Posts Tagged ‘Clean Water Act’

An end to Frasure Creek’s water violations in Kentucky — finally

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 - posted by Erin

The Settlement

Late Monday evening, Appalachian Voices finalized a historic settlement in a case against Frasure Creek Mining. The settlement follows a five-year-long legal battle to protect eastern Kentucky’s waterways and bring a coal company notorious for violating environmental laws to justice.

The agreement is notable not only for the large penalty imposed, but also because it effectively bars Frasure Creek from further mining in Kentucky. It also marks a welcome, if uncommon, collaboration between clean water advocates and state regulators. The settlement was crafted through cooperation between the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, citizens groups — including Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance — and Frasure Creek.
FrasurePondandSign
The settlement includes a total potential penalty of $6 million – the highest environmental fine ever levied against a coal company by the Kentucky cabinet. Frasure Creek will not have to pay the fine, however, as long as it does not mine in the state. Regardless of whether the company hopes to ever mine coal in Kentucky again, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to admit to its violations and immediately pay $500,000. If Frasure Creek fails to pay the $500,000, it will be liable for the full $6 million fine.

During the course of settlement negotiations, Frasure Creek transferred its remaining Kentucky mining permits to Liberty Management. The mines were no longer producing coal, but were in the process of reclamation and still had active Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and Clean Water Act permits.

If at some later point Frasure Creek or its owners wish to apply for new permits, they must first pay $2.75 million before their mining application will be processed by the state. Essentially, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to either leave the state of Kentucky for good or pay a fine sufficient enough to deter it from returning to its illegal practices.

The Cases

Though this settlement arose out of a notice of intent to sue sent in 2014, the story begins a half-decade earlier.

In 2010, Appalachian Voices began an investigation into the two largest surface mining coal companies in Kentucky. After reviewing discharge monitoring reports (DMRs) – Clean Water Act compliance reports submitted by coal companies to state agencies – Appalachian Voices determined that Frasure Creek Mining and another company, International Coal Group (ICG), were duplicating reports. We later discovered that the third largest coal company in Kentucky at the time, Nally & Hamilton, was also falsifying data in its DMRs.

This pattern made it clear that ignoring regulations is common in the coal industry. In another case of falsified water pollution reporting, a lab employee of Appalachian Labs in West Virginia pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act. The lab conducted sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia. At least four different water-testing labs were involved in the duplicate data cases in Kentucky.

When we first discovered the duplicate reports at ICG and Frasure Creek, we took steps to file a citizens’ lawsuit against the companies under the Clean Water Act. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed its own case against the companies in state court, effectively preempting our case. We intervened in the state’s case to ensure diligent enforcement by the state — a right of citizens that was ultimately upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

In 2011, we filed an additional suit against the companies for permit limit violations that arose when both companies began reporting more accurate data. State officials once again preempted our case, but this time the cabinet filed its case in the Kentucky Office of Administrative Hearings. The cabinet and Frasure Creek then entered a slap-on-the-wrist settlement, over our objections and despite our right to intervene in the case. That settlement was thrown out last year on the grounds that it violated our due process rights. The cabinet has appealed that decision.

In 2014, Appalachian Voices again discovered that Frasure Creek was duplicating DMRs, this time with a different water testing laboratory. Once again, the cabinet failed to identify the problem until we filed a notice of intent to sue over the violations. This time, when the cabinet filed a case in its administrative court, we were granted intervention and allowed much more input in the settlement. The result is the historic settlement filed earlier this week.
FrasureGraph
Finally, not only did the cabinet allow meaningful citizen input, it pursued an enforcement action that may actually be strong enough to prevent this problem from happening again, at least with Frasure Creek. Unfortunately, the settlement was entered on the last day of Governor Steve Beshear’s term and the progress we made with the Beshear administration is not guaranteed to continue during Governor Matt Bevin’s time in office.

The Agency

It is too early to determine how friendly the new Bevin administration will be toward coal companies that flout regulations, but there is already reason to be concerned. Former Gov. Beshear appointed Len Peters as Secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet. On paper, Peters had many of the right credentials for the position — he is a scientist and an academic with broad experience working for universities, nonprofits and the federal government. Despite these qualifications, under his leadership, the cabinet still routinely allowed coal companies and other industries to violate environmental regulations with minimal consequences.

In contrast, Bevin’s appointment for cabinet secretary, Charles Snavely, spent the past three decades climbing the corporate ladders at several major Central Appalachian coal companies. Last I checked, the Energy and Environment Cabinet includes not just the division of mine permits, but also the divisions of water, air quality, and renewable energy, among others. Apparently running a company in one of the dirtiest industries in the county now qualifies you to protect communities and ecosystems from that industry, in Kentucky at least.

