Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Water Watch’

Mountaintop removal is the 800-pound gorilla at the SOAR Health Impact Series

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Erin

If the SOAR initiative is to go beyond political rhetoric, Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear must take public concerns about mountaintop removal’s health impacts seriously.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

I attended the first Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit held in Pikeville, Ky., last December. Following Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s Appalachia’s Bright Future economic development meeting, I was excited at the prospects such a large summit might generate.

As a joint effort between U.S. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, it was clear that SOAR had the power to make real change in eastern Kentucky, but only if those involved had the will.

The results of SOAR following the summit have been mixed so far. Several people have pointed out issues with the process — specifically, the stakeholders most involved in SOAR may not accurately represent the needs and concerns of eastern Kentuckians. Since the summit, my hope for the outcomes of SOAR have waned. But when I learned that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, would be visiting eastern Kentucky as part of the SOAR Health Impact Series, I saw an opportunity for the voices of residents from coal-impacted communities in eastern Kentucky counties to be heard.

Making a Clear Case on Mountaintop Removal and Health

Over the past several years, more than 20 peer-reviewed studies have been published linking a range of health problems including above-average cancer and birth defect rates to the presence of mountaintop removal coal mining. Yet just last month, the Obama administration pulled funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for research underway on air pollution from mountaintop removal and its link to respiratory issues. The need for a serious effort to identify and address health issues related to mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia has never been more clear. Despite this, I was not optimistic that Dr. Frieden and Rep. Rogers would address this need during their visit.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Prior to the CDC visit, the SOAR health committee held 11 listening sessions across eastern Kentucky from April through July. Each of the sessions drew an average of more than 20 participants. Although SOAR has thus far limited the role of key community members in leadership positions, the health committee has provided a forum for some community involvement.

The CDC meetings consisted of four sessions — two shorter evening sessions in Somerset and Paintsville, and two longer daytime sessions in Hazard and Morehead. I attended the daytime session in Hazard last Tuesday, where there was standing room only. Several individuals spoke, including Rep. Rogers and several doctors from eastern Kentucky.

As the morning went on, I began to lose hope that environmental concerns would be brought up. Then, Dr. Nikki Stone, the health committee chair and event moderator, spoke about the issues that came up during the listening sessions. She began listing the top 10 concerns that had come up throughout the listening sessions, and much to my surprise, environmental impacts, including air and water pollution from mountaintop removal mines, was the top concern resulting from the listening sessions, tied with a desire for coordinate health programs in public schools.

To be honest, I was stunned. I was so sure that the topic would be avoided at a meeting that attracted so much attention. Suddenly, I was hopeful that the health impacts of mountaintop removal would receive some real attention from those that have the power to address the issue.

Unfortunately, the rest of the meeting quickly turned back to lengthy speeches about taking personal responsibility for one’s own health and an announcement of federal funding for the Appalachian Cancer Patient Navigation Project. The talks left me with the distinct impression that those speaking would rather focus on dealing with the prevalence of disease, rather than preventing it.

The Health Impact Series did not improve later that evening in Paintsville. The closest mention of environmental impacts on health came from Rep. Rogers, who referred to dirty streams but then went on to blame water quality degradation on people dumping and straight piping waste into streams. It seemed once again that it was easier to blame eastern Kentuckians, rather than the industry they have been beholden to for generations.

The Opportunity Ahead

There was a strong press presence at both meetings, which may have salvaged some chance of addressing the impacts of mountaintop removal. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, when “asked whether he would support having the CDC study the public health effects of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, Frieden said the agency ‘only goes where it’s invited.’” Following the disappointing Paintsville meeting, I felt like I had one last opportunity to make the most of the meetings and approached Dr. Frieden fully expecting to be turned away. Instead, he listened carefully for a moment and then directed me to his assistant. I spoke with several CDC employees and was disappointed to find that they were unaware of the multitude of health studies linking health problems to mountaintop removal. They did, however, encourage me to contact them directly for follow up on the issue.

