Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

Mountaintop removal is the 800-pound gorilla at the SOAR Health Impact Series

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Erin

If the SOAR initiative is to go beyond political rhetoric, Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear must take public concerns about mountaintop removal’s health impacts seriously.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

I attended the first Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit held in Pikeville, Ky., last December. Following Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s Appalachia’s Bright Future economic development meeting, I was excited at the prospects such a large summit might generate.

As a joint effort between U.S. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, it was clear that SOAR had the power to make real change in eastern Kentucky, but only if those involved had the will.

The results of SOAR following the summit have been mixed so far. Several people have pointed out issues with the process — specifically, the stakeholders most involved in SOAR may not accurately represent the needs and concerns of eastern Kentuckians. Since the summit, my hope for the outcomes of SOAR have waned. But when I learned that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, would be visiting eastern Kentucky as part of the SOAR Health Impact Series, I saw an opportunity for the voices of residents from coal-impacted communities in eastern Kentucky counties to be heard.

Making a Clear Case on Mountaintop Removal and Health

Over the past several years, more than 20 peer-reviewed studies have been published linking a range of health problems including above-average cancer and birth defect rates to the presence of mountaintop removal coal mining. Yet just last month, the Obama administration pulled funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for research underway on air pollution from mountaintop removal and its link to respiratory issues. The need for a serious effort to identify and address health issues related to mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia has never been more clear. Despite this, I was not optimistic that Dr. Frieden and Rep. Rogers would address this need during their visit.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Prior to the CDC visit, the SOAR health committee held 11 listening sessions across eastern Kentucky from April through July. Each of the sessions drew an average of more than 20 participants. Although SOAR has thus far limited the role of key community members in leadership positions, the health committee has provided a forum for some community involvement.

The CDC meetings consisted of four sessions — two shorter evening sessions in Somerset and Paintsville, and two longer daytime sessions in Hazard and Morehead. I attended the daytime session in Hazard last Tuesday, where there was standing room only. Several individuals spoke, including Rep. Rogers and several doctors from eastern Kentucky.

As the morning went on, I began to lose hope that environmental concerns would be brought up. Then, Dr. Nikki Stone, the health committee chair and event moderator, spoke about the issues that came up during the listening sessions. She began listing the top 10 concerns that had come up throughout the listening sessions, and much to my surprise, environmental impacts, including air and water pollution from mountaintop removal mines, was the top concern resulting from the listening sessions, tied with a desire for coordinate health programs in public schools.

To be honest, I was stunned. I was so sure that the topic would be avoided at a meeting that attracted so much attention. Suddenly, I was hopeful that the health impacts of mountaintop removal would receive some real attention from those that have the power to address the issue.

Unfortunately, the rest of the meeting quickly turned back to lengthy speeches about taking personal responsibility for one’s own health and an announcement of federal funding for the Appalachian Cancer Patient Navigation Project. The talks left me with the distinct impression that those speaking would rather focus on dealing with the prevalence of disease, rather than preventing it.

The Health Impact Series did not improve later that evening in Paintsville. The closest mention of environmental impacts on health came from Rep. Rogers, who referred to dirty streams but then went on to blame water quality degradation on people dumping and straight piping waste into streams. It seemed once again that it was easier to blame eastern Kentuckians, rather than the industry they have been beholden to for generations.

The Opportunity Ahead

There was a strong press presence at both meetings, which may have salvaged some chance of addressing the impacts of mountaintop removal. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, when “asked whether he would support having the CDC study the public health effects of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, Frieden said the agency ‘only goes where it’s invited.’” Following the disappointing Paintsville meeting, I felt like I had one last opportunity to make the most of the meetings and approached Dr. Frieden fully expecting to be turned away. Instead, he listened carefully for a moment and then directed me to his assistant. I spoke with several CDC employees and was disappointed to find that they were unaware of the multitude of health studies linking health problems to mountaintop removal. They did, however, encourage me to contact them directly for follow up on the issue.

