Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

Surprised? McCrory’s Coal Ash Proposal Falls Short

Saturday, April 19th, 2014 - posted by brian
Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance

Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is catching flak for a proposal on coal ash that could derail state legislators’ efforts to reform regulation of the toxic waste during the upcoming legislative session.

According to the News & Observer, McCrory’s proposal calls for “site-specific closures.” Coal ash from some ponds could be moved, other ponds would be drained and capped but likely still threaten groundwater. In other words, basically what Duke Energy has already said it plans to do.

McCrory and John Skvarla, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, have been adamant that a one-size-fits-all approach to coal ash isn’t prudent, talking down a vocal public that believes the toxic waste should be moved from storage near waterways to safer, lined landfills.

On its face, the bill seems to signal progress, or at least make a bad situation a little bit better. For example, it would shorten the time in which Duke would have to notify the public of spills, from 48 hours to 24. OK, probably shouldn’t have been 48 hours to begin with, but we’ll take it.

Also, while the plan would not impose deadlines on Duke to clean up its leaky ash ponds, it would require closure plans within 60 days to 90 days of its passage for the four plants with the most urgent coal ash issues – Riverbend, Dan River, Sutton and Asheville.

Also, while the plan would not impose deadlines on Duke to address its leaky ash ponds, it would give Duke 60 days to 90 days after the plan’s passage to submit clean-up plans for ash ponds at the four plants with the most urgent pollution threats – Riverbend, Dan River, Sutton and Asheville.

Pat McCrory

Pat McCrory

But Duke already plans to remove ash from the retired Dan River plant, the site of the massive coal ash spill that reminded the public of the toxic legacy left even after coal plants are shuttered. And the company’s plans to repurpose ash from the Riverbend and Asheville plants as fill material at the Charlotte and Asheville airports are both moving forward.

So what’s the rub? After all, McCrory’s office says it still prefers that the ash be moved away from waterways. But that’s part of the problem. Leaving pond closure timelines and what to do with all that coal ash up to Duke hasn’t worked too well up to this point. The public is demanding clean water be protected, not half measures that leave people to throw their hands in the air and say “well, hopefully Duke Energy will do the right thing.”

Citizens and environmental groups sounding off about the ties between Duke, McCrory and DENR have every reason to be skeptical. DENR’s customer-first (read: industry-first) approach had people scratching their heads long before the Dan River spill in February. And early revelations of the federal criminal investigation that followed the spill only increased the lack of trust.

Perhaps to ease those concerns, Skvarla told the News & Observer that neither McCrory’s staff nor the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources consulted Duke about the proposal.

“This is our legislation, not Duke’s legislation,” said Skvarla. That’s reassuring, I suppose. But the fact that it needs to be clarified does not inspire confidence.

The governor’s proposal could also overshadow other legislation that would do more to get this big dirty ball of coal ash that’s settled in North Carolina rolling. State Sen. Tom Apodaca, a member of McCrory’s party who plans to sponsor a bill strengthening coal ash regulation, says McCrory gave legislators no advance notice of the plan.

“The governor doesn’t do legislation. The legislature does legislation,” Apodaca told the Asheville Citizen-Times. “He should have worked with the folks in the legislature to be on the same page getting legislation drafted.”

Apodaca says the plan he intends to introduce would go further.

“We’re going to mandate actual timeframes to close these (ponds), especially those that are near water sources. We’re determined to get rid of the wet ash pond at Asheville.”

Environmental groups including Appalachian Voices want the state to use its authority to move coal ash to landfills licensed to store hazardous waste. The type of waste that contains arsenic, lead, mercury, you know, coal ash. But the N.C. Environmental Management Commission recently sided with Duke Energy and also appealed the ruling that gave the state the authority to do just that.

Appalachian Voices North Carolina campaign coordinator, Amy Adams, pointed out similarities between the legislation and the controversial settlement DENR asked a judge to throw out after months of intense criticism.

“It fails to provide any deadlines, doesn’t require moving of the ash at all locations, and provides no standards for newly generated coal ash,” Adams said. “This proposal protects Duke Energy, not North Carolina’s citizens.”

Click here to tell your legislators to reject the governor’s proposal and pass legislation that will move the toxic ash to safe, lined storage away from waterways.

Counteracting Coal’s Dirty Tricks

Friday, April 18th, 2014 - posted by tom
The coal industry is up to its old trick. But with your help, we're working to make sure they backfire.

The coal industry is up to its old trick. But with your help, we’re working to make sure they backfire.

The coal industry is up to its old tricks. But with your help, Appalachian Voices and our allies are working to make sure they backfire.

Just a month after a federal court threw out the Bush administration’s flawed 2008 stream buffer zone rule, the industry’s allies in the U.S. House passed a bill in March to reinstate this egregiously permissive rule that allows coal companies to dump mountaintop removal waste in streams with little regard for water quality impacts.

