Archive for the ‘All Posts’ Category

To protect or prosecute polluters?

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - posted by eric
Water flowing from one of the discharge points in eastern Kentucky where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports.

Water flowing from one of the discharge points in eastern Kentucky where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports.

Last week the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed an administrative complaint against Frasure Creek Mining for hundreds of violations of the Clean Water Act at its mines in eastern Kentucky.

The filing comes just days before the end of the 60-day waiting period following an intent to sue letter sent by Appalachian Voices and our partners to Frasure Creek and the cabinet last November. Our notice letter described our discovery that the coal company had falsified pollution records over the course of 2013 and 2014, racking up almost 28,000 violations that state regulators failed to notice.

The cabinet’s filing includes all of the violations identified by Appalachian Voices and our partners. Under the Clean Water Act, the state’s action essentially preempts our ability to pursue a federal lawsuit.

Four years ago, when we first revealed that Frasure Creek had been falsifying records, the cabinet preempted our lawsuit by reaching a settlement with the company without our knowledge or participation. Later we were allowed to intervene in the settlement between the cabinet and Frasure Creek, a right which was upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Because the cabinet only filed a complaint and not a settlement in the latest case, we do not know how vigorous its enforcement will be. But if past enforcement is any guide, then one could expect it will not be very strong. The cabinet’s earlier enforcement actions against Frasure Creek were so paltry that they were thrown out in a recent court ruling, and were clearly not strong enough to ensure that Frasure Creek was in compliance since the company returned to submitting false water monitoring reports.

We will have to wait and see if the cabinet is going to take its responsibility to protect the people and water of Kentucky from dangerous pollution seriously. In the meantime, Appalachian Voices and our partners will continue to do whatever we can to ensure that Frasure Creek and other polluters are held accountable for their actions.

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The citizens’ groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Top five energy bills in Virginia (at the moment)

Monday, January 19th, 2015 - posted by hannah

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Get ready for a bumpy ride! The Virginia General Assembly started last Wednesday, and the stage is set for an interesting couple of months while legislators tussle over a slew of energy bills–some good, and some very, very bad.

During his State of the Commonwealth speech, Governor McAuliffe communicated the need to diversify our energy mix with carbon-free sources, noting that clean-energy policies lead to job creation and a stronger economy. So, Virginia legislators now have an opportunity to act on the governor’s leadership vision by following through with improvements to the state code. But will they? That’s the big question.

For context, this is the first session since the Environmental Protection Agency released, last June, the draft rule limiting, for the first-time ever, carbon dioxide from America’s power plants. Last year, we defeated a pre-emptive attempt by the Virginia legislature to cripple EPA’s authority on this issue, even before the draft was released. This year, we’re fighting against more dangerous proposals meant to keep Virginia from acting on the standards. But we also see bills that would advance solar energy, helping to close the gap between Virginia and some of our neighboring states.

Things can move fast during session, but as of today, here is the rundown:

SB 740 – This bill is one from the ALEC playbook, and it would derail the process for Virginia to comply with and benefit from the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The task of planning the implementation of carbon pollution reductions currently rests with Governor McAuliffe’s administration, but this would require General Assembly approval before the plan could be sent to the EPA — which, given the viewpoint of this General Assembly regarding climate change, presents a substantial roadblock for reducing carbon pollution by the EPA’s June 2016 deadline. And if Virginia misses the deadline, it’s all but guaranteed that a federal plan to cut carbon would be imposed on the state, not taking into account direct input from Virginians. Stopping this bill is a priority for Appalachian Voices and our partners.

SB 741 – Extends tax credits and subsidies for the coal industry from the current end date in 2017 to 2022. A recent study that relies partly on the legislature’s own analysis showed that coal-related activities, including the subsidies, cost Virginia taxpayers $22 million in 2009, and that these incentives for the coal industry do not have any effect on the number of people employed in the industry, which responds much more to external market forces. Given the need for funding elsewhere in the coalfield region, including loans to start businesses and organizations that diversify the economy, the impact of these credits should be closely analyzed in the coming two years before they are renewed. The governor’s proposed budget caps and phases out these credits to help close the budget gap, but the best approach is to use those funds in ways that better serve the coalfield communities.

