Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Water Watch’

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.

    ###

    EPA Proposal for Toxic Coal Pollutant Won’t Protect Clean Water

    Thursday, May 15th, 2014 - posted by eric

    Contact:
    Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist, 828-262-1500, eric@appvoices.org
    Erin Savage, Water Quality Specialist, 828-262-1500, erin@appvoices.org
    Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

    Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft of new national water quality standards for selenium, a toxic pollutant discharged from many mountaintop removal coal mines and coal ash ponds. Even at very low concentrations, selenium is extremely toxic to fish, causing physical deformities and reproductive failure.

    EPA is proposing a more complicated system for measuring selenium. Currently, the recommended standard for selenium consists of a four-day average concentration in water of 5 parts per billion (ppb). As proposed, the new rule will primarily rely on testing for the pollutant in fish tissue, a more complex method of monitoring than stream water testing. The complexity of this new standard will make it more difficult and expensive to implement for state agencies, industries, and concerned citizens.

    The new standard does include water-based testing, but increases the recommended testing period from four days to 30 days. The new standard can be adjusted for fewer days of testing, if necessary. Under that provision, the new allowable selenium concentration for a four-day time period would be seven times higher than the current standard.

    A statement from Appalachian Voices Water Quality Specialist Eric Chance:

    “This new selenium standard is a step backwards. The scientific community has been fairly clear for some time that the current standards were too weak, but this newly proposed standard will actually allow more selenium pollution, not less. Headwater streams below mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia, and the people who depend on that water, are going to suffer from this decision.”

    “This new rule would make it almost impossible for citizens to exercise their rights under the Clean Water Act to protect waters they care about. Citizens would be required to collect seven times as many water samples as they do now, or they’d have to collect fish to analyze which generally requires a special permit.”

    “Fish tissue standards are good for measuring the effects of selenium on fish but they don’t take into account effects on other species like birds, and they are nearly impossible to translate into limits on a Clean Water Act permit for a coal mine that discharges selenium. For these reasons, we are glad to see that EPA has included water-based standards as well, but they aren’t strong enough.”

    EPA is collecting public comments on this proposed rule until June 13, 2014. Those wishing to submit comments can email ow-docket@epa.gov with the subject heading: “Attention Docket No. EPA–HQ–OW–2004–0019.”

    ***************************
    Appalachian Voices is an award-winning, environmental non-profit committed to protecting the natural resources of central and southern Appalachia, focusing on reducing coal’s impact on the region and advancing our vision for a cleaner energy future. Founded in 1997, we are headquartered in Boone, N.C. with offices in Charlottesville, Va.; Knoxville, Tn. and Washington, D.C

    Appalachian Coal Companies Face Major Fines for Clean Water Act Violations

    Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 - posted by brian
    Two recent federal enforcement actions against major Appalachian coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources and Nally & Hamilton, are a positive sign. But they do not solve the fundamental problem of water pollution that stems from mountaintop removal. Above, pollution water at Nally & Hamilton's Fugitt Creek mine in Harlan County, Ky.

    Recent federal enforcement actions against Appalachian coal companies are a positive sign, but even record fines do not solve the fundamental problem of water pollution that stems from mountaintop removal. Above, polluted water at Nally & Hamilton’s Fugitt Creek site in Harlan County, Ky.

    The Associated Press reported this morning that Nally & Hamilton, one of the largest coal companies in Kentucky, will pay $660,000 in fines for illegally dumping mining debris into Appalachian streams.

    According to AP, prosecutors allege Nally & Hamilton Enterprises violated the federal Clean Water Act by dumping mining waste in streams 1,000 feet beyond the permit’s boundary at its Fugitt Creek site in Harlan County, and by dumping waste in Knott County streams surrounding its Doty Creek site before a permit was even issued.

    The fine is the result of a proposed consent order in a federal district court. The order must still be signed by a judge. Declining to comment, an attorney for Nally & Hamilton simply said “the consent decree speaks for itself.”

    The news comes just a few days after a settlement was reached between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Alpha Natural Resources — the largest mountaintop removal mining operator in the U.S. — stipulating that the company must pay a $27.5 million fine for violations of the Clean Water Act at mines and coal preparation plants in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. It is the largest ever civil penalty under the water pollution permitting section of law.

    In addition to the record-setting fine, Alpha said it will spend approximately $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and reduce pollution discharges at its coal mines in those five states.

    These types of violations are nothing new, nor are they isolated incidents. Indeed, the enforcement action against Alpha alleges more than 6,000 discharge permit violations between 2006 and last year.

    The eventual settlements we’re seeing for violations stretching back years only adds to the evidence of poor enforcement at the state level, especially in those states with close ties to the coal industry.

    After exposing thousands of Clean Water Act violations and fraudulent reporting by coal companies in Kentucky, Appalachian Voices and our partners sued and overcame resistance from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in order to hold negligent mine operators accountable. Those lawsuits resulted in record-setting fines against the three largest mountaintop removal companies in Kentucky: International Coal Group, Frasure Creek Mining and Nally & Hamilton.

    The media coverage of those cases in Appalachia and beyond also helped to pull back the curtain on the epidemic of lax enforcement that continues to damage mining communities throughout Central Appalachia.

    While the recent pickup in federal enforcement is an extremely positive sign, as long as mountaintop removal permits are approved water quality will be at risk. Appalachian Voices’ water quality specialist, Eric Chance told the Bristol, Va., station WCYB that while coal companies can treat for some of these [pollutants], “they cannot treat for all of them, not all the time.”

