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Old mining states get creative as cleanup funds grow scarce

Published Monday, May 7, 2012 in Greenwire.

CAMBRIA COUNTY, Pa. — A pipe is spewing toxic water into Topper Run from the old Maryland No. 1 coal mine here.Take a deep breath, and gag on the stench of rotten eggs.

The mine has been belching acid water since it was abandoned in the 1960s. No fish swim where this water flows, and iron in discharges has stained the streambed orange, while aluminum has tinted rocks white.

Several dirty discharges are contributing to the degradation of the Little Conemaugh River Watershed, one of the most polluted in Pennsylvania. The contamination is evident where the discolored Little Conemaugh joins clear-running Stonycreek in Johnstown.

The Topper Run discharge pipe is not the only source of mine pollution here. Another dumps into Sulfur Creek, surrounded by a mound of bright orange.

“We’re standing on probably 3 or 4 feet of iron,” said Robb Piper, manager of the Cambria County Conservation District, a government agency. Two geese are swimming in an adjacent pond.

Acid mine drainage is highly acidic and loaded with heavy metals. The acid forms as surface water and shallow groundwater come in contact with sulfur-bearing minerals, creating sulfuric acid. Heavy metals then leach from rocks that come in contact with the acid, creating what can be toxic to people, animals and plants.

From a bird’s-eye view, one can see miles of orange streams polluted with acid mine drainage flowing from abandoned mine shafts. In all, mine wastes have fouled more than 5,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams, many of which drain into the Chesapeake Bay.

“I question whether they should be allowed to pollute waters of the commonwealth,” said John Dawes, head of the environmental group Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds.

His group, which has ties to the Heinz Endowments, distributes more than $1 million in grants every year to fund cleanup efforts statewide. Dozens of the projects have involved remediation of streams polluted by mine dumps.

But efforts to stem acid mine discharges remain in legal limbo.

Many of those pollution sources belong to mines that pre-date the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

And government funding for reclaiming abandoned mines has fallen far short of what’s needed.

Moreover, political fights in Washington, D.C., have ensnared cleanup cash as lawmakers from the West and their counterparts from the East squabble over where money should be directed.

Dangerous and ugly

Acid water dumps are not the only problem polluting land and streams in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining areas.

Towering black-gray waste coal piles in the Cambria County borough of Nanty Glo drain into Blacklick Creek and have for decades been a part of the landscape along with old mining equipment.

The name Nanty Glo, which translates to “coal ravine” in Welsh, is the sister village of Nantyglo in Wales.

The waste piles “and water are the worst thing, the worst thing we got,” Piper said. “There’s complacency. People feel that’s the way it is.”

Said Dawes of another waste pile: “This is an eyesore. This has got to be [cleaned up]. And those people seeing this from the town!”

The waste piles also catch fire and are a magnet for all-terrain vehicle daredevils whose machines ride up and down the mountainous piles’ steep faces.

Pennsylvania has about 29,000 acres of abandoned mine sites, including 30 or so underground mine fires.

“Those are very expensive to deal with. And we have been monitoring a number for several years,” said Eric Cavazza, acting director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.

And new problems continue to emerge — from fires to cave-ins.

“In essence, probably at the end of the [abandoned-mine program], Pennsylvania will have some hazard features that will not be addressed,” Cavazza said.

The federal Office of Surface Mining’s Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program taxes the coal industry to fund cleanup efforts nationwide, with some money set aside for restoring water quality.

OSM handed out almost $500 million in fiscal 2012, including $67.2 million for Pennsylvania.

Yet some of the money goes to so-called certified states and tribes like Wyoming and the Navajo Nation that have already finished cleaning up their abandoned coal mines. And noncertified states like New Mexico are lobbying to use the coal money to clean up abandoned gold and uranium mine sites.

The issue came to a head with recent reports that Wyoming — which got more than $150 million from AML this fiscal year — has used its reclamation money for road construction and medical facilities. Wyoming has also reclaimed more than 1,051 mine sites.

At a recent congressional hearing on AML, Thomas Baker, board chairman for the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, said the program’s cash “should be directed to where the greatest needs are for the cleanup and restoration of habitat on pre-law coal mines, and not be tied so heavily to where coal is mined currently.”

But efforts to distribute money based on need, including proposals by President Obama, have been trashed. Even states like Pennsylvania are skeptical of disturbing a landmark AML agreement crafted in 2006 when the program came up for reauthorization.

Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, an association of mining states, chafes at proposals to eliminate funding to certified states and tribes. “It’s pretty much a half-baked argument,” he said. “That’s pretty much the way the amendments were structured.”

Complicated compromise

The 2006 amendments to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed just a few days before Christmas.

Environmentalists considered it a gift to industry and coal in their stockings.

Dawes of Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds recalled cringing at a provision that reduced how much the coal industry paid in reclamation fees.

The National Mining Association says the industry has paid more than $7 billion into the AML fund. Federal and state laws require new mines to limit pollution releases, clean up after they’re done and post bonds in case they go bust.

