Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

Understanding the Stream Protection Rule

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 - posted by Erin

SPR Meme 1

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a long-awaited draft Stream Protection Rule. While it’s far from perfect, the proposed rule is a long-overdue update to protections for both surface and groundwater from mountaintop removal coal mining. It also provides much-needed clarification regarding a host of other issues, including reclamation standards and bonding requirements.

Not surprisingly, the industry is fighting the Stream Protection Rule tooth and nail. Instead of focusing on the substance of the rule though, opponents’ rely on tired “war on coal” talking points. The industry also argues these regulations are unnecessary and will undermine an otherwise viable industry — even though several large coal companies have declared bankruptcy. Let’s examine those claims.

First, this new rule was developed to update the rule currently in use — the 1983 Stream Buffer Zone rule — based on new science and realities on the ground. The past 32 years have provided ample time for additional research to prove what many Central Appalachian residents already know: that burying streams with mining waste permanently damages waterways and that mountaintop removal is linked to a host of other environmental and health problems. The Stream Protection Rule aims to address a number of current problems.

The Stream Protection Rule aims to improve methods for monitoring for and preventing damage to surface and groundwater. It’s important to note that the rule still allows for mining activities, including waste disposal, in streams. The new rule is actually weaker than the 1983 rule in this regard. The ‘83 rule prohibited mining disturbances within 100 feet of streams and prohibited damage to streams by mountaintop removal mining. In practice, however, states routinely grant variances to the ‘83 Stream Buffer Zone rule, allowing valley fill construction and other mining impacts to streams on a regular basis. This is often done by allowing companies to remediate other areas of streams that have already been degraded as a substitution for the stream miles they will bury or otherwise damage.

While it does not include a stream buffer zone requirement, the Stream Protection Rule does provide a number of added benefits for aquatic resources. New requirements include enhanced baseline monitoring data for both surface and groundwater. The availability of such data will make it easier to identify damage caused by mining. Under existing regulations, coal companies too often escape liability for damage to waterways because there is no baseline data to prove pollutants were not present before mining began. The draft rule also includes a definition of “material damage to the hydrologic balance”, which was never previously defined. Clarifying language like this is an important part of making sure that rules are enforceable on the ground.

An important question to ask is whether this type of regulation is necessary. In this case, the additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed. Research over the past decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. A recent study examined coal companies’ success in restoring or recreating streams as a form of “trade” for other streams damaged or buried during mining. The study found that 97 percent of these projects failed optimal habitat scores for aquatic life. This is strong indication that rebuilding a stream’s form will not necessarily restore its function. Additionally, the study found that a majority of these restoration projects were completed in perennial streams, while mining damage was mostly occurring in intermittent and ephemeral streams. This is important because intermittent and ephemeral streams often provide unique habitat and food resources critical to the survival of many species.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

The science clearly indicates the need for more protection of streams and other environmental resources, but would the cost of these protections be justifiable? Do the benefits to streams — and people, and tourism, and recreation, and … — outweigh the impact that the rule may have on the industry? The industry would like you to believe that this new rule will be so costly that it will create an unwarranted burden on an otherwise beneficial Central Appalachian industry. The OSMRE attempted to answer this debate through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which includes cost-benefit analyses. In most scenarios, the OSMRE expects minimal job loss due to the new rule, in part due to jobs created through the need to comply with the rule.

What the EIS doesn’t adequately do is take into consideration the larger context of surface mining in Appalachia and the impacts it has on local communities. First, the coal industry already has a net negative impact on the economies of the states where it occurs. Several different studies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky indicate this. In 2006, the coal industry cost the state of Kentucky $115 million. In 2009, the coal industry was estimated to cost the state of West Virginia $97.5 million and the state of Virginia $21.9 million.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

The EIS also does not consider surface mining’s global impact. The burning of coal in power plants releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Surface mining in Central Appalachia also exacerbates climate change through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, forests in the region will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by the year 2035. This is due both to deforestation during the mining process and grassland reclamation. The Stream Protection Rule improves reclamation requirements so that more mined lands are returned to native forests, instead of the now-prevalent grasslands.

Lastly, the EIS does not consider the negative health outcomes associated with mountaintop removal. The prevalence of health problems the region is well documented. Most recently, a study showed that dust from surface mines can promote the growth of lung tumors. The negative impacts to the health of communities near mines alone should be enough to justify an end to mountaintop removal.

