Archive for the ‘All Posts’ Category

VIDEO: “Contaminated, But Smart!”- Duke Energy’s New Coal Ash Assessment

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015 - posted by sarah

Duke Energy claims coal ash pollution stops at their boundary, impacted families angered

On Monday evening, Duke Energy released the executive statement from the company’s study assessing the groundwater contamination at two of their largest coal ash sites in North Carolina, at the Allen and Buck Steam Stations in Belmont and Salisbury, respectively. Unsurprisingly, Duke Energy’s finding suggested they were likely not responsible for the contamination found in the drinking water wells of over 200 households within 1,000 feet of the company’s coal ash dumps.

From Duke’s executive summary:

Based on data obtained during this CSA, the groundwater flow direction, and the extent of exceedances of boron and sulfate, it appears that groundwater impacted by the ash basin is contained within the Duke Energy property boundary.

Check out local Belmont resident’s reaction to the the summary:

Duke Energy has not proven that contamination from ash basins isn’t moving in the direction of the neighbors’ wells. They have only said what “appears” to be the case, and while they may hope it gives them some legal cover (though that certainly remains to be seen), it does nothing to assuage the overwhelming concerns and fears of families who have been told their water is unsafe for drinking and cooking.

One glaring omission is that Duke Energy did not test for hexavalent chromium, a dangerous heavy metal and known carcinogen that has been found at high levels in dozens of private wells neighboring the utility’s coal ash dumps. According to the Charlotte Observer, Duke did not report results for hexavalent chromium because of a “a lack of time to collect and analyze the data.”

This isn’t the first time Duke Energy has neglected to test for the harmful contaminant; they have never tested for hexavalent chromium, and therefore there is no historical data on which to base their claims that the heavy metal is not migrating to neighbors’ wells from the company’s coal ash ponds.

Trivalent chromium can transform into its more toxic form, hexavalent chromium when it comes in contact with high-heat industrial processes (like burning coal). Exceedances for total chromium have been found in groundwater monitoring results conducted by Duke Energy at their property line. How much of that chromium is hexavalent is unknown.

Duke Energy’s release of the report comes on the heels of a N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources blog post stating that the agency has tested 24 background wells and found levels of contaminants similar to those in private wells.

Although DENR claims that the levels are similar, the agency has yet to make the actual levels public. However, at a community meeting hosted by the N.C.Department of Health and Human Services and DENR last Thursday, Dr. Ken Rudo, the state toxicologist began the meeting by disclosing the levels of hexavalent chromium found in the background wells.

Dr. Rudo revealed that of the 24 wells sampled, 23 had levels of hexavalent chromium between “non-detect” (meaning the levels are too low for labs to read) to 1.7 parts per billion (ppb). Rudo explained that in communities within 1,000 feet of Duke’s coal ash sites, 120 to 140 wells showed levels of hexavalent chromium that exceed the average levels of the background wells.

Clean Water for AllSo why are both DENR and Duke making statements that hexavalent chromium is naturally occurring when the numbers don’t necessarily demonstrate that?

The state’s health screening level for hexavalent chromium is .07 ppb. In Belmont, levels of hexavalent chromium found in wells range from .24 ppb to a whopping 5 ppb. At Thursday’s meeting, Dr. Rudo explained that the standard for hexavalent chromium is based on up-to-date science and standards in other states, and that the state health department “can defend these standards in any venue that we need to defend them.” He also warned the crowd that he is

“…much more concerned about the effects of hexavalent chromium because the science is so clear that hexavalent chromium is a chemical that has significant risk associated with it. It’s a mutagenic carcinogen, so any level can pose a risk, by definition.”

When asked by a resident if Dr. Rudo would drink her water, he firmly replied, “no”.

So where does this leave the residents who are living on bottled water? Still confused and scared about the safety of their water, nervous about their home values, wondering if they have been giving their children contaminated water to drink.

Duke Energy needs to collect data on hexavalent chromium in order to provide a more complete picture.

Peculiar Patriot Coal deal raises questions

Thursday, August 20th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

What would a health care executive-turned-environmentalist want with the dying business of mining coal?

That’s the question some are asking after it was announced this week that Tom Clarke, a Virginia businessman, plans to acquire assets, and assume around $400 million in liabilities, from recently-bankrupt Patriot Coal through one of his companies, ERP Compliant Fuels.

The deal is part of an elaborate and untested business model that will allow ERP — an affiliate of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund — to continue mining Patriot permits in West Virginia, bundling this coal with “carbon offsets” accrued from planting trees, and selling these bundled products to electric utilities.

