Posts Tagged ‘Clean Water Act’

Navigating the Russell Fork

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

Poised to bolster a flagging economy, one river also faces threats from coal mining

Kayakers at race finish

Kayakers gather at the finish of the Lord of the Fork Race on the Russell Fork River. Photo by Gareth Tate.

By Erin Savage

The Russell Fork River, with its steep gorge walls, impressive rapids and tranquil pools, is one of the best-known and most-visited rivers in Central Appalachia.

Like many waterways in the region, human activity has impacted the Russell Fork for well over a hundred years. At times, coal mining has had a significant impact, but so too have natural gas drilling, construction, sewage and trash dumping. In general, the Russell Fork’s water quality has improved over the last few decades, due to efforts by local residents and stronger regulations from state and federal governments.

Despite better water quality, the Russell Fork faces new threats from potential coal mining. Last year, Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, submitted an application to the national river advocacy group American Rivers asking that the Russell Fork River be included in their 2016 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. In April, the annual list — which highlights 10 at-risk waterways — was announced and the Russell Fork was included and ranked at No. 7.

The river’s listing was due to a proposed surface mine in the Russell Fork headwaters known as the Doe Branch Mine. A portion of the current mine proposal was approved back in 2005, but the mine’s future remains unclear, as do its impacts on the Russell Fork watershed. At a time when the coal industry has seen massive declines and the region is grappling with an uncertain future, opinions regarding the mine vary widely.

More Than Just a River

Part of the Big Sandy River Basin, the Russell Fork begins in Dickenson County, Va., and flows north into Pike County, Ky. It is the main attraction at Breaks Interstate Park, which spans the border between the two states. In the park, the river forms one of the deepest gorges east of the Mississippi and is home to the Big Sandy crayfish, which is listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In an area challenged by the economic realities of a declining coal industry, the Russell Fork and Breaks Interstate Park provide a welcome economic boost for the region. In 2015 alone, visitation to Breaks Interstate Park generated $9.95 million in economic impact.

The Russell Fork River is the main attraction of Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles Virginia and Kentucky.

The Russell Fork River is the main attraction of Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles Virginia and Kentucky.

The 52-mile waterway boasts many recreational opportunities, including fishing, swimming and paddling. The Army Corps of Engineers controls the Flannigan Dam, a flood control dam upstream of the sections most commonly used for rafting and kayaking. In the fall, the reservoir is drawn down, creating predictable weekend flows throughout October. These recreational releases attract intermediate and advanced paddlers from around the country. An annual experts-only race through the gorge at the end of October, the Lord of the Fork Race, includes local and international competitors.

Other regional tourism efforts also contribute to new economic impacts in the region. The annual Cloudsplitter ultrarunning race, which travels beside a portion of the Russell Fork and ends in Elkhorn City, Ky., generated $25,000 in new economic impact in 2015 alone, according to a study by Eastern Kentucky University. Other groups in the region are working with the Army Corps of Engineers and their congressional representatives to potentially increase the number of recreational releases from Flannigan Dam.

The Russell Fork has a dedicated following, including local residents and others from surrounding areas in Kentucky and Virginia. For over a decade, the Friends of the Russell Fork, a small but determined group of community members in and around Haysi, Va., have worked to improve the quality of the watershed and promote the river as a vital cultural and economic resource for the area. Under the leadership of Director Gene Counts, a local kayaker and retired public school administrator, Friends of the Russell Fork has worked with other local leaders, school children and visiting AmeriCorps volunteers to clean illegal dump sites and monitor tributary streams for pollution. The organization has provided steady leadership in advancing sustainable environmental practices throughout the watershed.

Map by Jimmy Davidson/Appalachian Voices

Map by Jimmy Davidson/Appalachian Voices

“We work with schools within the watershed, teaching students how to monitor the health of our watershed through hands-on microinvertebrate studies,” says Counts. “I believe engaging young people in our home towns is key to maintaining the health of the Russell Fork.”

In 2011, the organization surveyed more than 200 homes along Russell Fork tributaries for sewage straight pipes and faulty septic systems, providing critical information to state agencies with resources to upgrade the communities’ sewage systems.

The river obtains some additional protections through state and federal programs. In 2010 the state of Virginia designated the Russell Fork a Virginia Scenic River. While the designation does not specifically limit human activity in the river corridor, it does help to increase the influence of local residents’ voices in decisions that may impact the river.

