Court Victory for Clean Water in Kentucky: The Battle Continues

Friday, July 19th, 2013 | Posted by Eric Chance | No Comments

Acidic mine water being discharged from one of Frasure Creek’s Kentucky coal mines

Last week, an attempt by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet to toss concerned citizens out of court failed.

Judge Phillip Shepherd denied a motion to dismiss our challenge of a settlement between Frasure Creek Mining and the cabinet. Appalachian Voices and our partners KFTC, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, will now be allowed to proceed with our argument that the settlement should be vacated.

In October of 2010, we filed a Notice of Intent to Sue Frasure Creek for submitting false water monitoring data. Frasure Creek and the cabinet reached a settlement for those violations, but it has not been approved by the court. Before that, the data Frasure Creek submitted to the state never showed any violations. After our legal action, they switched labs and began showing hundreds of water quality violations every month.

We attempted to sue Frasure Creek for these subsequent violations, but the cabinet filed a complaint in state administrative court for the same violations. We intervened and became full parties to that case, but then a slap on the wrist settlement was entered between Frasure Creek and the cabinet completely without our consent. Our current challenge to this settlement is based on the fact that we are full parties in the case yet we had no say in the settlement’s creation.

The cabinet attempted to get our challenge thrown out because they claimed that we did not follow proper procedures when we filed it, but the judge dismissed their arguments. Now, the cabinet must respond to the substance of our challenge.

>> Click here to read the ruling
>> Click here to read more about this challenge
>> Click here for more information on our Kentucky Litigation

Appalachian Voices and Partners Challenge Kentucky’s Backroom Deal With Coal Company

Friday, May 17th, 2013 | Posted by Eric Chance | No Comments

Watercolors by Frasure Creek. State inspector's photos show a variety of colors of water at Frasure Creek mines.

Yesterday, Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations filed a “petition for review”, essentially an appeal of a settlement between Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. This settlement lets Frasure Creek off the hook for thousands of water quality violations over the past two years, while doing little to ensure that the company fixes its water quality problems.

Our challenge of this settlement focuses on the way in which it came about. But first, a bit of background.

We have a separate case that is ongoing against Frasure Creek for submitting false water monitoring data (entire reports were duplicated and only the dates were changed). After we uncovered this problem the company began turning in more accurate reports, which for the first time showed lots of pollution problems. We then filed a second suit against Frasure Creek for thousands of these pollution problems (which had been hidden by reporting problems before our first suit). Then the cabinet also filed a complaint for these pollution violations and more like them in state administrative court (a court run by the cabinet itself).

We intervened in that case and became full parties to it, but were then shut out of it completely. In fact the settlement was entered despite our previous objections, and there is no evidence that our objections were even considered. The cabinet and Frasure Creek negotiated a settlement completely without us. The law and common sense both dictate that an agreement is not valid unless all the parties involved agree to it, and that is the basis for our challenge of this settlement yesterday.

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Appalachain Voices and Partners Object to Backroom Deal With Kentucky Coal Company

Monday, February 4th, 2013 | Posted by Eric Chance | No Comments

Frasure Creek owner, and billionaire, Ravi Ruia's yacht. Note the matching helicopter! Frasure Creek Mining is apparently on the verge of bankruptcy, but it's owners seem to be doing just fine. Click the image to learn more about the boat.

A coalition of citizens’ groups including Appalachian Voices filed objections to a proposed settlement between Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet and one of the state’s largest coal mining companies, Frasure Creek Mining. The agreement would legally resolve over a thousand water pollution violations from 2011 and 2012 at all of Frasure Creek’s mines across Eastern Kentucky, but the agreement will not fix the pollution problems.

Despite the fact that we are full parties to this enforcement action, this agreement was crafted entirely behind closed doors without us. Over and over again the cabinet has made every effort to exclude us and aid polluters. One of our objections to this settlement is that it has violated our right to due process since our names are on this agreement yet we had no say in it whatsoever.

