Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Great News for Clean Water in Virginia!

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - posted by eric

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution.

Last week a federal judge upheld a previous decision requiring a Virginia coal company to get a permit for their discharges of toxic selenium.

Selenium is a mineral that is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life at very low levels. It is commonly discharged from many coal mines and coal ash ponds. Even in small amounts, selenium causes deformities, reproductive failure and even death in fish and birds. Even though its toxic effects and prevalence in coal mine discharges are well known, this is the first mine in Virginia that will be required to monitor and obtain a permit for its selenium discharges.

Water testing done by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) revealed that A&G Coal Corporation’s Kelly Branch Surface Mine was discharging selenium in toxic amounts. So in 2012, Appalachian Voices, SAMS and the Sierra Club, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed suit against A&G for illegal discharges of selenium.

EPA is currently revising their national standards for selenium. If implemented, their new draft standards will make it more difficult for citizens groups protect streams they care about through legal actions like this one.

A&G Coal Company is owned by billionaire, frequent political campaign contributor and coal baron James Justice.

Last year, a federal judge ruled in our favor and ordered A&G to begin daily selenium monitoring and to apply for a permit from the Commonwealth of Virginia to cover its selenium discharges. A&G appealed that decision with the support of a number of industry groups including the National Mining Association, the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance, the Virginia Mining Association, the Virginia Mining Issues Group, the American Petroleum Institute and several others. That appeal failed last week.

A&G claimed that their current water discharge permit provided them a “permit shield.” Basically, since they were meeting the terms of their current permit, they were shielded from any liability for other water pollution not included in that permit.

In his decision federal district judge James P. Jones disagreed. The decision states that the validity of a “permit shield” is a two-prong test, requiring that a permittee disclose the presence of the pollutant in its permit application, and that the state agency considers that pollutant. If you fail one prong then you lose the shield. In this case A&G never disclosed the presence of selenium in their permit application, and there is no evidence that Virginia considered selenium pollution, so the company failed both parts of the test. The decision concludes:

To allow the [permit shield] defense in these circumstances would tear a large hole in the [Clean Water Act], whose purpose it is to protect the waters of Appalachia and the nation and their healthfulness, wildlife, and natural beauty.

Hey Duke Energy – Buy a Bigger Dump Truck!

Thursday, July 17th, 2014 - posted by matt

The Perfect Solution to North Carolina’s Coal Ash Crisis

There’s been a lot of controversy about how North Carolina will deal with its coal ash crisis ever since Duke Energy spilled nearly 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River last February. Shortly after the spill, legislative leaders voiced icy determination to pass a bill that would force Duke to quickly clean up its toxic coal ash lagoons and protect the state’s rivers and groundwater from further insults.

The hope that all this tough talk would translate into bold action began to fade last month, however, when the state Senate passed a bill that would allow Duke to use “cap in place” techniques at some (possibly most) of the state’s coal ash lagoons rather than requiring Duke to use the kind of modern landfills that are required for disposing of household garbage.

Then, what little hope remained appeared to be lost in early July when the House passed a bill that would let Duke off the hook on the timelines for even these meager clean-up efforts. Fortunately, the Senate unanimously rejected the House’s anemic bill earlier this week, meaning the differences between the bills will now have to be worked out in a conference committee next week.

But the question remains, how could these tough-talking legislators have been convinced to pursue such a myopic solution to the state’s coal ash woes?

The answer is that Duke’s lobbyists managed to scare legislators by convincing them that it wouldn’t be feasible to move all this coal ash to landfills on a 5, 10, even 15-year timeframe. The centerpiece of their argument is a remarkable analysis [PDF-page 15 in particular] by Duke’s engineers that claims it would take 30 years to move 22 million tons of coal ash at their Marshall Steam Station if a dump truck were to leave every three minutes, 12 hours per day, six days per week.

From the moment it was made public, though, this analysis seemed a little fishy. Duke consumes 4 or 5 million tons of coal every year at the Marshall plant, but it can’t even move 1 million tons per year of coal ash to a landfill? A back of the envelope calculation indicates it would take only a quarter that much time to move the volume of material Duke was talking about with a U-Haul!

So we took a closer look at Duke’s analysis and discovered an astonishing fact: it is based on the assumption that they could only haul 10 tons of coal ash per load, which is roughly the weight you could pull in a trailer with a Ford F-350 pickup. A light bulb went on in my head… what if Duke used a BIGGER truck to haul all that coal ash?

dump_truck_for_duke

What if, for instance, the company bought a few of those 200-ton rock trucks that mountaintop removal coal companies use to dump waste and debris into stream valleys in Appalachia in order to supply Duke with coal? With that kind of hauling capacity, they could move all the coal ash in the biggest lagoons in the state in a mere 18 months.

