Environment Local News

Former Upper Big Branch Superintendent Charged With Felony Conspiracy

Federal charges have been filed against the former superintendent of Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine. Gary May was charged with felony conspiracy today in West Virginia.

Gary May started working at the Upper Big Branch Mine in 2008. He was a superintendent there in April 2010, when an explosion tore through the mine, killing 29 workers.

According to the charges filed in U.S. District Court, federal prosecutors say May and possibly others conspired against the country’s mine safety laws. They allege May gave advance notice of federal mine inspections to miners and covered up mine safety violations. They also accuse him of tampering with methane detectors, falsifying records and misleading federal investigators as to the amount of respirable dust in the mine.

U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin says charges against other Massey employees could be in store.

“Today’s charge is a significant step in the investigation of events at the Upper Big Branch Mine,” Goodwin said. “However, our investigation of those events remains ongoing.”

Environment Local News

WV Plant Win $334M to Ramp Up CO2 Capture

American Electric Power’s Mountaineer plant in New Haven, West Virginia, on the Ohio River, is currently capturing and storing a tiny fraction–about 100,000 tons–of the carbon dioxide its 1300 megawatt plant produces, just to work the kinks out of the technology. A new $334 million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Energy will help the plant capture one point five million tons of the greenhouse gas, which it will store more than a mile underground. The funding comes from the DOE’s “Clean Coal Initiative,” and two other projects in Alabama and Texas will receive part of the $3 billion dollar pot.
(Note: See our previous story about Mountaineer’s carbon capture and storage project here.)

Environment In-Depth News Local News

World's First Carbon Capture & Storage, On the Ohio

(Part one of a two-part series. Listen to part two here.)
Welcome to the guts of the world’s largest coal-fired power plant.  The gigantic boiler inside American Electric Power’s Mountaineer plant in West Virginia incinerates up to 12 thousand tons of coal every day.  It generates enough power to juice up 200 New Havens—the plant’s hometown on the Ohio River.  It also sends more than 9 and a half million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. But that’s about to change.

Inside Mountaineer's boiler building
Inside Mountaineer's boiler building

Project manager Brian Sherrick leads a group past the boiler and up onto the roof, to point out some new equipment on a smokestack.

“You look down the stack, you see duct work, going into the side of the stack.  On the far side of the absorber outlet hood, you see two white pieces of duct work,” says Sherrick

Sherrick is describing the  plant’s brand new system of pipes and tanks designed to cull the global warming gas before it goes up the stack.

“That’s the inlet and outlet duct work for the CO2 capture process.”

“So this is where the CO2 as a fluid will get transported over to the booster pump for injection into the two injection wells. So all this capture process on the back end comes down to this four-inch CO2 pipe,” Sherrick says.

That process is the chilled ammonia method, developed by French company Allstom.  AEP keeps the details secret, but basically they’ve fine-tuned a way to say a chemical “come hither” to the CO2 before it hits the stacks, coax it into this new structure, compress it, and shoot it into a deep underground reservoir of salt water and sponge-y rock for good.  What makes it different is the amount of energy it takes to do.  Plant managers call it “parasitic load.”  Other methods can take nearly 30 percent of a plant’s power.  But Sherrick says this takes less.

Duct work where carbon dioxide is captured before going up the smoke stack.
Duct work where carbon dioxide is captured before going up the smoke stack

“The goal of Allstom’s chilled ammonia process is to get somewhere down to 10 to 15 percent. Also, as you scale up the technology, you’ll have some efficiencies that you gain because you’ll be able to use the same size pump or motor as you did here.”

AEP is betting more than 70 million dollars on the process, along with partner investors.  Other industry leaders, like E.on vice president John Voyles, aren’t convinced the technologies are ready to deploy yet.

Wellhead where carbon is piped for underground storage.
Wellhead where carbon is piped for underground storage.

“It will take 25 to 30 percent of the output from any particular unit just to run that equipment.  And obviously all of the electric generators that are installed and running today are there to serve customers’ needs.  So, there will be a cost to install that equipment that certainly will impact customer bills and rates,” says Voyles.

And a cost to replace the electric generation that goes into capturing the carbon dioxide.  Which could mean using more coal.  It’s a conundrum. Voyles says E.on has invested in carbon capture and sequestration research.  And he believes legislation requiring carbon reductions is inevitable.  But it may be sooner than we think.  For the first time in many years, both lawmakers and regulation writers are tackling plans to deal with greenhouse gas emissions.  The Environmental Protection Agency just finalized a rule that will require power plants to report theirs.  And two versions of a climate bill requiring serious reductions are wending their way through the halls of congress.  If something passes, more power plant operators may have to come to terms with a technology that’s still young and expensive.
Next in the series, Kristin looks into the future–with all its technical and economic uncertainties—of carbon capture and storage.

Blog Archive Environment Blog

14 Arrested at W. VA Mountaintop Removal Site

Activists chained themselves to a bulldozer and excavator at Massey Energy’s Coal River Mountain site this morning. They want Massey to stop plans to blast the mountain for coal and make the site into a wind farm instead.

The protestors are worried that blasting could compromise a nearby coal sludge impoundment dam.
From the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition press release:

“Blasting for part of the operation could begin at any time, very close to a nine-billion-gallon toxic coal waste sludge dam called the Brushy Fork Impoundment. Blasting would occur above underground mines close to the dam and the lake of toxic coal waste it impounds.”

In December, a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant’s coal waste pond burst and spread hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic material across hundreds of acres, knocking one house right off its foundation.