Surging Coronavirus Cases Threaten To Derail Reopening In Ohio Valley Monday, Jul 20 2020 

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At the Community Farmers Market in Bowling Green, Kentucky, vendors and shoppers are adjusting to the new normal during the coronavirus pandemic. That includes wearing face coverings, maintaining distance, and taking other precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

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Ohio Valley Continues Unprecedented Surge Of Unemployment Thursday, Apr 16 2020 

Unemployment insurance claims are still reaching unprecedented levels across the Ohio Valley region.

At least 287,576 people in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia joined those seeking help during the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic. That’s in addition to the roughly 755,000 claims form the three states in the previous two weeks.  

The data released Thursday morning by the U.S. Department of Labor showing more than 5.25 million unemployment claims around the country. 

Labor Department figures for the week ending  April 10 show Kentucky with 115,763 claims; Ohio with 157,218; and West Virginia with 14,595.

Officials from the three states are looking to the jobless figures to understand how deep of a recession the region could be in for. Backlogs across Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia continue to be a problem with some people initially being rejected for their unemployment claim.   

Kentucky officials announced this week that the additional $600 a week federal unemployment benefit has been sent out to 156,931 people totaling over $139 million. According to Josh Benton, the Deputy Secretary of Kentucky’s Workforce Development Cabinet, the state has had 521,592 unemployment claims since March 16. 

Kentucky Center for Economic Policy Executive Director Jason Bailey said the unemployment assistance program is dealing with an unprecedented amount of claims and that raises an important question. 

“Are the levels of support and benefits we’re offering people adequate for the kind of economic calamity that we’re really facing at this point?” 

Bailey said unemployment claims could begin to decrease only to be followed by a second surge of claims as the economic fallout begins to affect different sectors of the economy. 

He said the reported claims are just one portion of people who are unemployed and need assistance. It doesn’t include people whose claims are still waiting to be decided, employers who are challenging those claims, or those who aren’t yet eligible for unemployment benefits.   

Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said there have been more unemployment claims made in the last month than there were in the last two years and the state is also still dealing with a backlog of those applications. 

“We’re in this battle with the system that we have and it worked well. When the unemployment rate was 4% it worked fine. Both in terms of technology and staffing. It was adequate for the task it was being called to do.” 

Husted said before the pandemic there were about 42 people working in the unemployment call center and now there are almost 1,200. 

The Lt. Gov. said the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services hopes to have 337 more people trained and working to address the backlog in unemployment assistance applications soon. Additionally, Husted announced that by the end of next week Ohio will begin processing the additional $600 a week in assistance from the federal CARES Act.   

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said the state is processing nearly 40 times what they would normally see in unemployment applications and they are also still trying to address a backlog. In an attempt to get payments out to West Virginians sooner Justice announced people will be able to get a direct payment instead of having a debit card mailed to them. 

Justice Coal Companies Agree To Settle $5 Million In Delinquent Mine Safety Debts Thursday, Apr 2 2020 

Coal companies owned by the family of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice have agreed to pay more than $5 million in overdue mine health and safety fines and fees.

According to a press release released Wednesday, a total of 24 coal companies owned by the Justice family agreed to settle millions of dollars in unpaid penalties and fines owed to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. 

The fines stemmed from nearly 3,000 citations issued to Justice mine operators between May 2014 and May 2019 under the federal Mine Safety and Health Act. 

The settlement comes nearly one year after the U.S. Department of Justice sued the Justice companies in May 2019, following an Ohio Valley ReSource investigation that showed the Justice companies had the highest delinquent mine safety debt in the U.S. mining industry. 

The civil lawsuit, brought by U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen of the Western District of Virginia and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, alleged 23 Justice coal companies located in five states — Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky — owed more than $5 million in delinquent debts. 

In the release, Cullen said the Justice-owned companies agreed to pay all outstanding debts and penalties associated with their mine safety violations.

“It is our hope that this landmark collection action and settlement agreement sends a clear message that the Department of Justice will aggressively pursue mine safety violations and hold owners and operators accountable,” Cullen said. 

In total, the Justice companies will pay $4,065,578.29 to satisfy the debts identified in the original lawsuit. In addition, another Justice company, Bluestone Coal Corporation, also agreed to pay $1,064,547.18  for other unpaid fines and fees.

The original 23 companies in the settlement include: Southern Coal Corporation, Justice Coal of Alabama, A&G Coal Corporation, Black River Coal, Chestnut Land Holdings, Double Bonus Coal Company, Dynamic Energy, Four Star Resources, Frontier Coal Company, Infinity Energy, Justice Energy Company, Justice Highwall Mining, Kentucky Fuel Corporation, Keystone Service Industries, M&P Services, Nine Mile Mining, Nufac Mining Company, Pay Car Mining; Premium Coal Company, S and H Mining, Sequoia Energy, Tams Management and Virginia Fuel Corporation.