Because trees absorb atmospheric carbon, Clarke believes credits created through reforestation will help states meet carbon emissions targets set forth by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the plan does not make clear that coal-carbon offsets will count towards states’ emissions targets.

According to The Roanoke Times, Clarke says he’s not in it for the money, but for the earth. But that isn’t clear from the available literature on ERP, which seeks to bring together a coalition of conflicting environmental and capital interests — “coal mining businesses, electric power producers, forestland owners, government, and the scientific community” — in order to reduce global CO2 emissions. In the same literature, Clarke and the ERP/VCLF tout their business partnership with Jim Justice, a notorious scofflaw mine operator who owes nearly $2 million in mine violation fines.

As if these relationships weren’t enough to raise suspicion, ERP/VCLF’s definition of a “carbon offset” is dubious. As The Roanoke Times points out:

It doesn’t matter that Clarke will target coal-fired electrical generating plants in the Ohio River Valley with his pitch, while the designated trees are in Central America and the U.S. South or would be planted in Appalachia. Carbon emissions spread in the atmosphere and the concentration evens out; a party that wants to offset its carbon output can fund tree planting or tree preservation anywhere and benefit the globe, he said.

If there’s no requirement that trees be planted on deforested land in Appalachia, what’s stopping ERP from destroying mountains and externalizing the costs onto Appalachian communities for the social mission of stopping climate change? How does ERP plan to address coal ash and mercury and the many other harmful externalities that are inflicted on communities as coal is mined, processed and burned? How will the company account for the numerous injuries, fatalities, and black lung incidences that result from both underground and surface mining? Coal’s impact goes far beyond CO2 pollution.

These are crucial questions to ask as the coal industry in central Appalachia undergoes massive structural changes. If the history of the coal industry in the region has taught us anything, it’s that we should be highly suspect of outside corporate interests looking to exploit the region’s natural resources.

This is just as true today, in an era in which investors and politicians stand to gain substantial material and social capital off of the region’s diversification.

Sen. Kaine notes concerns to FERC about Mountain Valley Pipeline

Wednesday, August 19th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Dr. Diana Christopulos co-founded the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition, an all-volunteer nonprofit organization with almost 300 affiliates representing over 25,000 citizens. Cool Cities promotes energy conservation, energy efficiency and the transition to clean, renewable energy. This piece originally appeared on the group’s website.

Dr. Diana Christopulos

Dr. Diana Christopulos

Senator Tim Kaine recently completed a series of listening sessions in communities where Mountain Valley Pipeline proposes to build a 42-inch natural gas transmission line, meeting with “affected property owners, local elected officials, local businesses, farmers, organizations dedicated to preserving our natural resources, and numerous other concerned citizens.”

Kaine then wrote directly to the commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) identifying concerns about (1) minimizing impacts of any project through examination of cumulative impacts of different projects and an honest look at community benefits compared to negative impacts; and (2) the need “to empower the public to verify these efforts by ensuring that all relevant information is made available and that there is ample opportunity for public input and comment. Citizens rightly expect that process to be followed to the letter.”

In terms of impact, Kaine specifically requested that FERC clarify:

  • The level of gas demand needed to justify building a distribution branch of the MVP.
  • The steps needed to make this possible — for instance, approximately how much it would cost to build a transfer station to bring supply via a new MVP distribution branch.
  • The extent to which the gas traveling through the pipeline is likely to be exported because “the people in this area of Virginia bear the potential risks of this infrastructure and deserve to know where the gas is going.”

On the environmental front, Kaine asked the FERC to determine:

  • Whether FERC requires or encourages reroutes of the pipeline to avoid land tracts under conservation easement, which property owners understood would be protected in perpetuity.
  • What measures are being taken to prevent impacts to water resources in areas with no water access other than groundwater.
  • How the pipeline will be built to safely miss rivers along this route.
  • Where and how technology to build safely on karst topography has been demonstrated.
  • The degree of information-sharing and consultation that has taken place among FERC, the interested companies, and the National Park Service, given that the route would have to cross the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail.

The Senator also noted several major process concerns and concluded by saying that he would “strongly encourage … that FERC painstakingly follow the system we have in place for evaluating infrastructure. Permitting a pipeline should involve an exhaustive process of eliminating all but the least disruptive construction options. The people whose livelihoods may be affected by a project should have ample opportunity to gather information, get their questions answered, and analyze alternatives —on a timeline conducive to participation by people for whom energy pipeline permitting is not a professional occupation. In short, simply having a public comment process is insufficient if that process is not easily accessible to the public.”

