Bob Murray, Who Fought Black Lung Regulations As A Coal Operator, Has Filed For Black Lung Benefits Wednesday, Sep 30 2020 

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Robert E. Murray, the former CEO and president of the now-bankrupt Murray Energy, has filed an application with the U.S. Department of Labor for black lung benefits. For years, Murray and his company fought against federal mine safety regulations aimed at reducing the debilitating disease.

“I founded the company and created 8,000 jobs there until the move to end coal use. I am still chairman of the board,” he wrote on a Labor Department form that initiated his claim obtained by the Ohio Valley ReSource. “We’re in bankruptcy, and due to my health could not handle the president and CEO job any longer.”

According to sources, Murray’s claim is still in the initial stages and is being evaluated to determine the party potentially responsible for paying out the associated benefits. The Labor Department is required to determine a liable party before an initial ruling can be made on entitlement to benefits. If Murray’s claim were to go before an administrative law judge, some aspects of the claim would become a matter of public record


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Remembering A Miner Who Personified Coal’s Contributions And Costs Sunday, Sep 13 2020 

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Charles Wayne Stanley ran underground mining machines for some 20 years, cutting coal from beneath the hills where Virginia meets Kentucky along the Cumberland ridge. He spent another decade as a roof bolter, work that kept the rock above from falling in on his fellow miners.

Stanley was 53 when the Ohio Valley ReSource and NPR’s Howard Berkes first interviewed him in 2016. As he spoke about his long career in coal his pride in the work was clear. 

A family snapshot of Wayne Stanley before his illness.


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‘False Hope’ Or Four More Years? Ohio Valley Stakeholders Reflect On Trump Energy Policy  Monday, Aug 31 2020 

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In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump was all-in on the fossil fuel industry. In a 2016 rally in Charleston, West Virginia, the candidate proudly accepted an endorsement from that state’s coal association, donning a hardhat while he mimed digging coal. To thundering applause, he promised to bring back coal jobs to the struggling Appalachian coalfields. 

Four years later, there are fewer jobs in coal than ever, and that enthusiasm was largely absent from the energy pitch the Republican Party made to the American people in its four-night-long convention last week. That’s left stakeholders in Ohio Valley coal regions reading the tea leaves on what another four years of a Trump Administration might look like. 

This story is the first in a series revisiting themes, places and people in the new Ohio Valley ReSource book, “Appalachian Fall.”


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‘The Proof Is In The Pudding:’ Coal Country Responds To Democrats’ Clean Energy Transition  Monday, Aug 24 2020 

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Democrats made their pitch to the American people during a largely virtual Democratic National Convention and addressing climate change emerged as a central tenet of the party’s plan. 

The party platform spells out a major investment in green energy jobs and infrastructure in order for America to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emission no later than by 2050. Environmental justice is a key component of the Democrat’s climate plan and it references ensuring fossil fuel workers and communities receive investment and support during this clean energy transition. 

“As President, Joe Biden will rejoin the international climate agreement, and the United States will once again lead on this critical issue at home,” New Mexico Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said while standing in front of a field of solar panels. “He’ll invest in energy workers and he will deliver for working families across the U.S., helping them build meaningful careers, while accelerating our nation and world into a clean, green 21st century and well beyond.”


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‘No Pay, We Stay.’ A Look Back At Miners’ Protest That Rocked Appalachia Tuesday, Jul 28 2020 

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It’s a quiet, foggy morning on Highway 119 in Cumberland, Kentucky. A railroad track runs along the highway, and here, Sand Hill Bottom Road crosses the tracks and turns to the right, leaving a rough triangle of gravel spattered with trash. 

You can hear crickets chirping, birds twittering, cars passing on 119. A billboard advertises Portal 31, a coal town tourist attraction. 

Protesting miners blocked the tracks in the morning fog.


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Ohio Valley Coal Companies Get Tens Of Millions In Paycheck Protection Loans Tuesday, Jul 7 2020 

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More than 50 Ohio Valley coal companies received loans totaling as much as $119 million through the Paycheck Protection Program meant to keep people employed during the pandemic’s economic downturn. 

Congress passed the PPP in March to help businesses keep employees on the payroll and out of unemployment lines. The data released by the Small Business Administration does not show specific dollar amounts for the loans, but rather categorizes loans into ranges such as $150,000 to $350,000 at the lowest end, and $5 million to $10 million at the upper end. 

Six Ohio Valley coal companies fell into that high-dollar category, including Rhino Energy, whose former CEO David Zatezelo currently heads the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. 


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Coal Towns Were Counting On Tourism For New Jobs. Then Coronavirus Hit. Monday, Jun 29 2020 

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On a recent sunny weekday, Bill Currey proudly walks among 30 neatly stacked, brightly colored plastic kayaks. Birds chirp merrily, and the soothing sounds of the meandering Coal River permeate the background — nature’s version of a white noise machine. 