But much of the debate was not about cleaning up old mines.

“The 2006 amendments were about shoring up the combined benefits fund for the United Mine Workers,” Conrad said.

By Congress’ continuing to collect taxes on the coal industry for reclamation of old abandoned mines, the UMW could continue using interest from the AML to fund health and pension benefits.

Regional disputes also dominated the debate.

Certified Western states like Montana and Wyoming, which is now the nation’s top coal producer, chafed at having companies in their backyards pay for problems east of the Mississippi River. They are still not willing to give up money they say belongs to them.

The grand bargain gave states whatever money was left in the AML fund, but from the U.S. Treasury in a series of payments ending in 2014.

Lawmakers couldn’t deplete the fund without jeopardizing miner benefits. The fund’s balance stands at about $2.4 billion.

The amendments established a complex scheme for distributing funds based on need and past and present coal production. States follow guidelines for using the money, with health and safety hazards taking priority. They can set aside up to 30 percent of their grants for acid mine drainage.

“It was all of those interests across the board that were a part of grand compromise that was reached in those amendments,” Conrad said. “There are webs within webs and loops within loops here that are fairly complex. This was not a simple compromise.”

Cavazza of the state DEP said state leaders decided to invest the maximum on water improvements. “The consensus from all those stakeholder meetings favored us setting aside our full 30 percent every year to deal with mine drainage,” he said.

‘This money belongs to my state’

Madeline Roanhorse, AML manager for the Navajo Nation and president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs, defends certified jurisdictions like hers getting AML dollars despite the large number of problem mine sites in Eastern states.

“Again, these are funds that are collected from states and tribes,” she said. “And it should go back to the states and tribes.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) in a hearing last year was more blunt: “That money belongs to my state, not the federal government.”

Without a similar funding stream for hardrock cleanups, certified states and tribes often use that money to close old hardrock mine shafts or get rid of up radioactive pollution from long-abandoned uranium mines, a pervasive problem in the Navajo homeland.

Plus, she said, many mining problems linger. “We do find new sites,” she said. “We do get reports from the communities, and some are coal sites, and we do go back and do out assessment.”

Despite the delicate politics around the 2006 amendments, a new compromise is moving through Congress.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman’s bill (S. 987) has passed in the Senate and has bipartisan support in the House.

The New Mexico Democrat’s bill gives noncertified states like New Mexico more leeway in using coal AML funds for cleaning up non-coal sites.

“It’s so awful,” Pennsylvania environmentalist Dawes said about the bill, worried about the thousands of coal AML sites pending in his state. At least, advocates say, the bill lets states deposit more money into their accounts for acid mine drainage.

The White House has said it would rather enact a new fee on hardrock mining to pay for cleanups of those mines and create a competitive grant program to distribute AML coal dollars to priority sites. It has proposed the idea in recent budget blueprints.

“If you’re diverting money to non-coal reclamation and we already are going to have a shortfall of funds to clean up the problems that exist, we’re just going to leave a larger inventory of unreclaimed [coal sites],” said Al Whitehouse, a federal mine reclamation specialist.

But Obama’s proposal, supported by many Democrats, has failed to get traction amid opposition to increasing industry taxes and with states wary of losing control of reclamation funding.

Proposal could clean up Maryland No. 1 mine

With the AML funding shortfall, Cambria County relies on a mix of federal, state and private cash for its programs. It has cleanup partnerships with businesses and environmental groups.

Environmentalists have pressed Pennsylvania power plants to use the coal-waste heaps for fuel. Piper said three plants around Ebensburg, the Cambria County seat, have helped wipe out 25 million tons of waste coal and reclaim more than 500 acres of abandoned mine land.

Piper of the Cambria County Conservation District laments efforts by anti-coal environmentalists and the Obama administration that could force the plants to close.

“To people who don’t understand much about this,” he said, “that’s another [coal plant] off the grid.”

Piper also hopes U.S. EPA allows Rosebud Mining Inc. to expand its Cambria County mine, which would include a water treatment facility for the old Maryland No. 1 and potentially others in the county. It would be a dream come true for Piper with the company agreeing to foot the bill.

But state regulators and the company are in talks with EPA about what level of treatment to require. Piper worries that EPA’s asking the company to treat the dump to drinking water standards would kill the entire effort.

“The goal is to actually restore waters to some usable level, aquatic life fishable-type level,” Cavazza said. He added that money designated for acid-mine drainage efforts often go to high-priority cleanups, with others having to wait.

Using $35,000 in federal funds from OSM and grants from the state’s Growing Greener program, the conservation district is building a “passive treatment” facility. A series of limestone ponds would help cleanse tainted water and lower its acidity before flowing back into Trout Run.

“There’s a tremendous need in Pennsylvania for restoration of streams impacted by mine drainage,” said Cavazza. “I’m sure the commonwealth would welcome more money to deal with the problems.”

Farmers demand action on immigration

Published Monday April 12, 2010 in WisconsinWatch.org.

