Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

Daile Boulis: One coalfield resident’s journey to action

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } The following is an abridged transcript of a testimonial given by Daile Boulis of Kanawha County, W.Va., about how she became involved in the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining. This speech was delivered at a grassroots policy training held by The Alliance for Appalachia at the Highlander Center on April 9, 2016. It was transcribed by Forrest Gray Yerman.

Daile Boulis

Daile Boulis

I moved to West Virginia about three years ago to help take care of my father-in-law. He has a home he’s lived in since 1963 in a hollow about 10 miles west of Charleston. When I looked on Google Maps to show my friends in Ohio where I live I saw lots of big scraped areas. I went next door to my neighbor and asked, “what is this?”

She said, “oh, that’s Rush Creek Mine, don’t worry about. It’s three miles away.”

But as Rush Creek Mine was working this way, we started hearing more and more booms, and occasionally the houses would shake.

Someone came in and did a pre-blast survey and they didn’t talk to us. We thought, okay, we complained about hearing these booms from this mine getting closer. So they must be doing this to cover their butts, in case we make a claim. What we didn’t know is they had filed for a permit for an extension to this mine.

One day in May I was on Facebook, and I saw that the Charleston Gazette had posted a map of this permit that had just been approved. I’m looking at this map going, “I think that’s my house.” This mine was 2,000 feet from my house and our house is the monitoring well. I’m learning all kinds of stuff here, and I was shocked!

There was an organization posting on Facebook about this article saying, “You need to come help us fight this mine.”

I immediately texted someone from the organization and asked, “where do I have to be and what do I have to do?” And that started my journey. That was the Kanawha Forest Coalition.

This mine, I mean, it’s like they slid it under. And none of us knew anything about it. I don’t check classifieds. Do you? I had no idea that’s the only place they announce them. When they did the public comment period, they did it in a community 30 miles away from us. So we weren’t involved at all. We were told that our property value dropped 50 percent the day the permit was signed.

I’m a social media girl, so I’m out there going, “This isn’t right. How can they do this?” And I’m getting hate mail back saying, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

No I can’t, because I can’t sell my house now for anything near enough to move somewhere else. And my father-in-law has been here since 1963. Should he have to move too?

I started going to the Kanawha Forest Coalition meetings and I was mad. I couldn’t understand why my neighbors weren’t mad. My neighbors were kind of mad, but they figured I’m so naive and you can’t fight coal.

The state Department of Environmental Protection office is in Kanawha City. Well I can get to Kanawha City. So my wife and I went down to the DEP office thinking that they were going to stand with us. That that’s what they’re for.

So I walked in and said that I wanted to talk to somebody about this. But they told me, “well that’s not how it’s done.” Then I said that I would not leave until somebody talked to me. So we sat down and waited for somebody to come talk to us.

Eventually, a woman came down and gave us all these forms that we could take home and fill out saying we were against this mine. I said, “This is ridiculous, who can I talk to?” Someone else came out and said, “We’re going to set you up with a meeting. You’re neighbors can come in. We’ll set you up with an informational meeting.”

I can only get two of my neighbors to go to the meeting with me. So it’s my wife and me, and two of our neighbors. And there were twenty-four DEP people. At least half of them have this I’m-supposed-to-be-home-now look on their faces.

We said to them, “Look, this mine is right next door — literally. The only thing that separates it from us is a little road to Kanawha State Forest. There are trailheads that come down from there, and they’re going to be in the radius of fly rock.”

Well, I was told fly rock doesn’t exist, that absolutely nothing is allowed to leave the permit boundary.

I said, “Everyone’s told us we’re going to lose our wells.”

They said, “well, this is an awesome opportunity to get on city water,” at our expense, of course.

I looked at the guy — and mind you this is in May 2014, the water crisis happened in January of the same year — and I asked, “have you forgotten January that fast? Where do you think people went to get water and to take showers and to maybe wash a load of clothes? They came to my house, and the other houses in the holler.” I told them that we already have good water. Why is it okay, why is it just understood that I’m going to lose my water?

