Coal kingpin faces possible prison sentence after mine explosion (Grist)

I spent much of 2015 tracking the criminal trial of former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who was indicted on criminal charges relating to West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners.

None of the three felony charges directly accused Blankenship of causing the disaster at Upper Big Branch mine, which happened when a spark from a longwall shearer ignited a fireball that hit accumulated coal dust, triggering a massive explosion.

Yet, the explosion overshadowed and informed every bit of the trial.

On Thursday, Blankenship was convicted of misdemeanor consipiracy to willfully violate mine safety regulations.

Read my story at Grist covering the trial and its outcome.

Going solar: the Solarize movement in Montgomery County (Roanoke Business)

On a recent sunny afternoon, gaggles of people gathered to listen as New River Valley elected officials and renewable energy advocates announced the launch of Solarize Montgomery. It’s an effort to get homeowners to purchase solar panels that expands upon a Solarize Blacksburg effort in 2014.

That pilot “Solarize Blacksburg” program invited solar installers to bid on a group of installations to help lower costs, then offered financing options. Of the 468 people who responded, 92 were from outside Blacksburg, and thus the program’s boundaries.

Solarize Montgomery is targeted at those 92, along with others in Montgomery County interested in going solar. Sign-ups run through July 22.

After filling out an online form at, applicants receive a satellite assessment, basically meaning that installers look at the location and orientation of the site via Google Earth to determine if it might be a good fit. Next, installers visit the site for an in-person assessment. For many homes, it may make more sense to install basic energy conservation measures.

If the site visit shows the home would benefit from solar energy, however, installers submit a proposal and price estimate. If applicants choose to move forward, they’re eligible for a 30 percent federal tax credit and long-term financing assistance.

Of the 468 people who applied through Solarize Blacksburg, 168 followed through far enough to get an on-site assessment and proposal from an installer. Fifty-six homeowners actually pulled the trigger – a fraction of the initial response, but “a really high conversion rate for something this complex,” says Blacksburg Sustainability Manager Carol Davis.

Read more in my story on western Virginia’s Solarize movement in Roanoke Business magazine.

This Democratic coal baron wants to be the next governor of West Virginia (Grist)

For a half-decade now, Republicans have slammed Democrats running for office in Appalachia for propagating a so-called regulatory “war on coal.”

They may find it considerably more challenging to make that argument stick against Jim Justice, owner of the largest privately held coal company east of the Mississippi River, who announced last month he’s running for the 2016 Democratic nomination for West Virginia governor. The only West Virginian in the Forbes 400, Justice is worth an estimated $1.69 billion.

Justice is not to be confused with another wealthy West Virginia coal baron, “Dark Lord of Coal Country” Don Blankenship, the former Massey CEO who will soon be tried on charges that he conspired to skirt safety regulations at Upper Big Branch mine, where a 2010 explosion killed 29 miners.

Justice too has a reputation for ignoring mine regulations, but he’s built up a positive reputation in the state in other arenas. His public images feel contradictory in a way that eludes easy caricature. (The Justice campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.)

In eastern West Virginia, Justice is beloved for buying the historic Greenbrier, a luxury resort that famously served as Congress’ personal fallout shelter, out of bankruptcy. He established a PGA event, the Greenbrier Classic (Tiger Woods is among the golfers competing this year), and built a $30 million training facility for the New Orleans Saints on the Greenbrier grounds. Justice invests lots of his time in youth sports; he’s been president of Beckley Little League since 1992 and has coached boys and girls basketball for 30 years, racking up 761 wins and 156 losses. He’s donated millions to charities such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Cleveland Clinic, and Marshall University.

At the same time, Justice’s coal companies, some inherited after his father’s death in 1993, have racked up millions in fines for labor, safety, and environmental violations. In November, NPR reported that Justice owed nearly $2 million in overdue fines.

Justice’s outsized profile means that announcement of his gubernatorial candidacy last month attracted notice from national press — more than might otherwise be expected for a first-time candidate.

Read more in my profile of Jim Justice at Grist.

What do we do with all these dead coal-fired power plants? (Grist)

About 13 gigawatts worth of coal-fired power plants are closing this year to comply with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule.

From a national perspective, these plants represent a fairly small chunk of the nation’s overall electrical capacity. For the communities in which they’re located, however, their closures mean much more than just a smaller carbon footprint: The resulting loss of jobs and local tax revenue leaves an economic void as well. And then there’s the question of what to do with these plants, many of which sit on land that, if it can be properly cleaned up, could be valuable for redevelopment or recreation.

Consider American Electric Power’s (AEP) plant in Glen Lyn, Virginia, a tiny town once known as Hell’s Gate that sits near the West Virginia border. The 96-year-old plant is one of seven AEP plants to be shut down by May 31. (Another two plants will be converted to burn natural gas.) All told, AEP is retiring more than 6,000 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired generating capacity.

