Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

From Southwest Virginia, a path for less pollution

Friday, November 21st, 2014 - posted by cat

{ Editor’s Note }Today’s guest to the Front Porch is Kathy Selvage, a coal miner’s daughter in Southwest Virginia who has been a tireless advocate for environmental and social justice in the region. Kathy serves on the Applachian Voices Board of Directors. This essay originally appeared as an op-ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

kathy

The Environmental Protection Agency recently rolled out its Clean Power Plan, seeking to set limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants — an issue that affects us all. The plan will be finalized next year, leaving ample time for the nation to weigh in.

Many of us in Wise County live in the shadows of two coal-fired power plants — Appalachian Power Company’s plant near Carbo, right on the Clinch River, and one in St. Paul, owned by Dominion Virginia Power. Both plants emit pollution that affects the quality of air that our families, our children and our elderly breathe.

We are Appalachians and both our terrain and our people are among the most unique but under-appreciated on earth. We have powered this nation and driven its industrial development, but we have also sacrificed tremendously for the lights, warmth and comfort of this country, including our own shortened lives.

Carbon and other pollution released by burning coal threaten public health. They lead to higher risks of asthma attacks, premature deaths and thousands of hours of missed work, lessening our economic activity. On the other hand, setting carbon pollution standards is essential for keeping our air more pure, thus protecting public health.

With great challenges come great opportunities. What we’ve learned is that we don’t have to give up good public health to have a strong economy. We deserve, and can have, both.

We can increase our economic activity through investments in clean energy — conservation, energy efficiency, solar and wind. Carbon emissions in the U.S. have decreased in the past decade. We should use this momentum to forge ahead in a field ripe with more innovation to be created and applied.

Conservation is not to be disdained. It is an admirable principle that should be at the forefront of energy evolution. Additionally, energy efficiency measures — using less energy but yielding the same level of power — are the most cost-effective way for Virginians to meet a growing demand. Besides sharing the benefits of conservation, these measures offer the added benefit of creating local jobs.

According to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, by 2020 the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution limits could create more than 5,600 new jobs, recirculate money within local communities and add $517 million to the pockets of Virginians through savings.

Solar is another job creator, if only we embrace it. Our closest neighboring states are outdoing us in installing solar projects, but we can seize the opportunity to grow that sector, be more competitive, reduce our carbon load and be healthier.

Offshore wind in Virginia is yet another capacity for energy generation that represents great potential. Both wind and solar are far more abundant than other fuel sources and can provide us with clean energy, pollution-free.

We can meet our energy needs without expanding nuclear or over-expanding the use of natural gas. While gas burns cleaner than coal, its use also contributes to climate change, and its extraction can pose serious risks to our health and our water. Far Southwest Virginia already has 8,000 gas wells, mostly in the coal-producing counties, with grossly inadequate oversight.

As citizens of Virginia, surely we are committed to healthy people and a vibrant economy for all, including the far southwestern corner. In recognition of the many sacrifices made by the region, elected representatives should embrace, endorse and advocate for special economic development considerations for Southwest Virginia. This vision should be geared to preventing the “brain drain” responsible for at least part of the declining population here.

And let any investments in our economic development be overseen by a group with a new and different vision, not one that is no longer viable. In times past, we have diversified with seemingly no transparency. This time we must build accountability, audits and tracking of the long-term viability of jobs with complete transparency to the general public. We must begin to rebuild sorely needed public trust.

We can do this! Our air must be cleaner to safeguard our health. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan is a giant leap forward. I wholeheartedly support it and encourage others to as well. The plan will help motivate us to find alternate ways to produce all the kilowatts we need, being mindful of those in far Southwest who have sacrificed tremendously for our energy needs. The underappreciated deserve a brighter, healthier day.

Kathy Selvage is the daughter of a coal miner with lifelong residency in a coal-mining community. She sits on the board of Appalachian Voices, an environmental organization whose mission is to unite people in the protection of the land, air and water of central and southern Appalachia.

Environmental Agency Asleep at the Switch?

Friday, November 21st, 2014 - posted by tom
Water flowing from one of the discharge points in Floyd County, Ky., that Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports about.

Water flowing from one of the discharge points in Floyd County, Ky., that Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports about.

At first, I couldn’t believe what our Appalachian Water Watch team had discovered earlier this year: almost 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act by a single company in the coal counties of eastern Kentucky. It appeared to be the most extensive incident of non-compliance in the law’s 42-year history.

Frasure Creek Mining had duplicated or otherwise falsified hundreds of the water pollution reports it’s required to send to the state. Equally impressive is the fact that, over the course of a full year and a half, state regulators apparently failed to notice.