The federal Clean Water Act has also led to improvements in water quality for the Russell Fork and its tributaries through more protective regulations and additional monitoring requirements. The law also requires that states keep a list of impaired waterways and develop pollution management plans for these areas. In 1996, Virginia added Russell Prater Creek, a Russell Fork tributary, to the state’s list. The creek was listed due to its diminished ability to support aquatic life. The state identified two types of pollutants, total suspended solids and total dissolved solids, as the most probable stressors.

Identifying Pollutants

Total Dissolved Solids: substances dissolved in water, including minerals, metals and salts. Common sources include sewage, road salt used in the winter, and heavy metals and minerals exposed through mining and dissolved by rain.

Total Suspended Solids: small solid material floating in the water, such as sediment, plant material and sewage. Common sources include sewage, and debris from construction, logging
and mining.

Total Maximum Daily Load: A TMDL is a pollution budget and management plan developed by states for streams and rivers that do not meet water quality standards. The TMDL identifies which pollutants are causing stream impairment and calculates the maximum amount of each pollutant that a waterway should be able to handle while still meeting water quality standards.

In 2006, the state of Virginia proposed — and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved — a pollution budget, known as a total maximum daily load, for Russell Prater Creek. At that time, there were at least 35 mining facilities discharging pollutants into the tributary. The state identified mining as a major contributor to the creek’s poor health, and developed plans for reducing pollution in the watershed. However, the most recent monitoring data from 2014 and 2015 indicate that the watershed is still exceeding its allowed total dissolved solids wasteload by 1,076,907 kilograms per year — more than twice the target limit established by the state.

The Doe Branch Mine

The Doe Branch mine, as currently proposed, would be one of the newest and largest mines in the Russell Fork headwaters. It began as a plan submitted by Paramont Coal for a 245-acre permit in 2005. At that time, Paramont was owned by Alpha Natural Resources, which was one of the largest coal companies in Central Appalachia and in the country. The mine was also slated to be part of a large highway construction project known as the Coalfields Expressway.

The Coalfields Expressway was originally designed in 2001 as a highway to link U.S. Route 23 in Virginia to Interstates 77 and 64 in West Virginia. Early construction plans were hampered by steep terrain and associated high costs. In 2006, the Virginia Department of Transportation began working with Alpha Natural Resources and another coal company, Pioneer Group, to explore an option where surface coal mines would provide the first steps in constructing the roadbed. The new plan significantly changed the route of the highway so that key mines could be worked into the project, including the Doe Branch mine.

The highway project is controversial — supporters claim it would bring much-needed economic development opportunities to the region, but those opposed to the plan feel it unnecessarily enables additional surface mining and does not adequately consider what is best for nearby communities.

“Road construction in the area could benefit the region, at least through short-term employment, and could motivate new industries to move to the region, but only if the project is well thought out and economically viable,” says Matt Hepler of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

Both Appalachian Voices and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards oppose the Coalfields Expressway, as the plan currently stands, due to its reliance on surface mining.

Plans for the Doe Branch Mine and the highway have progressed slowly — as of the last state inspection in June 2016, no mining activity had started and no wastewater was being released, though there had been some logging. In 2012, Paramont applied for a permit modification that would expand the mine by an additional 860 acres. The update would increase the total size of the mine to approximately 1,100 acres, fill four additional valleys with excess rock and dirt, and increase the number of wastewater discharge points from three to 14. Five of the new wastewater discharge points would release into Doe Branch and Wolfpen Branch, which feed into Russell Prater Creek, the Russell Fork tributary already impaired by mining-related pollutants.

That same year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an objection to the company’s request to expand the Doe Branch Mine. The EPA’s objection cited inadequate wastewater permit limits and water quality remediation plans, including the fact that the state did not impose numeric limits on the amount of dissolved solids that could be discharged from the mine’s wastewater outfalls.

The company’s 2011 plan included the construction of 16 wetlands to theoretically reduce both total dissolved solids and total suspended solids in the watershed. However, the EPA stated in its objection that wetlands won’t solve the problem. “We also are unaware of any generally accepted, peer-reviewed literature identifying any geochemical process through which wetlands would remove dissolved, as opposed to suspended solids,” regulators wrote. The agency’s objections still stand in 2016.

Current Developments

In August 2015, Alpha Natural Resources filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was expected and came in a long line of similar bankruptcies filed by other coal mining companies over the last several years. The change slowed but did not halt plans for the Doe Branch Mine.

Alpha’s plan for emergence from bankruptcy was approved by the court in the summer of 2016. The plan involves the formation of two new companies. One is a privately held, smaller Alpha, which will retain most of the Central Appalachian coal mines. The other is Contura Energy, formed by Alpha’s senior lenders, which purchased Alpha’s Wyoming, Pennsylvania and better-performing Central Appalachian mines. Doe Branch is included in the short list of Central Appalachian mines that Contura now owns.