While ‘Zombie’ Mines Idle, Cleanup And Workers Remain In Limbo Thursday, Sep 5 2019 

The sound of metal banging against metal broke the calm on the high mesa separating Colorado’s Paradox and Big Gypsum valleys. An old rusted headframe marked the entrance to an abandoned uranium mine that, from a distance, looked as if its workers were simply off on a lunch break.

Jennifer Thurston, a local environmentalist, paused at the edge of the dirt road, wondering what caused the noise. Then she walked closer, finding ample evidence of the site’s long disuse. Ore sat in a hopper, likely untouched since the mine — known as Van 4 — last produced in 1989. Any loose metal and wiring had long since been stripped from two buildings, one of which looked ready to collapse.

“They’re just sitting out there doing nothing,” Thurston said of the uranium mines dotting southwestern Colorado. “They’re zombies.”

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Jennifer Thurston, an activist with the Information Network for Responsible Mining, tours the long-idled Van 4 mine. She won a court ruling in July that called for cleanup to begin.

Meanwhile, about 1,500 miles away, out-of-work coal miners spent weeks this summer protesting, camped out on Kentucky railroad tracks, demanding a paycheck they earned but lost when their operator went bankrupt. Though separated by a generation, along with most of a continent, these Eastern miners are linked to their Western counterparts by a seismic shift in the nation’s electricity generation.

Their mines once fueled the coal and nuclear power plants that kept America’s lights on. Now, cheaper natural gas and renewables are helping push them into the red.

But instead of properly closing the mines, their owners are idling them indefinitely, throwing workers into limbo and side-stepping legally mandated, but costly, environmental cleanup.

Several dozen U.S. uranium mines and more than 150 coal mines sit idle and have not produced for years, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation. Also idled long-term are facilities such as processing plants, including more than 40 in the coal industry. Mine owners have exploited regulatory loopholes to warehouse their operations, changing the status of their permits on paper while little to no activity happens on the ground.

Mining is a cyclical, boom-and-bust industry, so state and federal laws allow companies to pause work while prices rebound. In the coal industry, where the relevant permit status is usually called “temporary cessation,” this pause rarely has a cap — although regulators attempt to track the number that have been idled for at least three years. In uranium mining, where operations usually wait in “standby,” the limits differ by state — 10 years in Colorado but indefinitely in Utah if “good cause” is shown, for instance.

But many of the mines identified in this investigation have remained “temporarily” paused for decades at a time, despite occasional increases in commodity prices.

And most will likely never produce again.

Uranium and coal are the mines most often idled for long periods, but the investigation also identified about 120 quarries and five Western gold mines paused for three or more years.

Mine owners argue they’re operating within the law, saying higher prices will eventually rescue them. Though government regulators have at times attempted to crack down, their hands are often tied. The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which oversees coal mining, began rewriting weak federal regulations in 1991; faced with industry pushback, it never finished. The agency killed a more recent effort two months after President Donald Trump took office.

Regulators acknowledge that some companies have abused vague laws. “There were applications where a company had applied to get a temporary cessation status, and they were just trying to keep from having to do any further mining or reclamation,” said Davie Ransdell, a retired Kentucky coal mine inspector.

The Four Corners region — where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet — is home to much of the country’s historical uranium industry, now largely dormant. These sites add to the air and water pollution and low-grade radioactivity that have been linked to local health problems for decades. In Central Appalachia, heavily mined for 150 years, the omnipresent but dying coal industry has sheared off mountaintops and buried streams.

Larry Bush, a retired coal miner and mine inspector who lives in southwestern Virginia near idled operations, is among those fed up with the lack of cleanup.

“They’re destroying everything on Earth and under it,” he said.

Looney Ridge3Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border.

Radioactive Legacy

Remnants of America’s nuclear past litter the Grants Mining District in northwest New Mexico: signs warning of radioactivity, a spiked drill bit outside the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants, businesses offering to help retired miners get U.S. Department of Labor health benefits.

Mount Taylor — “Tsoodzil” to the Navajo Nation — towers over the landscape. At the base of the 11,305-foot-tall inactive volcano sits the Mount Taylor Mine, idled in 1990 and allowed to flood

The heyday of Southwestern uranium mining lasted just 30 years. Much of the industry, including this mine, has since remained in standby.

The country’s last operational underground uranium mine shut in 2015, and open-pit mines haven’t produced in decades. Only one mill in Utah and four in-situ-leach operations, in which ore is dissolved belowground and pumped up, are still active. Two other mills and 15 in-situ-leach sites are either officially in standby or not producing. The American uranium industry employed only 372 people last year, down from 1,120 two decades earlier. Production from U.S. uranium mines fell 85 percent during that period, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

At current prices, mining uranium in the Four Corners remains untenable.

But now the Mount Taylor Mine is reopening, at least on paper. Eric Jantz, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, has been fighting the long-idled mine in court. “What we’re asking for is what the Legislature demands: that the mine either start producing or it start reclaiming,” he said, speaking at his home office, boxes of paperwork and his dog’s chew toys competing for space. Out front, a bumper sticker on his car said, “Uranium — Leave it in the ground.”