It’s shocking – but alas, not a surprise. This level of callous disregard for the laws meant to protect our health, safety, and natural heritage is all too common among Appalachia’s coal companies, regulators and often politicians. Here’s a short list.

  • An employee of a major W.Va.-certified lab pled guilty in October to faking water quality samples for coal companies — not just a few times, but for six years.
  • Last week, Tennessee fined three companies owned by Jim Justice $1.36 million for failing to submit pollution reports at 25 coal facilities, all of which had been warned twice. The companies appealed the fines, as is the MO for Justice-owned companies.
  • Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy when 29 miners died in 2010 at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine in W. Va., was indicted in November on four criminal counts for conspiring to willfully violate safety rules, conceal violations, and then lying about it.
  • According to a recent investigation by National Public Radio, 9 out of 10 coal mining companies with the highest unpaid fines for safety violations are in Appalachia, ranging from $1 million to almost $4.5 million, with a total of 9,839 violations.

Back to Frasure Creek Mining, this wasn’t the first time we’d caught the company falsifying pollution records and found the state apparently asleep at the switch. In 2010, Appalachian Voices discovered 9,000 violations over a two-year period. We and our allies in Kentucky took legal action to compel the state to enforce the law, and the company to comply.

The pattern is clear. Coal companies continue to benefit from a widespread failure to enforce the law that is devastating the land and water and communities’ health. The toll on the citizens and communities of Appalachia is equally clear –- higher than average rates of cancer and birth defects, persistent poverty, poisoned streams, and a deep-rooted sense of place rocked by the blasts of explosives that flatten mountain after mountain.

With this in mind, Appalachian Voices and our partners served Frasure Creek Mining on November 17 with a notice of our intent to sue for the recent spate of Clean Water Act violations. The fight for justice continues.

For the waters,
Tom

PS: See this excellent article from the New York Times.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Mountaintop Removal and Stream Protection

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 - posted by Erin

The mining industry likes to claim that mountaintop removal results in minimal impacts to water and that reclamation can often result in new benefits. Unfortunately for the industry, several new studies add to the ever-growing body of work that contradicts these claims. The impacts to communities and ecosystems near mountaintop removal mines far outweigh the benefits of flat land for a new Walmart or prison.

In August, Margaret Palmer and Kelly Hondula published “Restoration As Mitigation: Analysis of Stream Mitigation for Coal Mining Impacts in Southern Appalachia.” The research examines the effectiveness of compensatory mitigation, where coal companies restore previously degraded sections of streams to compensate for other streams buried or damaged during mountaintop removal mining. The study found that mitigation is not meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act, due to factors including the following:

  • miles of stream restored were often less than the miles of stream damaged or lost completely;
  • the ecological functions of the streams restored were often different from those of streams buried;
  • regulatory assessment is often minimal;
  • where assessment is more robust, streams often fail to meet standards;
  • selenium levels toxic to aquatic life were found at a majority of the study sites.

The study found that most mitigation projects examined focused on restoring the physical structure of the stream, but not necessarily the ecological function. Basically, just because it kind of looks like a stream, doesn’t mean it is a functional stream. This research provides support to a fact those who live around mountaintop removal already know: once streams and valleys are destroyed by mining, you can’t get them back.

Photos from monitoring reports showing restoration projects. “Stream D” (top left) a created channel; “Upper Curry Branch” (bottom left); “Coal Hollow” (bottom right) a restored channel next to a highway; “Harpes Creek” (top right) a created channel. Palmer, 2014.

Another recent study by Nathaniel Hitt and David Smith, “Threshold-Dependent Sample Sizes for Selenium Assessment with Stream Fish Tissue,” provides additional cause for concern regarding both the impacts and regulation of selenium. Selenium is a naturally occurring element that often gets released into streams at unnaturally high levels through mountaintop removal mining. It is toxic to aquatic life at very low levels and is both difficult and expensive to treat.

In an effort to ease regulations around selenium, the state of Kentucky recently updated their freshwater selenium standards. The old standard was based on the amount of selenium in water. The new standard proposes to test the selenium level in fish tissues, when the concentration in the water exceeds 5 ug/L. Not only is this new standard less protective of aquatic life than the original, it will also be more difficult to enforce. The new Kentucky General Permit for eastern coal mines, which was issued last September, outlines enforcement of a permit limit of 8.6 mg/kg dry weight in fish tissue, obtained through two composite samples consisting of 2-5 fish.