WASHINGTON — A newspaper cartoon above lobbyist Craig Regelbrugge’s desk shows farm workers harvesting lettuce. Two guys wearing American flags on their shirts shout, “Hey, Pedro! Go back to Mexico! But first, can you cut my yard and clean my swimming pool?”

Regelbrugge has spent much of the last decade pushing for an overhaul of America’s immigration laws. The cartoon illustrates the contradictory and often angry rhetoric he’s up against.

“This is an issue that has always tapped into great passions,” Regelbrugge said in his Washington, D.C., office, which has a view of K Street, the artery synonymous with inside-the-Beltway lobbying.

As co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, Regelbrugge is a champion for dairy operators who say they need immigrant workers to stay afloat even in a recession. He recently spoke in Madison to a group of Wisconsin farmers, who told him they want action from their Washington representatives.

“The level of anxiety in the industry there and elsewhere is as high as I have seen it in my years working on this issue,” said Regelbrugge, vice president for governmental affairs for the American Nursery and Landscape Association.

Dairy farmers say they want access to workers without getting into legal trouble. Many say they would go out of business without immigrant labor, and consumers would likely end up paying more for milk.

But many lawmakers on Capitol Hill are running away from the issue. They worry tackling immigration could hurt them at the ballot box this November, and they appear to lack the legislative bandwidth to focus on much besides the ailing economy, joblessness and health care reform.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin dairy producers John Rosenow and Loren Wolfe said they’ve had trouble finding enough locals willing to get dirty and work the long hours it takes to run their operation.

“We need (immigrants) to milk cows or we’d barely be in business,” Wolfe said of the Hispanics who work for the farm near Cochrane.

Immigrants now make up about 40 percent of the state’s dairy labor force, up from 5 percent a decade ago, according to a 2009 study by the UW-Madison Program on Agricultural Technology Studies. Many of the workers  are in the United States illegally.

Regelbrugge said the status quo creates economic instability and the risk that employers will exploit immigrant workers. He said it’s also putting dairy farmers in jeopardy.

“Frankly it poses a challenge to farmers who wonder whether they can pass their business to the next generation,” he said.


Radio version for KSTX-FM in San Antonio, Texas


Bush tried, failed

The last time Congress passed major immigration reform legislation was in 1986. It was supposed to fix the nation’s illegal immigration problem by granting amnesty to millions of people and beefing up enforcement. But the effort failed to properly control the future flow of immigrants and the demand for immigrant workers.

President George W. Bush gave it another try during his second term in office. It ended in a crushing defeat in the Senate in 2007.

Bush’s plan included a path to legalization and measures to strengthen border security and create a temporary guest worker program. Opponents called it an unacceptable amnesty. Many also doubted the government’s ability to fulfill the lofty promise of finally fixing the illegal immigration problem.

U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, was one of the Republicans blasting Bush for his immigration proposal. For years, Sensenbrenner has been a thorn in the side of advocates of so-called comprehensive immigration reform.

“The American public is opposed to granting amnesty to illegal immigrants,” Sensenbrenner said.  “And no matter how they try to spin it by calling it comprehensive immigration reform, earned legalization, whatever, the public gets what it really is.”

Sensenbrenner said he hasn’t forgotten the concerns of dairy farmers. He said he may be willing to support some sort of temporary guest worker program. Yet his top priority is stopping illegal border crossings and the hiring of undocumented workers.

“And that means vigorously enforcing employer sanctions, fining those who break the law by hiring illegal immigrants,” he said.

Another Wisconsin Republican, U.S. Rep. Thomas Petri of Fond du Lac, considers himself a champion of the industry. But he cringed when asked about immigration reform and its impact on Wisconsin dairy producers. Petri didn’t want to go into detail but said he supports making sure producers have the workers they need while being tough on illegal immigration.

“We really need to make sure we get a handle on people coming into the United States illegally, both in fairness to those who come here legally and to give people confidence that there is just not going to be another wave of uncontrolled immigration,” Petri said.

U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, whose district relies heavily on the dairy industry, worries that too much of a strong hand from Washington may hurt farmers.

“They told me that if Congress were to do something too Draconian it would put them out of business,” Kind said.

U.S. Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Appleton, who sits on the House Agriculture Committee, didn’t comment for this story despite attempts to reach him through his office and in person. Kagen recently signed on to a resolution calling for tough enforcement against illegal immigrants.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, said, “I don’t want to talk about that,” when approached just outside the House floor. He walked away.

U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., told this reporter, “You’re a good man,” when pressed about immigrants in the dairy industry. He then jumped into an elevator. In response to questions submitted to his office, Kohl said he supports reform.

“I understand there can be some apprehension about foreign workers and guest worker programs, especially as we face job losses and high unemployment figures in the United States,” Kohl wrote. “But it is important to balance the need to provide farmers with access to the workers they need, with the need to protect American jobs.”

U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., sits with Kohl on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration issues. He called congressional inaction on the issue “irresponsible.”