It is true that the coal industry in Central Appalachia is facing a particularly difficult time. Unlike previous boom and bust cycles, this downturn looks to be permanent. This is exactly why additional safeguards are necessary to protect public water. Companies desperate to turn a profit in a more competitive energy market may be more inclined to bend rules or ignore regulations all together. This time marks a critical and exciting opportunity to address economic diversification throughout the region. Protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region will be integral to a successful transition.

Stay informed by subscribing to The Front Porch Blog.

Considering Clean Power Compliance

Friday, October 16th, 2015 - posted by brian

States Respond to the Clean Power Plan

By Brian Sewell

States reactions to the Clean Power Plan. Map by Haley Rogers

States reactions to the Clean Power Plan. Click to enlarge. Map by Haley Rogers

Almost everyone agrees: the Clean Power Plan is a game changer. In form and function, the recently finalized regulations take an innovative approach to incentivize states to reduce carbon dioxide pollution and invest in cleaner energy.

Beyond that, arguments about the Clean Power Plan are often deeply colored by politics and disconnected from the plan’s intention or expected outcomes.

Developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the plan is the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s efforts to combat climate change and cut power plant carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to it.

The plan sets custom pollution-reduction targets for states based on their existing energy mixes and emissions. It also encourages states to come up with their own approach to reach those targets. By 2030, the EPA hopes to see nationwide emissions drop 32 percent below what they were in 2005.

From President Obama’s perspective, “It’s not radical.” After all, dozens of states had already either established market-based programs to cut carbon emissions or set renewable energy goals prior to the rule’s release.

“Washington is starting to catch up with the vision of the rest of the country,” President Obama told a White House crowd the day of the Clean Power Plan’s release. “And by setting these standards, we can actually speed up our transition to a cleaner, safer future.”

"How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014)," graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR

How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014),” graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR

But in many central Appalachian states, policymakers remain adamant in their opposition. Claims of skyrocketing energy costs and economic ruin that began long before details of the final plan became clear are still frequent talking points.

“The battle continues,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wrote in a September newsletter. “I’ve fought this administration and its EPA every step of the way in the President’s war on coal, and I don’t intend to stop now.”

It’s no surprise that the technical details of the plan, namely its achievability and the compliance options available to states, have not gotten as much coverage as the political reactions. But between those highly oppositional stances is the spectrum of actions already being taken by states to either challenge the EPA or find ways to realize the Clean Power Plan’s potential.

Where Appalachian States Stand

How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014)," graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR

How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014),” graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR


The final Clean Power Plan came at the height of summer and, in the Bluegrass State, a heated gubernatorial race. Candidates for both parties strongly oppose the plan and have pledged to ignore it if elected. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, who is also the Democratic nominee for governor, sued the EPA in an attempt to prevent the agency from finalizing the plan and, more recently, joined an effort to prevent the final rules from taking effect. The commonwealth’s current governor, Steve Beshear (D), hardened his opposition after reviewing the final rule, which increased the emissions Kentucky is required to cut. Still, analysts say that even without the Clean Power Plan, Kentucky is on track to meet its emissions target a decade early because of coal plants already scheduled to retire.

"How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014)," graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR

“How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014),” graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR


North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory (R) has been outspoken in his opposition to the Clean Power Plan and has vowed to fight it in court. But Donald van der Vaart, the secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, has led the state’s charge. In an op-ed for the News & Observer, van der Vaart characterized the plan as a “one-size-fits-all” program and criticized state Attorney General Roy Cooper for encouraging lawmakers to develop a compliance plan. The state legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, seems somewhat divided on the best path forward. In April, the N.C. House of Representatives approved a bill to establish a stakeholder group and direct DENR to begin preparing a plan to comply. A few months later, a Senate committee voted to bar the state from writing a plan.