Not only is there a concern regarding streams where fish may be scarce or absent, but the new research indicates that the number of fish used in a sample likely has significant impacts on the results. The study investigated the effect of the number of fish in a sample on the likelihood of correctly determining the concentration of selenium in the fish tissue. The study examined both the likelihood of finding a false positive and the likelihood of a false negative result – that either the samples indicated selenium was exceeding the management threshold when it actually was not, or that samples indicated selenium was not exceeding the management threshold when in fact it was. From a conservation standpoint, the consequences of a false negative are clearly more worrisome. One way to decrease this risk is to increase the chance of determining selenium is exceeding the threshold when it actually is not (increasing the type I error rate), but I suspect the coal industry would not look favorably upon that option.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution.

The study includes a scenario that closely resembles the requirements of Kentucky’s permit — a sample size of 4 fish and a selenium level of 8.0 mg/kg. In this scenario, a violation would be detected at least 80% of the time only when the true selenium concentration is 9.9 mg/kg to 10.9 mg/kg, depending on the chosen error rate. Selenium would have to be up to 36% higher than the threshold of 8.0 mg/kg in order to know that the threshold has been exceeded.

Basically the study indicates that for small samples sizes and high selenium concentrations, you are very likely to incorrectly conclude that you have not exceeded the selenium limit, when in fact, you have. This is an especially big problem for selenium, as it shifts from harmless to toxic over a narrow range.

In short, these two studies seem to indicate that reconstructed streams are unlikely to adequately support ecological functions, like providing appropriate habitat for aquatic life. Even if the reconstruction does sustain fish populations, it is likely that selenium pollution will still pose an insurmountable, or at least underenforced, problem.

If you find this all a bit disheartening, don’t worry, there is something you can do! Take action to change these issues. Oppose permits that will further degrade streams and release selenium into the watershed, comment on the next draft of the EPA’s selenium standards, and keep an eye out for the new Stream Protection Rule expected from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement next year.

N.C.’s Sutton Lake Finally Gets the Protection it Deserves

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 - posted by Jaimie McGirt
Padding on the Cape Fear River. Photograph by Jaimie McGirt

Paddling on the Cape Fear River. Photo by Jaimie McGirt

Wilmington, N.C., is the site of the L.V. Sutton Power Station — a retired coal-fired power plant operated by Duke Energy along the Lower Cape Fear River. Though Duke recently converted Sutton to burn natural gas, the carcinogenic-laden waste generated from decades of coal combustion remains in 135 acres on site.

The largest is Sutton Lake, a cooling pond now managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission that previously received unregulated discharges from three adjacent coal ash ponds. According to Frank Holleman with the Southern Environmental Law Center, however, the District court of Wilmington ruled last week that Sutton Lake is a Water of the United States, meaning it will no longer be an authorized site for unpermitted coal ash discharges and the adjacent coal ash ponds ponds must undergo frequent inspection.

Though I’ve lived the past five years away from home, I am from the Wilmington area. I spent a lot of time as a kid on the Cape Fear River in a boat with my parents. We would idle along, my dad showing me the spots where he used to camp, squirrel hunt and shoot mistletoe from tree canopies along the river. Eventually, I began kayaking to those places, exploring them for myself and venturing further downriver. While I was often surrounded by wild things, periodic sights of clear-cut forests and the distant red and white-striped smokestacks of the Sutton plant reminded me that development and pollution was not far off.

At first, I wasn’t aware that I was paddling a stone’s throw from Sutton Lake or the ash ponds. Unlike so many people, I had never been out on the lake; I had only seen the brown recreational boat ramp sign off Hwy. 421 and wondered what it was like. But on one occasion my dad and I were heading downriver admiring the giant cypress trees and we stopped at the river bank where there was a small gap in some pines. We scrambled up the riprap and debris and suddenly I realized what I was seeing — Sutton Lake.

Unlike Sutton Station, the lake is hidden by a stand of trees adjacent to the river. Vast and obviously man-made, it seemed such a stark environment; I couldn’t imagine that anyone would actually visit it recreationally — and I didn’t even know about the coal ash dumping there at this point. But people did visit. They still do. Like so many other lakes that serve as illegitimate or unregulated coal ash dump sites, Sutton is a popular fishing and boating site.

Why, when it looks nothing like a natural lake with its concrete retaining berms and gravel access roads on top of the berms and is polluted with heavy metals? I didn’t know about the nearby coal-fired power plant and coal ash ponds — and I grew up as a privileged, environmentally aware, English-speaking kid in the area. It’s a large body of water well stocked with bass, bluegill and a variety of other fish; on the surface, it appears normal. That’s my best guess as to why.

