Posts Tagged ‘Clean Water Act’

After last-minute compromise, N.C. legislature passes coal ash bill

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014 - posted by brian
Duke Energy's retired Dan River coal plant, where a massive coal ash spill in February spurred legislative action.

Duke Energy’s retired Dan River coal plant, where a massive coal ash spill in February spurred legislative action.

However dysfunctional, the North Carolina General Assembly always seems to come together in the end.

On Wednesday afternoon, the N.C. House voted 83 – 14 in favor of a compromise bill on what to do about the state’s coal ash problem. A few hours later, the Senate followed suit. The bill will now go to the governor.

Here’s what Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams said about the bill:

“A far cry from the historic bill lawmakers have touted, this plan chooses just four communities out of 14 across the state to be cleaned up in this decade. The others, our lawmakers have decided, will have to wait for a commission of political appointees to decide their fate.”

We’ll skip the self-congratulatory cheerleading coming out of Raleigh and share more of the finer details in the days and weeks ahead. But suffice it to say, by overlooking the present threats that most of the coal ash sites in the state pose, the final bill comes nowhere close to fulfilling lawmakers’ promises to protect North Carolina’s communities in the wake of the Dan River spill.

Learn more about the bill here.

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.”

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Full Disclosure?

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

As North Carolina considers its first natural gas drilling rules, a survey of the region shows how states are — and aren’t — regulating fracking

By Molly Moore

When Denise der Garabedian heard that fracking could come to the area near her home in the Smoky Mountains of Cherokee County, N.C., she began researching the controversial method of gas drilling and talking to neighbors who had seen the effects of the fracking boom in other states. The more she learned, the more determined she became to speak out against the practice.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, involves drilling a well into shale rock formations and injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the rock, prop open the fissures, and then withdraw the natural gas and less than half of the fracking fluids. The rest of the fracking brine remains underground, where some scientists are concerned that it could migrate into groundwater.

The relative abundance of natural gas has made it a cheap source of power. But as shale gas production has skyrocketed — from 169,026 million cubic feet in 2007 to 902,405 in 2012 — concerns about water contamination have grown.

In January, an Associated Press investigation of water contamination in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Texas found that some states have confirmed a connection between oil and gas drilling and well-water contamination.

Independent research points to similar conclusions. “A range of studies from across the United States present strong evidence that groundwater contamination occurs and is more likely to occur close to drilling sites,” states a compendium of research on fracking’s environmental and public health effects assembled by the Concerned Health Professionals of New York in July. Last year, a Duke University study in northeastern Pennsylvania found that higher levels of methane in wells near gas drilling sites were linked to shale gas extraction.

Proponents of fracking point to alternate studies — such as one conducted by the drilling company Cabot Oil and Gas — that they say disprove the conclusions drawn from other scientific research.

Still, there is no overarching scientific statement on how frequently fracking affects drinking water supplies or how those chemicals impact public health. In 2010, Congress ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a comprehensive study on how fracking affects groundwater, but the release date for that study was pushed back from 2014 to 2016.

While they wait for answers, Appalachian states are moving ahead with fracking, their paths determined by a mix of geological happenstance, political will and citizen pressure. State-level decisions are even more important given a lack of federal oversight — fracking is exempt from federal laws that typically protect water, air and public health, such as the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Safe Drinking Water Acts. The industry is even exempt from Department of Transportation rules that set safety standards for the number of hours truck drivers can work. When states begin fracking, they venture into the Wild West of regulation.

Entering the Fracking Frontier

In 2012, the North Carolina legislature overturned the state’s fracking moratorium and created the Mining and Energy Commission to draft the state’s first natural gas drilling rules. Now, as the legislature accelerates the rulemaking process, the commission is at the center of a statewide debate.