Click here for a full copy of Kaines letter.

Predictable politics giving way to popular support for POWER+

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo of Wise County, Va., by Flickr user biotour 13 licensed under Creative Commons.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan are less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate economic hardship. Photo of Wise County, Va., by biotour 13.

The recent growth in local support for a plan to boost Appalachia’s economy has been a bright spot in the region during some of the coal industry’s darkest days.

In Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan, a federal budget initiative proposed by the White House to build more diverse economies in the communities hardest hit by the regional coal industry’s decline.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors of Wise County, Va., unanimously approved a resolution supporting the plan, citing the “dramatic economic transition” and job losses the county has experienced. According to the resolution, the county “desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances” facing the region.

On the same night, the City Council of Benham, in Harlan County, Ky., passed a supporting resolution. Before Benham came the City of Whitesburg, Ky., and Virginia’s Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission.

The Campbell County Commission became the first locality in Tennessee to support POWER+, unanimously passing a resolution yesterday. Also on Monday, members of the Letcher County Fiscal Court voted unanimously in favor of the plan.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

It was only a few weeks ago that Norton, Va., became the first locality in the nation to pass a resolution in favor of the plan. More endorsements are expected in the days and weeks ahead.

Appalachian Voices and our allies have been promoting the POWER+ Plan, too. We’re heartened, but not surprised, to hear local perspectives that don’t reflect the tone legislators from Appalachian states often take in D.C.

After listening to residents speak at the Wise County Board of Supervisors meeting about how the plan could benefit their families and share their hopes for Southwest Virginia’s economy, board member Ron Shortt told the audience, “We’re behind you 100 percent on this. We realize how important it is to Southwest Virginia and Wise County.”

The implication could be that, so far, Congress doesn’t realize how important it is for the region.

Since it holds the federal purse strings, Congress must approve funding for elements of the POWER+ Plan. But after months of opportunity to consider the proposal, and some shirking by Appalachian politicians, lawmakers in the House and Senate weakened key provisions of the plan or left them out of the budget altogether.

We recently covered Congress’s muted response in The Appalachian Voice and pointed to how lawmakers are sticking to their political sides:

… rather than receiving the POWER+ Plan with enthusiasm, many Appalachian lawmakers’ comments echoed past criticisms of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and claims of a war on coal.

“The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that,” a spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Earlier this year, Capito introduced legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon pollution.

When asked about the plan, a spokesperson for first-term Rep. Alex Mooney responded to the Gazette-Mail with a simple “No, Representative Mooney does not support the [POWER+] Plan.”

Mooney has introduced a bill to prevent the U.S. Department of the Interior from finalizing the Stream Protection Rule to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. He has called stopping the rule his “top priority.”

Rather than investing in workforce training and reemployment programs or reforming the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund to focus more on economic development, as the POWER+ Plan would, congressional opponents of the president remain primarily concerned with undermining protections for Appalachian streams and fighting limits on carbon emissions — policy goals, sure, but nothing close to an economic development plan for the region.

The counties that stand to benefit most from the plan are some of the poorest in the United States and continue to face layoffs, the impacts of ongoing mining, and pollution from decades-old and poorly reclaimed mine sites.

Lawmakers representing those counties in Congress, including Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are positioned to rally other influential legislators around the plan, but they aren’t.

Some lawmakers have made statements expressing tacit support. But the resolutions make clear that these localities expect their representatives to do more; some call on members of Congress by name to support funding for economic development in the region.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan, and attempts to fit it into a “war on coal” framework, are understandably less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate the economic hardships they face.

Many of the communities now urging members of Congress to back the plan have been underrepresented over the years in their demands for a more diverse economy. They deserved to be heard then like they deserve to be heard now.

Stay informed by subscribing to The Front Porch Blog.

Wise County Board of Supervisors joins growing list of localities supporting POWER+ Plan

Friday, August 14th, 2015 - posted by brian

CONTACT:
Adam Wells, Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator, 276-679-1691, adam -at- appvoices.org
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat -at- appvoices.org

Wise, Va. — The Wise County Board of Supervisors joined a growing number of Appalachian communities voicing support for the White House’s POWER+ Plan last night in a unanimous vote supporting the federal proposal, which would steer billions of dollars for economic development and diversification to Appalachia’s coal-impacted communities, including those in Southwest Virginia.

