Posts Tagged ‘Appalachian Water Watch’

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.

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.

Same coal company, same old (illegal) tricks

Monday, November 17th, 2014 - posted by eric

“We do all those old tricks electronically now.” By Charles Barsotti.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That certainly seems to be the case with Frasure Creek Mining. Four years ago we took legal action against the company for submitting false water monitoring reports, and now they are at it again, but this time the false reporting is even more extensive. Almost 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act in what is likely the largest non-compliance of the law in its 42-year history.

In 2010, Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations served Frasure Creek and International Coal Group (ICG) with a notice of our intent to sue them for submitting falsified pollution monitoring reports to Kentucky regulators. Back then, both companies were reusing the same quarterly reports, changing the dates on the reports but duplicating all the water monitoring data. The reports have changed from paper to electronic documents, but Frasure Creek’s practice of reusing them has returned.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed a slap-on-the-wrist settlement with the companies, writing off the duplications as “transcription errors” and effectively preventing our legal case from going forward. We challenged the settlement in state court and eventually reached an agreement with ICG, but not with Frasure Creek. We are still waiting on a decision in that case.

In the meantime, we discovered that Frasure Creek has been up to its old tricks. So today, we sent the company another notice of intent to sue for the new batch of duplicated reports.

Before our initial legal action, the companies rarely, if ever, submitted reports that showed violations of their pollution limits. As a result of our investigation, the companies hired new, more reputable labs and began reporting lots of pollution problems, making it clear that their false reports were covering up serious issues. We tried to sue Frasure Creek for these pollution violations, but the state reached another deal with the company, tying our hands.

Frasure Creek Mining reports only a few violations of their pollution limits when they are turning in false reports.

All of this raises one important question: Who would be stupid enough, or so utterly disdainful of federal law, to do the exact same thing they had gotten in trouble for before? One would think that it must have been an accident, because no one would ever purposefully do this again, but there are a few factors that seem to contradict that idea.

• In 2014, when Frasure reused data, it occasionally changed a little bit more than just the dates. There are a number of new duplications where the original report showed violations of pollution limits. All of the data in these reports was reused except for violations, which were replaced with a few very low numbers. (Personally, I am really looking forward to the convoluted tale that Frasure will tell to try to explain away these as “transcription errors.”)

• The new duplications are far too common to be made accidentally by someone who was putting any modicum of effort into their job. In the first quarter of 2014, the company submitted over 100 duplicated reports, so almost half of its reports that quarter were false. That’s almost three times the number of false reports it got caught for the first time around, and translates to almost $1 billion in potential fines.

• Frasure Creek isn’t afraid of getting caught because the consequences are extremely low. The state’s past settlements with the company have been too weak to discourage this type of false reporting, and in fact, may have given the company a sense of security. Under the Clean Water Act, the potential maximum fine per violation is $37,500. One of the state’s past settlements with Frasure Creek set automatic penalties of only $1,000 per violation. So interestingly, it’s when those penalties were in effect that Frasure Creek, submitted lots of duplicated reports, but only reported a handful of pollution violations. (See the period in the blue box on the graph.)

This is one of about 70 Frasure Creek Mining discharges that the company has been submitting duplicated water monitoring reports for.

Frasure Creek has about 60 coal mining permits across Eastern Kentucky, mostly for mountaintop removal mines. Most of the new reporting duplications occurred at mines in Floyd County, but some occurred at its mines in neighboring counties. Pollution from these mines flows into the Big Sandy, Licking and Kentucky rivers.

Frasure Creek may be a bad actor in the mining industry, but it’s not alone in this type of false reporting. A few years ago we took legal action against the three largest coal producers in Kentucky (including Frasure Creek), all of which were turning in false water monitoring reports produced by three different laboratories. In recent weeks there have been two criminal cases in West Virginia for false water monitoring, one at coal mines, and one for duplicating reports exactly like what has been going on here.

These pollution reports are the foundation of the Clean Water Act regulations. Without accurate reporting, it’s impossible for regulators to effectively protect the people and the environment from dangerous pollution. The fact that the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and the Environmental Protection Agency have done so little to stamp out false reporting in Kentucky is simply deplorable.