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin's appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin’s appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

It gets worse. Not all coal companies are equal. While I would argue that no surface mining coal company in Kentucky is particularly good for Kentucky, some are worse than others. Snavely has worked for both Massey Energy and Arch Coal. In September 2010, he was named the executive vice president of mining operations at ICG.

That’s right — when Appalachian Voices and our partners sued ICG for falsifying DMRs, Snavely was a member of the company’s senior management.

According to news reports, at the time, he was responsible for “all ICG mining operations and corporate oversight of safety and compliance performance.” Before this, when Snavely was just a run-of-the-mill vice president at ICG, 12 miners were killed in an explosion at ICG’s Sago Mine in West Virginia. Family members of the victims claimed the mine had violated safety regulations. In 2011, ICG settled a wrongful death suit.

Despite the current decline in the coal market in Central Appalachia, Governor Bevin seems just as beholden to the industry as many politicians who have preceded him. But appointing an industry insider to regulate the industry will not be enough to save it.

The Future

This settlement, and the commitment of groups like Appalachian Voices and our partners to bring polluters to justice, demonstrate to the new administration that citizens will hold the state accountable. But it’s not clear that Governor Bevin is getting the message. During his campaign, Bevin courted the coal industry and criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In October, at the height of the campaign, Bevin even chastised his opponent for saying coal can be done “cleaner.” If he had any downtime on his inauguration day, we hope Bevin read the news.

Coal is rapidly declining in Central Appalachia. But that does not mean the industry, or its influence, will disappear anytime soon or that enforcement of environmental regulations around mining will become any less important. If anything, the thin economic margins of coal companies operating in Central Appalachia today provide an incentive to break rules intended to prevent negative impacts on water, land and communities. As the region envisions a new economy that is not dominated by coal, oversight of mining’s impact on the region is as important as ever.

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EPA May Take Over Cleanup of Asheville Superfund Site

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

Civic action may influence the cleanup of a Superfund site that has been contaminating groundwater with toxic waste in south Asheville for decades.

From 1959 to 1986, the electronic manufacturing plant CTS of Asheville buried significant amounts of trichloroethylene. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed the area Superfund in 2012, and in the years since CTS Corporation has unsuccessfully challenged personal injury claims from individuals living nearby.

At a public meeting in mid-October, the EPA supported public comments calling for an expansion of the single acre CTS initially included in its cleanup plan. Craig Zeller, EPA project manager of the site, said that the agency is weighing whether to accept the plan or to manage the cleanup themselves, which would triple the corporation’s bill and may delay the cleanup, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported. At CTS’s request, the EPA gave the corporation another month to revise its cleanup plan. A decision about how the EPA will proceed is expected in January, according to the Citizen-Times. — Eliza Laubach

NC DEQ’s blatant bid for control

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by Ridge Graham

State agency clashes with the EPA and Coal Ash Management Commission

Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

Over the past few months, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has seemed determined to have complete environmental regulatory control of the state, showing little regard for federal or public input.

In this endeavor, DEQ has taken every chance it can to highlight how external forces, including citizens groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are simply getting in its way. Upholding the best interests of North Carolina’s citizens and the environment only becomes a priority when the agency is threatened with losing power.

Rejecting the Clean Power Plan

DEQ joined a lawsuit with more than two dozen of the nation’s largest carbon-emitting states against the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. In October, DEQ submitted a proposal that would only address coal-based emissions because it believes the first component of the Clean Power Plan — improving coal fired power plant efficiency — is the only aspect the EPA has the legal authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act.

TAKE ACTION: Demand a REAL Clean Power Plan for North Carolina.

But if the Clean Power Plan survives in court, and the EPA rejects North Carolina’s plan, federal regulators can intervene in North Carolina’s emission reductions process. So, in case their strategy fails, state officials plan to submit an alternate plan that aligns with the EPA’s proposal.

EPA threatens to take away DEQ’s permitting authority

This year, DEQ permitted a cement plant in Wilmington that would emit more than 5,000 tons of particulates, mercury and other air pollution annually. The agency also OKed a quarry in Blounts Creek that would discharge up to 12 million gallons of waste a day into the Pamlico River. Residents of these areas, along with coastal environmental advocacy and conservation groups, challenged these permits. The state dismissed those challenges on the grounds that the groups did not have standing.

The EPA sent a letter to DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart stating that the inability of citizens to appeal permits was troubling. The letter warned that if DEQ continued to skirt federal regulations, the EPA would revoke its authority to issue pollution permits under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

DEQ responded by shifting the blame to a court decision and presented a list of regulations required by the EPA but not by state law — insinuating that the public process for challenging permits is less burdensome on the state level. State officials said they have no intention of losing permitting authority.