But I started this journey, and I saw people at Kanawha Forest Coalition meetings that showed me they were going to do something, that we could fight this. Everybody knows someone who works in the coal industry. I respect that. I understand that. But policies that say that our lives are the cost of doing business, that we’re an acceptable loss, are not OK. What does it take to get you fired up? I get it. You’re downtrodden. You’re tired and exhausted. But somebody has to scream, and stomp their feet, and go do whatever it takes to get their attention.

And this group in particular, the Alliance for Appalachia, has become family for me, and this family, I could contact any one of them and say, “Help me get mad!” Because mad is better than sad, and I’ll leave you with that.

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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.

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Energy Burden Affects Low-Income and Minority Families and other news briefs

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

Energy Burden Affects Low-Income and Minority Families

Low-income, African-American, Latino and renter households spend a higher percentage of their household income on energy bills than the average household in the same cities, according to a study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the Energy Efficiency for All coalition.

This high energy burden can be tied to less efficient housing and is most prominent in the Southeast and Midwest regions of the United States. The study suggests energy efficiency tactics that could help to remediate this discrepancy such as improving low-income utility programs and opting into the early credit options provided by the Clean Power Plan’s Clean Energy Incentive Program. — Hannah Petersen

Feds Seek Public Comment on Coal Leases

The U.S. Department of Interior is reviewing the federal coal leasing program to re-assess the health, environmental and financial impacts of mining and burning coal found on federally owned land.

Six public hearings will be heard across the country through June. On May 26, the southeastern hearing was held in Knoxville, Tenn. Concerned citizens, as well as environmental groups such as Appalachian Voices, attended this meeting.

“It’s time for a planned transition that will keep federal coal in the ground,” Bonnie Swinford from the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club said in a press release.
Written comments can be submitted to DOI until July 28. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/CoalComment. — Elizabeth E. Payne

Ky. Utilities Seek Rate Increase for Coal Ash Cleanup

Kentucky Utilities Company and Louisville Gas and Electric are seeking permission from the Kentucky Public Services Commission to make customers supplement the cost for coal ash cleanup with increased rates. According to an article by the Public News Service, average monthly rates for KU consumers could increase $2.16 and $2.26 for LG&E consumers.

The revenue would go toward closing and capping the companies’ existing coal ash ponds, building new process water systems and controlling air emissions for the plants.

However conservationists believe the costs of coal pollution that have been ignored for several decades should be factored into the costs of production, not consumption. Information about rate increases can be found at psc.ky.gov. — Hannah Petersen

2016 Predicted to Show a Drop in US Coal Use

This year is predicted to see the largest decline in coal production since 1949, with the amount of coal produced in the Appalachian region forecasted to decline by 15 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The EIA reports that consumption is also declining and, on average, stockpiles measured in February 2016 were 26 percent higher than those measured in 2015.

The agency states this decline in consumption and production is due to a mild winter and competition from the natural gas market. — Hannah Petersen

Obama Administration Nears Standards on Methane

Editor’s Note: Methane traps 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide, not 25 percent as appeared in our print edition. We regret this error.

On May 12, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a step toward cutting methane emissions by 40 percent over the next ten years. Methane is a greenhouse gas that traps at least 25 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

A significant source of methane is natural gas. The new action requires the oil and natural gas industry to provide information needed before the EPA issues the final rules. The standards are expected to limit methane leaks from existing infrastructure and prevent leaks in new constructions, such as wells and pipelines.

With an eye on limiting climate change, the Obama administration is seeking to address a potent source of greenhouse gas with these measures. — Elizabeth E. Payne

RECLAIMing Central Appalachia

Wednesday, May 18th, 2016 - posted by molly

Drinking water problems still plague eastern Kentucky

Friday, May 6th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Basic needs must be met to ensure successful economic transition

A creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow in April. The state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. Photo via Facebook

A creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow in April. The state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. Photo via Facebook.

When Rockhouse Creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow last month, Tomahawk resident Gina Patrick said she had one major concern: that the pollution might ruin her water well.

Patrick has relied on well water her whole life and didn’t want to pay to be hooked up to the municipal water system. That’s because the Martin County Water District is one of the worst water infrastructure systems in the state in terms of water quality and water loss.

Patrick lives on Rockhouse Creek. She said that as she watched the bright yellow plume move down the creek, she took a sample of the water and put it in a paint bucket under her porch. Two curious newborn puppies on her property found the paint bucket and drank its contents. They became violently ill and died later that day.

