Senator Byrd did not give coal a free ride at the end of his life

May 13, 2010 photo by WaPo photographer Linda Davidson


While the Associated Press obituary for the late Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV) gives him credit for shedding his alliance with the KKK, it goes on to say,

His views gradually moderated, particularly on economic issues, but he always sided with his state's coal interests in confrontations with

Not quite. At the end of his life, Senator Byrd was still very much pro-coal, but he had also decried the greed of some in the coal mining industry--specifically Massey. For instance, in October 2009, he had this to say about Massey for refusing to fund a new school for Marsh Fork Elementary, which sat across the road from an impoundment. And this was months before Massey's Montcoal, WV explosion at Upper Big Branch Mine.

Such arrogance suggests a blatant disregard for the impact of their mining practices on our communities, residents and particularly our children. These are children’s lives we are talking about....This is about companies that blatantly disregard human life and safety because of greed. That is never acceptable. At a time when coal is under such close scrutiny, coal companies operating in West Virginia should be working together to put their best foot forward. For the sake of the entire coal industry, Massey Energy should strive to be a better and more responsible corporate citizen. And for the sake of the kids, they should address these serious environmental concerns at Marsh Fork Elementary immediately.
[See Ken Ward Jr. ,"Byrd blasts Massey ‘arrogance’ at Marsh Fork," October 7, 2009.]

With regard to the Upper Big Branch explosion, Senator Byrd said,

The old chestnut that “coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource” deserves revision. I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such. [See Ken Ward Jr, "New commentary from Sen. Robert C. Byrd: Coal industry must respect miners, the land and the people who live in the West Virginia coalfields," May 5, 2010 ]

Also from that commentary, as noted by JW Randolph, at Appalachian Voices.

The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land. If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.

JW also reminds us of two other pieces from Ken about Byrd and MTR:

"Sen. Robert C. Byrd: Majestic mountains are ‘God’s gift to West Virginia,’" March 5, 2010.

"Sen. Byrd: “Coal Must Embrace the Future” December 3, 2009.

In the latter, Senator Byrd said,
In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment ... The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals.

It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states. Most members of Congress,like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens. West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.

"Some have even suggested that coal state representatives in Washington should block any advancement of national health care reform legislation until the coal industry’s demands are met by the EPA. I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible. It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light.

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say "deal me out." West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table."


National Group Calls on Boucher to Act on Giles Fly Ash Dump

2007 photograph at Hillbilly Savants October 17 blog post, "Fly Ash in Giles County, Virginia"


Because of Virginia's beneficial use clause for coal combustion waste, we've got a toxic coal ash dump in the flood plain of the New River
without so much as a public hearing. Lead, arsenic, mercury and other metals which threaten human health can leach from coal ash when it is exposed to moisture.

The National Committee for the New River (NCNR) in West Jefferson, NC is working with Giles Countians to against the dump. NCNR started out in 1974 to organize against construction of APCO pumped storage dams on the New River and stopped them through a sucessful national campaign to get a portion of the New River designated as a National Wild and Scenic River in 1976. The group has worked since then to protect the New.

George Santucci, NCNR Executive Director calls for action on June 21

George writes,
Many of you have been following the fly ash travesty in Giles County, Virginia. With this Action Alert, we are asking you today to take action on behalf of the New River!

For 2.5 years NCNR has been working with the Concerned Citizens of Giles County (CCGC) who have been working tirelessly trying to figure out how a 7.5 acre 250,000 cubic yard Coal Combustion Waste dumpsite could be placed in the flood plain of the New River.

Through dogged research, and numerous FOIAs (Freedom of Information Act), much of the “process” has now been uncovered. On April 3rd 2006, before any information about the project was public knowledge, an AEP representative requested assurances from Giles County, via an email, that their project (to dump fly ash in an unlined pit on the banks of the New River) would be allowed to move forward if the property was acquired.

We can only assume that the assurances were given -- because the land was acquired and the project began! At the time the land was acquired, no permits were applied for or granted -- the project had not been reviewed by state or federal agencies.

Additionally, we suspect that different information was subsequently provided on the state and federal permit applications -- these agencies did not have the complete picture when approving permits.

The lack of information effectively eliminated public participation in the approval process. Citizens should have the right to comment when a dumpsite containing toxic heavy metals is placed in their community!

How can you help? We're asking you to request Congressman Rick Boucher (the dump is in his Congressional District) to continue to seek the answers to these questions. He sought a congressional FOIA in the fall of 2009, but we still have not received answers to our questions. We're appealing to VA DCR, FEMA, and EPA regarding these issues but without these answers our case is incomplete.

