coal

Becca Schimmel

White signs advocating for the protection of pension and healthcare benefits were waived at a United Mine Workers of America rally in Lexington Tuesday. An estimated 4,000 miners, retirees, and family members filled the city’s convention center. They gathered to demand that Congress pass legislation protecting pensions and health care benefits for miners and their families.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said miners have earned what they’ve been promised.

“We have stood up for America and it’s time America stood up for us! America owes us! And we will collect on that debt!” Roberts told the crowd.

Miners could lose their retirement benefits this fall if Congress doesn’t act. Roberts says union members will march on Washington D.C. and risk being arrested if that’s what it takes. He told miners to go home and find at least five others that would be willing to rally at the nation’s capital.

Spouse Becky Gardner says she wants what the miners were promised.

Creative Commons

The U.S Department of Labor has funded a grant worth $3.4 million to help retrain out-of-work coal miners in Kentucky.

Shuttering coal mines have left thousands of miners in the state without a job, many of them in eastern Kentucky.

The Department of Labor says in a release the supplemental funding of the National Dislocated Worker Grant provides re-employment services and training for nearly 800 workers in Kentucky .

The recent additional funding brings the program to a total of more than $17 million since 2013, serving a total of 3,200 dislocated workers.

The services are provided by the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program, based in Hazard. The program serves 23 Appalachian counties in Kentucky.

Gabe Bullard

Kentucky regulators are looking for proposals to spur economic development on Appalachia’s abandoned surface mines.

Two state cabinets — the Cabinet of Economic Development and the Energy and Environment Cabinet — announced the pilot program Monday. It’s funded by the massive spending bill passed by Congress last year that sent $90 million to Abandoned Mine Lands programs in the region. Kentucky’s share of that money is $30 million.

The bill’s language requires the money to go toward projects that reclaim abandoned mine lands and create economic and community development. Additional money was included in President Obama’s “Power+ Plan”— a part of his Fiscal Year 2016 budget that addresses economic development in the nation’s coalfields. Obama’s budget hasn’t seen any movement in Congress.

With the $30 million available to Kentucky through the spending bill, state officials say they’re looking for projects that would bring long-term, dramatic growth to Appalachia. State and local governments are the only eligible grant recipients, and projects must be in one of the 54 counties that are in Eastern or Southeastern Kentucky.

Sam Owens/Getty Images via NPR

All over eastern Kentucky, you see cars and pickup trucks with black license plates proclaiming the owner is a “friend of coal.”

Even though the license plates are all over, it’s getting harder to find actual coal miners here: Fewer than 6,000 remain in the state, where the coal industry is shrinking fast. More than 10,000 coal workers have been laid off since 2008.

Many have had to leave the area to find work, but a few have found employment in other — and sometime unexpected — fields, as businesses are innovating to use former coal workers in new ways.

Rusty Justice’s company is one of these.

“The realization I had was that the coal miner, although we think of him as a person who gets dirty and works with his hands, really coal mines today are very sophisticated, and they use a lot of technology, a lot of robotics,” says Justice, who has worked in the coal industry all his life.

Erica Peterson, WFPL

Kentucky’s coal industry continued its freefall in the first quarter of this year, according to data released Monday by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Coal production fell nearly 13 percent across the state in the first three months of 2016. Only about 11 million tons of coal was mined, making this the lowest statewide rate since 1939.

As has been the trend, Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields took a larger hit than Western Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky coal production declined more than 21 percent in the first three months of this year alone. The last time coal production was lower in the region was 1917. The bulk of the job losses came in Eastern Kentucky too, with more than a thousand jobs lost this quarter. Statewide, about 6,900 coal miners are employed: the lowest level recorded since 1898.

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet Assistant Director Aron Patrick said it’s likely that Kentucky coal production and employment will continue to drop—at least for the next two years or so.

NPR

A coal-mining giant has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection amid an industrywide slump.

