Archives 2007

Coal in the classroom

Coal in the classroom

Opposition to mountaintop removal mining is becoming part of the curriculum at a growing number of colleges and universities.

On Election Day, Dave Cooper stood in the President’s Dining Room at Hollins University and made a solemn announcement.

“I’m an environmental activist,” he told more than two dozen college students who had carried their lunch down the hall. “To some people, that means ‘wacko.’ “

Cooper is an engineer by training, a former employee of 3M who quit that job to spread the word about mountaintop removal coal mining.

Supported by honorariums from colleges and contributions from environmental organizations, he takes the Mountaintop Removal Road Show around the eastern United States.

“That helps cover my travel expenses but mostly I sleep on couches and eat peanut butter sandwiches and cereal,” the 47-year-old Cooper e-mailed between sessions in Ohio.

He’s in the middle of a 12-state tour, appearing often on college campuses. He used to visit student environmental groups. Now, he often brings opposition to mountaintop removal mining into the classroom as well.

More than one professor has called that a no-brainer.

RU professor Jeremy Wojdak was happy to have Cooper address his pollution biology class. Students have read and talked a lot about theory, Wojdak said. The roadshow was their introduction to how issues play out in the real world.

“I think, at the very least, hearing someone with first-hand experience gets the students’ attention in a way that won’t if I tell them,” Wojdak said.

Laura Meder, an Averett University professor who teaches courses in environmental problems and environmental policy and law, said, “I wanted people to get a chance to hear from people who face this in their daily lives. For these two classes that I teach it’s a really good real-life example.”

Last year, Cooper brought Pauline Canterberry and Mary Miller to Meder’s Danville classroom. The two elderly women brought bags of coal dust that had settled on their porch and stories about a mine and processing plant devaluing their home and degrading their lives.

This time Cooper brought Eric Blevins, a recent graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, who helped convince students to impose a fee on themselves so the university could buy electricity from renewable sources.

The hair Cooper has left is short. He favours khakis and a tweed jacket.

Blevins’ hair falls halfway down his back. He’s bearded. He wears jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt with the “Defend what you love” printed across the front.

They have a bifurcated routine. Cooper lays out the problem, explaining the mountaintop removal process and playing a DVD or slide show that expands on what he’s said. Then Blevins suggests things that can be done about it.

Cooper and Blevins rolled the roadshow into a Radford University classroom a little more than a week ago. It was early afternoon. The room was warm and stuffy. Nevertheless — with the exception of one young man who wrestled with his apparently leaden eyelids — Cooper and Blevins held the undergraduates’ attention through explanations of federal mining laws and descriptions of the effects of mountaintop removal mining.

The students heard about valley fills, blackwater spills, overburden, floods and approximate original contour. About 3 million pounds of explosives are used on Appalachian strip mines every day, Cooper told the students.

Jennifer Bowman shook her head, her eyes widening as the statistics and pictures flashed by.

She knew about mountaintop removal mining, but the scale surprised her.

“I don’t know how we can do something as bad as this and get away with it,” Bowman said. “I just think it’s really sad and something ought to be done about it.”

That’s the response Cooper hopes for. He passes out clipboards at each session, asking students to sign up if they’re interested in learning more or helping the cause.

“If you’re really, really interested, put a star by your name,” he said in Radford.

At Radford, he also promoted a gathering at Kayford Mountain, W.Va., a site that’s become familiar to people familiar with the anti-mountaintop removal movement. The remnants of Larry Gibson’s family farm is surrounded by mountaintop removal mines. Marsh Fork Elementary School is near the foot of Kayford Mountain. A mountaintop removal mine, with the attendant sludge pond and coal silo, looms over the school.

About 60 students visited Gibson the weekend after Cooper and Blevins visited Radford. A third of those students came from Radford University.

Julia Hasty, a member of the school’s Green Team, was among them.

“This weekend woke me up,” she wrote in an e-mail the day after returning. “It was definitely an emotional experience. On Saturday night we all gathered around a fire and talked about all we had seen and felt. … It was really sad when we left. It was sad to me that I was going back to a coal-dependent university that was paid for by the blood and children of the people that I had met and befriended in the Appalachian mountains in West Virginia.