Moving forward, Appalachian Voices and our allies intend to follow up with the CDC, to be sure that they are fully aware of the current research that indicates quite clearly that one of the major health issues we should be concerned about in Central Appalachia is mountaintop removal coal mining. We will be sure that the CDC knows that, at least when it comes to the citizens of eastern Kentucky, the CDC is invited to investigate this pressing issue. We will also be sure that the SOAR Health Committee acts upon its finding that citizens are most concerned about environmental impacts on health, because, as the Herald-Leader stated, “when a congressman and governor invite people to ‘listening sessions,’ there’s an obligation to take what they say seriously.”

Endangered Species are New Focus in Legal Case against Kentucky’s Water Quality Protections and EPA

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014 - posted by eric

Contact
Appalachian Voices: Eric Chance, 828-262-1500, eric@appvoices.org
Kentuckians For The Commonwealth: Suzanne Tallichet, 606-776-7970, stallichet1156@aol.com
Center for Biological Diversity: Tierra Curry, 971-717-6402, tcurry@biologicaldiversity.org
Sierra Club: Adam Beitman, (202) 675-2385, adam.beitman@gmail.com
Defenders of Wildlife: Melanie Gade, (202) 772-0288, mgade@defenders.org
Kentucky Waterways Alliance: Tim Joice, (502) 589-8008, Tim@kwalliance.org

LOUISVILLE, Ky. –
A coalition of national and Appalachian conservation groups today asked the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky to compel the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect imperiled wildlife in Kentucky. The groups want the EPA to reassess the dangers posed to wildlife by a new set of water quality standards covering Kentucky’s coal mining and agricultural operations.

In November 2013, the EPA approved the weakening of Kentucky’s water quality standards for selenium, a pollutant commonly released by mountaintop removal coal mines. The EPA also approved Kentucky’s weakened standards for nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff, which causes toxic algae blooms in local bodies of water and depletes the oxygen needed to support most aquatic life. A coalition of conservation groups, including Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Waterways Alliance and Sierra Club, immediately filed suit, asserting that the EPA’s new guidelines are insufficient to protect waterways and wildlife under the Clean Water Act.

Today, two national wildlife conservation groups, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity, joined the case. The groups assert that, in addition to violating the Clean Water Act, the EPA’s approval of Kentucky’s weakened water quality standards also violates the Endangered Species Act. Under that law, the EPA is required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assess the impacts of changed standards on federally listed species. The groups allege that the EPA violated the Endangered Species Act by initiating, but failing to complete, that consultation process.

The groups issued the following statements:

Jane Davenport, senior staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife:
“Coal mining has devastating impacts on water-dependent wildlife. The new, weaker water quality standards were originally proposed by the coal mining lobby so it’s unfortunate to see the Environmental Protection Agency essentially rubber stamp them without even checking to see how imperiled wildlife would be affected. Implementation of these new standards needs to be put on hold until the EPA fulfills all of its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.”

Eric Chance, water quality specialist with Appalachian Voices:
“This weakened selenium standard is basically a handout to the coal industry at the expense of the people and streams of Kentucky. The EPA and state are just making it easier for polluters to get away with poisoning streams. This is a misguided rule at odds with well-established science, existing laws and common sense.”

Tierra Curry, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity and a native of Knott County:
“Kentucky is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than nearly any other state. Keeping the water safe for them will also help protect healthy water quality for people.”

Alice Howell of Sierra Club’s Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter:
“Mountaintop removal coal mining threatens our health and our environment, including our most vulnerable species. The EPA has acted irresponsibly by approving Kentucky’s dangerously weak standards. It’s time for the courts to intervene and uphold the strong protections required under the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.”