That’s how it’s been for a long time. Looking out over the pond that day, my dad said, “I used to fish here and now some people say that it’s bad. I didn’t know any better back then.” Despite the time that has passed, some people still believe it is safe to be on the lake, and worse, fish for subsistence. Today, contaminants like arsenic, chromium, boron and selenium exist in Sutton Lake. These toxins pose a major threat to fish and human health if consumed. While some fisherman catch-and-release, others, especially those from under-resourced and/or immigrant communities, don’t know better or don’t have an alternative — and that goes for fish caught in the river too. (While groundwater contamination affects people in close proximity and discharges affect people downriver, contaminated fish in the river are not stationary. Some species travel upriver to spawn, affecting plenty of people upriver from the waste sites.)

That’s what Kemp Burdette, the Lower Cape Fear Riverkeeper, shared with my dad, me and other Appalachian State University students during a “source-to-sea” kayak expedition I led two years ago. I was raised on fresh-caught freshwater fish and seafood, and despite having known about mercury levels in some fresh and saltwater fish, I couldn’t turn down fried catfish until Kemp told us that a woman shouldn’t eat catfish from the Cape Fear but once a year, and a pregnant woman — forget about it. At that moment I remember feeling such remorse for all of the people who had catfish lines trailing under low-hanging branches over the river, planning to take their catch home to their families, just as my dad used to do. And that doesn’t even account for the remorse I now feel for people across our state, nation and world seeking and finding their livelihood near coal ash ponds and other toxic waste sites.

Today, I know much more about coal ash and the associated threats. That counts for something. Today, my parents live about two miles upriver from the plant and the lake. No longer fishing in that area and having well water, they really aren’t at risk like so many others downriver in Flemmington Road, Navassa, Leland and other rural communities. But they know the risks. That counts for something. There are advocates inside and outside of communities — concerned local businessmen and women, children, parents, elders, hard laborers, fishermen, scientists, doctors and lawyers — that are challenging the corporate status quo and inadequate regulations that fail to protect their drinking water. That counts for something. And finally, our courts have listened and ruled to protect Sutton Lake from unpermitted discharges from Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Of course, until the coal ash waste is moved into lined ponds, as required under the new state coal ash law, we’re still left with 135 acres of coal ash ponds at the Sutton site that constantly leach contaminants and are at risk for structural failure. That’s not to mention the 13 other contaminated coal ash storage sites across North Carolina, 10 of which are not prioritized for cleanup under the new law.

Prioritization is on the table, however. By December 2015, all coal ash storage sites must have a priority designation — which will determine pond closure and cleanup plans under the N.C. Coal Ash Management Commission’s watch. Maybe the Sutton reclassification as a Waters of the United States is only a small move toward environmental justice, but it gives me hope for the remaining coal ash sites in North Carolina, and more importantly, hope for the marginalized residents that bear witness to the injustice in their communities every day.

Same coal company, same old (illegal) tricks

Monday, November 17th, 2014 - posted by eric

“We do all those old tricks electronically now.” By Charles Barsotti.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That certainly seems to be the case with Frasure Creek Mining. Four years ago we took legal action against the company for submitting false water monitoring reports, and now they are at it again, but this time the false reporting is even more extensive. Almost 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act in what is likely the largest non-compliance of the law in its 42-year history.

In 2010, Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations served Frasure Creek and International Coal Group (ICG) with a notice of our intent to sue them for submitting falsified pollution monitoring reports to Kentucky regulators. Back then, both companies were reusing the same quarterly reports, changing the dates on the reports but duplicating all the water monitoring data. The reports have changed from paper to electronic documents, but Frasure Creek’s practice of reusing them has returned.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed a slap-on-the-wrist settlement with the companies, writing off the duplications as “transcription errors” and effectively preventing our legal case from going forward. We challenged the settlement in state court and eventually reached an agreement with ICG, but not with Frasure Creek. We are still waiting on a decision in that case.

In the meantime, we discovered that Frasure Creek has been up to its old tricks. So today, we sent the company another notice of intent to sue for the new batch of duplicated reports.

Before our initial legal action, the companies rarely, if ever, submitted reports that showed violations of their pollution limits. As a result of our investigation, the companies hired new, more reputable labs and began reporting lots of pollution problems, making it clear that their false reports were covering up serious issues. We tried to sue Frasure Creek for these pollution violations, but the state reached another deal with the company, tying our hands.

Frasure Creek Mining reports only a few violations of their pollution limits when they are turning in false reports.

All of this raises one important question: Who would be stupid enough, or so utterly disdainful of federal law, to do the exact same thing they had gotten in trouble for before? One would think that it must have been an accident, because no one would ever purposefully do this again, but there are a few factors that seem to contradict that idea.