The Mount Taylor Mine’s first standby permit was issued in 1999. That means this October the site exhausts the maximum 20 years of inactivity New Mexico allows. In December 2017, the New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division, later backed up by the New Mexico Mining Commission on appeal, allowed the mine to re-enter “active” status even though the mining company’s application noted it required eight years to restart production.

Jantz said state regulators “seem to bend over backwards to accommodate the mining interests’ needs, at the same time minimizing, belittling and, a lot of times, ultimately dismissing community concerns.”

Susan Torres, spokeswoman for the state Environment Department, wrote in a statement that companies can’t clean up their site while in standby. The mining division “approved the Permittee’s proposal to resume active status for the purpose of undertaking partial reclamation operations,” she wrote.

In its court filings, General Atomics subsidiary Rio Grande Resources, which owns the Mount Taylor Mine but didn’t make anyone available to comment, said the plaintiffs spread “revisionist history” and that “in light of the several intervening permit actions that have long since become final,” standby status didn’t begin when mining stopped. In an appellate decision in late July, a state court affirmed the state mining agency’s decision to allow the non-producing mine to switch its permit status to “active.”

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

A sign warns of an abandoned uranium mine. Two such mines, in addition to a former mill site, surround the Red Water Pond Road Community in the Navajo Nation.

Twenty miles southeast, the Jackpile-Paguate Uranium Mine, once the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine, is now a Superfund site. In the broader Four Corners region, the U.S. Department of Energy is supposed to clean up more than 20 such Cold War relics, from former mills to waste piles. Some leak arsenic, lead, uranium and other toxic substances into groundwater. Recently, hoofprints were found leading from an unfenced pollution control pond near Slick Rock, Colorado, indicating that cattle likely drink from it.

Just inside the southeastern corner of the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, an unsettling sign hangs from barbed wire: “DANGER. ABANDONED URANIUM MINE,” a pile of mine waste looming behind it. Residents here in the Red Water Pond Road Community are surrounded by two abandoned uranium mines and a mill.

A cold wind blew dust across the landscape from the pale yellow mounds of waste. Some landed on a modest home where a trickle of cars pulled up one morning in May, carrying researchers from the University of New Mexico and the Southwest Research and Information Center. They’d come to collect blood and urine samples for a project studying whether zinc supplements could reduce the impacts of exposure to the heavy metals in uranium mine waste.

Living around or working in uranium mines can worsen, or even trigger, autoimmune disorders, kidney disease, respiratory issues, hypertension and cancer. A study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the University of New Mexico and Navajo agencies found that Navajo Nation citizens, including infants, had elevated levels of uranium in their bodies.

Paul Robinson, Southwest Research and Information Center’s research director, has tracked the industry for more than 40 years. While the New Mexico Mining Act mandates that waste rock and other infrastructure be stabilized before entering standby status, it allows operators to delay reclamation while mining is paused, he said.

“Leaving the wastes that are generated at a mine uncovered is one of the ways to ensure airborne or waterborne release,” Robinson said.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Thompson Bell, a member of the Navajo Nation, spent five years as a mechanic in a uranium mine. Many of his coworkers have since died from cancer, he says.

Thompson Bell, a member of the Navajo Nation who spent five years as a mechanic in a uranium mine, grew up here and returned for the study. He said many of his mining coworkers died from lung cancer. The sheep and cattle that used to graze here have all but disappeared, the flocks given up for fear of contamination.

“The thing about uranium, we found out: It destroys humans and land,” Bell said.

Opinion remains split locally about whether the return of relatively high-paying mining jobs — if that ever happened — would be worth the human and environmental consequences. Christine Lowery, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna and a commissioner for the county where the Mount Taylor Mine is located, said she welcomes a cleaner economy.

“Those mines were open for one generation,” she said. “The legacy lasts forever.”

‘Wolves are at my door’

More than 20 years ago, Todd Adams followed his father, uncles and grandfathers into the coal mines of Harlan County, Kentucky. The area has a history of bloody labor fights. But even so, he was shocked by what happened after his employer filed for bankruptcy protection on July 1: Blackjewel quietly clawed his final paycheck out of his bank account.

Blackjewel is part of a private coal empire until recently owned by Jeff Hoops, an avid user of temporary cessation. Workers around the country lost their jobs and final paychecks when several of his companies, including another operator called Revelation Energy, sought bankruptcy protection.

“If I can work in this industry another 20 years, that’s good for me,” said Adams. He participated in this summer’s railroad protest but believes the industry will disappear from Harlan within a few decades. “But this younger generation, I don’t know what the county holds for them.”

U.S. coal production has fallen by a third in the past decade, and temporary cessation has emerged as an escape route for cash-strapped owners. One in five non-abandoned coal mines now sits idle. Hoops’ companies have idled coal operations more often and for longer than nearly anyone, and the Blackjewel and Revelation bankruptcy proceedings offer a master class in avoiding liability in a dying industry.