Now to be fair, you can’t drive a 200-ton truck on a public road. That means that in the rare cases where there is no place on site to create a landfill it would take longer than 18 months. But even assuming Duke’s lobbyists can’t get an exception to the state’s 40-ton weight limit for light-traffic roads (as apple growers, Christmas tree farmers and many less influential industries in Raleigh have already done), it could still be done three or four times faster than if they were to wear out a Ford F350 pulling one 10-ton trailer at a time.

And just in case you’re concerned about where Duke might possibly acquire such an advanced piece of hardware, rest assured that we checked online and… wow… there are an awful lot of those trucks for sale right here in the great state of North Carolina.

So the final problem to solve is how to pay for Duke’s new dump truck. Now, you might think a $2 million investment in a big old rock truck shouldn’t be a problem for the largest electric utility in the nation, which cleared nearly $3 billion in profits last year. But that’s because you simply don’t understand the mindset of a Duke Energy executive.

The way a Duke executive feels about spending money on hippy-dippy stuff like protecting rivers and drinking water from toxic pollution is a lot like how you or I feel about spending our tax dollars bailing out Wall Street firms whose malfeasance recently crashed the economy.

So here’s our solution: we’ve set up a grassroots fundraising campaign on Crowdrise so that all y’all can help us raise a cool $2 million to buy Duke Energy a shiny new dump truck and, at the same time, ease legislators’ minds about passing a bill that will hold Duke accountable for safely disposing of millions of tons of toxic coal ash.

You’re also invited to a celebration at Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte later this summer where we’ll present them with a check for all of the proceeds. In the unlikely event that Duke refuses the money then we’ll use it to pay for well water testing in communities living near coal ash dumps in North Carolina and to support local groups who are trying to force Duke to clean up the coal ash problem in their neighborhood.

It’s a big win for everyone! Donate today.

Activists gather at “Home of the Brave” on 4th of July

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 - posted by amy
Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices looks over a mountaintop removal mine visible from Kayford Mountain, W.Va. Photo by Lynn Willis.

Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices looks over a mountaintop removal mine visible from Kayford Mountain, W.Va. Photo by Lynn Willis.

It’s the 4th of July, and photographer Lynn Willis and I are traveling the long road along Cabin Creek in West Virginia that leads to the Stanley Heirs Park. Empty coal cars line the roadside, waiting for the next delivery of toxic payload to be delivered into their iron bowels. We pass under a coal chute and the road turns to gravel. Arriving at the park, a scattering of Appalachians, friends, family, musicians, and lovers of mountains are meeting in a small field at the 10th annual Kayford Mountain Music Festival to raise awareness of mountaintop removal coal mining. Just out of sight, the mines surround us, offering silent witness to the gathering here in opposition against them.

According to the National Mining Association, “Mountaintop mining accounts for approximately 45 percent of the entire state’s coal production in West Virginia.” Much of the political and regulatory power is held by large, out-of-state (or even out-of-country) corporations who give themselves monikers like Patriot Coal and Freedom Industries, trying to invoke a sense of pride and American entrepreneurship while subversively implying that being against them would be un-American.

But there is nothing patriotic about what the coal industry does to the land and the people. This is a monarchy, and King Coal rules with an iron fist.

Independence Day weekend, and West Virginia is NOT the land of the free.

This is a land of exploitation, where people are collateral damage, imprisoned by the politics of coal. The blasting away of mountains poisons streams and groundwater, and sometimes even alters the hydrology such that water retreats miles underground and is unreachable. Residents must buy water and carry it home, creating a financial and physical hardship. Water from the tap, if it provides any, may be discolored, have odors, or even more disturbing, may contain contaminants that silently, slowly poison the body.

A family cemetery sits on a knoll amidst the destruction of open mines. Photo by Lynn Willis; flight by Southwings.

A family cemetery sits on a knoll amidst the destruction of open mines. Photo by Lynn Willis; flight by Southwings.