Some of Frasure Creek's false conductivity values

Even more alarming, we expect that if this agreement is entered the cabinet will likely try to argue that this makes another ongoing case that we are involved in moot. That case is primarily based on blatantly false water monitoring reports submitted by Frasure Creek. Prior to that legal action, Frasure never admitted having pollution problems like the ones at issue in this case. It was not until they came under increased scrutiny, following our initial court filing, that they began reporting more truthful water monitoring data, uncovering the pollution violations at issue in this settlement.

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Singin’ the Catawba River Blues After Commission’s Decision On Coal Ash

Thursday, December 6th, 2012 | Posted by Hallie Carde | 1 Comment

North Carolina, we have a problem.

The waste from burning coal, known as coal ash, continues to threaten our state’s water supply. Seepage from coal ash impoundments is contaminating North Carolina’s water at various sites throughout the state. Unaddressed in the past and denied in the present, this pollution demands a stronger fight to protect clean water, and advocates are putting up that fight.

Unfortunately, advocates for N.C.’s clean water recently lost a battle on the coal ash front. This past Monday, the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) ruled against a petition to require Duke Energy to clean up contamination resulting from 14 of their coal ash pits.

Monday’s hearing ended in a 9-2 decision that the company’s coal ash sites are exempt from the requirements of the state’s groundwater standards and therefore do not require immediate clean up.

In October, the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a formal complaint on behalf of four organizations (Cape Fear River Watch, Sierra Club, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Western N.C. Alliance) against Progress and Duke Energies to clean up the contamination from their coal ash ponds.

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Landmark Settlement Proposed in Kentucky Water Pollution Case

Friday, October 5th, 2012 | Posted by Eric Chance | No Comments

Appalachian Voices, along with a coalition of citizens’ groups, has reached a historic agreement with International Coal Group, Inc. (ICG), and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet over years of false reporting and water pollution violations in Eastern Kentucky and a failure by the state to enforce the Clean Water Act.

We are very glad to achieve this settlement which will help clean up pollution in streams throughout the coal-impacted region, and we are proud to have worked with our partners in this important case that has already yielded changes in the coal industry and state regulatory agencies. The agreement was filed today in Franklin County Circuit Court and needs to be approved by the judge before taking effect.

Read our press release to find out more about the settlement.

In 2010, we uncovered dozens of pollution monitoring reports submitted by ICG and Frasure Creek Mining to the cabinet that were clearly false. Our analysis showed that some reports included all the same data as previous reports, but the dates had been changed. In other cases, there were multiple and contradictory reports for the same discharge point. Not only were the reports inaccurate, they were masking major pollution problems, as can be seen in the graphs below.

ICG Knott Conductivity

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KY Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Citizens and Water

Friday, April 27th, 2012 | Posted by Eric Chance | 1 Comment

Yesterday the Kentucky State Supreme Court ruled in favor of Appalachian Voices and our partners KFTC, Waterkeeper and the Kentucky Riverkeeper. The ruling upheld lower court rulings allowing us to intervene in a lawsuit between Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

That case was brought about in October 2010 when we filed a Notice of Intent to Sue against Frasure Creek Mining, and International Coal Group (Now an Arch Coal subsidiary) for 20,000 violations of the Clean Water Act with potential penalties of over $700 million. The bulk of these violations relate to false and potentially fraudulent reporting of water pollution levels. Under the Clean Water Act companies have limits on the amount of pollution they are allowed to release, and they are required to monitor their pollution to make sure they meet these limits.

In an effort to keep us from being able to bring a case in federal court, the coal companies reached settlements with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, but those settlements needed to be approved by a state court. The settlements amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist; they have minimal fines and no meaningful measures to ensure that the same problems will not continue. Through the citizen suit provision of the Clean Water Act, citizen are allowed to participate in legal actions to protect public waters. Using this provision, we intervened in the state court case in order to argue that the state’s settlement was not fair, adequate and in the public interest.