Moving forward, Appalachian Voices and our allies intend to follow up with the CDC, to be sure that they are fully aware of the current research that indicates quite clearly that one of the major health issues we should be concerned about in Central Appalachia is mountaintop removal coal mining. We will be sure that the CDC knows that, at least when it comes to the citizens of eastern Kentucky, the CDC is invited to investigate this pressing issue. We will also be sure that the SOAR Health Committee acts upon its finding that citizens are most concerned about environmental impacts on health, because, as the Herald-Leader stated, “when a congressman and governor invite people to ‘listening sessions,’ there’s an obligation to take what they say seriously.”

Ky. Proposes Updates to Coal General Permit

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis

By Brian Sewell

New permitting rules could have far-reaching implications for Kentucky coal mines, processing facilities and the streams that carry away their waste. The state’s “general permit,” which is updated every five years, is available to coal companies seeking pollution discharge permits judged to have a lesser environmental impact than larger operations.

Currently, pollution discharges within five miles of a public water intake are not eligible for the general permit, but the new proposal would change that and instead ask coal companies to create response plans for “catastrophic releases” into public water supplies.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must also sign off on the changes. The previous general permit expired on July 31.

An activist is born

Monday, August 4th, 2014 - posted by Marissa Wheeler
Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Fend, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Feng, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Last Tuesday, on the first day of the carbon rule hearings at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., I stepped off the Metro full of anticipation for my first-ever public rally for any cause, let alone an environmental one.

I arrived at the Federal Triangle station slightly overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings but, following the sounds of live music to the front of the building, I knew upon first glance that I had found my destination.

On the wide semi-circular lawn, children ran with toy replicas of wind turbines. People of many ethnicities and a range of ages stood chatting and putting the finishing touches on colorful posters. A woman and a young musician led a call-and-response demanding “Clean Energy Now.” And on the street, volunteers handed out Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

I accepted a Moms Clean Air Force sticker from a helpful volunteer and hunted for more free items to show my support. Meanwhile, inside EPA headquarters, Hannah Wiegard and Jeff Feng from Appalachian Voices presented their testimony on the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and the need to take swift action to combat climate change.

Proudly sporting my “I Love Mountains” button, I was ready to hobnob with other Americans advocating for clean energy and climate action including lawyers, career environmental advocates, interns like me, and citizens who traveled great distances to appear before the EPA and raise their voices in support of cutting carbon pollution.

These are the people I surround myself with at home and at school, but I’ve often felt like somewhat of an imposter in their presence. I can’t talk knowledgeably about “carbon capture and sequestration” like they can. I waste far too much water, paper, gas, food and electricity. And this was my first-ever environmental rally. In these kinds of situations, my insecurities tend to build inside me like guilt and create a sense of otherness in my mind between myself and the people I admire and want to emulate.

But that morning, I felt immediately welcomed into the fold because just being there meant that I was contributing to the cause. Building grassroots support and demonstrating the power of people mark the beginnings of social and legislative change, as rally speakers such as Green Latino President Mark Magaña and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus impressed upon the crowd.

For me, catching the spirit and optimism of the rally has given greater clarity to both a collective vision of a clean energy future and what I can do as an individual to help us get there. It’s one thing to wear the pins and stickers; it’s another thing to feel empowered by your peers to take action and work toward a common goal. This sense of belonging is the most valuable thing I’ll take with me from the rally. The free sunglasses are pretty cool, too.

Is Obama’s Climate Action Plan on Track?

Friday, July 25th, 2014 - posted by Jeff Feng

“While no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged.” – President Obama, June 2013

President Obama lays out his administration's Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University in June 2013. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

President Obama lays out his administration’s Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University in June 2013. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan is pretty clear in establishing that if we don’t act now, our kids will be living on a different planet.

But since the release of his administration’s plan in June 2013, has Obama made strides in developing a clean energy economy and protecting the environment by fighting climate change?

Let’s take a look at his five-pronged approach to acting on climate: deploying clean energy; building a 21st-century transportation sector; cutting energy waste in homes, businesses, and factories; reducing other greenhouse gas emissions; and leading at the federal level.