DEQ takes on the Coal Ash Management Commission’s responsibilities

UPDATE: A draft summary by DEQ classified 27 of Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash ponds in North Carolina as posing a “high” or “immediate” risk. If the ratings stand when they are finalized on Dec. 31, Duke would have to excavate the coal ash from those sites.

In another isolationist move, DEQ wants to move forward on the priority classification of coal ash containment sites without the Coal Ash Management Commission. But the commission was created by the Coal Ash Management Act to be housed under the N.C. Department of Public Safety because the General Assembly determined that DEQ was ineffectual and untrustworthy in regulating coal ash.

These site classifications will determine timelines for the cleanup of coal ash at each site, with up to a decade of difference in cleanup response. Sites deemed low priority could be closed using “cap-in-place,” a method that would leave nearby waterways and communities at risk. The commission has 60 days to review the classifications before they go into effect.

However, the state Supreme Court has not yet ruled on Governor Pat McCrory’s lawsuit challenging appointments to the commission, so the group is unable to reach a quorum. When Commission Chairman Michael Jacobs wrote a letter to McCrory and legislative leaders to point this out, van der Vaart responded to say DEQ has it under control.

“Fortunately, legislators had the foresight to include provisions in the coal ash law that prevent delays to the cleanup process including a provision that ensures the prioritization and public participation processes can proceed in the absence of the Coal Ash Management Commission,” van der Vaart wrote.

He did not mention why the commission was not housed under DEQ in the first place.

DEQ blames EPA for delay in coal ash cleanup

DEQ is currently making a public fuss about the EPA taking time to review a state-issued permit to dewater the coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly, N.C. DEQ claims that this is the fifth permitting delay this year from the EPA, and that North Carolina is receiving different treatment than other states with regard to its coal ash cleanup projects.

Duke Energy's retired Riverbend Steam Station, Photo from Flickr.

Duke Energy’s retired Riverbend Steam Station, Photo by Duke Energy, licensed under Creative Commons.

Duke’s plants are permitted a discharge rate of coal ash pond water as part of a multi-step treatment process. The nearby bodies of water, many of which supply drinking water to nearby cities and towns, are monitored to determine how much impact the discharge has on the surrounding environment and watershed. DEQ is rushing to dump the entirety of the coal ash pond water into Mountain Island Lake, which is already polluted from the coal ash ponds at the Riverbend plant.

Water samples taken from Mountain Island Lake in 2013 indicated there were levels of constituents in the surface water that exceeded public health standards. Tissues samples taken from fish caught in the lake were found to have high levels of heavy metals, which led to a state-issued fish consumption advisory. Mountain Island Lake is the drinking water source more than 750,000 people.

With these considerations, is it not reasonable to take more than 15 days to analyze such a permit? Or does DEQ just want to have its way regardless of what happens to the people downstream.

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Citizens groups, Kentucky reach historic settlement with coal company over water pollution

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by brian

Deal sends strong signal to incoming Bevin administration

Contact:
Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices, 206-769-8286, erin@appvoices.org
Ted Withrow, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, 606-784-6885, tfwithrow@windstream.net
Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper, 859-200-7442, kyriverkeeper@eku.edu
Peter Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance, 828-582-0422, pharrison@waterkeeper.org
Alice Howell, Sierra Club, 859-420-8092, a.howell0607@gmail.com

Frankfort, KY – A coalition of citizens groups entered a settlement late last night with Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet that resolves years of Clean Water Act violations numbering in the thousands at the company’s surface coal mines in eastern Kentucky. The violations include duplicated water pollution monitoring reports, failure to report pollution, and exceedences of pollution permit limits.

The settlement comes as the newly elected Bevin administration is taking office, setting a critical benchmark for the new Secretary of Energy and Environment.

The settlement includes a $6 million fine – the highest ever entered by Kentucky against a coal company for environmental violations. In the settlement, Frasure Creek admits to the violations and agrees to immediately pay $500,000. If the company defaults on payment, it will be liable for the full $6 million fine. In addition, if Frasure Creek, which is currently not mining in the state, or its owners want to resume mining, they must pay $2.75 million before a permit application will be processed.