At the end of April, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet released a report detailing the state’s investigation into the spill, but there was no mention of Patrick’s dead dogs. Although many local residents thought the pollution might have been related to fracking — an oily sheen was noticed on the surface of the water — the state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. According to Lanny Brannock, a spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, regulators do not know if someone intentionally put paint in the creek or if it was an accident.

But many Martin County residents still have questions, and that’s not uncommon in a county that has seen its fair share of coal slurry spills and municipal water problems. The Mountain Citizen, located in the county seat of Inez, has doggedly reported water quality and environmental issues for decades. In fact, the newspaper’s diligence, combined with the hard work of local organizers, prompted the Kentucky Public Service Commission to investigate the county’s water system, which has a water loss rate of more than 60 percent and often delivers smelly, foul water.


In the aftermath of Flint, Mich., this video from Martin County caught the attention of consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who posted it to her Facebook page.

When I spoke with Inez resident Josie Delong back in February, she was very clear about the long-term burdens that come with having bad water:

The biggest [burden] is definitely health issues. But also the fact that most of us are on a fixed income here. Everybody’s losing their jobs in the mines, losing their jobs here or there, and can’t afford these high water bills, and we can’t even use the water. We’re paying these bills and yet still having to go to the store and get water, and we don’t know what it’s doing to us. And that’s the big fear. We have no idea.

In 2015, the Martin County Water District accrued multiple non-compliance violations for known carcinogens such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. In the offices of the Mountain Citizen, editor Gary Ball points to the back of his latest water bill, which includes a notice for anyone with an immunodeficiency disorder: do not drink the water. “In other words, if you’re as healthy as a horse, drink away,” Ball says. “But sooner or later it’s going to get to you.”

Ball and the Mountain Citizen have also extensively documented the unequal way in which water is distributed in the county, and how many customers are often not informed of boil water advisories or shut-offs in the system. According to Gary and Lisa Smith Stayton, owner and publisher of the Mountain Citizen, the excessive water loss rate often impacts the poorer or more remote areas of the county first. As water is diverted to more populated and wealthy areas in the county, some customers are forced to go without.


Sometimes there’s no water at all. As Ms. McCoy explains in this Facebook post, not having water creates all kinds of social and financial hardships on her day-to-day schedule.

Officials in the county have adamantly denied the extent of the problems, and often portray concerned citizens as alarmists and idealists. The Martin County Judge Executive, Kelly Callaham, has publicly stated that the 60 percent water loss rate in the system is due to people stealing water from fire hydrants and industrial coal mine sites. (I reached out to Mr. Callaham and the Martin County Water District; neither returned my requests for a comment).

“Our officials downplay every single issue, and go to great extents to discredit those who speak up,” says Lisa Smith Stayton. She described a recent fiscal court hearing that turned into an attempt to publicly discredit a Mountain Citizen report about disinfection byproducts in the water. Lisa was incredulous. “One magistrate even said ‘you’re more likely to get cancer from eating a hot dog.’”

In late March, due to pressure from citizens like Delong, Ball and Stayton, state Senator Ray Jones convened a meeting at his office in Frankfort to discuss issues with the water system. Watching footage of the meeting is frustrating; a great deal of time is wasted on discussing surreal and overstated accusations of “water theft.” At several points in the conversation, some variation of this statement is heard: “Martin County is not the only county where these problems occur.”

This is a familiar tactic deployed by the powerful: make the victims appear as if their demands are inherently selfish because, after all, it’s happening to everyone. If you can portray the powerless as hyperbolic and alarmist, you eventually start to convince them that their demands are crazy. This is known as “gaslighting,” and it’s a depressingly effective way to evade accountability.

But residents like Delong aren’t deterred. As she told me:

The more people who talk about it and share their concerns, the better. Because, I’ll be honest, I sat back for a long time and said, “Well why should I say anything about it? I’m just one person. That’s not gonna change anything.” And then the very second I did mention it on social media, and posted a picture, I saw a huge response. And that gave me confidence. Maybe we can change this.

