Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Voices’

Apologies for the Dan River spill, guilt for coal ash crimes

Thursday, February 26th, 2015 - posted by brian
Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Duke Energy likes to use a tagline that goes something like “For more than 100 years we’ve been providing customers with reliable, affordable electricity at the flip of a switch.”

It’s boilerplate, but it works. So I doubt the company will amend that punchy bit of self-praise to include “and we were recently found criminally negligent for polluting North Carolina rivers with coal ash.”

Even so, a year after the Dan River spill, Duke seems to understand that coal ash pollution has its own chapter in the company’s corporate story. Now, Duke will pay for its crimes.

The bombshell news came in two pieces around the same time last Friday; the U.S. Department of Justice announced the charges and Duke announced it struck a deal with prosecutors. A few days before the big reveal, Duke told shareholders in an earnings report that it set aside $100 million to resolve the federal investigation that began after the Dan River spill.

The company faces nine misdemeanor charges for violating the federal Clean Water Act at multiple coal ash sites across the state. On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Western, Middle and Eastern Districts of North Carolina each filed charges in their respective federal courts, related to violations that occurred at coal ash ponds owned by Duke in their respective districts.

According to DOJ, Duke was criminally negligent in discharging coal ash and coal ash wastewater from storage ponds its Dan River, Asheville, Lee, and Riverbend plants into North Carolina rivers. Violations related to equipment upkeep were found at the Cape Fear Steam Station, where Duke was cited by the state for illegally pumping 61 million gallons of toxic water from a coal ash pit into the Cape Fear River last year.

The DOJ’s press release makes clear that the filing of charges is not a finding of guilt, and most prominent news outlets left any indication that Duke is guilty of its coal ash crimes out of their coverage. We decided to use the word “guilty” in our press release largely because a proposed plea agreement including millions in fines had been reached.

Read one of the three criminal "bills of information" detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Read one of the three criminal “bills of information” detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Also, in a consent to transfer the plea and sentencing proceedings to the Eastern District court, an attorney for Duke wrote: “… the Defendants wish to plead guilty to the offenses charged.”

Of course, Duke steered clear from the words “guilty” or “plea” in its own announcement. But, as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Frank Holleman told the Charlotte Observer, “When anyone pays $100 million to resolve a grand jury investigation, that indicates something serious happened.”

There’s still a lot of specifics we don’t know about the agreement between prosecutors and Duke. Prosecutors say they won’t comment until after court proceedings where the agreement must be approved by a federal judge.

It’s important to note, though, that this is a plea bargain to resolve a criminal investigation, not a settlement to avoid a civil trial. The proposed agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation. The fines cannot be passed on to customers, meaning Duke’s shareholders will take the hit.

Importantly, the agreement would also put Duke on probation for five years, during which a court-appointed monitor would ensure compliance with provisions related to training, audits and reporting. According to Duke, the full agreement will be made public if it is accepted by the court.

“We are sorry for the Dan River spill, and remain grateful to our friends and neighbors for your support,” Duke CEO Lynn Good said in a statement. “We are committed to moving forward in a safe and responsible way.”

For a year Duke has been saying sorry to its customers and communities along the Dan River — basically demanding that it be held to a higher standard. So even though the company is no longer in crisis mode, it’s still watching its back as it tries to repair its reputation and move beyond the spill.

The problem of coal ash pollution in North Carolina is far from resolved. According to Duke’s own assessment, 200 seeps at its power plants leak nearly 1 billion gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers every year. Just yesterday, Duke was cited for contaminating groundwater at its Asheville Plant.

In addition to investigating Duke Energy, federal prosecutors subpoenaed current and former employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which used to regulate coal ash ponds. But none of the charges against Duke allege any improper, or illegal, dealings between the company and state regulators.

Without clarification from the U.S. Attorney’s office, it’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of DENR is ongoing.

“While prosecutors aren’t legally obliged to explain charges they don’t file, in this case the public needs more substantial disclosures,” the Fayetteville Observer wrote in an editorial. “The Justice Department needs to let us know whether a cloud of suspicion remains over DENR.”

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Criminal charges filed against Duke Energy

Friday, February 20th, 2015 - posted by brian
Duke Energy entered a plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve a federal criminal investigation into its handling of coal ash in North Carolina.