Miners_On_Tracks-63 (1)Curren Sheldon

Near the scene of the miners’ protest in Harlan Co., KY.

Central Appalachia — covering portions of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia — was once the heart of U.S. coal. Its share of production halved in the past 15 years, and as the industry dissolved, the region became the epicenter of long-term idling. About half the country’s 415 idled coal mines and related facilities, and half of those idled for more than three years, are located here, according to Public Integrity’s analysis of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data. That’s likely an undercount, but state and federal data are incomplete and not often comparable.

Long-term idling brings huge layoffs. Coal mines and the plants serving them that have been idled for at least three years had 85 percent fewer full-time employees after switching into idle status than they did a year before, Public Integrity’s analysis found. Management often promises that jobs will quickly return, miners say, encouraging workers to stay in towns with few other prospects.

This mainly happens in the East; out West, just eight coal operations sit idle, with only three workers still employed between them.

Union mines are not immune to idling and benefit losses, but some union contracts grant members call-back rights if their mines reopen and priority to transfer to other operations under the same owner, if not.

Glenn Sykes, a Vietnam veteran, spent 32 years mining Central Appalachian coal. Even though the industry was stronger then, Sykes wasn’t a union miner, and whenever one job dried up, the company’s support was “cut off right then. All my benefits were gone.”

“They’d say this job was gonna last 20 years. You were lucky if it lasted three. I was always moving around from job to job,” Sykes said. He has silicosis, a deadly lung disease likely caused by the fine dust kicked up in mines, and is fighting to preserve his benefits.

Data before the early 2000s was spotty, but it appears to indicate an uptick in temporary cessation during the 1990s. As the industry wanes, so too does the number of producing mines. Fifteen years ago, 61 percent of coal mines were producing, not including abandoned sites, which were largely jettisoned before the federal coal mining law was passed in 1977. That number has since fallen to 42 percent.

And though coal regulators knew that temporary cessation could be used as a loophole, they failed to enact meaningful changes.

First in 1991 and again in 2011, Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, or OSMRE, proposed to write new rules to better regulate the practice. The first attempt was withdrawn a year later after the mining industry and several state agencies called it unnecessary. The second attempt was halted by the Trump administration.

Internal notes made by OSMRE staff in 2010, recently obtained by Public Integrity, showed that not-so-temporary closures were bedeviling regulators around the country. A survey sent to all state and federal agencies overseeing coal mining found that a majority “experienced problems administering temporary cessation. Most States believe there should be a maximum time limit.”

The agency’s Tennessee office told OSMRE officials, “The temporary cessation concept has been abused for years by operators desiring to retain viable permits but not conducting mining operations” and that efforts to compel either reclamation or mining “have failed for lack of … clearly defined regulations or policies.”

As the industry shrinks, long-term idling can be used as a stepping stone to forfeiture, passing cleanup responsibilities to the government and taxpayers. That may happen to some of Hoops’ mines. As part of the bankruptcy proceedings, Hoops and his family walked away from most of their companies.

Hoops specialized in scavenging, buying often unprofitable mines after a series of bankruptcies hit the country’s largest coal companies in 2015 and 2016.

Twenty-one of his coal mines and related facilities were temporarily idled as of mid-August, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data, seven of them for at least three years.

idle-mines-by-age-v5Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Potential buyers appeared interested last month in some of the mines owned by his companies in bankruptcy proceedings. But what would happen to the rest was unclear. If unpurchased, they would likely fall to states to reclaim — first with the inadequate funds companies set aside for that purpose, and after that with taxpayer money. At least 16 additional Central Appalachian operations owned by other companies in bankruptcy are idle.

Records from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet showed that more than 20 percent of permits idled in the state are tied to Hoops or were until July’s bankruptcy.

Cabinet spokesman John Mura said state legal staff is actively engaged in the bankruptcy proceedings, adding that the state is not concerned about temporary cessation because only 10 percent of Kentucky coal permits are currently idle.

Reached by phone, Hoops declined to comment. Numbers listed to Lexington Coal Co., where his wife Patricia is an executive, were disconnected.

About 1,100 Central Appalachian miners lost their jobs during the bankruptcy. Brandon Fleming, a Virginia miner who lived and worked not far from Harlan County, was one of several who said their employer sharply cut costs beforehand. Fleming said that workers were told: “If you find a pair of safety glasses lying in the mud, if you need a pair, wipe them off and use them. If you need gloves, go buy your own. And if you didn’t like it, go get another job.”

When he cashed what turned out to be a bad check from Blackjewel, his bank initially threatened legal action against him. He’s since been given several months to pay the money back, money that he earned. Now he’s working at a car dealership for half the pay and three times the commute.

“I’ve done lost just about everything, and the wolves are at my door,” Fleming said. His wife’s car was repossessed, and he couldn’t afford to buy his fourth-grade daughter new school clothes. “It breaks my heart.”