We acted quickly to undermine what symbolic success that legislation, H.R. 2824, would ultimately have. While we never expected to stop the bill from passing the unabashedly anti-environmental House, our efforts helped to narrow the margin and bridge the partisan divide that pervades Congress.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, a coalition including Appalachian Voices had Capitol Hill covered. We attended dozens of meetings to educate House members and ensure the truth about mountaintop removal was the message of the day. Sure enough, when the bill was debated on the House floor, opponents of mountaintop removal stood and spoke for the health and well-being of Appalachian communities.

We’re not going to let the coal industry take us backward by making an end-run around the court’s decision. And if this bill goes to the Senate, we’re confident that—with your help—we can defeat it. The White House even issued a veto threat, rightfully questioning why industry-backed representatives would want to “waste significant taxpayer dollars adopting a rule that has been vacated by a federal court” noting that the Office of Surface Mining is developing an updated Stream Protection Rule that it says will address the threats mining waste poses to water quality, wildlife habitat and communities downstream.

But here’s the kicker: by showing how far it’s willing to go to make mountaintop removal easy, the coal industry did its part in stoking stronger public and congressional support for clean water. Now it’s up to us to build on this support and pressure on the Obama administration to develop a Stream Protection Rule that protects Appalachian streams from mining waste.

Read Thom Kay’s blog post for a snapshot of floor speeches, both the good and bad, on H.R. 2824.

America’s biggest bank moves away from mountaintop removal

Tuesday, April 15th, 2014 - posted by brian

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A combination of activism and economics is reducing the role big banks play in making mountaintop removal coal mining possible.


Update: Rainforest Action Network, the Sierra Club, and BankTrack released their latest Coal Finance Report Card, grading U.S. banks on their performance and policies related to coal-fired power and mountaintop removal coal mining. Read the Report Card here.

Pressuring large investment banks to stop financing mountaintop removal coal mining has been a strategy of the nationwide movement to end the destructive practice for years.

Judging by the progress made by Rainforest Action Network, and other grassroots groups such as Earth Quaker Action Team and Hands Off Appalachia targeting the infamous “too big to fails,” that strategy is working.

Yesterday, RAN shared the news that JPMorgan Chase, the largest bank in the United States, updated its position on mountaintop removal in its environmental policy report, indicating a further move away from financing mountaintop removal projects.

The bank’s announcement comes almost four years after a report by RAN, the Sierra Club and BankTrack revealed that JPMorgan, along with PNC and UBS, was a top financier of companies using mountaintop removal.

RAN’s Energy & Finance program director, Amanda Starbuck, wrote that, as the nation’s largest bank, JPMorgan Chase’s aversion to financing mountaintop removal projects should be an example to other major banks “that do not want to be singled out” for continuing to support the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams. We’re looking at you, Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup. Yes, you too, PNC and UBS.

According to JPMorgan Chase’s 2014 environmental policy report, the bank has reduced its exposure to companies engaged in mountaintop removal and expects that reduction to “exceed any decline in the
overall market.”

The policy report does not overlook the economic side of this environmental crime either, mentioning that “production from mountaintop mining has declined by close to 50 percent since 2008 due to market conditions, regulations, and concerns over environmental and human health impacts.”

Still, as recently as last year, JPMorgan Chase earned a D+ on RAN’s Coal Finance Report Card, which evaluates the largest U.S. banks based on their financing of mountaintop removal projects and companies that operate coal-fired power plants.

The report card’s authors wrote that JPMorgan Chase’s “enhanced diligence process” for mountaintop removal transactions “includes considerations of a company’s regulatory compliance history, exposure to future regulation, litigation risk, and operational performance related to valley fills and water quality issues.”

Overall, the bank ranked fourth among the 12 largest U.S. banks in involvement in mountaintop removal financing, committing $616.7 million in 2012 to companies including Alpha Natural Resources and TECO Energy, according to the Coal Finance Report Card.

In order to improve its grade, the RAN team wrote, JPMorgan should disclose details and “strengthen reporting on how it has implemented its enhanced diligence process for mountaintop removal transactions.”

Strong stances on mountaintop removal in the finance sector are not unprecedented. BNP Paribas, the fourth largest bank in the world by total assets, includes a mandatory requirement in its responsible investment policy to not invest in companies that use mountaintop removal.

Appalachian Voices congratulates RAN on the success of its campaign against America’s biggest banks and the pivotal role they play in making mountaintop removal possible. Learn more and take action here.

Central Appalachian-focused James River Coal Company enters bankruptcy

Friday, April 11th, 2014 - posted by brian
James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia's most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties.

James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia’s most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties. Click to enlarge.

This week, James River Coal Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in federal court. Like Patriot Coal, which reemerged from bankruptcy in December, the Richmond, Va.-based company’s operations are concentrated in Central Appalachia and are located in some of the counties most economically vulnerable to coal’s downturn.

According to a 2013 report by Downstream Strategies, eastern Kentucky’s Knott, Letcher, Pike, Bell, and Harlan counties are particularly vulnerable to shifting coal demand and changes in electricity markets, and therefore, require the most immediate attention from policymakers seeking to alleviate the economic impacts of the region’s declining coal industry.

