Rally Against Mountaintop Removal in DC This Weekend

(crossposted on FDL Seminal)

I have lived in West Virginia my entire life. In this beautiful mountainous state, one economic horse drives the economy: Coal. Coal mines employ many people in West Virginia, and across Appalachia, and are a crucial part to the region’s economic sustainability. It is coal that employs the people and powers the country, and it isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

-A little bit of background is necessary-

Most can probably remember the horrible Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster earlier this year in Raleigh County, WV. The devastating catastrophe left many dead, and federal investigators searching for answers to the root causes of the explosion. Now I’ve done my fair share of blasting Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship (Massey Energy is one of the largest coal companies in the country) on the Seminal, but it has been completely necessary. The negligence with which his mines are handled have cost the lives of several miners. This is only one of many unfortunate consequences brought on by coal mining in the region known as Appalachia.

Mountaintop Removal Mining (MTR) is a cheaper and more efficient way of mining coal, and works exactly like it sounds. Mountains, quite literally, have the tops blown off of them in order to expedite the coal mining process and make it more efficient. The mental image itself does quite a lot to illustrate the horrible effects it has on the mountains. Where once beautiful rolling hills full of plush green forest stood, now appears as leveled off dirt "quarry-like" areas of surface mining.  . . .

Appalachia Rising is an event which is starting to catch on in the national scene. Here’s a piece of pertinent info mentioned on their website (AppalachiaRising.org)

Appalachia Rising, an event which will take place in Washington DC, September 25-27, 2010 is a national response to the poisoning of America’s water supply, the destruction of Appalachia’s mountains, head water source streams, and communities through mountaintop removal coal mining. It follows a long history of social action for a just and sustainable Appalachia. Appalachia Rising strives to unite coalfield residents, grass roots groups, individuals, and national organizations to call for the abolition of mountaintop removal coal mining and demand that America’s water be protected from all forms of surface mining.

An important group that makes things like Appalachia Rising happen, and that bring MTR awareness to the people of Appalachia, is a foundation called The Keepers of the Mountain. The Keepers of the Mountain was created to help fund the efforts of "preserving and fostering the culture of mountains" and to help educate people about MTR by a man named Larry Gibson. Gibson lives next to Kayford Mountain, located in the southern part of West Virginia. He has been forced to watch the destruction of Kayford Mountain for several years, due to MTR mining on the mountain.

The destruction of these mountains comes at a price, not only aesthetically, but to the toll taken on the people who live near the sites. Many health related problems have come as a result of coal ash, and coal slurries etc. that make their way into the surrounding towns and cities near an MTR site.

Perhaps one of the worst ramifications, as described on ilovemountains.org, is that of sludge dams.

Sludge dams represent the greatest threat to nearby communities of any of the impacts of coal mining. Impoundments are notoriously leaky, contaminating drinking water supplies in many communities, and are also known to fail completely. A sludge dam breach in Martin County, KY, in 2000, sent more than 300 million gallons of toxic coal sludge into tributaries of the Big Sandy, causing what the EPA called, “The biggest environmental disaster ever east of the Mississippi.”

I hope those who read this don’t just write it off as something that they need not care about. The issue of Mountaintop Removal Mining is one that destorys communities, permanently effects the health of thousands, and eradicates the beautiful mountains that make Appalachia what it is.

If you’re around DC this weekend, take a trip to Capitol Hill and see what these people have to say. Appalachia Rising will be a great event, although I will not be able to attend it. To raise awareness for something so dire, action must be taken directly to where it will get publicity. The people of Appalachia need the help of not just others from around the country, but of the lawmakers in Washington as a whole to stop this catastrophe.

Analyzing Obama’s Weak Spots – Part 3: Appalachia, South Central and the 2010 Midterms

This is the final part of three posts analyzing the congressional districts President Barack Obama underperformed in. It will focus on the movement in Appalachia and the South Central United States. The previous parts can be found starting here.

(Note: I strongly encourage you to click the image links on this post when reading; they're essential to understanding what I'm saying.)

The 2010 Midterms

Let’s take one last look at those districts in which Mr. Obama did worse than Senator John Kerry:

Map of Districts in Which Kerry Did Better Than Obama

One sees again, as clear as ever, the diagonal pattern of Republican movement in South Central America and the Appalachians.

These districts differ from the northeastern and Florida-based regions examined in the previous post. Unlike those congressional districts, the districts in South Central and Appalachia vote strongly Republican. Many of them were never much loyal to the Democrats in the first place; those that did vote Democratic generally stopped doing so after President Bill Clinton left the ticket.

