Posts Tagged ‘Clean Water Act’

Appalachian Coal Companies Face Major Fines for Clean Water Act Violations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KY and NC: Different States, Same Recipe for Lax Clean Water Enforcement

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 - posted by eric

Yesterday there was a hearing in Franklin Circuit Court for our ongoing challenge of a weak settlement that the state of Kentucky reached with Frasure Creek Mining. The settlement is a slap on the wrist that lets Frasure Creek off the hook for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act, and it bears a striking resemblance to the settlement between North Carolina and Duke Energy that has come under scrutiny after the company’s coal ash spill into the Dan River.

It seems that there is a pretty standard recipe for how these Clean Water Act cases usually go:

Step 1: Citizens concerned about water quality uncover major problems.
Step 2: They form a coalition of other concerned groups and lawyers and file a 60-day notice of intent to sue (as required by law).
Step 3: Wait around for 57 to 59 days.
Step 4: On the last day of the 60 day waiting period the state agency, that has a very cozy relationship with the industry it is supposed to regulate, will come in and file a sweetheart deal with the polluter and blocks the citizens from being able to file suit.
Step 5: Citizens are then left to either try to intervene or challenge the weak settlement, but they are left with many legal hurtles and polluted water.

In North Carolina, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources blocked several citizen suits aimed at forcing Duke Energy to clean up their coal ash ponds, which have been leaching pollution into the state’s rivers and groundwater. Instead, DENR and Duke formed a settlement that came with a fine of just $99,000, and the requirement they assess pollution from their ash ponds, but nothing more. However, increased scrutiny as a result of the Dan River coal ash spill has put this settlement on hold. We can only hope that a better settlement will come out of this now.

Coal Ash in the Dan River, NC

In Kentucky, Appalachian Voices and our partners (KFTC, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance represented by Mary Cromer from Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and Lauren Waterworth) have challenged the way in which this most recent settlement with Frasure Creek was reached.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed a case in their own administrative court to block our suit against Frasure Creek. We were made full parties to that case but Frasure Creek and the Cabinet entered a weak settlement without our agreement anyway. Basically, we are arguing that excluding us violates due process rights and the settlement is invalid because you can’t have a valid settlement without the agreement of all the parties.

One of the main excuses the cabinet gave for cutting such a nice deal for Frasure Creek was their supposed financial problems, but they completely ignored the fact that Frasure Creek is owned by Essar Group, a giant, multi-billion dollar company, owned by a family of billionaires. Frasure Creek entered bankruptcy, but it was recently bailed out with $150 million from Essar.

This is the second of two outstanding cases we have in Franklin Circuit Court against Frasure Creek. The first began in 2011 and challenges a settlement that was based on false water monitoring data that we uncovered. After that case began, Frasure Creek started using a reputable lab and submitting more accurate water monitoring reports. Those new reports showed lots of water pollution violations, and those are the basis for the case that was at issue yesterday.

At the hearing yesterday, the judge asked a lot of good questions, and we are hopeful that he will do what is right for the water and people of Kentucky.

In all these cases it seems like the key to getting state agencies to do their job is attention from the press and scrutiny from the public. When it comes to corruption, it’s often said sunlight is the best disinfectant.

OSM Investigates WV Mining Law Enforcement

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement announced on Dec. 30 that it will investigate West Virginia’s surface coal mining regulatory program.

The announcement comes six months after the Citizen Action for Real Enforcement campaign — a coalition of 18 state and national organizations — held a press conference and delivered a nearly 100-page petition to the OSM’s Charleston, W.Va., office. The petition alleges that the state’s chronic failure to enforce the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 demands federal intervention.

Of the 19 complaints included in the petition, OSM will investigate five, including flooding caused by runoff, surface mining law violations on sites where Clean Water Act violations exist, and parts of the state’s reclamation program.

Criticism of inadequate regulation at the state level escalated after the coal-processing chemical spill by Freedom Industries left 300,000 West Virginians without safe water. The groups have drawn attention to the spill to strengthen their case against the DEP.