James River has historically operated in all of those counties. But in September 2013, poor demand forced the company to lay off 525 employees and idle production at its McCoy-Elkhorn complex in Pike and Floyd counties and the Bledsoe complex in Leslie and Harlan counties.

Two months later, the struggling coal operator idled four more mines and furloughed 200 workers.

James River has not posted an annual net profit since 2010 and reported net loss of approximately $16.4 million in 2013. Investors expected the bankruptcy was imminent after the company recently received a notice from Nasdaq that it was not complying with the stock market’s rules after its stock closed below $1 per share for 30 business days.

In its bankruptcy filing, the company said it has assets valued at about $1.06 billion and liabilities of about $818.7 million, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“The coal markets in the U.S. have changed dramatically during the past several years,” said James River Chairman and CEO Peter T. Socha. “Some of these changes are cyclical due to continued weakness in the real economy. Other of the changes are more permanent like changes in government environmental regulations, improved methods to produce natural gas, and switching between coal basins by domestic power utilities.”

A federal judge approved James River’s request to continue operations during its restructuring process, including paying wages and providing health care and other benefits to its 1,200 employees.

The company also appears committed to carrying out its contracts with electric utilities such as Indianapolis Power & Light, and Kentucky Utilities Co., which it supplies with coal from more productive mines in the Illinois Basin.

Either way, according to SNL Energy, James River’s chances for survival post-bankruptcy could be hindered by expiring contracts with electric utilities and the shrinking demand for Central Appalachian coal.

Toxic Warnings: Recent Spills Underscore Lack of Water Oversight

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Kimber Ray

In the early morning hours of Jan. 9, Kim Thompson was getting ready to leave her South Charleston home in Kanawha Co. — the most populated region in the mountains of West Virginia — and head out to her job as field supervisor for a local telecommunications company. As she twisted the shower faucets off, she had no way to imagine that those final drips of water signaled the last time she would use that shower.

Coal ash from the Dan River; in the month of the spill, the ash pooled up in eddies along the bank near the site of the leaking pipe in Eden, N.C. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

Coal ash from the Dan River; in the month of the spill, the ash pooled up in eddies along the bank near the site of the leaking pipe in Eden, N.C. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

Many people affected by Freedom Industry’s toxic chemical leak into the Elk River — a spill that contaminated the drinking water of more than 300,000 West Virginia residents — still do not feel safe using their water. “That day marked a complete change in how we live,” reflects Thompson.

As reports of the disaster swept across the nation, it began to emerge that much of this news was nothing new. Not only has chronic water pollution long been widespread in West Virginia, but the lurking possibility of serious contamination spills over into every state.

In North Carolina and Virginia, this overflowed into reality on Feb. 2 at Duke Energy’s retired coal plant near Eden N.C. A 50-year-old stormwater pipe precariously situated beneath an unlined coal ash pond burst, allowing 39,000 tons of ash to enter the Dan River. The incident would be classified as the third largest coal ash spill in national history.

The next week, a Patriot Coal plant spilled more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into Fields Creek, W.Va. Six miles of water were blackened with a thick mixture of toxic heavy metals and chemicals; the riverbank was plastered with a gray sludge. Although West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman called the spill “significant,” he didn’t consider it significant enough to warrant much beyond an order to stop.

Photo by Foo Conner

Efforts to contain the Fields Creek coal slurry spill with hay bales and gravel proved to be unsuccessful. Photo by Foo Conner

Efforts to contain the spill with hay bales and gravel proved to be unsuccessful. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Following these three spills, publications and television programs including National Geographic, the Washington Post and The Rachel Maddow Show began questioning: “How did these spills happen?” and “How safe is our water?” The U.S. Attorney General’s Office launched criminal investigations of state officials and company executives in both states.

The widening scope of public scrutiny has only dug up deeper concerns. In both West Virginia and North Carolina, mounting evidence suggests that state officials have weakened state and federal environmental rules — despite the known risks — and citizens are paying the price. Regulations on many dangerous chemicals are nonexistent, state officials are known to turn a blind eye to poorly maintained facilities and, even when people are left with poisoned water and a fouled environment, violators are rarely held accountable. All too often, the public has been expected to pick up the tab for the hidden costs of coal — whether it’s waste from mining, or waste from burning coal for electricity.

Such discoveries are unsurprising to Dr. Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University. Although major spills receive the most attention, chronic pollution poses a greater threat to communities because the poison is more subtle.

“You don’t need to wait for a spill to realize there’s a problem. And it’s not just North Carolina — it’s a national issue,” says Vengosh. “Without any monitoring, we don’t even know what’s happening. We should be working to prevent things before they happen rather than dealing with them after they happen.”

In the Wake of the Impact: Dan River

“We still haven’t heard from Duke on their plans for the cleanup,” says Jenny Edwards, program director for the environmental group Dan River Basin Association. “Can they clean it up? What’s the impact of the clean up? We’re concerned about the long-term health of the river.”

Coal ash — the waste produced by burning coal for electricity — contains a lineup of toxic health offenders including arsenic, selenium, mercury and lead. Since the leaking pipe was plugged Feb. 8, the water in the river now runs clear and the slicks of coal ash on the riverbank that Edwards saw spattered with wildlife tracks have washed away. The real damage sits below the surface. In layers sometimes five feet thick, coal ash blankets the bottom of the river for more than 70 miles.