First up is deploying clean energy. A major part of accomplishing this goal is first looking at power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution in the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first announced proposed carbon standards for new power plants in September 2013. Future power plants will have to adhere to these national carbon pollution limits. And just last month, the EPA made history by announcing the first-ever limits on carbon pollution for existing power plants.

Under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, states are given flexibility to meet individual emissions targets with an overall goal of cutting carbon pollution nationally by 30 percent below 2005 levels. Electricity generated by renewable sources such as wind and solar doubled during Obama’s first term, but the Clean Power Plan needs to continue the momentum. With that in mind, Obama hopes to redouble electricity generated through wind and solar by 2020. Utility-scale renewable energy is becoming more of a reality even with the reasonable, perhaps conservative guidelines of the Clean Energy Plan.

Seeing as it is 2014, Obama also wants to build a 21st-century transportation sector. The EPA and DOT are working to update heavy-duty vehicle fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards by March 2016. Implementing standards for heavy duty vehicles would build on the benefits of the fuel economy standards set in 2011, cutting emissions by 270 million metric tons and saving 530 million barrels of oil. Commercial trucks, vans, and buses are the second biggest polluters in the transportation sector, presumably behind passenger vehicles. Speaking of passenger vehicles, fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles now require an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

It seems like carbon dioxide has stolen the show, but what about other greenhouse gas emissions? What’s being done to stop hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from doubling by 2020 and tripling by 2030? Who’s working to make sure methane levels that don’t increase to the equivalent of 620 million tons of carbon pollution by 2030 (despite the fact that, since 1990, U.S. methane emissions have dropped by 11 percent)?

HFCs were used to phase out ozone destructive chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and are found in refrigerators and air conditioners. While HFCs do not deplete the ozone layer, they have a high global-warming potential and are sometimes referred to as “super greenhouse gases.” Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is working to ban the most detrimental HFCs and develop suitable replacements.

The federal government’s plan to reduce methane emissions also takes a multifaceted approach. Just last month, the EPA announced its plans to strengthen air pollution standards for new municipal solid waste facilities, the third largest source of methane emissions, by requiring them to capture 13 percent more landfill gas than previously dictated. Under the EPA’s plan, landfills would need to capture two-thirds of methane and air toxin emissions by 2023. To cut methane emissions from agricultural operations, the second largest source of the potent greenhouse gase, the USDA, EPA, and DOE released their “Biogas Roadmap” of voluntary suggestions to implement methane digesters. Apparently using a bottom-up approach in going from lower to higher emitters, the EPA has yet to build on voluntary programs in the oil and gas industry, which is the largest source of methane emissions. Methane regulations may be considered later this year, but would not be finalized until the end of 2016.

On to cutting energy waste in homes, businesses and factories. Ideally, we’d all want energy that’s both reliable and affordable. Groups like Appalachian Voices have demonstrated that energy efficiency is both the cleanest and most cost-effective method to reduce pollution, grow our economy by creating thousands of jobs, and save money for families and businesses.

The Climate Action Plan and the Better Buildings Initiative imagine that commercial and industrial buildings will be 20 percent more efficient by 2020. In Obama’s first term, DOE and HUD helped more than two million homes become energy efficient. The DOE is also finalizing conservation standards for appliances and equipment that would help customers save more. Finally, the USDA recently announced it would allocate approximately $250 million to developing energy efficiency and renewable energy for commercial and residential customers in rural areas.

By virtue of all the stakeholders mentioned above, President Obama believes the federal government must lead the charge towards a cleaner future. Last year, he signed a Presidential Memorandum dictating renewable sources make up 20 percent of the federal government’s electricity by 2020. By working with the U.S. military and other federal agencies, he hopes to lead by example and prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey plans to spend $13.1 million to develop three-dimensional mapping data to respond to weather disasters. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs is allocating $10 million to teach tribes ways to adapt to climate change.

Even with these initiatives, the road to energy efficiency and clean energy won’t be easy. Considering that Obama’s Climate Action Plan was announced just last year, historic work is starting to move the United States to a sustainable and stable environment. It’s a start, but we certainly have miles to go.