A petition on by the CARE Campaign to the Office of Surface Mining demanding an enforcement program “that is accountable to the people of West Virginia” had more than 28,000 signatures at the end of January.

Southeastern States May Need to Reduce Air Pollution

By Kimber Ray

The Supreme Court heard arguments this past December on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, a case that has been debated for more than two years.

The challenges of addressing interstate air pollution have confounded regulators for decades. Due to natural wind patterns, pollution from upwind states — particularly Rust Belt and Appalachian states — typically blows downwind into the Northeast, where it results in federal air pollution fines and rising healthcare costs.

The rule seeks to address the fact that downwind states have needed to install more expensive pollution controls than upwind states in order to deal with their neighbors’ wind-borne pollution. Federal regulations would be based on cost-effectiveness rather than measured contribution to pollution. This would allow the EPA to impose regulations on upwind state industries where control mechanisms may cost less than $500 per ton of pollution, versus upwards of $10,000 in downwind states.

Although a federal appeals court ruled in 2012 that a cost-based approach to regulation exceeded the authority of the EPA, the Supreme Court is reconsidering the case in light of the complexity of interstate air pollution. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal reported that the court appears inclined to rule in favor of the EPA. A final decision is expected in June.

Municipal Water To Reach Most Families Along Mill Creek

By Molly Moore

The 94 families living along Mill Creek in Letcher County, Ky., have gone years without safe water for drinking or household use due to water pollution from poorly reclaimed coal mines. Due to persistence on the part of local activists, however, 70 families now have municipal water and another 23 are slated to receive water lines.

Elaine Tanner, a resident at Mill Creek, has been meeting with state and federal officials for 10 years in her push to get clean water to the area. Water testing by the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth revealed illegally high levels of arsenic and other toxins in residents’ wells.

Tanner and allies filed a petition for new funding under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in February 2013. Despite the progress, one residence on the other side of a railroad route was not included in the recent arrangement so Tanner is continuing the effort.

Fighting for Clean Water in Virginia: Standing up to Coal Industry Bullies

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 - posted by eric
Kelly Branch

Kelly Branch and several other tributaries of Callahan Creek, near the town of Appalachia Virginia are the subject of a new lawsuit for selenium pollution. (Photo: SAMS)

Today, Appalachian Voices along with our allies in Virginia filed a lawsuit against Penn Virginia for water polluted by selenium coming from abandoned mines on their land. This lawsuit is one in a series of suits aimed at cleaning up selenium pollution in Callahan Creek.

Callahan Creek flows south through a series of small communities and into the town of Appalachia in Wise County, Va. Along the way it passes a number of coal mines including the Kelly Branch Mine and the Stonega Slurry Impoundment. Last year, the same group of allies initiating this lawsuit filed legal actions for selenium pollution against the operators of both of those facilities. The operator of the Kelly Branch Mine, A&G Coal, submitted a report in response showing that much of the pollution in streams surrounding that mine was coming from old mines on Penn Virginia-owned property. That report is the primary basis of the lawsuit filed today.

Water monitoring by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) has shown that there are major selenium problems in Callahan Creek and its tributaries including Kelly Branch. Selenium is extremely toxic to fish at very low levels. It causes reproductive failure, deformities and death.

This two headed trout was deformed by selenium pollution.

Pennsylvania-based Penn Virginia owns nearly one-quarter of the land in Wise County and is the county’s largest landholder. Essentially, landholding companies like Penn Virginia operate by leasing their land to mining, natural gas and timber companies and collecting royalties from those companies. Once mines are abandoned, many continue to pollute nearby streams. Currently in Virginia, these types of pollution discharges are not regulated, so there is no one treating or monitoring them. These legacy mining discharges are a major source of pollution in Southwest Virginia and throughout Appalachia, but no one wants to claim responsibility for them. Through this lawsuit we hope to force large landholding companies like Penn Virginia to take responsibility for the pollution coming from the lands they own.