Coal ash from the Dan River power plant is seen along the banks in the month of the spill. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

Coal ash from the Dan River power plant is seen along the banks in the month of the spill. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

“The coal ash is so fine and sticky that it covers and coats everything it touches,” explains Dr. Dennis Lemly, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and an associate professor at Wake Forest University. “One of the first things to be affected are the animals that can’t leave, mussels and clams, benthic insects, crayfish, all those little critters that can’t swim away or get away from it are just covered up and suffocated,” he adds.

At the beginning of March, the Dan River Basin Association was already reporting an abnormal number of dead mussels and clams piling up on the riverbank. Lemly is concerned things will only get worse. For more than 30 years, he has investigated selenium, a chemical in coal ash that causes death and deformity in fish. Selenium poisoning can persist for generations, accumulating as creatures eat one another and even passing along in fish from parent to offspring.

A persistently poisoned fish population could have a sweeping impact on river life. “There’s a chain effect, that’s why it’s called a food chain,” Lemly says, “and if you cut the bottom length of the food chain then everything above it suffers.” For now, it’s too soon to tell just how powerful this chain effect will be; the answer awaits the arrival of migrating fish this coming spring.

River life affected by the Dan River coal ash spill includes mollusks, pictured here, dead, as well as turtles and two endangered species. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

River life affected by the Dan River coal ash spill includes mollusks, pictured here, dead, as well as turtles and two endangered species. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

About 20 miles downstream from the site of the spill, the Dan River flows through the heart of the city of Danville, Va. Joe King, city manager, can even see the river from his window at work. “People are very intimate with the river here,” he comments. “It’s not in a gorge, it’s in the city.” King watched the river turn a murky gray in the days after the spill, but after the first week, visible signs of coal ash were gone.

Danville is an old industrial city where tobacco and textile manufacturing once thrived. In an effort to build a new economy, the city has been working on repurposing old warehouses to serve as businesses and apartments. King is concerned that the spill may create a falsely negative perception of the city, causing residents to leave and businesses to stay away. “That’s the last thing we need,” he adds.

Testing of tap water in the city has consistently shown that the contaminants are being filtered out. In fact, the heavy metals of coal ash are easy to remove from drinking water because the particles are so large. Yet some residents are skeptical; bottled water sales in the area have increased since the spill.

One root of this doubt may be the unusual way that Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources initially handled the spill. Duke first alerted the city of the incident by calling the Danville fire department to say there may have been a coal ash spill and offering no details. Public notification of the spill was deferred for more than 24 hours. Accurate water quality testing, plugging the leaking pipe and work to clean up the Dan River have all suffered delays as well, leaving the public angry and confused.

In the Wake of the Impact: West Virginia

When West Virginia American Water Company first issued “Do Not Use” advisories to 300,000 water customers across nine counties on Jan. 9, it was a confident order. In the weeks to follow, it morphed into a confusing suggestion.

“It’s your decision,” said Governor Earl Ray Tomblin during a Jan. 20 news conference. “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use [the water].”

In the hours after the cracked storage tank owned by Freedom Industries spilled a 10,000-gallon chemical blend of crude methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, and propylene glycol phenyl ether, or PPH, into West Virginia’s Elk River, nine counties served by West Virginia American Water were affected. The water company had been alerted of the spill by noon, but believed they could filter out the contaminants. It was 5:45 p.m. before customers were warned to stop using their water.

Health officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control initially announced that levels of MCHM below one part per million were safe for consumption. But two days later the agency added that this level may not be safe for pregnant women, leaving residents to wonder just how officials were getting these numbers. Public confidence was further shaken when The Charleston Gazette reported that this threshold was based on a 1990 study of ten rats and a different chemical — pure MCHM, which is not identical to crude MCHM. There are still no studies on how MCHM affects humans.

The government lifted the “Do Not Use” order ten days after the spill. Yet in the days that followed, hospital admissions for symptoms related to MCHM dramatically increased. Hundreds of residents have been treated at local hospitals for chemical burns, rashes and chemical-induced pneumonia even as West Virginia American Water Company continued to assert that their water was safe.

Then, on Jan. 23, Freedom Industries, which had remained mysteriously silent during the crisis, emerged only to report that a second chemical — PPH — was also in the spill, but the ingredients were a trade secret.

“It makes you suspect when you know how many days passed and then they said ‘Oh, by the way, PPH was in there as well,’” says local resident Kim Thompson, “and as far as I know, they never did testing for PPH.” The lack of trust now makes her wonder what else citizens are not being told.

