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.