Paperwork shuffling

The calendar pinned to the wall read “April 2009,” although it was actually May 2019 at the abandoned office of the Sunday Mine, 17 miles southwest of Naturita, Colorado. Cobwebs covered an empty desk in the next room, and paperwork spilled out of a box onto the dusty floor.

“This mine is not going to come back to life,” Thurston, the activist, said as she viewed the mess.

The Sunday Mine is part of a complex of five uranium operations owned by Western Uranium & Vanadium subsidiary Pinon Ridge Mining. Now, president and CEO George Glasier, a titan of American uranium mining, hopes to restart them after years of idling.

Legal battles are being fought across the Uravan Mineral Belt in southwestern Colorado. Modern uranium miners, including Glasier, want to revive their operations, while Thurston, a mine watchdog with the Information Network for Responsible Mining, believes final reclamation should begin. As she whipped her car through the region’s valleys, she noted with a flash of dark humor that she’s stared at the same piles of waste rock her entire life.

In July, the Colorado Court of Appeals agreed with the environmental group in one case. A panel of judges ruled that the Van 4 mine — the old site above Paradox, near the Sunday Mine and also owned by Glasier — had overstayed its allotted time in temporary cessation.

In the Uravan Mineral Belt, 31 lease tracts managed by the Department of Energy cover about 25,000 acres. A federal court in Colorado lifted a long-standing injunction against new mining activity in March. Two months later, the mines were still far from production. At one called C-JD-5, equipment and buildings were badly damaged from years of theft.

Republican state Sen. Don Coram is part-owner of Gold Eagle Mining, which holds C-JD-5 and several other mines that haven’t produced since he bought in more than 20 years ago. Over breakfast in May, he said it comes down to the markets.

“It’s a big waiting game right now,” he said.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Bullet holes pockmark a sign showing the location of buried uranium mill waste in southwest Colorado.

C-JD-5 is “abandoned,” according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration data. But the Department of Energy considers it “actively leased.” Colorado Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety records show Coram switched the permit out of “final reclamation” in the most recent annual report.

That’s why environmental activists call such operations “zombie mines” — it’s impossible to say whether they’re alive or dead.

Mining law’s complexity makes this possible.

Coal mining falls under a federal law that mandates only that mining companies notify regulators when a permit will be in temporary cessation longer than 30 days. Twenty-one of the 23 states still producing coal wrote their own laws. But some barred themselves from enacting rules stricter than the federal government’s, and most long-term idling occurs in those states.

The federal government leaves it to the states to impose limits on uranium-mine idling. The resulting patchwork of state rules are largely anchored on a 147-year-old federal law aimed more at promoting mining than managing it.

Over time, uranium production has dropped, stockpiles remained large, nuclear power’s share of the country’s electricity production fell, and power plants bought more uranium from overseas. Still, mine owners hope for a revival.

Uranium producers banked on a petition to Trump that would have effectively subsidized the industry by compelling 25 percent of uranium used in American power plants to be produced domestically. But in July, the administration announced that importing uranium didn’t threaten national security, punting the question to a working group for further review.

While the industry awaits a decision, companies hold off on final reclamation. Groundwater monitoring at the Sunday Mine Complex has found heavy metals, although Glasier says the mine is above the water table and any water problems are naturally occurring.

“Once you reclaim something, it’s a lot harder to start it,” Glasier said at his ranch, which covers tens of thousands of acres along the San Miguel River. The impressive home he purchased with the profits from a successful mining career stands at the end of a long tree-lined driveway. “Once you shut the industry down,” he said, “it’s going to take you 10, 15 years and a high price to bring it back.”

Both Glasier and Coram believe another element might save their mines first. Vanadium, which often occurs alongside uranium in the Uravan, can be used in powerful batteries. Glasier believes his mines have high concentrations; he recently restarted sampling at the Sunday Mine Complex.

Neither man considers himself part of the industry’s history of pollution. They said they would willingly begin reclamation when their temporary cessation permits run out, if uranium and vanadium prices haven’t risen enough.

“The reason it got so messed up to begin with: It was totally the rush of the federal government,” Coram said. “We were in a wartime situation and were going to produce this at all costs.”

Cleaning up after the governor

As uranium mining pockmarked Colorado’s valleys, the coal industry eviscerated low peaks and forests in the Appalachian Mountains.

“Remembering how it was and how it is is depressing as hell,” said Bush, the former coal miner and mine inspector.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

Larry Bush, a retired coal miner and mine inspector, grew up hunting squirrels on this hill near Keokee, Virginia, which was since stripped and has been only partially reclaimed by companies linked to the governor of West Virginia.

Except for time spent serving in Vietnam, Bush is a lifelong resident of southwest Virginia, where the commonwealth melts into Central Appalachian coal country. Area streams once teemed with minnows, he said. Now they’re choked by silt running off unreclaimed mines.

He grew up hunting squirrels on a hill above his home, but a strip mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family now dominates the landscape. Today, Bush lives just up the road, where the hill above that home, too, has been leveled by a Justice operation.