Duke Energy entered a proposed plea agreement with prosecutors to resolve federal criminal charges related to its handling of coal ash in North Carolina.

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed criminal charges against Duke Energy for violating the federal Clean Water Act at coal ash sites across North Carolina. The company announced today it has reached a proposed plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve the charges.

According to a Duke Energy press release, the plea agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation.

The charges include multiple misdemeanor violations of the Clean Water Act in connection with last year’s coal ash spill in the Dan River as well as unauthorized discharges at other Duke coal plants in North Carolina. The agreement is subject to review and approval by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina.

Related stories

Coal Ash Management: Long-awaited, still debatedAppalachian Voice reporter Kimber Ray sums up the state of coal ash management at the federal and state levels.

The agreement does not affect state lawsuits against Duke Energy, in which Appalachian Voices and our partners have intervened. It’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources is ongoing.

The federal grand jury investigation began last year after 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled from a retired Duke Energy coal plant into the Dan River.

A statement from Amy Adams, North Carolina Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, and former supervisor with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources:

It’s good to see that federal enforcers have taken this issue seriously by diligently pursuing criminal charges and levying a substantial fine against Duke, and it’s good to see Duke acknowledge its culpability. However, we have yet to see that culpability turn into real action. There are still leaking coal ash ponds at 10 of Duke’s sites, leaving 10 communities in limbo and a lot of ash that must be permanently and safely disposed.

Important questions remain, like exactly how the money will be spent and whether any individuals will be named. But most troubling is the unanswered question of whether DENR was aware of negligence and failed to act, or was unable to recognize the magnitude of the situation in the first place.

Learn more about our work to clean up coal ash pollution. Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates. 

The will against poverty: ASU students serve in rural Appalachia

Friday, February 6th, 2015 - posted by Jaimie McGirt
Appalachian State University students volunteering during the annual MLK Day Challenge.

Appalachian State University students volunteering during the annual MLK Day Challenge.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is known for directly addressing the poverty he witnessed. In his last address before he was assassinated, he said “I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia … Living in conditions day in and day out where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished. ”

Jan. 19 marked the twentieth year since President Clinton passed legislation to encourage U.S. residents to volunteer on MLK Day. Rather than spending this holiday as a day off, many people gather in neighborhoods, towns and cities across the country for a “day on.” Universities are no exception.

Appalachian State University has celebrated with the MLK Challenge for sixteen years. Having participated in the challenge as a student, I couldn’t help but want to participate again. But I never knew I would serve by spelunking in a 79-year old woman’s crawlspace.

How does one get herself into a crawlspace in the first place? Dr. King has something to do with it: “There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” I suppose I can say I had the “resources,” though they are not what you are thinking. As for the will:

Anna Mae Shook of Zionville, N.C., applied to our High Country Home Energy Contest in November. She is spending close to 20 percent of her monthly income on her utility bill, which ranked her as one of our ten contest finalists. She was ecstatic to be considered. Yet, upon a walk-through assessment of her home, Appalachian Voices energy policy director, Rory McIlmoil, and Energy Contest business partners Sam Zimmerman and Sarah Grady of Sunny Day Homes found her home in disqualifying condition. She had a kerosene leak (which saturated her crawlspace), mold contamination and rotten flooring.

Despite not being eligible, the Energy Savings team felt we should help her in some way independent of the home energy makeover contest. I felt we could pull it off, and Sam Zimmerman, having assessed her home before, felt the same. Zimmerman wanted to donate his expertise but he expressed that we needed as many hands as possible. “Where are we going to find ten or so people to do this?”

Then it dawned on me — the ASU MLK Challenge would be equipping groups of ten students to perform service across the county in the coming week. In a matter of days, we made a plan to collect donations and muck-out the crawlspace with a team of students from ASU.

Appalachian State students serve at a local Watauga County resident’s home during the sixteenth annual MLK Day Challenge.

Appalachian State students serve at a local Watauga County resident’s home during the sixteenth annual MLK Day Challenge.

