Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

Thank God for our Kentucky newspapers

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators' lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky's politicians and agencies aren't shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators’ lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky’s politicians and agencies aren’t shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Earlier this year, former Kentucky state Rep. Keith Hall was convicted of bribing a state mine inspector while the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet looked the other way. It was only after the Lexington Herald-Leader revealed the bribery through an open records request that the FBI began an investigation.

Now, the Louisville Courier-Journal has uncovered a confidentiality agreement between the cabinet and Whitesburg, Ky.-based Childers Oil Company that would have kept secret a proposed lawsuit settlement between the cabinet and the oil company.

As Tom Loftus of the Courier-Journal writes, “The proposed settlement in the case against Childers Oil Co. contained a sweeping confidentiality clause in which cabinet officials agreed to seal the settlement and ‘forever remain silent at all times and places and under all circumstances’ regarding all aspects of the settlement — even the existence of the settlement itself.”

The Courier-Journal, and subsequently the public, only found out about the agreement because a judge was required to reject it since it had not been signed by the cabinet’s lawyer.

The lawsuit stems from a February 2011 incident in which Childers Oil Company, owned by Whitesburg businessman Don Childers, leaked diesel fuel into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The fuel made it into the city’s water supply, triggering a three-day water advisory. Many residents were not immediately notified of the chemical’s presence in the water supply. Businesses and restaurants were critically impacted by the leak.

As a resident of Whitesburg with a vested interest in seeing my community transition to a sustainable economy independent of the region’s collapsing coal industry, this is especially troubling. This month two restaurants and a moonshine distillery opened their doors in our community. It isn’t hard to see how incidents like the 2011 diesel spill and future water advisories — they occur with frightening regularity here — make it hard for institutions to do business.

But even more importantly is what this says about the agencies that are supposed to be looking out for our health and safety. As my colleague Evan Smith told the Courier-Journal:

“The most important danger that comes from this is not what’s actually in the water, it’s the public perception that you can’t trust what comes out of your pipe and what the government is doing to protect the water. And when you’ve got confidential settlements that look like sweetheart deals, it further erodes the public’s trust in our government’s process and ability for protecting our drinking water.”

This point was driven home at a recent public hearing in Lexington on the proposed Stream Protection Rule. I listened in amazement as state Rep. Jim Gooch decried the rule — which is aimed at cutting down on the amount of mining waste dumped into streams — as pointless and unnecessary because, according to Gooch, “the biggest threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky is straight piping.”

By “straight piping,” Gooch is referring to the act of running a sewage line directly from a house to a creek, rather than a municipal sewage system or septic tank. This is very common in topographically rugged and economically distressed areas like eastern Kentucky.

And Gooch wasn’t the wasn’t the only one blaming Kentuckians for their water quality problems. Multiple politicians at this hearing claimed that the “trash and litter problem” was a greater threat to the region’s streams than industrial pollution.

This isn’t particularly surprising. Misleading rhetoric about the “true threats” to ecological and human health gets peddled every time new regulations threaten the coal industry’s bottom line. What’s truly egregious here is that Jim Gooch is the chair of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. His comments display a shocking disconnect from what’s actually going on on the ground in eastern Kentucky.

While it is true that straight piping is a significant threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky, it’s dangerous to assume that phenomena like straight piping and litter, as opposed to diesel spills and mining pollution, are entirely separate issues. Separating them out and assigning them arbitrary prioritization conveniently diverts attention away from the issue at hand. The need to address one problem in no way diminishes the need to address the other.

But these diversion tactics are quite lucrative. A follow-up investigation by the Courier-Journal revealed that Don Childers, a registered Republican, and others affiliated with Childers Oil Co. donated a combined $4,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party while Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration was negotiating its secret settlement with the company.

Sadly, whether it’s agreeing to secret settlement deals over diesel spills or blaming Kentucky citizens for their water quality problems, these politicians and the agencies they oversee reveal whose interests they truly serve: those of the fossil fuel industry.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule ends on Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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Citizen stories counter coal industry deception

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 - posted by willie
Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va.

Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va., where clean water advocates argued for stronger protections and coal industry representatives relied on deception to rally against the rule.