Both mines have sat inactive for years at a time, fouling local waterways. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and four states filed legal action in 2016 against Justice and his companies, listing thousands of violations relating to inadequate environmental monitoring and water pollution, including elevated levels of iron and manganese flowing from these mines.

Justice and his family idle more permits than any other U.S. coal mine owners, according to Public Integrity’s analysis of federal data. Miles of ridgeline on the Virginia-Kentucky border lie barren after Justice mines went dormant.

It’s difficult to separate the environmental and health impacts caused by idled mines from those triggered by active operations, said Emily Bernhardt, a professor at Duke University who researches human impacts on ecosystems. Modern surface mining in Central Appalachia has been linked to health problems ranging from cancer to birth defects. And in a 2012 study, Bernhardt estimated that surface mining impaired about one in three miles of southern West Virginia’s rivers.

But idling poses other risks, Bernhardt said. When toxic waste piles — either solid rock or liquid confined behind earthen dams — are left unaddressed, the potential increases for “catastrophic failure,” she said, even as opportunities to use the land for new purposes are delayed.

“You can’t actually make any improvements when you’re just on hold,” she said.

In Central Appalachia, tens of thousands of acres, mostly former forests, lie barren at these idled coal operations, according to a Public Integrity analysis of satellite data compiled by environmental group SkyTruth. Communities that hope to grow outdoor recreation or other post-mining industries can’t move forward.

Ransdell, the former Kentucky mine inspector, said regulators can reject applications for idled status if they catch noncompliance and ongoing pollution. But problematic mines can slip through the cracks. She recalled a permit in eastern Kentucky that was put into temporary cessation for a decade because its underground workings were on fire. And the longer that surface mines are left exposed, the more likely that acid will leak into waterways, ponds holding polluted runoff will overflow and massive waste impoundments destabilize. 

“Coal companies know [long-term idling is] a viable option,” Ransdell said. “It’s something that can be abused easily because there are vague guidelines.”

Thirty-three mines and a preparation plant owned by the Justice family’s companies were idled as of mid-August, and 15 of them have been idled for at least three years, according to data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. One mine in McDowell County, West Virginia — Justice’s home state — has been paused since 2010.

And in Virginia — where two of his family’s coal operations have been idled on and off since 1984 — the Justice companies have only one mine still producing. They’re years behind on several of the original cleanup deadlines the state set.

“The end goal is to meet environmental obligations required by law in the state of Virginia, so we’ve given them dates and specific instructions of what needs to be reclaimed by when,” said Tarah Kesterson, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Idling permits is “standard practice” in the industry, a spokesman for the Justice companies, Brian Walsh, said in an emailed statement. “The Justice companies are proud to be one of the region’s leading job creators and environmental leaders within the coal industry” and have reclaimed several thousand acres in recent years, he said.

Mark Olalde | Ohio Valley ReSource

A broken down bulldozer rusts in 2018 on a Virginia strip mine owned by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice and his family.

Regulators in Virginia have few options. Justice mine cleanup liabilities in Virginia total as much as $200 million, and taxpayers could get stuck with a large share of that if the state takes over. That’s because those companies have put up only about $51 million for cleanup if the operations are abandoned. Half of that amount would likely be worthless in that scenario because, state records show, it is backed against the value of the companies. A pool of money Virginia set up to close gaps like this at 150 permits across the state, including some of Justice’s, has less than $10 million in it.

The state requires that mines covered by that shared funding pool increase the amount of money they set aside for reclamation once they’re idled longer than six months. But funding shortfalls persist.

All told, nearly a third of permits in Virginia are in some degree of temporary cessation, according to Kesterson.

This makes Bush angry: It’s created wastelands, he said.

An August visit to the Justice mine above his childhood home found reclamation still unfinished. Puddles dotted the site. Grass and weeds poked up through the exposed rock, in stark contrast to the lush surrounding forest. Near the treeline, a broken-down bulldozer sat abandoned, rusting.

Mark Olalde reported and wrote this story, and Joe Yerardi produced the data analysis. Brittany Patterson, energy and environment reporter with the Ohio Valley ReSource, contributed to this article.

Idle Lands: Justice Coal Group Top User Of Loophole Allowing Mine Lands To Sit Idle Thursday, Sep 5 2019 

Standing at an overlook on the top of Black Mountain — the tallest point in Kentucky —  the wooded Appalachian mountains stretch on like a sea of green for miles.

For many, this mountain is synonymous with the coal industry. It straddles the state line separating Harlan County, Kentucky and Wise County, Virginia, two communities that have long relied on mining the black gold contained in its depths.

Among the lush forests, barren, brown spots dot the landscape, a testament to this history. These are coal mines, created when the tops of these mountains were removed. From the top of Black Mountain, one sprawling mine and its towering high wall dominate the view.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Matt Hepler of the advocacy group Appalachian Voices.

“So, we are looking currently looking at Looney Ridge surface mine number one,” says Matt Hepler, an environmental scientist with the advocacy group Appalachian Voices.

Hepler has for years been following action, or lack thereof, at the Looney Ridge mine, which is operated by A&G Coal, a coal company run by the family of West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice.