How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014)," graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR

How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014),” graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR


Unlike his counterparts in surrounding states, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has said little about the substance of the Clean Power Plan or discussed the state’s approach to compliance, even after 20 state legislators sent a letter to the governor urging him to defy the EPA. This silence may be due to how the final Clean Power Plan treats nuclear power plants currently under construction. Under the final plan, soon-to-be completed nuclear facilities like the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Watts Bar Unit 2 can play a larger role in compliance. Other factors that have positioned TVA to meet Tennessee’s emissions goal include the utility’s recent long-term planning process and a historic Clean Air Act settlement in 2011 that forced a spate of coal plant retirements that continues today. As a result of that agreement with the EPA, a TVA spokesperson said the Clean Power Plan “won’t have much impact at all,” on the utility’s plans for its coal and gas fleet.

"How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014)," graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR

“How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014),” graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR


UPDATE: Shortly after this story went to press, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe published an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch adamantly supporting the Clean Power Plan for creating “a pathway for clean energy initiatives that will grow jobs and help diversify Virginia’s economy.”

Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) welcomed the Clean Power Plan and said he looks forward to “creating the next generation of clean energy jobs” in Virginia. Even Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s biggest power generator, commended the EPA for easing Virginia’s emissions targets and pledged to work with state agencies toward a compliance plan. But some Virginia policymakers remain skeptical. In an August op-ed for The Virginian-Pilot, state delegates Israel O’Quinn and Scott Taylor promoted legislation that would require the General Assembly’s oversight and approval of Virginia’s compliance plan because Gov. McAuliffe is “working to develop a plan without input from hard-working Virginians.” To the contrary, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality began a series of listening sessions across the state in September to gather general input from the public, placing a special emphasis on low-income communities and areas most vulnerable to climate change.

"How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014)," graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR

“How Each State Generates Electric Power (2004-2014),” graphics by Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR


Days after the final plan’s release, West Virginia and 15 other states asked a federal court to block the rule until all legal battles are resolved and ensure “no more taxpayer money or resources are wastefully spent in an attempt to comply with this unlawful rule.” But the secretary of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, Randy Huffman, is wary about refusing to develop a compliance plan. “You won’t have a seat at the table if you just say no,” Huffman told West Virginia Public Broadcasting in August. A new state law requires the DEP to complete a “comprehensive analysis” of the Clean Power Plan’s impact on West Virginia by early 2016.

Other Regional Players


Officials say that new nuclear facilities and state policies driving solar growth will make reaching Georgia’s emissions targets relatively easy. Despite sharply criticizing the draft rule, Public Service Commission Chairman Chuck Eaton says his state is moving forward to craft a compliance plan and the Georgia Environmental Protection Division will hold a public hearing to review the final rule in October.


Pennsylvania has taken a proactive approach to the Clean Power Plan and the state Department of Environmental Protection is pushing to submit a compliance plan by next September. The state’s Republican-controlled legislature will also have a say. A law signed before Gov. Tom Wolf (D) took office gives lawmakers the ability to review and revise any proposal the state submits to the EPA.


Similar to stakeholders in Tennessee, South Carolina officials were pleased that under-construction nuclear capacity can now count toward compliance. But that concession was not enough for the Attorney General Alan Wilson, who believes the Clean Power Plan is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is convening utilities, regulators and the public to develop a plan.

“How Each State Generates Electric Power” Notes:
• “Renewables” includes biomass, geothermal, solar and wind
• Energy categories where both the 2004 and 2014 values were 1 percent or lower have been omitted for clarity.
• Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
• Credit: Christopher Groskopf, Alyson Hurt and Avie Schneider/NPR


As a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a northeastern carbon-trading market, Maryland is well-positioned to meet its Clean Power Plan goal. The state is also committed under a 2009 law to reducing greenhouse gas pollution by 25 percent by 2020 — two years before the interim deadline set by the Clean Power Plan.

Coalfields Expressway

Friday, October 16th, 2015 - posted by interns

Virginia Highway Project Raises Questions about Relationship Between Coal and Roads

By Molly Moore

The approximate route of the proposed Coalfields Expressway would traverse southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia. Map courtesy Virginia Department of Transportation

The approximate route of the proposed Coalfields Expressway would traverse southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia. Map courtesy Virginia Department of Transportation

Ever since Appalachian coal began to power the Industrial Revolution, this fuel has influenced the location and condition of roads in the coal-bearing regions. In Virginia, a highway project currently under consideration — and partially under construction — is raising questions about the relationship between coal and the commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure.