Motivated by health problems that she believes to be caused by the water, as well as mounting medical bills, Delong started a public Facebook forum. She began polling her friends to see if they suffered from similar afflictions and medical costs. The results are astounding in their detail and specificity; many respondents reported skin irritations, stomach issues and autoimmune disorders.

It’s obvious from reading the comments on Delong’s poll, as well as the many comments on the Martin County Water Warriors’ Facebook page, that the public health costs of living in coalfield counties are increasingly burdensome. My own experience bears that out; I live in Letcher County, Ky., about an hour and a half south of Martin County. I spend upwards of $50 each month on bottled water, and most of my friends and neighbors do the same. With coal severance funds declining, we’re also forced to pay more for basic services like trash and recycle collections. The Letcher County Recreation Center, built with coal severance funds, is constantly at risk of closing.

In fact, Gina Patrick’s anxiety about having to switch from well water to potentially-dangerous municipal water is not uncommon. Whether it comes from a well or a municipal system, the drinking water of many eastern Kentuckians is at risk of being polluted. When a dangerous acid mine drainage spill occurred five miles upstream of the Letcher County water intake in March, we were reminded of the many times our water system was poisoned by diesel fuel from local oil magnate Don Childers. It doesn’t help knowing that the state actively works to sweep those violations under the rug, or that it neglects to include important factors like dead dogs in its investigation of a bright yellow creeks.

Delong articulates the full scope of this problem and the struggle to stay:

It just feels like we’re going downhill so fast. I’ve had a lot of friends move out of the county. And it’s sad. I grew up here. And everyone’s just leaving. And it’s becoming a ghost town. And I don’t want to leave. I mean, I could, I’m sure. But who’s going to want to buy a home in this county? How could you sell your home? When someone away from here looks up Martin County, they automatically see repeats of all these troubles and problems and people moving away and no jobs and no opportunities. It’s gonna be impossible to sell your home right now. And I don’t want to leave. I want to do what I can — I’m just one person but I want to do what I can to try and make things better for us, instead of just watching it go downhill.

Officials say that they want people to stay. Some even say that they want economic transition. But what are they doing to help us save money where it matters — on very basic needs like food, water and healthcare? The solutions to these needs amount to the most basic and essential forms of economic development: safe drinking water, functioning local services, affordable healthcare and access to adequately funded social programs. They are simple solutions to very real problems that would save people money and help them stay in the region that they love.

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Coal Export Market Evaporates

Friday, April 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Brian Sewell

Up until 2012, the coal industry was optimistic about the outlook for U.S. exports. A record high amount of coal was shipped from American ports that year — twice as much as just three years prior.

Global demand soared as China, the world’s largest coal consumer, rapidly urbanized, and as India, the world’s third-largest coal importer, electrified far-flung rural areas. American coal even played a role in powering countries in Europe and South America.

Stateside though, slumping demand, power plant closures and competition from natural gas and renewables cast dark clouds over coal’s future. To some experts, the sunny forecast abroad was the industry’s only hope.

“The future of the U.S. coal industry is at stake,” Richard Morse, an energy consultant, told The New York Times in 2013. “It is fair to say that a resuscitation of the industry has to come overseas.”

But the surge in exports was short-lived.

An Unequal Impact

In recent years, proposed export terminals in the Pacific Northwest turned the conversation westward. Producers in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin are desperate for greater access to international markets, but opponents of new export capacity have economics on their side.
In 2013, six terminals were planned in Oregon and Washington. All but two are now off the table.

For central Appalachian producers, proximity to rail and ports along the East Coast have encouraged companies to cater to an increasingly volatile global market.

Wyoming, the nation’s largest coal producer, exported around 1 percent of its coal in 2011. West Virginia, the second largest producer, exported 27 percent. And while total U.S. exports fell 23 percent in 2015, the drop was 10 percent steeper at terminals along the Virginia coast, which primarily ship central Appalachian coal.

The Ghost of Growth

In 2011, the nation’s three largest coal companies bet billions of dollars on future demand for steelmaking metallurgical coal, a primarily Appalachian product that fetches a much higher price than coal burned in electric power plants. Alpha Natural Resources, Arch Coal and Peabody Energy each acquired companies with large metallurgical reserves to capture their share of the market.