HB 2205 – The Virginia Coastal Protection Act. With our coastal areas among the most vulnerable in the U.S. to the effects of rising sea levels, this bill helps to address Virginia’s contribution to global warming pollution while raising funds that would in part pay for adaptation measures in oceanfront and low-lying places. By authorizing Virginia to join a multi-state initiative to control greenhouse gas emissions, this bill helps put Virginia on track to take advantage of job-creating carbon-free energy resources, while positioning us to meet the EPA’s carbon standard.

HB 1911 – Analyze the benefits of solar and nix the standby charges (aka, solar tax). This is a straightforward bill to end utilities’ monthly “standby” fees they charge customers with solar systems over 10 kilowatts who deliver solar energy back to the grid. The bill requires that the costs and benefits of having solar power on the grid be determined before such charges can be reinstated. At many times of the year, the energy produced by solar customers is more valuable than the credit they receive, and benefits the utilities enjoy of having that extra solar energy — like avoided costs for having to build new power plants — must be factored in for a fair and comprehensive valuation of distributed solar power.

HB 1636 – Provides for community net-metering for renewable energy projects. Many Virginians see solar as a smart investment but can’t use their own roofs: too much shade, they rent their home, etc. The solution is to subscribe to a community operated facility, allowing residents to share a solar garden or wind turbine. Solar advocates: see also SB 833 / HB 1912 on sizing-up the size of projects eligible for net-metering, and SB 1099 / HB 1725 creating the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority.

There has never been a better time to get involved and express your views on these issues to your legislators. Now that session has begun, you can speak with their staffers easily by calling their Richmond offices.

We’ll stay in touch with you about ways you can speak up for clean energy solutions, and be sure to attend Virginia Conservation Network Lobby Day on Monday, January 26 for a big day of action!

Well, that was quick

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - posted by thom
Rep. David Vitter

Sen. David Vitter

The new U.S. Senate couldn’t even make it one week before introducing a horrible bill. The 114th Congress began on January 6, and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) only managed to restrain himself 24 whole hours before introducing legislation to weaken the Clean Water Act.

Sen. Vitter’s bill, S.54, would limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to veto permits for mountaintop removal valley fills. It is our view that valley fills—in which the dirt and rock from blasting the tops off the mountains are dumped into streams and valleys—should not even exist. We’ve got the science to back that up. But Vitter and other coal industry allies in Congress want the fills to continue to be permitted, and want them regulated exclusively by the Army Corps of Engineers, completely removing the EPA from the process.

These coal industry advocates want the Corps in charge not because they think the agency has the same level of water quality expertise as the EPA, but because the Corps does not have the same expertise, and is therefore more likely to just hand out permits that pollute our water.

The big difference between this Congress and last Congress is that bills like S.54 have a chance at passing the Senate. Vitter’s bill is virtually identical to multiple bills that have been introduced in the past, but they didn’t get committee hearings, and never even came up for votes. This year, they probably will.

Thanks to years of hard work by Appalachian Voices and our coalition partners, we have champions in the Senate who will work to stop these dangerous bills from becoming law. Senate Republicans established a precedent over the past eight years that all bills need 60 votes to pass, and the coal industry will have a very difficult time finding 60 senators to vote for more mountaintop removal mining pollution. But we will have a fight on our hands.

President Obama is also expected to use his veto power to stop the worst bills from becoming law. We hope not to depend on vetoes, but if we can’t stop something bad from passing the Senate, the President is our backstop.

Our greatest hope for the next two years is that the White House takes advantage of its veto power and doesn’t let the threat of coal industry bills to prevent strong actions to stop mountaintop removal. Because there’s a lot left to do, and not a lot of time in which to do it.

Fracking and pipelines threaten Appalachia

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015 - posted by cat
Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

Appalachian Voices is launching new web pages today about efforts to open North Carolina to natural gas fracking and proposals to build massive natural gas pipelines through several Appalachian states. These proposals threaten public health, local communities, and the environment, and also could dramatically impede the growing efforts to shift to cleaner energy across the region.

Over the last decade, the natural gas industry has overwhelmed scores of communities across the country, building miles of new pipelines and erecting huge drilling rigs, sucking up fresh water from creeks and aquifers, and overrunning backroads and town streets with tanker trucks hauling chemicals and waste. Local and state regulations are either nonexistent, or insufficient to cope with the impacts.