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a draft of its Stream Protection Rule, a long-awaited regulation aimed at reducing the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Along with coalfield community members and allied organizations, Appalachian Voices is asking the agency to close loopholes in the rule that state agencies might exploit, allowing coal companies to continue polluting our streams. We are also pushing for clear language in the final rule that states citizens may enforce water quality standards under the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the Office of Surface Mining to strengthen the draft Stream Protection Rule.

As part of its rule-making process, OSM held six public hearings across the nation in order to gather comments from stakeholders and impacted residents. Only two hearings were held in the central Appalachian coalfields; one in Big Stone Gap, Va., and another in Charleston, W.Va.

The hearing in Big Stone Gap provides a glimpse into how the whole series of hearings played out. About 250 people were present at the hearing, which took place on the evening of Sept. 15. At 6 p.m., U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s 9th district, the first speaker of the evening, approached the podium. Griffith did not address any details of the Stream Protection Rule in his comments, and he provided no tangible evidence of whether or not it would achieve its intended effect. Instead, Griffith seized the opportunity to spout “war on coal” rhetoric and to accuse the rule’s supporters of caring more about mayflies than human beings.

Concluding his comments after five minutes, Rep. Griffith was on his way out of the building when Wise County resident Jane Branham confronted him and asked him to stay and listen to what his constituents had to say. Griffith declined this invitation and left promptly at 6:11 p.m.

Had Rep. Griffith stayed, he would have heard Mary Darcy from Wise who said:

Despite rules and laws, tons of waste are dumped into these waterways regularly. How does this happen? Do the states not enforce clean water regulations? Do our elected representatives turn their backs on the needs of the people with something as critical as water?

Darcy was not the only speaker to call out state agencies for repeatedly failing to enforce regulations. Diana Withen, a local high school biology teacher, implored the OSM to include clear language allowing for citizen monitoring and enforcement, stating, “We know that government budgets are tight and that regulatory agencies are going to continue to face budget cuts in the future. So allowing concerned citizens to help monitor the water quality in our streams makes sense.”

A reconstructed "stream" below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

A reconstructed “stream” below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

Countering the many citizens who spoke up for clean water were the numerous coal industry representatives that railed against the rule. But instead of addressing the rule’s content, they expended a great deal of time and energy accusing the Office of Surface Mining and President Obama of deliberately attacking coal mining for political gain.

Scott Barton, a mine superintendent at Murray Energy’s Harrison County Mine in northern West Virginia, argued that the Obama administration “hides behind the myth of global warming to justify it’s job destroying agenda. Everyone in the coal industry knows this is a lie.”

Other pro-industry, anti-regulatory speakers described the rule as a “weapon of mass destruction,” the “nuclear option” and “the last nail in the crucifixion of the coal industry.” Sadly, preference on the part of the industry and politicians for rhetoric over substance was not unique to the Big Stone Gap hearing. Much more of the same could be heard at each of the five other hearings in Charleston, Denver, Lexington Ky., Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule has been extended in response to industry requests and will now remain open until Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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Coal Ash: It’s not just toxic, it’s radioactive!

Friday, September 4th, 2015 - posted by sarah

Scientists, environmental advocates and citizens living near coal ash ponds have long been concerned about the possible radioactivity of coal ash. And rightly so. On Wednesday, Duke University released a study which shows that coal ash from all three major U.S. coal-producing basins contains radioactive contaminants.

Caroline Armijo, who grew up near Duke's coal ash ponds in Belews Creek, speaks to a crowd of other Belews Creek residents about the health problems in their community. Armijo has long wondered if radioactivity from coal ash could be contributing to health problems in the community.

Caroline Armijo, who grew up near Duke’s coal ash ponds in Belews Creek, speaks to a crowd of other Belews Creek residents about the health problems in their community. Armijo has long wondered if radioactivity from coal ash could be contributing to health problems in the community.

According to Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University and contributor to the study, in addition to heavy metals found in coal ash, “we should also be looking for radioactive elements, such as radium isotopes and lead-210, and including them in our monitoring efforts.”

Currently, coal ash and contaminated groundwater leaking from coal ash ponds are not tested for radioactivity. “We don’t know how much of these contaminants are released to the environment, and how they might affect human health in areas where coal ash ponds and landfills are leaking. Our study opens the door for future evaluation of this potential risk,” Vengosh says.