The Coalfields Expressway was proposed as a way to link U.S. Route 23 in Virginia with Interstate 77 and Interstate 64 in West Virginia, attract new business and tourism to the area and diversify the local economy away from a dependence on coal mining. In the 1990s, the proposed four-lane thoroughfares in both states were designated Congressional High Priority Corridors. And in 2001, the Virginia Department of Transportation completed its environmental review of a host of road proposals, settling on a preferred route.

Yet the effort was stymied by the cost of constructing a new highway in the rugged Appalachian landscape — until West Virginia found a financial workaround. The Mountain State developed a partnership where mining companies would extract coal along the highway route, providing a rough-grade roadbed at a steep discount to the state in return.

In 2006, the Virginia Department of Transportation and two coal companies — Alpha Natural Resources and Pioneer Group — decided to follow the West Virginia model and began investigating a similar plan for the commonwealth’s 26-mile portion of the Coalfields Expressway, also known as Route 121. A small portion of the road has been approved and is in various stages of construction, but the remainder of the highway is on hold awaiting further review.

After the coal companies joined the process, the public-private partnership announced a new preferred route, one that wasn’t part of the 2001 review. The announcement spurred local debate over whether the expressway would bring promised economic development, and raised questions about how high of an environmental cost is allowable in the name of a new highway.

The route change also attracted fresh scrutiny from the Federal Highways Administration, which is working with VDOT on a new study of the road’s positive and negative impacts that is expected to be released this fall.

The Coal Road

Jessica Bier lives near Pound, Va., close to the southern terminus of the Coalfields Expressway. She has studied the various environmental review documents over the past decade. After poring over the documents associated with the coal company partnership and the new route, Bier concluded that “Instead of a project designed to maximize utility and public good, it was now about maximizing access to coal reserves to maximize coal company profits.”

The new route shifted the location of the roadway, sometimes by two or three miles, to better align with the coal reserves. According to a VDOT report, “Compared to the previous route, the new location would maximize coal recovery, seek to avoid abandoned underground mine areas, and provide a somewhat straighter alignment for the highway.”

But this new route also clear-cuts 2,000 acres of forest and destroys 12 miles of streams instead of the 720 acres of forest and four miles of streams affected by the 2001 route.

Representatives from VDOT say that recovering coal reserves from the roadbed is incidental to the construction of the highway. But opponents of surface mining, including nonprofit organizations Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices and Sierra Club, are quick to point out that the partnership with the state also qualifies the companies for the Government Finance Exemption.

This state clause means that the coal-mining operations associated with the Coalfields Expressway would be subject to the environmental standards that govern highway-building rather than federal surface mining regulations. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy would be responsible for ensuring that mining occurs only within the boundaries of the new route and is an engineering necessity.

In 2012, VDOT released an assessment of the environmental impacts of the revised project, a study that the nonprofits found inadequate. The groups urged the Federal Highways Administration to require a more comprehensive review to provide the public with information about how the new route would affect natural resources and community health compared with alternative transportation options. The study, called a supplemental environmental impact statement, would also consider the economic effect of relocating the route away from several town centers.

“The impacts of mountaintop removal are significant, and have been well documented in peer-reviewed studies,” says Kate Rooth of Appalachian Voices. “Our concern is not with building a road, but rather, with the reliance on destructive mining practices to build it.”

Following the assessment’s release, Marley Green, a Sierra Club organizer at the time, stated that a more thorough analysis was needed to determine how the route will affect the health of nearby residents, particularly in light of studies that have connected health problems to surface mining. He also questioned whether the stream damage that would result from the new route might overwhelm already-impaired waterways and violate the Clean Water Act.

The Federal Highways Administration agreed with the request for a more robust review, and the federal agency and VDOT are now conducting a supplemental environmental impact statement.

Citizens’ Alternatives

Buses transporting students to and from Ridgeview High School on Route 83 must contend with a steep descent and frequently clogged roadway. Photo by Molly Moore

Buses transporting students to and from Ridgeview High School on Route 83 must contend with a steep descent and frequently clogged roadway. Photo by Molly Moore

Environmental advocates including Rooth hoped that the additional analysis provided by the new comprehensive review will help determine whether the Coalfields Expressway — which has an estimated taxpayer price tag of $2.8 billion — is indeed the strongest long-term economic investment on the table.