Peabody Energy — which is the biggest coal miner in the U.S. and says it is the largest private-sector coal company in the world — is looking to restructure its heavy debt load and gain relief from its creditors. It hopes to continue operations unimpeded.

The St. Louis-based company said in a statement that the pressure on the coal industry is “unprecedented.” It cited a drop in prices, weaker demand from China, the rise of competition from fracking and “ongoing regulatory challenges” as reasons for the restructuring.

Earlier this year, Arch Coal — the second-largest coal miner in the U.S. — filed for bankruptcy. Bloomberg noted that three other major coal miners went bankrupt the year before that, and many industry watchers had expected Peabody to follow suit.

Bill To End Mine Inspections Passes Kentucky Senate

Mar 18, 2016
Creative Commons

The Kentucky Senate has approved a bill aimed at ending state inspections of coal mines, which would turn those duties entirely over to a federal agency.

Supporters said Thursday the bill would end duplication by state and federal regulators. The bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Chris Girdler, said the beleaguered coal industry is suffering from “strangulation by regulation.”

Sen. Robin Webb said the state has a legitimate responsibility to inspect mines to ensure safety. In opposing the bill, she said she could not have “the blood” of miners on her hands as a policymaker.

The bill would reassign state inspectors to different duties as mine safety analysts.

It passed the Republican-controlled Senate on a 25-11 vote and now goes to the Democratic-led House.

Flickr/Creative Commons/John Karwoski

A bill under consideration in the Kentucky General Assembly that would end state coal mine safety inspections isn’t being pursued for financial reasons, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Senate Bill 297 would change Kentucky law to eliminate the provision that requires state coal mine inspections, in addition to federal inspections. Although the bill’s sponsor — Sen. Chris Girdler — didn’t return requests for comment, WFPL reported Monday that Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said one of the motivations for the bill was financial in the face of stiff state budget cuts.

But on Tuesday, Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman John Mura said the bill is, in fact, cost-neutral for the state. It would take current mine inspectors — there are 62 of them — and turn them into “mine safety analysts.”

Erica Peterson

A bill under consideration in Kentucky’s General Assembly would eliminate state mine inspections, a move that a safety advocate said would have adverse effects on mine safety in Kentucky.

Senate Bill 297 was introduced last week by Sen. Chris Girdler, a Republican from Somerset. It would repeal parts of Kentucky law that require state mine inspectors to examine underground coal mines at least six times a year, and other coal mines at least every six months.

The bill’s text reads:

“Whereas the coal industry has been regulated by both the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Energy and Environment Cabinet, Division of Mine Safety during a time of economic downturn in the coal industry, which places an undue burden on the regulated community, an emergency is declared to exist, and this Act takes effect upon its passage and approval by the Governor or upon its otherwise becoming law.”

Both state and federal regulatory agencies inspect Kentucky coal mines, but mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard said the inspections complement, rather than duplicate, each other. And he added that while the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration attaches a monetary penalty for every citation it issues, it’s rare for state inspectors to levy civil fines.

Kentucky Public Radio

Leaders from the state’s coal-producing regions want counties to receive a greater share of coal severance tax revenue.

Funds from the severance tax are split evenly between the state and counties. They have declined in recent years as a result of Kentucky’s flagging coal industry. Webster County Judge-Executive Jim Townsend said his county’s severance tax revenue has declined from $6 million per year in 2011 to $300,000 last year.

“If something isn’t done, our county’s going to go out of business, it’s just that simple,” Townsend said.

Counties often use their shares of the funds for local projects such as parks, senior centers, rescue squads, and industrial parks.

Miners are extracting less coal from the mountains of Kentucky and companies are selling it for cheap, leading to massive declines in severance tax revenue going to county coffers.

Statewide, coal severance revenue dropped from $20.5 million per month in January 2011 to $8.9 million last month.

Erica Peterson

Nearly all of Kentucky’s federal representatives have formally filed a document in support of a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon dioxide regulations.