As security looks on, free water is distributed on March 14 in front of the Governor’s Mansion lawn in Charleston, W.Va. Residents and grassroots organization Mountain Justice coordinated the event as part of ongoing efforts to call for increased support of West Virginians still impacted by the chemical spill. Photo by Joe Solomon

As security looks on, free water is distributed on March 14 in front of the Governor’s Mansion lawn in Charleston, W.Va. Residents and grassroots organization Mountain Justice coordinated the event as part of ongoing efforts to call for increased support of West Virginians still impacted by the chemical spill. Photo by Joe Solomon

By early February, the CDC said the water was safe for all residents, even pregnant women. But many residents are still demanding bottled water. Even in March, the distinct, licorice-like odor of MCHM continues to permeate many households across West Virginia. A National Science Foundation-funded study confirmed residents’ fears, finding that the human nose is able to detect significantly lower levels of MCHM than even the most advanced analytical tools.

“I’ve been to many homes where people are still scarred on their hands from this water, and who knows the long-term effects?” comments Thompson. “That’s why so many people aren’t using the water, because they were physically affected, lied to and continuously ignored.”

Bulk water distribution centers around the state have been quietly shutting down despite no one — not even health or government officials — being certain that minute levels of chemicals are not continuing to impact the health of residents.

West Virginia Clean Water Hub — a grassroots organization that formed the same day the spill was announced—is one of the few organizations still distributing free water in the state. Thompson joined as a volunteer in the week when the organization began. “This chemical spill made me helpless, angry and useless,” she states, “and by getting involved, that in turn has led me to at least feel a little bit of power, and I’m trying to give that to communities.”

Thompson has since emerged as the Water Hub’s leading point person in Charleston, guiding and maintaining the group’s water distribution in her city. At her own home, bottled water and water from rain catchments and melted snow is used for everything they do. A camp shower in her basement is used for bathing. “I will never probably drink it ever, ever again,” says Thompson, “or cook with it, or wash, or brush my teeth with it, my animals will never drink with it.”

Jennifer Weidhaas, a civil and environmental engineer at West Virginia University who also received a grant from the National Science Foundation, is studying how crude MCHM travels through the water system. She says given the miles and miles of pipes that need to be cleaned out, low concentrations of the chemical may be in the drinking system for some time to come.

Breaching a History of Disregard

The day following the chemical spill, Gov. Tomblin announced, “This is not a coal company incident; this is a chemical company incident.”

“That’s an absolute lie,” says Jack Spadaro, a former mine inspector who has worked on coal issues in West Virginia for decades, “[MCHM] is a chemical used in coal preparation.” In order to clean and process coal for use at coal-fired power plants and smelting furnaces, chemicals such as MCHM are used to remove impurities. This results in a waste byproduct known as coal slurry, which is what blackened six miles of Fields Creek on Feb. 11 when a valve at Patriot Coal malfunctioned.

Spadaro is not surprised by the Patriot Coal spill. “What happened on Fields Creek is commonplace,” he states. “It happens every few weeks.” He says state officials have “a history of accommodating the coal industry” and he can recall a long list of incidents where this came at the expense of West Virginia communities.

Water samples taken at Fields Creek on the day of the spill by Appalachian Voices revealed levels of contaminants in violation of the Clean Water Act, as well as the presence of MCHM. At press time, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had not released test results from the spill or issued any fines. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Water samples taken at Fields Creek on the day of the spill by Appalachian Voices revealed levels of contaminants in violation of the Clean Water Act, as well as the presence of MCHM. At press time, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had not released test results from the spill or issued any fines. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

One such case in Boone County’s Seth-Prenter area casts a striking reflection on the Elk River chemical spill. For the past decade, people had been reporting painful rashes and burns and, throughout the years, locals experienced an unusually high rate of conditions such as kidney and liver failure and brain tumors. Shortly before these symptoms started to appear, Massey Energy — later acquired by Alpha Natural Resources — began pumping 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry into nearby abandoned mines for permanent storage.

Several studies indicated that the coal slurry had migrated into local well water. But despite the fact that the same chemicals injected deep underground were also found in residents’ taps, WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman denied that coal slurry was the cause. With about 350 individuals affected, the incident received minimal attention. Residents filed a lawsuit and, in the years before their case was settled in 2012, many relied solely on bottled water. Relief came in the form of a public water line connecting them to West Virginia American Water.

The Elk River chemical spill shattered this temporary respite. Maria Lambert, a resident of Prenter, describes the current smell of her tap water as the same “very sweet, stomach-sickening odor we endured eight years ago,” in a recent Business Insider article. Lambert’s experience is not uncommon — Thompson says many people have been connected to American Water pipes after their wells were contaminated by coal-related activities. Documents from the state’s commission governing public utilities support this, with water company executives reporting on extending service to coal impacted communities.

Still, Thompson adds, “Who would have thought you could have these chemicals just above a water plant and no one was regulating them?”

The Myth of Overregulation

The water crises in West Virginia and North Carolina turned the public eye to a long-standing problem: for much of the hazardous waste connected to coal, regulations and inspections are limited, and enforcement is rare.

As far as state or federal environmental laws are concerned, neither MCHM nor other waste from coal is considered “hazardous.” Because of this, West Virginia and North Carolina do not have strict requirements on how these contaminants are stored, and contamination of nearby drinking and groundwater occurs daily.