“When the MEC formed and set out on this path they said they were going to make the strongest and most restrictive rules in the nation and since then everything they’ve done has been a step back from that,” says Mary MacLean Asbill, a North Carolina attorney with the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center.

page11graphic

The MEC proposals, released in July, would prohibit gas companies from injecting fracking waste underground, but would allow open waste pits. In fact, Asbill says, the draft rules don’t adequately address many areas of concern, including air emissions, liability for spills and baseline water quality testing to determine whether any water pollution problems are pre-existing.

The fracking industry’s exemption from the Clean Water Act also means that companies are not federally required to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process. Instead, states have discretion to set chemical disclosure standards. North Carolina’s MEC proposals provide some safeguards on this front, but in June the state legislature passed a law making it a misdemeanor for anyone to reveal fracking chemical trade secrets, including doctors who would be granted access to the information in case of emergency.

In August and September, the commission is planning to hold public hearings to solicit input on the draft rules. Three hearings are scheduled in the Piedmont, and, after pressure from western North Carolina residents, the commission agreed to hold a fourth in the mountain town of Cullowhee.

Attention is centered on the natural gas potential of the Deep River and Dan River basins, where test drilling could begin this fall, but the state environmental agency also plans to test for indications of gas in seven western counties.

In the meantime, a recently formed grassroots organization called Coalition Against Fracking in Western North Carolina is organizing town hall meetings and urging local governments to take a stand against the practice. In July, several local governments stated their opposition to fracking, beginning with the Swain County Commission and the town of Webster in Jackson County. The North Carolina law passed in June invalidates local ordinances regarding fracking, but in other parts of the country such ordinances are gaining ground. New York’s top state court recently ruled that towns could use zoning laws to ban fracking near their borders.

As citizens in the western counties of North Carolina prepare for the public comment hearing in September, Denise der Garabedian will keep encouraging her neighbors to pay attention during the rulemaking process and beyond. “I know I can’t save the world, but I might be able to save my backyard and my neighbors’ maybe,” she says.

Science of Setbacks

Along with New York and Pennsylvania, West Virginia has been at the epicenter of fracking in the Eastern United States for a half-dozen years. The Associated Press reported that from 2009 to 2013, the state received roughly 122 complaints that drilling contaminated water wells and found that “in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action.”

To address the boom, West Virginia passed a new set of rules in 2011 that environmental and property-rights groups criticized as being too weak; the West Virginia Citizens Action Group called them a “Christmas gift to drillers.”

Among their concerns, critics said that the buffer zones — designed to protect residents and water supplies from air and water pollution — were insufficient. In a 2013 study, Dr. Michael McCawley, a chairman at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health, found contaminants such as the carcinogen benzene in the air at seven drilling sites. Based on his research, he advised the DEP to stop relying on the boundary zones and instead conduct direct air quality monitoring near the sites.

His study was undertaken because of the 2011 law which required the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to research several aspects of the oil and gas industry, including air pollution, and then use the results to implement additional rules if necessary. After reviewing McCawley’s findings, however, the DEP reported to the legislature that no rule changes were needed. McCawley then took his concerns directly to state legislators in the fall of 2013, where he says he received an encouraging response. He is continuing to pitch the idea to decision-makers in West Virginia and neighboring states.

Wastewater Worries

Although Kentucky and West Virginia share a long border of similarly rolling mountain ridges, their geology is distinct enough that the Bluegrass State hosts far fewer hydraulic fracturing wells. But that may be changing. Recently, successful tests in the state’s northeastern corner have led to more fracking in the area, and applications to drill are increasing.

Tim Joice, water policy director at the nonprofit Kentucky Waterways Alliance, notes that the state’s oil and gas drilling regulations are decades old and do not consider how modern processes could allow gas or fracking fluids to migrate into aquifers or wells.

Essentially, the existing regulations were written to address nitrogen-foam fracturing, not hydraulic fracturing. In much of the state, hydraulic fracturing doesn’t work very well because the high clay content in some of the state’s shale formations absorbs water. So, beginning in 1978, eastern Kentucky drillers began to combine nitrogen and comparatively small amounts of water — roughly 120,000 gallons — with other chemicals and sand to create a briny foam that is then injected underground at high pressure.