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

>> View The Notice of Intent to Sue here (.pdf)

>> View our Press Release here

Citizen Groups Take Legal Action Against Kentucky Coal Company for Falsifying Water Pollution Reports

Monday, November 17th, 2014 - posted by cat

State regulators ignore clean water protections and enforcement

CONTACTS

Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500, erin@appvoices.org
Ted Withrow, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, 606-784-6885 (h) or 606-782-0998 (c), tfwithrow@windstream.net
Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper, 859-200-7442, kyriverkeeper@eku.edu
Pete Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance, 828-582-0422, pharrison@waterkeeper.org

Eastern Kentucky – Over the course of 2013 and 2014, Frasure Creek Mining – one of the largest coal mining companies in Kentucky – sent the state false pollution reports containing almost 28,000 violations of federal law, and the Kentucky Energy and the Environment Cabinet failed to detect the falsifications, according to a letter of notification served to the company by four citizen groups. It was the second time the groups have taken legal action against Frasure Creek for similar violations.

In a 30-page notice of intent to sue mailed Friday, the groups document that Frasure Creek duplicated results from one water pollution monitoring report to the next, misleading government officials and the public about the amount of water pollution the company has been discharging from its eastern Kentucky coal mines. In some cases, Frasure Creek changed only the values that would have constituted violations of pollution limits in the company’s discharge permits. With a potential fine of $37,500 per violation, the maximum penalty could be more than $1 billion.

The notice letter was sent by Appalachian Voices, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic. Under the Clean Water Act, citizens must give the government 60-days notice of their intent to sue for violations. If Frasure Creek fails to correct the violations within the 60-day time period, the groups said they will file suit in federal court.

>>The notice letter can be downloaded here.

Four years ago, the groups found that Frasure Creek had sent similar falsified pollution reports, copying data from one report to the next. When the violations were brought to light, the state cabinet gave the company a minimal fine and promised reforms to ensure the agency would identify misreporting in the future. However, according to the notice served yesterday, the more recent duplications are even more extensive, and the state again failed to detect the violations or take enforcement action.

“Copy and paste is not compliance,” said Eric Chance, a water quality specialist with Appalachian Voices. “The fact that Frasure Creek continued to flout the law to this extent, even after being caught before, shows it has no regard for the people and communities they are impacting. Equally disturbing is the failure of state officials to act to stop the obvious violations. We’re not sure state officials even look at the quarterly reports.”

Frasure Creek has filed false reports or violated permit limits at more than 70 discharge points from the company’s numerous coal mines across eastern Kentucky. In the first quarter of 2014, more than 40% of the all reports filed by Frasure Creek contained data that the company had already submitted in 2013. These violations occur primarily at mines in Floyd County, but also at mines in Pike, Magoffin, Knott and Perry counties. The impacted waterways include tributaries of the Big Sandy River, Licking River and Kentucky River.

“The Clean Water Act absolutely depends on accurate reporting of pollution discharges. False reporting like this undermines the entire regulatory framework that safeguards the people and waters of Kentucky from dangerous pollution,” said Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Pete Harrison. “By all indications, this case looks like the biggest criminal conspiracy to violate the federal Clean Water Act in the history of that law. The refusal of the U.S. attorney in Lexington and the Environmental Protection Agency to bring criminal cases against Frasure Creek is just as inexcusable as the state’s failure to bring this company into compliance.”

“Once gain we find ourselves in the position of having to take action against Frasure Creek for the exact same type of violations we found four years ago. The Environmental Cabinet says they do not have the personnel to enforce the Clean Water Act. I would add they do not have the will to do so,” said Ted Withrow with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

When the citizen groups made those violations public four years ago, the cabinet attributed the false reporting to “transcription errors” and attempted to let Frasure Creek off the hook with minimal fines and no consequences if the violations continued. That case is still pending in Franklin Circuit Court. Though the false reporting stopped for a short time, during those months when accurate monitoring reports were submitted the pollution levels spiked.

“Frasure Creek’s false reports are hiding very serious water pollution problems,” said Kentucky Riverkeeper Pat Banks. “It’s reprehensible that our state officials are ignoring the serious consequences of this illegal activity for the people and the economy of eastern Kentucky.”

“We cannot make an economic transition in eastern Kentucky without clean water for the future,” added Withrow. “More than 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act cannot be swept under the rug.”

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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

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[[Take action today - tell the Obama administration to get serious about protecting Appalachia's waters!]]

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.
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