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Join Us for World Water Day Events and Kick Some Coal Ash

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012 | Posted by Sandra Diaz | No Comments

World Water Day is on Thursday, March 22. It is a day to not only celebrate the gift of water, but to also learn what we can do to protect this precious resource. In North Carolina, water pollution from coal ash, the residue from burning coal for electricity, is a huge state-wide problem that can no longer be ignored.

In order to educate and activate citizens who care about protecting our water, we have some great events planned in Charlotte and Asheville! We ask that you RSVP here.

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Nally & Hamilton Case Continues in State Court

Friday, December 9th, 2011 | Posted by Eric Chance | No Comments

Yesterday Appalachian Voices along with our partners Kentucky Riverkeeper, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, and Waterkeeper Alliance challenged the recent settlement between Nally & Hamilton and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in state court.

Click here to see the press release with more information on this newest development.

Click here to see the how the case has developed.

Click here to view the state court petition.

Several Kentucky news outlets covered this development. Click the links below to see the news articles.
Ronnie Ellis for the Daily Independent
Erica Peterson for WFPL Public Radio
Bill Estep and Beth Musgrave for the Lexington Herald-Leader

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet cuts deal with Nally and Hamilton for Water Pollution Violations

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011 | Posted by Eric Chance | No Comments

Last week the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet entered a settlement with Nally and Hamilton Enterprises to resolve tens of thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act. The pending agreed order, originally submitted in September, was signed by the Cabinet Secretary Len Peters, now making it official.

Nally and Hamilton is one of the largest producers of Mountain Top removal Coal in Kentucky. They are also being sued by a number of citizens over flooding caused by one of their mines, which lead to a great deal of property damage and killed two people.

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Bring Us Your Drugs: Operation Medicine Cabinet This Saturday, October 8th

Monday, October 3rd, 2011 | Posted by Erin Savage | No Comments

This Saturday, October 8th, we will hold our 5th Operation Medicine Cabinet (OMC), a prescription and over-the-counter drug take-back program aimed at keeping drugs off the streets and out of our rivers.

The first OMC was held in October of 2009, as a result of collaboration between the MountainKeepers organization, the Upper Watauga Riverkeeper, Watauga County Recycling and Solid Waste Department, North Carolina Cooperative Extension and local law enforcement, including the Watauga County Sheriff. As the program has continued, it has grown to include many organizations, agencies and businesses. We could not continue to have so much success without help from the community.

Since the program began, we have held the event each May and October. In October 2010, we collected 350,000 pills – our biggest event yet. Through this program, we accept all prescription drugs, no questions asked. We also accept medical supplies including needles and other sharps, as well as over-the-counter drugs. Once we have collected the drugs, they are packaged by the Watauga County Sheriff’s department and sent away for incineration. Incineration is the safest means for disposing of expired and unused medications.

One obvious reason for holding a prescription drug take-back program is to reduce prescription drug abuse by kids. Kids often gain access to dangerous painkillers through the medicine cabinets of their friends and families. A second reason is to keep drugs out of the local rivers. When drugs are flushed down the toilet or washed down the sink, the drugs go through wastewater treatment facilities and are then released into the local waterways. Wastewater treatment facilities cannot remove antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals from wastewater. Even over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen have been detected in some watersheds.

The accumulation of drugs in rivers, streams and lakes pose several problems. Antibiotics in waterways contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Increased hormones in waterways act as endocrine disrupters, which have negative consequences on the development and reproduction of aquatic animals such as fish and amphibians. With new drugs being developed all the time, ongoing research is needed to catalogue the affects of these drugs on the environment. Our safest course of action is to do our part to keep all drugs out of our waterways.

You can drop off your drugs this Saturday, October 8th, from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm at the following locations:

Food Lion in Boone
Food Lion in Deep Gap
Food Lion in Blowing Rock
Foscoe Fire Department
Beech Mountain Town Hall
Beaverdam Volunteer Fire Department

Appalachian State University will also have a drop of location on Friday, October 7th from 11:00 am to 2:00pm in the Plemmons Student Union building.