Suzanne Tallichet, state chair of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth:
“KFTC members are concerned with the health and well-being of all species. We all share the planet, so when one species is being harmed, we are all at risk – including people. Kentucky state officials and the EPA should help us strengthen – rather than diminish – our natural resources. Many Kentuckians are working hard to build a brighter future for coal-impacted communities. But that bright future depends on having healthy streams that are necessary for wildlife, tourism, communities, and businesses to thrive. Appalachia’s bright future can’t be built on polluted waterways that are doing damage to fish and wildlife, not to mention local communities. Kentucky deserves better than these weakened water quality standards.”

Judy Petersen, executive director of Kentucky waterways Alliance:
“The selenium pollution allowed under these new rules could impact birds and other wildlife dependent on the bugs and small fish in our waterways. And we’ve already seen the impacts of too many nutrients in our waters. Taylorsville and Barren River Lakes have levels of harmful algae that put them in the moderate health risk for recreational exposure. People can get sick and even dogs and pets could die after swimming in these lakes. We must do a better job protecting our waterways from pollution, and not look to weaken protections.”

###

Science vs. Mining

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 - posted by eric

Fish deformed by selenium pollution

It’s no surprise to folks in coal-impacted communities that surface mining is bad for water quality. Orange streams, devoid of life, litter the landscape. But it would seem to most that this is contrary to many environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Unfortunately these laws are filled with loopholes, and the agencies tasked with enforcing them are usually underfunded and understaffed.

There have been numerous studies over the years showing surface mining’s detrimental effects on the health of nearby people and streams. There are two recent notable studies from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) alone. The first was aimed at linking air pollution from mountaintop removal mines to the health problems of nearby residents. Unfortunately, this study will not be completed because its funding has been cut. Earlier this month USGS was able to complete and publish a report that showed streams below mountaintop removal mines have two-thirds fewer fish than those in unpolluted streams. The study also found that selenium pollution is linked to declines in fish populations.

Appalachian Voices has been working to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and industry from opening new loopholes in our environmental laws that would make it easier to poison streams. Along with a number of our supporters and partner organizations, we recently submitted comments to the EPA on their newly proposed standards for selenium.

Selenium is a mineral commonly discharged from coal mines that is extremely toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. It is also very expensive to remove from water so there have been a number of efforts by the coal industry to get agencies to make the standards more lax. This newly proposed EPA standard will make citizen enforcement harder, and will make it easier for companies to get away with discharging toxic levels of selenium.

The new standards are slightly weaker than the selenium standards EPA tried, but failed, to adopt in 2004. A large number of scientists and even other federal agencies came out in opposition to those standards because they were too weak. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, told the EPA that “Based on a large body of scientific evidence, the Service believes these criterion values will not protect federally listed fish and wildlife species. Furthermore, the service believes these values are not even sufficient to protect the aquatic life for which the criteria were developed.”

>> See our comments here and here
>> Look through all the comments here

Great News for Clean Water in Virginia!

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - posted by eric

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One fish, two fish … Dead fish

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - posted by matt

USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

onefish_twofish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories from South Central Regional Jail, WV

Friday, June 27th, 2014 - posted by kara

Poisoned Water Comic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 - posted by eric

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new national recommended water quality criteria for selenium. Because these new standards are weaker and more complex than the current standards, they pose a major threat to the health of streams in coal-impacted communities.

    Selenium is a pollutant released from many mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia that is extremely toxic to fish at very low levels. Over time, it builds up in fish and other aquatic organisms leading to reproductive failure, deformities and death.

    The EPA’s proposed standards are too weak to be protective of aquatic life. Studies have shown negative effects of selenium at levels half as high as the fish tissue standards proposed by the agency. These standards are even weaker than those proposed by the EPA in 2004, which were withdrawn after public comments from agencies and scientists demonstrated that they would not protect aquatic life.

    A table of current and proposed EPA selenium standards. Click to enlarge.

    By partially basing the standards on fish tissue sampling, the EPA has created a significant burden for citizens and agencies trying to enforce the limits on selenium pollution. Fish tissue sampling will be more expensive and time consuming, and it will require special permits for collecting fish. This is especially problematic in Appalachia, where selenium standards have primarily been enforced through citizen actions. These standards will be more difficult to enforce, and will just lead to more streams being degraded.

