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US: Rewriting Coal Policy; Friends in the White House Come to Coal's Aid

by Christopher Drew and Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Claire HoffmanThe New York Times
August 9th, 2004

In 1997, as a top executive of a Utah mining company, David Lauriski proposed a measure that could allow some operators to let coal-dust levels rise substantially in mines. The plan went nowhere in the government.

Last year, it found enthusiastic backing from one government official -- Mr. Lauriski himself. Now head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, he revived the proposal despite objections by union officials and health experts that it could put miners at greater risk of black-lung disease.

The reintroduction of the coal dust measure came after the federal agency had abandoned a series of Clinton-era safety proposals favored by coal miners while embracing others favored by mine owners.

The agency's effort to rewrite coal regulations is part of a broader push by the Bush administration to help an industry that had been out of favor in Washington. As a candidate four years ago, Mr. Bush promised to expand energy supplies, in part by reviving coal's fortunes, particularly in Appalachia, where coal regions will also help decide how swing states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio vote this year.

The president has also made good on a 2000 campaign pledge to ease environmental restrictions that industry officials said were threatening jobs in coal country. That promise led many West Virginia miners, who traditionally voted Democratic, to join coal operators in supporting Mr. Bush. It helped him win the state's five electoral votes, ultimately the margin of victory.

Safety and environmental regulations often shift with control of the White House, but the Bush administration's approach to coal mining has been a particularly potent example of the blend of politics and policy.

In addition to Mr. Lauriski, who spent 30 years in the coal industry, Mr. Bush tapped a handful of other industry executives and lobbyists to help oversee safety and environmental regulations.

In all, the mine safety agency has rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners' jobs safer, including steps to limit miners' exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.

In an interview, Mr. Lauriski said that the proposals that were canceled were unnecessary. He said the agency had instead concentrated on other measures ''we believed were important to pursue.''

He cited a revamping of evacuation procedures after an explosion killed 13 miners in Alabama in 2001, and requirements that workers be told about the presence and dangers of hazardous chemicals.

Mr. Lauriski said the coal dust measure would improve miners' health by encouraging the use of equipment to limit how much dust miners breathe.

The Bush administration's efforts to change the rules have led to battles with labor unions and environmentalists. Congress and the courts have stepped in to temporarily block some of the initiatives, including the coal dust measure.

''They generally want to do whatever the industry wants,'' said Representative Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat and member of the House Resources Committee who has been a critic of the administration's regulation of the industry. ''You don't even have to change the law. You can change the regulations and don't do enforcement.''

How any of these changes may affect the number of coal mining injuries and deaths is unclear. The rate of injuries has declined over the last 15 years. And a coal miner's odds of dying on the job are about the same as they were in the last years of the Clinton administration, government statistics show. The death tally, though, does not include black-lung disease, which still kills hundreds of miners every year.

But union leaders and some former agency officials see a direct link between the death rate and one specific proposal that was shelved. Before leaving office, the Clinton administration proposed updating technology to better protect workers from the two-story-high trucks that haul coal. Since that proposal was withdrawn in 2001, 16 miners have been killed in hauling accidents above ground.

The administration has also tried to make surface mining more economical by making it easier for coal companies to blast off the tops of mountains and dispose of rubble in valleys and streams.

Environmentalists say such ''mountaintop removal'' has destroyed some of Appalachia's beauty and polluted water supplies. They contend that Bush appointees have shifted the government's focus to expediting approvals of new mining permits from limiting the size of the mines.

The Case for Coal

But White House and industry officials say there is a larger case to be made for coal, which fuels generators that produce half the nation's electricity. As natural gas prices have soared, it has become much cheaper to use coal. Although pollutants from coal are among the biggest contributors to acid rain and global warming, coal is also plentiful and secure, with domestic reserves that could last for 230 years.

James L. Connaughton, the chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, said the changes in the mountaintop mining rules were ''all part of the broader effort to sustain coal as a critical part of the nation's energy mix, because it's affordable, it's reliable and it's domestically secure.'' Mr. Connaughton said the administration also was committed to improving environmental safeguards.

Critics say, however, that the administration's support for coal shows how it has catered to industries that have contributed heavily to Republicans.

''This is a results-oriented administration,'' said Joseph M. Lovett, a lawyer for environmental groups that have sued to block the mountaintop mining rules. ''It knows who it wants to reward.''