Dairy producers say Congress can help by at least passing the so-called AgJobs bill. The legislation would overhaul the agricultural foreign worker program and create a path to legalization for certain farm workers.

Jaime Castaneda with the National Milk Producers Federation said dairy farmers currently are worse off than other agricultural producers because they can’t take advantage of the existing guest worker program, which only covers temporary and seasonal workers. Milk production requires a year-round workforce.

“Dairy farmers cannot have access to any visa system to bring foreign labor,” Castaneda said.  “Dairy farmers have access to nothing.”

Several Wisconsin lawmakers have signed on to the AgJobs legislation in the House and Senate, including Kohl, Feingold, Kagen, Petri, Ryan and Kind. But progress on the measure has stalled.

“Democratic leaders are weighing how many votes they win by doing immigration reform and how many votes they lose by doing immigration reform,” said Marc Rosenblum, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.


Editorial in the Green Bay Press Gazette


Congress dodges, immigrants flow in

In the years since lawmakers last passed significant reform legislation, the number of illegal immigrants has grown dramatically, now estimated at about 12 million.

Rosenblum said lawmakers and government officials helped exacerbate the immigration problem through lax enforcement policies going back decades and tacit support for the growth of immigrant labor.

A study issued in December by Rosenblum’s group concluded that “policy inaction is a result not only of a partisan divide in Washington, but also of the underlying economic reality that despite its faults, illegal immigration has been hugely beneficial to many U.S. employers, often providing benefits that the current legal immigration system does not.”

In a November speech, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said immigration reform should be a “three-legged stool” including “serious and effective enforcement, improved legal flows for families and workers, and a firm but fair way to deal with those who are already here.”

While Congress fails to address the last two legs, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has continued to pursue enforcement against illegal workers and employers. Last year, federal agents started going through tens of thousands of employment documents from businesses around the country, including dairy farms, as part of a new compliance campaign. ICE officials won’t release details but say businesses in Wisconsin are part of the investigation.

In a separate enforcement action in February, 49 foreign nationals were arrested in 11 central and western Wisconsin counties in a fugitive roundup. Some were charged with non-immigration-related crimes, and others had been ordered deported for violating immigration laws, ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said.

While some celebrate the tough stance taken against illegal immigrants, dairy producers see it as a major threat to their business.

Said Regelbrugge: “People came here, we needed their labor, and we didn’t provide the legal means to do it.”

Strange bedfellows

The immigration reform debate is unlike any other in Congress. Members of both parties support fixing U.S. immigration laws. And the issue creates unusual alliances: Some labor unions have united with social conservatives in opposing generous immigration policies while the business community and political liberals have come together to call for more relaxed rules, Rosenblum said.

U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have been working together to fashion a compromise expected to be introduced this year. U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, who sits on the House Judiciary Committee, said she’s hopeful Congress will act.

“The partisanship that has stalled other reforms may not come into play in the same way with immigration reform, so I think we have some prospects,” she said.

But just because immigration reform has bipartisan support doesn’t mean Congress will resolve or even take up the issue in the coming weeks or months. Members from both parties killed immigration reform the last time around. And the wounds of failure are still too tender for many lawmakers.

“My colleagues recall the last unsuccessful attempt and feel a little burned by that,” Baldwin said. Kind said the issue “has become such a political football, unfortunately.”

In December, several dozen Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Milwaukee, introduced a so-called comprehensive immigration reform legislation package. The proposal includes a path to legalization for many illegal immigrants and the provisions for immigrant workers contained in the AgJobs legislation. Some Republicans have labeled the bill dead on arrival.

While Congress debates, Wisconsin dairy farmers wait — stuck between following the rules and staying in business.

“We sat down at a partner meeting looking at the threats to our livelihood, and the No. 1 threat that we could envision was to lose our employees,” Rosenow said. “There is no way we can manage that. There is just no way.”

This story was part of a collaboration between Capitol News Connection and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Versions appeared in print and radio stations around the country. 

Reports of property damage mount as Pa. longwall mines proliferate

Published Thursday, September 29, 2011 in NewYorkTimes.com.

WAYNESBURG, Pa. — A surge in mining damage to waterways, houses and roads has sparked a fierce debate in southwestern Pennsylvania’s coal region about whether regulations are strong enough to protect property and natural resources.

At issue is a modern, mechanized take on a centuries-old mining technique that shears coal away from underground seams in massive panels that are generally hundreds of feet thick and a mile or so long.

That technique, known as longwall mining, now produces some 40 percent of all coal from U.S. underground mines, up from 5 percent in 1980, according to federal statistics. In Pennsylvania, longwall produced 38 million tons of the 48 million tons produced by underground mining in 2009, the latest full year for which statistics are available.

But while mechanized longwall mining has been a boon to coal producers, it has been a headache in recent years for many residents of Greene and Washington counties, near the West Virginia line. They say mining being done by rumbling, behemoth machines in recent years has damaged buildings, sucked water from ponds and streams and cracked roads.