In the winter of 2015, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, Appalachian Voices and the Sierra Club convened several hearings to solicit citizen input regarding alternative transportation improvements that could help boost the area’s economy. The organizations requested that VDOT consider the citizen proposals alongside the various routes for the Coalfields Expressway, both as alternatives to the new highway and as ideas for future transportation planning.

Among the proposals voiced during those forums were calls to either widen portions of Route 83, the state highway that parallels the proposed route of the Coalfields Expressway, or make it a four-lane road in its entirety.

“Transportation dollars should be spent on the secondary roads that need attention and on trail systems that could increase tourism/recreation opportunities,” notes Bier.

Area residents also suggested modifications to widen or add bridges to other nearby state highways, such as Route 80 and Route 63, and emphasized the need to improve traffic patterns in several town centers by adding stoplights, turn lanes and traffic circles. Improving access to parks and recreation areas by paving gravel roads and enhancing signage was also a top priority at the sessions, with locals highlighting the John W. Flannagan Reservoir and Cranes Nest Campground in Dickenson County.

Residents also suggested increased investment in the regional agency on aging, which provides the sole public transit option in the area, and also recommended support for other projects, such as the Spearhead Trails motorcycle and ATV Park, that have already had a positive impact on the economy.

Like many local leaders, Dickenson County Board of Supervisors Chair David Yates sees roads as economic opportunities. He is in favor of improving Route 83 by increasing the number of turn and passing lanes on this two-lane highway, which is easily clogged by industrial truck traffic.

Yates also supports the Coalfields Expressway, and believes it would make the county a more appealing location for light manufacturing. “The transportation piece would put us on an even playing field,” he says. “Our people have an intuitive feeling for solving problems and [making] things work.”

Others are more skeptical of the claims that the expressway project would bring economic prosperity. Bier questions claims from VDOT and public officials that the road will result in long-term job creation. “Time, money and efforts of citizens, public officials and agencies would be better spent on looking for other ways to improve [the] economic outlook of the area,” she adds.

Waiting Game

Despite the citizens’ alternatives, the government team currently preparing the supplemental review will compare only the four coal-synergy routes: the one outlined in the 2012 study and three of the routes from the 2001 deliberations, including the route originally endorsed in 2001 — leaving the grassroots proposals out of the analysis.

“It’s critical that VDOT and Federal Highways Administration keep in mind that the purpose of the Coalfields Expressway was to improve transportation for local communities and diversify the regional economy which has for so long depended on coal mining,” says Kristin Davis of Southern Environmental Law Center. “The purpose is not to simply maximize coal mining along the route, and it’s the role of VDOT and FHWA to consider the impacts of a full range of reasonable alternatives and ensure that they are consistent with those purposes.”

Bier and other residents have expressed concern that should the Coalfields Expressway break ground using the “coal synergy” approach, construction might progress just far enough for the companies to recover the coal, but that private and government funding might be too shaky or insufficient to see the highway part of the project to completion. Complicating the matter, Alpha Natural Resources, one of the companies implicated in the coal synergy partnership, declared bankruptcy during the summer of 2015.

Heather Williams, a project manager at VDOT, said she could not comment on the project’s funding, noting that the agency will look into financial feasibility only after the supplemental analysis is completed and a final route is chosen.

The comprehensive review is expected to be released this fall, with an opportunity for the public to provide in-person comments in late winter or early spring. Only then will the agency choose a route and assess the financial viability of the project, Williams says.

Meanwhile, Davis hopes that the study underway will provide the public with a full understanding of how the agencies reach their conclusion. “If [VDOT and the Federal Highways Administration] come to a decision after looking at all direct and indirect and cumulative impacts of a coal synergy approach, the public needs to understand what information that decision was based on,” she says.

White House POWER Initiative grants awarded

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by brian
The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

Dozens of groups working to increase employment and diversify the economies of historically coal-reliant communities got some good news today.

The White House has announced $14.5 million in grant awards for organizations and local governments across 12 states that are building a better economic future for their communities. A majority of the 36 awards, and most of the grant dollars, are going to plan or implement projects in Central Appalachia.

Appalachian Voices congratulates all the grant recipients, especially our friends and allies among them, on receiving funding for their incredibly deserving and meaningful efforts.