“This settlement should send a strong signal to the new administration that citizens can and will hold the state accountable for vigorously enforcing laws against polluters to ensure the health of our waters and communities,” said Erin Savage, Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

“This settlement comes after a half decade of effort and a precedent-setting decision from the Kentucky Supreme Court affirming the importance of citizen intervention. It’s the product of the Energy and Environment Cabinet working with citizens to bring this outlaw company into compliance. We the citizens will remain vigilant to ensure that the laws are enforced and the people of the Commonwealth are protected,” said Ted Withrow with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

“Frasure Creek’s history of egregious violations spans nearly a decade now,” said Pete Harrison, an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. “Kentucky shouldn’t tolerate chronic lawbreakers like this, and under our settlement, Frasure Creek must stay out of the coal business in Kentucky. Unless the company’s owners prove they’re willing to take responsibility for the damage they’ve done by paying millions of dollars in additional fines, they won’t be allowed to come back,” Harrison added.

“As the coal industry declines in eastern Kentucky, it’s extremely important that the pollution problems caused by irresponsible companies are addressed before those companies leave and saddle the state and Kentucky citizens with the burden of cleaning up their mess”, said Alice Howell, Cumberland Chapter Sierra Club Mining Committee Co-chair.

The violations occurred at Frasure Creek mountaintop removal mines in Floyd, Magoffin, Perry, and Pike counties in Eastern Kentucky. Frasure Creek is owned by Essar Group, a multinational corporation based in India.

Appalachian Voices first discovered that Frasure Creek was duplicating water pollution reports in 2010. In response to the citizens groups’ subsequent notice of intent to sue, the cabinet proceeded with enforcement action. The groups, believing the state’s enforcement was too lenient, sought to intervene. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court affirmed for the first time ever the importance of citizen intervention in Clean Water Act cases in Kentucky.

In 2014, the groups discovered that, once again, Frasure Creek was duplicating or otherwise falsifying water pollution reports. Almost half of the company’s data submitted for the first quarter of 2014 was copied from previous reports. In November 2014, the groups filed a notice of intent to sue over the new violations. The cabinet then filed an enforcement action against Frasure Creek, which the citizens groups joined.

“It takes all of us as citizens to protect our water and air for our children’s children from the abuse and robbery of polluters. That is what this is all about, that is why this is so important,” said Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper.

The administrative order filed yesterday resolves the cabinet’s case against the mining company. The citizens groups had also sued Frasure Creek in federal court over the same violations, and will soon file a consent judgment with the court that incorporates the terms of the order.

The citizens groups – Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance – are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, Lauren Waterworth of Waterworth Law Office, PLLC, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Clean Water Laws Wrestle With Coal

Friday, September 4th, 2015 - posted by molly

Clean Water Laws Wrestle With Coal

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 - posted by molly

By Molly Moore

America’s clean water laws have hampered the coal industry to varying degrees for decades, with the strength of various laws often determined by political winds. The effectiveness of the Clean Water Act and other laws often depends on whether the regulations reflect the latest advances in science and technology, and whether state and federal agencies have the will and resources to enforce the rules. That saga continues today.

Acid mine drainage flows from a mountaintop removal coal mine into Looney Creek in Wise County, Va.

Acid mine drainage flows from a mountaintop removal coal mine into Looney Creek in Wise County, Va.

Acid Mine Drainage

What: Mining exposes metal sulfides to air and water, which react to form acidic discharges. Affected water can harm or kill aquatic life and is not safe for recreation or drinking.
Where: Generated by surface and underground coal mines — both active and inactive — as well as hardrock mines.
It’s Still Happening: Acid mine drainage was among the 2015 water-quality violations at the KD #2 mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia.
The Law: The Clean Water Act and Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act require that waterways meet state and federal water quality standards.
The Problem: The Clean Water Act allows mining companies to declare that a natural body of water is not a legally protected waterway but is instead a “waste treatment system,” exempt from the law. In 2002, a change to the Clean Water Act allowed companies to begin using untreated mining waste as construction “fill material.” Also, state enforcement of the federal surface mining law is inconsistent, and acid mine drainage can begin decades after mining ceases, which can leave state governments responsible for cleanup.

Selenium

What: A mineral necessary for life in extremely small amounts, but even low levels of contamination can harm or kill aquatic life.
Where: Affects ground and surface water near coal mines and coal ash ponds.
It’s Still Happening: In a landmark 2012 settlement, Patriot Coal Corp. agreed to phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining in order to resolve $400 million in liability for selenium pollution cleanup in West Virginia.
The Law: The Clean Water Act and Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act require that companies cannot pollute in excess of state and federal water quality standards.
The Problem: In 2013, Kentucky adopted weaker state selenium standards approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Appalachian Voices and partner organizations filed a lawsuit challenging Kentucky’s changes. And in May 2014, the EPA proposed a new federal standard that is less protective of aquatic life than the current standard.