Over the last six years, coal companies have donated $9 million to federal political candidates and party organizations, and 90 percent has gone to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Coal production has expanded in the West, but in most Appalachian states, where mining jobs are highly coveted, employment has stagnated or slipped since 2000. As a result, the battle over coal in crucial swing states is a wild card in this fall's election.

Every month, on average, two or three coal miners die on the job. Some are electrocuted by high-voltage cables. Others are crushed when mine roofs collapse. Some, like William Birchfield and Rodney Sheets, die in accidents involving the huge trucks that carry coal.

At dawn on Sept. 17, 2003, their van pulled near the front of one of the trucks at a mountaintop mine in Boone County, W.Va., to deliver supplies to the truck driver. According to federal investigators, the truck, sitting on 11-foot-tall wheels, had a blind spot extending 60 feet in front of its right side. As the truck moved ahead, a co-worker tried to stop it, shouting ''Whoa'' on the radio. But it was too late: the van was flattened.

In 1998, the mine-safety administration reported that surface hauling accounted for 30 percent of fatal, above-ground mine accidents. The agency proposed improvements to restraint systems and lighting on hauling vehicles and to eliminate blind areas by requiring use of radar and video cameras.

Union officials said that enhancements were needed because ''the size and speed of haulage equipment and the size of the mines have changed in the last decade with little or no changes in the regulations.''

But mine owners and operators were opposed, saying the technology was unproven and costly. Mr. Lauriski, the new head of the mine safety administration, said he agreed with those concerns, and the proposal was killed in 2001.

In the Boone County case, investigators said an operating video system likely would have averted the accident. That truck had cameras, but the monitor was off.

J. Davitt McAteer, who proposed the rules as head of mine safety during the Clinton administration, said that if the idea had survived, ''I believe with strong conviction that a significant number of fatalities could have been avoided.''

Mr. Lauriski said that it was ''pure speculation'' to suggest the proposal would have saved lives, adding that it had not reached the final stage of rulemaking when Mr. Clinton left office.

He said the entire mining industry was experiencing fewer deaths and injuries.

Over all, 30 people died in coal mining accidents last year, down from 42 in 2001, the highest number since 1995. But as a percentage of hours worked, on-the-job deaths have remained about the same over the last six years, government statistics show.

Health and mining officials say they also continue to be concerned about deaths from black-lung disease. Workers contract the illness over a number of years as particles of coal dust lodge in their lungs.

Experts including the federal National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have long said that the allowable dust level should be cut in half -- from the current standard of no more than two milligrams for each cubic meter of air -- to reduce black-lung deaths.

Mr. Lauriski's proposal allows for higher levels of coal dust when companies can prove to regulators that they cannot bring the levels down through ''feasible'' means, like ventilation or dust suppression. In those cases, miners would be required to wear helmets with built-in respirators to keep air at the two-milligram standard.

Mr. Lauriski had sought the change in 1997 when he was the general manager at the Energy West Mining Company. The current proposal ''responds to Energy West's petition,'' according to the Federal Register.

Joe Main, health and safety director for the United Mine Workers, said Mr. Lauriski's proposal was an ''outrageous conflict.'' But the Labor Department inspector general has rejected conflict-of-interest complaints.

Mr. Lauriski said critics had taken the proposal ''out of context,'' and he denied it would raise coal dust. It will improve miners' health by encouraging the use of the helmet respirators, he said. He added that the Clinton administration had also proposed its own measure that could allow more dust.

Mr. McAteer, the agency's former head, said that measure applied to only a small fraction of the mines affected by Mr. Lauriski's plan and would have capped dust at far lower limits. The proposal died within a few months after union opposition.

It was not until a boisterous public hearing on May 6, 2003, at a Holiday Inn in southwestern Pennsylvania that it became clear how high the dust levels could rise under Mr. Lauriski's proposal.

There, under questioning from Mr. Main, a mine-safety administration official conceded that the proposal could allow dust to increase fourfold. ''It could go up to a maximum of eight milligrams,'' said the official, Bob Thaxton.

Union officials say the proposal is a blatant effort to circumvent federal law, which requires more comprehensive controls to reduce dust and states that respirators ''shall not be substituted.'' They also say many miners would balk at wearing a helmet that encloses their face in a visor, with dust and sweat clouding their vision.

