Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Voices’

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.

Kentucky court sides with citizens and environment

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 - posted by eric

Viewed through a swing set on a nearby resident’s yard, this is one of Frasure Creek Mining’s many valley fills at their numerous Mountain Top Removal coal mines.

Last week, Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations won a major victory in the Kentucky courts when a judge overturned two slap-on-the-wrist settlements that the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet had reached with Frasure Creek Mining a few years ago.

These cases began in 2010, when we uncovered blatantly false water monitoring reports that Frasure Creek was submitting to state regulators. The judge’s decision comes just one week after Appalachian Voices and our partners filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue Frasure Creek for returning to their practice of submitting hundreds of false water monitoring reports called Discharge Monitoring Reports or DMRs.

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, jointly represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Lauren Waterworth and the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd’s opinion is scathing and in many places simply speaks for itself:

The Cabinet took the position that it did not have sufficient evidence to support a claim of intentional submissions of knowingly false data, or fraud, by the Defendant or its contract lab…. The Cabinet took this position notwithstanding… that the signatures of the DMRs were often dated prior to the sampling that was being reported, and that multiple DMRs appear to be simply photocopies of prior reports without any evidence that actual sampling took place. 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. [Emphasis added]

The opinion goes on to make several other very important points:

The Cabinet chose to limit its investigation to reporting errors…, and not to investigate substantive pollution violations though there were indications of such violations

The integrity of the regulatory process is based on the accurate reporting of monitoring data. If the Cabinet suspects pollution violations but only investigates and assesses penalties for administrative reporting violations, the Cabinet creates incentives for inaccurate reporting or failing to report as opposed to honest reporting that reveals pollution violations.

The Court finds that the economic benefit realized by Frasure Creek in using a substandard laboratory with systematic problems in its DMRs, far exceeds the civil penalty agreed to by the Cabinet.

When one company so systematically subverts the requirements of law, it not only jeopardizes environmental protection on the affected permits, it creates a regulatory climate in which the Cabinet sends the message that cheating pays. [Emphasis added]

[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. [Emphasis added]

Valley fill and pond at a Frasure Creek Mining MTR site.

Valley fill and pond at a Frasure Creek Mining MTR site.

Judge Shepherd actually issued two rulings, one on each of the two cases against Frasure Creek that were before him. The first case was based on the false water monitoring reports that we uncovered in 2010. The cabinet entered a settlement with Frasure Creek with miniscule fines compared to what is allowed under the Clean Water Act. We then challenged that weak settlement in court. In last week’s ruling, the judge threw out the settlement because it is not “fair, reasonable or in the public interest”.

The second case was based on pollution problems that became evident once Frasure Creek’s false reporting subsided. We intervened in that case and were made full parties to an administrative case that the Cabinet brought against the company (though the Cabinet only brought this case because we had already filed a Notice of Intent to Sue for pollution problems in question). Even though we were full parties to the case, the Cabinet and Frasure Creek reached another sweetheart settlement without our involvement. Judge Shepherd found this had violated our due process rights and threw out the settlement, sending the case back to administrative court.

Both of these decisions could be appealed, and since previous settlements were simply thrown out, the actual violations are still unresolved. We will have to wait and see how these outstanding issues play out. Nonetheless, this is still a great step forward, and a great vindication of citizens’ right to protect their environment.

DENR deserves an environmental leader to replace John Skvarla

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 - posted by brian
John Skvarla, the embattled secretary of DENR, is leaving the agency to lead the state Commerce Department.

John Skvarla, the embattled secretary of DENR, is leaving the agency to lead the state Commerce Department.

After a tumultuous two years as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, John Skvarla is stepping over to lead the state’s Commerce Department. Skvarla will replace Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker, who is leaving her post to join a digital media company.

Environmental groups, concerned citizens and prominent media outlets have been critical of Skvarla throughout his tenure, and unsurprisingly so — he has expressed doubt over whether oil is a non-renewable resource claiming, “There is a lot of different scientific opinion on that,” and he questions the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

After assuming his position, Skvarla rewrote DENR’s mission statement to be in the service of industries in North Carolina. Under his watch, information related to climate change was removed from the agency’s website, and the department was reorganized and reduced to nearly inept levels.