    Similarly, the executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Joe Lovett, told The New York Times that such deals do not solve the fundamental problem of pollution inherent in practices like mountaintop removal.

    “What E.P.A. should do is stop issuing permits that it knows coal companies can’t comply with.”

    Click here to learn more about Appalachian Voices’ Appalachian Water Watch program and our work to ensuring compliance with laws that protect clean water.

    West Virginia Patriot Slurry Spill MCHM Test Results

    Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 - posted by Erin

    Coal slurry turns Fields Creek dark gray. The lighter brown sediment just barely visible shows a more normal sediment color.

    Appalachian Water Watch has received the first set of results from our sampling at the site of the Patriot Coal slurry spill, which occurred sometime in the early morning of Feb. 11 on Fields Creek in Kanawha County, W.Va.

    We responded to the scene that afternoon and were able to collect grab samples from multiple locations along the creek, from an upstream site just outside the entrance to the coal preparation plant where the spill originated, to a downstream location just before Fields Creek enters the Kanawha River.

    As with most coal-related spills, there are some obvious contaminants associated with coal that should be measured. Many heavy metals, such as manganese and iron, are commonly found in rock layers around coal seams. Other nonmetal elements, such as selenium, are also common in some coal seams. We typically test for a set of heavy metals and other elements, including manganese, iron and selenium, as well as other serious toxins like arsenic.

    At a coal prep plant, coal is shipped in from surrounding mines and “washed” to separate it from other materials before it is shipped to buyers. Chemical frothers, like 4-methycyclohexane methanol (MCHM), which spilled into the Kanawha River earlier this year, are used in the separation process. Multiple types of chemicals may be used in different activities around a prep plant. Once the chemicals are no longer needed, they are often disposed of in giant slurry ponds near the prep plant facility. This makes it difficult to know which compounds to test for when slurry spills into a creek.

    Google Earth image of the Patriot slurry ponds.

    In the case of the Patriot spill, it was difficult to obtain information about what chemicals might have been used at the facility. Initial reports indicated that MCHM might be involved in this spill. Later reports indicated that Patriot had stopped using MCHM in January and was instead using polypropylene glycol.

    We decided to test for MCHM in Fields Creek for two reasons: First, if MCHM had been used at the Patriot facility at some point, it seems highly likely that discarded MCHM would be present in the coal slurry, even if it were no longer being used for processing. Second, we smelled the distinct sweet smell of the chemical at several points along Fields Creek.

    We have received test results confirming that MCHM was present in Fields Creek on Feb. 11. The results indicated 4-MCHM at 46 parts per billion. This amount is a relatively small quantity, but given how little is know about the impacts of the chemical on humans or aquatic life, it is not currently possible to say whether this amount would have any negative impacts. Thankfully, the nearest groundwater intake is 75 miles downstream and the nearest surface water intake is 115 miles downstream of the spill site, so it is highly unlikely that MCHM from this spill would impact drinking water. We did not find propylene glycol present in our grab samples.

    We have also received results for total suspended solids, which indicate the amount of sediment and other undissolved materials in the water column. The first two results were 94 mg/L near the prep plant entrance and 260 mg/L downstream near the Kanawha River. These samples were taken on the evening of Feb. 11, after the spill had been stopped at the prep plant. The upstream level was likely lower than the downstream sample since the spill material had already been washed further downstream.

    To put these numbers in perspective, the Clean Water Act National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for this facility allows Patriot to discharge a maximum of 70 mg/L for total suspended solids on any given day, and an average of not more than 35 mg/L over the course of a month. Clearly this spill was in violation of the these standards, at the very least. We are still waiting on results from heavy metal testing and will make them available as soon as possible.

    Nobody needed the results of laboratory testing to know that the slurry spill was detrimental to Fields Creek. The dark gray water was indication enough that toxins were present in the water and that aquatic life would likely be suffocated by fine sediments. As the nearby houses with cheerful yards and children’s toys reminded us, the potential exists for long-term impacts on nearby residents. No one is drinking directly from Fields Creek, but how many other ways might the residents come in contact with those contaminants?

    Though the amount of MCHM found in Fields Creek was small and unlikely to impact drinking water, it is still a very important finding. What it shows is that companies responsible for these spills are allowed to withhold information and avoid responsibility for knowing the details of the risks they pose to surrounding residents and the environment. After the MCHM spill from a chemical storage facility on the Elk River, Freedom Industries waited two weeks before disclosing that a second chemical, PPH, had been present in the tank that had leaked.

    During the Patriot slurry spill, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) believed MCHM might be involved. Presumably Patriot told the DEP this. Later, the DEP stated the smell of MCHM was from a tanker truck removing MCHM from the prep plant. Given our test results, the MCHM smell was clearly not from a tanker truck. Regardless of who was feeding misinformation to whom, it seems ludicrous that a state regulatory agency seems to have so little power to make a coal company operating in West Virginia provide accurate and timely information about a spill that occurs from their facility.

    But maybe given the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato’s statement that the spill “turned out to be much of nothing,” we shouldn’t be so surprised at state agency ineffectiveness in West Virginia. Apparently 100,000 gallons of coal slurry spilling directly into a tributary of the Kanawha River is just not a big deal in West Virginia these days. Something tells me the citizens of West Virginia feel otherwise.