental health and safety threats;
  • All children have the right to healthy, safe, and secure homes, childcare facilities, schools, and communities;
  • All children and their parents and caretakers have the right to know about proven and potential hazards to their environmental health and safety and to protection from these threats.

It is our mutual responsibility to protect these rights and to act with forethought to protect children’s health and development, regardless of their race or social circumstances. It is our special obligation to safeguard communities most at risk.

Our vision is of a society that puts children at the center. We urge renewed and collective societal action to make this vision real by:

  • Mobilizing greater societal understanding of children’s environmental health and placing a strong priority on children and families;
  • Creating knowledge essential for effective action and making use of the knowledge we have;
  • Marshaling the engine of the economy to achieve environments in which children can thrive and enjoy abundant opportunity for building a sustainable, economically secure future; and
  • Building the political will in our institutions of government for child-centered policies.

To read more about the Vision and its supporters, click here.

traffic

Air pollution linked to children’s attention problems

Print

Nov. 5, 2014

New York City children exposed in the womb to high levels of pollutants in vehicle exhaust had a five times higher risk of attention problems at age 9, according to research by Columbia University scientists published Wednesday.

The study adds to earlier evidence that mothers’ exposures to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are emitted by the burning of fossil fuels and other organic materials, are linked to children’s behavioral problems associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

“Our research suggests that environmental factors may be contributing to attention problems in a significant way,” said Frederica Perera, an environmental health scientist at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health who was the study’s lead author.

About one in 10 U.S. kids is diagnosed with ADHD, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children with ADHD are at greater risk of poor academic performance, risky behaviors and lower earnings in adulthood, the researchers wrote.

“Air pollution has been linked to adverse effects on attention span, behavior and cognitive functioning in research from around the globe. There is little question that air pollutants may pose a variety of potential health risks to children of all ages, possibly beginning in the womb,” said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven & Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York. He did not participate in the new study.

Alberto Monteverdi/flickr
Low income and minority children are often at higher risk of exposure to traffic-related air pollution.

Previous studies by the Columbia University researchers linked prenatal PAHs to reduced IQsanxiety and depression, attention problems and developmental delays in younger children, between the ages of 3 and 7.

In addition to PAHs, a variety of other pollutants have been linked to ADHD or ADHD-like behaviors. Included are organophosphate pesticidespolychlorinated biphenyls(PCBs), phthalates and perfluorinated compounds.

For the new study, the researchers followed the children of 233 African-American and Dominican women in New York City. They measured the amount of benzo[a]pyrene bound to DNA – a biological marker for PAHs – in the mothers’ blood at the time of birth. Forty-two percent had detectable levels in their blood.

When the children were about 9 years old, parents filled out a questionnaire commonly used to screen for ADHD behavior problems. The researchers found that children whose mothers had the highest amounts of the PAH at the time of birth were five times more likely to show more behaviors associated with inattention than children whose mothers had the lowest levels. They were three times more likely to exhibit more total behaviors (inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity) associated with ADHD.

The levels of PAHs were “quite typical of other urban areas that have been monitored,” Perera said.

It’s not known how many of the children had an ADHD diagnosis.

The questionnaires indicated some behaviors involved in ADHD, but they do not mean that the child necessarily has ADHD, said David Bellinger, a Harvard professor of neurology who studies effects of environmental exposures on kids’ developing brains.

“The diagnosis of ADHD involves much more extensive information-gathering and ruling out of other diagnoses,” he said.

“Our research suggests that environmental factors may be contributing to attention problems in a significant way.” –Frederica Perera, Columbia UniversityThe researchers were the first to measure PAHs directly in people’s bodies rather than using air pollution levels as a proxy for their exposures.

“Having these individual measures of exposure reinforces the possibility that there is a causal connection,” said Jonathan Chevrier, an environmental health scientist at McGill University in Montreal.

The scientists tested the children’s urine samples to distinguish prenatal from postnatal air pollution exposures. They also controlled for other factors in the child’s genetics and early life experiences, such as tobacco smoke and stress, that could contribute to ADHD-like symptoms.