• In 2014, when Frasure reused data, it occasionally changed a little bit more than just the dates. There are a number of new duplications where the original report showed violations of pollution limits. All of the data in these reports was reused except for violations, which were replaced with a few very low numbers. (Personally, I am really looking forward to the convoluted tale that Frasure will tell to try to explain away these as “transcription errors.”)

• The new duplications are far too common to be made accidentally by someone who was putting any modicum of effort into their job. In the first quarter of 2014, the company submitted over 100 duplicated reports, so almost half of its reports that quarter were false. That’s almost three times the number of false reports it got caught for the first time around, and translates to almost $1 billion in potential fines.

• Frasure Creek isn’t afraid of getting caught because the consequences are extremely low. The state’s past settlements with the company have been too weak to discourage this type of false reporting, and in fact, may have given the company a sense of security. Under the Clean Water Act, the potential maximum fine per violation is $37,500. One of the state’s past settlements with Frasure Creek set automatic penalties of only $1,000 per violation. So interestingly, it’s when those penalties were in effect that Frasure Creek, submitted lots of duplicated reports, but only reported a handful of pollution violations. (See the period in the blue box on the graph.)

This is one of about 70 Frasure Creek Mining discharges that the company has been submitting duplicated water monitoring reports for.

Frasure Creek has about 60 coal mining permits across Eastern Kentucky, mostly for mountaintop removal mines. Most of the new reporting duplications occurred at mines in Floyd County, but some occurred at its mines in neighboring counties. Pollution from these mines flows into the Big Sandy, Licking and Kentucky rivers.

Frasure Creek may be a bad actor in the mining industry, but it’s not alone in this type of false reporting. A few years ago we took legal action against the three largest coal producers in Kentucky (including Frasure Creek), all of which were turning in false water monitoring reports produced by three different laboratories. In recent weeks there have been two criminal cases in West Virginia for false water monitoring, one at coal mines, and one for duplicating reports exactly like what has been going on here.

These pollution reports are the foundation of the Clean Water Act regulations. Without accurate reporting, it’s impossible for regulators to effectively protect the people and the environment from dangerous pollution. The fact that the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and the Environmental Protection Agency have done so little to stamp out false reporting in Kentucky is simply deplorable.

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

>> View The Notice of Intent to Sue here (.pdf)

>> View our Press Release here

Weak fracking rules pass in N.C.

Monday, November 17th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg

The North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission issued their final vote on proposed changes to the rules regulating the process of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas last Friday, Nov. 14, voting unanimously to approve the rule set.

Members of the Frack Free NC Alliance, comprised of over 30 groups across N.C., deliver nearly 60,000 petition signatures to Gov. McCrory calling for a ban on fracking.

Members of the Frack Free NC Alliance, comprised of over 30 groups across N.C., deliver nearly 60,000 petition signatures to Gov. McCrory calling for a ban on fracking.

Between July 14 and Sept. 30, the MEC received 217,000 public comments on more than 100 draft rules regarding safety standards for fracking in the state. More than 2,000 North Carolinians attended the commission’s four public hearings, and the vast majority of speakers opposed fracking and asked for stronger rules. The MEC’s response, written in the Hearing Officer’s report released two weeks ago, showed a considerable lack of consideration for public comments, a fact that disappointed concerned citizens and advocates across the state. Almost all of the recommendations fell short of what the public overwhelmingly asked for, and the few recommendations that strengthen the rules only minimally do so.

Hundreds gather at the MEC hearing in Cullowhee, N.C. All 80 speakers opposed fracking.

Hundreds gather at the MEC hearing in Cullowhee, N.C. All 80 speakers opposed fracking.

For example, though the MEC received over 2,000 comments asking them to increase setback distances from occupied buildings and water sources from 650 feet to at least 1,500 feet, the Hearing Officer’s only recommended one change to setbacks– an additional setback of 1500 feet from surface waters that supply municipal drinking water (all other setbacks remain 650 feet). Though the MEC originally promised that North Carolina would have the strongest rules in the country, they acknowledged in the Hearing Officer’s report that many states have much larger setbacks from occupied buildings and water supplies, ranging from 800-2,000 feet. Clearly, the MEC was not willing to follow through on their promises to the public or adequately respond to the public’s overwhelming concerns.

The MEC acknowledged in the the Hearing Officer’s report public concern over several other aspects of the rules, including comments to ban open pits for fracking waste-water storage, and advocating for unannounced inspections, air monitoring, stronger bonding rules, and health studies. However, despite these concerns, the commission did not make any substantial changes in these areas before adopting the rules. While the MEC did change the language that had previously required inspections to be announced, they did not include any provision in the rules requiring that inspections be unannounced, either.