“What most people don’t realize is, a lot of stuff is less regulated than household waste,” says Amy Adams, a former employee of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and current North Carolina Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper. “Our waterways are protected from trash dumps, but not unlined pits of toxic waste.”

Although the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 sets acceptable limits on water pollutants, states are responsible for enforcement. Many waterways have been in violation of the Clean Water Act for decades, but state regulators seldom act — they may not even notice. In states such as North Carolina and West Virginia, inspections have been curbed, in part due to continued budget cuts to state and federal environmental agencies.

Adams says cuts to DENR became particularly hard-hitting in 2011. “We have to have people with boots on the ground if we are to be vigilant in protecting our resources,” Adams comments. For North Carolina and West Virginia, those “boots on the ground” often belong to the same companies responsible for polluting the waterways. Both states have a self-reporting system where companies are expected to monitor and report their discharges. Sometimes companies disclose their violations, sometimes they don’t — it doesn’t tend to matter either way because enforcement on the state level has become increasingly weak or non-existent.

Duke Energy initially reported that the ruptured Dan River pipe was constructed from concrete. Investigations have revealed that while the visible ends of the pipe are concrete, cheaper, failure-prone metal was used for the length of the pipe. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Duke Energy initially reported that the ruptured Dan River pipe was constructed from concrete. Investigations have revealed that while the visible ends of the pipe are concrete, cheaper, failure-prone metal was used for the length of the pipe. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

The day before the West Virginia chemical spill, Gov. Tomblin declared in his state address that he would “never back down from the EPA” even as others were calling for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to step up. Since 2009, widespread criticism of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection has pushed environmental groups in West Virginia to petition the EPA to take over the state agency. Federal regulators are still investigating their complaints.

A bill to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks was passed in West Virginia this March. No regulations on chemicals were established but, among other things, the bill aims to use a fee on tanks to fund further inspections. Historically, however, West Virginia’s inspectors have not followed a straight path from deficient facilities to mandatory enforcement. Spadaro is particularly pessimistic.

“The bill does not take the strong preventative action required to prevent this from happening again,” he says. “It’s a window dressing legislation weakened by lobbyists for the chemical industry, and in no way deals with what the state should be doing to protect water supplies from similar types of spills.”

“Business Friendly” is Bad for Business

When North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory passed a regulatory reform bill this past August that allowed Duke Energy to pollute groundwater near its coal ash ponds, he claimed his move “cuts government red tape, axes overly burdensome regulations, and puts job creation first.”

This bill built Duke a buffer against mounting lawsuits from citizens and environmental groups — including Appalachian Voices — who were suing Duke for Clean Water Act violations. As the lawsuits continued to move forward, North Carolina’s environmental agency intervened, taking over the litigation and proposing a settlement that would allow Duke to avoid costly cleanup of its leaking coal ash ponds and pay a trivial fine.

More than 9,000 petitions were delivered on Feb. 25 to Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., demanding that the utility take full financial responsibility for the Dan River coal ash spill and also move its 31 other coal ash ponds into lined basins away from waterways. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

More than 9,000 petitions were delivered on Feb. 25 to Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., demanding that the utility take full financial responsibility for the Dan River coal ash spill and also move its 31 other coal ash ponds into lined basins away from waterways. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

“The fundamental truth is that proper pollution controls cost money,” says Adams and, because of the Dan River coal ash spill, “North Carolina has experienced first-hand the cost of a deregulated environment.”

In fact, contrary to McCrory’s statement, some sources indicate that regulations improve the economy. A 2013 report by the Office of Management and Budget found that while the costs of major environmental regulations have been no more than $40 billion, the estimated benefits range from $112 billion to $637 billion. Benefits include increased labor needed to meet requirements and public savings when community health is protected.

The report also confirmed that people do not want to live in contaminated communities. Both West Virginia and the city of Danville are contending with this issue. While Danville, Va., City Manager Joe King worries that businesses may now avoid his area, West Virginia resident Kim Thompson says people are already leaving Charleston. “If I could, I would sell my house right now, too,” she says.

Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizens’ Action Group, says the hardship of contaminated water is particularly difficult for low-income residents. “It’s a triple whammy,” Zuckett states. “Restaurants and hotels shut down, so people were out of work, schools shut down so kids were not fed at school, and if parents were working they needed to pay for daycare. Then there’s the extra expense of buying bottled water,” he adds.

According to forest service biologist Lemly, the long-term environmental and economic toll in North Carolina and Virginia could total as much as $700 million. “When we talk about cheap coal, we forget about the environment, we forget about the implications,” says Duke University’s Vengosh. “The environmental and economic implications for coal ash are not cheap.”

In both North Carolina and Virginia, Duke executives have promised to pay for the cleanup of the Dan River. At the urging of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Duke has also agreed to cover any additional costs faced by Virginia as a result of the spill; no such promise has been made in North Carolina. In fact, Duke has indicated that for the cost of moving its other coal ash ponds away from public waterways — and ensuring the safety of local communities in the state — it hopes to pass any expenses on to ratepayers across North Carolina.

