Monday Roundup: Sound of a Train Not Running

Four stories from the coalfields about lax protection of health and safety • Bio-hazard lab supported in Kansas • Strawberries are a way for Hispanic farmers to build their own businesses

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NPR ran a long story over the weekend about the demise of coal.

This is a huge rural story. Coal is being replaced by natural gas as the fuel of choice for running the nation’s power plants. Four years ago, coal produced more than half of our electricity. Now it’s just 34 percent, NPR reminds us. 

Coal miners are being laid off all over the eastern coalfields. “I’ve never seen anything as quick as this to devastate the market, and this many layoffs at one time,” says Thomas Clark, publisher of The Echo newspaper and a mine inspector for the past four decades. “It’s been a landslide.”

And that reminded us of Chris Knight’s song, The Sound of a Train Not Running. Knight is a Kentuckian and he writes this song about a family that used to live on a coal miner’s paycheck. But now that the coal isn’t running, that money is gone. His song is above.

• Yes, you can vote for which rural group will get a small ($10,000) bit of money from the Rural Digital Advocacy Grants Program. First, go here

You’ll see rural policy groups that apply digital tools in their work. There are now 13 eligible projects. The project that gets the most votes between now and Thursday will be assured of getting one grant.

So vote early and often.

•The National Research Council says the nation could get by with a smaller animal disease lab in Kansas, but that it was “imperative” that the U.S. build a large animal biohazard lab because of the possibility of a “perfect microbial storm” that could cripple the nation’s livestock industry, the Kansas City Star reports

The NRC report said the $1.14 billion lab planned for Manhattan, Kansas, could be downsized. Currently, tests on animal disease and possible terrorist attacks on the nation’s food supply are done on Plum Island in New York. 

The NRC said keeping the lab open at Plum Island was a bad idea. It is outdated and inefficient.

•Federal mine safety officials plan to improve enforcement of coal dust rules in underground coal mines, after news stories reported evidence of widespread cheating by coal companies. 

There has been an increase in black lung disease over the past two decades, a lung-destroying illness caused by inhaling coal dust. Reports recently by the Charleston Gazette, the Center for Public Integrity and NPR News have found that coal companies are routinely cheating on the tests used to monitor the presence of coal dust in underground mines.

The Gazette also reported that federal prosecutors may file criminal charges related to cheating on dust monitoring.

More than 10,000 miners died nationwide between 1995 and 2004 from black lung. A law many thought would end black lung was passed in 1969.  

• Two years ago a flood from a moderate rain destroyed Harless, Kentucky. 

There were 80 families living in Harless, and they believed that the flood was caused by poor reclamation at a nearby coal strip mine. The coal company paid the residents money in a confidential settlement after they sued.

But that’s not the end of the story, an editorial in the Lexington Herald-Leader tells us:

Now the Harless residents are seeking something more important: An answer to why the state of Kentucky failed them so disastrously.

They have gone to court seeking protection — not just for themselves but for all those in the region who worry a heavy rain will bring down an avalanche of mud and water on their homes. 

The residents found that the mine they say caused the flood had been operating a year and a half without a permit and that it had done none of the reclamation required by the state.

The residents got their compensation. But that wasn’t enough. Good for them.

• The Louisville Courier-Journal reports that Kentucky inspectors went into a Harlan County coal mine 30 times without finding any problems. But when federal inspectors went into the mine in early May, they found a mine so dangerous they closed it immediately. 

The C-J tells the tale of one mine, and how little protection the Commonwealth of Kentucky gives its miners.

• And in the fourth story in one weekend about how federal and state governments do little to protect coal miners or coal communities, the Washington Post reports that more than two years after a West Virginia mine explosion killed 29 men, Congress has taken no steps to make mining coal more safe. 

Stephanie McCrummen reports:

More than two years after an explosion that an independent panel appointed by former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin blamed on a corporate culture that put “the drive to produce coal above worker safety,” no former high-ranking Massey executives have been criminally charged. No new federal mine safety legislation has passed, a matter Gary Quarles and other families pressed in Washington recently, carrying posters of their lost sons, brothers and husbands into the red-carpeted offices of senators and representatives.

“This was my son, Gary Wayne,” Quarles said to lawmakers over and over and to reporters on a day that began with three anti-depressants. “I called him my son, but he was a man, a real man.” He paused to compose himself. “We are here for safety . . .”

But he and others left without any new assurances on legislation.

• The AP reports that strawberries “have given Latinos more ownership opportunities than any other major crop.” 

Latinos now make up two-thirds of the strawberry growers in California, where 90 percent of all strawberries are grown. With all other crops, the majority of growers are white.

Latinos can make headway with strawberries because the crop doesn’t take up much land and it is a product that responds to hustle and hard work.

• TransCanada projected that Nebraska would receive $5.5 million in new tax revenues during the first year of operation of the Keystone pipeline. The first year is over and the actual tax take is closer to $2.2 million in personal property and real estate taxes in eight rural counties in eastern Nebraska where the pipeline was built. 

The Keystone pipeline carries oil from Canadian tar sands. TransCanada wants to build a second pipeline through Nebraska, the Keystone XL pipeline, but has been blocked by both the state legislature and the Obama administration.

Paul Hammel of the Omaha World-Herald reports:

Opponents of the pipeline and its more controversial companion — the proposed Keystone XL — dispute that. They say the much lower tax harvest is another reason to doubt other claimed benefits of the two projects.

“TransCanada’s business model is based on deceiving and distracting us with fancy ads, dollar signs and false promises,” said Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska, a Lincoln-based environmental group.

• Idaho Power has been running ads aimed at reducing the amount of renewable energy the utility will be required to buy. 

The ads are aimed at wind power and are part of a “coordinated campaign by the investor-owned utility to persuade state regulators, political leaders and the public to stop or dramatically reduce the amount of wind and other renewable power it has to buy,” the Idaho Statesman reports

 

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