As a result, the breakneck growth in the industry poses tremendous risk to public health and the environment. And a growing reliance on natural gas, a fossil fuel, could drastically delay America’s U.S. shift to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.

Yes, burning natural gas for electricity has lower smokestack emissions of carbon dioxide than burning coal, but it should not be forgotten that the drilling process releases huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Experts say the rise of natural gas as utilities’ fuel of choice runs counter to the carbon reductions we must make to keep climate change in check.

We can’t afford to invest in new natural gas drilling operations, power plants, pipelines or other infrastructure that would lock us into decades of relying on this fossil fuel, while shortchanging cleaner energy. The thing is, every dollar – public or private – invested in expanding natural gas production is one less dollar invested in truly clean, less carbon-intensive sources such as energy efficiency, and wind and solar power. Not only do these energy solutions translate to cleaner air and more protections for our water resources, they create new jobs and tremendous economic opportunity.

Last year, several massive pipelines were proposed generally running from West Virginia through Virginia, and one would go on through North Carolina. Citizens are taking action to oppose the projects out of concern about the impacts to private property, water resources, and some of Virginia’s most treasured historic and natural heritage sites.

And North Carolina recently lifted its long-standing state moratorium on fracking; Under the sway of the industry and its allies, the state has developed regulations that are wholly inadequate to protect communities and the environment. In response, a grassroots movement has sprung up to protect the state’s natural resources and push lawmakers to reinstate the moratorium.

An interview with Christopher Scotton, author of “Secret Wisdom of the Earth”

Thursday, January 8th, 2015 - posted by brian
Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

By Brian Sewell

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth,” the debut novel by Christopher Scotton released this week, is a coming-of-age story that takes familiar themes — tragedy and the quest to find healing — and explores them with the backdrop of a Central Appalachian community beset by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Set in 1985 in the fictional Medgar, Ky., a richly conceived town full of even richer characters, “Secret Wisdom of the Earth” traces the summer 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly spent at his mother’s childhood home in the mountains, as he comes to grips with the tragic death of his younger brother.

With Kevin as the narrator, Scotton weaves together stories spanning generations of Medgar residents, close friends and unabashed enemies, including many who are struggling with questions of identity and whether or not to abide by the bounds of tradition.

Mountaintop removal, at first, is depicted as a pervasive but rarely-seen evil encroaching on Medgar, with a prideful, blustering coal baron acquiring more and more land surrounding the town. Ultimately, however, it’s the friction created in the small community by mountaintop removal that precipitates a spellbinding story of family, friendship and overcoming the odds that will change Kevin’s life and the town of Medgar forever.

Released on Jan. 6, the ambitious novel is popping up on lists of new and noteworthy titles and editor’s picks. On Jan. 11, Scotton will start a 15-date reading tour, stopping in many cities in Appalachia and across the Southeast.

After reading an early release of the novel, we spoke with Scotton about its heartrending themes, its Appalachian setting and his enduring relationship to the region.

Brian Sewell: You started working on the novel more than a decade ago. Looking back, can you talk about how you initially conceived of the story and went about shaping it into the novel we get to enjoy today?

Christopher Scotton: The kernel of the idea came to me when I was in my twenties. I met a friend’s mother, who was this beautiful women that had this intrinsic sadness about her. I don’t know if you’ve met people like that that have a facade of happiness, but in their unguarded moments you can see that there’s something not quite right. I asked my friend about it and he told me the story of how his older brother died. This was before he was born and his older brother was three and died in the most horrific accident in their front yard that you could possibly imagine, and 30 years later the mom who witnessed it still hadn’t healed. I was so absolutely aghast by that and I knew I had to write a novel about it; how could you ever possibly heal from that?

Now that I’ve become a parent many years later I can understand exactly why she would often look through me when I was talking to her at some place in the past. And now I know why, because you can’t fully heal from something like that. That spurred the idea in my head to write a novel about that awful tragedy and its effect on a family. I wanted to write a coming of age novel so I thought that having Kevin as the narrator, having him recover from that tragedy I figured would make a good story. A parent could never really recover, but maybe a sibling could.

The next question was setting. Do I locate it in the suburbs, where I grew up? When I was in my twenties, I was doing a lot of backpacking, camping and backcountry survival stuff with my college friends and I just fell in love with Appalachia. As I visited the region, I just fell in love with the people and the mountains. It’s such a beautiful place. I went down to eastern Kentucky and realized the paradox of that particular part of Appalachia and thought it would make a good backdrop for Kevin’s story.