The endless blasting sends dust, ash, and coal particles into the air, and shakes nearby houses to their foundations, while heavy trucks and rail cars endlessly transport the prize of coal past once thriving coal communities. What the coal companies call “overburden” – the unwanted soil and rock that used to be the mountain top above the coal seams–is pushed into adjacent valleys and graded into artificial slopes whose shape reminds me of the folded paper fans I use to play with as a child.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 2,000 miles of stream have been buried under valley fill or severely poisoned. With every rain and snow, water washes over the exposed rock, picking up a stew of toxic metals, like selenium, mercury, lead and arsenic, which are carried downstream for miles, killing fish and other aquatic life. This contamination has lead to serious health consequences for people living near mountaintop removal sites. Many of the mining chemicals and byproducts are known carcinogens, such as arsenic. Higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and birth defects have been reported. Long has King Coal been a cruel ruler.

Independence Day weekend, and West Virginia is undoubtedly the home of the brave.

The Kayford Mountain Stanley Heirs Park is home to one of the heroes of the movement to end mountaintop removal mining, the late Larry Gibson. On stage, the local musicians’ songs echo down the hills, haunting and beautiful. On Friday evening, Patricia Ansley sings a cappella a song in tribute to Larry, and for Larry, and for so many others who passed from this world before the fight was won. The melody unfolded before me in a feeling of loss, and hope. My heart opened and wept with them. Wept for the mountains and people, wept at the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against them both. As Patricia left the stage, desperately trying to keep her own tears at bay, she hugged my neck, mostly I think because I was the closest to her as she exited the stage, but whatever the reason, I found it hard to let go.

What a perfect tribute to those who pioneered and carried this fight until they could carry no more, and a tribute to those dedicated and passionate folks left behind who have picked up and carried the torch. To find the next generation of brave mountaintop-removal fighters, you need look no further than Paul Corbit Brown, Elise Liegel, or the Mullinses, a Kentucky family whose “Breaking Clean Tour” led them up and down the eastern seaboard this summer spreading the truth of the tragedy occurring in Appalachia.

Elise Keaton, with Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, with festival-goers at the 10th annual Kayford Mountain Music Festival. Photo by Lynn Willis.

Elise Keaton, with Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, with festival-goers at the 10th annual Kayford Mountain Music Festival. Photo by Lynn Willis.

Later that evening, Trish Bragg, a pioneer of the movement, reads the thoughts she penned after seeing the Agony of Gaia. Her white hair is highlighted by the glow of the projector screen behind her, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders to keep off the cool mountain evening air. Again, it is hard to contain the emotion and as she wipes away tears in the fading light of July 4th, I feel the heartbreak written in her words. After, we watch the trailer for Moving Mountains, a dramatization of the fight she and others have waged against this devastating form of strip mining. Everyone in the small park is united and silent under the stars of a West Virginian night.

The next morning, Lynn and I join Tom White at the Charleston airport. A volunteer pilot with Southwings, Tom has flown many others over the scenes of mountaintop mining destruction over the years. Initially, I am enthralled with the joy of flying when my eyes are drawn to the unnatural looking patches of light brown in the deep green of forested ridges. And there isn’t just one or two. As far as my eyes will let me see into the horizon, there are more.

We approach one sprawling patch, and as I absorb what I am seeing, the reality of mountaintop removal mining pulls the air from my lungs and collapses my chest in. I
have that panicked feeling, like seeing an animal about to be hit on a highway. It is ugly and terrifying and nearly beyond any description by words alone. As we fly over site after site, it’s like being in an endless car wreck, and I am ready for the flight to end. We land in silence, stunned and disgusted with the truth we had brutally encountered. Returning to Stanley Heirs Park, Lynn and I climb once again the long road with new awareness and a heavier heart.

Everything is at stake for these people — their homes, their water, their food, their health, their very lives hang in the balance of the People vs King Coal. Yet looking around the park, the smiles, warmth, solidarity and camaraderie shine like embers. I see in these faces the flames of the keepers, the sense of pride and determination that have always been their strength. I see true patriotism, loyalty to homeplace and community. I am drawn to their spirit and find myself humbled by the fight they have undertaken.

Food, water, music and fellowship is shared without reserve with everyone at Kayford Music Festival, and many, many stories. Boy, do West Virginians like their stories! A man in his 80s, known to me only as Hoot, tells of the days of a one-room schoolhouse, productive family farms, and a thriving community. Later, I can only find remnants, like the goldfish pond that used to sit below the mine’s clubhouse, now just an overgrown cattail pond, and the once grand clubhouse is just a few foundation bricks in the overgrown woods. Hoot says the days last longer now, because the mountain top that used to block the fading sun no longer exists. He tells of how the family graveyard, once lower than the surrounding peaks, is now one of the highest. He talks of a natural spring that he enjoyed as a youth for drinking and playing in, where as an adult he got his water during lunch breaks…gone, now. The water no longer flows there. Everyone at the festival has had to carry in gallons and gallons of water.