Additionally, the rules do not address air quality issues, chemical disclosure or compulsory pooling, an extremely controversial practice where landowners who do not wish to lease their mineral rights are forced to accept drilling anyway. Some of these issues, most notably, forced pooling, may have to be dealt with by the general assembly before drilling can begin in the state.

Hearing Officers (Pickle, Taylor, and Womack) listen to concerned citizens’ comments at an MEC hearing.

Hearing Officers (Pickle, Taylor, and Womack) listen to concerned citizens’ comments at an MEC hearing.

In the meetings preceding Friday’s final vote, members of the commission were heard making negative statements about the public’s comments. Both commissioners Howard and Womack dismissed the public’s comments as “useless” and lacking science. The detailed comments recommending stronger rules for well construction were disregarded as “telling the industry how to suck its own egg.” These responses from the commissioners are especially disturbing given that many groups and individuals did submit scientific comments, complete with peer-reviewed studies, and that North Carolinians put forth a great deal of effort to express their concern with the MEC’s weak rules. Perhaps the only voice of reason came from commissioner Amy Pickle, who warned the other commissioners against speaking too proudly of the rules since they are not what the public wants to see.

Given the rushed time frame for review and consideration of the public’s comments and the industry-friendly makeup of the commission, it’s not surprising that the final rules do not adequately protect North Carolina’s water, air and public health from the documented risks associated with fracking. However, given the enormous public outcry, members of the anti-fracking community had at least hoped for better.

The rules will now move onto the Rules Review Commission and, barring legislative action, permits for fracking may be issued as early as April 2015.

Keep updated on how you can help keep fracking out of the tarheel state by signing up for FrackUpdates here.

In memory of an inspirational leader and friend

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Annie Brown: June 28, 1950 - September 28, 2014

Annie Brown:
June 28, 1950 – September 28, 2014

Appalachian Voices and Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup lost an amazing activist and dear friend in late September with the passing of Annie Fulp Brown.

Annie lived in the rural community of Walnut Cove, N.C., her entire life. Her first priority was always her family. She lived across the street from one of her daughters and best friend, Tracey, and she would speak proudly of her grandchildren, who love reading and excel in school. She was a natural nurturer. She would tell me stories about her family all the time, about how her granddaughter would cross the street to eat breakfast at her house before school, about big plans for a 100-person Thanksgiving event, about her prayers for her husband and daughter’s health.

She was also an activist and a champion for her community. She was one of the first people in her neighborhood to speak publicly about her experience living next to the largest coal-fired power plant in the state, Duke Energy’s Belews Creek steam station. As busy as she was, she always took interviews with any media outlet that would listen to her story, from the Winston-Salem Journal to 60 Minutes. She was the rare kind of activist who is capable of boldly speaking their truth and inspiring others to join the cause — and she did it all for her family.

“I have children, and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. I’m a young great grandmother,” Annie says in the video At What Cost?, “I want them to be able to have a life that’s free of constant problems caused by toxins. I’m concerned about them.”

Annie’s concern was born from her experience of living next to the Belews Creek power plant for decades.

When Duke Energy built the Belews Creek power plant in the early seventies, Annie and her neighbors had to move, but only a couple of miles down the road. “We still formed that community,” Annie said, “pretty much the same people, the same families.”

Annie suffered many ailments throughout her life. But as she got older, she began to see a connection between the pollution from the Belews Creek plant and the illnesses she and her neighbors were suffering.

After the Feb. 2 coal ash spill into the Dan River, the N.C. NAACP held a town hall in Eden, N.C. Annie spoke to a church packed with more than 70 people openly and clearly about her health concerns. She showed them the list of names she had collected of people in her community that suffered from strange illnesses and early deaths. She spoke about a mysterious illness that immobilized her right hand.

Annie told the crowd about the ash that used to fill the air every day, “The place where that fly ash landed ate the paint [off the car]. I didn’t think anything of it because no one had informed us of any toxins, any poisonous metals … it was just flying in the air, my kids were out playing in it.”

Rev. William Barber, a leader of the Moral Monday movement, told Annie at the town hall, “Sometimes God allows people to live so they can give their living testimony of the hell they’ve been through so that those who are yet living will hear that testimony and take up the cause of fighting for justice.”

I know Annie desperately wanted things to change for her family and her community. She stood up and spoke out against Duke Energy’s pollution — she knew it was an injustice. It’s not every day that you meet someone willing and brave enough to put their energy into stopping injustice, but Annie was one of those people, and I feel blessed to have known her.

“She was a courageous spokesperson for her community,” reflects Kara Dodson of Appalachian Voices, “Annie had such a trustworthy, friendly personality that really connected with people and allowed them to join our fight wholeheartedly. I think her faith and love for her family is what kept her speaking out, telling her story, motivating others to care. She always had a joke, a funny story that would keep the mood hopeful. And as far as I can tell, she was born to be a fighter.”