As required by the Clean Water Act, before filing this lawsuit we filed a Notice of Intent to Sue letter in late 2013. The purpose of such letters is to give polluters and state agencies a chance to address the pollution problems before a lawsuit is filed. Rather than trying to fix their pollution problems, Penn Virginia instead chose to use bully tactics and threaten members of SAMS. The company sent cease and desist letters to several members of SAMS banning them from entering Penn Virginia land that includes a family cemetery and a church that several of them attend.

The Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards are represented in this matter by Joe Lovett and Isak Howell of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

>> Find out more from our press release here
>> Read the legal filing here

Groups Challenge EPA Decision to Gut Clean Water Protections in Kentucky

Friday, December 13th, 2013 - posted by eric

New Guidelines for Coal Mining Pollutant Fail to Protect Waterways and Wildlife

Eric Chance, Appalachian Voices 828-262-1500
Sean Sarah, Sierra Club 330 338-3740
Doug Doerrfeld, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth 606-784-9226|
Judy Petersen, Kentucky Waterways Alliance 502 589-8008

Louisville, KY – Today, community and environmental groups took action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a recent decision allowing Kentucky to weaken its water quality protections for selenium, a pollutant common to mountaintop removal coal mines. This new standard, which tests selenium levels in fish tissue instead of in rivers and streams where mine wastewater is discharged, is strikingly similar to one the Bush Administration rejected as too weak to protect sensitive aquatic species. The lawsuit alleges that the standard fails to meet protections in the Clean Water Act.

“There’s simply no scientific or legal justification for this EPA to approve a standard worse than one rejected by the Bush administration,” said Alice Howell, Chair of the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club. “In doing so, EPA has made a bad situation much worse. The new selenium standard endangers the health of Kentucky’s already compromised waterways while opening the door for other states to do the same.”

In mid-November, the EPA allowed Kentucky to change the way it monitors selenium pollution from surface mines, a change suggested by coal industry lobbyists, who appear to be motivated by citizen groups’ successful enforcement of the existing protections elsewhere in the region.

Selenium pollution is known to accumulate in fish and aquatic wildlife over time, causing deformities and reproductive failures. When a coal company destroys a mountain to get at the coal underneath, much of what’s left is dumped into nearby valleys and streams. This pollutes the local waterways with selenium, among other substances that pose a threat to fish and humans. Valley fills are a major source of the selenium pollution found at mountaintop removal mines.

“We repeatedly urged both EPA and the Commonwealth to have the US Geological Survey and US Fish and Wildlife Service look at the science behind the new standard. Both federal agencies were instrumental in the rejection of the prior Bush administration proposals. Ignoring our pleas, they moved to finalize the new criteria. We felt we had no other option to protect our waterways than to go forward with our legal challenge,” Judy Petersen, executive director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance stated.

In their lawsuit, the groups argue that the EPA decision was arbitrary and capricious. First, EPA violated the Clean Water Act by allowing Kentucky to institute a scientifically indefensible standard that fails to protect sensitive wildlife. Second, both citizens and EPA raised concerns about the difficulty of implementing a fish tissue based standard, yet EPA approved this standard based on a vague letter from Kentucky officials about how the new standard would be enforced. Kentucky’s assurances are not part of Kentucky state law and are thus unenforceable; therefore, EPA is not entitled to rely upon these assurances in approving the new standard.

“This new fish tissue based standard is just a novel way of letting polluters off the hook for poisoning our fish and waterways,” said Eric Chance, water quality specialist for Appalachian Voices. “The main point of this standard is to protect fish, but testing fish tissue can never tell you how many fish the selenium pollution already killed. A fish tissue based standard creates many more problems than just the ones mentioned in the letter EPA relied on to make this decision; I don’t think EPA or Kentucky have seriously thought through how this rule would work in the real world.”

Doug Doerrfeld of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth added, “KFTC and our allies have worked for years to make EPA fully aware of the systemic failures of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet to protect our commonwealth’s people, waters and environment. In light of this history it is disgraceful that EPA would approve a weakened selenium standard that will not only leave aquatic life at risk but will make citizen enforcement all but impossible.”