Citing the “dramatic economic transition [from] the decline in the coal industry,” the resolution passed by the board notes that the POWER+ Plan could “reactivate idle equipment and put laid-off miners and other local residents to work reclaiming abandoned mine lands.”

The resolution is the latest in a rising tide of support from local communities calling on Congress to advance the POWER+ Plan during the federal budget process. In Kentucky, the City Council of Benham, in Harlan County, also passed a supporting resolution last night. On July 23, the Norton, Va., City Council became the first in the nation to pass a resolution in favor of the plan. The City of Whitesburg, Ky., passed a similar resolution on August 11, as did the Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission, in Virginia, on July 30.

The POWER+ Plan creates new funding and bolsters existing federal programs designed to diversify the economy in areas that have relied heavily on coal and are experiencing job losses as a result of contractions in the coal economy in recent years.

Citizen groups across Appalachia are promoting the plan, which is currently the most comprehensive proposal to support much-needed economic development in the region.

“It’s heartening to see the growing number of localities taking a positive stance on the very urgent issue of economic diversification in Central Appalachia,” said Adam Wells of Appalachian Voices, who worked with Wise County officials on the resolution.

“By passing this resolution, the Wise County Board of Supervisors is sending a clear message that the time for economic diversification is now and that federal assistance is key for a just and sustainable transition in the wake of the declining coal economy,” he said.

Several residents of Wise County were at the meeting and spoke in support of the resolution. One person cited family members who have recently been laid off from mining jobs who would benefit from the passage of the POWER+ Plan. Others expressed their hopes of developing more of a tourism-based economy in the region through the funding that would go to the Appalachian Regional Commission. And one speaker underscored the need to support retired miners through a POWER+ Plan provision to ensure the solvency of the United Mine Workers’ health and pension plans.

“We’re behind you 100 percent on this,” board member Ron Shortt said in response to comments from local residents. “We realize how important it is to Southwest Virginia and Wise County.”
###

Water Privatization

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 - posted by molly

A Utility Company’s Troubles Raise Questions About Drinking Water Ownership

By Molly Moore

Residents from the greater Charleston area gather for a panel discussion regarding public water safety facilitated by Advocates for a Safe Water System in November 2014. Photo by Joe Solomon.

Residents from the greater Charleston area gather for a panel discussion regarding public water safety facilitated by Advocates for a Safe Water System in November 2014. Photo by Joe Solomon.

When two water main accidents within the space of a week interrupted water service for up to 25,000 customers this summer, West Virginia American Water took out a full-page ad in the Sunday edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail to say “sorry” to the ratepayers who were required to either fill tubs and jugs with water, buy bottled water or do without.

The incident wasn’t the investor-owned, private utility’s first apology to its ratepayers, nor their customers’ first experience going without potable water.
In January 2014, a chemical storage tank upstream of West Virginia American Water’s intake — the only drinking water source for 300,000 residents — leaked approximately 7,500 gallons of the coal-washing chemical MCHM and 400 gallons of the chemical mixture PPH.

The licorice-scented chemical mix infiltrated the company’s water system undetected, and the resulting contamination led to “do not use” orders lasting a week or more, a state of emergency that lasted a month, and resident reports of water use leading to rashes, headaches, dizziness and other ailments for months to follow.

This June, soon after the faulty water mains were repaired, citizens filed a brief in a lawsuit regarding damages from the 2014 chemical spill. The brief stated that while Freedom Industries, the now-bankrupt owner of the leaky chemical tank, was responsible for the spill itself, “the resulting tap water loss would not have occurred but for a decades-long string of negligent acts and misfeasance by [West Virginia American Water Company] and Eastman Chemical Company [the manufacturer of MCHM].”

Adding to the public scrutiny, West Virginia American Water — a subsidiary of the national company American Water — is currently seeking state approval for a general 28 percent rate increase, including a nearly 30 percent increase for residential customers. The request, filed April 30, has attracted media and public attention toward the company’s business model and plans for infrastructure improvements. The Public Services Commission must decide whether to approve the request by February 2016.

At the end of June, Advocates for a Safe Water System, a volunteer-run citizens group that formed in the wake of the chemical spill, was granted permission to intervene in the rate case.
“We originally came together as people who were upset about being billed for contaminated water during the crisis,” says Steering Committee Member Cathy Kunkel.

The citizens group is scrutinizing the company’s plans for the more than $35 million in potential additional annual revenue from the rate increase, and is raising questions about whether the company’s long-term plans fit with the region’s water needs, or whether West Virginia residents would be better served by a public utility.