At her Homegoing Service, the church was packed — a testament to how well loved and respected she was by her community. As we lifted our voices in song and prayer, I remembered sitting outside a different, smaller church with Annie, watching as she picked five-petaled flowers. She told me about how the flowers were good luck, and how she and her grandmother used to pick them together. She told me about growing up in Walnut Cove, about wearing dresses made of flour sacks, spying on the local moonshiner, and the time she drove her daddy’s car down the road. I’ll always remember with great fondness and admiration her stories, her strong spirit, and her unending love for her family.

Today, Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup and Appalachian Voices continue the fight to clean up the toxic coal ash that has polluted Annie’s community for decades. As the newly formed coal ash commission begins deciding how, when, and even if each coal ash site will be cleaned up, Annie’s brave words and love of her grandchildren come to mind, “Clean water is a must, for all of us.”

Read more about the community of Belews Creek here
Read about the NAACP Town Hall and watch Annie Brown’s speech here
Read one of the first articles quoting Annie Brown here

Be cool and keep fighting

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 - posted by thom
After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

For the next couple of weeks, you’ll have a hard time turning on the TV or going online without seeing reactions to the midterm elections. Most pundits will analyze what happened, and some will try to tell you what it means.

Here’s what it really means: maybe not that much.

To put things in historical perspective, let’s take a moment to look back at some very recent elections and their outcomes.

2008: Democrats take the White House and a supermajority in both the House and Senate! They proceed to pass climate legislation, stop mountaintop removal coal mining, usher in a new age of clean energy take a few moderate steps toward reducing the amount of permits issued for mountaintop removal coal mining.

2010: Republican wave! The GOP takes the House by a wide margin and nearly takes the Senate. They proceed to remove EPA’s ability to regulate carbon pollution and then expedite all mountaintop removal permits create a fuss while federal agencies continue to take moderate steps towards limiting coal pollution.

2012: Democrats keep the White House, and improve their numbers in both the House and Senate! They proceed to make permanent changes to coal mining and coal ash regulations while stopping global warming in its tracks make no headway on coal mining regulations, allow mountaintop removal mines to be permitted, and take only moderate steps on coal ash regulation and carbon emissions.

We don’t know what the future holds, but considering what happened yesterday there are a few things that we can be pretty sure of moving forward.

The politics of Virginia and Tennessee are not much different today than they were yesterday. No major incumbent lost their race, and the election’s outcomes gives us no reason to believe federal office holders from either state will change their behavior going forward. Appalachian Voices, for one, is happy to continue to work with members from both states and both parties.

West Virginia and Kentucky are still in Big Coal’s stranglehold. But like coal itself, the industry’s power is finite. We can’t say how soon the politics of coal will change in Central Appalachia, but we will continue to work with our allies in those states to change the conversation. For now, members of the two states’ delegations will continue to vote the way they have for years.

After 30 years as an advocate for coal miners and the coal industry alike, Rep. Nick Rahall lost to his Republican challenger, Evan Jenkins, in the race for West Virginia’s 3rd district. Rahall was the senior Democratic member and had a firm grasp on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act. His replacement in that role will likely be someone who opposes mountaintop removal coal mining. For that, we can be all be happy.

North Carolina’s Senate election was a bit of a surprise. Though, aside from Democrat Kay Hagan being replaced by Thom Tillis, the rest of delegation is unchanged.

Appalachian Voices has worked hard to build relationships with members of Congress and their staffs in both the House and the Senate. But we have known for a long time that getting comprehensive legislation through Congress is not a good short-term goal.

The White House, on the other hand, is armed with the science and has the legal authority and moral obligation to take on mountaintop removal, coal ash pollution, climate change and other threats. President Obama was never going to be able to rely on Congress to act on those issues. So from that perspective, nothing has changed.

It’s okay to be excited about a candidate you like winning an election. It’s okay to be bummed when a candidate you like loses. But it’s not okay to get so caught up in it all that you forget the big picture.

As we see it, the job before us has not changed. Our responsibilities to Appalachia, and yours, are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

We will keep fighting for a better future for Appalachia, and push every decision-maker, regardless of their political leanings, to stand with us. We will fight to end to mountaintop removal and for a just economic transition away from fossil fuels. We will fight because no one else is going to do it for us, and we will need you there by our side.

Coal ash rule reaches White House for final review

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 - posted by brian
After four years of hand wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

After years of hand-wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

On Monday night, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a long-awaited rule to regulate the disposal and storage of coal ash to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review.