Two months before Alpha Natural Resources acquired the central Appalachian-focused Massey Energy to become the leading producer of metallurgical coal in the United States, JPMorgan Chase forecast the price for the high-quality coal to increase by 50 percent in 2012.

Instead, it plunged. China’s feverish economic growth had driven up prices. When it broke, so did the market. According to a February 2016 study by the economic analysis firm Rhodium Group, 93 percent of the decline in the industry’s revenue between 2011 and 2014 was due to a drop in the consumption and cost of metallurgical coal.

The market shift still haunts the companies today. Alpha and Arch are both in bankruptcy, while Peabody teeters on the edge unable to recover from the collapse.

Peabody Energy joins coal bankruptcy club

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 - posted by brian
While the company no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of Peabody Energy’s fall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

While the company no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of Peabody Energy’s downfall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

This week, the world’s largest private-sector coal company filed for bankruptcy and pretty much no one was surprised.

Citing an “unprecedented industry downturn,” St. Louis-based Peabody Energy joined the ranks of Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal, Walter Energy and dozens of other U.S. coal companies forced to seek bankruptcy protections since 2012.

But Peabody’s production, the depth of its debt and the scale of its liabilities set the bankrupt coal behemoth apart.

The company operates the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming, the largest coal mine in the country. Last year, that mine alone accounted for 109 million tons of the nearly 900 million tons of coal produced in the U.S.

In order to eventually clean up its mines, Peabody is on the hook for more than $2 billion, but more than half of that amount is secured with “self-bonds,” basically a coal industry IOU conveniently co-signed by the taxpayer. It’s estimated that the company has amassed around $6 billion in debt.

While Peabody no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of its downfall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal. Like those companies, Peabody bet big on overseas demand and took on billions in debt in 2011 when it acquired the Australian producer Macarthur Coal. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one.)

Rather than surging as predicted, demand for steelmaking metallurgical coal plunged. According to a February study by the economic analysis firm Rhodium Group, 93 percent of the decline in the industry’s revenue between 2011 and 2014 was due to a drop in the consumption and cost of metallurgical coal. That hit, combined with competition from natural gas and clean energy at home, eventually became too much to bear.

Central Appalachia also has a lot of first-hand experience with what happens next, especially after Alpha’s and Arch’s bankruptcy proceedings. In recent months, those companies have worked to dodge environmental cleanup liabilities and their obligations to workers past and present. Yet, somewhere, both Alpha and Arch found millions of dollars in bonuses to reward executives. For what? Not jumping ship, essentially.

Based on its past actions, I’m not sure we should expect any different from Peabody. After all, the coal company thought to be “too big to fail” may have gotten there partly by creating companies to fail. Look at what happened to Patriot Coal, a twice-bankrupt company created in 2007 from unionized, Peabody-owned mines in West Virginia and Kentucky and saddled with pension and health care obligations to more than 8,000 retired miners.

In fact, Appalachian citizens may be the least surprised that Peabody has joined the coal industry’s bankruptcy club.

“Here in Kentucky, we’ve known the coal industry has been leaving for 30 years,” said Carl Shoupe, a retired third generation coal miner and member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. So Shoupe and others across the region are staying focused on the future.

“Mr. Peabody’s coal train might have hauled away our coal — and the profits along with it — but we Kentuckians are still right here, fighting every day for a bright future and demanding our elected leaders do their job to help us transition to a new economy while keeping our promises to the coal miners who powered this country.”

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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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What happened on Pine Creek?

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Another example of the costs that communities near coal mines pay in ecological, economic and human health.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky. Photos by Tarence Ray

A lot of folks have had questions about the recent mine blowout on Pine Creek, in Letcher County, Ky. So we’ve put together an explainer that runs through the facts, the science and the regulatory protocols behind spills like this.

Where is Pine Creek?

Pine Creek is a small creek that flows off Pine Mountain and into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The point where Pine Creek and the Kentucky River meet is roughly five miles upstream of the municipal drinking water intake that serves Whitesburg, Ky., and the surrounding county.

So what happened?

On Friday, March 18, an auger mine company, Hardshell Tipples, was mining at the head of Pine Creek when they inadvertently drilled into an old underground mine. Water had stored up in the mine over time, slowly increasing in acidity and iron content creating what is called “acid mine drainage.” This water rushed out into a sediment pond when the mine was breached by the auger drill, and the pond overflowed into the creek.