Total Maximum Daily Loads

What: The amount of a pollutant that a waterway can tolerate while meeting water quality standards.
Where: TMDLs can be calculated for any pollutant in any impaired waterway.
It’s Still Happening: Virginia regulators set a TMDL for the South Fork Pound River. Citizens groups, including Appalachian Voices, alleged in a 2014 lawsuit that four mines owned by Red River Coal Company were violating their permits because the company’s discharges exceeded the TMDL for the entire watershed.
The Law: The Clean Water Act requires that states keep a list of impaired waterways and calculate how much of each pollutant each of those water bodies can safely handle.
The Problem: Many states have not completed their TMDL obligations. Kentucky, for example, had only assessed a quarter of state rivers and streams as of 2012. Of those, 67 percent were impaired, but officials set TMDLs for just 11 percent of those streams.

Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices collects a sample from Fields Creek following the 2014 slurry spill. Testing revealed high levels of contaminants including MCHM.

Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices collects a sample from Fields Creek following the 2014 slurry spill. Testing revealed high levels of contaminants including MCHM.

Coal Slurry

What: Sludge leftover from washing coal, this mixture consists of water, coal dust, clay and chemicals, and includes toxic heavy metals.
Where: Stored in massive, often unlined impoundments, and has also been injected into underground mines. Leaches into ground and surface water.
It’s Still Happening: Studies from 2012 show that underground slurry injections contaminated drinking water in Prenter, W.Va. In 2013, the Brushy Fork slurry impoundment was permitted to increase its capacity to 8.5 billion gallons. And in 2014, more than 100,000 gallons of slurry spilled into Fields Creek at a West Virginia coal processing plant.
The Law: The Mining Safety and Health Administration is responsible for the structural safety of a slurry impoundment, and the Clean Water Act requires state and federal enforcement of water quality standards.
The Problem: State and federal enforcement of water pollution standards can be weak and intermittent, and MSHA-inspected impoundments have failed in the past, raising concerns about dam stability.

An unlined coal ash pond at the now-shuttered Riverbend Steam Plant in Mt. Holly, N.C. Toxic seeps from the ash ponds are contaminating nearby groundwater.

An unlined coal ash pond at the now-shuttered Riverbend Steam Plant in Mt. Holly, N.C. Toxic seeps from the ash ponds are contaminating nearby groundwater.

Coal Ash

What: The waste left over from burning coal for electricity, coal ash contains 25 heavy metals and other chemicals.
Where: Often mixed with water and other industrial waste and stored in unlined impoundments near power plants, but can also be kept dry and stored in landfills. Dry ash contributes to air pollution, and liquid storage can infiltrate ground and surface water.
It’s Still Happening: Contamination of groundwater has occurred near all of North Carolina’s coal ash ponds. Between April and mid-July of 2015, the state health department deemed 301 wells near coal ash ponds unfit to drink (see map). Duke Energy denies that the contamination is related to its ash ponds. Read about the experience of one woman living near coal ash.
The Law: The EPA established the first federal regulations for coal ash in 2014. North Carolina passed its own regulations earlier that year following an impoundment failure that dumped 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River.
The Problem: Federal rules do not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. States are not required to adopt the EPA’s new standards, nor are those standards federally enforceable. The federal rule also leaves much of the responsibility for identifying coal ash contamination and seeking legal protection to citizens.

Power Plant Wastewater

What: Wastewater from coal-fired power plants includes heavy metals, carcinogens, neurotoxins and other pollutants.
Where: Rivers, streams, lakes and ponds near coal-fired power plants. Comprises half of all industrial surface water pollution, and contributes to problems such as high mercury and lead levels in fish.
It’s Still Happening: From 2008 to 2011, Eden, N.C., noticed harmful trihalomethanes in city drinking water. Investigation revealed that a nearby coal-fired power plant was releasing bromides into the Dan River, which react with water-treatment chemicals to form trihalomethanes — compounds linked to bladder cancer. In June 2015, Duke Energy settled with Eden and a nearby town.
The Law: Under the Clean Water Act, EPA regulates industrial pollution of surface water, and sets maximum levels for contaminants in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The Problem: The rules governing power plant wastewater were last updated in 1982, and do not regulate heavy metals and a range of other pollutants. In April 2013, the EPA proposed a range of scenarios for updated regulations — two would lead to a 96% reduction in pollution, while others include modest reductions in some pollutants and no reduction in arsenic and lead levels. The agency intends to finalize the rules by Sept. 30, 2015 and is currently accepting public comments. Submit a comment here.

Read about the newly released draft of the Stream Protection Rule here.