“We kept meeting, learned more, and realized the water company had been really not doing what it should to protect people from this kind of event, and we didn’t have a safe water system, which means we were still vulnerable to having something like this happen again,” Kunkel says.

Moving Toward Municipalization

Nationally, water ownership is moving toward more municipal control, according to Mary Grant, water privatization researcher for the advocacy organization Food & Water Watch. She cites data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showing that, from 2007 to 2013, the number of U.S. residents served by water systems owned by local governments grew by 17 million, while those with privately owned water systems fell by 7 million.

Grant attributes this in part to the fact that privately owned water costs more for the consumer, because governments have access to cheaper financing and public utilities do not need to pay for investor profits and corporate income taxes. A Food & Water Watch analysis reveals that customers of private utilities usually pay 33 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than residents who rely on local government services.

In the Tarheel State, the environmental justice organization Clean Water for North Carolina has expressed concern that state policies encourage large private water companies to establish uniform prices for residents across wide geographic areas. The group adds that this can lead to low-income communities paying for repairs that don’t affect their neighborhoods.

According to Grant, the trend of transferring private utilities to public hands is also driven by the growth of cities and the fact that contracts with investor-owned water companies are often bad deals for cash-strapped governments.

The southwest Virginia town of Coeburn, Va., is one such example. Coeburn entered into a contract with Veolia Water North America, a subsidiary of a French multinational corporation, in 2009. But after financial difficulties following the Great Recession, the town council voted in 2013 not to renew the contract. At that point, the contract cost the town $1.41 million of its $1.47 million annual budget.

Coeburn had run its own public works department before the 2009 deal. “When we ran the numbers ourselves, it was about $400,000 cheaper [for the town to run the water utility],” then-mayor Jess Powers told the Bristol Herald Courier.

But regaining public control is not always so straightforward. In the early 2000s, dissatisfied residents in Lexington, Ky., attempted to replace Kentucky American Water with local, public ownership.

Citizens in favor of public purchase gathered 26,000 signatures during the summer of 2005 to put the issue on the November ballot. The water company sued to block the vote, but dropped its legal challenge the following year. During the 2006 election, the public voted to remain with the company by a 20-point margin. Kentucky American Water spent $2.71 million on the campaign, according to Food & Water Watch.

A map shows the expansion of West Virginia American Water since 1969. Created by Alicia Willett for wvwaterhistory.com

A map shows the expansion of West Virginia American Water since 1969. Click to enlarge. Created by Alicia Willett for wvwaterhistory.com

Company Policy

“Remunicipalization” may be the general national trend, but there are still exceptions. American Water is the largest investor-owned utility in the country. In western Pennsylvania, it has expanded service lines to reach gas companies engaging in the water-intensive process of natural gas fracking.

“As they expand to serve these gas companies, they’re also connecting households along the way who have their groundwater contaminated, possibly because of those gas drilling operations,” Grant says.

The company’s expansion in Pennsylvania due to the loss of private wells to polluted water has also occurred in West Virginia.

“One interesting thing about West Virginia is that American Water received subsidies to expand in Putnam County, but then after [the company] was denied a rate increase, it wanted to renege on those promises to expand service to areas where household wells had been contaminated … by the coal industry,” Grant says. Ultimately, the state ruled that the company had to expand services to the affected areas.

Between 2004 and 2009, local groundwater and household wells were contaminated in Boone County, W.Va., when coal slurry — a toxic sludge that remains after washing coal — was injected into abandoned underground mines. In 2009, a state moratorium on underground injections took effect. Also that year, a partnership between Boone County and West Virginia American Water used $1.5 million from a federal grant, combined with smaller contributions from the county and company, to expand the company’s service to residents of the town of Prenter, 35 miles south of Charleston.

“So we got city water up here, and it took them two or three years to get it up here,” Prenter resident D.J. Estep told Gabe Schwartzman, a fellow at University of California – Berkeley who researched and wrote the website wvwaterhistory.com. “And then a year later the MCHM spill happened. And we were stuck. Now it’s like you’ve got to choose between two evils. The one you’re used to and the one you’ve got.”

Expansion to serve remote communities with polluted water explains just one part of the growing number of customers served from the Elk River intake. On his website, Schwartzman, also a member of Advocates For A Safe Water System, describes how West Virginia Water Company, the predecessor to West Virginia American Water, built its large Elk River intake in 1976 with the intention of serving industrial customers. Those customers didn’t materialize, he writes, so in the ‘80s the company “launched an aggressive expansion strategy, pushing to take over small municipal systems and public rural systems.”