Independence Day weekend, and West Virginians are building towards a new energy independence.

In a valiant, almost defiant move, this year’s Kayford Mountain Festival organizers set out to stage West Virginia’s first 100% solar powered music festival. And they achieved their goal, thanks to the coordination and generous spirit of Mountain View Solar, which provided mobile (and note: rentable!) solar panels to the site. This is a new rebellion, a new freedom, a statement of independence from the coal monarch. Practical and now economically viable, solar power is poised to create a new energy paradigm that has great economic growth potential.

In my home state of North Carolina, solar created over 10,000 jobs in 2012, and that is projected to grow to more than 30,000 jobs by 2030. The types of policies and investments that make this possible could drive the change needed to break King Coal’s stranglehold on Appalachia. The Kayford Mountain Sustainability Project aims to lead the way in that transition.

Lynn and I leave Kayford Mountain with a deep and profound connection to the people and mountains. I think a part of my heart will remain here long after I am separated by miles. Our parting view is of three white crosses on a hill. After all we experienced, it seems a sadly fitting and somehow inspiring image that demands we to continue the fight against the dirty practice of mountaintop removal mining, and demands that the years of coal’s rule end in West Virginia and her people thrive once again.

The Power of Energy Efficiency — Building a Stronger Economy for Appalachia (Part 5)

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 - posted by rory

{ Editor’s Note } This is the final installment in a five-part series illustrating the need for greater investments in residential energy efficiency as an economic driver in rural Appalachia. In this post, we describe the efforts of Appalachian Voices and our allies in helping Appalachia realize its energy efficiency potential, and highlight some of the successes that have already been achieved.

Energy efficiency might not be the cool kid in the room to most people. That would be solar energy, smug ole solar). Energy efficiency is the smart kid sitting in the back of the room, the one that quietly goes about its work, that gets more done with less effort. It even helps solar succeed, because without energy efficiency, a whole lotta solar energy gets wasted, rendering it less economical compared to the fossil fuel bullies in the room.

But the fact that energy efficiency helps solar with its homework isn’t why it is exciting and important. Energy efficiency provides so many benefits beyond just serving as the cheapest way to meeting our energy demands (approximately 80 percent cheaper than solar). Energy efficiency helps alleviate poverty, creates and sustains local jobs, and promotes local economic development. It makes homes more comfortable and healthy, and reduces the environmental impact associated with our energy use. It also may be the most vital solution to Appalachia’s energy and economic future, as we’ve described in this blog series.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Yeah, solar does almost all of these things (and don’t get me wrong, solar energy is still awesome), but energy efficiency costs a lot less to achieve the same benefits, meaning it can have a much greater impact per dollar. In Appalachia, as in other regions of the U.S. where public and private investment in clean energy is relatively scarce, this is an important consideration, and it’s one of the main reasons why Appalachian Voices initiated our Energy Savings for Appalachia program last year.

Through this campaign, we are actively promoting cost-effective solutions that will help Appalachia realize its energy efficiency potential while maximizing the economic and environmental benefits along the way. And the potential is mind-blowing. A 2009 study on Appalachia’s energy efficiency potential found that an investment of $7 billion in residential efficiency improvements would save Appalachian families nearly $14 billion in energy costs by 2030, reducing the average home’s energy use by more than 15 percent and (based on the employment impact multiplier used in this study) creating more than 100,000 jobs in the process. This illustrates how, for a region made up of largely impoverished communities and families, energy efficiency could provide a significant economic boost and help reverse a long-standing struggle to develop and strengthen local economies in the region.

This is why Appalachian Voices and many of our allies have dedicated ourselves to promoting strong investment in cost-effective energy efficiency programs in Appalachia. We are working with rural electric cooperatives to develop home energy efficiency finance programs like those we’ve described in this series. We are inspired and joined in this work by our regional partners and allies, which include the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) (Kentucky), the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (North Carolina and Tennessee), Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowement (Tennessee), Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA) (regional), Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (Kentucky) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) (North Carolina). Recognizing the need and potential for improving energy efficiency in rural areas, each of these organizations are focused in part on working with the rural electric cooperatives that provide electricity to those communities.