“Longwall is worse than an earthquake,” said Leigh Shields, owner of Shields Herb and Flower Farm, which is patrolled by peacocks and a pet emu in rural Greene County. A Consol Energy Inc. longwall project a decade ago, he said, led to a subsidence that lowered parts of his property as much as 4 feet, moved trees and cracked his home’s basement floor.

Longwall mining, many residents say, caused the rupture of a dam at Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park, whose lake — once a popular spot for boating and fishing — remains dry. Whether Consol operations damaged the park is currently being weighed by a state court.

“A lot of locals came down and started grabbing fish and taking them to local ponds,” activist Terri Davin said in an interview, discussing what happened when state workers drained the lake after the 2005 breach. “They had garbage cans and they were just throwing dead fish there.”

Aimee Erickson, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens Coal Council, said the rumbling of longwall mining under a house jangles nerves as well as cracks foundations. “You could actually put an egg on the counter and watch it just roll off,” she said.

A University of Pittsburgh study this year found that from 2003 to 2008 reported land damage from longwall operations increased 86 percent and building damage increased 31 percent over damage reported the previous five-year period.

It took coal companies an average of 207 days to resolve reported structural problems and 246 days for land damage, the report says. Companies took 321 days, on average, to address problems with wells, springs and ponds.

The report was prepared under a 1994 state law, Act 54, which was aimed at addressing problems caused by longwall mining and making sure companies help prevent problems, repair damage or compensate residents. Mining critics here say the law is not strong enough.

“It has been a catastrophic failure,” said attorney Michael Nixon, a Citizens Coal Council board member.

State officials and mining industry representatives disagree. They do not deny that longwall mining is causing damage, but they maintain the system is working to ensure repairs or proper compensation.

“Most landowners should be thankful for Act 54,” George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, an industry group, said in an interview. “If we damage it, we take care of it.”

As he rebutted claims about longwall mining and Act 54, Ellis raised his voice. The law, he said, represents a compromise between activists and industry.

“There is a lot of misinformation,” he said. “The fear mongers are wrong. The sky is not falling.”

‘If you get a settlement, leave’

Critics of longwall mining say Act 54 is inferior to the 1960s-vintage law that emphasized damage prevention.

Act 54 and its restoration mandate, critics say, gives companies more leeway to extract more coal and discourages another traditional undergound mining method, room-and-pillar mining, which keeps more coal underground and provides more support to properties above.

Shields, the nursery owner, said settlements provided to landowners by coal companies are mere Band-Aids for problems that mining causes. Money he got from Consol in a settlement is gone.

“It was a mistake. It bit us in the ass,” he said of the settlement. “That’s exactly what the coal companies wanted.”

And 10 years after damage was done to his property, Shields said he is still waiting for Consol to honor a pre-mining agreement that requires the company to restore a gas connection that he said he needs to keep his greenhouse plants warm.

“If you get a settlement, just leave,” he said. “It will all be broken again.”

Schmid & Co., a Wayne, Pa.-based environmental consulting firm hired by the Citizens Coal Council, found agreements between a mining company and property owners often fail to solve problems on water supply issues.

The effect of longwall mining on streams is of particular concern to environmentalists, who say the practice can forever — and they say illegally — hurt waterways, turning streams into ponds or dry trenches.

Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University of Wheeling, W.Va., said his studies of streams in this area show waterways suffering lasting and sometimes irreparable damage. He collects data on organisms living in regional creeks and streams.

“It’s a data-rich environment,” he said in a recent interview. “I like a lot of data.”

Streams that have been longwalled, he said, have fewer or different organisms living in them. He points at a stream he said has never recovered from mining underneath.

“We study them as indicators of the quality of the stream. They’re what make the streams function,” Stout said. “These are also indicators of permanence and also sensitivity. Especially the mayflies are sensitive to pollution and changes in the environment.”

Drinking water wells are being affected. It is common in southwestern Pennsylvania to see next to houses water tanks provided by coal companies as temporary water supplies.

Also vulnerable are historic properties, such as a house built in 1815 that Margie Manchester is trying to protect at her organic farm in Avella. Relatives sold the coal rights under the stately brick manse in 1917, a common story in southwestern Pennsylvania.

“They never expected longwall mining,” Manchester said of those early 20th century landowners.

Such threats to property and the environment are driving away coal-region natives, said Darvin, the anti-mining activist. “We’re losing population left and right here,” she said.

But retreat is not an option for Erickson, the Coal Council’s executive director.

“You know what,” she said, “I refuse to leave.”

Defending Act 54

Thomas Callaghan, director of the state’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, maintains that properties and natural resources get more protection under Act 54 than they did under the old mining law.

The old law, he said, provided no protection or restoration for structures built after 1966, instead allowing owners to buy coal for support.

“What Act 54 does is it allows undermining, and replacement and repair versus the limited prevention standard of the old law,” he said. “Our experience so far with Act 54 has been substantially positive.”