The study found that the radioactivity was up to ten times higher in coal ash than in the coal it came from, and up to five times higher than average U.S. soil. The study also concluded that radioactivity is concentrated in the small particles of fly ash and that exposure to dry ash particles could also be of concern.

For some North Carolina residents living next to Duke Energy’s coal-fired power plants who remember the days when fly ash would float in the air like snow, landing on their homes and gardens, the study raises concerns about the health effects that kind of exposure had on their community. Caroline Armijo who grew up in Walnut Cove, home to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant, believes the radioactivity of coal ash could be the root cause of the startling rates of cancer she’s observed in her home town.

“I applaud Duke University’s recent discovery,” says Armijo, “and pray this insight will lead us to a better understanding of the best way to clean up coal ash in our community.”

Currently, Duke Energy dumps its coal ash as a wet slurry into unlined pits, or as dry ash into landfills. At the Belews site — the largest in North Carolina – an unlined pond holds wet coal ash and a lined landfill, which is known to be leaking, holds the dry. Armijo and many others in the community want the utility to dispose of the coal ash in a way that protects them, the air and the groundwater from toxic metals — and from radioactivity.

Clean Water Laws Wrestle With Coal

Friday, September 4th, 2015 - posted by molly

Peculiar Patriot Coal deal raises questions

Thursday, August 20th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

What would a health care executive-turned-environmentalist want with the dying business of mining coal?

That’s the question some are asking after it was announced this week that Tom Clarke, a Virginia businessman, plans to acquire assets, and assume around $400 million in liabilities, from recently-bankrupt Patriot Coal through one of his companies, ERP Compliant Fuels.

The deal is part of an elaborate and untested business model that will allow ERP — an affiliate of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund — to continue mining Patriot permits in West Virginia, bundling this coal with “carbon offsets” accrued from planting trees, and selling these bundled products to electric utilities.

Because trees absorb atmospheric carbon, Clarke believes credits created through reforestation will help states meet carbon emissions targets set forth by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the plan does not make clear that coal-carbon offsets will count towards states’ emissions targets.

According to The Roanoke Times, Clarke says he’s not in it for the money, but for the earth. But that isn’t clear from the available literature on ERP, which seeks to bring together a coalition of conflicting environmental and capital interests — “coal mining businesses, electric power producers, forestland owners, government, and the scientific community” — in order to reduce global CO2 emissions. In the same literature, Clarke and the ERP/VCLF tout their business partnership with Jim Justice, a notorious scofflaw mine operator who owes nearly $2 million in mine violation fines.

As if these relationships weren’t enough to raise suspicion, ERP/VCLF’s definition of a “carbon offset” is dubious. As The Roanoke Times points out:

It doesn’t matter that Clarke will target coal-fired electrical generating plants in the Ohio River Valley with his pitch, while the designated trees are in Central America and the U.S. South or would be planted in Appalachia. Carbon emissions spread in the atmosphere and the concentration evens out; a party that wants to offset its carbon output can fund tree planting or tree preservation anywhere and benefit the globe, he said.

If there’s no requirement that trees be planted on deforested land in Appalachia, what’s stopping ERP from destroying mountains and externalizing the costs onto Appalachian communities for the social mission of stopping climate change? How does ERP plan to address coal ash and mercury and the many other harmful externalities that are inflicted on communities as coal is mined, processed and burned? How will the company account for the numerous injuries, fatalities, and black lung incidences that result from both underground and surface mining? Coal’s impact goes far beyond CO2 pollution.

These are crucial questions to ask as the coal industry in central Appalachia undergoes massive structural changes. If the history of the coal industry in the region has taught us anything, it’s that we should be highly suspect of outside corporate interests looking to exploit the region’s natural resources.

This is just as true today, in an era in which investors and politicians stand to gain substantial material and social capital off of the region’s diversification.

Predictable politics giving way to popular support for POWER+

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo of Wise County, Va., by Flickr user biotour 13 licensed under Creative Commons.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan are less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate economic hardship. Photo of Wise County, Va., by biotour 13.