What do Duke Energy and a messy teenager have in common?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - posted by amy
Dark gray coal ash permeates the soils along the Dan River. Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Dark gray coal ash permeates the soils along the Dan River. Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Nearly six months have passed since news of the Dan River coal ash spill first reached the public in North Carolina. Since that time, Duke Energy has been working slowly to vacuum up the large, readily identifiable deposits of coal ash from the approximately 39,000 tons that spilled. Most of the cleanup has been focused close to the location of the broken pipe and near Danville, Va., where sediment was trapped behind the low Schoolfield Dam.

Nearly six months of work, and a staggering six percent has been recovered – staggering for how little that is. Duke and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was overseeing the work, seem satisfied with this recovery rate and have declared the cleanup complete, leaving behind more than 35,000 tons or slightly more than 90 percent of spilled coal ash in the Dan River.

Let’s look at it from another perspective. Say you ask your teenager to clean up his messy bedroom. He picks up a few articles of dirty clothing from the floor and puts them in the laundry, and calls it quits. “That’s it?” you ask.

The sad truth is the premature ending of the cleanup means the Dan River will forever be sullied by the toxic, dark grey ash that lurks below the surface. Coal ash does not biodegrade. It will remain in the river unless removed.

So, where is the remaining 35,000 tons (130 thousand cubic yards) of ash, and why is it not being removed? One of Duke’s replies has been that such a thin layer exists over such a large area – about 70 miles of river that it’s impractical or nearly impossible to recover. But remember the Kingston, Tenn., disaster that spilled 5.4 million cubic yards (1.4 million tons) of coal ash into the Emory River in 2008? The Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the Kingston coal-fired power plant, worked for six years on the cleanup. Ultimately, TVA removed 3.5 million cubic yards of ash in a 12-month period, with 85 percent of the ash being removed in 10 months. This fact makes Duke Energy’s six percent in six months an outrage and a failure.

Another argument has been that continued dredging will stir up more contamination. This is the same argument that has been used by polluters in other spill sites as justification to quit work before the work is complete. When GE spilled PCBs in the Hudson River between 1947 and 1977, it declared that the cleanup would destroy the river and dry up the local economy. However, dredging in Plattsburgh, N.Y., reduced PCB contamination by 90 percent, did not disrupt the community, and was deemed a huge success.

Copyright Yinan Chen; photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright Yinan Chen; photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Returning to the teenager’s messy bedroom, you ask why he hasn’t cleaned up the rest of the junk. “Well there’s so much dust and grime, if I pick up anything else, it’ll just get everywhere.”

Would you accept that answer? I didn’t think so. Then why are North Carolinians expected to accept such a pitiful cleanup of one of our most treasured rivers. We have fallen far short of even half-assed. Every excuse from Duke Energy is like the little boy crying wolf. Most of the actions they say cannot be done, have been done in other states, and done successfully. How long before someone calls their bluff?

The coal ash bill currently in conference committee to reconcile the differences between the state Senate and House versions doesn’t have a regulatory backbone or enforcement teeth. It fails to stand up to the toxic threat to our citizens, and instead of providing accountability, it continues to accommodate Duke Energy. It actually helps pave the way to relieve Duke of responsibility for real cleanup at all of its coal ash pits. With so much at stake, so much public outcry, documented contamination and national attention, this bill is simply not good enough.

You wouldn’t let the teenager just walk away from the mess in his room. We should not let Duke, or North Carolina legislators, walk away from the state’s coal ash mess.

Great News for Clean Water in Virginia!

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - posted by eric

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution.

Last week a federal judge upheld a previous decision requiring a Virginia coal company to get a permit for their discharges of toxic selenium.

Selenium is a mineral that is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life at very low levels. It is commonly discharged from many coal mines and coal ash ponds. Even in small amounts, selenium causes deformities, reproductive failure and even death in fish and birds. Even though its toxic effects and prevalence in coal mine discharges are well known, this is the first mine in Virginia that will be required to monitor and obtain a permit for its selenium discharges.