On Monday morning I met the group and saw that we were five short of the help we needed. Some were not dressed for getting dirty, much less for crawling under a house. Jim Street, a sixteen-year MLK Challenge alumni and their faculty service advisor for the day chuckled and said, “You should have seen those girls’ mouths drop when they heard ‘crawlspace’ and ‘spelunking.’” I just thought about the old MLK Challenge mantra, and retorted “It’s all a part of the challenge.”

By noon, we left town for Mrs. Shook’s house with a 12’x12’ piece of carpet from Abby Carpeting, safety equipment from Boone Area Missions, and promises of ply board and 2”x10’ boards from Watauga Building Supply, all of which were donated.

Seeing the crawlspace, the students were apprehensive. Who wouldn’t be when confronted with kerosene-saturated soil and mold in a tight, dark space? Some stayed outside, shuttling the contaminated soil to a dump trailer and others scrambled right in. Zimmerman and two students, Jelani Drew and Anne Carpenter, acted as the “miners,” digging out the kerosene-saturated soil. “Crawling in a crawlspace was not something I thought I was skilled at but it was not as scary as I thought,” said Carpenter.

By 4 p.m., we had removed the saturated soil, sprayed a bleach solution for mold, and spread a plastic liner to act as a moisture barrier, finishing our project in the crawlspace. Meanwhile Rory McIlmoil worked upstairs to repair Mrs. Shook’s floor for the rest of the evening. By the next weekend, he had re-floored the room and installed the donated carpet. Of course, the work would have been in vain had Mike Green, a local oil-monitor repairman, not stopped the kerosene leak for no charge.

Anne Carpenter (left) and Jelani Drew “spelunking” in Anna Mae Shook’s crawlspace. Photo by Jim Street

Anne Carpenter (left) and Jelani Drew “spelunking” in Anna Mae Shook’s crawlspace. Photo by Jim Street

Knowing that some of the students wanted to serve at the nursing home or the humane society, their service advisor Jim Street asked them if they felt their service site was a “winning ticket” after all, and to my surprise, they all felt so. Reflecting on the day of service, Carpenter noted, “We might not have been skilled but we brought a desire to serve an area that we really do impact with our choices — despite being in a campus bubble at times.” She felt our service was a great point of growth for everyone, including herself. “I’d go back under,” she said.

Mrs. Shook was extremely grateful and I was so glad the students had an opportunity to leave their campus bubble to serve in rural Appalachia for a day. I hope that they too now carry the mantra, “It’s all a part of the challenge.”

Today, I prayed we #kickcoalash

Monday, February 2nd, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note }This post originally appeared on Caroline Rutledge Armijo’s blog. We are happy to share it her with her permission.

Local residents and activists gather at Belews Lake, home to Duke Energy's Belews Creek Steam Station, to demand an end to coal ash pollution in North Carolina.

Local residents and activists gather at Belews Lake, home to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station, to demand an end to coal ash pollution in North Carolina. See more photos from the rally on Flickr.

On Sunday, Residents for Coal Ash Clean Up met at the Belews Lake boat dock overlooking the smokestacks at Duke Energy’s Belews Steam Station in Stokes County, N.C. Today marks the one year anniversary of the coal ash spill into the Dan River in Eden. And while it was the third largest coal ash spill in our country’s history, it is only a drop in the bucket of what would happen if there was a spill at Belews Creek into the same Dan River.

Duke Energy is currently in mediation over which coal ash locations they will clean up. Belews Creek is the site of the largest coal ash pond in the state of North Carolina and it is currently on the low priority list. We want to be a high priority.

Sarah from Appalachian Voices asked me to speak at today’s event. Of course. I am glad to do anything. Yet, I procrastinated on writing my speech until this morning. That’s really bad news considering it was a morning event and we live an hour away with two kids in tow. But I am glad I did, because during the night I realized that I needed to pray. The reality is the media will only cover what they want. After my speech in Raleigh, they summed it up to basically “Caroline Armijo is upset that her friends and family are sick.” But I saw today as an opportunity to have a large crowd gathered by the lake where we could pray. If I had gotten out of bed at 4 am, I am certain that God told me what to say word for word. But I didn’t. So I did the best that I could this morning at 8 am.