You may have seen news about the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan on this blog, in The Appalachian Voice, or in other regional or national media. The White House describes today’s round of grants as a “down payment” on that plan — a swifter move that recognizes the “immediacy of the economic need in coal country.” Here’s some helpful background from the White House’s announcement:

In the spring of 2015, four federal agencies announced coordinated funding solicitations for grant awards on two parallel tracks to partnerships anchored in communities impacted by the downturn in the coal economy.

The POWER Planning Grants solicitation was released in April by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to assist community-based partnerships develop comprehensive economic development strategic plans for their regions.

The POWER Implementation Grants Federal Funding Opportunity was released in May with available funding from the Economic Development Administration, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, the Small Business Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Federal Funding Opportunity made funding available to partnerships in impacted communities to help them: (1) diversify their economies; (2) create jobs in new or existing industries; (3) attract new sources of job-creating investment; and (4) provide a range of workforce services and skills training for high-quality, in-demand jobs.

Based on those goals it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the funding will support projects in Kentucky and West Virginia, the two states most severely impacted by coal’s economic decline. A handful of the awards will help groups in rural areas of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia that have also seen significant job losses.

We’ll be following some of these projects and look forward to sharing the successes to come. But for now, take a look at the list of POWER grant recipients and you’ll get a sense of the range of exciting projects taking place in Central Appalachia.

Oh, and we’d be remiss not to mention that the POWER Initiative and POWER+ Plan have broad and growing bipartisan support. More than two dozen Central Appalachian localities have passed resolutions that support the POWER+ Plan specifically and call for economic development funding to soften the acute effects of the regional coal industry’s collapse and spur sustainable economic growth.

There are critics, of course, but most of them are either paid by the coal industry or so ideologically driven and wedded to “war on coal” rhetoric that, well, they say things like National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich. “These are tantamount to war reparations paid by a government guilty of indiscriminate destruction,” Popovich told E&E News shortly before comparing President Obama to a 15th-century Mongol conquerer.

We’re cautiously optimistic that that kind of astronomical hyperbole is on its way out. Even some of coal’s greatest champions in Congress seem like they’re are coming down to earth. According to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY):

“We know there isn’t a silver bullet to overcome the many challenges we face in the Appalachian region, but with continued collaboration of resources and ingenuity, the future is much brighter for the people who want to live and work here at home.”

Rogers’ words are a reminder that siding with coal should never come before stepping up and doing what’s right for Appalachia’s future.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Regulators Hear from Coalfield Residents on Proposed Stream Protections

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

By Willie Dodson

Southwest Virginia resident Laura Miller wears an “Our Water, Our Future” sticker at the Big Stone Gap public hearing. Photo by Kendall Bilbrey

Southwest Virginia resident Laura Miller wears an “Our Water, Our Future” sticker at the Big Stone Gap public hearing. Photo by Kendall Bilbrey

In September, residents of mining areas, coal industry representatives and others gathered at six public hearings to submit comments on a proposed rule that would restrict mining impacts to waterways. These hearings were held in Lexington, Ky., Big Stone Gap, Va., Charleston, W.Va., Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Denver.

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s proposed rule is intended to limit and mitigate impacts to streams resulting from mountaintop removal coal mining, an extraction method where the tops of mountains are blasted off and dumped into adjacent valleys in order to access underlying coal seams. The draft rule aims to accomplish this by clarifying what constitutes damage to waterways, raising baseline water monitoring standards, mandating more stringent bonding requirements for surface mining and restricting and clarifying when states may grant exceptions to stream protections.

Approximately 250 people were present at the hearing in Big Stone Gap on September 15. Community members from the coalfields of Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky spoke out in favor of strengthening stream protection measures, often emphasizing the failings of current enforcement by state agencies. “Despite rules and laws, tons of waste are dumped into these waterways regularly. How does this happen?” said Mary Darcy from Wise, Va. “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?”

Diana Withen, a local high school biology teacher and board member of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, implored the agency to include clear language allowing for citizen monitoring and enforcement. “We know that government budgets are tight,” she said to the panel. “So allowing concerned citizens to help monitor the water quality in our streams makes sense.”

Countering the many who spoke out for clean water, politicians and industry representatives suggested the rule is not needed and is motivated purely by politics. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s 9th Congressional district described the rule as part of a war on coal, and characterized the stream protection supporters as caring more about insects than human beings.