George has been up to visit Giles

Santucci has met with the Concerned Citizens and even offered to buy the land on the New River for $100,000 to prevent leasing to AEP fly for a flyash dump by Howard Spencer and his so-called Partnership for Excellence. The partnership describes its project like this:
The Giles Cumberland Park Project is a land improvement project which will create a 7-acre commercial building site along Rt. 460 in Narrows, Va. The development site will be created above the flood plain, using a combination of compacted recycled coal ash and soil.

The property was purchased by the Giles Partnership for Excellence, a non-profit economic development organization, for $100,000 in 2006. The land value when developed and brought to grade with Rt. 460 is expected to appreciate substantially. When sold, net proceeds from the land development will be rolled back into the community, through the schools, and/or other applications to help create much needed jobs.

George tells me Howard Spencer, who also sits on the Giles County Board of Supervisors, turned down the offer, saying too much had been invested. As George says,
The New River needs answers.
George asks that we contact Boucher

At the end of this entry you'll find a sample letter to Boucher George prepared. You can send yours by email via Boucher's website if you live in the 9th district. Or sent to or by regular mail, if not. Or you can call one of the offices. Be sure to you’re your name and supply contact information for a response when you take call or send a letter.

Boucher's Offices

Abingdon Office | 188 East Main Street | Abingdon, Virginia 24210 | 276-628-1145

Pulaski Office | 106 North Washington | Pulaski, Virginia 24301 | 540-980-4310

Big Stone Gap Office | 1 Cloverleaf Square | Suite C-1 | Big Stone Gap, Virginia 24219 | 276-523-5450

Washington D.C. Office | 2187 Rayburn House Office Building | Washington, D.C. 20515 | 202-225-3861 | 202-225-0442(fax)

Sample letter
The Honorable Richard Boucher
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Representative Boucher:

It is critical for the people of Giles County, and everyone who values the New River, to receive answers to our questions regarding the fly ash dump on the river in Giles County. We know that you are aware of the project and have sought answers via a congressional FOIA, but to date we have no answers to our concerns about the public comment and permitting processes of this project. As a (tax payer/Giles or VA Citizen/lover of the New River), I request that you find out this information. Please let me know when we can expect a response.


Paul Harding: Tinkers

Photo of Paul Harding by Anthony Pidgeon from the Boston Globe article "Yoknapatawpha, Mass. " by Jan Gardner.

Tomorrow night our book group will be discussing this year's Pulitizer Prize winner in fiction, Tinkers, by Paul Harding. I highly recommend it. BTW, here's some interesting trivia on the book.

*It's the first novel from a small press to win the Pulitzer since A Confederacy of Dunces did from Louisiana State University Press in 1981. (and LSU Press had been around for a lot longer Bellevue Literary Press--a five-year old publisher affiliated to New York University's school of medicine. LSU had published O'Toole's book 11 years after his suicide at the behest of Walker Percy.)

* When Harding won, no one called to tell him. He found out by logging onto the Pulitzer site to see who had won according to Geoff Edgers (email) of the Boston Globe.

*the NYT failed to review it, unlike The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker and The Boston Globe. The book had sold 7,000 copies before the Pulitzer announcement.

*According to The Pulitizer Prize First Edition Guide website, reports are that the publisher originally intended to publisher the book only in softcover, but then decided to publish both the softcover and hardcover simultaneously.

*Michele Filgate (email), the events manager at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H first told Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, chairwoman of this year’s Pulitzer fiction jury about Tinkers at book-reviewing workshop Ms. Sinkler led in Manchester, N.H. in April 2009 at Writers' Day run by NH Writers' Project. Sinkler retired editor of the NYT Book Review in 1994.

*Filgate has a great interview with Harding at BookSlut and a review at Quarterly conversation.

* Random House signed Harding to a two-book deal in 2009 (before he won the Pulitzer)

* A few days after Harding received the prize, the Guggenheim Foundation announced he had received one of its prestigious fellowships.

*Harding took six years to earn his undergraduate English degree from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

*After college he was a drummer for a rock band Cold Water Flat which got its start at Amherst. The members recorded two albums and toured Europe and then broke up due to "creative differences."

*Upon the band's break-up, Harding studied with Marilynne Robinson (Gilead) in a summer writing course at Skidmore College. He used an earlier version of Tinkers in his successful application to attend the University of Iowa MFA program in creative writing program.

*The story’s genesis came from Harding’s maternal grandfather's whose epileptic father abandoned the family when the grandfather was twelve after he learned that his wife planned to send him to an asylum. Harding apprenticed with his grandfather in clock repair. Harding told Filgate,

The novel sort of rose out the half-dozen, handful linchpin premises that are based in fact. And they're basically family stories. But my grandparents, I could never get them to talk about them. They were both form northern Maine. Very, very impoverished. A traumatic, difficult life there. His experience was "I made it out of the woods and what happened in the woods, stayed in the woods."

So I just took those one or two sentence premises and tried to imagine the sentence before and the sentence after until the fictional material hit its own critical mass, its own momentum, and took over. I imagined it all and just kept writing until they started to overlap together.