As a result of the efforts of many of these organizations, there have been some key successes, and there is now a growing movement in Appalachia toward the development of financing programs for residential and commercial energy efficiency. Leading the way was MACED, which spearheaded the development of the successful and still-growing How$mart Kentucky program. In North Carolina, EDF helped with the development and launch of a pilot on-bill finance program through Roanoke Electric Cooperative. And just recently, SEEA launched the Southeast Energy Efficiency Finance Network, which aims to facilitate the expansion of public and private investment in energy efficiency throughout the Southeast.

Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil and Tennessee Campaign Coordinator Ann League meet with representatives from Appalachian Electric Cooperative, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, the USDA and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to discuss the creation of a statewide on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil and Tennessee Campaign Coordinator Ann League meet with representatives from Appalachian Electric Cooperative, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, the USDA and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to discuss the creation of a statewide on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

For our part, Appalachian Voices has achieved a high level of success in the 15 months since we launched our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign. As a result of our efforts, the statewide Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, in partnership with five member cooperatives, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the National Governor’s Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Appalachian Voices, is in the process of designing a small-scale on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. This is a significant step toward realizing Tennessee’s energy efficiency potential, and we are proud to be partnered with each of these caring and forward-thinking groups that are leading the way.

I could write forever about energy efficiency, Appalachia and the many great things that our partners and allies are doing to advance energy efficiency in the region. But once you get into the realm of naming a series a “pentalogy” (I had to look that up), it’s time to bring it to a close.

So I’ll end this series with one last pitch to you. YOU are the most important piece of this energy efficiency work. While a good number of electric cooperatives and other utilities are doing a lot to help their members and customers lower their energy bills, many are not. So much more could be done, and it likely won’t be unless you get involved. One way to start is by learning more about energy efficiency and programs that your utility could provide by visiting our Energy Savings Action Center. While you’re there, send your utility a letter requesting stronger home energy efficiency programs. But most importantly, get out in your community, talk to your neighbors about how energy efficiency could benefit them, and let your voice be heard! Without you, Appalachia will never achieve it’s energy efficiency potential.

Thanks for reading!

Strip mine highway gets a hard look

Monday, July 14th, 2014 - posted by tom
Image courtesy of the Sierra Club

Image courtesy of the Sierra Club

The Coalfields Expressway as currently proposed is not a classic “road to nowhere” boondoggle, but it is a road to the destruction of mountains, creeks and economic opportunities in Southwest Virginia.

So it was a joyous day in June when we learned that, after many years of collaborative effort by Appalachian Voices and partner groups, and the persistence of countless citizens across the region, federal officials had put the brakes on it.

The move provides a chance for the public to have a voice in developing the best transportation options for Southwest Virginia while ensuring the long-term economic sustainability and natural heritage of the region.

In short, what happened is this. A four-lane highway from Pound, Va., to Beckley, W.V., was planned decades ago, but was never built due to the prohibitive cost. In 2006, the state partnered with the coal company Alpha Natural Resources to “grade” part of the roadbed by strip mining it, saving public funds.

But the project had to be re-routed over enough coal deposits to make it profitable for the company. Not only would the new route destroy three times as much forest land and stream miles, it also skirted many town centers, threatening to harm the local economy rather than help it (read more on the project’s history). Despite the major change, the Virginia Department of Transportation only conducted a cursory study of the impacts.

Working shoulder-to-shoulder with local citizens, Appalachian Voices and partner groups called for a full environmental impact study as required by federal law. And we pulled out all the stops. We met with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the McAuliffe Administration. We spoke before the Commonwealth Transportation Board. We rallied outside of Alpha’s headquarters in Abingdon and FHWA headquarters in Washington, D.C. By the end, more than 85,000 people spoke out through comments to public officials.

The June decision by the FHWA will require a thorough study of the community and environmental impacts of the project and re-opens the process to full public involvement. But the fight isn’t over. Appalachian Voices remains committed to working with local citizens to ensure the law is followed, the process is transparent, that voices are heard, and most importantly, that the best choice is made.

Today’s court decision and what it means for Appalachia

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - posted by thom

good_day_for_mtns2

Today was a big day for those fighting to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

A federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge.

Read a statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons.

In 2009, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers began an Enhanced Coordination Process for permitting valley fills associated with large-scale mountaintop removal mining. The process encouraged improved coordination between the two agencies and greater scrutiny of the environmental impacts of each valley fill permit before them.

But as you probably know, the environmental impacts of valley fills are inherently damaging. Just last week, a major study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that headwater streams beneath valley fills in southern West Virginia had two-thirds fewer fish than normal streams. Keep in mind that those Appalachian streams are the headwater streams for the drinking water of millions of Americans. Appalachian Voices was also curious about the potential economic impacts of coal pollution and found that there are a lot more jobs supported by the sportfishing industry in Appalachia than surface coal mining jobs — about seven times as many.