Here’s my speech and prayer, including the part I forgot:

Good morning! My name is Caroline Rutledge Armijo. I am a native of Stokes County and I currently reside in Greensboro. Thank you to everyone for coming out to Belews Creek today. We are here because we want Belews Creek to be included on the High Priority List for Duke’s clean up.

A year after the spill in Eden, we want to warn North Carolina and the country that we are standing at the site of the largest coal ash pond in Duke’s system – a horrifying 342-acres in some areas over twelve stories deep. This is the largest coal-ash risk to North Carolina’s water, land and air.

In 2009 Belews Creek was classified High Risk for failure. That means Duke has known for over five years that the earthen structures are highly likely to fail and people will die. But Duke just wants to plant some grass on top.

Without the threat of catastrophic failure, the unlined coal ash pond is still a problem. Water from the pond is released into the Dan River EVERY SINGLE DAY. This is Madison’s drinking water, which Duke actively “corrects” by adding chemicals to the river.

If you watched the At What Cost video, you will recognize several of our faces. But one is missing. Our leader Annie Brown died in September after suffering from a massive heart attack. She was the very person who asked “At what cost?” Others among us have faced serious health problems, including cancer, strokes and respiratory disorders. Annie had a list of all the people in this community who were suffering from poor health. And for all of these people, I feel led to end this with a prayer.

Dear Great and Mighty God,

Here we stand on what feels like sacred space. So many people have lost their lives too soon or faced serious health consequences because of the pollution from this site.

We are all incredibly grateful for the opportunities provided by the power generated here. But now we ask that you heal this broken place. We are faced with the complicated task of just how to do that.

We pray for the strength and courage to demand that Belews Creek become a high priority site.

We pray for the spirits who have passed before us that they may have peace.

And we pray for those who live daily with the illnesses they face that they will be blessed with the very best for their needs.

We pray for guidance, miracles and wholeness.

Amen.

Update from the Virginia General Assembly

Monday, February 2nd, 2015 - posted by hannah

Attacks on the EPA escalate, and rate freezes don’t consider customers.

A slew of bad bills to stymie the EPA and safeguard corporate polluters have been brought up in the first weeks of Virginia's brief legislative session.

A slew of bad bills to stymie the EPA and safeguard corporate polluters have been brought up in the first weeks of Virginia’s brief legislative session.

Virginia’s legislative session may be brief, but many bills with major implications for our future energy mix have already been acted on. Two weeks into this year’s session, here is a look at where our top issues stand.

Rate freeze controversy heats up

It’s been in the news around the state: Dominion Power has enlisted the help of utility-friendly legislators, in particular Senator Frank Wagner of Virginia Beach, in an effort to pause regulators’ scrutiny of the utility’s revenue for eight years.

The legislative patron says his bill is necessary to keep customers from seeing rising energy costs due to the mythical high price of compliance with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon pollution standard. Attorney General Mark Herring, who is tasked with looking out for ratepayers, notes that the measure would actually prevent rebates of overcharges to customers.

Anyone familiar with the system in which Virginia’s investor-owned electric providers operate will be struck by the way this would remove State Corporation Commission oversight and, with it, Dominion’s accountability to customers. In another troubling wrinkle, if cost-effective clean energy resources such as energy efficiency are deployed over this time resulting in saved energy and Dominion over-earns on its rate of return then customers are deprived of the those savings. Despite opposition from many sides, the bill has passed out of subcommittee.

Attacks on Virginia potential to achieve large-scale carbon-free power

For reasons ranging from pure political grandstanding to reactions to a perceived federal overreach in state affairs, many legislators are taking part in the rush to apply tactics pioneered by the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity to stymie the implementation of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in Virginia. One strategy is to interrupt what would be a smooth process of the Department of Environmental Quality preparing and sending Virginia’s implementation plan to the EPA. Legislation of this type gives the General Assembly a middle-man role able to approve the plan, which effectively obstructs the process and robs the executive branch of its control.

Other ways of slowing or stopping the EPA’s efforts to limit carbon pollution and drive investment in clean energy are plentiful: from Senator Wagner’s proposition prohibiting action in response to the standards until 18 criticisms of the standards are rectified, studying whether the plan on the whole benefits Virginia at all before taking action, or giving the General Assembly power to do what the Attorney General has not done: sue the EPA on behalf of Virginia.