Only 31 people worked at the Glen Lyn plant, but then, the town has a population of just 115, according to the U.S. Census. The plant’s employees and retirees are an “integral part of the community,” says Giles County Economic Development Director Chris McKlarney. “You can never replace that.”

Read more in my story at Grist.

5 years after a deadly coal mine disaster, what’s changed (Grist)

It was mid-afternoon on the Monday after Easter, April 5, 2010, when a 1,000-foot longwall shearer bit into sandstone, kicking up sparks and igniting a methane fireball that traveled down the mine into an area rich with coal dust.

The resulting explosion ricocheted in several directions, tearing through two and a half miles of mine, killing 29 of 31 men working in the area and searing the Upper Big Branch mine into history as the site of the most deadly coal-related disaster in nearly 40 years.

Five years later, the explosion continues to reverberate, in the courts and elsewhere.

Read my story at Grist to find out more, including coal country’s growing hostility to former Massey CEO Don Blankenship, changes to the coal industry, political ramifications and more.

The legal jockeying for position ahead of a coal baron’s criminal trial (Grist)

A federal appeals court ruling has lifted the veil on months of legal jockeying in the upcoming criminal trial of West Virginia coal baron Donald Blankenship.

Blankenship, the former CEO of one-time coal giant Massey, allegedly conspired to systematically skirt safety regulations in the company’s mines, ultimately resulting in the April 5, 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va., that killed 29 miners.

The explosion was caused when a sparks from a longwall shearer ignited a pocket of methane, generating a fireball that caused a second, more deadly explosion when it traveled down the mine and hit a bunch of coal dust. That blast tore through two and a half miles of mine, killing 29 of 31 men working in the area. State and federal investigators blamed Massey and a culture of skirting mining safety regulations.

A grand jury indicted Blankenship in November on four charges: conspiring to willfully commit routine violations of federal mine safety laws; conspiring to impede administration of the federal mine safety laws; making false statements to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in the wake of the explosion; and securities fraud. If convicted, he faces 31 years in prison.

But documents made public for the first time Thursday suggest that Blankenship, who has famously avoided prosecution for past misdeeds, has no intention of serving that time. At the least, he’s going to put it off as long as possible.

Read more in my story for Grist.

Natural gas transmission pipe dreams? (Roanoke Business)

Economic development advocates routinely cite Western Virginia’s central location and convenient access to the Eastern Seaboard as a key factor in attracting business and industry.

Those same factors are behind proposals to build three natural-gas transmission pipelines through the region. All three seek to connect West Virginia terminals flush with shale gas from the Marcellus and Utica formations with a huge customer base on the East Coast. The base includes major population centers, power plants moving away from coal and ports that could export liquified gas to foreign markets.

The three pipelines are:

* The Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile, $3.2 billion transmission line connecting a terminal in Wetzel County, W.Va., with a compressor station in Pittsylvania County. The companies involved are majority partner EQT, an Appalachian natural-gas production and transmission company that operates in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas, and NextEraEnergy, an energy company with generation assets in 26 states.

* The Appalachian Connector pipeline, formerly known as the Western Marcellus line, would be operated by Williams Partners LP, which owns the Pittsylvania compressor station, as part of the nearly 1,800-mile Transco natural-gas pipeline. It runs from South Texas through Virginia to New York City and delivers 10 percent of the nation’s natural gas. The Appalachian Connector pipeline would connect a Williams distribution facility in West Virginia with the Transco line. The company estimates it will stretch around 300 miles but hasn’t yet released a cost projection.

* The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a proposed 550-mile, $5 billion line backed by four companies, including Richmond-based Dominion Resources Inc. and North Carolina-based Duke Energy, running from Harrison County, W.Va., through Virginia into North Carolina, with an additional spur running east to Hampton Roads.

The influx of proposals, each with different ownership and planned routes, already has triggered a flurry of opposition from residents in counties along proposed routes.

For more, read my cover leader in Roanoke Business this month.

Craft brewers join the fight against natural gas pipelines (Grist)

On a recent afternoon, visitors packed into Blue Mountain Brewery, one of three craft breweries in Virginia’s idyllic Rockfish Valley. Couples and families spilled out of the restaurant onto patios and into gardens, sipping Full Nelson Pale Ale, Kölsch 151, Original Nitro Porter, and more.

Above them, the low-hanging clouds that obscured Afton Mountain’s upper ridges couldn’t mute the bright reds, oranges, and yellows exploding on its slopes. The brewery is just four miles below Rockfish Gap — the mountain pass that marks the southern entrance of Shenandoah National Park, the passage of the Appalachian Trail, and the point where Skyline Drive becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway.

But there’s a storm brewing in this autumnal paradise, as evidenced by a sign in front of the brewery that’s become quite common in the Blue Ridge Mountains of late: “No pipeline.”

Read more of my first story for Grist, which details how craft brewers increasingly are getting involved in environmental politics.