The second part of the court decision was related to the EPA’s guidance on conductivity. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. The USGS study also confirmed that conductivity levels below mountaintop removal valley fills are almost always elevated, damaging waters throughout the region.

The EPA released its guidance on conductivity pollution just over four years ago. At the time, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claimed that “either no or very few valley fills are going to meet standards like this.”

In order to “end coal mining pollution,” as she put it, the EPA was going to use its authority to restrict mountaintop removal valley fills, and thus significantly reduce the amount of mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia. While the guidance would not have put a much-needed permanent end to mountaintop removal, it was an enormous step.

The coal industry fought the guidance with everything that had. Their allies on Capitol Hill held hearings to put political pressure on the EPA to stand down, while industry lawyers simultaneously took the agency to court.

Two years after the guidance had been proposed, it was thrown out by a U.S. District Court. With one bad court decision, EPA’s job to end coal mining pollution was made a lot harder.

Meanwhile, the EPA Region 4 office, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for Kentucky and other southeastern states, has been ignoring both the guidance and the rigorous science on which it was based. They continue to approve permits for valley fills, including six at one massive mine that got the agency’s OK just last year.

But on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals turned the tables. The panel of judges concluded that the guidance stands, as it is not a final rule, and therefore is not subject to legal challenge. Furthermore, they confirmed, and in fact encouraged, the EPA’s enhanced coordination process.

The EPA has the legal authority, scientific evidence, and moral obligation to block every mountaintop removal valley fill permit that comes through its doors. We all share the responsibility of making sure it does just that.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to end mountaintop removal.

Court sides with EPA on science-based mountaintop removal permitting

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - posted by brian
A federal appeals court reaffirmed EPA's authority to coordinate with other agencies to apply science throughout the mountaintop removal permitting process.

A federal appeals court sided with the EPA today on mountaintop removal permitting.

In a major victory for Appalachia and clean water advocates, a federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge. Read the court’s decision here.

More on today’s decision and what it means for Appalachia.

The three-judge panel rejected a 2012 ruling that the EPA overstepped its authority by pursuing an enhanced permitting process for certain mountaintop removal proposals. Today’s ruling sends the lawsuit back to U.S. District Court.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons:

“The court’s ruling today is as clear as the science indicting mountaintop removal coal mining, and it affirms what advocates working to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams have been saying for years.

“Overwhelming evidence of the toll mountaintop removal takes on water quality, wildlife and human health continues to emerge. Still, mountaintop removal permits are being approved with disregard for the basic science behind EPA’s conductivity guidance. The ruling should be a signal to states and the EPA to begin truly following that science. And it’s common sense that the agency coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make sure the science is applied throughout the permitting process.”

This month, yet another study pointing to the destructive impact mountaintop removal was released, adding to the body of science state and federal agencies should apply to the permitting process.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to end mountaintop removal.

One fish, two fish … Dead fish

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - posted by matt

USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

onefish_twofish

A study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published this month provides strong new evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is devastating downstream fish populations.

That’s hardly news for long-time followers of the controversy surrounding mountaintop removal, a coal mining practice that involves blowing off the tops of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dumping the waste into valleys below. In 2010, a group of 13 prestigious biologists published a paper in Science, the nation’s premier scientific journal, that found:

“Our analyses of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address… Clearly, current attempts to regulate [mountaintop removal mining] practices are inadequate.”

The authors of the study published last week found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. They made this important contribution to the science by using rigorous methodology to isolate several types of water pollution most likely to have caused these staggering declines.

But a more important contribution of the study may be that it draws the focus of water pollution impacts away from mayflies and other aquatic insects and onto a far more popular and charismatic organism that not only is important to rural people’s way of life, but supports a multi-billion dollar sportfishing industry in Appalachia.

Tellingly, industry spokespeople contacted by local reporters did not dispute the science as they typically have in the past. Those that didn’t dodge reporters entirely were quick to change the subject to the purported benefits of mountaintop removal to create more flat land for industrial and commercial development (in a region where less than 10 percent of the more than 1 million acres of mountains that have already been flattened has been used for economic development).

This muted response is in stark contrast to the coal industry’s response to previous science linking mountaintop removal to the loss of aquatic insects downstream from mine sites. The “EPA puts mayflies ahead of jobs” or “pests over people” became the rallying cries of coal industry supporters when the EPA first began bringing science back into the permitting process in 2009.