Higher Fines For Big Coal, More Secrecy From The Kentucky Energy And Environment Cabinet

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 | Posted by Erin Savage | 6 Comments

On September 14th, a conference was held with Hearing Officer Blanton in the Office of Administrative Hearing case brought by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet against Nally & Hamilton. The conference determined whether Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance, represented by Natural Resources Defense Council attorneys, may continue with legal proceedings as intervenors in the case. Unfortunately for Appalachian Voices and the citizens of Kentucky, the results of the hearing will allow the Cabinet to continue making deals with Nally & Hamilton behind closed doors.

This case is the Cabinet’s response to the Notice of Intent to sue Nally & Hamilton for 12,000 violations of the Clean Water Act, filed in March 2011 by Appalachian Voices and its partners. To address the violations identified by Appalachian Voices, the Cabinet settled with Nally & Hamilton for $507,000 in fines, topping the previous record-setting fines issued in Appalachian Voices’ other on-going cases against big coal in which Frasure Creek and ICG coal companies were fined $310,000 and $350,000, respectively.

Though these fines represent a great step toward holding coal companies accountable for the pollution they create, the fines are still insufficient. Under Kentucky law, Nally & Hamilton could be fined as much as $300 million for the 12,000 violations. The recognition that the Cabinet consistently does not adequately enforce the law is one reason Appalachian Voices and its partners stepped in as intervenors in the Cabinet’s case. Once the Cabinet and Nally & Hamilton proposed a token settlement in the case they then filed a motion for a continuance. In the conference, the Hearing Officer granted the motion for continuance, based on his determination that he did not have authority to require more discovery in our case.

Those of you without a legal degree are probably wondering what all of this means. I’ll do my best to explain – in short, the Cabinet continues to shield the coal companies, without adequate prosecution. The continuance effectively halts legal proceedings – in this case, it halts discovery, or our ability to request further documentation and other evidence from Nally & Hamilton and the Cabinet, which would likely strengthen and clarify our case. We will still be allowed to submit comments on the Agreed Order between the Cabinet and Nally & Hamilton before the order is sent to the Cabinet Secretary for review.

Besides filing the motion for continuance, the Cabinet has attempted to undermine our involvement in other ways as well. The Cabinet failed to respond to any of our discovery requests, despite the responses being due in August. Because of this, we have been unable to determine the facts the Cabinet considered when entering into the settlement with Nally & Hamilton. We do not know how fines were determined, what violations were identified, or how thorough an investigation was conducted.

The Clean Water Act violations that were identified indicate that pollution is being under reported and inaccurately reported. This improper reporting harms Kentucky’s waterways and the health of Kentucky’s citizens. The Cabinet failed to identify most of these violations until they were uncovered by Appalachian Voices. Despite the Hearing Officer’s request to the Cabinet and Nally that they include Appalachian Voices and its partners in the settlement negotiations, the Cabinet completed a closed-door settlement with Nally & Hamilton and is attempting to prevent further action by us. The current settlement provides a relatively low monetary penalty, does not provide for true stipulated penalties for future violations, ignores the potential of intentional fraud, and claims to resolve Nally’s liability for all previous violations of “the same type” despite there being no evidence the Cabinet bothered to identify different types of violations.

It is obvious the Cabinet is taking the side of big coal in this case. The settlement clearly does not provide for effective, ongoing protection of the people of Kentucky from corporate coal abuses. Kentucky citizens deserve better than this from their state officials.

Excel Mining Addresses Pike County Residents’ Flaming Well With A Solution Other Than Just Drilling More Contaminated Wells

Wednesday, September 21st, 2011 | Posted by Erin Savage | No Comments

In the end of July, Appalachian Voices was contacted by Ted Withrow of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, who reported a family in rural Pike County, Kentucky, with possible methane contamination of their drinking water well, as indicated by flames shooting more than a foot out of the top of the well. The fire had been reported to local media by friends of the family. The contamination was believed to be the result of underground mining activities by the nearby Excel Number 2 Mine. As we looked into this case further to see how we might help, we realized the problem was more wide-spread and long-term than we originally thought.