Energy Report News Bites

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

Air Pollution Standards Challenged in N.C.

by Eliza Laubach

The Federal District Court of Appeals rejected North Carolina’s attempt to bypass air pollution standards concerning fine particle pollution. The state waited too long to contest a standard set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 that limits increases in soot, largely emitted by coal-fired power plants or motor vehicles.

The Southeast’s First Utility-Scale Wind Farm Breaks Ground

by Eliza Laubach

When North Carolina’s first utility-scale wind farm begins operations on the coast by the end of 2016, it will be funded not by Duke Energy, but by Amazon.

The online retailer has two cloud-computing centers, in Virginia and Ohio, that will tap into Duke’s grid for power, but Amazon cannot sell the energy in North Carolina due to restrictions on third-party electricity sales.

Clean Water Act Clarified

by Cody Burchett

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers issued the final Clean Water Rule this past May, reducing the scope of waterways subject to the Clean Water Act and reinforcing exemptions that have legalized toxic water pollution since 2001. The majority of drainage ditches and artificial lakes used for livestock will no longer be regulated. Coal and agricultural industries retain permission to convert streams into waste impoundments. Eight states, including West Virginia and Kentucky, have criticized the new rule as overbearing and filed a federal lawsuit in June.

A moment of truth for Kentucky’s coal regulators

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by tarence
A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes.

A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes. Photo from LRC (Ky.) Public Information.

In June 2013, mine operator and Kentucky state representative Keith Hall went to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with a complaint.

Kelly Shortridge, a mine inspector with the Division of Mine Enforcement and Reclamation in Pikeville, had been soliciting Hall for bribes to ignore violations on Hall’s Pike County surface mines.

Hall told two cabinet officials that he had already paid Shortridge “a small fortune,” and that the mine inspector “liked the Benjamins.” A report was drawn up, forwarded to the cabinet’s investigator general and Secretary Len Peters, and went nowhere.

The FBI began investigating the matter when the Lexington Herald-Leader published Hall’s complaint report through an open records request. In June, Hall was found guilty of bribing Shortridge to ignore Hall’s safety and environmental violations.

During the trial, the bureau submitted evidence that strongly suggests Keith Hall was not the only operator paying Kelly Shortridge. Shortridge himself has admitted to taking bribes from other Pike County operators.

So how deep does the conspiracy go? That’s the question many are asking in the wake of Hall’s trial. The Herald-Leader published a recent editorial that pointed out the familiar territory here:

This is not the first time questions have arisen about the Pikeville office of the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement where Shortridge, an inspector for 24 years, worked.

Other Pikeville-based inspectors allowed a surface mine (not owned by Hall) to operate without a permit for 18 months, until July 2010, when rain dislodged the unreclaimed mountain and flooded out about 80 families. One of the inspectors retired a month later.

Remember, too, that the division went years without penalizing coal companies for filing bogus water pollution reports by copying and pasting the same data, month after month.

This falsified water pollution data was only discovered after a coalition of environmental and citizen groups including Appalachian Voices discovered water monitoring reports that the department had neglected to review for over three years. The fact that the FBI had to find out about Hall’s allegations by reading the newspaper – and not through the cabinet itself – reveals a similar pattern of negligence.

How committed is the cabinet to enforcing Kentucky’s environmental and safety regulations around mining? The answer may lie in the phenomenally small salary that the state was paying Shortridge at the time of his 2014 resignation: $45,160 a year.

This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it speaks volumes about how our regulatory systems function, what they prioritize, and what motivates the individuals who operate within them. Shortridge was using his small salary, in addition to the bribes he was taking from Hall and others, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. It’s impossible to speculate about his personal character, but it does seem clear that he was responding to a specific set of material conditions in a way that most individuals on that kind of salary – and in that kind of position – very likely would.

Without much incentive to enforce existing regulations, and knowing that it pays more to cozy up to the industry than to fight it, we really must ask: how many other Kelly Shortridges are out there? This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask of a regulatory system that, at best, lacks the political capital and material resources to enforce violations, and, at worst, is overseen by the very mine operators it’s supposed to be regulating. (Before being voted out of office in 2014, Keith Hall was the vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.)

Finally, Keith Hall’s remark that Kelly Shortridge “liked the Benjamins” – an incredibly condescending statement from a man who once appropriated his own county’s coal severance tax to the benefit of one of his companies – is revelatory. It hints that there are boundaries to what is and what isn’t acceptable within relationships between the coal industry and the state: Shortridge was getting ambitious; his greed was somehow different than Hall’s. Keep in mind that this was confessed to two cabinet officials, mob-style, as if Shortridge was breaking a set of established rules. Hall needed Shortridge until he didn’t, and then sold him down the river when he became an annoyance.