UPDATE: As of September 29, a total of 15 Appalachian government entities have passed resolutions to support POWER+. In addition to the seven mentioned below:

  • the towns of Appalachia, Cleveland and Wise, in Virginia
  • the cities of Vicco and Evarts, in Kentucky
  • the Pike County Fiscal Court, Harlan County Fiscal Court, and Benham Power Board, Kentucky.
  • * * * * *

    The recent growth in local support for a plan to boost Appalachia’s economy has been a bright spot in the region during some of the coal industry’s darkest days.

    In Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan, a federal budget initiative proposed by the White House to build more diverse economies in the communities hardest hit by the regional coal industry’s decline.

    Last week, the Board of Supervisors of Wise County, Va., unanimously approved a resolution supporting the plan, citing the “dramatic economic transition” and job losses the county has experienced. According to the resolution, the county “desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances” facing the region.

    On the same night, the City Council of Benham, in Harlan County, Ky., passed a supporting resolution. Before Benham came the City of Whitesburg, Ky., and Virginia’s Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission.

    The Campbell County Commission became the first locality in Tennessee to support POWER+, unanimously passing a resolution yesterday. Also on Monday, members of the Letcher County Fiscal Court voted unanimously in favor of the plan.

    The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

    The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

    It was only a few weeks ago that Norton, Va., became the first locality in the nation to pass a resolution in favor of the plan. More endorsements are expected in the days and weeks ahead.

    Appalachian Voices and our allies have been promoting the POWER+ Plan, too. We’re heartened, but not surprised, to hear local perspectives that don’t reflect the tone legislators from Appalachian states often take in D.C.

    After listening to residents speak at the Wise County Board of Supervisors meeting about how the plan could benefit their families and share their hopes for Southwest Virginia’s economy, board member Ron Shortt told the audience, “We’re behind you 100 percent on this. We realize how important it is to Southwest Virginia and Wise County.”

    The implication could be that, so far, Congress doesn’t realize how important it is for the region.

    Since it holds the federal purse strings, Congress must approve funding for elements of the POWER+ Plan. But after months of opportunity to consider the proposal, and some shirking by Appalachian politicians, lawmakers in the House and Senate weakened key provisions of the plan or left them out of the budget altogether.

    We recently covered Congress’s muted response in The Appalachian Voice and pointed to how lawmakers are sticking to their political sides:

    … rather than receiving the POWER+ Plan with enthusiasm, many Appalachian lawmakers’ comments echoed past criticisms of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and claims of a war on coal.

    “The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that,” a spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Earlier this year, Capito introduced legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon pollution.

    When asked about the plan, a spokesperson for first-term Rep. Alex Mooney responded to the Gazette-Mail with a simple “No, Representative Mooney does not support the [POWER+] Plan.”

    Mooney has introduced a bill to prevent the U.S. Department of the Interior from finalizing the Stream Protection Rule to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. He has called stopping the rule his “top priority.”

    Rather than investing in workforce training and reemployment programs or reforming the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund to focus more on economic development, as the POWER+ Plan would, congressional opponents of the president remain primarily concerned with undermining protections for Appalachian streams and fighting limits on carbon emissions — policy goals, sure, but nothing close to an economic development plan for the region.

    The counties that stand to benefit most from the plan are some of the poorest in the United States and continue to face layoffs, the impacts of ongoing mining, and pollution from decades-old and poorly reclaimed mine sites.

    Lawmakers representing those counties in Congress, including Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are positioned to rally other influential legislators around the plan, but they aren’t.

    Some lawmakers have made statements expressing tacit support. But the resolutions make clear that these localities expect their representatives to do more; some call on members of Congress by name to support funding for economic development in the region.

    The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan, and attempts to fit it into a “war on coal” framework, are understandably less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate the economic hardships they face.

    Many of the communities now urging members of Congress to back the plan have been underrepresented over the years in their demands for a more diverse economy. They deserved to be heard then like they deserve to be heard now.

