by Greg Klein
Just as a former big boss of Big Coal faces criminal prosecution following the death of 29 Appalachian miners, a best-selling novel castigates the industry for its devastation of that region. On November 20 former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship pleaded not guilty to four charges resulting from the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia. John Grisham’s 27th novel, Gray Mountain, portrays an industry that ruthlessly destroyed the environment as well as the health of workers, their families and anyone else living there, with the help of politicians, judges, regulators and even goon squads, both civilian and FBI.
The charges against Blankenship could almost come from Grisham’s book. Three other former Massey executives have already been convicted of criminal offences involving Upper Big Branch. Blankenship’s victory in a previous legal battle has been said to have provoked Grisham into writing The Appeal, an indictment of the American electoral and judicial systems.
Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch workers “were intimidated,” Forbes quoted Mike Caputo, a West Virginia legislator and VP of the United Mine Workers of America. “Records were falsified. Advanced warnings of inspections were given. Two sets of books were kept. There was a lack of enforcement. The list goes on, and on, and on. The more I read about the Upper Big Branch tragedy, this wasn’t just bad business practice. This was akin to organized crime.”
But while it was a methane gas explosion that killed the 29 underground miners, Grisham’s latest book, set in 2008 and 2009, focuses on mountain-top removal. Described as “strip mining on steroids,” the practice destroyed about 600 of the region’s mountains over 30 years, according to Grisham.
The company “literally attacks the mountain with all manner of heavy equipment,” the story’s activist lawyer Donovan Gray tells newcomer Samantha Kofer. “First it clearcuts the trees, total deforestation with no effort at saving the hardwoods. They are bulldozed away as the earth is scalped. Same for the topsoil, which is not very thick. Next comes the layer of rock, which is blasted out of the ground. The trees, topsoil and rock are often shoved into the valleys between the mountains, creating what’s known as valley fills. These wipe out vegetation, wildlife and natural streams…. If you’re downstream, you’re just screwed. As you’ll learn around here, we’re all downstream.”
Samantha, whose promising career in corporate law ended abruptly with the Lehman Brothers-induced recession, takes an unpaid internship at a Virginia legal aid clinic/social services agency. There she encounters a world of Big Coal-induced woe.
Reckless practices send boulders flying toward family homes. Contaminated drinking water turns communities into “cancer clusters.” Overloaded, speeding coal trucks in West Virginia alone kill one person a week. Excessive exposure to coal dust gives miners a wasting disease called black lung. Coal companies deprive dying workers of compensation.
Fighting back are Donovan and his lawyer aunt, Mattie Wyatt, who both had parents screwed over by coal companies.
Big Coal’s regime gets support from cosy regulators and watchdogs, elected judges who depend on campaign contributions, politicians who legislate favours for the industry, doctors who lie under oath and lawyers who cover up medical evidence. The FBI uses legal intimidation. Illegal intimidation comes from the companies’ armed thugs who, it’s suggested, will murder their opponents.
Lowest of the low is Krull Mining, “a company with the worst safety record in the history of U.S. coal production and an owner who was reputed to be one of the deadliest Russian gangsters in Putin’s frat pack.”
Denied benefits for over a decade, one dying miner says, “They cheated, they won, and they’ll do it again because they write the rules…. They got the money, the power, the doctors, and I guess the judges. Some system.”
Of course despair doesn’t sell books. So Grisham, a one-time Mississippi lawyer, has Donovan, Mattie and eventually Samantha launching heroic counterattacks.
Coal’s controversy divides the people of the region, Grisham writes. A bumper sticker battle features opposing slogans like “Save the Mountains” and “Like Electricity? Love Coal.”
Coal was the fabric of life in these parts, but the strip mining had divided the people.
“Coal was the fabric of life in these parts, but the strip mining had divided the people,” Samantha reflects. “According to her Internet research, its opponents argued that it destroyed jobs, and they had the numbers to support them. Eighty thousand miners now, almost all non-union and half working in surface mines. Decades earlier, long before they began blasting tops off mountains, there were almost a million miners.”
Something to keep in mind, though: If Grisham’s portrayal is fair, and if these people have their facts right, the Appalachian and British Columbian coal industries are poles apart.
What both areas now share is devastation by coal prices, less than half what they were three years ago. Mines are shutting down, throwing people out of work. In a strategy that parallels Down Under iron production, Australia has increased its low-cost coal output, further damaging the North American industry.
Yet the Age of Coal persists, despite petroleum and uranium. According to the World Coal Association, the fuel “provides 30.1% of global primary energy needs and generates over 40% of the world’s electricity. It is also used in the production of over 70% of the world’s steel.” Twenty-year forecasts from the Coal Association of Canada call for a 50% increase in metallurgical coal demand, with demand for thermal coal more than doubling.
One wonders if Blankenship will watch that happen from a prison cell.
by Greg Klein
Has there been a change of plans? Or was it a misunderstanding all along?
A veteran politician now working for HD Mining International says the company intends to hire and train Canadian longwall miners for what will be, should its proposed coal mine go into production, an English-speaking operation. He wonders, however, how many Canadians would be interested.