Appalachian Voices initially provided heavy metal testing for four families – the Howard family, whose well was on fire, and three nearby families. Next, through the generous donation of 30,000 bottles of water from Keeper Springs Natural Spring Water and Nestle Pure Life Purified Water, KFTC and Appalachian Voices were able to provide safe drinking water to each affected family – 13 families in total.

Upon delivery of the water, we spoke with multiple affected families and collected additional water samples for volatile organic compound testing. We learned that some families had already been purchasing bottled drinking water for 8 years. In a country where we often assume our access to clean drinking water is a right, it was astonishing to realize that this right had been stripped from these families for so long. The families reported recent health problems, including hair loss, skin rashes, and burning sensations while showering. Several families also reported sounds of explosions and rocks falling underneath their homes. Pontiki Coal (an associate of Excel Mining, both subsidiaries of Alliance Resource Partners) reported operating an underground coal mine beneath these homes between 1985 and 1987. We heard anecdotal reports from the residents of recent underground slurry injection, a common use for abandoned underground mines, in the immediate area. The site of the coal waste injection was allegedly far from the road and difficult to relocate, as it may have been covered with brush by heavy machinery. Appalachian Voices is continuing to investigate the possibility of slurry injection in the area, though potentially illegal, unpermitted injection would be difficult to verify after the fact.

We learned of an ongoing history between the families and Pontiki coal. The Howard family had two wells drilled by Pontiki Coal. The first well was determined to be unusable and eventually exploded, burning down the pump house on May 1, 2011. Pontiki Coal had drilled new wells for at least two other families, but these wells were also determined to be unusable by the families. Following the well explosion, Pontiki Coal wanted to cap the burning well, but the family initially refused, fearing this would increase the chance of a methane explosion at their home. The well was tested for methane by Pike County Emergency Management, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement (DMRE), and Pontiki Coal on May 3rd and May 10th, 2011, with results ranging widely, from 9.0% to 92.2% methane. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet tested the composition of the gas emitting from the well and determined it to be similar to that of coal bed methane, a form of natural gas from coal beds, indicating that the gas was likely caused by mining activity. The coal seam in this area is also known for high methane concentrations.

Of the four wells tested for heavy metals by Appalachian Voices and KFTC, two came back with elevated levels of iron and manganese – the levels were above the EPA secondary maximum contaminant levels for drinking water. Not surprisingly, manganese and iron are two metals commonly associated with water pollution from coal mining. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet also inspected and tested several wells. The Cabinet declared the burning well “mine impacted” due to the methane presence. The Cabinet’s inspection also indicated elevated iron and manganese levels in the Howard’s well, but sulfate levels below those commonly found in mine impacted water. The Cabinet tested the wells of at least three other families for heavy metals. Though they found elevated levels of iron and manganese at a second home and elevated manganese levels at a third home, neither of these wells were declared mine impacted, apparently because the wells contained neither methane nor sufficiently high sulfate levels, nor were they on fire.

Despite only one well being declared mine impacted, it appears all families will soon receive a permanent water solution. With assistance from Excel Mining, the families should be able to connect to Martin County water lines. Though the families live in Pike County, the Martin County lines are closer to the homes – approximately 1.1 miles. Martin County Judge Executive Kelly Callihan met with Excel Mining representatives, persuading the company to pay for the water line extension and water meters. The families will have to pay for lines from the main meter to their homes. Shane Watts, General Manager for Excel, said, “We’re just trying to be good neighbors.” While we thank Excel Mining for addressing this issue, we are disappointed it took intense media coverage of the flaming well and the water donation before they found a permanent solution. According to Ronnie Ellis’s story, neither the families nor the Department of Natural Resources have received any notice of the pending water line extension or funding for the project. Appalachian Voices will continue to monitor this situation to be sure that a permanent solution is implemented. In the words of affected resident, Denise Howard, “When I see it running through my faucets, I’ll believe it.”

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