Nevertheless, a number of these South Central and Appalachian districts are still represented by Democratic congressmen. This is readily apparent if one looks at a list of congressional districts in which Mr. Obama underperformed Mr. Kerry:

List of Congressional Districts

There are a surprisingly high number of Democrats on this list.  As one might expect, the Democratic-voting districts all elect Democrats (except, ironically, for the most Democratic one). Yet more than half of the Republican-voting districts on the list also are represented by Democrats.

That is actually an amazing statistic. These are places in Appalachia and South Central which are already voting Republican, which are fast becoming even more Republican, and which are electing Democratic congressmen.

For Democrats, congressional districts like these constitute ticking time bombs. They will be the first to fall in a Republican wave. There is literally no way the party can continue holding the majority of seats in Arkansas, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

And 2010 looks like a Republican wave year. Democratic-controlled districts in Appalachia and South Central are in deep trouble already:

Table of Troubled Districts

In congressional districts that vote Republican and are becoming Republican, only half the Democratic incumbents are running again. The open seats will likely elect Republican representatives this fall, even in the best forseeable Democratic environment.

One does not have to wait until November to test if this is true, however. On May 18th Pennsylvania will hold a special election for a new representative of the 12th congressional district, after incumbent John Murtha’s death:

Map of PA-12


Like many Democratic representatives in South Central and Appalachia, Mr. Murtha constituted a relic of an earlier time – when southwest Pennsylvania voted Democratic. His continued re-elections were due to his personal popularity and the power of incumbency, even as his district moved more and more Republican.

It will be a minor miracle if Democratic candidate Mark Critz wins. No Democratic candidate has ever done better than Mr. Obama since his election. Mr. Critz will have to do that, given that the president lost PA-12 (the only seat in the nation to support Kerry and the McCain). In a district with double-digit disapproval ratings of Mr. Obama, this constitutes an arduous task.

It is the same task that awaits more than a dozen Democrats in Appalachia and South Central America come November 2010.

--Inoljt, http://mypolitikal.com/

Blankenship To Testify Before Congress: The Dark Saga Continues

Its been over a month since the Upper Big Branch Mine, a Massey Energy owned and operated mine, faced a disaster due to a methane related explosion that took 29 miners lives. It was a dark day for the state of West Virginia, the coal industry, and the entire country. To West Virginians, and even those not from the state, these fallen miners will be in our hearts forever.

Don Blankenship is the current Chairman, CEO, and head right-wing gun-toting thug in charge of Massey Energy. Massey is currently the 6th largest coal company in the United States by production. Blankenship, to most people, is seen as cold, dark, and very mysterious. If you need further convincing, watch this ABC News video of one of their correspondents attempting to evoke an interview from Blankenship. The video shows the ABC News rep wanting to ask Blankenship about pictures published in the New York Times of him with Former WV State Supreme Court Judge and Current Republican nominee for WV 3rd Congressional District Eliot "Spike" Maynard. Maynard was elected to the Supreme Court in WV.

Several news outlets have begun to report that Don Blankenship will testify this Thursday before the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions) Committee regarding the April 5, 2010 mine explosion in Raleigh County, West Virginia .

Mine blast: Don Blankenship, the head of Massey Energy Co., testifies before a Senate panel investigating the explosion that killed 29 workers at his company’s coal mine in West Virginia.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle’s SF Gate

Blankenship, 60, plans to appear before the Labor and Health and Human Services subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee, on May 20 in Washington, his first appearance before Congress since the explosion.

Massey said last month that it expects a second-quarter charge of as much as $212 million for the accident, more than twice its 2009 earnings.

The costs will include $80 million to $150 million for benefits for families of the miners, rescue and recovery efforts, insurance deductibles, legal and other contingencies, Massey said. The value of the damaged equipment, development and mineral rights is an additional $62 million.

Source: Businessweek.com

With the pieces still being picked up in rural West Virginia, Blankenship has a slew of problems on his hands. Massey Energy has seen its stock slump since the disaster (big shocker there) and he is constantly being questioned about the incident and his lack of care for safety violations and hazardous working conditions. It has seen a -21.7% change YTD with their stocks recently plummeting 10% after a possibility of a criminal investigation was mentioned, and 40% since the disaster.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) — Shares of Massey Energy plunged about 10% Monday after a report surfaced over the weekend indicated the coal mining company may face a criminal investigation.

Federal prosecutors are investigating possible "willful criminal activity" by "directors, officers and agents" of Massey subsidiary Performance Coal at the Upper Big Branch coal mine where an explosion killed 29 workers last month, The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday.

A Bloomberg report on Monday claimed that some large Massey shareholders will seek to block the re-election of three company board members at the meeting.