Though Alpha stated earlier this year that its 10-year plan did not include pursuing the Doe Branch Mine, the change in ownership may indicate otherwise. “When Alpha split in two in order to emerge from bankruptcy, it conspicuously loaded all of its valuable assets into Contura, and left the reorganized Alpha with high-liability assets needing to be wound down and reclaimed,” says Sierra Club Staff Attorney Peter Morgan. “Because the Doe Branch Mine went to Contura, it appears clear that the company sees value in the mine and hopes to continue developing it.”


Andria Davis runs a Russell Fork rapid during a release of the Flannigan Dam. Photo by Leland Davis

In August 2016, a new draft water pollution permit was published by the Virginia Division of Mine Land Reclamation, for the mining operator now know as Paramont Contura, LLC. The new draft permit still does not impose numeric limits on the amount of dissolved solids that can be discharged from the Doe Branch Mine.

The following month, the EPA notified the state of a general objection to the new draft permit, because the 2012 specific objection regarding the amount of dissolved solids the mine would generate had not yet been resolved. Though the EPA will review the new draft to determine if it resolves the issues raised in 2012, given the lack of changes, it seems likely that they will continue to object. But if Paramont can address the EPA’s concerns, the company could secure the last remaining permit it needs in order to move forward.

International prices for coal have increased recently, driven by demand for steel-making coal in China, which could increase production in Central Appalachia. The construction of the Coalfields Expressway could also shift the economic calculations in favor of moving forward. The plan not only makes road construction cheaper, but also decreases the costs of permitting and reclamation for Paramont.

Environmental groups and concerned citizens are continuing to track the progress of the Doe Branch Mine. Even if the mine moves forward, it is likely that increased oversight from these stakeholders could lead to more stringent and protective permit requirements.

Though the coal-bearing mountains on either side of the Russell Fork are part of what places it at risk, the river’s stunning surroundings are also a reason for optimism. Between decades of local stewardship and growing national concern for this Appalachian treasure, there is a community of advocates watching out for the Russell Fork.

Learn more and take action at

West Virginia files Clean Water Act suit against Kanawha County mine

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016 - posted by willie
Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has brought a lawsuit against Florida-based Keystone Industries over a series of Clean Water Act violations at the controversial KD #2 surface mine.

The 413-acre mountaintop removal mine in southern Kanawha County, W.Va., has been met with much opposition by local residents and others concerned about the mine’s impacts on nearby communities and on Kanawha State Forest, which borders the mine.

The suit, filed on March 9 in the Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleges that runoff from the KD #2 mine contains measurements of aluminum, iron, manganese, selenium, total suspended solids and pH that are in violation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit granted to Keystone Industries under the Clean Water Act. The primary evidence supporting this claim is the company’s own quarterly discharge monitoring reports submitted to the DEP.

The Kanawha Forest Coalition, a grassroots environmental watchdog group comprised of local community members, has conducted water monitoring at the site since shortly after the mine began operating in 2014. Through these efforts, the coalition has identified numerous and persistent regulatory violations, prompting the DEP to issue 40 enforcement actions against the KD #2 mine to date.

“It was shocking to realize that it was through citizen complaints, and not DEP monitoring, that our land was being protected,” said Becky Park, a Kanawha Forest Coalition member from Charleston. “What it boils down to is we are the government. We can’t assume that DEP employees are monitoring permitted mining operations. We have to read the permits, understand the agreements made with mining companies, be willing to use the systems in place to submit complaints, and go to court when the systems fail to stop violators.”

Daile Boulis, who lives in the community of Loudendale immediately adjacent to the KD #2 mine feels similarly.

“From what I understand, this is one of best written permits in the state, and still, there are forty violations in two years? Imagine what the company would be getting away with, without the citizen enforcement and public media exposure? The same thing goes for the DEP,” said Boulis. “The only reason 75-80% of the violations have been enforced and fined is due to pressure from the Kanawha Forest Coalition. When you consider all of the other mines in West Virginia that don’t have a group like Kanawha Forest Coalition working on behalf of the impacted citizens, that’s terrifying! Our lives should not be the cost of doing business in West Virginia.”

By initiating its own suit against Keystone Industries, the DEP has prevented the Kanawha Forest Coalition or other grassroots organizations from filing suit on similar grounds. However, the organization may choose to file as an intervenor in the case, a move that would earn them a seat at the table — but not veto power — in potential future settlement negotiations with Keystone.

Doug Wood, a retired DEP official with 33 years of experience in water resources, is skeptical of his former agency’s motives in bringing this case against Keystone.