In 1994, the Charleston Gazette reported on the company’s effort to expand to the town of Clendenin. At a meeting, then-president of WVAM Chris Jarrett told town council members, “It is simply more efficient and more economical, the more customers you can serve from one large production facility.”

Water Costs

A single intake might be cost-efficient, but the Elk River chemical spill in January 2014 displayed the pitfalls of reliance on one facility. And it turned out that, to save money, West Virginia American Water Company had sold its chemical monitoring equipment upstream of the Elk River intake in 2004. A new chemical monitoring system wasn’t installed until after the 2014 spill. The new equipment falls short of being able to detect MCHM and a host of other chemicals — technology that is in use at major water plants around the region — according to a chemist and a chemical engineer who are also members of Advocates for a Safe Water System.

A state investigation into West Virginia American Water’s response to the spill is currently stalled until Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appoints another member to the three-person commission.

According to a utility press release, the company’s request for a 28 percent rate increase is driven by “the approximately $105 million of system improvements the company has made since 2012 as well as an additional $98 million that the company plans to expend on recurring and investment projects through February 2017.” The rate hike would also increase the West Virginia subsidiary’s profit margin from 4-5 percent to 10.75 percent.

Cathy Kunkel of the citizens’ group claims this is at odds with customers’ experiences. “You say you’re raising rates due to major capital expenditures you’ve made, but it doesn’t seem like we’re benefiting from them,” she says.

In the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website, the company acknowledges that it is replacing infrastructure at the rate of once every 400 years, but notes that rate is faster than it had been, and that the the cost of reducing that replacement cycle to 100 years — the target rate — would place heavy costs on ratepayers.

Yet Kunkel is concerned that replacing water mains will not be a priority, despite this summer’s repeated breaks. Advocates For a Safe Water System has also proposed construction of a reservoir to serve as an alternate water source for Charleston and the surrounding area, a plan that the water company has not publicly considered.
When asked what an ideal water system would look like, Kunkel is clear.

“Fundamentally, it needs to be transparent — people need to have a clear idea of how the water system is making decisions with our money,” she says. “[It needs to be] responsive to citizen concerns, and it needs to be fair. People should get the service that they’re paying for.”

Website Explores History of WV Water Company

Discover maps and more information about the history of West Virginia American Water, and hear audio clips from West Virginians regarding the impact of the 2014 chemical spill at wvwaterhistory.com. The multimedia website, authored by Gabe Schwartzman with web and graphics by Alicia Willett, was created with support from the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize at the University of California-Berkeley.

Rev. Michael Watts

Pastor Michael Watts

“You can just see how being poor affects you when there is a crisis. The initial places for the water distribution were such that if you didn’t have transportation it would be hard for you to get water because you could only carry it so many blocks. We believe that many people in this community probably did use the water when they were advised not to use it, because they just could not get enough water.” — Pastor Michael J. Watts, Grace Bible Church of Charleston, W.Va.

Fred Stottlemyer

Fred Stottlemyer

“It was during the early 1980s when … [West Virginia American Water] did take over many systems were near the brink of failure. Many of those systems were not economically viable, with the changing in water economy over the years. The Putnam System was economically viable, and one of the few areas where it would have been profitable for them to take over the system. So they were very aggressive and approached us in a very hostile manner.” – Fred Stottlemyer, former director of the Putnam Public Service District, which is still community owned and operated

Saving Energy, One Utility at a Time

Monday, August 10th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion
Violet Scholar, a volunteer from Lansing, N.C., explains on-bill financing and energy efficiency at a tabling event.

Violet Scholar, a volunteer from Lansing, N.C., explains on-bill financing and energy efficiency at a tabling event.

Our Energy Savings for Appalachia team has been campaigning to bring energy efficiency to the High Country of North Carolina, a region that spends nearly three times more of their income on electric bills than the average American.

The campaign’s current focus is encouraging Blue Ridge Electric Membership Cooperative to offer an on-bill financing program to make home energy upgrades available to their members of all income levels. On July 29, we hosted a press conference and event in Boone, N.C., where community members spoke about how energy savings has reduced their electric bills, and thanked Blue Ridge Electric for taking the necessary steps to consider an on-bill finance program.

To date, the team has gathered the signatures of more than 1,000 residents and 20 businesses and service agencies in support of the program. Learn more at appvoices.org/highcountry.

