Sunday, December 21, 2014

Old King Coal

Since we’re very close to Christmas, I’d have to confess that it’s OK to wish me a Merry Christmas, since the phrase does not offend me in the least. I’ll also be quick to add that I’m not offended by the phrase “happy holidays” either, since numerous other holidays are also celebrated around December 25.

Atheists celebrate the Winter Solstice, Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day, Jews celebrate Hanukkah, Nova Romans celebrate Saturnalia, Wiccans and Neopagans celebrate Yule, folks of African descent celebrate Kwanzaa, and Zoroastrians celebrate observe Zartusht-no-diso, so it’s clear that the end of December is a special time of the year for an awful lot of people.

By the time that Christmas finally arrives, we’re all a little burned out by all the Christmas music that’s been playing for the last month, and even the beloved “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” has started to get on my nerves.

One song that gets occasional play this time of the year is “Old King Cole”. Although it was first performed n 1708, the poem itself actually dates much further than that . If your memory is a bit short, the complete poem is listed below:

Old King Cole was a merry old soul

And a merry old soul was he;

He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl

And he called for his fiddlers three.

Every fiddler he had a fiddle,

And a very fine fiddle had he;

Oh there's none so rare, as can compare

With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

Although “Old King Cole” has a long history, it pales in comparison to Old King Coal, which has been around MUCH longer. The first use of coal as a fuel goes back about 3000 years ago. Like many things in common use today, it was originally discovered by the ancient Chinese people.

Coal has been in the news again lately, and for a couple of different reasons.

1) A jury in West Virginia recently charged Donald Blankenship (former chief of Massey Energy Company) with widespread safety violations and deceit of federal inspectors, and a judge in Kentucky just issued a scathing judgment in a Frasure Creek Mining settlement that involved a thousand violations of the Clean Water Act.

2) John Grisham just released his newest novel, Gray Mountain, which highlights the nefarious acts of Big Coal in Appalachia. I’m in the process of working my way through it, but also couldn’t help but notice his mention of the Martin Country coal slurry spill, which somehow managed to not get noticed by most of us.

(Like many of his books, his most recent novel relies heavily on facts and current events. His sources for this book include information that he obtained from the Appalachian Citizen's Law Center and Appalachian Voices.)

The Exxon Valdez oil spill was VERY big news when it occurred, since the ship spilled someplace between 12,000,000 and 32,000,000 gallons of oil in Price William Sound in 1989. Both Exxon and the ship’s captain, Joseph Hazelwood, escaped the incident with very little cost. An even bigger spill occurred in April of 2010, when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank. It is easily the largest accidental marine spill in the history of the oil industry, and it resulted in an estimated total discharge of 210 million gallons of sludge into the Gulf of Mexico.

In contrast, the Martin County coal slurry spill released 306,000,000 gallons of coal slurry into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River in October of 2000. Since the spill was anywhere from 10 to 30 times worse than the Exxon spill, you’d think that the general public would be outraged.


I don’t remember the spill being in the news at all, and the company responsible for the spill, Massey Energy (whose chairman is mentioned above) escaped with virtually no punishment at all. Officially, the company WAS fined, but the fine was less than the price of a well worn used car. Coincidentally, Mitch McConnell’s wife, Elaine Chao was in charge of the Labor Department at the time of the spill. In her position as Labor Secretary, she also oversaw the Mine Safety and Health Administration. In 2002, she imposed a fine of $5600 against Massey for the spill.

Although Elaine Chao is a very smart lady, she didn’t do any of the rest of us any favors when she was Labor Secretary. During her first 4 years as Labor Secretary, her department did not promulgate ANY significant health standards. It has also been alleged that both she and other Bush White House officials campaigned for Republican candidates at taxpayer expense, which is a violation of the Hatch acto of 1939. No action was taken against her or any other officials by any entity responsible for enforcing the Hatch Act.

It’s hard to imagine any disaster worst than over 300,000,000 gallons of junk spilling into our navigable waters, but one DID occur (in Tennessee) 8 years later.

On December 22, 2008, the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant coal fly ash slurry spill released an incredible 1.1 billion gallons of sludge into local waterways. Six months after the spill, only 3% of the affected area had been cleaned up, The plant responsible for the spill continues to operate today. Unlike the Martin County spill, the guilty party (the TVA) agreed to pay $27,000,000 in restitution to property owners.

In response to the Martin County and the Kingston Fossil Plant spills, Lisa P. Jackson, Barack Obama's choice to head the EPA under his administration, stated her intention to immediately review coal ash disposal sites across the country during her Senate confirmation hearing. On January 14, 2009, Nick J. Rahall, a U.S. Representative from West Virginia and the chairman of the United States House Committee on Natural Resources, introduced a bill to regulate coal ash disposal sites across the United States.