Common-sense steps to make solar accessible and affordable for more Virginians

The main piece of legislation we’ve watched that would put an end to indiscriminate carbon pollution and lead to investments in clean energy and climate adaptation is the Virginia Coastal Protection Act. The bill did not manage to get the support it needed this year to make it out of committee.

Still, as we fight the bad bills above, we have a chance to make progress on several clean energy bills that will make a real difference to bring more renewable energy online in Virginia. Several will be heard in the House Energy Subcommittee on Tuesday, Feb. 3, be there to support solutions like community solar, larger net metering, and more!

Our Energy Savings campaign is heating up in the High Country

Thursday, January 29th, 2015 - posted by rory

Home Energy Contest Demonstrates Strong Need for Energy Efficiency Finance Options

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When Appalachian Voices asked Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. (BRE) to help alleviate poverty and support economic development in the North Carolina High Country by developing an on-bill energy efficiency finance program, BRE said, surprisingly, that they weren’t sure that was something that enough members would sign up for.

They offered this response despite the fact that, at the time, we had presented them with seventy letters from BRE members requesting an on-bill finance option (in addition to more than 100 signatures on a petition requesting the same thing).

We decided we would go one step further in demonstrating that demand, so back in October we launched our High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest. Through the contest we solicited enough in donations and sponsorships to be able to pay for upgrading the homes of three BRE members, and we are now able to provide a voice to and tell the stories of members who need help paying for home efficiency upgrades.

The contest turned out to be a huge success, and we announced the three contest winners last Thursday. The home improvements for the three winners will be tailored to their needs based on comprehensive energy audits that were completed over the last week. The work will primarily include insulation and weatherization — two common problems that lead to high energy bills, especially during the winter months — and will be performed by one or more of the five local businesses that sponsored or supported the contest. Those businesses include Blue Ridge Energy Works, LLC, High Country Energy Solutions, Inc., HomEfficient, reNew Home, Inc. and Sunny Day Homes, Inc.

Once the improvements have been performed, in partnership with ResiSpeak, we will monitor and report on the savings generated for each of the winners, thereby demonstrating the impact that even basic efficiency improvements can have in terms of reducing energy bills and improving the quality of life for High Country residents.

Overall, nearly 70 BRE members entered the contest. Key information about household income, energy use and expenses, and basic information about the applicants’ homes was provided. Based on the submitted information, we found that the average applicant spent more than 8 percent of his or her annual income on energy bills over the last year — nearly three times the national average of 2.7 percent. More than a quarter of applicants spent 15 percent or more of their income on energy bills. Such costs are especially burdensome given the average poverty rate of 23 percent in the BRE region.

Now to present the winners! We are so honored to know these folks, and we are even happier to be able to help improve their homes and reduce their energy bills. None of the winners or the other applicants are necessarily impoverished. They are hard-working individuals like Zack Dixon that are having a hard time finding a job. They are parents like Sean Dunlap who lives with his two young children in his dream home, but a home that lacks sufficient insulation or air sealing. And they are a retired couple living on a fixed income, like Vance Woodie and his wife. None of these folks have access to sufficient funds to make the comprehensive energy efficiency improvements needed in their homes. And, beyond the contest, each of our winners could still benefit substantially from an on-bill energy efficiency finance program through BRE, as could thousands of other BRE members that still need help.

Grand Prize Winner: Zack Dixon

Zachary Dixon, left, pictured with Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil.

Zachary Dixon, left, pictured with Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil.

Zack, a resident of Boone, N.C., heats his house with space heaters, and chronically struggles to pay his electricity bills. Over the last year, Zack spent 11 percent of his income on electricity bills. His power has been cut off by BRE twice this winter when he overdrew his pre-paid account, after which BRE assisted Mr. Dixon with a bill payment from its Operation Round Up program.

While such financial assistance helps many residents keep their homes heated in the winter, it fails to resolve the underlying problems of older or poorly built, drafty houses. For Zack, running the space heaters throughout the day is costly, and doesn’t sufficiently warm his house because of poor insulation in the attic and floors.