“This lawsuit seems to be an attempt to stop advocates from filing their own suits, and an attempt to get a little money to start water pollution treatment when Keystone says, ‘keep the bond, we’re outta here,’” said Wood. “… The DEP seems to be most interested in getting a court settlement so they can say, ‘we solved that problem’ even though the systemic problems that led to this disaster remain unsolved.”

The DEP’s suit against Keystone is expected to go to trial in spring 2017. Meanwhile, the Kanawha Forest Coalition continues to monitor conditions at the mine, regularly testing impacted streams and alerting the DEP of persistent problems.

Another step toward clean water in Southwest Virginia

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 - posted by Erin
Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Appalachian Voices, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) and the Sierra Club recently lodged a settlement addressing several sources of water pollution in Southwest Virginia. As a result, several sources of the toxic pollutant selenium in Wise County, Va., will be cleaned up and the city of Norton, Va., will be one big step closer to cleaning up an abandoned coal-loading facility.

The Case

In 2014, SAMS, the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, filed a legal action against Penn Virginia for violations of the Clean Water Act. In response to our allegations, Penn Virginia filed claims against A&G Coal Corp., a Jim Justice-owned company, claiming the company was responsible for at least some the pollution. A&G operates a mine neighboring the Penn Virginia land identified in the case.

The violations included unlawful discharge of the toxic pollutant selenium into several tributaries of Callahan Creek. The violations were discovered by SAMS through a review of records submitted by A&G Coal to state regulators in Virginia. The reports showed discharges of selenium and sulfate. Both pollutants are harmful to aquatic life. Selenium can be particularly harmful, resulting in fish deformities and reproductive failure.

A two-headed trout deformed from exposure to selenium

The Settlement

If approved, the settlement will resolve this case and results in several important water quality improvements in Southwest Virginia. Under the settlement terms, A&G Coal will treat three seeps currently discharging selenium into the Kelly Branch tributary of Callahan Creek. The settlement also requires the companies to provide $35,000 for the initial cleanup assessment of a nearby abandoned coal processing site in Norton known as Tipple Hill. Once the site has been restored, it could be included in the Norton Guest River Walk project. The Tipple Hill project is supported by the City of Norton, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable.

Moving Forward

This settlement offers our organizations a unique opportunity to resolve pollution from both an active mine and from legacy mining on land owned by a large landholding company. Large swaths of land in Southwest Virginia are owned by companies like Penn Virginia that lease land to timber, coal and gas companies for resource extraction. These landholding companies often escape liability when problems arise from the activities on the land.

Several mechanisms exist for addressing water pollution and other problems associated with coal mining. On active mines, including those undergoing reclamation, the coal company is responsible for monitoring conditions and addressing problems that arise. The state oversees this monitoring to make sure the law is enforced, but a lot of problems still occur.

Problems arising from mines that were closed prior to passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) are eligible for federal Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funding. There is a fairly large amount of money available through the AML reclamation fund, but not enough to cover every problem left over from these pre-SMCRA mines. Mines permitted after the passage of SMCRA include bonds to cover the cost of reclamation should the company fall into bankruptcy. Unfortunately, in many instances, bonding has proved insufficient for proper reclamation, especially as many coal companies go bankrupt in close succession.

In many cases, it is difficult to determine exactly how water pollution arose. Many areas around Central Appalachia have been mined underground, surface mined prior to SMCRA, and surface mined after SMCRA. Add gas well drilling to that mix, and it becomes very difficult to pinpoint the individual companies responsible. Many people, including all of us at Appalachian Voices, primarily want to see water problems cleaned up, regardless of who’s responsible. But with limited resources for cleanup, identifying liability can be a critical part of addressing the sources of water pollution.

Moving forward, we’re going to have to identify multiple resources – funding, expertise, and local knowledge – to help us restore Central Appalachia.

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Historic Clean Water Act Settlement in KY

Tuesday, February 16th, 2016 - posted by interns

Following a five-year legal battle, Appalachian Voices and our partners finalized a historic settlement with Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in December. The settlement 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 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, our Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator.

The settlement came as the newly elected Bevin administration took office, setting a critical benchmark for new Secretary of Energy and Environment Charles Snavely, who was vice president at International Coal Group when Appalachian Voices and partners discovered similar Clean Water Act violations at that company.

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.
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.
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

Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices, 206-769-8286,
Ted Withrow, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, 606-784-6885,
Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper, 859-200-7442,
Peter Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance, 828-582-0422,
Alice Howell, Sierra Club, 859-420-8092,

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.


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.