And Ellis of the coal association said the industry is capable of protecting historic houses. The industry, he said, was able to prevent damage on a house built in the mid-1800s and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We were able to work with [the owners],” Ellis said. “The house is still in one piece. There were no stories afterwards because nothing happened.”

Workers with the mining company Alpha Natural Resources like to boast about their relationship with property owners with whom they have worked.

Alpha’s Jeremy Rafferty, who serves as a liaison between the company and landowners who are expected to see property damage, said property owners have a host of options, including reporting problems to state regulators.

Rafferty said he has shared strong handshakes with people he’s worked with. While they are not happy to endure longwall mining near their properties, he said, they were satisfied with his treatment of them.

Alpha employees also boast about the streams they have helped rebuild.

“Alpha goes above and beyond,” Rafferty said.

Rafferty said he and other Alpha representatives work to develop relationships with landowners. The process involves advanced notification, a pre-mining survey of properties, numerous meetings and constant communication.

Richard Belding, 70, a property owner who endured an Alpha longwall project in 2006, said he tried to set ground rules up front in his dealings with the company.

“There is going to be no screaming and yelling, and when it’s done, we’re going to have a picnic,” he recalled.

Belding said he enjoys the new house he bought with settlement money from Alpha. He enjoys watering his flowers and spending time on his front porch, waving at neighbors as they drive by.

“Oh, I love it. I don’t miss the old house at all,” he said, explaining how it took some convincing with his wife, who has since died. “It’s not untraumatic. You have decisions to make.”

Another property owner, Richard Barcheise and his wife, a former Alpha employee, decided to have the company try to prevent damage — through techniques like digging ditches — and do repairs. The company had to fix the driveway, cracks on the wall and floor, and re-do part of the roof.

“I’m hard to satisfy,” he said. “I’m very well satisfied.”

‘Cheap electricity’

Current state permits allow Alpha at its Cumberland and Emerald mines to extract coal from roughly 50,000 acres under highways, houses and waterways.

The longwall mining star is the continuous miner, a whirring wheel that cuts the coal from the wall and sprays water to prevent explosions. A conveyor belt moves coal out of the mine, which is about 1,000 feet underground.

“This is cheap electricity,” said one worker as he watched pieces of coal rolling away from the continuous miner.

The continuous mining wheel moves back and forth, scrubbing the wall as it cuts the coal. Meanwhile, the machine surrounding it — which includes roof supports and is large enough for miners to walk inside — moves forward electronically to push the wheel closer to the seam and cut even more coal.

Roof supports that are part of the machinery make the process safer, industry boosters say. Roof falls are a major cause of death in mining. And the process extracts so much more coal, in such an efficient way that for coal companies it is worth using the method even if they are liable for damage above.

“In any extraction industry, you are going to have damage. The issue is to fix it,” the Pennsylvania Coal Association’s Ellis said.

“Subsidence from room and pillar occurs 40, 50 years down the road. This was one of the benefits of longwall mining.”

But people like Erickson say the longall benefits are all for the mining companies — and, most recently, for gas drilling companies that have moved in to tap Marcellus Shale. Drilling trucks and equipment have become fixtures here.

Erickson, who said she has already been approached by a gas “land man” for access to her property, described the situation in harsh terms.

“It’s like being raped by one person,” she said, “and then raped again.”

Democrats, like mining, may never fully recover in Appalachia

Published Friday, October 17, 2014 in Greenwire.

WHITESBURG, Ky. — Sitting at his desk in the Letcher County Courthouse in this Appalachian community of about 2,000 people, Judge Executive Jim Ward frets over the county’s finances.

The sharp downturn in eastern Kentucky coal mining has kicked thousands of workers off the job and slashed severance tax revenues by $3 million during the county’s last spending cycle out of an $11 million budget.

“It has devastated our region, our county,” Ward said during a recent interview. “We are in survival mode,” he said of a county with an unemployment rate above 11 percent, and asked, “What do you do? How do you survive, without making drastic cuts, without having to shut down basic services?”

“We’ve been looking at other avenues and diversifying somewhat, but still the jobs that are coming here now are not going to be the high-paying jobs like the mining jobs.”

The coal downturn, which has been particularly painful in central Appalachia, has become a key talking point in several highly contested political races. And President Obama’s mining and climate change policies have given Republicans ammunition and angered many area Democrats — enough for the party to forever lose parts of its base in this part of the world.

“I feel like the national party has run off and left me. And that’s being honest,” said Ward, a Democrat elected to his post as the county’s top leader. “I just feel like they have forgotten the grass-roots Democrats that put them where they are.”

For more than a decade, Appalachia has been trending Republican because of national Democratic views on things like guns and social issues. For many residents, coal is another strike against a party they’ve been relying on — and voting for — since the New Deal.

“Our county is probably 3-1 Democrat but probably not going to vote that way,” Ward said. “That’s just an opinion from what I hear people say.”

Indeed, there are 11,954 registered Democrats in Letcher County, compared with 3,870 Republicans. Democrats also have a significant registration advantage in the nearby coal field counties of Harlan and Pike.