For the tanned Currey, who also owns an industrial real estate company, being here, on the river, is as good as it gets. His goal is to share this slice of paradise with as many people as will listen. 


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Coal Executives Face Fines, Possible Jail Time, Over Failure to Pay Wednesday, May 27 2020 

Executives with Indiana-based coal company American Resources Corporation will face daily fines of $2,500 if they continue to flout court orders, according to filings in the bankruptcy case of Cambrian Coal. 

The order comes after ARC failed to pay electric utility bills, employee back pay and benefits, and other liabilities it purchased from Cambrian last fall, even after receiving millions of dollars from the federal government’s coronavirus relief aid.  

ARC must pay the daily fee if it fails to pay $1,067,736 in court-ordered payments by June 1. Executives would also have to appear in court to face additional sanctions, including possible incarceration. Incarceration for failure to pay is the highest sanction available to bankruptcy judges and is exceedingly rare. 

ARC received $2.7 million in loans from the federal government this April through the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. The loan is forgivable if used on employee retention, so ARC would forego that loan forgiveness if it chose to spend the money on court-ordered payments.

ARC attorney Billy Shelton told the court earlier this month that the purchased mines had barely produced any coal, making it difficult to pay outstanding debts.

Coal miners employed by ARC subsidiary Quest Energy made news over the winter when they held a three-day-long railroad blockade to protest lost wages. ARC is among dozens of coal companies declaring bankruptcy amid a historic collapse of the coal industry in recent years. The coronavirus pandemic has hastened the decline in demand for coal.  

Coal And COVID-19: Lung Impairment Makes Miners Especially Vulnerable To Coronavirus Tuesday, May 5 2020 

Underground coal miners start their shifts getting changed in closely packed changing rooms. They ride rail cars to their worksite, shoulder-to-shoulder, sometimes for more than an hour. And once they’re underground, ventilation designed to tamp down coal dust blows air through the mine. All that makes a coal mine the kind of place where the coronavirus could spread like wildfire. 

Coal mines have been designated essential businesses in most states in order to keep the nation’s energy supply stable. But state and federal agencies are not tracking coronavirus transmissions or regulating sanitation to keep those essential workers safe. 

“I think there’s a concern by workers in this country that this is a government that gives workers second seat when it comes to their health and safety,” said Joe Main, former Assistant Secretary for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. 

Rather than implement rule changes or increase safety inspections, MSHA has reduced some enforcement actions and issued unenforceable recommendations for coal miners and mine operators. The language is similar to that used by MSHA’s sister agency, OSHA, which regulates meat packing plants and other work sites that also present risk of transmission. The difference, though, is that coal miners are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because of the high percentage of miners with lungs damaged due to exposure to toxic coal and rock dust. 

MSHA encourages workers to wash hands frequently, disinfect equipment, and maintain six feet of space between workers. Such actions can be difficult or impossible underground.

“Guidelines were a good first start, but it’s not enough in this situation,” Main said. “You have people who are totally vulnerable, and you just put out guidelines and let what happens, happen. You have to search in your tool bag and do everything you can to make sure people are protected.”

Main, who served as MSHA assistant secretary from 2009 to 2017 said there are plenty of tools at MSHA’s disposal. It could do more inspections, make sure miners know they can report unsafe conditions without fear of retribution, issue emergency standards, and make public information on which mines had had confirmed cases of the virus. 

Some Congressional members from the region, including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, have also urged MSHA to issue emergency standards. A spokesperson for the Senator told the Ohio Valley ReSource, “We understand that individual coal mine operators and unions have developed their own protocols to prevent miners exposure, but [Sen.] Manchin wants to make sure they’re a uniform set of protocols.” 

MSHA did not respond to questions about why it had not made safety precautions mandatory, but a spokesperson for the Department of Labor, which houses MSHA, said, “MSHA’s primary goal, at all times, is ensuring the safety and health of American miners. The Department is actively working on many fronts to aid the American workforce during the COVID-19 response. MSHA encourages all Americans to follow state and federal guidance on safe practices.” 

Tracking Exposure

The first documented case of COVID-19 in a coal mine came from Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported at least two miners were infected with the disease in a Consol Energy mine that straddles the Pennsylvania-West Virginia border. Realizing contact tracing among hundreds of mine workers and their family members would be unfeasible, mine operators said they would close the facility for two weeks. 

Consol voluntarily reported the cases to MSHA, the Post-Gazette reported. But MSHA said it is not currently tracking coronavirus cases in the nation’s mines. 

Neither is the West Virginia Office of Mine Health Safety and Training. In a statement, a spokesperson for the OMHST said, “The agency encourages all employees to limit exposure, and otherwise functions at full capacity with office staff working remotely. The agency can only enforce the code under which it operates. There remains nothing in code that would extend the agency’s jurisdiction to public health. As a result, it has no authority to provide guidelines or mandate procedures related to pandemic response.”