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Formidable Costs

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

Coal Company Conducts Business as Usual Near Kanawha State Forest

By Tarence Ray

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. A recent inspection recorded pH values between 3 and 4, which is 100 to 1,000 times more acidic than allowed by law. 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. A recent inspection recorded pH values between 3 and 4, which is 100 to 1,000 times more acidic than allowed by law. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Seven miles south of Charleston, W.Va., sits a 9,300-acre expanse of trails, streams and wildlife known as the Kanawha State Forest. The forest’s diverse wildflower and bird species attract naturalists from all over the region, and trails and fully-equipped campgrounds bring in a variety of visitors, from mountain bikers and campers to students on field trips.

When Keystone Industries applied to open a 413-acre mountaintop removal coal mine adjacent to the forest in spring 2014, concern for the land’s recreational and ecological diversity prompted outrage from West Virginians. During the mine’s permitting process, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources received 180 comments from the general public. Every single one of them opposed the mine.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged some of these concerns when reviewing Keystone’s permit for the KD #2 mine. According to a statement from the DEP, the agency included provisions in the permit that would have minimized the mine’s impact on tourism and water quality. These provisions required that a ridge facing the forest be mined last, that the buffer between the mining and the forest would be increased, and that blasting would be prohibited during times of heavy forest usage, such as holidays and weekends.

But many residents in the area still had questions. Daile Boulis lives roughly 2,000 feet from the mine in the small community of Loudendale, five miles south of the state’s capital, Charleston. Her house faces the state forest, and she relies on well water. During the January 2014 Charleston water crisis, when a chemical spill contaminated Elk River and the city water supply, residents of the city came to her house to shower and fill jugs with fresh water.

Boulis first heard about the Keystone mine through a local news affiliate’s coverage of the permit on Facebook. “This thing pops up on my newsfeed with a map of the mine,” she says. “I’m looking at the map and I’m thinking, wait a minute, I think that’s my house right there!”

Many of Boulis’ and her neighbor’s anxieties about the mine centered on water quality and flooding. In 2003 the community of Loudendale experienced a horrific flood. Houses were lost; one person was killed. Because of the increased risks of flooding associated with mountaintop removal, and because Loudendale is located in a narrow valley that is already prone to flooding, the trauma of this experience resurfaced when the KD #2 permit was approved. “We were so concerned about water that we had to remind [our neighbors] that we were [also] going to have to worry about air quality.”

Since the DEP approved the permit in May 2014, the mine has accumulated more than 20 violations — many of them water-related — as well as three cessation-of-work orders. Many of these violations are water quality issues that are not easily mitigated, such as the orange-tinted acid drainage that runs off of many mine sites in the Appalachian coalfields. Despite the DEP’s attempts to create a buffer between the KD #2 mine and the forest’s watershed, acid mine runoff from the mine is now contaminating the nearby Davis Creek watershed.

“This [was] the tightest, best-written permit in the state of West Virginia — which for me, that single sentence is probably the scariest description [of the KD #2 mine],” says Boulis, referring to the fact that the state’s heightened scrutiny still could not prevent the amount of subsequent violations.

Jim Waggy and his colleagues at the grassroots Kanawha Forest Coalition were fully aware of the danger to the forest’s watershed when the permit was issued. At a WVDEP Surface Mine Board hearing in August 2014, Waggy and Doug Wood, a retired DEP water quality specialist, testified to the company’s prior history, as well as the potential water quality issues at the site. “[The agency’s] response was, ‘well we can’t just say there might be acid mine drainage problems,’” Waggy says.

In light of the 20-plus violations that the company has amassed since the mine opened, Waggy is dismayed by the agency’s dismissive attitude. “You would think that with this being such a controversial permit and with so much attention focused on it that the companies would have been so careful to follow the rules and to engage in the best practices possible,” Waggy says. “But apparently the companies are just so accustomed to bending or ignoring the rules — and getting away with it — that that’s how they behaved on this site as well.”

In June 2015, the amount of violations, in addition to political pressure and water monitoring efforts from citizens, finally forced the state’s hand. The DEP halted work at the mine, and placed Keystone and its operator, Revelation Energy, on the federal Office of Surface Mining’s Applicant Violator System. Inclusion in this nationwide database forbids them from holding another mining permit in the nation until the WVDEP approves their plans to mitigate the environmental problems on the site. This does not necessarily mean that Keystone could lose its KD #2 permit — but there is always that possibility.