One suspects that the coal industry knows it isn’t likely to win a “jobs vs. fish” debate with America’s 33 million anglers.

Widespread damage to fish populations could also be important from the pocketbook perspective that political leaders in Kentucky and West Virginia take seriously. According to data [PDF] from the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing creates a lot more jobs than mountaintop removal does in the states where it occurs:

14610881484_ee087b1ba9_o

In fact, sportfishing accounts for more than 12,000 jobs in Kentucky, which is more than the entire coal mining workforce in the state, including all underground and surface miners, coal preparation plant workers and industry office workers combined. Moreover, unlike coal, sportfishing is a growing industry in Appalachia — the number of jobs it created in West Virginia more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.

Of course, even if “jobs vs. fish” were a popular argument, it would be just as false a narrative as “pests over people.” Declines in populations of both fish and aquatic insects are important indicators of declining health of an ecosystem on which all organisms depend, including people. The “ecological indicator” theory is consistent with the dozens of scientific studies published in the last few years that show communities near mountaintop removal mines suffer poor health outcomes ranging from high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects to low life expectancies that are comparable to those in developing nations like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Thus, the USGS study is an important contribution to the debate about mountaintop removal for anyone concerned about recreational fishing, human health or the economy of Appalachia. Hopefully that’s everybody.

It’s also a very timely contribution because it turns out that the EPA and other federal agencies are right now grappling with important rules to protect streams that will determine whether the pollution that leads to the kinds of declines in fish populations seen by the USGS researchers will be allowed to continue.

The study found that waters downstream from mountaintop removal mines contained elevated levels of two forms of pollution that the researchers believe could account for the declines in fish populations: conductivity and selenium. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. Selenium has caused grotesque deformities in larval fish ranging from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This study should serve as a wake-up call to federal regulators that have been steadily backsliding from the Obama administration’s initial commitment to put science first in agency decision-making and to rein in the widespread damage from mountaintop removal mining. That backsliding has been particularly evident at the EPA’s Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for a number of southeastern states including Kentucky.

Enforcement officials at Region 4 have not incorporated the science and recommendations developed by the EPA for the guidance on conductivity since it was announced by previous EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010. At the time, Jackson predicted the new guidelines would allow “few, if any, valley fills” to be permitted. Since then, valley fills — debris piles composed of the soil and rock that formerly made up the mountaintops of Central Appalachia — have continued to be approved by Region 4, including a massive new mountaintop removal permit with six valley fills that was approved last year.

Region 4 officials also recently approved a weakening of Kentucky’s standards for chronic selenium levels in streams, allowing the state to permit levels high enough to cause reproductive failure in some fish. Worse, at the federal level, the EPA recently released a draft revision to its nationwide selenium rule that is likely to be all but impossible to enforce. That’s a particular problem in states like Kentucky that have proven time and again to be incapable of enforcing rules on the politically powerful coal industry without citizen groups intervening. Here’s what the Lexington Herald-Leader had to say about the state’s “failure to oversee a credible water monitoring program by the coal industry”:

“In some cases, state regulators allowed the companies to go for as long as three years without filing required quarterly water-monitoring reports. In other instances, the companies repeatedly filed the same highly detailed data, without even changing the dates. So complete was the lack of state oversight it’s impossible to say whether the mines were violating their water pollution permits or not.”

Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to take meaningful action to protect Appalachian streams this winter, when the Office of Surface Mining is scheduled to release a draft Stream Protection Rule to replace the outdated Stream Buffer Zone rule promulgated more than 30 years ago.

The message for the Obama administration from all this is that they are doing nobody any favors by taking half-measures to protecting water quality in Appalachia. When important recreational fish populations, a growing sector of the Appalachian economy and the health of Appalachian people clearly depend on strong water quality protections, the president’s spirit of compromise should not extend to compromising on science.

Here’s what you can do: tell President Obama to instruct his agencies to draft a strong Stream Protection Rule that will prohibit mining near streams and protect the health of people, fish and the economy of Appalachia. Take action here.

Parallels between New England whalers and Appalachian coal miners

Friday, June 27th, 2014 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Nick Mullins, a former Va. coal miner, is traveling this summer with his family on the Breaking Clean Tour, where this post was originally published.