Water testing done by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) revealed that A&G Coal Corporation’s Kelly Branch Surface Mine was discharging selenium in toxic amounts. So in 2012, Appalachian Voices, SAMS and the Sierra Club, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed suit against A&G for illegal discharges of selenium.

EPA is currently revising their national standards for selenium. If implemented, their new draft standards will make it more difficult for citizens groups protect streams they care about through legal actions like this one.

A&G Coal Company is owned by billionaire, frequent political campaign contributor and coal baron James Justice.

Last year, a federal judge ruled in our favor and ordered A&G to begin daily selenium monitoring and to apply for a permit from the Commonwealth of Virginia to cover its selenium discharges. A&G appealed that decision with the support of a number of industry groups including the National Mining Association, the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance, the Virginia Mining Association, the Virginia Mining Issues Group, the American Petroleum Institute and several others. That appeal failed last week.

A&G claimed that their current water discharge permit provided them a “permit shield.” Basically, since they were meeting the terms of their current permit, they were shielded from any liability for other water pollution not included in that permit.

In his decision federal district judge James P. Jones disagreed. The decision states that the validity of a “permit shield” is a two-prong test, requiring that a permittee disclose the presence of the pollutant in its permit application, and that the state agency considers that pollutant. If you fail one prong then you lose the shield. In this case A&G never disclosed the presence of selenium in their permit application, and there is no evidence that Virginia considered selenium pollution, so the company failed both parts of the test. The decision concludes:

To allow the [permit shield] defense in these circumstances would tear a large hole in the [Clean Water Act], whose purpose it is to protect the waters of Appalachia and the nation and their healthfulness, wildlife, and natural beauty.

Today’s court decision and what it means for Appalachia

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - posted by thom

good_day_for_mtns2

Today was a big day for those fighting to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

A federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge.

Read a statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons.

In 2009, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers began an Enhanced Coordination Process for permitting valley fills associated with large-scale mountaintop removal mining. The process encouraged improved coordination between the two agencies and greater scrutiny of the environmental impacts of each valley fill permit before them.

But as you probably know, the environmental impacts of valley fills are inherently damaging. Just last week, a major study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that headwater streams beneath valley fills in southern West Virginia had two-thirds fewer fish than normal streams. Keep in mind that those Appalachian streams are the headwater streams for the drinking water of millions of Americans. Appalachian Voices was also curious about the potential economic impacts of coal pollution and found that there are a lot more jobs supported by the sportfishing industry in Appalachia than surface coal mining jobs — about seven times as many.

The second part of the court decision was related to the EPA’s guidance on conductivity. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. The USGS study also confirmed that conductivity levels below mountaintop removal valley fills are almost always elevated, damaging waters throughout the region.

The EPA released its guidance on conductivity pollution just over four years ago. At the time, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claimed that “either no or very few valley fills are going to meet standards like this.”

In order to “end coal mining pollution,” as she put it, the EPA was going to use its authority to restrict mountaintop removal valley fills, and thus significantly reduce the amount of mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia. While the guidance would not have put a much-needed permanent end to mountaintop removal, it was an enormous step.

The coal industry fought the guidance with everything that had. Their allies on Capitol Hill held hearings to put political pressure on the EPA to stand down, while industry lawyers simultaneously took the agency to court.

Two years after the guidance had been proposed, it was thrown out by a U.S. District Court. With one bad court decision, EPA’s job to end coal mining pollution was made a lot harder.

Meanwhile, the EPA Region 4 office, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for Kentucky and other southeastern states, has been ignoring both the guidance and the rigorous science on which it was based. They continue to approve permits for valley fills, including six at one massive mine that got the agency’s OK just last year.

But on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals turned the tables. The panel of judges concluded that the guidance stands, as it is not a final rule, and therefore is not subject to legal challenge. Furthermore, they confirmed, and in fact encouraged, the EPA’s enhanced coordination process.

The EPA has the legal authority, scientific evidence, and moral obligation to block every mountaintop removal valley fill permit that comes through its doors. We all share the responsibility of making sure it does just that.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to end mountaintop removal.