Revoking Keystone’s permit would not repair the environmental damages that have already occurred. In fact, the evidence seems to indicate that a great deal of the damage is permanent. As Waggy noted in a Charleston Gazette editorial, “The citizens of West Virginia will have to choose between accepting a biologically degraded watershed or paying the formidable costs of perpetual water treatment.”

But despite the scrutiny the DEP has given to this mine, when asked if the more rigorous KD #2 permit process would have an effect on how the agency issues future mining permits in the state, a DEP spokesperson responded, “While the agency is always looking to improve how it operates, there is nothing about this particular situation that would warrant an immediate change in procedures.”

For residents in the more rural and economically distressed areas of the state, the lack of legal resources, time and political capital to hold the DEP and the companies it permits accountable continues to be a problem. Because the KD #2 mine is not far from relatively affluent neighborhoods in the greater Charleston area, Waggy says, “There is a very strong feeling that if other [mountaintop removal] sites in West Virginia were given the same level of attention and scrutiny, a large majority — if not all of them — would reveal the same degree of acid drainage and environmental impact.”

Yet Daile Boulis remains determined to fight back against what she perceives as the coal industry’s indifference to West Virginia’s communities. “I don’t deserve to be treated like a cost of business,” she says. “In fact I refuse to be treated as a cost of doing business.”

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.

Proposed Stream Protection Rule Released

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Erin Savage

Polluted water runs off a surface mine valley fill in eastern Kentucky. Photo by Matt Wasson

Polluted water runs off a surface mine valley fill in eastern Kentucky. Photo by Matt Wasson

The agency responsible for regulating surface coal mining across the country released a proposed Stream Protection Rule on July 16, which is intended to limit mining impacts on streams.

The long-awaited rule is not the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s first attempt to control the effects of surface mining on public waterways.

Currently, a 1983 Stream Buffer Zone Rule regulates mining within 100 feet of streams. In practice, the ‘83 rule allows mining activities such as filling streams with waste rock. A 2008 revision attempted to clarify circumstances under which streams could be filled, but was vacated by a federal court for violating the Endangered Species Act. This reinstated the 1983 rule.

The newly proposed rule states that it attempts to revise regulations to “improve the balance between environmental protection and the Nation’s need for coal as a source of energy.” Community and environmental groups have criticized the proposal for failing to end the construction of valley fills and other mining activities that can heavily impact water quality.

In central Appalachia, where steep terrain and a high concentration of streams make water quality impacts from mining more difficult to avoid, the rule would have its greatest effect. Overall, the rule would clarify protections given to streams during the mining process, and provide more detail about when states may grant exceptions to those protections. It would also increase baseline data collection for water quality, include provisions that increase the likelihood that mined land would be reclaimed as forest, and mandate more stringent bonding requirements for coal companies.

Despite these changes, the rule would allow mountaintop removal mining to continue.

“This proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect streams and communities,” says Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley. “In the final rule, the Obama Administration should change course and preserve the buffer that protects streams from direct mining damage.”

The coal industry is critical of the rule’s potential impact on coal jobs. The Office of Surface Mining’s analysis examines a range of potential employment outcomes. Most scenarios predict almost no job loss over a 21-year time period due to jobs created through compliance with the rule. Worst-case scenarios predict a net job loss of roughly 120 jobs over the same period.

The agency will host public hearings on the proposed rule in Pittsburgh, Pa., Lexington, Ky., St. Louis, Mo., Charleston, W.Va., and Denver, Colo. Dates have not been announced. Appalachian Voices and other environmental groups are drafting input on the rule and plan to collaborate with impacted communities in the public comment process over the next several months.

U.S. coal giant Alpha Natural Resources files for bankruptcy

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by jamie
Alpha Natural Resources Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, West Virginia - Photo by Ami Vitale

Alpha Natural Resources’ Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, W.Va. Photo by Ami Vitale,

Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States and a big player in the Appalachian coal market, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday of this week, coincidentally on the day President Obama announced his administration’s final Clean Power Plan.

In the announcement, Alpha blamed “an unprecedented period of distress with increased competition from natural gas, an oversupply in the global coal market, historically low prices due to weaker international and domestic economies, and increasing government regulation that has pushed electric utilities to transition away from coal-fired power plants.”