This action was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. Sierra Club, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices, and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance are represented in this case by Ben Luckett and Joe Lovett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.


A Science of Responsibility:

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013 - posted by Kimber

Dr. Ben Stout’s Dedication to Community-Based Research

By Brian Sewell

Photo courtesy Wheeling Jesuit University

Photo courtesy Wheeling Jesuit University

Dr. Ben Stout, a stream ecologist and professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, is as at home in nearby communities as he is in the classroom. For more than 20 years, he has conducted his research outside of the lab and in local communities, testing water, listening to residents’ concerns, and publishing and testifying on his findings.

Stout says his responsibility to residents of Appalachia began in 1990, when he testified in the “first big mountaintop removal case” held in a federal court in Charleston, W.Va. There, he spoke about the impact of valley fills on stream health, and catalyzed an ongoing national debate about the tenets of the Clean Water Act that apply to mountaintop removal coal mining.

“That was earth-shaking to me,” Stout says. “Up to that point I really did not know anything about mountaintop removal and I couldn’t believe that people denied these headwater streams existed or that they were important. That changed my career path … from then on I’ve always done applied stuff, community-based participatory research. I work for the citizens.”

In West Virginia and across Appalachia, Stout has become well known for his research. In 2004, he met with residents in Mingo County, W.Va., who claimed their water was contaminated by the coal industry’s practice of injecting slurry from coal processing plants underground. The report Stout went on to write found that, for many families, drinking or even bathing in their tap water could present a “chronic health hazard.” Nearly 700 impacted Mingo County residents sued Massey Energy over the contamination — Massey eventually settled out of court with the residents for $35 million.

27 Visionaries

Keeping with his commitment to conduct community-based research, Stout and several students are currently working in western Pennsylvania, interpreting complex pre-drilling water reports. In exchange, residents can anonymously add information about their water quality to a database of pre-drilling water quality for the region. Stout says that data could allow researchers to paint a better picture of what well and stream water quality were like before drilling and more accurately assess contamination problems when they do occur.

“That is my role,” Stout says, “to make sure people have good information and to fight off disinformation, and we get plenty of that.”

Four Projects on Fourth Creek

Monday, December 9th, 2013 - posted by Kimber

By Hallie Carde

Bob and Jill Kinser claim to have the best water around, and they’re quick to offer a glass to anyone to prove it. In fact, the only thing more apparent than the Kinsers’ hospitality is their hardworking nature.

Photo courtesy of Bob and Jill Kinser

Photo courtesy of Bob and Jill Kinser

Looking for a place in the country to keep horses, the couple moved to 23 acres along Fourth Creek in Iredell County, N.C., in 1986. Two years later the state designated almost 24 miles of the creek as impaired due to the elevated presence of fecal coliform bacteria and visual turbidity — or murky water — both signs of pollution.

Concerned with ensuring clean water for their six horses, the Kinsers contacted county soil and conservation officials, who worked with them to secure Clean Water Act funding for water quality improvements to their property. The county covered 75 percent of the cost, while the Kinsers made up the difference.

From 2005 to 2008, the couple completed four water quality improvement projects on their land, installing two units that prevent debris contamination and regulate water temperature, and building fencing to keep their horses from getting into waterways where they could contribute to contamination. They also built a four-bin composter to repurpose daily animal waste for fertilizer.

Their efforts paid off over the years, and today segments of Fourth Creek are no longer considered impaired for turbidity or fecal coliform.

27 Visionaries

While federal funding provided professional blueprints and materials, their own labor — especially Bob’s — helped the Kinsers achieve their goals. “He did the work in every case, every project,” Jill Kinser says proudly of her husband. “He’s part engineer, part old farm boy.”