Another report by the Wall Street Journal on Monday said a congressional committee will vote on Wednesday on whether to give the House Education and Labor Committee deposition power to call witnesses in for questioning on the case.

Massey shares have fallen about 40% since the mine explosion on April 5.

Source: CNN Money

More interesting news for Massey Energy, in what seems to be an effort to obtain transparency in lieu of shady business, as they have now declared that they will declassify their board of directors. This according to the Wall Street Journal, the board is proposing to introduce the idea to shareholders etc. and potentially even make the process more democratic.

Massey Energy Co. said its board plans to propose that directors stand for election every year for one-year terms.

Chairman and Chief Executive Don Blankenship and lead independent director Admiral Bobby R. Inman said the move to declassify the board of the coal producer was a result of stockholder input and the board’s ongoing review of Massey’s corporate governance policies.

A classified board, where classes of directors generally are elected for three-year terms and only a portion of the directors stands for election each year, is harder to dislodge through the shareholder meeting process.

The board plans to hold a special shareholder meeting in the next three to six months where it will propose that stockholders approve declassification.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Blankenship has seen his fair share of controversy, as I have detailed in several previous blogs in wake of the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, and this proves there isn’t an end in sight. Blankenship, amidst numerous calls to step down and many claims of injustice and fraud, refuses to forgo his position as CEO of Massey. Its hard to tell whether this is simply Blanky trying to play a game and manipulate his business further, saving his butt from criminal allegations, or just plain stubbornness. My personal opinion? He needs to step down. Futher even, he needs to be criminally indicted. Too often, CEO fat cats like Blank are left alone to ravage whatever gets in their way in the holy name of money.

Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship, whose Richmond-based company is under investigation after a deadly explosion at its Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, said he has no plans to resign.

"Whatever happened at UBB is something that needs to be figured out, but it’s not the result of my management style," Blankenship, 60, said in an interview.

From The Washington Post, as reported by Bloomberg

An end is not in sight for this ongoing Blankenship conundrum, which can be seen as good news and bad news. I want resolution. I hope that one day this man will receive the proper justice brought to him, not on a silver platter, but closer to a penitentiary meal tray.

He doesn’t represent the values and culture of Appalachia, he represents the coal industry and corporate greed. I for one will not stand for this. The question still remains, will the people of Congress and those in higher powers finally grow a pair and do something about corrupt and greedy tycoons like Blankenship? Or will they let this case slither away like a cunning snake, deep into the elusive tall grass it will await yet another prey who is unbeknownst to their presence.

 

Coal and West Virginia: Don Blankenship's Unholy Rule

I'm sure that by now, everyone who reads this will know about the disaster in Raleigh County, WV with the Massey Energy Coal Mine disaster.

MONTCOAL, W.Va. — A huge underground explosion blamed on methane gas killed 25 coal miners in the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than two decades.

Crews bulldozed an access road Tuesday so they could drill 1,000 feet into the earth to try to find four others missing and feared dead after the Monday afternoon blast.

Rescuers were held back by poison gases that accumulated near the blast site, about 1.5 miles from the entrance to Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine. The mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston, has a history of violations for not properly ventilating the highly combustible methane, safety officials said.

This was the deadliest mining accident in a quarter century.  25 brave men gave their lives so far, with numbers still unknown for the rest.  I speak for the entire mountain state when I say that we consider all the men and women working in coal mines as our family.   Our hearts go out to them, our prayers are with them, and our souls are crushed at this news.  The purpose of this diary is not only to mourn the lost, but to bring light to the dark situation of coal and Massey Energy in West Virginia and across Appalachia.  I love this state, and I love the people of this state so I hope this will be taken as insight and not out of disrespect for anyone.  

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will be happy to tell you all you need to know about Don Blankenship and Massey Energy. His constant advocacy for the state of West Virginia's well-being in recent years has been a refreshing thing, at least from my perspective. The 122 mining violations against just that particular Raleigh Co. site since January (and 52 in the month of March nearly speak for themselves).  Lawsuits against Massey have been filed in the past (specifically for the location where the disaster occurred) saying that it endangered the local folk around them.  

In February 2003 a judge ordered Massey to pay the residents of Sylvester, West Virginia $473,000 to settle complaints that coal dust from Massey's Elk Run Processing Plant had caused health problems and lowered property values in the nearby town. The judge also ordered Massey to construct a cloth dome over their facility to reduce the dust.

 

Massey Energy has also had legal disputes involved with standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.  Thousands, literally thousands, of violations against the Clean Water Act had Massey and Grandmaster Blankenship forking out 20 million in penalties.  The method of mining known as Mountaintop Removal could have a book written about it completely filled with environmental hazards and violations alone.  