    Tell the EPA not to weaken Selenium Standards

    Please take a few minutes to email ow-docket@epa.gov with the subject line “Attention Docket No. EPA-HQ-OW-2004-0019”, and let them know that we need strong water based standards for selenium, that will protect all aquatic life. The comment period has been extended through July 28, 2014.

    Science-backed lawsuits protect clean water in Central Appalachia

    Tuesday, June 10th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Caldwell

    A citizen’s photo of sediment from George’s Fork entering the South Fork Pound River

    On Thursday, June 5, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia ruled that high levels of conductivity in water discharged from mountaintop removal mines are harmful to West Virginia streams.

    The Sierra Club issued a press release that calls the ruling a “landmark decision” and quotes the district court’s decision that, “Losing diversity in aquatic life, as sensitive species are extirpated and only pollution-tolerant species survive, is akin to the canary in a coal mine. These West Virginia streams … were once thriving aquatic ecosystems.”

    The ruling comes at a pivotal time for citizen action groups engaging in litigation under the Clean Water Act. The same day of the court’s ruling on conductivity, citizen groups including Appalachian Voices filed a suit in Virginia arguing that four mines owned by Red River Coal Company had failed to comply with a state-imposed Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for the South Fork Pound River.

    The South Fork Pound TMDL stipulates the level of total dissolved solids (TDS) and total suspended solids (TSS) the river can tolerate, while still protecting aquatic life. Mines that discharge into the South Fork Pound watershed are given waste load allocations (WLAs) for their contribution of TDS and TSS. Our case against Red River Coal argues that data from company water monitoring indicates that they have exceeded WLAs for the South Fork Pound River.

    At a first glance, these two cases seem to be only distantly related, but with a closer look and some basic science, it becomes clear that they are actually incredibly similar.

    Conductivity is the measurement of the ability of a material to conduct electricity. In the case of water, the more positive and negative ions in the water, the more conductive it becomes. TDS measures the concentrations of dissolved ions in the water, so the higher the TDS, the higher the water’s electrical conductivity.

    When water has been discharged from a surface mine, it often runs through valley fills and other areas where heavy metals have been disturbed. Dr. Anthony Timpano of the Virginia Water Research Center authored a paper that explores the effects of high levels of TDS on aquatic life. Timpano states that streams impacted by coal pollution can often have a TDS greater than 2000 mg/L. A normal stream should have a TDS of less than 200 mg/L. Ions that typically contribute to high TDS levels include calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate and sulfate. Sulfate has been shown to have deadly effects on aquatic life.

    Another theme present in both of these cases is the lack of state oversight and enforcement for water pollution violations in coal-impacted communities. These lawsuits were filed by citizen groups that advocate for clean water in areas where industry is often favored over local communities. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy failed to hold Alex Energy, Elk Run Coal Company, and Red River Coal Company accountable. Instead, citizens have stepped up to the job.

    Appalachian Voices’ Water Quality Specialist Eric Chance hits the nail on the head, saying, “Unfortunately, it takes lawsuits like this one to get the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to do its job and enforce existing laws that were created to protect the health of people and streams.”

    Another coal-related chemical spill in Central Appalachia

    Monday, June 9th, 2014 - posted by Erin

    Hundreds of fish were killed by a chemical released into Kentucky’s Clover Fork River by Cumberland Coal Company. Photos by Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

    On Friday, May 30, another coal-related chemical spill polluted a public waterway in Central Appalachia, killing hundreds of fish and alarming local residents.

    The chemical spill happened at a Cumberland Coal Company prep plant in Harlan County, Ky. This time, the spill was not of coal slurry or a coal-washing chemical, but of a flocculant — a type of compound usually used to control other substances in sediment ponds or clean up spilled material in creeks.