“I just don’t want to be freezing anymore,” he said. “There’s been times when I don’t want to get out of bed and be in the cold. It’s been a real big pain, but if I could at least quit stressing about the bills, I’d be happy.” He added, “the most important thing, that I never realized, is how much heat I’ve been losing.”

Zack’s prize will cover insulation for the floors and attic, as well as air sealing throughout the house to lock in heat and reduce his electricity use.

Runner-up: Vance Woodie

Thelma and Vance Woodie with Chuck Perry, program director for North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Thelma and Vance Woodie with Chuck Perry, program director for North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Vance and his wife Thelma have worked hard to modernize their turn-of-the-century home in Sugar Grove, N.C. Once heated by a coal stoker furnace, their house is now heated by an oil furnace, but the old ducts have not been replaced and so they draw cold air from the basement, which also causes problems with air quality in their home.

“I guess that’s why the dust still comes thick in the house,” Vance said. The elderly couple shuts off part of their house in the winter to reduce heating costs, but they still spend 16 percent of their income on energy bills. Responding to winning the contest, Vance said: “We needed something, some kind of help, so we took a chance.”

Runner-up: Sean Dunlap

Sean Dunlap of Sugar Grove, N.C.

Sean Dunlap of Sugar Grove, N.C.

Sean lives with his wife and two children in a 1938 farm house built by his wife’s great-grandfather, making their children the fifth generation to live there. Despite making what energy efficiency improvements they could, there is still a lot to do. Their prize money will cover adding insulation and weatherization the lack of which places their plumbing at risk and results in a cold home in the winter. “We are so excited to find out that we won,” said Mr. Dunlap. “Now our work with Appalachian Voices will continue as we upgrade our house. Their professionalism and expertise has already made a huge difference and now we are able to look forward to making our home more efficient, comfortable and livable for our family.”

The contest was sponsored by the local businesses listed above as well as the Blumenthal Foundation and LifeStore Insurance. The North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance provided home walk-through assessments and energy audits. Appalachian Voices extends our deepest gratitude to each of the businesses and organizations for their support.

If you are a BRE member and would like to show your support for BRE developing an on-bill energy efficiency finance program that could help folks like Zack, Vance and Sean, or are in need of such support yourself, join the Energy Savings for the High Country campaign and sign the petition!

To protect or prosecute polluters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

By Brian Sewell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remembering an Environmental Warrior

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

Lenny Kohm was an activist who inspired countless people from the Arctic to Appalachia to stand up and exercise their right to protect the land and communities they love. Below are just a fraction of the tributes already made to this hero known by many as “The Chief.” As renowned writer Terry Tempest Williams so eloquently stated:
“He was singular in his wit and wisdom for the wild. Passionate, smart, and humble, he touched all of us … His legacy is love.”

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Lenny Kohm devoted nearly 30 years of his life to helping people find and use their voice for change. Talking to an attendee at a citizen lobby training in Washington, D.C.

Book of Lenny

By Matt Wasson, program director, Appalachian Voices

“When you work for justice,” Lenny would say, “you have a kind of magic. Your job is to go out and give that magic away. You can’t try to hoard it or it disappears, but if you keep giving it away you never run out…” [Read More]

My favorite thing about Lenny was that he wasn’t just about the land, he was equally about the people. When asked what he did for a living, he would always respond, “I’m in the people empowerment business.”

~ Brian O’Donnell, executive director, Conservation Lands Foundation

An Advocate for the Wild Places

By Brooks Yeager, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment and Development at U.S. Department of State

Most of all, he loved the way ordinary Americans respond when they see clearly what is at stake in a conservation struggle. He believed in the American people, in their judgment, in their fairness, and in their love for their land…” [Read More]

I am immensely grateful to have known and learned from this giant spirit of a human being and activist, and will always remember his mantra:
“We have to win, it’s not an option.”

~ Anna Jane Joyner, Here Now campaign consultant, Purpose

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Lenny Kohm on a river in the Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Yukon Territory.