Other critics include Dr. David Wegman, chairman of a federal panel that in 1996 unanimously recommended the government consider lowering dust levels. In a letter, he and two other panel members told the Bush administration they were ''appalled'' that it would consider letting coal dust levels rise so high.

Even the manufacturer of the helmets, the 3M Company, warned that the proposal had flaws, including the agency's acknowledgement that many miners would not always wear the helmets properly. ''This appears to be an abdication of the responsibilities delegated by Congress to M.S.H.A.,'' a 3M official said in a letter to the agency.

Bruce Watzman, health and safety vice president for the National Mining Association, the industry's main lobbying group, said mine operators did not think of the helmets as an alternative to other measures.

For now, the rules have been delayed following opposition from lawmakers, including Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, and Representative Nick J. Rahall II, Democrat of West Virginia. Mr. Rahall said he worried that the industry would ultimately be successful in getting around dust limits. ''It's not the first time, and I don't envision it will be the last time,'' he said. ''They're always looking for a way to sneak it in.''

On a rainy day in August 2000, with polls showing that he had a chance to carry West Virginia, Mr. Bush stopped in Charleston to rally support. Just before he left, he paused on the airport tarmac for a brief meeting that helped lay the seeds for the changes in environmental rules that favor the Appalachian coal industry.

In a roped-off area behind the rental cars, Bill Raney, the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, an industry group, and Dick Kimbler, who headed a local chapter of the mine workers union, told Mr. Bush about layoffs at mountaintop mines. They said they also complained that a growing emphasis on environmental protection was delaying the approval of mining permits and eliminating jobs.

Mr. Bush replied that the problems underscored the need to develop a national energy policy, the other men said. Less than two hours later, Donald L. Evans, then Mr. Bush's campaign chairman and now the commerce secretary, called Mr. Raney, who said they talked about making the permitting process less cumbersome.

Mr. Raney and Mr. Kimbler then created the Balanced Energy Coalition, an industry group that persuaded many coal miners to back Mr. Bush. They also worked with the state's most prolific Republican fund-raiser, James H. Harless, a coal operator who collected $275,000 for Mr. Bush, five times what Mr. Gore raised in the entire state.

In embracing Mr. Bush, the industry officials were looking for help in countering a court ruling that had suddenly placed them on the defensive.

Throughout the 1980's and the 1990's, the open-pit mines had proliferated, leveling mountaintops and burying valleys under piles of rubble. Coal executives say this approach enables them to recover the smallest seams of coal and is more cost effective than underground mining.

Although residents complained about the dust and noise, and damage to their homes from the explosions, federal and state officials have acknowledged that regulators typically rubber-stamped the permit applications.

But in 1998, residents and environmentalists sued, arguing that many of the mines were illegal under laws protecting the nation's water supplies. The suit focused on how the debris was dumped into valleys, creating towering walls of earth and rock that covered streams and, in some cases, caused flooding from rainwater runoff.

In late 1999, Judge Charles H. Haden II of United States District Court in West Virginia, a conservative Republican, stunned the industry by ruling that companies could no longer bury streams under these massive structures, called ''valley fills.''

While the industry appealed the ruling, the Clinton administration began holding back permits and started a sweeping environmental impact study that focused on limiting the size of the valley fills, and thus the size of the mines.

But after the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., nullified Judge Haden's order in April 2001, the Bush administration began to change the direction of its efforts.

Mr. Connaughton, the White House official, said that while the administration wanted to increase environmental protection, it also wanted to make sure the rules on mountaintop mines provided the ''clarity and certainty'' that companies needed for such huge investments.

But environmentalists were worried that some Bush appointees were too close to industry executives. They said they were particularly unnerved by the involvement of the deputy interior secretary, J. Steven Griles, who had been a lobbyist for mining interests before taking the department's No. 2 job.

In October 2001, Mr. Griles wrote to other administration officials, emphasizing that the environmental impact study should focus on ''centralizing and streamlining coal mine permitting'' as well as ''minimizing or mitigating environmental impacts.''

Mr. Griles and other officials met that November with Ken Mehlman, then the White House political director and now Mr. Bush's campaign manager, to talk about the study. Mr. Griles said in a recent interview that everyone agreed on the need to ''restore regulatory certainty so people will know what the rules of the game are.''

The department's inspector general later investigated Mr. Griles's contacts with industry executives on several issues for possible conflicts of interest, but concluded that he had done nothing improper. Mr. Griles said he became involved with the impact study only because it seemed to be ''in disarray'' and needed coordination.