The researchers, however, did not account for children’s exposures to lead or mercury, two contaminants that also have been linked to attention problems. “It’s possible that exposure to one of these substances is highly correlated with PAH exposure,” Bellinger said.

It’s not clear how PAHs might affect developing brains. “We know that these chemicals damage DNA. They also mimic natural hormones and may interfere with placental growth,” which could deplete oxygen and nutrients for the developing fetus, Perera said.

Since the Columbia team started tracking air pollution levels in 1998, PAHs have declined, which Perera attributes to stricter anti-idling laws and phaseout of older diesel buses in New York City.

“Air pollution knows no boundaries. These involuntary exposures are largely the provenance of policy makers,” Perera said.

-cleanup4.jpg20141018

Print

MOORINGSPORT – Oil is flowing once again through a 1,000-mile pipeline that almost four weeks ago spilled thousands of barrels of crude onto acres of private land and into a bayou, stopping just short of a major body of water.

The U.S. Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the federal regulatory agency that oversees and investigates pipeline incidents across the nation, permitted Sunoco Logistics’ Mid-Valley Pipeline to resume 80 percent of maximum operating pressure until the investigation into the cause of the oil spill is complete, Sunoco spokesman Jeff Shields said.

Sunoco has revised the amount of lost oil to 4,500 barrels (189,000 gallons), which is about 500 more barrels than the original estimate. That’s based on a “more accurate picture after we refilled the line,” Shields said.

Progress also is being made on removing the oil from Tete Bayou, a waterway that feeds into Caddo Lake. Recovery was at 3,450 barrels on Thursday.

Photo gallery: Oil spill cleanup

Story: Crude oil spills into Caddo bayou, kills wildlife

Story: Large oil spill cleanup in Caddo Parish

Story: Oil spill cleanup reaches 2,550 of 4,000 barrels

The distance from where the line failed to the spot where the oil sheen was stopped stretches 4.2 miles.

An EPA investigator has termed the spill as “major.” Approximately 480 animals, mostly fish, amphibians and crawfish, have been killed. Another 41 were saved, cleaned and released.

“They are making a diligent effort to clean it up,” said John Kinnebrew of Kinnebrew Energy Group, a family-owned limited liability corporation that has close to 32 acres bordering both sides of the bayou. “I’m impressed with their efforts. … They have a lot of people out there working 24 hours a day.”

At the height of the cleanup, about 400 contractors were spread along the impact area mopping and skimming the oil from the surface. The numbers have been trimmed back in recent days, Shields said.

Remediation and restoration is expected to take many more months. Sunoco is still in the remediation phase of a 20,000-gallon oil spill in Cincinnati that occurred in March. A dent in the pipeline, the same one extending from Louisiana, caused crude oil to leak into a nature reserve.

Civil penalties are likely in connection with the Caddo Parish incident. Sunoco recorded 220 incidents from 2006 through 2014, resulting in no fatalities and one injury. From 2006 through September 2013, Sunoco paid $1.2 million in penalties for safety issues and incurred numerous compliance orders and warning letters.

Property damage neared almost $42 million, with the highest amount of $19.7 million reported in 2012. Gross barrels of hazardous liquids spilled totaled 16,075. Net barrels lost 8,560.

In 2013, PHMSA, the regulatory agency, proposed more than $9.7 million in penalties against various pipeline operators across the U.S. because of safety regulation violations. Total penalties surpassed $33 million since 2009, $10 million more than the previous five years combined.

It also issued 544 enforcement orders over the past five years, representing more than half issued since 2002. PHMSA also reports on its website that serious pipeline incidents, those resulting in fatalities or major injuries since 2009, has dropped by 45 percent.

Some of the most notable Sunoco incidents:

• April 5-9, 2004 – PHMSA inspection of East Texas Pipeline System resulted in fine of $11,000 for pipeline corrosion.

• Nov. 24, 2005 – PHMSA investigated an incident that occurred days earlier at the Darby Creek Tank Farm, where a hazardous liquid pipeline facility operated by Sunoco overfilled and released more than 10,000 barrels of crude oil. Penalty of $150,000 assessed.

• From March 13 to Sept. 28, 2006, PHMSA conducted on-site pipeline safety inspections of the facilities and records of Sunoco in Oklahoma and Texas. As a result, the company was fined $119,000 for violations.