One fish, two fish … Dead fish

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - posted by matt

USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

onefish_twofish

A study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published this month provides strong new evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is devastating downstream fish populations.

That’s hardly news for long-time followers of the controversy surrounding mountaintop removal, a coal mining practice that involves blowing off the tops of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dumping the waste into valleys below. In 2010, a group of 13 prestigious biologists published a paper in Science, the nation’s premier scientific journal, that found:

“Our analyses of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address… Clearly, current attempts to regulate [mountaintop removal mining] practices are inadequate.”

The authors of the study published last week found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. They made this important contribution to the science by using rigorous methodology to isolate several types of water pollution most likely to have caused these staggering declines.

But a more important contribution of the study may be that it draws the focus of water pollution impacts away from mayflies and other aquatic insects and onto a far more popular and charismatic organism that not only is important to rural people’s way of life, but supports a multi-billion dollar sportfishing industry in Appalachia.

Tellingly, industry spokespeople contacted by local reporters did not dispute the science as they typically have in the past. Those that didn’t dodge reporters entirely were quick to change the subject to the purported benefits of mountaintop removal to create more flat land for industrial and commercial development (in a region where less than 10 percent of the more than 1 million acres of mountains that have already been flattened has been used for economic development).

This muted response is in stark contrast to the coal industry’s response to previous science linking mountaintop removal to the loss of aquatic insects downstream from mine sites. The “EPA puts mayflies ahead of jobs” or “pests over people” became the rallying cries of coal industry supporters when the EPA first began bringing science back into the permitting process in 2009.

One suspects that the coal industry knows it isn’t likely to win a “jobs vs. fish” debate with America’s 33 million anglers.

Widespread damage to fish populations could also be important from the pocketbook perspective that political leaders in Kentucky and West Virginia take seriously. According to data [PDF] from the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing creates a lot more jobs than mountaintop removal does in the states where it occurs:

14610881484_ee087b1ba9_o

In fact, sportfishing accounts for more than 12,000 jobs in Kentucky, which is more than the entire coal mining workforce in the state, including all underground and surface miners, coal preparation plant workers and industry office workers combined. Moreover, unlike coal, sportfishing is a growing industry in Appalachia — the number of jobs it created in West Virginia more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.

Of course, even if “jobs vs. fish” were a popular argument, it would be just as false a narrative as “pests over people.” Declines in populations of both fish and aquatic insects are important indicators of declining health of an ecosystem on which all organisms depend, including people. The “ecological indicator” theory is consistent with the dozens of scientific studies published in the last few years that show communities near mountaintop removal mines suffer poor health outcomes ranging from high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects to low life expectancies that are comparable to those in developing nations like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Thus, the USGS study is an important contribution to the debate about mountaintop removal for anyone concerned about recreational fishing, human health or the economy of Appalachia. Hopefully that’s everybody.

It’s also a very timely contribution because it turns out that the EPA and other federal agencies are right now grappling with important rules to protect streams that will determine whether the pollution that leads to the kinds of declines in fish populations seen by the USGS researchers will be allowed to continue.

The study found that waters downstream from mountaintop removal mines contained elevated levels of two forms of pollution that the researchers believe could account for the declines in fish populations: conductivity and selenium. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. Selenium has caused grotesque deformities in larval fish ranging from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This study should serve as a wake-up call to federal regulators that have been steadily backsliding from the Obama administration’s initial commitment to put science first in agency decision-making and to rein in the widespread damage from mountaintop removal mining. That backsliding has been particularly evident at the EPA’s Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for a number of southeastern states including Kentucky.

Enforcement officials at Region 4 have not incorporated the science and recommendations developed by the EPA for the guidance on conductivity since it was announced by previous EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010. At the time, Jackson predicted the new guidelines would allow “few, if any, valley fills” to be permitted. Since then, valley fills — debris piles composed of the soil and rock that formerly made up the mountaintops of Central Appalachia — have continued to be approved by Region 4, including a massive new mountaintop removal permit with six valley fills that was approved last year.