The Issues in Appalachia

Over the last two and a half years, the administration has changed one environmental regulation and announced plans to weaken another. And when officials released a new draft of the impact statement in May 2003, environmentalists were outraged.

The report found that 1,200 miles of streams had been buried or damaged over the past two decades. But the Bush administration dropped the Clinton effort to limit the size of the valley fills. Instead, it called for more coordination among state and federal agencies to simplify the permitting process and minimize environmental harm.

As a result, permits for mountaintop mines started flowing again last year, with 14 approved in West Virginia, up from just 3 in 2002. But just last month a court dealt a blow to the Bush administration's efforts, in a response to another suit by Mr. Lovett and other environmentalists.

Judge Joseph R. Goodwin of United States District Court in West Virginia barred the Bush administration from using one of the main methods for expediting permit approvals that it had endorsed in the environmental review. The judge ordered the government to revoke the permits for 11 mines and to conduct more extensive environmental reviews before issuing any new permits.

''This really does eviscerate the Bush administration's position,'' Mr. Lovett said. ''It means they will no longer be able to ignore how this practice is devastating our environment.''

In the past several months, both Mr. Bush and his Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry, have made frequent visits to West Virginia and other Appalachian states.

They have talked about the Iraq war and personal values, topics likely to resonate with local residents, who tend to be socially conservative and include a relatively high percentage of military veterans. But neither candidate has tackled the mining issue head-on in recent visits.

Mr. Kerry, who has long voted with labor unions and environmentalists, said last fall before he emerged as the Democratic front-runner, ''Where we see a beautiful mountaintop, George Bush sees a strip mine.'' He supports spending $10 billion to research and develop technologies for burning coal more cleanly, more than twice as much as Mr. Bush has proposed.

But other Democrats say Mr. Kerry has to be careful not to let the Republicans paint him as an environmental extremist, much as they did Al Gore in 2000.

Mr. Bush has been cautious as well. Even with the growing demand for coal by utilities, the number of coal-mining jobs in West Virginia has slipped to 14,501 last year from 15,747 in 2000. And one recent poll suggested that 56 percent of the state's residents opposed mountaintop removal mining.

For many residents of the coal fields, the most pressing issues are for the industry to do a better job of reclaiming the mined land.

Mr. Connaughton said that the Bush administration had begun to insist that companies do more to reclaim the land, like planting forests and preparing for commercial development.

The United Mine Workers have endorsed Mr. Kerry, but at the Hobet mine in Logan County, W.Va., it is unclear whom the workers favor. One miner, Bruce Linville, said that some of his fellow workers appreciated Mr. Bush's efforts to promote coal but that they had concerns about the Iraq war.

On the other hand, Mr. Linville, who said he supported Mr. Kerry, said some miners were sticking with Mr. Bush because they were ''kind of afraid that Mr. Kerry could be too big of an environmentalist'' and restrict mountaintop mining. ''They see it as doom and gloom,'' he said.

''Campaign Contributions''
The employees and owners of coal mining companies have given millions dollars to political candidates, mostly to Republicans.


Top companies nationwide
For 2002 and 2004 election cycles

COMPANY: 1. Peabody Energy
CONTRIBUTIONS: $1,438,011
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 95%

COMPANY: 2. AEI Resources
CONTRIBUTIONS: 532,750
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 94

COMPANY: 3. Murray Energy
CONTRIBUTIONS: 450,125
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 96

COMPANY: 4. Drummond
CONTRIBUTIONS: 351,747
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 90

COMPANY: 5. Arch Coal
CONTRIBUTIONS: 298,884
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 86

COMPANY: 6. Boich
CONTRIBUTIONS: 211,900
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 96

COMPANY: 7. Amvest
CONTRIBUTIONS: 192,950
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 94

COMPANY: 8. RAG American Coal
CONTRIBUTIONS: 153,700
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 78

COMPANY: 9. American Energy
CONTRIBUTIONS: 128,900
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 95

COMPANY: 10. International Industries
CONTRIBUTIONS: 120,700
PERCENTAGE GIVEN TO REPUBLICANS: 99

Note: Data includes contributions from political action committees, soft money donors and individuals giving $200 or more. It could also include donations from the organization's P.A.C., its individual employees or owners, and those individuals' immediate families. Data is for two-year election cycles.

(Source by Center for Responsive Politics)





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