Chief Lives On

By Tom Cormons, executive director, Appalachian Voices

Armed with his belief in the power of ordinary people to change the world, Lenny inspired thousands across the country to take time in their lives as mothers, fathers, doctors, electricians, or teachers to stand up for our common natural heritage, from the Arctic to Appalachia. He was — and is — a legend among activists…” [Read More]

Lenny was an activist, a teacher, a philosopher, a warrior, a mentor, a friend. He changed the way I thought about activism and offered me guidance when I needed it over the years. He was always generous with his trustworthy wisdom, but perhaps the most enlightening thing Lenny ever said to me was during an interview we did with him back in 2008:
“If everyone woke up and said, ‘You’ll have to go through me, too’ then we’ve already won.”

I will miss you, Lenny. Thank you for helping me recognize and embrace my own personal power, for reminding me that it’s ok to laugh even when the battle is raging around us, and for inviting me to sit at the “grown-ups table” of environmental activism.
They will have to go through me, too.

~ Parson Brown, co-founder and director of Topless America

Lenny Kohm’s Memorial Celebration

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Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign (bottom) and Luci Beach (above), representative of the Gwich’in Nation, were among the speakers at the October memorial celebration, while friends in Negril, Jamaica, made buttons for the beach-side ceremony (top left).

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On a perfect, sunny Appalachian October day, friends and family gathered at the base of Grandfather Mountain, N.C., to honor and celebrate the life and legacy of “The Chief.” We came from all across the country — folks California and the Yukon came the furthest, while others traveled from West Virginia, Florida, Tennessee and just around the corner from his home in Todd. We spent the afternoon listening to loving tributes filled with lots of laughter (and not a few tears). The Jewish Kaddish was read, and a Luci Beach from the Gwich’in Nation played a quitter’s requiem. And after a good old-fashioned potluck, we sat around a bonfire deep into the crisp autumn night, sharing stories and raising a toast (or three) to The Chief we all loved and admired.

And on another lovely, sunny day in early December, a group of friends traveled to Negril, Jamaica, — a place that Lenny dearly loved and that had become his second home — to scatter his ashes into the clear, blue waters of the Caribbean sea and celebrate his life with his Jamaican friends. Affectionately known as Lennystock, the trip had originally been planned as a celebration for Lenny’s 75th birthday.

As the Chief would say, if you’re going to do something, “Do it in a good way.”

[ Stories, pictures and video from the Memorial Celebration ]

MaryAnne1

Nothing to see here

Friday, December 5th, 2014 - posted by eric
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet's attempts to rebuke critics can't make up for its failure to notice blatant Clean Water Act violations or prosecute coal company misdeeds.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s attempts to rebuke critics can’t make up for its failure to notice blatant Clean Water Act violations or prosecute coal company misdeeds.

Kentucky’s environmental regulators can’t have it both ways. On one hand, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet claims it does not have enough funding to do its job. On the other hand, it says it’s doing its job just fine.

Long-standing failures of the cabinet, which regulates coal mines and other polluters, have become even more evident in light of new legal action brought by Appalachian Voices and our partners and a recent court ruling.

In a scathing opinion issued Nov. 24, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd rejected two settlements that the cabinet had reached with Frasure Creek Mining for submitting false water pollution reports several years ago. A week before Judge Shepherd’s rulings, we had filed a Notice of Intent to Sue Frasure Creek for again submitting false reports in 2013 and 2014 that again went unnoticed by the cabinet.

Not Just a Matter of Money

For years, despite clear and persistent evidence of problems, the cabinet repeatedly claimed to be fulfilling its duties under the Clean Water Act. But it was ignoring the underlying problems, including potentially illegal water pollution discharges masked by false reporting.

In response to our recent notice that Frasure Creek has perpetrated some 28,000 new violations of the Clean Water Act, the cabinet issued a press release that essentially claimed it has everything under control. The cabinet says it’s focusing on “violations as submitted” on water monitoring reports, ignoring the fact that those reports are false or could even be fraud. The release goes on to defend the cabinet’s settlements with Frasure Creek — the ones later thrown out by Judge Shepherd — and said the cabinet had been looking into Frasure Creek’s more recent violations:

The Division of Enforcement within the Cabinet has been monitoring compliance with the April 13, 2013 Agreed Order with Frasure Creek and initiated an internal compliance review in January 2014 that has identified violations as submitted on DMRs [Discharge Monitoring Reports] to the agency. Administrative action on those violations is ongoing and is pending within the agency.