Region 4 officials also recently approved a weakening of Kentucky’s standards for chronic selenium levels in streams, allowing the state to permit levels high enough to cause reproductive failure in some fish. Worse, at the federal level, the EPA recently released a draft revision to its nationwide selenium rule that is likely to be all but impossible to enforce. That’s a particular problem in states like Kentucky that have proven time and again to be incapable of enforcing rules on the politically powerful coal industry without citizen groups intervening. Here’s what the Lexington Herald-Leader had to say about the state’s “failure to oversee a credible water monitoring program by the coal industry”:

“In some cases, state regulators allowed the companies to go for as long as three years without filing required quarterly water-monitoring reports. In other instances, the companies repeatedly filed the same highly detailed data, without even changing the dates. So complete was the lack of state oversight it’s impossible to say whether the mines were violating their water pollution permits or not.”

Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to take meaningful action to protect Appalachian streams this winter, when the Office of Surface Mining is scheduled to release a draft Stream Protection Rule to replace the outdated Stream Buffer Zone rule promulgated more than 30 years ago.

The message for the Obama administration from all this is that they are doing nobody any favors by taking half-measures to protecting water quality in Appalachia. When important recreational fish populations, a growing sector of the Appalachian economy and the health of Appalachian people clearly depend on strong water quality protections, the president’s spirit of compromise should not extend to compromising on science.

Here’s what you can do: tell President Obama to instruct his agencies to draft a strong Stream Protection Rule that will prohibit mining near streams and protect the health of people, fish and the economy of Appalachia. Take action here.

Mountain Justice Summer – 10 Years Strong!

Thursday, June 26th, 2014 - posted by Chloe
Dedicated advocates against mountaintop removal mining gathered in the shadow of the devastated remains of Black Mountain. Photo courtesy Mountain Justice

Dedicated advocates against mountaintop removal mining gathered in the shadow of the devastated remains of Black Mountain. Photo courtesy Mountain Justice

This summer marks the 10th anniversary of Mountain Justice Summer Camp, an event that brings together those fueled by the mutual desire to see an end to mountaintop removal coal mining and all of the environmental and social injustices embedded in its practice. The annual summer camp, this year held at Wiley’s Last Resort on Pine Mountain, is a week-long event dedicated to mountaintop removal education, workshops and trainings. The intention is to organize and act, strengthening solidarity amongst the Appalachian community and to helping to put an end to coal companies’ exploitation and influence.  

I am fortunate enough to intern with Appalachian Voices this summer and fall and attending camp has really afforded me the perspective and skills necessary for our work to protect Appalachia. Camp was located on part of the beautiful forested summit of Pine Mountain in Kentucky. The mountain was a constant reminder of the importance and purpose of Mountain Justice. Black Mountain was across the valley from us, defaced, barren, and exposed after years of being stripped for coal — the community below still feels the effects of its destruction.  

Appalachian Voices staff and interns working on biking trails near Norton, Va., with Shayne Fields.

Appalachian Voices staff and interns working on biking trails near Norton, VA with Shayne Fields.

In between the delicious meals prepared by the kitchen crew, the days at camp feature workshops, trainings, and panel discussions that illustrate the Appalachian Mountains’ history and culture, and threats posed by the coal industry.

The mountain mornings started by bringing the entire camp together to go over group norms, volunteer sign-ups, updates from the medic team, kitchen crew, and security, and a quick overview of the day’s schedule. It’s difficult to decide which workshops and trainings to attend between Appalachian culture and history, community organizing, building alternative economies, peacekeeping & de-escalation, 20 hour street medic training, climbing training, water testing, leadership development and team building, plus many more. Workshops and trainings are led by knowledgeable, experienced, and enthusiastic people and the participants seem to always leave with the excitement of having cultivated or enriched their abilities. It’s common to see faces elated in this newfound perspective or enraged at the injustices discussed.