Now that they’re both paying for breaking the rules, will Governor Steve Beshear’s administration adequately investigate further possible corruption? It unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

As the Herald-Leader editorial notes, “This should be a moment of truth, but history tells us not to expect an aggressive self-examination of the state agency’s love affair with the coal industry.”

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How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015 - posted by Erin
Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that surface coal production nationwide decreased about 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, while production from surface mines that include mountaintop removal mining in three central Appalachian states had decreased 62 percent.

At first, this seems like a huge win in the fight against mountaintop removal mining, a practice that is devastating to community health and the environment, and yields few jobs compared to traditional mining practices. While it is a step in the right direction, declining production is not a sufficient measure of the ongoing human and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal.

Closer examination of the data calls into question the adequacy of the legal definition of “mountaintop removal” and, more importantly, demonstrates that much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

First, let’s look at the numbers reported by the EIA. The post, published on the agency’s Today In Energy blog, opens by saying, “Coal production from mines with mountaintop removal (MTR) permits has declined since 2008, more than the downward trend in total U.S. coal production.” While this is true, comparing the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in nationwide surface production (62 and 21 percent, respectively) gives the false impression that mountaintop removal, in particular, is on its way out. However, when you compare the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in surface mine production only for Central Appalachia, the picture looks much different: surface mine production in Central Appalachia has declined by 55 percent from 2008 to 2014.

With this new information, it becomes apparent that mountaintop removal production has not declined much more than surface mining on the whole in Central Appalachia. Given the similarity, we can attribute the decline in mountaintop removal largely to the same market forces that are leading to a decline in all coal mining in Central Appalachia.

The EIA report also relies on the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act’s (SMCRA) narrow definition of what constitutes mountaintop removal mining — essentially, a surface mine “running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill” that is exempt from returning the land to “approximate original contour” because the new land use is intended to be of equal or better economic or public value. The problem with this definition of mountaintop removal is that many Central Appalachian surface mines that cross ridgelines and employ many of the same problematic practices — large-scale blasting, mining through streams, and valley filling — are not, under SMCRA’s narrow definition, considered mountaintop removal mines.

The reality on the ground is that the rugged terrain of Central Appalachia makes it difficult to conduct any large-scale surface mine without mining across a ridgeline. Take for example the recently permitted Jim Justice-owned surface mine in McDowell County, W.Va. The Big Creek Surface Mine certainly cross multiple ridgelines and will construct a valley fill within half a mile of a Head Start preschool, yet this mine is not considered a mountaintop removal mine by either the federal government or the state of West Virginia. Furthermore, the valley fill does not require a 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, as it is not being constructed in public waters of the United States.

These facts mean there is little the local community, largely unsupportive of the mine, can do to stop it. Additionally, reclamation of the site requires that the company return the land to its “approximate original contour.” That phrase has never been clearly defined, however, so the land will be returned to a much lower elevation, lacking the fully functioning forest and ecosystems present before mining.

Another issue is that measuring mountaintop removal only by production and permit designation does not lead to a full accounting of the destruction done to the land as a whole.

Back in April, Appalachian Voices undertook a mapping analysis to look at how surface mines are impacting local communities. We had noticed that, even though mining is declining in the region, we are still regularly contacted by impacted residents. So we set out to determine if surface mining was moving closer to communities, and through our Communities at Risk project, we confirmed that mines are in fact encroaching even more on local residents.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on iLoveMountains.org.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on iLoveMountains.org.

To complete this analysis, we identified surface mines across the region using satellite imagery and other data to differentiate between mining and non-mining areas. We excluded areas less than 25,000 square meters. This left us with a map layer of large surface mines, including mountaintop removal mines (whether designated as such by any government agencies, or not), across the region.

This data set is useful not only for our Communities at Risk tool, but also for other analysis on the trends in surface mining in Central Appalachia over time. Using this map, we determined the current amount of land disturbance due to mining — basically any area that is barren due to active mining, recently idled or abandoned mines, or mines not yet reclaimed — has declined from 148,000 acres in 2008 to 89,000 acres in 2014.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly compare yearly production numbers to the number of acres disturbed to yield that production. Land within a surface mine is constantly being shifted, blown up, backfilled, and regraded. Basically, not all barren areas are actively producing coal at any given time. Many areas stay barren for years, while other areas of the mine are producing coal (despite legal requirements for contemporaneous reclamation).

The comparison we can make is that the amount of currently barren land is not falling as fast as production numbers. The extent of surface mined area (whether active, idled, or just unreclaimed) has declined about 40 percent, while production from Central Appalachian surface mines has declined 55 percent.