Democrats top Republicans in voter registration statewide, too. But a new Gallup Inc. poll released today showed more Kentuckians identified as Republicans or leaned toward the GOP, a change from previous years.

If Democrats decide to stay home or vote Republican, it could make a difference for Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrats’ nominee to take on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Al Cross, a University of Kentucky journalism professor and longtime political observer, said Democrats are indeed risking Appalachian votes to protect the environment and stop climate change. “They are risking them for a worthy cause,” Cross said during an interview.

The problem, Cross said, is that many people feel the rules are coming down like a “sledgehammer.” The Obama administration touts dialogue and flexibility for states, but Cross said it is “sadly mistaken” if it thinks that will change the political repercussions.

Administration officials also point to market issues for coal’s woes. Politicians often blame the White House for all of Appalachia’s problems, but even climate skeptics and GOP sympathizers here understand the problem is not that simple.

Still, they see the administration as having turned a deaf ear to their concerns. And even though Obama talked about giving “special care to people and communities” affected by the clean energy transition during his Georgetown University climate speech last year, Appalachians feel forgotten.

“We really haven’t seen any direct evidence of that,” Cross said. “It does not seem like the administration has delivered on that explicit promise.”

The long-standing Appalachian Regional Commission has since 2010 been working with other federal agencies to coordinate efforts at boosting the area’s economy. In Congress, Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are pushing legislation to aid displaced miners.

In Kentucky last year, a bipartisan group of politicians launched the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative. And in West Virginia, lawmakers are touting the Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy (SCORE) effort.

But regulations, not diversifying the economy, have been the main focus on the campaign trail, particularly among Republican candidates.

Speaking to a roomful of community and business leaders at the posh Griffin Gate Marriott Hotel in Lexington last week, McConnell said, “We have a depression here in eastern Kentucky.” The Senate’s GOP leader said turning back Obama administration regulations was at the “top of my list.”

And speaking at a packed rally in rural Estill County, about an hour’s drive away from Lexington, Grimes stressed a point she’s had to repeat numerous times: “Barack Obama is not on the ballot, it’s Alison Lundergan Grimes.”

Fifth District Rep. Hal Rogers (R) has long represented Kentucky’s eastern coal field counties — and his district gave Obama a stunningly low 23 percent of the vote in 2012. The neighboring 6th District, which includes Lexington and Estill, was in Democratic hands between 2004 and 2013, and Obama took 42 percent there two years ago.

But even though the area is far from most of the eastern mines, the coal debate helped new GOP Rep. Andy Barr grab the district last cycle. Estill, which has more registered Democrats than Republicans, favored Barr by a significant margin.

GOP close to taking W.Va. House

Kentucky is a divided state. Most of its congressional delegation is Republican. So is the state Senate. But the House and the governor’s mansion are in Democratic hands.

In neighboring West Virginia, the GOP rise is a more recent trend. During the 1990s the state’s entire congressional delegation was Democratic.

Unless current momentum shifts, Republicans are likely to see Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), and former Maryland state Sen. Alex Mooney (R) replace Capito in the 2nd District.

But Republican hopes don’t stop there. In Oak Hill, a small city north of Beckley, several GOP candidates gathered in a tight white-and-beige room in a community center last week to discuss what could be.

Evan Jenkins, the Republican state senator campaigning to unseat 19-term Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, scoffed at the national Democratic agenda.

“There’s nothing about that agenda that sits well with the people of West Virginia,” he said confidently. “It’s time for a change.”

Jenkins switched from Republican to Democrat early in his political career in the early 1990s. It was probably a good choice. Back then, Democrats were more than 65 percent of the electorate, according to registration statistics.

“When I turned 18, my dad was a Democrat and his dad was a Democrat,” Jenkins said during an interview. “My father obviously lived through the Great Depression, and there’s a lot of legacy from the ’30s and the ’40s.”

But while Democrats still dominate, especially in the southern coal fields, more voters are switching to the Republican column or declaring themselves members of no party. There were roughly 687,000 Democrats statewide in November 2008. Late last year the number was closer to 638,000. It’s now around 607,000.

Jenkins switched back to Republican last year. “The issue of Second Amendment, the issue of health care, the issue of immigration, the issue of the coal industry,” he said. “This agenda has been so devastating to the values and beliefs and the jobs of who we are in West Virginia.”

West Virginia’s new Republican attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, joined Jenkins in Oak Hill and spoke about pushing the state’s Democratic leaders to embrace more litigation against Obama administration rulemaking.

A number of local GOP candidates joined the pair, hoping to ride their coattails. House of Delegates candidate William Hughes spoke about his community of Pax having lost much of its population and now dealing with coal layoffs. Another candidate, Tom Fast, called for a fundamental change in the way things are done in the Democratic-controlled state capital of Charleston.

“I’ve had countless people say they are registered Democrat but are not going to vote Democrat,” said Jenkins. “We are five [candidates] away from having the House of Delegates change parties for the first time in 83 years.”