The EPA regulations finally took effect in December of 2014 nearly 6 years later, and were prompted by a lawsuit filed by environmental groups and a Native American tribe. Also spurring the regulations along were recent spills in Tennessee and elsewhere. The most recent spill occurred in February of 2014, when a coal ash pond in Eden, North Carolina ruptured, releasing between 50,000 and 82,000 tons of coal ash, and 27,000,000 gallons of contaminated water, into the Dan River. Legal liability will be a little complicated due to the fact that North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, worked for the company responsible for the spill, Duke Energy, for 28 years, and has gone on record as being reluctant to punish his former employer. Duke Energy has the distinction of being the largest electric holding company in the United States, and the company also has holdings in Canada and Latin America.

Since coal slurry spills are an obvious public safety issue, you’d probably assume that Congress would allow the EPA to have all the funds it needs to enforce the environmental laws that have been on the books for decades.


It’s no secret that the 113th Congress is one of the worst that our country has ever had. Since 2010, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has cut funding to the EPA by 21%, and that situation is unlikely to change during the 114th Congress, which will have an INCREASE of Republicans in the House, and a Republican majority in the Senate.

Incredibly, coal slurry storage has increased dramatically since the Martin Country spill in 2000. Most recently, piles of coal slurry have appeared on the Calumet River near Chicago. Not surprisingly, the company responsible for the piles is Koch Carbon, a subsidiary of Koch Industries, which is led by David and Charles Koch.

Koch Carbon also has numerous coal slurry sites in Detroit, including one that is immediately adjacent to the Detroit River. Including the sites near Detroit that are owned by Koch Carbon, there are 29 coal slurry storage facilities in Michigan, and 19 of them are within a five mile radius of the shores of the Great Lakes. In addition, a Canadian refinery owned by Koch Industries (and directly across from Detroit) recently started to refine tar sands oil, the stuff that the Koch brothers would LOVE to start sending through the Keystone XL pipeline. So far, the results have not been pretty.

Although the Koch brothers sell a significant amount of coal slurry to China for use as fuel, they aren’t the largest petroleum coke (petcoke) dealer in the world, Their brother, William (who owns Oxbow Corporation) has that distinction.

Big Coal has a very ugly history when it comes to labor relations , including the 1969 murder of Jock Yablonski and his family in 1969, but that’s a topic that could easily be a story in itself.

In addition to the environmental hazards created by coal mining, three other areas of concern related to coal mining are:

1) Black lung disease

Black lung disease (officially, progressive massive fibrosis) was virtually eliminated 15 years ago, but has skyrocketed again in recent years. Today, roughly 1000 miners a year die from the disease. The problem is FAR worse in China, where an estimated SIX MILLION people suffer from the disease.

2) Global warming

The United States currently obtains 37% of its electric power from coal-fired power plants, which are the nation’s leading source of carbon pollution, and a significant contributor to global warming. In contrast, China gets 69% ot its electricity from coal plants. Again, the results aren’t pretty:

3) Mine collapses

Although coal companies are shifting towards strip mining to reduce labor costs, there is still a lot of coal mining done underground. In America, the worst coal mining disaster occurred in Monongah, West Virginia in 1907. An explosion and mine collapse in that town killed an estimated 367 miners, many of whom were recent immigrants from Italy.

The worst mine disaster in the entire world occurred in the Liaoning province of China in 1942. An explosion in the underground there killed a total of 1549 Chinese laborers.

China has ample coal reserves, and currently produces nearly half of the world’s coal production. However, it also has a far higher death rate from coal mining than any other country in the world.

America is the 2nd largest producer of coal in the world, but we are a net exporter of the stuff, with the vast majority of our exports going to China. The Appalachian region still contributes a lot to our total output, but Wyoming is, by far, the largest producer of coal currently.

The United States has the largest coal reserves in the world, but Russia is close behind. At current rates of consumption, the world’s coal reserves would last for another 112 years, so it will continue to be a reliable and economical fuel source for a number of decades.

There is no particular problem continuing to use coal as an energy source AS LONG AS the coal plants adhere to strict environmental standards. For some reason, some members of Congress have trouble understanding that concept, and consider the regulation of power plants to be a “war on coal”. Currently, the coal plant in Homer, Pennsylvania is one of the dirtiest in the country, but recent pollution mitigation devices will reduce pollution from the plant by 80% within a few years, with no loss of jobs, or increase in electricity rates.

For the folks in Congress who still “don’t get it”, my suggestion is to send them an appropriate Christmas gift - a lump of coal.

At this point, you’ve waded through a lot of information about Old King Coal, so it’s time for the pipe, the bowl and the fiddlers three. In closing, here’s my final message to you:

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night

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