Essentially, we have more unreclaimed land in 2014, per ton of coal produced in 2014, than in previous years. This is likely due to a number of factors:

  • As thinner, deeper seams are mined, more land must be disturbed per ton of production;
  • Recently, mines have been idled, or even bond-forfeited due to market pressures; and
  • Reclamation is a slow and expensive process.

Mathew Louis-Rosenburg, a West Virginia resident, sums up the problem of only considering the EIA numbers without on-the-ground context:

“On the ground, we measure [mountaintop removal] in acres lost, in water contaminated, communities harmed. The steep decline in surface mine productivity means that a lot more land is being disturbed to get that smaller tonnage and idled mines still contaminate water at a similar rate to active ones. The battle here is far from over and stories like this just lead more and more resources and support to leave the region because people from elsewhere think that we have won already.”

It is beyond time for the Obama administration to take action to end destructive surface mining across Central Appalachia. We are hopeful that a strong Stream Protection Rule will go a long way toward protecting the streams and the people of the region. The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) could also go a long way in protecting communities from health impacts confirmed by mounting scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of success on either of these actions decreases every time misleading evidence suggests this problem has gone away. You can help prevent this by telling the Obama administration to end mountaintop removal and by keeping this conversation going among a national audience. We owe that to the people of Central Appalachia.

Residents Near Duke Ash Ponds Told To Not Drink Their Water

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
Residents impacted by coal ash join together with concerned citizens to rally outside the annual Duke Energy shareholder’s meeting in Charlotte on May 7. Photo courtesy of NC WARN

Residents impacted by coal ash join together with concerned citizens to rally outside the annual Duke Energy shareholder’s meeting in Charlotte on May 7. Photo courtesy of NC WARN

Utility pleads guilty to separate water pollution charges

By Sarah Kellogg

Jeff Keiser and his wife, Kim, have lived in a small neighborhood in Belmont, N.C., near Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen power plant, for 15 years. Although their community is surrounded on three sides by coal ash, the toxic by-product of burning coal, the Keisers have used their tap water just like anyone else. But that changed in late April when they and their neighbors started receiving letters from the state health department advising them not to drink or cook with their water.

“It was pretty frightening for us to hear all of our neighbors getting do not drink letters from the state,” recalls Keiser. “We had been drinking the water with no worry at all, now we’re scared for our health.”

The do-not-drink orders were a result of mandatory water tests conducted by Duke Energy and required by North Carolina’s Coal Ash Management Act. As of late May, wells had been tested near eleven of Duke’s fourteen coal ash pond locations. Of the 207 wells tested by May —all located within 1,000 feet of the ponds —191 were deemed unsafe to drink. Most of the wells tested high for vanadium or hexavalent chromium, both known carcinogens. The Belmont community received 83 do-not-drink orders, the most of any location.

Duke Energy claims that the elements found in the wells are naturally occurring and not a result of groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds, although the utility agreed to supply affected residents with bottled water until the source of the contamination is determined.

Keiser and other residents feel certain that Duke is to blame for their bad water. “I do feel like it’s their ash ponds that have created this whole mess,” he says. His neighbor, Barbara Morales, who also received a do-not-drink notice, told the L.A. Times, “Duke just won’t admit their coal ash is poisoning my water, but they need to take responsibility.”

Two weeks after the first round of water tests was released, Duke Energy pleaded guilty in federal court to nine violations of the Clean Water Act at five of its North Carolina coal ash sites and agreed to pay a $102 million fine. The lawsuit was unrelated to the well water results, but rather was the result of a federal investigation that began after Duke spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in February 2014.

Separate lawsuits against Duke, filed by the state in 2013 for violations of the Clean Water Act at all 14 of the utility’s North Carolina coal ash sites, are still pending.

Duke’s guilty verdict and the do-not-drink orders come on the heels of a controversial wastewater discharge permit renewal for three of Duke Energy’s N.C. plants, including G.G. Allen. The state’s Clean Water Act lawsuits against Duke charge that the utility is violating the discharge permits at all of their plants due to toxic seeps from their coal ash ponds leaking into surface water and drinking water. Although the state is suing Duke Energy for the violations, it issued new draft permits that would make all current and future seeps from the coal ash ponds legal. As of publication, the permits have not been finalized, but hundreds of citizens submitted comments in April urging the state to limit the amount of coal ash pollution Duke Energy can discharge.

In Belmont and other communities, residents continue to process the news that their well water is undrinkable. “If we wanted to move, we’d feel obligated to let the purchasers of the house know about the issue with Duke and the drinking water in our neighborhood,” Keiser reflects. “That is very scary because this is our most valuable asset.”