Race factor

The last time both Kentucky and West Virginia voted for a Democrat for president was during the Clinton years in the 1990s. Still, Democrats had an edge in Appalachian coal field counties. In 2000 and 2004, several of them went for Democratic candidates.

But when Obama was first on the ballot in 2008, coal field counties in Kentucky and most in West Virginia voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). And in 2012, Obama lost every single West Virginia county.

Analysts and area residents will say race has at least something to do with Obama’s deep unpopularity in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia.

“There’s enough people around here who are prejudiced and don’t like him because he’s black,” said longtime Democratic activist Dolores Rozzi, who has lived around the country but settled in Huntington, W.Va., about a decade ago.

Cross said Appalachians would have been upset with any politician who hurt coal. “There would have been upset, concern and people would have been dismayed and they would have felt let down,” he said. “But with Obama, they already didn’t like the guy. I don’t think this is primarily about race, but I think race is an element.”

Rozzi was manning the information desk the other day at the area’s Democratic headquarters downtown, a large room full of signs for candidates like Rahall. There was also a picture of Obama on the wall, one Rozzi put up herself.

“I think the Republicans were sick and tired of losing elections. I think they’ve geared up. They think they’re going to win this one,” said Rozzi. Asked whether she was feeling pessimistic, the fiercely loyal Democrat said, “We’re not feeling bad about anything right now.”

In Kentucky, Shayne Puckett, Estill County Democratic chairman, was also optimistic about his party’s chances. “In the political world right now, there is so much momentum behind the Democrat Party,” he said during the Grimes rally. “The Republican Party, all they have done for the last six, eight, 10 years is say no, no, no.”

What about Obama’s impact on local races? “I think that horse has been beaten enough,” Puckett said. “And American voters are waking up and realizing that may not be the wagon they want to jump on.”

Democrats say they may regain momentum in Appalachia after Obama leaves office. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, both Kentucky and West Virginia picked Hillary Clinton over Obama by significant margins. If she runs for president again in 2016, Clinton will try to woo those voters back into the fold.

Rozzi thinks Clinton can make inroads in her community. “I think it will be a new air to have a woman president,” she said. “Women do things so well.”

But both pro-coal advocates and environmentalists see the Clintons with skepticism. Former President Clinton has spoken in favor of Obama’s climate agenda but has campaigned with pro-coal Grimes. Hillary Clinton, who campaigned with Grimes on Wednesday, made pro-coal statements during her failed presidential run.

“I think the Clintons believe they can carry Kentucky and West Virginia. But it’s going to take some work,” Cross said. “And they may not be willing to work that hard for that small number of electoral votes.”

Even though pro-coal votes may still matter in local races, they didn’t make enough of a difference in the past presidential election, where the industry was counting on an Obama defeat.

Phil Smith, government affairs chief for the United Mine Workers of America, which is supporting a variety of pro-coal Democrats but has distanced itself from Obama, said the importance of pro-coal voters to Appalachian races doesn’t seem to be part of the administration’s political calculation.

“People who live in rural areas are like people everywhere else. They want a secure job, a decent standard of living for their families, safe and robust communities, and the ability to live in peace,” Smith said.

“To the extent that a future Democratic Party can project the message that it stands for those things, it can be competitive. But as things stand right now in rural America, and especially in Appalachia, this administration and the national Democratic Party is not sending that message. And that leaves state and local candidates vulnerable.”

Appalachia starts long, scary slog beyond mining

Published Tuesday, March 17, 2015 in Greenwire.

Chuck Fluharty parachutes into busted rural economies and tries to figure out how to get them out of the ditch.

His latest challenge: Appalachia.

Fluharty’s Rural Policy Research Institute is focused on eastern Kentucky, whose coal fields have bled thousands of jobs since 2012 and unemployment rates reached double digits in the hardest-hit counties.

The institute got involved at the request of Kentucky politicians in 2013, putting the region on what’s likely to be a long, difficult journey to diversify its economy and address what Fluharty deems the “resource curse” — when a region’s mineral wealth becomes more economic burden than buoy.

But before he took on the challenge, Fluharty said, he had a heart-to-heart with two of the Bluegrass State’s most powerful politicians — Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R).

“When they came to me, they were asking for a quick fix,” Fluharty said in a recent interview. “There is no quick fix.”

Fluharty explained: “This is the result of what occurs in this sector over time everywhere, and you will not fix that quickly.” The politicians, he said, “didn’t want to hear that, particularly.”

But there were few clear choices for battered eastern Kentucky. So the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative was born to coordinate community involvement and come up with ideas.

The nascent revitalization push has some infrastructure-boosting components along with efforts to diversify the economy with, say, tourism and more entrepreneurship. There’s even an effort to do sustainable timber harvesting.

Fluharty, 67, is the founder, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, which focuses on assessing the impacts of public policy on rural areas. He’s also been a research professor in the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and an adjunct faculty member in the university’s Department of Rural Sociology.