Mine safety is a stated top priority by Massey Energy, but has yet to be seen as carried out efficiently

On October 8, 2008 Steven Cain, 32, of Comfort, West Virginia was killed at Massey Energy's Independence Coal Justice No. 1 Mine when he was crushed by a railcar. A Mine Safety and Health Administration report  concludes Cain was killed because Massey managers assigned him a dangerous job, although he had “little mining experience and minimal training.”

Top priority Blankenship?  Blankenship and Massey Energy was fined roughly $400,000 last year for improper mining ventilation.  

Unionized Labor in this country is sometimes looked upon with a scowl.  Unions are known to be one cause of unemployment in this country.  The higher wages earned are seen as a problem from outsiders to the unions.  However, unionized labor has several benefits.  Labor Unions have the ability to challenge the corporation and big companies that they work for for higher wages and better benefits.  Instead of meeting one-on-one with an employer (like in a traditional job environment) labor unions act sort of as a group to meet with the employer.  They negotiate wages for them and their union fellows to work by, and have the ability to organize labor strikes if what they are getting they deem is unfair and unjust. 

Massey Energy is almost completely non-union based.  Don Blankenship (Chairman/CEO of Massey Energy) runs it as he pleases and is a man that likes to make his money.  The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) is the large union for miners across the country and has a presence in the state.  UMWA fights for fair regulations, but also fights for safer mines.  

Nobody knows better than miners the need for good healthcare and safety regulations in coal mines.  

Blankenship is Anti-Envrionmentalism and Anti-Union.  He has done everything he can to block environmental efforts to help save the state.  

"Environmentalists are are overly emotional and rely on extremist rhetoric rather than facts and cool reason"

"America doesn’t need Green jobs – but Red, White, & Blue ones."

"The Sierra Club filed 983 lawsuits against the fed gov't over 9 years. They tie up the legal system AND private industry w/ frivolous suits."

Just look him up on twitter if you want any more of these folksy comments.

Blankenship believes in buying political gains and using his large wallet to get whatever it is he wants.  This was quoted back in Oct. 2008 from Dorothy Kosich

After he spent $3 million to unseat incumbent State Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw in 2004, Blankenship has now set his sights on spending “whatever it takes” to help win a Republican majority in the state legislature. Democrats have controlled the West Virginia Legislature since the 1930s.

In 2005, Blankenship fought the governor’s effort to finance worker’s compensation through a hike in the coal severance tax. Later that year, he also opposed another gubernatorial plan to sell $5.5 billion in bonds to cover state pension programs. Nevertheless, Blankenship has no interest in running for office and insists that he is not politically motivated.

Warren McGraw was a fearless advocate of mine-safety and one of Blankenship's enemies.  This is corruption at its finest. 

"If the White House wants to create US jobs, they can start by approving hundreds of mining permits. Coal employs more workers then wind."

Blankenship's Mountaintop Removal strategy has cost several jobs.  Employing wind power would help create more jobs, not lose them to MTR mining.

I'm not trying to denigrate and denounce the workers of Massey Coal Mines in West Virginia and across Appalachia, much to the contrary.  Coal miners are the backbone of West Virginia.  I have the utmost respect and adoration for coal miners, they perform a job I would never have the bravery to perform myself.  They sacrifice health and life every day to support their families, their state, and their country.  The brave souls who lost their lives in the mining disaster will be forever remembered and hold a special place in every West Virginians heart.

The purpose of this diary is to expose the truth about Don Blankenship and the company he runs.  In wake of this disaster I believe it is important for those new to the subject to be informed.  Don Blankenship is a scourge to the state, and he uses his wallet to do as he pleases.

Please understand the purpose of this diary and not misconstrue it as negative sentiment towards the miners and their families. This is simply to inform.  The country needs to know about the underlings who run these large corporations, and the slime that inhabits the corner office at Massey Energy.

I urge everyone to keep the coal-miners and their families in your thoughts and prayers.  

Analyzing Swing States: Pennsylvania, Part 4

This is the fourth part of an analysis of the swing state Pennsylvania. It focuses on the industrial southwest, a once deep-blue region rapidly trending Republican. Part five can be found here.

Pittsburgh and the Southwest

Pennsylvania’s southwest has much in common with West Virginia and Southeast Ohio, the northern end of Appalachia. Electoral change in the region is best understood by grouping these three areas together as a whole.

Socially conservative (the region is famously supportive of the NRA) but economically liberal, the industrial southwest voters typify white working-class Democrats. These voters can be found in unexpected places: Catholics in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, loggers along the Washington coast, rust-belt workers in Duluth, Minnesota and Buffalo, New York.

It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal that brought the working-class to the Democratic Party.

More below.

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