“We are pleased to see the draft rule move into the final phase of review needed for its release in December,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator.

“Having experienced the consequences of poor enforcement and weak or non-existent state regulations, North Carolina serves as a clear example of why states must have federal baseline standards for coal ash,” Adams says. “We must place our hope in the strength of the EPA rules and the resolve of the federal government to protect citizens from this toxic waste.”

Observers say the administration should have enough time to finalize the rule by the EPA’s court-ordered deadline of Dec. 19, which the agency apparently “fully expects” to meet.

Until then, however, we won’t know much about how far the rule will go to protect communities across the United States from coal ash pollution.

Infographic: The Truth About Coal Ash

At least for the next several weeks, the substance of the rule is still subject to change and there are a few different ways it could go. Environmental groups have for years pressured the EPA to regulate coal ash as the dangerous substance that it is. This option would classify coal ash as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act. Utilities and other industries hope the rule will regulate coal ash under Subtitle D of RCRA, which emphasizes state oversight and enforcement through citizen lawsuits.

In both scenarios, the EPA says it won’t regulate the use of coal ash in concrete and other construction material, or as fill material — the latter will fall under the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s upcoming Mine Fill Rule. Beyond that, the description of the rule on OMB’s website offers little insight, which may be just how the White House wants it.

As Earthjustice’s Lisa Evans points out, the OMB review process is “a black box — opaque, inscrutable and exceedingly dangerous. Rules never come out the way they go in — the offices of OMB are littered with crumpled pages of strong rules gone soft after revision by the White House.”

Evans uses an example from 2009, when former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent the White House a plan to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste following the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Timeline: Five years after the TVA coal ash disaster, what do we have to show for it?

The EPA received more than 400,000 comments on the rule, and thousands attended public hearings to support stronger protections. But heavy lobbying by the coal and utility industries ultimately weakened the administration’s resolve.

Since then, the EPA hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about the status of the rule. In fact, had it not been for a lawsuit brought against the EPA by Earthjustice on behalf of Appalachian Voices and other environmental and public health groups last year, the timeline for a final rule might still be murky.

While unavoidable, Evans says the OMB review “introduces uncertainty at the end of a rulemaking process that must, by law, be based on science and transparency and governed by the requirements of the enabling statute.”

The evidence that coal ash poses significant risks to human health is abundant, and the need to do more could hardly be more urgent. The White House should listen to the thousands of citizens demanding strong protections against coal ash pollution.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to clean up coal ash.

Appalachian Power’s solar customers rise and shine for clean energy

Friday, October 24th, 2014 - posted by hannah
Customers of Appalachian Power gather in Lynchburg to learn about their utility's resistance to expanding energy efficiency and investing in solar.

Customers of Appalachian Power gather in Lynchburg to learn about their utility’s resistance to expanding energy efficiency and investing in solar.

Appalachian Power Company must bring large-scale clean energy to our area; that’s the message this week from hundreds of APCo’s Virginia customers.

The company goes before state utility regulators next Tuesday with its long-term plan to meet electricity demand, which includes only the most modest investments in renewable energy sources despite a new rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intended to spur clean energy development and cut carbon emissions.

No one is more vocal about the need for APCo to invest in solar than those who already have: customers with their own solar arrays. Residents concerned by the utility’s recent proposal to levy a new fee on customers with solar are just part of a larger group of APCo customers demanding their utility stop limiting its proposals for energy efficiency programs and take advantage of the same opportunities to expand residential solar that utilities such as Georgia Power have taken advantage of lately.

At a program co-led by Appalachian Voices in Lynchburg on Thursday, APCo customers examined the utility’s proposed efficiency and clean energy investments and saw just how minimal they are. The risks of dirty energy are clear to Lynchburg residents who saw a train carrying crude oil derail and explode in the heart of the downtown district this past summer, polluting the James River and threatening historic properties.

The large, diverse area of Virginia served by Appalachian Power also is home to several thriving solar companies, and many successful community Solarize initiatives have encouraged more homeowners to go solar. So, increasingly, area residents see purchasing solar as a way get reliable, affordable and pollution-free energy. In other words, it’s money well spent.

Thirty-two solar homeowners sent a collective comment to the State Corporation Commission this week calling for Appalachian Power to build clean energy at the same scale they have built fossil fuel power plants. Those homeowners and other citizens who are following the EPA’s proposed carbon rule believe that their utility is acting unreasonably by not addressing the new limits in its long-term planning.

Following the hottest September on record worldwide and an historic demonstration in New York City, the need for Virginia utilities to shift to energy efficiency and carbon-free sources is now clear, and APCo customers are telling their utility it can make a start, while lowering bills and creating jobs at the same time.