West Virginia’s Department of Health and Human Resources also said it is not tracking coronavirus in the state’s coal mines. A spokesperson for the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources said in a statement, “While there have been no positive tests that we know of due to the coronavirus, either with miners or inspectors, we have distributed gloves, face masks and hand sanitizer to each mine safety specialist and have instructed them to observe social distancing. If during a mine inspection improper social distancing is observed, the inspector advises mine personnel on proper procedure and brings this to the attention of mine supervisors. Failure to comply after being brought to mine management could result in a violation being issued.”

Black Lung 

“The coal company you work for does not care how you feel, they one only care how much coal you put out,” miner Bobby Stevens of Smilax, Kentucky, told me over Facebook Messenger. Stevens worked underground for 11 years before being laid off in the high-profile bankruptcy of Blackjewel last summer. He took another mining job but was again laid off by Perry County Coal. “And then you even got these older guys who have lung problems and possibly black lung who are still underground working, and you would think these companies would know that those men are in great danger considering the virus attacks your respiratory system.”

Stevens is referring to the occupational disease that, after decades of declining rates, has reared back up to epidemic levels in the Appalachian coal fields. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimate one in five experienced Appalachian coal miners has some degree of black lung. 

Advanced stages of black lung disease can disable miners. That’s what happened to Arvin Hanshaw, 63, of Nicholas County, West Virginia. Hanshaw left the industry in 2012 because of his lung disease. “With my lungs in the situation they are now, I wouldn’t be able to fight the infection off.”

Before the coronavirus, Hanshaw received treatment for his black lung at a respiratory clinic in nearby Scarbro. The clinic specializes in helping disabled coal miners adapt to their new limitations and breathe as normally as possible. But the clinic closed its doors temporarily to protect its vulnerable patients. Hanshaw feels the difference. 

“It’s going to be really hard to find out actually how many people with the disease in the ICU or how many people who pass away have the underlying condition of black lung,” said Pikeville, Kentucky, radiologist and black lung researcher Dr. Brandon Crum. Crum raised the alarm about black lung rates in 2015 when he noticed rates of the illness at his clinic that were far higher than official data would suggest.

Crum has been calling all 300 of his complicated black lung patients — those with the most severe forms of the disease — to make sure they have the masks, gloves and social support they need to stay safe.

In Letcher County, Courtney Rhoades, a black lung association organizer with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, has set up a phone tree to reach out to disabled miners. “We’ve been getting a lot of calls from people who are really struggling with food, so we’ve been trying to get them set up with Meals on Wheels and things like that.” 

The pandemic hit when the coal industry was already in sharp decline.  Several companies declared bankruptcy in 2019, and according to notices about mass layoffs filed with state agencies in Kentucky and West Virginia, the coronavirus has already spurred more to close temporarily or for good. 

The industry trade group National Mining Association asked Congress and the White House in March for relief from fees that go toward health care for black lung victims and environmental cleanup on abandoned mine sites. The NMA’s requests have not yet been acknowledged.

This post has been updated to include a statement from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

W.Va.’s Longview Power Declares Bankruptcy Citing Low Energy Prices, Coronavirus Tuesday, Apr 14 2020 

A West Virginia-based coal plant operator has announced that it’s filing for bankruptcy due to weak demand for electricity. Longview Power LLC, which operates one of the newest and most efficient coal-fired power plants in the U.S. hailed by the Trump administration as a model for coal’s future, announced in a Tuesday press release that it would seek to restructure its debts and ownership structure under the Chapter 11 bankruptcy process.

The company cited low power demand, driven by a mild winter, cheap natural gas prices and the COVID-19 global pandemic.

“This filing is unfortunate but necessary given the current depressed power prices, which have further dropped more recently due to the terrible COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the nation and dramatic effects of the pandemic on the economy,” said Longview CEO Jeff Keffer.

Longview operates a 700-megawatt coal-fired power plant near Morgantown. The plant has been championed by federal officials, including former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who visited the plant in 2017.

“This plant — and I won’t say plants like it, because there’s not a lot like it — is incredibly important to the future of this country,” Perry said, during the tour.

The company says operations will continue during the bankruptcy.

In an interview last fall, Keffer was optimistic about Longview’s ability as a younger coal plant to weather the larger sector-wide coal downturn.

“We’re able to produce electricity more efficiently than any other coal plant in our region, the PJM region,” he said. “We’re able to do it at lower costs than just about any other fossil fuel that includes gas-fired plants.”

But that was before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered large swaths of the U.S. economy, which included lowering demand for electricity.

The filing does not affect a 1,200 megawatt natural gas plant and 70 megawatt solar farm Longview proposed in 2019. The two power generators will be constructed adjacent to the coal facility and were recently approved by state regulators.

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