Citizens register to make comments at the public hearing in Big Stone Gap, Va. Photo by Kendall Bilbrey

Citizens register to make comments at the public hearing in Big Stone Gap, Va. Photo by Kendall Bilbrey

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

Adam Malle from Big Stone Gap spoke in favor of strong regulations as essential to current and future economic development. “We need these rules precisely because of the loss of jobs,” said Malle. “We need to ensure that our mountains, our waterways, our streams are available to us, the citizens of this area, to create a local, sustainable economy around non-timber forest products, around tourism, around all the diversified options that are becoming available to us at this time.”

The public comment period for the Stream Protection Rule was extended in response to industry requests and will remain open until October 26. To add your voice, visit

Two Coal Companies Guilty of Water Pollution Violations

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

By Elizabeth E. Payne

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice reached a settlement with Arch Coal Inc. and several of its subsidiaries in August that “resolves hundreds of Clean Water Act violations related to illegal discharges of pollutants at the companies’ coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia,” according to a press release from the agency.

The companies are required to conduct upgrades to ensure compliance with the Clean Water Act and will have to pay $2 million in civil penalties.

“Businesses have an obligation to ensure that their operations don’t threaten the communities they serve, especially those that are overburdened by or more vulnerable to pollution,” Cynthia Giles of the EPA stated in the release.

And in West Virginia, a federal judge found Fola Coal Company guilty of water violations at two of their mountaintop coal removal sites and ruled that the company was liable for damages caused downstream by this pollution.

“The scientific community repeatedly reaches and reports the same conclusion despite the use of multiple methodologies relying on a variety of datasets and conducted by a range of expert scientists,” the judge wrote.

Energy Report News Bites

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

Robust Opposition to Atlantic Offshore Drilling

The U.S. Department of the Interior released a proposal that could allow offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean as early as 2017. Since its release in January, opposition in coastal communities from Virginia to Georgia has grown. “It is hard to recall a grassroots effort that has advanced a cause so rapidly,” according to an editorial in The Post and Courier.

Cross-State Air Pollution Rule Weathers Challenge

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule in July. This rule requires states to reduce power plant emissions that impact the air quality in other states. Provisions governing sulfur dioxide and ozone that cross states lines, however, were struck down.

Benefits of Natural Gas and Coal Refuted

Increased natural gas use did not cause carbon dioxide emissions to fall between 2007 and 2013 — the Great Recession did, a recent study found. And the World Bank has rejected industry claims that coal provides an escape from poverty.

Proposed Regulations Target Greenhouse Gas

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed regulations in August that would significantly reduce the amount of methane — a gas that traps 25 times more atmospheric heat than carbon dioxide — released during oil and natural gas production. Industry representatives criticize the proposal for being costly and unnecessary, while environmental advocates object that the regulations apply only to new, not existing, infrastructure.

Proposed Nuclear Plant Would Yield Costs, Not Savings

Dominion Virginia Power’s third reactor at North Anna is projected to produce electricity costing 19 cents per kilowatt-hour, according to a recent filing. The average wholesale cost for electricity in that area is 5.3 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Virginia Establishes Green Community Program

Announced in early September, VirginiaSAVES aims to boost economic development and reduce electricity consumption by subsidizing clean energy projects across the commonwealth. The program will use $20 million of federally allocated bonds to support eligible projects led by local governments, businesses and nonprofits. Virginia also recently received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help achieve its energy efficiency goals.

Bankruptcies Roil Coal Industry and Worry Regulators

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Brian Sewell

Major coal company bankruptcies in central Appalachia have gone from being inevitable to routine. But as debt-ridden companies strike deals to survive, their ability to meet obligations to workers and clean up mined land is being called into question.

In August, all eyes were on Alpha Natural Resources, which filed for bankruptcy after months of speculation by industry analysts. The company was drowning in more than $3 billion of debt, despite being one of the largest U.S. coal producers.

The president of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil Roberts, said in a statement that Alpha’s announcement was “no surprise” and that the union is prepared to do whatever it can to maintain the pension and health care benefits “our retirees were promised and have earned.” The company’s bankruptcy filing showed that it owes $600 million to the union’s pension plan.

But commitments to coal miners and retirees are not the only liabilities bankrupt companies face — Alpha has also racked up more than $680 million in mine cleanup costs. And Alpha is far from the only coal company that has filed for bankruptcy in recent years.