Seeking to understand the validity of these claims, our lawyers submitted a formal request for the information on the cabinet’s “internal compliance review.”

In a bold showing of its own incompetence, the cabinet asked us to clarify what we meant by “[v]iolations ‘mentioned in’ the press release.” It appeared that they did not even know what they were referring to in their own press release.

Once we clarified our request, we received this convoluted response:

The phrase ‘internal compliance review’ that was used in the November 17, 2014 press release is a term used to describe the primary function of staff in the Compliance and Operations Branch of the Division of Enforcement (DENF)…. The phrase does not encompass a specific period of time with dates certain for beginning and ending the compliance process, but it is used within DENF to refer to any ongoing review. With respect to Frasure Creek, our compliance review is ongoing and underway at this time, but it has not progressed to the point where NOVs [Notices Of Violation] have been issued or referrals for enforcement action have been generated.

In plain English, the cabinet’s response essentially says it has been looking at Frasure Creek’s violations, but officials either haven’t written anything down about them yet or, if they have written anything down, they refuse to disclose it. So, just like past claims that the cabinet is doing its job, this response is empty.

The fact that the agency is strapped for cash has never been in question — even Judge Shepherd agrees. As he stated in his recent ruling:

Commissioner Scott further testified that the cabinet has been subjected to a series of major budget cuts during the last 10 years that have drastically and adversely affected the ability of the cabinet to do its job in implementing the Clean Water Act.

[T]he record in this case makes it abundantly clear that the Cabinet simply lacks the personnel and budget to effectively investigate and enforce these requirements of law.

But it’s not a lack of funding keeping the cabinet from effectively enforcing laws as much as a lack of will.

You would think that if the cabinet truly were intent on protecting the environment, they would have punished Frasure Creek to make an example of the company, rather than wasting taxpayer dollars trying to prevent citizen involvement in this case. You would also think that the cabinet wouldn’t spend its limited resources on unsuccessful legal challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance on conductivity pollution from coal mines, or weakening water quality standards for selenium, a common coal mining pollutant.

Brown water at a Frasure Creek Mine. This is one of the discharge points that the company submitted false data for.

Brown water at a Frasure Creek Mine. This is one of the discharge points that the company submitted false data for.

The cabinet serves at the pleasure of Gov. Steve Beshear, whose strong pro-coal attitude is without doubt. In one State of the State address, Beshear went so far as to say, “Washington bureaucrats continue to try to impose arbitrary and unreasonable regulations on the mining of coal. And to them I say, ‘Get off our backs!’”

When elected officials are beholden to a single industry, as many are in Central Appalachia, it’s no surprise that regulators would be easy on that industry. But the level of corporate influence in Kentucky is out of control. Coal companies should not be able to flout the law without fear of serious prosecution. And whether the bosses like it or not, the cabinet still has the legal duty to uphold the Clean Water Act.

Could Criminal Charges Be in Store for Frasure Creek?

The cabinet and other Kentucky officials have generally ignored or dismissed the possibility that the false reporting was intentional fraud. But recent cases of laboratory fraud in West Virginia make criminal prosecution seem more feasible. One case involved discharges from coal mines where a lab employee was collecting water samples from a “honey hole,” a spot known to have good water quality, rather than from the actual pollution discharges. In another, a contract employee was reusing data from previous water monitoring reports because they had failed to pay their laboratory.

In a statement that indicates a criminal investigation should ensue, Judge Shepherd wrote:

The conditions observed by the cabinet’s inspectors during the performance audit of Frasure Creeks’ so-called “laboratory” demonstrated either a plan or scheme to submit fraudulent information in the DMRs or incompetence so staggering as to defy belief.

Kentucky Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Jack Conway has vowed to look into the new Frasure Creek violations. But several years ago, his team looked into the previous violations and told reporter Ronnie Ellis that they couldn’t find anything “that rises to the level of intent or criminal fraud that’s ready to be prosecuted.”

The cabinet’s dismissive attitude toward the seriousness of environmental problems in Kentucky is unsurprising given the state’s political climate, not to mention the fact that the Frasure Creek cases expose the agency’s utter incompetence. But the jig is up. It’s time for the cabinet to either start doing its job or step aside and let the EPA do it instead.