Coal has not been produced here since at least 2013 when A&G Coal asked Virginia regulators to place the mine in what is called temporary cessation. The permit status allows mining to pause, giving mining companies flexibility on requirements for land reclamation until it becomes more economically feasible to begin extracting coal again. And, as the name implies, this idling of mines is supposed to be temporary.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

View of the Looney Ridge surface mine from atop Black Mountain.

An analysis of mine permit data conducted by the Center for Public Integrity finds Central Appalachia is home to about half of all idled coal mines in the country. CPI found more than 200 mines are idled across West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia. About half have been that way for three or more years. Warehousing mines using this permit status throws workers and nearby communities into limbo all while crucial environmental cleanup is delayed.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

The analysis shows that the Justice companies are the nation’s most frequent users of coal mine idling. Thirty-three mines and a coal preparation plant owned by the Justice family’s companies were idled as of mid-August. Fifteen of those have been in that status for at least three years, according to CPI’s analysis. In West Virginia, one Justice mine in McDowell County has been idled for almost a decade.

That number doesn’t include the Looney Ridge mine or others nearby in Virginia where coal also hasn’t been mined for years. That’s because in early 2014, state mining regulators entered into a compliance agreement with the Justices to force them to reclaim the site.

Hepler, with Appalachian Voices, said that agreement has not resulted in much actual reclamation. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has amended the compliance agreement multiple times.

“It’s looked like this for as long as I’ve been coming up here,” he said, pointing to the same broken-down bulldozer that has been there for years.

Tarah Kesterson, a spokesperson with the Virginia DMME, said the agency is pushing the Justices to clean up the site and is actively monitoring the situation as well as conducting inspections.

“We are doing everything within our enforcement authority to ensure that this gets done,” she said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Justice companies defended the reclamation work and said idling permits is a standard practice across the industry.

But as the nation shifts away from coal toward more economic options for power generation, such as natural gas and renewable energy, some fear the use of mine idling can be used as a stepping stone to abandon mines, passing the responsibility for cleanup to the government and taxpayers.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Unreclaimed mine land on Looney Ridge, near the KY/VA border.

Community Impact

Idle mines, especially those left untouched for years at a time, can negatively affect the economy, health, and environment of nearby communities.

“When mines become inactive or idle, they starve a local community, and they deprive the community of the coal mining jobs and other related jobs,” said Joe Pizarchik, former head of the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, the federal agency in charge of regulating surface coal mines, during the Obama administration.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

When mines enter temporary cessation employment plummets. CPI’s analysis found coal operations that have been idled for at least three years had 85 percent fewer full-time employees after switching into idle status than they did a year before.

“It also puts that land in a totally non-productive state,” Pizarchik said. “It’s not making money on anything for anybody for the community, and it can be a potential pollution source.”

In addition to being unsightly, there are health and safety risks associated with leaving mines unreclaimed, said Emily Bernhardt an ecosystem ecologist and biogeochemist and professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. Mines left idled can expose residents to coal and silica dust. They can also pose a risk for landslides and flooding. During surface coal mining, operators pile tons of rock and liquid behind earthen dams. When left idle, those impoundments face a greater likelihood of failing.

“You can’t actually make any improvements when you’re just sort of on hold,” Bernhardt said.

Who Pays?

Federal regulators have made two attempts since the 1990s to reform the way temporary cessation is used, according to public records obtained by CPI. Both have stalled. That’s despite a 2010 survey of state regulators that showed most states believed there should be limits on how long mines could be idled.

Federal law only requires that mining companies notify regulators when a permit will be in temporary cessation longer than 30 days.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Black Mtn. holds both natural beauty and scars of resource extraction.

State regulators can reject applications to change mines to an idled status if they find noncompliance or ongoing pollution. Kesterson with the Virginia DMME said before an operator can apply for temporary cessation, reclamation must be up to date. In Kentucky and Virginia, inspections continue while a mine is idled, and operators are fined if violations are found.

While in the past, mine operators may have used idling to pause production to allow coal prices to rebound, Pizarchik worries the nation’s shift away from coal means the chances of idled mines being cleaned up are shrinking.

“I believe it’s extremely unlikely that those mines will ever be activated again because the price of coal is never going to go up,” he said. “The demand is only going to continue to shrink.”

If operators walk away from idled mines, states could face challenges with mine reclamation depending on how coal mine bonds are regulated, and that could leave taxpayers on the hook for paying for reclamation.

In Virginia, for example, Justice mines have an estimated $200 million worth of cleanup liabilities, according to minutes from an April 2017 Coal Surface Mining Reclamation Fund Advisory Board meeting.

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

While Virginia is moving away from allowing coal operators to “self-bond” — or not put up a cash bond or buy a bond from an insurance firm if a company is deemed to be in good financial health — some A&G Coal permits remain self-bonded, Kesterson said. That means if the company were to go under, the state would get none of the money required for cleanup.