The EPA finalized the Clean Power Plan last summer. It sets carbon reduction goals for each state, and is part of President Obama’s overall goal of addressing climate change. Almost immediately, a coalition of states — including Kentucky — and industry groups sued to overturn the rule.

The lawsuit is set to be heard in June by the D.C. Court of Appeals. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court issued a stay, blocking the regulations from going into effect until all legal challenges are settled.

The amicus brief filed today by more than 200 U.S. senators and representatives supports the challenges against the EPA’s rule. All of Kentucky’s Republican senators and congressmen — which is all of the state’s federal delegation except for Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville — signed on to the brief.

Erica Peterson

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers on Wednesday announced a bipartisan initiative to send $1 billion to coalfield communities.

The RECLAIM Act (which stands for Revitalizing the Economy of Coal Communities by Leveraging Local Activities and Investing More), is co-sponsored by Rogers and a bipartisan group of coalfields congressmen. The bill would send a billion dollars from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to help spur economic development in communities hurting from the downturn in the coal industry.

Rogers, a Republican from Somerset, represents much of Eastern Kentucky in the House.

“In Kentucky alone, we’ve lost more than 11,000 coal mining jobs since 2009. Instead of allowing those funds to go unused, now is the time to help our coal producing states reinvest in the coalfields with projects that can create new jobs and reinvigorate our economy,” Rogers said in a statement.

“Many coal communities in Appalachia simply do not have the resources to reclaim the abandoned mine sites within their borders. This bill allows these communities to be proactive in restoring these sites and utilize them to put our people back to work.”

Erica Peterson

Kentucky’s latest quarterly coal data continues a trend of bad news for the state’s coal industry.

The report released Monday by the Energy and Environment Cabinet shows in the fourth quarter of 2015, the state’s coal production dropped by more than 20 percent from 2014 levels. This puts Kentucky coal production at the lowest its been since 1954. Eastern Kentucky took the largest hit, losing a quarter of its capacity between 2014 and 2015.

With the decreased coal production came layoffs. More than 3,200 coal miners were laid off last year, with 1,000 losing their jobs in the fourth quarter of 2015 alone. As of December 31, 2015, there were only about 8,400 working coal miners in Kentucky.

And it seems unlikely that the industry has bottomed out. The report noted that most of Kentucky’s coal — 85 percent — goes to generate electricity at power plants in the Southeast. Three percent of that went to coal plants that retired in 2015. Another 13 percent went to plants that have announced their plans to retire units before 2019.

US Geological Survey, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

After a federal Court of Appeals rejected an industry-led challenge last month, a new federal rule to reduce coal miners’ exposure to dangerous dust goes into effect Monday.

In 2009, the Mine Safety and Health Administration began a campaign to end black lung disease, which is caused by breathing in large amounts of coal dust. The disease was in decline for decades but has experienced a recent resurgence.

“This disease is far from over,” MSHA Secretary Joe Main said. “Miners have suffered, families have suffered from this disease, and the time has come to fix this problem. And implementation of this rule will help us get there.”

Part of MSHA’s campaign includes federal rules to keep better track of the coal dust to which miners are exposed. Companies now have to take more dust samples, as well as sample for an entire shift. Over the next few months, coal miners working in the jobs with the most dust will have to wear small continuous personal dust monitors.

Erica Peterson

Two bills before the Kentucky House would change the way the state taxes coal that’s left in the ground.

The “unmined minerals tax” applies to minerals such as coal, gas, oil and limestone that aren’t currently being extracted.

The owner of the mineral rights pays taxes to the state every year. And that adds up to a substantial amount: In 2014, Kentucky collected more than $39 million from this tax. Most of that — $34 million — went to the individual counties where the minerals are. The remainder went to the state.

But with the decline of the coal industry, less coal is being mined in Eastern Kentucky. And when it’s not economical to mine the coal, mineral rights owners are still stuck paying taxes on coal they may never extract.

That’s why two Eastern Kentucky legislators — Democratic state Reps. Fitz Steele and John Short — have introduced separate bills to change that tax.

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