Nitrogen-foam wells have the advantage of using less water and producing less chemical-laden brine for disposal. Yet whether a well is fracked with nitrogen foam or hydraulic fracturing fluid, the resulting toxic waste needs to go somewhere. Often, it’s injected back underground in designated wastewater wells, but companies have also dumped the waste into streams and gullies near drilling sites.

When Kentucky Waterways Alliance requested information about complaints of improper disposal of fracking brine from the state, the Kentucky Division of Water responded with a spreadsheet of 360 incidents between January 2012 and May 2014, six of which have resulted in formal violations.

The 200,000-Gallon Question

In Tennessee, the greatest problem with regulations is simple — the rules don’t apply to most drilling operations in the state. Fracking rules the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation passed in 2012 only apply to wells that use more than 200,000 gallons of water. The relatively sparse fracking happening in Tennessee uses the nitrogen process, which uses far less water than the limit, so most operations are exempt from the rules.

“It’s a partial regulatory scheme but they don’t apply it most of the time, so what we’re left with is virtually nothing,” says Anne Davis, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who had recommended stronger regulations. “If you frack with nitrogen you’re not doing more than 200,000 gallons.”

Operations that use more than 200,000 gallons must issue public notice of new fracking operations, test nearby water wells and provide monitoring reports. Fracking operations using less water still need to file a permit stating their intention to frack, but no public notice is required and the permits are not available online. Once drilling is complete, operators are obliged to disclose the chemicals they use, but this requirement only applies to those chemicals that aren’t classified as trade secrets.

Reviewing Regulation

In Virginia, as part of an ongoing review of fracking, a state regulatory advisory committee recently agreed to recommend that the Virginia Gas and Oil Board change state regulations to require full public disclosure of all ingredients in fracking fluids. In their ongoing meetings, the committee also discussed whether baseline groundwater sampling should be required before the agency can authorize drilling and fracking.

As the rules review continues, several natural gas proposals are keeping the issue in the spotlight. Oil and gas companies are interested in fracking the Taylorsville Basin in eastern Virginia, and one Texas company has already leased 84,000 acres. In the George Washington National Forest, which overlies part of the Marcellus Shale formation, the U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to limit hydraulic fracturing in the area.

New pipelines to carry natural gas from the Marcellus Shale through Virginia have also generated controversy. Routes for the three pipeline proposals aren’t final, but some nearby communities are already organizing to express concerns about oil and gas leaks. And Dominion Resources’ proposed 450-mile project would transport natural gas through the George Washington National Forest, which environmental organizations such as Wild Virginia say endangers natural areas and drinking water supplies.

Efforts to expand fracking and natural gas infrastructure in Appalachia are forcing residents and decision-makers to confront basic questions about the role of natural gas in the region. Whether the industry grows will depend on how strongly states adopt energy efficiency and renewable sources of power and how citizens respond to new fracking and pipeline proposals. If the growing movement in western North Carolina is any indication, the future of fracking in Appalachia will be continue to be fraught with controversy.

Correction: This article has been updated to note that less than half of fracking fluids are withdrawn from wells after drilling — more than half remains underground.

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.

Today’s court decision and what it means for Appalachia

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - posted by thom

good_day_for_mtns2

Today was a big day for those fighting to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

A federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge.

Read a statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons.

In 2009, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers began an Enhanced Coordination Process for permitting valley fills associated with large-scale mountaintop removal mining. The process encouraged improved coordination between the two agencies and greater scrutiny of the environmental impacts of each valley fill permit before them.

But as you probably know, the environmental impacts of valley fills are inherently damaging. Just last week, a major study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that headwater streams beneath valley fills in southern West Virginia had two-thirds fewer fish than normal streams. Keep in mind that those Appalachian streams are the headwater streams for the drinking water of millions of Americans. Appalachian Voices was also curious about the potential economic impacts of coal pollution and found that there are a lot more jobs supported by the sportfishing industry in Appalachia than surface coal mining jobs — about seven times as many.