*Harding taught expository writing to undergraduates at Harvard (but the university cut back on his classes and he went on unemployment.) He had also taught creative writing to students at night school.

* Although Harding wrote the novel on a laptop, when it came time for the final editing, he printed it up and laid it out on the living-room floor and then cut, stapled and taped the document into its final form, according to Motoko Rich of the NYT.


Industry Pressures EPA on Benefits of Coal Ash Regs?

This photograph by J. Miles Carey of the Knoxville News Sentinel accompanied a NYT story by Shaila Dewan, "Coal Ash Spill Revives Issue of Its Hazards." In the wake of the spill, which I wrote about December 25, 2008, the EPA promised to look at regulating coal ash as a hazadous waste.

Now we get news of that EPA will labor under skewed cost benefit calcs imposed by the Office of Management and Budget. The question remains whether public opinion can force the OMB to back off or whether industy pressure will prevail.

Here's what Dawn Reeves says in "EPA Cuts Coal Ash Rule's Benefits To Measure Industry 'Liability Fears'"in the the June 4 edition of Inside EPA (hat tip to Lisa Evans at Earthjustice for the heads up--a sub goes for $320 a year.)

At the insistence of the White House Office of Management & Budget (OMB),
EPA was forced to slash by more than $300 billion its lower-end estimates of
the regulatory benefits from its recent proposal to regulate coal ash as a
hazardous waste due to industry's "fear of liability," the first time the
agency has quantified such fears in a cost-benefit assessment, sources say.

The diminished benefits estimate may make it more difficult for EPA to
justify strict regulation of coal combustion residues (CCRs) as agency
regulations are generally required to demonstrate greater benefits than
costs, unless barred from doing so by Congress.
A May 7 article in the same publication had reported the regulatory benefits of a rule
to regulate coal combustion waste as hazardous would amount to a savings of $87 billion to $102 billion over 50 years The industry is arguing that "beneficial reuse" will falter if coal ash is classified as hazardous
due to fear of liability and stigma, resulting in more waste being shipped to a hazardous landfill -- ...[and thus change] the low-end range from a positive $87 billion to a negative $230 billion.
As a result the EPA "fixed" a table in the May 4 draft rule's preamble., but also noted that that the "correct" range was
identified elsewhere in the original proposal's release and states that its inclusion was "at the urging of OMB as a condition to conclude review" -- an explicit reference that EPA was forced to change its initial calculations that the rule would have no negative impact on beneficial reuse after OMB held up the normal 90-day pre-publication review for six months.

OMB had criticized EPA in a comment on the proposed rule for for providing
no evidence for assertions that rulemaking under subtitle C will not have an impact on beneficial reuse
Reeves interviewed a former senior OMB official, who said it

"seems like a typical EPA and OMB dispute-resolution mechanism" with the only "unusual feature" the "transparency about the OMB condition." The source adds that normally EPA will adopt OMB's position "because the executive branch, representing the president, can have only one official position for purposes of judicial and congressional review." However, there is a process for agencies to seek to overturn OMB's position, known as a "presidential reversal," but EPA did not appear to seek such an option in this case.

"By the time this final rule is issued, my prediction is that OMB and EPA will have resolved their differences and there will be only one official view reported for purposes of judicial review. This is required by the unitary concept of the executive branch. The president's view prevails," the source says. And because Obama is unlikely to become personally involved in the issue, the source predicts "a persistent OMB is likely to prevail, though the public comment process could persuade EPA and/or OMB to modify their positions."
According to Reeves,
The change could mark the first time EPA or other agencies have been required to quantify the "fear of liability," sources following the issue say.
She writes that one of sources, an environmentalist, warns that
"It makes the ranges look so crazy, no one would want to take a chance," and that could result in forcing EPA to "go with the more rational proposal."
The same source calls the new range
"about as reliable as melted Jello" because the low end assumes that most coal-fired power plant managers would pay high disposal costs to send the waste to a subtitle C landfill, rather than sell it to be mixed with cement, because the operators will be "so terrified of liability down the line."
The source argues that fear of liability should not be included because, as the EPA notes through out its proposal, tightening of waste rules has always increased recyling.

Another environmentalist told Reeves that that EPA's regulatory text shows
"that the stigma fear has never panned out in the past" and that EPA should require industry opponents to prove their point rather than be forced to quantify it. "The idea that no one is ever going to recycle coal ash for the next 50 years is so beyond the realm of possibility it's laughable," the source says.
Meanwhile her industry source counters that EPA's initial estimates of zero impact on beneficial reuse were
"not realistic," and notes the agency "was forced to go back and recalculate the real impact on the reuse industry." The source adds it is unclear whether the costs could be as high as negative $230 billion but notes that some impacts are "real."