Patriot Coal, which entered bankruptcy for a second time in May, agreed to sell its assets without significant liabilities to Blackhawk Mining. The only buyer interested in acquiring the rest is the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, which has “no experience operating a coal company” or performing reclamation and water treatment, according to lawyers for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Describing the deal as “destined to fail,” the DEP strongly objects to Patriot’s plan, as do regulators in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Appalachian Rails Have Strong Ties to Fossil Fuels

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

An empty CSX coal train. Photo by J. Mueller

An empty CSX coal train. Photo by J. Mueller

For more than 100 years, railroads have roared through the Appalachian mountains, connecting the region to the rest of the country, and moving resources and people in and out of the region.

Trains first entered Appalachia in 1851, when the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company extended one of its lines to the town of Piedmont, which was located in what was then Virginia. As the rail line expanded, it “was considered so important during the Civil War that its route affected the shape of the new state of West Virginia,” according to the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

In most of the region, however, railroads became an important economic factor beginning in the 1890s with the rise of the lumber and coal industries. R. Scott Huffard Jr., of Lees-McRae College, explains that with the railroads came outside investors who extracted these natural resources. In this context, he describes the railroads as “the leading edge of resource exploitation.”

Today, the link between the railroads and resources, especially coal, remains strong. According to the Association of American Railroads, “No single commodity is more important to America’s railroads than coal.”

The energy sector’s shift away from coal toward natural gas in the past decade has negatively impacted the railroad companies that transport much of the coal. The Association of American Railroads reported in July 2015 that coal traffic had fallen almost 23 percent from its peak in 2008.

“In 2008, coal accounted for 45 percent of total US freight carloads moved by rail,” according to Mindi Farber-DeAnda, of the U.S. Energy Information Administration. “In 2014, coal accounted for [only] 38 percent of total US freight carloads moved by rail,” she said.

Dr. David B. Clarke, director of the Center for Transportation Research at The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, predicts that this decline will “affect the health of the railroad industry, in my opinion, especially the two eastern railroads: Norfolk Southern and CSX. We’re already seeing that reflected in their stock prices and their earnings.”

A Baltimore and Ohio train passes through Durbin, W. Va. Photo by Donnie Nunley

A Baltimore and Ohio train passes through Durbin, W. Va. Photo by Donnie Nunley

In contrast, natural gas is transported primarily by pipeline in the United States, though according to the Omaha World-Herald, Union Pacific Railroad has applied to the Federal Railroad Administration to be the first railroad permitted to carry natural gas in its liquefied form.

According to Clarke, more trains are now carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota and Montana, which is “poorly served by the pipeline network,” in part “to recover some of the lost energy business” resulting from the shift away from coal. In February 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported that roughly 70 percent of Bakken oil was transported by train and was significantly more combustible than oil from other sources.

This increased volume, together with its higher volatility, has contributed to the increased frequency of well-publicized derailments. Bakken crude oil was being transported by the April 2014 train that derailed in Lynchburg, Va., spilling nearly 30,000 gallons of crude into the James River and bursting into flames. It was also being transported by the train that derailed in Mount Carbon, W.Va., the following February, sending a massive fireball into the sky.

In response, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced new regulations to oversee the transport of these hazardous materials. In May, the agency announced its final rule to increase the safety of trains carrying flammable materials. According to Progressive Railroading, the new rule “focuses on safety improvements designed to prevent crude-by-rail accidents, mitigate consequences if an accident occurs and support emergency-response efforts.”

But The New York Times reports that many safety advocates are concerned that the new rule does not go far enough to address their concerns. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) told The Times, “It does nothing to address explosive volatility, very little to reduce the threat of rail car punctures, and is too slow on the removal of the most dangerous cars.”

Clarke worries about the negative impact these changes in the railroads may have on many small communities in Appalachia. If coal is no longer as profitable for the rail companies, then the tracks may be abandoned leaving some areas without access to rail service. “And once you loose rail service, then you’re at a disadvantage for any future industrial development,” he says.

Historically, railroads have played an important role in the economic development of Appalachia. But with so many changes underway, they may play a different role in the region’s future.

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 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.

Stay informed by subscribing to The Front Porch Blog.