Arch Coal, ICG to address water pollution violations at coal mines

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by jamie

arch_icg

A release came across the wire yesterday afternoon announcing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice had reached an agreement with Arch Coal and International Coal Group Inc. (ICG) to resolve hundreds of illegal pollution discharge violations made by the conglomerate at its coal mines throughout Appalachia.

The settlement includes a $2 million civil penalty and a requirement that upgrades be made at the company’s mining operations “to ensure compliance and prevent future violations of the Clean Water Act.” In its decree, the EPA and DOJ acknowledged “communities overburdened by pollution.”

A statement from Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator Erin Savage:

“We’re pleased to see this settlement addressing water pollution from Arch’s ICG facilities. Appalachian Voices is familiar with this pattern of Clean Water Act violations from ICG after uncovering thousands of violations in Kentucky several years ago. Unfortunately, as a citizen’s group, we have limited means to identify all such violations, which is why we really need the states and the EPA to step up in this way.”

The full release:

epadoj

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced today that Arch Coal Inc., one of the nation’s largest coal companies, and 14 of its subsidiaries under the International Coal Group Inc. (ICG) have agreed to conduct comprehensive upgrades to their operations to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act. The settlement resolves hundreds of Clean Water Act violations related to illegal discharges of pollutants at the companies’ coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. The states of West Virginia, Virginia and Pennsylvania are co-plaintiffs in today’s settlement. The companies will also pay a $2 million civil penalty.

“Businesses have an obligation to ensure that their operations don’t threaten the communities they serve, especially those that are overburdened by or more vulnerable to pollution,” said Assistant Administrator Cynthia Giles for EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. “This settlement will prevent future environmental and public health risks by making sure these companies comply with federal and state clean water laws.”

“This joint enforcement effort, with three states, has resulted in a settlement that will require changes that will benefit the health and environment of Appalachian communities for many years to come,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Under the terms of the agreement, Arch Coal and its subsidiaries will pay a significant penalty, improve their pollution control systems and provide for independent monitoring and data tracking that will make it a better company and a better neighbor to these communities.”

In addition to paying the penalty, under the proposed consent decree the companies must implement measures to ensure compliance and prevent future Clean Water Act violations, which will help protect communities overburdened by pollution, including:

  • Developing and implementing a compliance management system.
  • Periodic internal and third-party environmental compliance audits.
  • Maintaining a data management system to track violations, water sampling data and compliance efforts.
  • Providing training for environmental managers and others responsible for the consent decree.
  • Paying escalating stipulated penalties if violations continue to occur.

The government complaint filed concurrently with the settlement alleged that in the last six years, ICG operations have violated discharge limits for aluminum, manganese, iron and total suspended solids in their state-issued National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permits on more than 1,200 occasions, resulting in over 8,900 days of violations. Of those violations, 700 have been previously resolved by state enforcement actions in Kentucky and West Virginia.

EPA discovered the violations through inspections of ICG facilities and projects, reviewing various information provided by the companies and coordinating with the affected state governments.

The proposed consent decree, lodged in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, is subject to a 30-day public comment period and approval by the federal court.

For more information on this settlement and to read the consent decree, go to:
www2.epa.gov/enforcement/arch-coal-inc-and-international-coal-group-subsidiaries-settlement

U.S. coal giant Alpha Natural Resources files for bankruptcy

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by jamie
Alpha Natural Resources Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, West Virginia - Photo by Ami Vitale

Alpha Natural Resources’ Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, W.Va. Photo by Ami Vitale, www.amivitale.com.

Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States and a big player in the Appalachian coal market, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday of this week, coincidentally on the day President Obama announced his administration’s final Clean Power Plan.

In the announcement, Alpha blamed “an unprecedented period of distress with increased competition from natural gas, an oversupply in the global coal market, historically low prices due to weaker international and domestic economies, and increasing government regulation that has pushed electric utilities to transition away from coal-fired power plants.”

According to the release, the company does not anticipate closing the business down, but will “seek the necessary immediate relief from the Bankruptcy Court that will allow normal business operations to continue uninterrupted while in Chapter 11, with coal being mined, customer commitments honored, and wages and benefits for Alpha’s affiliated employees paid.”

A Bloomberg Business article notes that Alpha, which employs nearly 8,000 workers at more than 50 underground and surface mines and more than 20 coal preparation facilities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, has accumulated $3.3 billion in debt over the past several years.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Alpha has assets of $10.1 billion, liabilities of $7.1 billion, and is “seeking up to $692 million in bankruptcy financing from senior lenders and secured bondholders to fund its operations.”