That qualification notwithstanding, his statements seem to differ substantially from the company’s original position, which ignited a controversy beginning in October 2012.
Saying too few Canadians had longwall mining experience, HD Mining received federal government approval to import 201 Chinese miners. The plan, as reported by media and the company itself, was to staff underground operations at its proposed Murray River mine in northeastern British Columbia with Mandarin-speaking Chinese workers for 10 years. The company, owned by Mandarin-speaking Chinese, insisted that only Mandarin-speaking Chinese knew its longwall system.
But Blair Lekstrom, an adviser to HD Mining chairperson Penggui Yan, says the company’s intentions have been misunderstood.
The project’s underground staff now consists of 51 Chinese recruited under Canada’s temporary foreign worker (TFW) program. They’re currently building a decline to conduct a bulk sample that will take about 18 months to complete, Lekstrom tells ResourceClips.com. Should the company go into commercial production, “we’ve made a commitment to train—and we’re in discussions with Northern Lights College—Canadians who want to do this work.” He says the current crew was granted TFW status only to conduct the “highly specialized” bulk sample.
“Chairman Yan has said we will train as many Canadians who want to work in our mine, but first we have to prove there is a mine.”
In November 2012, after about six weeks of critical publicity, the company signed a memorandum of understanding with Northern Lights College in the town of Tumbler Ridge to develop a longwall training program. Lekstrom says the curriculum would be developed following a decision to operate a mine.
Several American operations use longwall mining. But the companies themselves provide specialized training, according to Marlon Whoolery, training director at the Mining Technology and Training Center, which has campuses in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. “I don’t know of any training facility that trains specifically to work on the longwall because there’s various types of longwall machines, various shields, panels, shears, different stage loaders, different tailgates. Most training centres prepare a miner to go to work at the mine then the coal company trains them to the longwall system they have.”
He says U.S. federal law requires a minimum of 40 hours’ training before a novice can work underground, while some states require longer periods. The length of time to become a certified miner also varies from one state to another. West Virginia requires six months of experience while Pennsylvania requires a year.
During that time, specialized training “could be a matter of weeks or months to run a particular portion of the longwall,” Whoolery adds. “To be the shear operator in Pennsylvania you have to have machine operator’s papers in the state and it takes a year underground before you can apply for those.”
Whoolery doesn’t know of any American parallels to the HD Mining controversy. He says Massey Energy threatened to import Mexican workers years ago. The company, associated with the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster that killed 29 people, was later bought out by Alpha Natural Resources NYE:ANR.
“I don’t believe there’s any mine in this country that brings miners in from somewhere else. I’m not saying there’s not mines, especially out west, that may have immigrants that are in this country illegally but I don’t know of any mine that solely operates with a workforce that they brought from another country.”
But Lekstrom insists that never was HD Mining’s intention. “Our goal is to hire and train Canadian workers that will work there and English will be the prevailing language.” Mandarin will “absolutely not” be the working language, he emphasizes.
I talk to a lot of people up here and a lot of my friends, and not many of them seem anxious about thinking underground mining might be in their future.—Blair Lekstrom,
HD Mining adviser
Lekstrom maintains there’s been no change in policy. “They’ve made that commitment from the beginning.” As for impressions to the contrary, “I would say it was a misconception.”
But any “misconception” was understandable. In October 2012 Jody Shimkus, HD Mining’s VP of environmental and regulatory affairs, told ResourceClips.com the company would likely need a decade to train a Canadian underground crew. “We’ve set a target of 10 years, recognizing that there’s a lot of work that needs to be done particularly with the local community, the educational institutions and the provincial government to develop a program that transfers the skill set. If we can achieve that target earlier, that would be great.”
Lekstrom, a former B.C. mines minister and mayor of Dawson Creek, suggests there’s a discriminatory aspect to the controversy. “Because [the TFWs] are Chinese they seem to be looked at different than the Australians, many who are over here working in mines.” He says an Anglo American project, also in the Peace River region, employs Australian TFWs. A ResourceClips.com inquiry to Anglo American’s Vancouver branch was referred to the company’s Brisbane office too late for a response by press time.
Murray River benefits Canadians, Lekstrom says. “We have spent to date about $90 million. The vast majority of that is on Canadian content. Most of the work that has been done to date has been done by Canadian workers—ground service prep whether it be fuel services, road services, hauling and trucking, drilling and blasting, surveying, the list is long.”
His remarks follow months of controversy over alleged abuse of Canada’s TFW program by companies importing staff ranging from fast food workers to helicopter pilots. Then, last month, Walter Energy NYE:WLT announced 695 layoffs for two open pit mines in the same region as Murray River. A week later Teck Resources TCK.A announced another 80 layoffs for the region, as the company postponed the restart of its Quintette open pit operations.
Still, Lekstrom wonders how many Canadians want underground jobs. “I talk to a lot of people up here and a lot of my friends, and not many of them seem anxious about thinking underground mining might be in their future. We’ll see.”
Canada’s Minister of Employment and Social Development Jason Kenney has announced plans to reform the TFW program. An e-mail from his department didn’t answer questions from ResourceClips.com about how the reforms might affect HD Mining’s 201 approved applications.