The second part of the court decision was related to the EPA’s guidance on conductivity. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. The USGS study also confirmed that conductivity levels below mountaintop removal valley fills are almost always elevated, damaging waters throughout the region.

The EPA released its guidance on conductivity pollution just over four years ago. At the time, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claimed that “either no or very few valley fills are going to meet standards like this.”

In order to “end coal mining pollution,” as she put it, the EPA was going to use its authority to restrict mountaintop removal valley fills, and thus significantly reduce the amount of mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia. While the guidance would not have put a much-needed permanent end to mountaintop removal, it was an enormous step.

The coal industry fought the guidance with everything that had. Their allies on Capitol Hill held hearings to put political pressure on the EPA to stand down, while industry lawyers simultaneously took the agency to court.

Two years after the guidance had been proposed, it was thrown out by a U.S. District Court. With one bad court decision, EPA’s job to end coal mining pollution was made a lot harder.

Meanwhile, the EPA Region 4 office, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for Kentucky and other southeastern states, has been ignoring both the guidance and the rigorous science on which it was based. They continue to approve permits for valley fills, including six at one massive mine that got the agency’s OK just last year.

But on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals turned the tables. The panel of judges concluded that the guidance stands, as it is not a final rule, and therefore is not subject to legal challenge. Furthermore, they confirmed, and in fact encouraged, the EPA’s enhanced coordination process.

The EPA has the legal authority, scientific evidence, and moral obligation to block every mountaintop removal valley fill permit that comes through its doors. We all share the responsibility of making sure it does just that.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to end mountaintop removal.

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.

Groups Seek Protection of Virginia Waterways from Mining Pollution

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 - posted by eric


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.”

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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

Court Grants North Carolinians a Voice in the Coal Ash Lawsuits

Thursday, May 8th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
A N.C. court ruled that Appalachian Voices and our allies can intervene in a state lawsuit against Duke Energy for its coal ash pollution. Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance.

A N.C. court ruled that Appalachian Voices and our allies can intervene in a state lawsuit against Duke Energy for its coal ash pollution. Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance.

This week a North Carolina Superior Court ruled that conservation groups representing the interests of communities living near coal ash ponds are able to participate in a lawsuit between Duke and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources for documented, illegal coal ash pollution at all 14 of Duke Energy’s coal plants in the state.

The Southern Environmental Law Center will represent 12 environmental groups in court, including Appalachian Voices. We will be advocating for the proper cleanup and storage of coal ash at Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Power Plant outside of Winston-Salem. Belews Creek is home to the largest coal ash pond in the state and for decades the surrounding community has suffered serious, and sometimes fatal health conditions that may be connected to heavy metals and other toxins found in coal ash. Watch our video, “At What Cost?”, to hear some of their stories.

The judge’s ruling allows Appalachian Voices, along with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, the Western North Carolina Alliance, Sierra Club and several riverkeepers to have access to Duke and DENR documents relating to the area they serve. It also grants conservation groups an equal voice with Duke and DENR in the court proceedings and settlement agreement. Previously, DENR proposed a sweetheart settlement requiring Duke to pay an insignificant fine of $99,000 and merely study the illegal pollution at two of its coal plants. Due to public pressure, DENR has since retracted that settlement proposal.

The ruling is an important step forward for communities long overburdened with coal ash pollution. “It’s essential that local community groups be full parties in the enforcement actions to ensure that Duke Energy’s illegal coal ash pollution is cleaned up and that the coal ash is moved to safe, dry storage in lined landfills away from our waterways,” says Frank Holleman, senior attorney for SELC. “We’ve learned the hard way that the people of North Carolina cannot count on DENR to enforce the laws and keep our waters clean without strong pressure from conservation groups.”