coal

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.

Tennessee Valley Authority

On Thursday, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin announced his administration would seek an extension to comply with upcoming federal carbon dioxide regulations from power plans.

On the face of it, this isn’t surprising. Without an extension, the deadline to decide how Kentucky will reduce emissions is fast-approaching. It makes sense that the state would seek as much time as possible.

But piecing together the statement released by Bevin’s office and a brief interview I did with the Energy and Environment Cabinet raises more questions. While state regulators plan to ask the Environmental Protection Agency for two more years to consider their options, they seem opposed to every option that actually involves reducing the state’s carbon dioxide emissions.

The Clean Power Plan is calling for steep cuts in emissions from power plants. To do this, states have two options: Create a state plan or follow the federal plan.

There’s a third option Kentucky regulators are hoping for, which is that the judicial system overturns the regulation, and the EPA is forced to go back to the drawing board and spend years reformulating the regulations.

Flickr/Creative Commons/John Karwoski

Citing concerns over pricing and pollution, the Obama administration unveiled a moratorium on new coal leases on federal lands Friday. The change won’t affect existing leases — which generated nearly $1.3 billion for the government last year.

NPR’s Jeff Brady reports:

“The moratorium will remain in place while the Department of the Interior reviews whether fees charged to mining companies provides a fair return and considers coal’s effect on the environment. Leases already awarded are not affected.”

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell announced the change in a conference call Friday morning. Before that call, an administration official confirmed details of the plan to Jeff.

During what her agency is calling a “pause” in issuing leases, Jewell said Friday, “we’ll make accommodations in the event of emergency circumstances to ensure this pause will have no material impact on the nation’s ability to meet its power generation needs.”

In addition to analyzing the return American taxpayers are earning on the use of natural resources, the Interior Department says it’ll also review coal’s public health impacts.

Last year, Jewell called for a new discussion of the coal program, focusing on the fairness of prices charged for coal leases and other concerns at five public meetings.

Joe Moore stood near a sign reading: "Authorized Personnel Only."

"I used to be authorized," he said.

Moore is a coal miner. The sign was at the entrance to the mine that had laid him off the previous day. The Alliance Coal facility had closed — a symptom of the coal industry's rapid decline.

Years of litigation against an Eastern Kentucky coal company for thousands of Clean Water Act violations were resolved late Monday. Environmental groups hailed the $6 million settlement agreement with Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet as “historic.”

The Frasure Creek story is a long and complicated one. In 2010, environmental groups found inconsistencies in the water quality reports the company is required to submit to the state. They found missing reports and identical water quality measurements reported from one quarter to another, even though it’s virtually impossible for the numbers to remain the same.

The groups, including Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices, the Waterkeeper Alliance and others, announced their intention to sue the company for the violations. But before they could, the state cabinet stepped in and initiated a lawsuit. In total, there were four lawsuits filed against Frasure Creek over the past five years for similar violations.

An attempt to reach a settlement in one of the cases last year was rejected by Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd. In his order, Shepherd said the proposed penalty of $310,000 was insufficient.

TVA

Another of Kentucky’s coal-fired power units will be shut down in the next few years, further reducing the state’s carbon dioxide emissions.

Owensboro Municipal Utilities announced last week that it plans to shut down Unit 1 of the Elmer Smith Power Plant sometime between 2019 and 2021.

The Elmer Smith plant has two coal-fired units; Unit 2, the larger of the two, will continue to operate for the foreseeable future.

The plant is the latest of the state’s coal-fired power plants to be shut down. As the state’s coal fleet ages — more than half of the coal plants operating in 2011 were built before 1970 — utilities are being forced to decide whether it will save money to update the plants or shut them down. In many cases, the decision is influenced by stricter environmental regulations and the low cost of other fuels, like natural gas.

Elmer Smith Unit 1 produced more than a million tons of carbon dioxide in 2014. Kentucky is facing steep carbon dioxide emissions cuts under the federal Clean Power Plan, and the unit’s retirement will get Kentucky’s projected emissions a little bit closer to compliance with the federal standard.

TVA

Residents offered their two-minute takes in Lexington Thursday on a thousand-page federal coal mining regulation that’s been years in the making.

The Stream Protection Rule was proposed in July by the federal Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation. It’s a rewrite of a Reagan-era regulation that was weakened under President George W. Bush and then thrown out by a federal court last year. Since then, coal companies have been following the 32-year-old version of the rule.

The proposed regulation places requirements on coal companies that mine near streams. Both the proposed and the original rules put a 100-foot buffer zone in place around streams and waterways. But the new version proposes different criteria for different mining activities. Like the original, it wouldn’t ban valley fills — which is when mining waste is discarded in valleys.

Most of the comments on Thursday didn’t revolve around the rule’s merits or disadvantages, but instead the idea that this regulation is another step in a calculated effort to weaken the coal industry.

U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-6, said the rule would “ban coal mining in Appalachia” and called for a balance between the economy and environmental stewardship.