EPA Helps Kentucky Roll Back Water Quality Protections

Friday, November 15th, 2013 - posted by Erin

Above are blue gills that were collected below the site of TVA’s 2008 Kingston Coal Ash spill. They all have “pop-eye”, a deformity caused by selenium pollution where their eyes bulge out of their heads. These fish had selenium levels of 2.5-6.5ppm, well below Kentucky’s newly accepted standard of 8.6 ppm for fish tissue.

Just today, after several months of delays, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its decisions on the Kentucky Department of Water’s (DOW) amendments to the Kentucky Water Quality Regulations. Unfortunately, the EPA has approved substantive changes to the selenium freshwater chronic standard that will not adequately protect aquatic life and will be difficult, if not impossible to enforce at mountaintop removal coal mining sites throughout eastern Kentucky.

In theory, states review their water quality standards every three years in an effort to make sure these standards are up-to-date with current science and are protective of aquatic life. In some cases, however, the review becomes an opportunity for special interests to influence state agencies. This year, under pressure from the coal industry, the Kentucky DOW proposed to weaken selenium standards. Standards are used to set permit limits for industries that may discharge pollutants into public waterways. Though some mines in Kentucky are known to discharge selenium into streams, the Kentucky general permit for valley fills does not currently include selenium permit limits.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element that can be released into streams through mountaintop removal coal mining. Once in the water, selenium bioaccumulates in fish and other aquatic life, increasing in concentration up the food chain. Selenium is toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. For these reasons, Appalachian Voices and our allies have been working to challenge Kentucky’s proposed selenium standards.

Kentucky DOW proposed to raise the acute selenium standard from 20 ug/L in the water column to 258 ug/L in the water column. They also proposed changing the chronic standard of 5 ug/L to a more complicated system where a level of 5 ug/L in the water column would not be enforceable, but instead would trigger the need to sample fish tissue. The new chronic standard would be 8.6 ug/g in fish tissue, or 19.2 ug/g in egg/ovary tissue. The 5 ug/L water concentration would only be an enforceable limit if no fish were available for sampling.

New Research and Lawsuits Keep Mountaintop Removal in the Spotlight

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

By Brian Sewell

While battles over mountaintop removal permits reach their boiling point and lawsuits are filed and settled, new research revealing the environmental costs continues to pile up.

Referred to as an "island in the sky," the Jarrell Family plot is surrounded by Alpha Natural Resources' Twilight surface mine complex. Descendants of those buried there are suing Alpha to prevent further damage to the cemetery and gain less restricted access to the gravesite. Photo by Ami Vitale,

Referred to as an “island in the sky,” the Jarrell Family plot is surrounded by Alpha Natural Resources’ Twilight surface mine complex. Descendants of those buried there are suing Alpha to prevent further damage to the cemetery and gain less restricted access to the gravesite. Photo by Ami Vitale,

In September, a study by Duke University, Kent State University and the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies compared the environmental toll of mountaintop removal to the economic benefits of coal as an energy source.

Considering the impacts of mountaintop removal on the health of Appalachian ecosystems, the study concludes that tremendous environmental capital is being spent to achieve what are only modest energy gains.

“While the scientific community has adequately demonstrated the severity of surface mining impacts,” writes Brian D. Lutz, the study’s lead author, “considerably less attention has been placed on understanding the extent of these environmental impacts and in providing the metrics necessary to compare these environmental costs to the obvious economic benefits of coal.”

To meet current U.S. coal demand through surface mining, the study found that an area the size of Washington, D.C., would need to be mined in Central Appalachia every 81 days.

Earlier this year, a report by researchers from the University of Kentucky and the University of California found that mountaintop removal could turn Appalachia from a carbon sink, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, to a carbon source in the next 12 to 20 years.

The new study further considers mountaintop removal’s contribution to an increasingly unstable climate. Based on the carbon sequestration potential of Appalachian ecosystems, researchers found it could take 5,000 years for 100 acres of reclaimed mines to sequester the carbon released from combustion of the coal removed from the same area.