I really didn’t connect mountaintop removal to it right away. I had started writing a story centered in eastern Kentucky. The tragedy was there, I had developed the characters, but I hit a narrative logjam and nothing was connecting. I went down to eastern Kentucky for research again and saw my first mountaintop removal mine and could not believe that this practice was allowed to go on. Once I saw that, it all clicked in; the permanent loss of the mountains in eastern Kentucky became so obviously allegorical to the loss that the main characters feel. Once I connected those two together, the rest of the story flowed so easily.

BS: Tell us about some of the other characters such as Kevin’s grandfather Pops that we really get to know. Did they emanate from the setting itself or personal experiences?

CS: I spent a lot of time in eastern Kentucky just meeting folks and listening to their stories and getting to know them. In small towns throughout Appalachia, you just meet wonderful, quirky, interesting people who you want to write about because they’re so real and interesting. You also meet some awful people, just like everywhere else. You meet wonderful people and awful people in New York City too. There are pockets of beauty and pockets of evil absolutely everywhere. A lot of the town characters that I wrote about are just folks that I observed and met while in Kentucky.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

I didn’t have a grandfather like Pops in my life when I was an adolescent. Pops is the grandfather I wish I had and the grandfather that I hope to become; a kind of amalgamation of those two people. Everyone needs a wise mentor in their life and I didn’t have one growing up. Kevin certainly requires it given the tragedy he’s gone through. Adolescence is hard enough, even in the best of circumstances. But when you’ve gone through something like he’s gone through and layer on the guilt from his father, you need someone who can ground you, and Pops definitely does that for him.

BS: Characters like Pops challenge the simplistic images of Appalachian prevalent in media and pop culture. Could you remark on the different brands of wisdom found in the book?

CS: You could argue that in the novel there are several stereotypical characters; Paul is a gay hairdresser and you can’t get much more stereotypical than that. But the reality is that there are elements of truth in stereotypes and you see that everywhere. One thing that my trips down to eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia really taught me is that, sure, there are stereotypical folks in that region but there are many folks that don’t fit that mold and they’re probably there in equal measure. There is wisdom in both.

Pops is someone who loves the land and has the capacity to listen to the earth. He goes off by himself into the woods and just is, existing in the woods by himself. At times in my life when I have done that, when I’m off camping by myself for a few days, I listen to the earth and appreciate the earth in ways that you can’t from an office or even camping with friends. You gain so much wisdom and appreciation for how complex and interconnected the earth is when you do that.

The people in Appalachia tend to be rich just in and of itself. If a capable writer can create good characters, they can do that in any setting and any plot. Appalachia gave me great material to work with and I’m very thankful for that.

BS: You introduce mountaintop removal from an almost innocent perspective. From Kevin’s perspective it’s this off-in-the-distance, over-a-couple-of-ridgelines thing going on. But as you get deeper into the book and Kevin grows into the community, you get closer and closer to the destruction.

CS: Kevin’s experience with mountaintop removal is very similar to mine. I visited the region, eastern Kentucky specifically, three or four times before I had seen a mountaintop removal mine. I had been camping and backpacking extensively but never come across it. You really don’t see it until you get off-trail. I had no sense of what was going on.

I was down in Williamson, W.Va., and heard an explosion and asked someone what’s going on and they described the blasting. That Sunday, I snuck through a fence and climbed through the woods and came to the edge of the operation and looked over two miles of moonscape. It disgusted me. So Kevin’s experience was very much my experience.

BS: Something the novel does well, considering when it takes place, is looking at mountaintop removal as a human issue and a little-understood emerging threat that’s dividing the communities where it’s taking place.

CS: After I saw the mountaintop removal mine, I probably asked someone, “Do you have any idea what they’re doing up there?” But you talk to someone whose family member works up there, they have a very different perspective. I was struck by how it divided the folks that I talked to. I thought that was a really sad and interesting aspect of it. Those that live near it and have the put up with the devastation often hate it, but some of them have relatives that work in the mines so it really is a sad paradox.