“I swear I’ll make a change. I just need help.”

Meder wishes she’d hear more talk like that from her students.

“This is not a very activist campus,” she said of Averett. “I wish that it were.”

At Hollins, Godard is trying to get students interested in environmental issues by relating them to social justice issues.

“It’s this big push we’ve got going and these guys are part of it,” Godard said.

There’s apparently no similar push to bring pro-mining forces into college classrooms.

The Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research, which is working on clean coal technology, is based at Virginia Tech. The Powell River Project, which explores ways to reuse land that’s been surface-mined, has roots at Tech, too. Both groups have educational programs, but they are aimed at elementary or high school students.

Wojdak, the Radford professor, said he’s sure the one-sidedness of the presentation disturbs some students, but there’s only so much he can do about that.

“They’re our one and only guest speaker,” Wojdak said, “for budgetary reasons.”

Coal slurry spills into Raleigh creek

Coal slurry spills into Raleigh creek

A Massey Energy Co. subsidiary’s plant spilt about 10,000 gallons of coal slurry in Raleigh County on Saturday, according to state regulators.

The slurry was released into the Little Marsh Fork Creek, which empties into the Coal River.

“It’s a big spill,” said Bo Webb, a member of the Coal River Mountain Watch environmental group.

Webb said he contacted officials with the state Department of Environmental Protection, who told him that Massey officials reported a small spill around 11 a.m.

Jessica Greathouse, a spokeswoman for the DEP, said the booster pump failed at the Marfork Preparation Plant in Pettus.

About five miles of Little Marsh Fork were affected, she said.

An inspector issued a cessation order, and the plant was shut down until the pump can be fixed, she said.

Officials with Massey Energy did not return calls.

Massey sued by Feds

Massey sued by Feds

Coal firms violated Clean Air Act more than 4,630 times, prosecutors allege

By The Associated Press

Federal prosecutors allege that Massey Energy Co. and its subsidiaries have illegally poured pollutants into West Virginia and Kentucky waterways about 4,633 times within the past six years — roughly 69,071 days’ worth of violations of the U.S. Clean Water Act.

The U.S. District Court lawsuit asks a judge to block further discharges and fine seven of the subsidiaries either $27,500 or $32,500 for each day of violation, depending on when each occurred.

The lawsuit attributed “an extensive history of violating the Clean Water Act” to Massey operations.

“Despite several prior enforcement actions, including two criminal plea agreements, settlement of suspension and debarment matters, civil actions by the state of West Virginia and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and private suits by citizens of West Virginia and Kentucky, Massey Energy and its subsidiaries continue to violate the CWA,” the lawsuit said.

The federal action was filed Thursday in Charleston. It comes after the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration levied $1.5 million in fines against Massey last month. Those penalties are for 25 violations stemming from a fire at the company’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County that killed two miners.

The January 2006 fire remains the subject of a federal criminal probe. West Virginia regulators have fined the company $70,000 over Aracoma violations, while the miners’ widows have sued Massey, several subsidiaries and President, CEO and Chairman Don Blankenship.

Blankenship and other Massey officials could not be reached for comment late Friday.

Prosecutors cite monitoring reports filed with West Virginia and Kentucky between January 2000 and March 2006, showing 4,100 violations of permitted average monthly or maximum daily discharge limits. West Virginia reported another 533 permit limit violations from April through December 2006, the lawsuit said.

West Virginia inspectors documented 534 of the violations during January 2000 to March 2006 time frame, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit also draws from 255 violations that allegedly occurred in the course of 1,943 violations of federal mining regulations.

The lawsuit threatens civil penalties against Elk Run Coal Co., Sidney Coal Co., Martin County Coal Co., Independence Coal Co., Omar Mining Co., Bandmill Coal Corp. and Marfork Coal Co.

Massey operates 19 mining complexes in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. The company is the fourth-largest coal producer by revenue in the United States.