Lutz’s study did not focus on the increased health risks faced by communities closest to mountaintop removal mines documented by more than two dozen studies. Despite the coal industry’s attempts to discredit the research, environmental advocates have used the conclusions to make their case in court.

Taking Coal to Court

Across Appalachia, environmental advocates and residents are challenging mountaintop removal coal mining companies in court. The variety of outcomes and legal actions reflect widespread opposition to the consequences of the practice.

Protecting a Family Cemetery

In Boone County, W.Va., residents are suing Appalachian coal mining giant Alpha Natural Resources to repair and protect the Jarrell Family Cemetery from being further damaged by the Twilight Surface Mine complex that surrounds the plot.

“I don’t know why anybody would want to be buried here now,” plaintiff Dustin White said to The State Journal. “You’re being buried in the middle of a construction zone basically with heavy explosives going off around you. I don’t know how anybody can rest in peace anymore.”

Jarrell family members hope to win a permanent entrance to the cemetery, and the right to visit their ancestors when they choose without an escort from Alpha or the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

An Appeal for Community Health

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Sierra Club are appealing an Aug. 23 court decision that said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency which issues permits for mountaintop removal, is not required to weigh the cumulative health impact of an entire mining operation.

In their arguments before the court, KFTC and the Sierra Club cited the growing research that has found a relationship between surface mines and health problems among nearby residents. Attorneys for Leeco Inc., a subsidiary of James River Coal, argued that the studies have not proven that mining is a direct cause of health problems.

Two weeks after the initial decision in the case, U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell directed the Corps of Engineers to temporarily suspend a permit for the contested 756-acre Stacy Branch mine in Knott and Perry counties.

Members of KFTC celebrated the decision to temporarily stop the Stacy Branch mine, saying a possible appeals victory would be fruitless if the court had allowed mining to proceed.

Closures on the Cumberland Plateau

In Tennessee, one of the state’s most prominent and unpopular mountaintop removal mines is being forced to close after a two-year legal action filed by the Sierra Club, Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment and the Tennessee Clean Water Network. The lawsuit alleged that National Coal repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act at the Zeb Mountain mine.

The agreement does not automatically prevent another coal company from attempting to mine Zeb Mountain in the future. “But if they do,” Tennessee Clean Water Network attorney Stephanie Metheny said, “we’ll sue them up one side and down the other.”

New Mountaintop Removal Mines Proposed


In September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted Paramont Coal, a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources, a permit for an 860-acre mountaintop removal mine in Dickenson County, Va. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is concerned that the Doe Branch mine will discharge waste into streams already impaired by an existing 245-acre mine. The Doe Branch mine is slated to be part of the controversial Coalfields Expressway, a project that would subsidize mountaintop removal to build a highway in southwestern Virginia.

In East Tennessee, Appolo Fuels has submitted a permit application for an 804-acre mountaintop removal project in a heavily mined area of Claiborne County. Residents worry that expanding operations along the Cumberland Plateau will irreversibly damage streams and possibly lead to the local extinction of blackside dace — a ray-finned fish currently on the threatened species list — in streams surrounding the mines, which eventually feed the Cumberland River.

N.C. Citizens Speak Up About Power Plant Water Pollution

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 - posted by meredith

By Sarah Kellogg

Four out of five power plants currently have no limits on the levels of heavy metals they can dump into rivers and lakes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, is preparing to change that, and in the process they are hearing from impacted citizens around the country.

Since June, more than 165,000 people have submitted comments to the EPA regarding its efforts to regulate the toxic wastewater produced by coal-fired power plants. In April, the agency proposed a range of options to reduce toxic discharges into waterways. The proposal constitutes the first update in three decades of the wastewater regulations under the Clean Water Act.

Residents of the Belews Creek area gather at a community meeting on power plant wastewater hosted by the Pine Hall Ruritan Club.

Residents of the Belews Creek area gather at a community meeting on power plant wastewater hosted by the Pine Hall Ruritan Club.

The proposed effluent limitation guidelines have the potential to protect more than 23,000 miles of waterways from up to 5.3 billion tons of toxic wastewater per year.