Now the pendulum has swung to where, in towns beset by large mining operations, there seems to be a majority of folks that really don’t want it there. It’s gotten so far out of control and the damage is so well documented by organizations like yours. Certainly in 1985, when the novel takes place, and even in 2000, when I was doing the bulk of the mountaintop removal site work, there was less understanding of the damage.

BS: What’s your relationship to the region after writing “Secret Wisdom of the Earth?”

CS: Calling it a second home wouldn’t be accurate because I don’t visit as much as I would like. But I feel a kinship with eastern Kentucky and with the people there because, without their help and support and endorsement, I couldn’t have created this world in my head to tell Kevin’s story. I feel a tremendous connection to that region and the people. I’m so looking forward to spending time in the region and getting to know it again.

BS: You’re heading back to the region to do a reading soon. Have you gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers in Appalachia?

CS: A lady from a major coal-mining county in Kentucky who told me, “You did this region proud.” That was the best praise I think I’ve gotten — from someone who is from the area and felt I did the region justice, dealing with the region with humanity and with truth.

West Virginia flunks climate change class

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 - posted by cat

climate change on blackboard The Board of Education in West Virginia may be on to something when it comes to the thorny problem of worldwide climate change: Scrub it for the K-12 curriculum.

Last fall, the board was set to adopt new science-teaching standards based on a national blueprint of voluntary and internationally-recognized benchmarks, developed by 26 states in conjunction with such tree-hugger bastions as the National Research Council, National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The standards require students to learn about the evidence for human-driven climate change.

But in December, as reported by Ryan Quinn of the Charleston Gazette, the board changed the standards to more or less eliminate references to human causes of climate change — to whit, the burning of fossil fuels — largely at the behest of a board member. Quinn reported that Wade Linger doesn’t believe human-driven global warming is a “foregone conclusion.”

Quinn also noted:

State school board member Tom Campbell said that in response to the climate change language, Linger brought up concerns about political views being taught in classrooms during an open school board meeting in Mingo County in November. Campbell said he shared those concerns.
“Let’s not use unproven theories,” said Campbell, a former House of Delegates education chairman. “Let’s stick to the facts.”

Technically all theories could be considered unproven — many, like the theory of gravitation or plate tectonics, are overwhelmingly accepted by both scientists and the public based on a bevy of evidence. Even other publicly controversial ones, like evolution, are still overwhelmingly accepted by scientists.

When asked why climate change was the particular “unproven science” that he and Linger were concerned about, Campbell responded that “West Virginia coal in particular has been taking on unfair negativity from certain groups.” He also noted the coal industry provides much money to the state’s education system.

The two board members might have been reading from a page in The Heartland Institute’s playbook. In 2012, the national conservative think-tank was cooking up plans to create a curriculum promoting the idea that the human role in contributing to climate change is “a major scientific controversy” (notwithstanding that some 97 percent of climate scientists agree that the climate is changing and that human activity is a significant cause).

The West Virginia Board of Education’s action has precipitated quite the kerfuffle in the Mountain State. Groups who oppose the changes to the science standard are now speaking out, and have started a petition to compel the board to rescind the changes.

“When it comes to the accuracy of peer-reviewed science, it is important to teach actual science and not theories that are based on the politics of the coal industry,” said Lisa Hoyos — director and co-founder of Climate Parents, a national nonprofit with members in all 50 states, including 200 in West Virginia. Hoyos said group members would be attending future meetings of the education board.

Photo by BigStockPhoto.com

Fighting Mountaintop Removal During the Obama Years

Friday, December 26th, 2014 - posted by molly

EPA finalizes long-awaited coal ash regulations

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by brian
The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy's Dan River plant.

The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant.

The day we’ve been waiting for has finally come. Yes it’s Friday, but today was also the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s court-imposed deadline to release federal regulations for coal ash storage and disposal.

As expected, the rule it took the EPA five years to finalize is modest at best, falling short of what it takes to truly address the prevalent problems associated with coal ash such as contamination of waterways and drinking water supplies.

Rather than classifying coal ash as the hazardous waste it clearly is, the EPA rule places it under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the nation’s primary law for regulating solid waste. Other types of waste regulated under Subtitle D include household garbage — you know, banana peels, candy wrappers and the like.

“For the thousands of citizens whose groundwater is no longer safe for consumption due to leaching ponds or whose air is contaminated by fugitive dust, failing to regulate coal ash as hazardous is a slap in the face,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator. “While we’re pleased that we finally have federal regulations, they are far from perfect and demand we continue fighting for cleanup of these toxic sites.”