The apparent role of state regulators in shielding coal-related facilities from punitive fines has raised skepticism from the public and the federal government. By mid-March, a federal grand jury had begun a criminal investigation of the relationship between Duke and DENR; details about a separate criminal investigation in West Virginia have been much more limited.

In response to the swell of public pressure and scrutiny, North Carolina officials have been scrambling to issue long-overdue enforcements. Duke Energy plants have been cited for failing to maintain facilities, lacking stormwater permits and, even when they do have permits, dumping illegal volumes of pollutants. At the end of March, DENR announced that they would allow the citizen lawsuit against Duke Energy to continue.

Public Response

In West Virginia citizens anticipate significant changes but are not hanging all their hopes on a strong government response. “Who’s to say this won’t happen again?” asks Thompson.

On Feb. 8, citizens and community organizations marched to West Virginia American Water to demand compensation for the expenses they incurred as a result of the chemical spill. They say the private utility contributed to the problem. Among other things, the water company billed customers based on estimated historical usage in January even though many were unable to use their water during this time. Photo by Vivian Stockman

On Feb. 8, citizens and community organizations marched to West Virginia American Water to demand compensation for the expenses they incurred as a result of the chemical spill. They say the private utility contributed to the problem. Among other things, the water company billed customers based on estimated historical usage in January even though many were unable to use their water during this time. Photo by Vivian Stockman

To address long-term concerns, the West Virginia Clean Water Hub is starting a program to empower citizens to obtain their own water. Online fundraising will pay for trucks to carry in tanks of water, training on rain filtration, and the purchase of 250-gallon containers for rainwater. Reimbursement efforts for water expenses also may be successful. My Clean H2O Matters, a march organized by West Virginia community groups, presented WVAW with invoices for personal costs incurred by the spill, and the utility has offered to review the claims.

In North Carolina, citizens and environmental organizations continue pressing DENR to implement enforcement action against Duke. Independent groups including Appalachian Voices, the Dan River Basin Association and the city of Danville, Va., are monitoring the quality of the Dan. Rallies protesting Duke Energy and events in support of the river have been widespread across the state.

This renewed attention on water rights has coincided with action around the country to reign in corporate pollution. In March, the EPA announced the largest enforcement fine ever: a $27.5 million penalty against Alpha Natural Resources for more than 6,000 water pollution permit violations in five Appalachian states. In Kentucky, the Sierra Club has used the momentum to highlight contamination from a Louisville Gas & Electric facility, where the company has been discharging coal ash into the Ohio River daily for five years. But Thompson warns that change won’t happen overnight. “Unless we take a sense of ownership in this, the problem’s not going to change,” says Thompson. “And I haven’t met a person yet who can live without water.”

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CORRECTION: The original article incorrectly states that the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources would allow the citizen lawsuit against Duke Energy to move forward. Although citizen groups including those represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center are now co-plaintiffs in the case, this development was the result of motions filed in court rather than a decision of the state.

Court Strikes Down Bush-era Water Rule for Coal Mines

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Molly Moore

In February, a U.S. district court struck down the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule, which loosened stream protections near mountaintop removal mining sites, declaring it violated the Endangered Species Act.

Senior Judge Barbara Rothstein wrote that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement wrongfully proceeded with the environmentally harmful rule even when faced with clear evidence that mining operations near streams endanger sensitive wildlife and water resources.

Rothstein’s decision restores the 1983 Reagan administration rule which had established a more environmentally sound buffer zone around waterways to prevent debris and rubble from coal mining operations from burying streams. The 2008 version signed by President George Bush overwrote the 1983 rule and minimized those protections.

The National Mining Association, which intervened in the case, has not announced whether they will appeal Rothstein’s decision.

The decision will likely not have much immediate impact in Kentucky, Virginia or West Virginia, as the 2008 rule was not enforced in states that manage their own surface mining oversight.

A bill passed by the House of Representatives in March, H.R. 2824, would override the recent court decision and require that all states enforce the 2008 rule. It would also stop the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement from issuing an updated rule called the Stream Protection Rule, which the agency says will reflect updated science and technology and could be a “more protective regulatory strategy.”

The bill is unlikely to be considered in the Senate, and White House officials are prepared to recommend a presidential veto, stating that the proposed legislation “does not adequately address the community, environmental, and health impacts of strip mining.”

Energy Industry Overstated Predictions of Price Spikes

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell

The energy industry’s record of overestimating electricity price spikes as a result of pollution controls dates back 40 years, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. As a result of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of investor-owned utilities, estimated double-digit rate increases for most states between 1990 and 2009 with the largest spikes occurring in coal-dependent states. Nationally, predictions by the group were off by an average of 16 percent. In the 10 states most dependent on coal-fired electricity, the group overestimated by an average of 24 percent.

As industry groups attempt to deter carbon regulations with forecasts of soaring energy prices, the report’s authors, Daniel J. Weiss and Miranda Peterson, write that it is imperative that public officials and the media question those claims “even if they have an ‘expert study’ that purports to ‘prove’ them.”