Appalachian Voices, the publisher of The Appalachian Voice, assisted North Carolina citizens living near coal-fired power plants in voicing their concerns to the EPA. Many were worried that water pollution may be impacting their drinking water and local waterways.

Carl Dale Beck, of Belmont, N.C., lives near Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen Steam Station. Coal ash waste is stored just across the street from his home, and G.G. Allen’s current wastewater permit allows the facility to discharge toxic chemicals directly into the Catawba River.

Like many in the area, Beck’s water comes from a private well, leaving him worried about potential water contamination caused by coal ash waste seeping into the groundwater. Coal ash is laden with toxicants including arsenic, mercury, lead, chromium and selenium and, according to Physicians for Social Responsibility, has “the potential to injure all of the major organ systems, damage physical health and development, and even contribute to mortality.”

Wayne Watkins, a Vietnam War veteran, lives near Duke Energy’s Belews Creek Steam Station in Pine Hall, N.C. Watkins is originally from the area, and moved back in 1994 to live in the house his grandfather built.

When he first returned, Watkins was excited to catch his own dinner from Belews Lake near his home. However, he began to worry when he started seeing fish that appeared twisted and deformed.

Watkins was not aware of the selenium poisoning that occurred from the Belews Steam Station’s discharge of toxic waste water directly into Belews Lake from 1974 to 1985. During that time, the lake became so toxic that 18 of its 20 fish species died off.

Susan Fischer lives about a quarter of a mile from the coal ash impoundment at Duke’s Asheville Steam Station. Although she is on municipal water supply, she is concerned because the current wastewater permit for the coal-fired utility allows it to discharge directly into the French Broad with few limits on what heavy metals the wastewater may contain.

“Clean water is an economic boost for us in northwest North Carolina in particular,” writes Fischer. “The French Broad River brings in a lot of income to our area, with lots of boaters and kayakers who love the river. We have worked hard to clean the river up … are we going to be made to spend more money to clean up after Duke Energy? They should be required to use the best technology to keep their waste out of the water.”

If the strongest proposed regulatory options pass, it will cost power companies less than one percent of their revenue to protect the nation’s waterways from the toxic waste water that, according to the EPA, accounts for 60 percent of all the water pollution in the country.

Debate Surrounds Duke Energy Coal Ash Settlement

By Kimber Ray

Responding to an unprecedented flood of public comments, North Carolina officials recommended several changes in September to tighten a proposed coal ash contamination settlement with Duke Energy. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources filed a lawsuit against the utility in March concerning groundwater contamination from coal ash ponds at Duke’s Asheville Steam Electric Generating Plant in Buncombe County and Riverbend Steam Station in Gaston County.

The state initially proposed that Duke pay a $99,000 fine and investigate the source and extent of groundwater pollution. Concerned citizens and environmental groups considered the settlement insufficient given current evidence indicating the scope of water contamination.

During the 30-day public comment period that ended Aug. 14, the DENR received nearly 5,000 comments, which included calls for Duke to enact a full cleanup and receive a greater fine. Based on these comments, the state added stronger language and tighter deadlines regarding Duke’s water contamination monitoring.

Many environmental groups remain dissatisfied, criticizing the changes as minor tweaks that fail to address wastewater discharges to adjacent bodies of water. “(The state) disregarded the views of thousands of North Carolinians and has failed to require Duke Energy to clean up its pollution of Mountain Island Lake, the Charlotte region’s drinking water supply,” Frank Holleman, Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, told the Charlotte Observer.

Tests of local wells three years ago revealed levels of contamination associated with coal ash to be well above state health standards. Toxic contaminants were also found in both the French Broad River and Mountain Island Lake; Duke disputes the significance of this contamination.

In the Charlotte Observer, Duke Energy spokeswoman Erin Culbert expressed approval of the proposed settlement, stating that “regulators need the outcomes of these studies to make informed decisions about whether corrective steps are needed, and what those are.”