The state has in the past allowed coal companies to pay only partial bond amounts into a shared pool. The bond pool is meant to supplement cleanup for more than 150 permits, but the pool has less than $10 million cash.

“The reclamation would cost more than what we have in a pool bond,” Kesterson said of liabilities owed by A&G Coal. “So that’s why we’re trying to work with them, to get them to pay for the reclamation.”

Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Not all states are concerned. John Mura, spokesperson for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, said in an email that only 10 percent of Kentucky’s coal mines, or 150 permits, are in temporary cessation.

CPI’s analysis examined federal MSHA data on idled mining permits and is likely an undercount of idled mines because state and federal data are incomplete and often not comparable.

Mura said that following an order in 2011 by OSMRE to reform the state bonding program, base bond amounts have increased by about 60 percent.

“Kentucky has made great strides to ensure that reclamation bonds are adequate to complete reclamation in the event of bond forfeiture,” he said.

As the industry contracts, more bankruptcies are likely, which can open the door for companies to walk away from mines where buyers can’t be found.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A truck enters a mine belonging to the now-bankrupt Revelation Energy.

That’s one concern currently playing out with the Blackjewel LLC bankruptcy, which has left more than 1,000 miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia without their last paychecks.

CPI’s analysis found Blackjewel and other subsidiaries owned by former CEO Jeff Hoops had 21 coal mines and related facilities temporarily idled as of mid-August, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration data, and seven of those had been paused for at least three years. Many of those mines have not been purchased since Blackjewel’s bankruptcy.

At least 16 additional operations owned by other companies in bankruptcy sit in idle status, all of them in Central Appalachia, according to federal data.

‘Raped Out Mountains’

Retired coal miner and mine inspector Larry Bush knows firsthand how idle mines can impact the environment.

Bush lives below two Justice mines — one that is active and Looney Ridge. Sitting under a covered gazebo at a park in the town of Appalachia, Virginia, where he has lived almost his whole life, Bush said he sees the environmental toll unreclaimed mines can have on the environment.

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Former miner Larry Bush lives near two large coal mines in Virginia.

“There’s a little stream that’s pretty much filled up with silt,” he said. “Nothing can live in it. I mean, there’s nothing, I don’t think.”

The 70-year-old Vietnam veteran is soft-spoken and sports a pair of reflective aviator glasses.

Bush wants to see this region rebound as the coal industry declines, but he struggles to see how that can happen with idled mines marking the landscape.

“If they’re not actively employing people, or actively working the site, they should be forced to do their reclamation work instead of just leaving raped out mountains,” he says.

This story was produced in partnership with High Country News and the Center for Public Integrity. CPI’s Mark Olalde contributed reporting and Joe Yerardi produced CPI’s data analysis.

Mines That Change Owners Have Worse Safety Record, Audit Finds Thursday, Aug 22 2019 

A new federal government report shows that mines that changed ownership had worse safety records than mines where ownership did not change. According to an audit from the Department of Labor’s Office of the Inspector General, mines that changed ownership during a 17-year period were nearly twice as likely to have safety violations, and five times as likely to report severe accidents in the same period. 

Mines that changed hands had on average 134 safety violations, compared with 43 safety violations at mines that did not change hands. 

That could have implications for the Ohio Valley, where a spate of coal bankruptcies has industry watchers worried about continued turmoil for coal producers and more turnover of mine ownership. 

The audit comes after investigations from the Ohio Valley ReSource and NPR into unpaid debts for mine safety violations by coal mine operators, notably the companies belonging to West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s family. The Justice group’s mines owed more than $4 million in delinquent mine safety fines, and in May the Department of Justice filed a civil suit to recover those debts. 

According to an analysis of mine safety data by the ReSource, injury rates for miners working in delinquent underground coal mines are 31 percent higher than rates at mines that are not currently delinquent. 

The Inspector General’s audit concluded that the Mine Safety and Health Administration did not evaluate whether its penalty program was effective. MSHA also said evaluating the safety fine program would be difficult, as many factors contributed to each mine’s safety record. 

The report included coal mines and other types of mines MSHA categorizes as “metal and non-metal” mines, which makes it difficult to say what the data means specifically for Appalachian coal mining. Wes Addington, executive director of the Appalachian Citizens Law Center, said coal mining is more dangerous and more deadly than other forms of mining, so including other data obscures issues unique to coal mines. 

“There are so many metal/non-metal operations that it skews the information for coal operations in a way that makes the data not very useful,” Addington said. 

The audit also concluded that MSHA did not consider a miner operator’s record of safety fine debts when allowing the operator to open new mines. 

“What’s weird about the report is they want to come to the broad conclusion that the system of fines doesn’t affect safety,” Addington said. “And yet, towards the end, they want to make the point that MSHA should look at not issuing new mine IDs to companies that don’t pay their fines.” 

In a response to the audit, MSHA head David Zatezelo said federal regulations prevented the agency from considering previous safety records when assigning new mining permits, but committed to exploring ways to measure the success of its violation penalty program.