Coal bankruptcies and environmental clean-up
There have been a number of national articles and columns this week that focused on the clean-up costs related to recent coal company bankruptcies.
On Monday, The New York Times discussed the problem:
West Virginia faces perhaps the greatest fallout from the flood of coal bankruptcies that have hit the courts in the last year because many of its mines are scheduled to close and will require extensive cleanup. The state took the unusual approach of hiring a seasoned bankruptcy lawyer from New York who grew up in West Virginia to represent its Department of Environmental Protection in the Alpha case.
“The goal is to make sure the coal companies clean up the mess when they leave,” said the lawyer, Kevin W. Barrett of Bailey & Glasser, who was named a special assistant attorney general for West Virginia and is taking the lead on the Alpha case.
Regulators and environmental groups in Appalachia have tangled with coal companies for decades over their mining practices, particularly mountaintop removal mining, which involves removing mountain summits to extract coal.
Ryan Anderson wrote about this and who would be rewarded on Wednesday in the U.S. News and World Report:
With more than 50 coal company bankruptcies in the last several years, it is hard not to have heard of the current plight of the coal industry. While the impacts are real for coal workers and mining communities, those at the top are making it clearer every day that these bankruptcies are little more than a business move to shed debt and bring in a little more cash for those that matter most: themselves. . . .
In the end, these bankruptcies could pick the pockets of taxpayers, and every dollar used to reward an executive could shift larger liabilities to taxpayers. . . .
If the bankruptcy proceedings of Alpha and Arch are any guide, taxpayers could end up covering most of these costs unless coal companies are forced to secure outside insurance. Meanwhile, these companies are spending their limited resources to reward executives for what? Their performance?
As I said in a previous post, the leadership at these coal companies, especially Peabody, did a great job of pushing more of its debt into self-bonds (and onto taxpayers) as the company's financial outlook deteriorated.
It's disgraceful, putting it mildly, to saddle taxpayers with future liabilities while lining the pockets of executives.
This morning, the Times followed-up their original report with an editorial:
The nation’s leading coal companies are increasingly filing for bankruptcy, leaving behind enormous tracts of scarred terrain and rising doubts that they will ever meet their legal commitments to repair the earth. Concern is growing that the companies and their debtors will use Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to force the costs of mine reclamation onto taxpayers, despite the industry’s standing obligations to pay. . . .
Companies insist they will not shirk their reclamation duties. Unfortunately, their track record is not good in West Virginia, where the mining method called mountaintop removal — the systematic dynamiting of summits to get at underlying coal seams — has devastated the Appalachian landscape, polluted waterways and driven entire hamlets into retreat.
Finally, there is some good news for the state. The Associated Press reported late yesterday that:
West Virginia environmental officials say they struck a $300 million-plus deal for mine cleanup with bankrupt coal giant Alpha Natural Resources.
The Department of Environmental Protection said the agreement would cover bonding and reclamation at all the company’s active and former mine sites.
DEP says the surety bonds Alpha posted to obtain mining permits would remain. Alpha would post $100 million in penal bonds for active and inactive mines.
Needless to say, we have not seen anything about clean-up costs in our local "newspapers" since mid-April when it was mentioned as part of a larger Associated Press story on the Peabody Coal bankruptcy. It's not that such articles aren't available -- for example, here's an AP analysis by a WVU professor from May 9: "Will taxpayers foot the cleanup bill for bankrupt coal companies?" I really doubt that we will see very much about this because, for our local "newspapers," coal companies are never in the wrong -- it's all Obama's fault.
Here are some additional articles on this subject:
Washington Post: "Can coal companies afford to clean up coal country?"
Public News Service: "Taxpayers Could Be on Hook for Bankrupt Coal Cleanup"
Reuters: "U.S. environmental groups question Arch Coal's bankruptcy exit plan"