In the afternoon there is free time to decompress, go swimming or paddling in the pond, visit a nearby waterfall, hike, throw a Frisbee, climb a tree, check out some good books and pamphlets, or talk with new friends. There were also volunteer opportunities to help local residents with projects – some of us got to help Shayne Fields who has been working on a network of mountain biking trails in Flag Rock State Recreational Area for the past few years to help attract tourism and improve the local economy.

After dinner every evening panel discussions were led by impacted citizens, experts, and enthusiasts to address topics such as Appalachian Women, Impacted Citizens, Youth in Appalachia, Disaster Relief, and Mountain Justice History. It is particularly moving to hear of fears, threats, and triumphs from those who have experienced the trials and tribulations brought about by the coal industry that has tried to silence them and their families for generations. The Mullins family, which is traveling this summer on the Breaking Clean Tour, were part of the Impacted Citizens panel and spoke passionately about their family’s experiences as former coal miners, affected locals, and as parents of the next generation.

While spending five amazing days surrounded by passionate people and beautiful mountains, I reflected on what it means to act. Most of us have the privilege to act; we have the agency to choose how to make a difference and the means and resources to do so. We forget that we have power and that we can use our agency to organize and act. Some must act because it is a battle forced upon their lives and there is no other option, some act out of empathy, sympathy ethics or morals, and some act because they can, because they have the privilege to while others do not.

Whether you join a picket line, write a representative, volunteer or plant a tree, we have the power to create change. All we need is to believe we can do so.

What does EPA’s carbon rule mean for your state?

Friday, June 13th, 2014 - posted by Ryan Murphy
The EPA's interactive "Where You Live" tool summarizes climate change impacts and state actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The EPA’s interactive “Where You Live” tool summarizes climate change impacts and state actions to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced Clean Power Plan aims to cut carbon pollution from power plants nationwide. Specifically, the plan seeks to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels. A new tool on the EPA’s website allows users to see how their state will be affected by the federal effort.

The tool is a clickable map that shows a particular state’s carbon emissions in millions of metric tons and the percentage of those emissions which came from fossil fuel-fired power plants. This is calculated into an emission rate that is expressed as “pounds per megawatt hours.” The EPA’s tool presents its yearly emissions calculations as such:

1. Millions of metric tons of carbon emitted by the state
2. Amount of energy produced by the state (presented in terawatt hours, each of which is equal to one million megawatt hours)
3. A combination of the two previous factors (pounds per megawatt hours): This demonstrates how many pounds of carbon are emitted for every megawatt hour of energy produced by a power plant, or how much carbon dioxide is released to meet that state’s energy demand.

The table below shows 2012 emissions levels of five central and southern Appalachian states and the amount of carbon pollution those states will need to cut under EPA’s proposed plan.

A table of carbon emissions and coal's share of electricity generation in five central and southern Appalachian states. Click to enlarge.

A table of carbon emissions and coal’s share of electricity generation in five central and southern Appalachian states. Click to enlarge.

What accounts for the differences in emissions? For example, Virginia released 861 fewer pounds of CO2 per megawatt hour than Kentucky in 2012.

That’s where another feature of this tool comes in: each state’s profile features a pie graph of different energy sources and their share of a state’s overall generation.

Kentucky derived an enormous 92 percent of its energy from coal in 2012. Virginia derived only 20 percent of its energy from coal. The majority of the Old Dominion’s energy comes from nuclear (40 percent) and, a close second, natural gas (35 percent).

Burning coal releases more carbon than any other energy source, so it makes sense that those states which use the highest percentages of coal also release the highest amount of carbon.

This carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere and aggravates climate change. A significant reduction in these emissions seeks not only to mitigate climate change but also to reduce pollutants that can cause asthma and other health problems.

Each state must develop a plan to meet these lower carbon emission goals. In an ideal world, these states would make a seamless transition to cleaner forms of energy. They could remain energy-based economies by becoming clean energy-based economies.

It remains to be seen how the coal industry’s influence will affect the implementation of this rule by Appalachian states. But considering the fact that as much as 95 percent of a single state’s energy can come from coal, the EPA’s plan could have a significant effect on Appalachia as states are given federal impetus to curtail carbon emissions, and, implicitly, coal consumption.