What is acid mine drainage?

Acid mine drainage occurs when water flows over or leaches through minerals and materials with high sulfur content. Many times, as in the case at Pine Creek, the minerals exposed to water contain iron pyrite, also known as “fool’s gold.” The result is orange-colored water, which stains rocks and river beds. Acid mine drainage also very likely contains other metals, such as manganese. (The polluted water/mine drainage that spilled into Pine Creek contained manganese, and we’ll get to those test results momentarily). As is indicated by its name, acid mine drainage is also highly acidic — so don’t touch it.

But if all these things are found in nature, isn’t this simply a natural occurrence?

All of the ingredients for making acid mine drainage are naturally occurring, that much is correct. But what is not natural is the excavation of these minerals and their exposure to air and water. Ask yourself: is there anything natural about a stream that is unable to support wildlife?

In the case of Pine Creek, water had stored up in the old underground mine over time, slowly gaining acidity and various metals. These mountains are porous; therefore water got into the mine in the first place through years and years of rain. When the iron pyrite in the mine was exposed to oxygen in the water (you know, the “O” in H2O), it created a highly acidic substance that was harmful for aquatic life. When the mine was breached, this highly acidic substance got into the creek, and was indeed very harmful to aquatic life.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

Got it. So back to what happened. What happened?

Our Appalachian Water Watch team was contacted by a concerned citizen who lives on Pine Creek, and we were able to document the spill as it occurred in real-time. Photos of dead fish and turtles were posted and shared by hundreds of people on Facebook and Twitter. We also spoke to residents on the creek who had been trying to catch minnows that morning. Instead, they had a net full of dead fish.

Officials at the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection initially denied that the spill was responsible for killing wildlife. However, due to public pressure from social media and citizens filing complaints, state officials reversed their findings and determined that over 700 fish were killed as a result of the spill.

The state eventually issued four violations against Hardshell Tipples, and compelled the company to commit to a fish-restocking plan for Pine Creek — a huge victory for clean water advocates and a sign that the state is aware of the public’s concern about how state agencies respond to spills like this.

Was this preventable?

Samples taken on the day after the spill show massive amounts of iron and manganese in the water. State documents obtained by Appalachian Voices and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center show that Hardshell Tipples had been issued multiple violations in the past for discharging high amounts of iron from its permit. However, these violations were considerably lower than the most recent Pine Creek spill, and the pictures show it.

It’s established fact that Hardshell Tipples has been reckless in the past with what it choose to discharge off of the permit. But state documents reveal that the company was also issued a citation in 2002 for failing to submit comprehensive underground mine maps to the state. It might be impossible to determine whether this documented negligence had anything to do with the recent mine blowout; however, it’s safe to say that the company has been a consistently careless operator in a watershed that is both ecologically and aesthetically important to eastern Kentucky.

The mine blowout on Pine Creek was clearly preventable. However, this is not to imply that all incidents of acid mine drainage are preventable. The majority of acid mine drainage problems in Letcher County, for example, are from mining that occurred decades ago, and persist to this day. These legacy problems will likely exist for many more decades, unless action is taken by state and federal government agencies.

The main point is that the Pine Creek spill is yet another example of the costs that communities near coal mines have to pay for in terms of ecological, economic and human health.

What do I do if this happens to my creek?

In this case, the quick response of nearby citizens and our team pushed the state to action and prevented the mine waste from affecting Letcher County’s municipal water system. However, in other instances, communities may not be aware of the problem for days, or they may be unable to contact their proper state agencies — especially if the problem begins on a weekend.

In any case, there are several things you can do to get the state to respond:

1. Take photos. Put your photos on social media, and make sure you tag the respective state or federal agencies in your post. Pictures of dead wildlife are especially useful, as they paint a more comprehensive portrait of the affected stream.

You can also send the photos to us through the Appalachian Water Watch Facebook page. If you don’t use social media, make sure you hang on to the photos, and call us immediately at 1-855-7WATERS.

2. Take notes. Make sure you note the date, time, location and any other characteristics of the affected stream. This includes changes in water color, consistency and/or smell. Don’t touch the water unless you’re taking a sample, in which case you should wear gloves.