Jacob Ryan, WFPL

Republican candidate for governor Matt Bevin won’t say whether he plans to attend a private meeting hosted by the Kentucky Coal Association and representatives of the energy industry.

KCA President Bill Bissett said Monday that Bevin and Democratic candidate Jack Conway were invited to speak at the group’s annual meeting, which is scheduled for October.

Conway’s campaign told Kentucky Public Radio he would attend. But in an interview on Tuesday, Bevin refused to give a straight answer about whether he would go to the closed-door retreat.

“There’s things that are on my agenda and there’s things that are not on my agenda, and things that will be made aware to the outside world and some that won’t,” Bevin said when asked if he would attend.

In June, Bevin and Conway both appeared at a private event in Virginia attended by luminaries of the nation’s coal industry. The media was not made aware of that event, where the two candidates took questions from Bissett and audience members and sparred with one another, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.

US Geological Survey, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Kentucky Coal Association is under fire for again planning a closed-door meeting with the state’s leading gubernatorial candidates.

KCA President Bill Bissett told CN2 last week that the major party candidates for Kentucky governor — Republican Matt Bevin and Democrat Jack Conway — would be speaking during private events at the association’s annual meeting in October.

This would be the second private meeting between energy industry representatives and the state’s leading gubernatorial candidates. Bissett moderated a secret debate this summer in Virginia between Conway and Bevin before coal industry leaders.

The closed-door meetings have drawn criticism from media outlets. In a recent column, Courier-Journal political reporter Joseph Gerth wrote that open discussions are especially important in the close gubernatorial election “because neither of the candidates has been terribly accessible.”

TVA

Kentucky is on track to comply with the EPA’s upcoming federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions—even if no further actions are taken.

The Union of Concerned Scientists released a report Wednesday outlining Kentucky’s progress in complying with the yet-to-be announced federal standard. It estimates that by 2020, the first year the state will have to meet greenhouse gas limits, Kentucky will have already cut its emissions to 113 percent of the goal.

In all, 14 states are on track to meet or surpass the expected federal benchmarks. In an article published last week, Inside Climate Progress came to similar conclusions.

But this isn’t news to Kentucky, or to the state’s utilities. In a report released more than a year ago about the economic challenges greenhouse gas regulations could pose to the state, regulators estimated that Kentucky’s electric utilities would emit 73.8 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2025. This is solely through power plant retirements that have already happened, or have been set in motion and will happen next year. The EPA’s limit for Kentucky is expected to be 94.7 million tons by 2020.

U.S. Energy Information Administration

A federal judge in Colorado has ruled the federal government should have taken the indirect environmental effects of expanding the Colowyo and Trapper coal mines into account before issuing a permit.

These “indirect effects” include the environmental toll of burning the coal in power plants. But because of differences in the way western and eastern coal mines are regulated, it’s hard to say what effect, if any, this ruling could have on Appalachian mines.

In the west, most of the coal is on federal lands. So as part of the permitting process, coal companies have to get approval from the Office of Surface Mining and the Secretary of the Interior. Under the National Environmental Policy Act, the federal government is required to analyze the environmental impacts of mining.

But NEPA only applies to the federal government, not to states, and Kentucky has been delegated the authority to manage the commonwealth’s coal mining by the federal government.

“To say it’s apples to oranges, it’s not even that,” said Jeremy Nichols of Wild Earth Guardians, the environmental group that sued OSM over its decision to grant the permits to the Colowyo and Trapper mines. “It’s like apples to carrots. The state permitting processes are very different. And even though there’s some environmental accountability in place, it’s not as explicit as it is under the federal law.”

The inspector general of the Labor Department is conducting an audit of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's handling of delinquent mine safety penalties.

Coal jobs in Kentucky declined sharply in the first quarter of this year, according to the state’s latest quarterly coal report.

As of April 1, there were an estimated 10,356 people employed at Kentucky coal mines. That’s a decrease of 1,230 jobs—or 10.6 percent—from Jan. 1. And the job losses weren’t limited to Eastern Kentucky, where market conditions and power plant retirements have hit hardest. Western Kentucky coal mines shed 13.7 percent of coal jobs during the quarter, while the Eastern Kentucky coal workforce decreased by 8.7 percent.

And these numbers will likely decline further. Division for Energy Development and Independence Assistant Director Aron Patrick said there are several hundred layoffs pending that will likely be reflected in the next quarterly report.

Coal production in both basins decreased too. Kentucky mines produced only about 16.6 million tons of coal in this quarter. For Eastern Kentucky, production is only a third of what it was in 2008.

For the first time in about a century, there are no working union coal miners in Kentucky. The state’s few remaining union coal miners were laid off New Years Eve when Patriot Coal’s Highland Mine in Western Kentucky shut down.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, Erica Peterson of WFPL reports that the union is struggling to appeal to younger coal miners, but others feel organized labor still has a role to play.

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