• June 10, 2008 – PHMSA determined Sunoco committed three violations of the Hazardous Liquid Pipeline Safety Regulations. Penalty assessed at $50,000 but reduced to $40,000.

• June 17, 2009 – A fire during a repair project on the West Texas Gulf Pipeline System operated by Sunoco caused a spill of 3,416 barrels of crude oil. Civil penalty: $415,000.

The largest combined fines for Sunoco occurred in 2006, when the federal government reached an agreement with Mid-Valley Pipeline and Sunoco to pay $2.57 million in connection with a January 2005 spill that dumped more than 260,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kentucky and Ohio rivers.

The spill originating in Kentucky happened on Jan. 26, 2005 as a result of a girth weld failure on a 22-inch diameter pipe laid in 1950. It harmed hundreds of migratory waterfowl, with the oil slick reaching over 17 miles to the Ohio River.

The settlement was in addition to $9.5 million spent on cleanup.

An additional $300,000 penalty was ordered for a spill of 63,000 gallons of crude oil from a corroded spot in the same pipeline into Clampitt Lake near the Claiborne Parish town of Haynesville on Nov. 24, 2000. The payment was in addition to $2.2 million spent on response costs and restoration and over $26,000 reimbursed for federal response costs.

The 2000 spill into the family-owned Clampitt Pond is not the only one, recalls property owner Don Terry, now living in Breaux Bridge. The Sunoco pipeline that runs along a high point of the watershed where water enters the pond from a creek and natural springs has burst on numerous occasions, the first when Terry was in college in the early ’70s.

“That’s before the EPA was really involved and the oil company just threw a match and burned off the oil,” he said. A minor spill several years ago was plugged quickly before any oil entered the water, probably aided, Terry said, by the beaver dams that contained it.

But in 2000, Terry remembers getting a call that oil was in the pond. The scene, when he arrived, resembled “something out of a science fiction movie. There were people in white suits all over.”

Surprisingly, no fish were killed. Hay bales and other containment devices ringed the 16-acre pond, built in 1940 by his great aunt and uncle, for weeks.

“They paid us damages,” Terry said of himself and other family members. “We had to sign off on papers. But they cleaned it up to our satisfaction.”

The violation of state and federal laws could come into play in the Caddo Parish oil spill, said attorney Soren Gisleson, of the New Orleans law firm of Herman, Herman & Katz, the co-lead counsel in the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The firm has already signed up some clients; the exact number Gisleson declined to disclose.

However, important for any property owner to remember should they ever fall into the same situation is their right to information from the oil company, including an access agreement that spells out details as far as how much soil is being removed from the land and a list of companies that are working on the property.

The oil companies also are obligated to clean up the damages they create by building access road and clearing trees to get to the oil.

“First and foremost you have to protect your land, for them to come in and clean it. … We all know it has to be monitored into the future, as well as the well-being of the people who live on the land,” Gisleson said. “So that access agreement, that first step is what they need to be made aware of. … This oil not just oil like you see in your car. It’s a toxic substance. It kills what it touches, land, grass, trees, kills fish. It sticks and stays and you shouldn’t let pets near it.”

It’s too soon to know, Gisleson said, if his clients will sue Sunoco. If proper agreements are signed and disclosure is given then he foresees a delay of court proceedings.

“So much today has to do with large companies hiding information. To protect yourself you need to get the same information they have, especially if they take things off your property. That’s your information, your property. When you have access to that, you will have a better understanding if they are remediating it correctly or if you need to do something else,” Gisleson said.

Twitter: @vawelborn

Facts about Oil Spills in Louisiana:

• The National Response Center receives approximately 1,500 oil spill notifications for Louisiana each year

• This represents approximately 20% of all spills occurring in the United States

• The average volume of oil spilled annually in Louisiana is approximately 330,000 gallons

• This also represents approximately 20% of the total volume of oil spilled in the United States

Source: Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s Office:

banfracking

On The Ballot In Several States Ban Fracking

Print

Environmental groups and concerned community members have taken to the streets in their fight to stop fracking—an extraction process they say threatens environmental and public health. Read more.