3. Take a sample. Contact us and we can likely sample the spill within a few hours. If nothing else, purchase a plastic water bottle from your nearby grocery, empty it out, fill it with the contaminated water, and store it on ice until it can be tested. Be sure to wear latex gloves when you grab a sample. The water is likely highly acidic, and could burn your skin. Also, be careful — don’t risk a broken ankle or worse by wading into a fast moving stream just to get a sample. Pictures and notes are often the best course of action.

From inside Appalachia, a look at WGN’s “Outsiders”

Friday, April 8th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Exclusive to the Front Porch: Award-winning author Ron Rash, known for his distinctly Appalachian voice as a poet, novelist and essayist, offers this reflection on WGN original series, Outsiders, about a clan of Kentucky natives living deep in the hills, and well outside of society.

Photo by Ulf Andersen.

Photo by Ulf Andersen.

So meet the Farrells (get it, feral), who live atop a mountain in southern Appalachia. It is 2016 elsewhere in America, but the Farrell tribe (who number between twenty and two hundred depending on which episode you watch) is living a lifestyle that is a bit retro, say by about two thousand years. They clothe themselves in animal pelts, walk barefoot, and do their internecine “feuding” with clubs.

There is no need to worry about any instances of micro-aggressions in this show. Five minutes into the premiere, we are assured that these mountain folks are nothing but a bunch of incestuous “retard hillbilly animals,” which the next scene confirms. We meet the Farrells at a clan-wide hoedown where everyone is at least a cousin and hell-bent on keeping it that way, openly fornicating when not swilling moonshine or brawling. No stereotype is overlooked: everyone is illiterate except for one heretic who left for some book-larning; Indoor plumbing? Are you kidding, these folks don’t have electricity except for a generator, whose sole purpose appears to be powering a screeching electric guitar. Otherwise, it’s candles and wood stoves. In the first three episodes, we get hexings, attempted matricide, fingers chopped off for violating tribal law, a Viking-like raid of the local Wal-Mart, and language that makes the bad guys in Deliverance sound like Rhodes Scholars. No one plants anything but marijuana and the only hunting is for “furrinurs’ unlucky enough to get these folks riled up. So where does the food come from? I’m expecting a later episode to reveal why Ferrell and cannibal sound so similar.

Assuming reviewers if not TV executives would find such outrageously grotesque depictions disturbing if not reprehensible, I checked their responses to Outsiders. That the show might even be remotely offensive went unmentioned. If anything, three of the four reviewers found the idea that such people existed in Appalachia plausible. Variety praised the show’s ability to depict “a strong sense of place in the wilds of a still-untamed pocket of America.” The Washington Post found it “artfully conceived” although acknowledging parts of the show were ridiculous “{e}ven if rooted in some anthropological research.” The New York Times also found the show cartoonish, though cautioning “Maybe there really are Kentucky hill clans who act like the staff at Medieval Times, but the best efforts of the actors in Outsiders can’t make the Farrells credible.” The L.A. Times gave Outsiders a largely positive review, although noting during a publicity event for the show that a reporter “asked if some of the characters might be werewolves.”

It’s all in good fun, I can imagine the writers and producers saying, and I myself have had some laughs while discussing the show with fellow Appalachians. But I also think of the national outrage when residents of Flint had to drink bottled water for weeks because their own supply was polluted, yet there is no national outrage that in parts of Appalachia the water has been undrinkable for years. Appalachia has always given more to this country than has been given back, especially its natural resources and in times of war, as we’ve recently witnessed, its children. The region is diverse, and many areas are doing well, but for those that are not, might a show focused on “retard hillbilly animals” make it easier for America to ignore the region’s needs? I’m not advocating the show being banned or boycotted. I would even encourage people to watch Outsiders, but with one caveat: if this show were about any other minority group, would you find it nearly as entertaining?

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Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New YorkTimes bestselling novel Serena, in addition to five other novels, including One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, The World Made Straight, and Above the Waterfall; five collections of poems; and six collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award, and most recently, Something Rich and Strange. Twice the recipient of the O.Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University. His latest novel The Risen will be out in September from Ecco.