According to the release, the company does not anticipate closing the business down, but will “seek the necessary immediate relief from the Bankruptcy Court that will allow normal business operations to continue uninterrupted while in Chapter 11, with coal being mined, customer commitments honored, and wages and benefits for Alpha’s affiliated employees paid.”

A Bloomberg Business article notes that Alpha, which employs nearly 8,000 workers at more than 50 underground and surface mines and more than 20 coal preparation facilities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, has accumulated $3.3 billion in debt over the past several years.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Alpha has assets of $10.1 billion, liabilities of $7.1 billion, and is “seeking up to $692 million in bankruptcy financing from senior lenders and secured bondholders to fund its operations.”

United Mine Workers of America responded to the news:

“Today’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Alpha Natural Resources appears to follow the same script as others we’ve seen this year: pay off the big banks and other Wall Street investors at the expense of workers, retirees and their communities … Alpha needs to understand that while we are willing to discuss ways forward that will be of mutual benefit for the company and for our members, we are also prepared to do whatever we need to do to maintain decent jobs with the pension and health care benefits our retirees were promised and have earned.”

Alpha launched a new website to detail the Chapter 11 process, including contact information and FAQs for employees, customers, retirees and other stakeholders.

Is there an echo in here?

The move brings to mind the financial roller coaster of Patriot Coal, the West Virginia-based company that emerged from its first bankruptcy in 2012 only to file again a scant 3 years later in May of this year. Patriot’s initial 2012 “restructuring” plan was extremely controversial as it involved slashing the healthcare benefits of 1,800 union miners and retirees. Patriot initially won court approval for the cut, but, after significant public scrutiny and outrage, settled with the United Mine Workers of America in 2013 for $400 million to cover the benefits.

And now history seems to be repeating itself. According to an AP story that is quoted on Coal Tattoo (yet mysteriously disappeared from national news outlets, including the Washington Post), just a few weeks ago Patriot asked a judge’s permission to “reject the company’s collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees’ health care benefits …” The United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to the proposed plan, which includes $6.4 million in bonuses paid to management employees.

Just this week, the beleaguered company announced the layoff of 1,081 coal miners, most in West Virginia’s Kanawha County.

Patriot Coal is also the first coal company in Appalachia to announce it would phase out the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.

“Big Coal’s war on itself”

When examining the financial tribulations of big coal mining companies, industry officials are quick to point the finger at what they have dubbed the “war on coal,” claiming that environmental regulations are the primary culprits causing their fiscal misfortunes. But according to a recent article co-authored by independent financial analyst Andrew Stevenson and NRDC’s Dave Hawkins, coal mining’s economic downturn has more to do with bad investment decisions than anything else.

“The biggest cause of Big Coal’s loss of value is that Big 3 management bet big on a global coal boom and lost big when it went bust,” Stevenson and Hawkins write. Their article goes on to detail the five specific reasons Alpha and other coal companies are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“In sum, bad bets at the top of the market, weak met coal prices, cheap natural gas, and lower power demand due to energy efficiency reduced cumulative forecasted coal revenues for the Big 3 by approximately $21 billion over the past four years. This is a big hit for companies as highly leveraged as Alpha Natural, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy and the reason why these companies are struggling to stay afloat today.”

As industry officials and coal-friendly politicians — including an outspoken Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who notedly said, “I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy” — themselves take aim at the Clean Power Plan, they have yet to acknowledge the most important question on the table: what will happen to residents in Appalachia’s coal country who, because of company bankruptcies, layoffs, revocation of pensions and lack of other job opportunities, remain among the poorest in the nation?

So far, the only offer of assistance to these folks has come from President Obama himself, in the form of the POWER+ Plan to revitalize the region.

“They’ll claim [the Clean Power Plan] is a “war on coal,” to scare up votes — even as they ignore my plan to actually invest in revitalizing coal country, and supporting health care and retirement for coal miners and their families, and retraining those workers for better-paying jobs and healthier jobs,” Obama said on Monday, taking aim at McConnell and his other critics. Communities across America have been losing coal jobs for decades. I want to work with Congress to help them, not to use them as a political football.