U.S. coal plants produce around 140 million tons of coal ash each year. Much of that is stored near waterways in unlined pits held in place by earthen dams. Even years after coal plants have closed, ponds that have stored toxic coal ash for decades can continue to pollute water and put communities at risk.

In 2012, Appalachian Voices and several partner groups, represented by Earthjustice, sued the EPA in federal court to force the agency to issue a rule. Late last year our coalition reached a settlement holding the EPA to today’s deadline.

According to the EPA, the rule establishes safeguards to protect communities from catastrophic spills, like the Kingston, Tenn., spill in 2008. It was the disaster in Kingston that spurred the agency to act.

But more spills, like the one at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River plant in Eden, N.C., have happened in the time since, representing hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental and economic costs.

To address the threat of another catastrophic failure, the EPA rule calls for the closure of inactive sites that fail to meet engineering and structural standards, more frequent inspections and monitoring, and restrictions on where coal ash impoundments are located.

The rule also requires water quality monitoring and public disclosure of the results, which should help groups like Appalachian Voices and our community partners better track pollution and take companies to court that fail to stop it. More frequent reports and accurate information coming directly from utilities could be a big boost for efforts to protect clean water, as long as coal plant operators commit to transparency.

But while the regulations set a minimum federal criteria, states are not required to adopt them, develop a permitting program, or submit a program to the EPA for approval. That’s all more of a suggestion, really. So while the EPA says it expects states to be “active partners” in regulating coal ash, well, states unfriendly to the EPA may feel differently. And should states refuse to clean up coal ash pollution or fail to meet the new standards, the EPA will not step in to enforce the rule. That job will still fall to citizens who identify the insidious pollution and file lawsuits to correct it.

According to Earthjustice, unsafe disposal of coal ash into the nation’s more than 1,400 coal ash dumps has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and sources of underground drinking water in 37 states. There are 331 high- and significant-hazard coal ash ponds in the country. Many of the highest hazard sites are concentrated in the eastern U.S.

Learn more about our work to clean up coal ash.

Appalachia’s Environmental Votetracker: Dec.-Jan. 2014 issue

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by molly

Double-click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Exposed: Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

Thursday, December 18th, 2014 - posted by allison

Nearly 650 mountaintop removal coal mining sites scar the landscape of central Appalachia. Neighboring communities experience greater levels of air and water pollution and suffer from higher rates of illness than similar communities located further away, says Dr. Michael Hendryx, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University who has contributed to more than 30 studies on the subject.

MTR-vehicle

The destruction of mountaintop removal coal mining at a Roaring Fork Headwaters site in Wise County, Va. Photo by Matt Wasson, Appalachian Voices

Toxic heavy metals present in coal, such as arsenic, mercury and lead, are found in every stage of mining waste. As heavy machinery and explosives remove forests — gouging deep into the land in order to access underlying coal seams — a mixture of rock dust and chemical residue left from the explosives fills the air. A recent air quality study near mountaintop removal mining sites, co-authored by Hendryx, found that even in a controlled lab environment, this dust “can cause cancerous changes to human lung tissue,” a finding that had previously been suggested by health data in nearby impacted communities.

Once removed, rock and soil “overburden” is dumped into nearby valleys, and has buried more than 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams. The water that trickles through the base of these “valley fills” is laden with heavy metals, dissolved salts and other toxic substances, contaminating ground and surface water.

To discuss these issues, join our upcoming webinar discussion with a panel of experts this February.
Visit appvoices.org/webinars.

Streams polluted by mining waste correspond to increased rates of cancer mortality nearby, even after accounting for factors such as smoking and poverty, according to a 2010 study co-authored by Hendryx and Than Hitt, a biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Damage persists even after mining ends. The unearthed coal is transported to nearby processing facilities, separated from soil and rock, then crushed into smaller chunks. This creates tons of additional dust, which includes particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides that contribute to acid rain and respiratory illnesses as well as cancer. Afterwards, the coal is washed using chemicals known to cause cancer and heart and lung damage.

After washing the coal, the leftover waste — called slurry— is disposed of either in open-air, unlined ponds, or injected underground. A multitude of studies have found that the same contaminants present in mining runoff and slurry turn up in drinking water.