WhalingVoyage_ca1848_byRussell_and_Purrington_detail_NewBedfordWhalingMuseum8

Call us Mullins. Herman Melville’s depiction of New Bedford, Massachusetts during its prosperity as a whaling town still draws an enormous amount of tourism, the Mullins family included. Since having read the first 12 chapters of Moby Dick (and unfortunately laying it aside time after time in pursuit of necessary distractions) I could not help but feel drawn to New Bedford in many senses. While still in Providence, Rhode Island, we made the decision to visit the town, to take in the history, and hopefully find remnants of that bygone era. But first, it would have been a travesty and absolute failure on my part as a father to have done little more than introduce Daniel and Alex to the realm of Moby Dick by only the description of a sailor, a captain and a great white fish. Before setting off on the short 40 minute drive to New Bedford, I subjected myself to varying levels of frustration in a Dunkin Doughnuts, sifting through passwords, attempting to install Audible on my Tracfone and commence downloading Moby Dick. Eventually I met with success and we drove towards New Bedford listening to the classic.

[Continue reading Nick's post here.]

Stories from South Central Regional Jail, WV

Friday, June 27th, 2014 - posted by kara

Poisoned Water Comic

As a volunteer with the WV Clean Water Hub and RAMPS, Chris Gang has been helping citizens who were impacted by the January chemical spill that poisoned the tap water for 300,000 people. As he and others are just recently learning, some of those citizens were the inmates at South Central Regional Jail.

“What started as a response to the water crisis has grown into a larger effort shedding light onto ongoing issues like denial of health care, inadequate food, and arbitrary disciplinary measures at South Central Regional Jail and other West Virginia prisons,” tells Chris Gang a volunteer with the WV Clean Water Hub and RAMPS. The crisis he’s referring to is the mistreatment of inmates during the MCHM chemical spill at the prison located in Charleston, WV.

The public health and safety crisis brought on by the chemical and coal industry has been going on for decades, as coal-impacted communities in Appalachia know full well. The MCHM spill into the Elk River brought this reality into the living rooms and conversations of the rest of America. Since February, inmates from the prison in Charleston have been communicating with Chris and other volunteers with WV Clean Water Hub and RAMPS Campaign. As their stories unfold, it’s becoming apparent that the jail staff gave inmates few or zero alternatives to drinking, cooking, and bathing with the contaminated water.

This abuse of basic human rights to clean water and personal safety are egregious and must be amended. The purpose of this story-sharing and grassroots campaign is to increase public awareness of the living conditions in West Virginia jails and to compel government agencies to respond to these abuses by the jail staff and administration.

These stories need to be shared beyond our circles to ensure the health and safety of these inmates is restored – please take a minute to sign this petition in support of:

  • An investigation into this crisis;
  • Adequate plans for similar future emergencies;
  • Universal medical care for inmates; and
  • Dismissal of charges against inmates who spoke up for clean water, and other changes called for by inmates.
  • You can read the full transcripts of these letters and the report “Negligence and Malice: A Preliminary Report on the Water Crisis at SCRJ” on the Stories from South Central, WV website. Here are a few excerpts exposing the abusive treatment by jail staff.

    “You can let them know that most of us are drinking as little water as possible and quite a few of us are sick from it and would greatly appreciate it if the jail were to flush the lines again – change the filters and provide us with bottled water. Why are the people in Charleston given free bottled water and we are not – I just thought about that. Just because we are convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that we rate different health standards than the general public.” – Anonymous 4/2/14

    “Also, this jail’s water system is an in-house recycled water system, meaning all of the water whether from sinks, toilets, showers, drinking fountains, etc. is recycled over and over here to cut down water cost. If the proper steps weren’t taken, filters changed, system flushes, etc. are we still using contaminated water? Potentially more contaminated than the public’s? And have there been any reports of joint problems? I’m still being prescribed ‘allergy meds’ for headaches, sneezing, chest cold like symptoms, respiratory problems brought on by ‘allergies!’ What a joke!” – Ray Legg 3/24/14

    Already this work has proven that the jail administrators had lied to the media about how they handled the water crisis in the jail.

    This will be an ongoing struggle and the volunteers with the Stories from South Central project need your help. For any of these volunteering options, please contact storiesfromsouthcentralwv@gmail.com or 681 214 0884 to learn more:

  • Inmates expressed that having regular pen pals allows the time pass better and is helpful through this traumatic experience – consider joining their pen pal effort.
  • Since printed materials are not allowed to be sent into jail, the group needs help handwriting copies of articles and petitions to send to inmates- please contact Stories from South Central before sending any letters or articles.
  • You can donate online or by check to support this 100% volunteer effort.