    Reminiscent of the slurry spill from the Patriot prep plant in February, this spill began when a pipe carrying slurry between the prep plant and an impoundment failed. This time, however, the slurry was contained by the facility’s sediment ponds. Due to concerns about the slurry entering the river, a flocculent called Praestol A6291 was used to help settle the spilled material and prevent it from leaving the pond.

    Unfortunately, too much of the chemical was used, causing it to spill into Kelly’s Branch, a tributary of the Clover Fork River. This particular flocculant is toxic to aquatic life and it killed hundreds of fish and other wildlife in the Clover Fork in the days following the spill.

    Dead fish in the Clover Fork River. Photo: Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

    The Harlan County Emergency Management was notified first, but the state Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement was not notified until the next day. When DMRE arrived, there was no evidence that any coal slurry spilled into the creek and water samples taken at that time complied with applicable mining laws. Unfortunately, it does not seem that water samples were taken on the day the spill occurred.

    Dead fish in the Clover Fork River. Photo: Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

    A Kentucky Fish and Wildlife employee told a local reporter that the chemical spilled was not harmful to humans. However, the material data safety sheet lists two components of this particular Praestol that are known carcinogens in laboratory animals: diethanolamine and coco diethanolamide. Thankfully, this spill was not near a drinking water intake. Still, local residents expressed a great level of concern about both their own safety and the loss of local wildlife.

    Cumberland Coal Company has already been cited for a violation of general hydrologic compliance. Although fines cannot erase the damage done to a community and an ecosystem, hopefully further investigation will result in sufficient fines to compel Cumberland and other companies to prevent future spills. They have been, and remain, far too commonplace.

    Groups Seek Protection of Virginia Waterways from Mining Pollution

    Thursday, June 5th, 2014 - posted by eric


    Red River Coal Co. Violating “Last Line of Defense” Clean Water Act Protections

    Contact:
    Eric Chance, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500 eric@appvoices.org
    Sean Sarah, Sierra Club, 202-548-4589 sean.sarah@sierraclub.org
    Matt Hepler, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, 540-871-1564 mhepler24@gmail.com

    Big Stone Gap, VA –Citizen and environmental groups today filed suit in federal court over illegal water pollution from four mines in Southwest Virginia owned by the Red River Coal Company. Virginia regulators previously determined that the South Fork Pound River, which receives the pollution from the mines, does not adequately support aquatic life. To protect the streams, Virginia imposed a “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) for mining pollutants that harm aquatic life, including total dissolved solids and total suspended solids.

    Appalachian Voices, Sierra Club and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. The groups found that Red River is violating its permit conditions that require compliance with the state TMDL.

    “These mountain streams in southwest Virginia were once known for their purity and served as a habitat for diverse species of aquatic life, but mining pollution’s changed that,” said Jane Branham of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “It is shameful that citizens must take action to address this issue, but with the failure of the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to oversee and enforce laws that protect our waterways, we are left with no other choice.”

    “Every coal mine in Virginia has to get a permit that limits the amount of pollution it can release, but still many streams below these mines are unsafe to fish and swim in,” said Eric Chance, water quality specialist for Appalachian Voices. “Sometimes it takes lawsuits like this one to get the state Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to do its job and enforce existing laws that were created to protect the health of people and streams.”

    “This case highlights the failure of state regulators to stop the damaging pollution from mountaintop removal mines in our state, even after they’ve recognized the harm that pollution is causing,” said Glen Besa, Virginia Director of the Sierra Club. “Coal companies cannot police themselves and the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy is no help, so we feel compelled to take action in order to protect our precious streams and rivers from mining pollution.”

    TMDLs are essentially the last line of defense against mountaintop removal mining pollution. Mountaintop removal mines generate high levels of total dissolved solids, which is often measured as conductivity. The Environmental Protection Agency has conducted scientific studies that found high levels of conductivity, dissolved solids, and sulfates are a primary cause of water quality impairments” downstream from valley fills and other mining operations.

    The three groups filing today’s suit are represented by Isak Howell, Joe Lovett and Ben Luckett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

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