United Mine Workers of America responded to the news:

“Today’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Alpha Natural Resources appears to follow the same script as others we’ve seen this year: pay off the big banks and other Wall Street investors at the expense of workers, retirees and their communities … Alpha needs to understand that while we are willing to discuss ways forward that will be of mutual benefit for the company and for our members, we are also prepared to do whatever we need to do to maintain decent jobs with the pension and health care benefits our retirees were promised and have earned.”

Alpha launched a new website to detail the Chapter 11 process, including contact information and FAQs for employees, customers, retirees and other stakeholders.

Is there an echo in here?

The move brings to mind the financial roller coaster of Patriot Coal, the West Virginia-based company that emerged from its first bankruptcy in 2012 only to file again a scant 3 years later in May of this year. Patriot’s initial 2012 “restructuring” plan was extremely controversial as it involved slashing the healthcare benefits of 1,800 union miners and retirees. Patriot initially won court approval for the cut, but, after significant public scrutiny and outrage, settled with the United Mine Workers of America in 2013 for $400 million to cover the benefits.

And now history seems to be repeating itself. According to an AP story that is quoted on Coal Tattoo (yet mysteriously disappeared from national news outlets, including the Washington Post), just a few weeks ago Patriot asked a judge’s permission to “reject the company’s collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees’ health care benefits …” The United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to the proposed plan, which includes $6.4 million in bonuses paid to management employees.

Just this week, the beleaguered company announced the layoff of 1,081 coal miners, most in West Virginia’s Kanawha County.

Patriot Coal is also the first coal company in Appalachia to announce it would phase out the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.

“Big Coal’s war on itself”

When examining the financial tribulations of big coal mining companies, industry officials are quick to point the finger at what they have dubbed the “war on coal,” claiming that environmental regulations are the primary culprits causing their fiscal misfortunes. But according to a recent article co-authored by independent financial analyst Andrew Stevenson and NRDC’s Dave Hawkins, coal mining’s economic downturn has more to do with bad investment decisions than anything else.

“The biggest cause of Big Coal’s loss of value is that Big 3 management bet big on a global coal boom and lost big when it went bust,” Stevenson and Hawkins write. Their article goes on to detail the five specific reasons Alpha and other coal companies are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“In sum, bad bets at the top of the market, weak met coal prices, cheap natural gas, and lower power demand due to energy efficiency reduced cumulative forecasted coal revenues for the Big 3 by approximately $21 billion over the past four years. This is a big hit for companies as highly leveraged as Alpha Natural, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy and the reason why these companies are struggling to stay afloat today.”

As industry officials and coal-friendly politicians — including an outspoken Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who notedly said, “I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy” — themselves take aim at the Clean Power Plan, they have yet to acknowledge the most important question on the table: what will happen to residents in Appalachia’s coal country who, because of company bankruptcies, layoffs, revocation of pensions and lack of other job opportunities, remain among the poorest in the nation?

So far, the only offer of assistance to these folks has come from President Obama himself, in the form of the POWER+ Plan to revitalize the region.

“They’ll claim [the Clean Power Plan] is a “war on coal,” to scare up votes — even as they ignore my plan to actually invest in revitalizing coal country, and supporting health care and retirement for coal miners and their families, and retraining those workers for better-paying jobs and healthier jobs,” Obama said on Monday, taking aim at McConnell and his other critics. Communities across America have been losing coal jobs for decades. I want to work with Congress to help them, not to use them as a political football.

Contaminated Drinking Wells Near Ash Ponds

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Kimber Ray

North Carolina officials are requiring Duke Energy to test 446 wells located near the utility’s coal ash ponds, which contain the waste left over from burning coal. As of July, the state health department had analyzed results from 327 of these wells, and sent “do not drink” notices to 301 homeowners whose water contains dangerous levels of heavy metals and other contaminants associated with coal ash, such as lead, vanadium and hexavalent chromium.

Duke Energy, recently fined $102 million for nine violations of the Clean Water Act at its coal ash ponds, denies responsibility for the drinking water contamination. The state is conducting tests to determine the cause.

The utility currently plans to excavate ash from 20 of its 32 unlined coal ash ponds. The 12 that remain unaddressed account for 70 percent of the company’s statewide ash deposits, according to the Charlotte Observer. Duke is considering plans to close these ponds by leaving the waste in place and installing an earthen cap on top.