READ MORE: DENR found critics and praise under Skvarla

By any measure, Skvarla is committed to being business-friendly. Responding to an op-ed by Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams in the News & Observer last December, he called DENR a “customer-friendly juggernaut.” But many saw Skvarla as being too cozy with companies like Duke Energy. A federal grand jury is still investigating ties between DENR and the company responsible for the Dan River coal ash spill.

While this announcement should engender optimism in the North Carolina environmental community, that hopefulness is tempered by trepidation over who will take over the position, and concern that he could be replaced by an even more extreme and environmentally detrimental successor.

There is no word on who will replace Skvarla yet, but Gov. McCrory says he is interviewing candidates and plans to appoint a new secretary later this month. Here’s to hoping he or she is the environmental leader DENR deserves and North Carolina desperately needs.

A statement from Appalachian Voices North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams:

John Skvarla ushered in an era of regressive environmental policies and procedures that placed industry over the needs of the environment and people. It is our sincere hope that his departure from DENR will allow the return of accountability and reason to the agency.

Gov. McCrory must choose a leader who will balance real environmental protection and industry growth without the wholesale abandonment of either. The goal of the new DENR secretary should be to restore the mission and integrity of the department by prioritizing environmental protection.

We look forward to working with someone who will reconsider Skvarla’s industry-first approach, which repeatedly put North Carolina’s natural resources as risk as exemplified by the handling of Duke Energy’s coal ash contamination.

We won’t stop until we’ve won in Virginia

Friday, November 21st, 2014 - posted by hannah
Virginia Sierra Club

Virginia Sierra Club

As he called the Joint Commerce and Labor Committee to order Wednesday in Richmond, state Sen. John Watkins told the the audience of more than 200 citizens that the purpose of the meeting was to allow legislators to better grasp the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and its likely effects on Virginia’s economy and energy prices.

That is all well and good, but for the fact that the the slate of presenters was stacked by the likes of the industry-biased Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research and coal-heavy electric provider Appalachian Power. Aside from a lone environmental advocate, representatives from the electric utilities and entities friendly to polluters dominated the three-hour hearing, repeating the myths and misinformation that the EPA plan would increase costs for ratepayers and trigger job losses.

But the General Assembly members could not fail to notice just how many Virginians took the time to be there to watch and listen, and how passionately they care about shifting to clean energy. A large group activists and clean energy supporters rallied outside the Capitol to make our voices heard: there is no time to lose for Virginia to harness renewable energy and energy efficiency. They cheered the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution limits as a historic opportunity to adopt the policies that will turn the commonwealth to a cleaner energy future.

Virginia Sierra Club

Virginia Sierra Club

Amid the spirited and diverse groups at the rally were moms and kids having a play-in for the earth, Green Grannies leading the crowd in song, and students who waved model wind turbines aloft in the wintry breeze. The point was clear. Rejecting the biased and flawed assessments that industry presenters made in the committee room, speakers at the rally heralded the benefits to public health and the obligation that Virginia has to be part of climate solutions. These sentiments are reflected in the more than 200,000 petition signatures from Virginians support of strong EPA climate action.

The speakers highlighted how the option to offset power plant emissions with clean sources and efficiency will drive job creation and eliminate the need for new natural gas plants, and stressed that costly nuclear power investments are not needed if Virginia can take advantage of offshore wind and ramp up programs to make homes and businesses energy-efficient. Virginia has enough wind and solar energy to power hundreds of thousands of homes in the next decade — IF the legislature and McAuliffe administration act now and incorporate EPA’s Clean Power Plan as part of a statewide strategy.

Virginia Sierra Club

Virginia Sierra Club

Wednesday’s events brought Virginia activists together around a shared vision of Virginia 15 years in the future that is less reliant on fossil fuels, a vision that the EPA plan can help bring to life. Others voiced concern at the rally that the two large natural gas pipelines proposed for Virginia are not the way to go, given the dangers to clean air and water and the impacts of carbon dioxide and methane on the climate.

Our movement spanning Virginia is strong in its diversity and united by a desire for a clean energy future. Until the EPA’s rule is made final in June of 2015 and far beyond it, we’re fighting for clean power. As we chanted Wednesday at the Capitol, “There’s no stopping us until we’ve won.”

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.