Methane Leaks Complicate Natural Gas Reputation

Methane leaked during natural gas production could undermine the resource’s reputation as a “bridge” from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, according to a study published in Science. The study concludes that leaked methane — a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide — negates the benefits of switching from diesel to natural gas in the transportation sector, despite the fact gas produces 30 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than diesel. Even factoring in emissions from leaked methane, however, switching from coal-fired power plants, the nation’s largest source of carbon pollution, to natural gas-fired power plants will lower climate-changing emissions overall.

Supreme Court Rejects Spruce Mine Case

The U.S. Supreme Court says it won’t consider a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to veto mountaintop removal permits. Arch Coal, which owns Spruce Mine, petitioned the high court to hear the case after an appeals court sided with the EPA last year. In 2007, Arch subsidiary Mingo Logan was granted permits by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discharge mining waste into streams surrounding its Spruce Mine in West Virginia, but the EPA vetoed those permits in 2011 after determining the discharges would cause unacceptable harm to water quality and wildlife. Arch Coal claims the EPA overstepped its authority by retroactively vetoing permits.

Duke Energy Plans to Devalue N.C. Renewable Energy

Duke Energy says it wants to reduce the amount it pays North Carolina households with rooftop solar for feeding excess electricity into the grid. Under an existing policy, ratepayers that produce solar energy are paid the full retail price for electricity they send out to the grid — about 11 cents per kilowatt hour in North Carolina. But federal law only requires electric utilities to pay residential solar producers the amount it costs to generate their own power, which in Duke’s case is less than 7 cents a kilowatt hour.

The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association and local solar companies argue that Duke — the largest electric utility in the country — is using its market dominance to diminish the demand for solar in North Carolina.

Kentucky-India Coal Export Deal Stalls

In 2012, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear boasted about a $7 billion deal that would send 9 million tons of Appalachian coal to India each year for 25 years, calling the partnership “a great example of a new market for Kentucky resources.” But a year and a half later, the agreement appears to have stalled.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, those involved with the deal aren’t sure when shipments will start or where the deal even stands, citing global shifts in the market for coal. The state reported in early February that eastern Kentucky lost 2,232 coal-related jobs in 2013.

Appalachian Coal Companies Face Major Water Pollution Fines

Friday, April 4th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell

In March, two federal enforcement actions against Appalachian coal companies called attention to the pervasive threat of water pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining.

First, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached a $27.5 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources — the largest mountaintop removal mining operator in the U.S. — for violations of the Clean Water Act. It is the largest-ever civil penalty under the water pollution permitting section of the law.

The government complaint alleged that between 2006 and 2013, Bristol, Va.-based Alpha and its subsidiaries routinely violated limits in more than 300 of its state-issued Clean Water Act permits, discharging excess amounts of pollutants into hundreds of rivers and streams in five Appalachian states. In some cases, the company discharged pollutants without a permit.

In addition to the record-setting fine, Alpha said it will spend approximately $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and reduce pollution discharges at its coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Just two days after Alpha’s announcement, Nally & Hamilton Enterprises, one of the largest coal companies in Kentucky, announced it would pay $666,000 for Clean Water Act violations.

Prosecutors allege that Nally & Hamilton dumped mining waste in streams 1,000 feet beyond permit boundaries at a site in Harlan County, Ky. Like Alpha, the company is also accused of dumping waste into streams without a permit.

The settlements send “a strong deterrent that such egregious violations of the nation’s Clean Water Act will not be tolerated,” says Robert G. Dreher, an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Groups that oppose mountaintop removal, such as nonprofit law group Appalachian Mountain Advocates, agree that the actions are a positive step, but say that consent agreements and higher fines do not go far enough to provide peace of mind for coal-impacted communities.

Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, told The New York Times that to solve the fundamental problem of pollution inherent in mountaintop removal, the EPA must “stop issuing permits that it knows coal companies can’t comply with.”

Heroes and Hyperbole: U.S. House Passes Pro-Mountaintop Removal Bill

Monday, March 31st, 2014 - posted by thom
Speaking in opposition of H.R. 2824, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) holds a bottle of water from beneath a mountaintop removal mine, and says that ignoring the threats of mountaintop removal to clean water means "risking the health of families in mining communities in Kentucky and throughout Appalachia"

Speaking in opposition of H.R. 2824, Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) holds a bottle of water polluted by mining waste, saying that ignoring the threats of mountaintop removal to clean water means “risking the health of families in mining communities in Kentucky and throughout Appalachia”

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to roll back stream protections in an effort to make it easier to dump waste from mountaintop removal mines into Appalachian streams. Given the makeup of the House right now, this comes as no surprise. But there is a silver lining.

We fought hard against this bill, because the key to preventing it from moving in the Senate and eventually becoming law was to show significant pushback from our anti-mountaintop removal allies in the House.

The bill may have passed, but the 229-192 margin is much narrower than most votes to roll back regulation in the House in recent years. We lost only nine Democrats and were happy to have seven Republicans on our side. And nine members took to the floor (including one during a previous hearing) to oppose the bill, making it clear that a vote for H.R. 2824 was a vote for mountaintop removal coal mining and against the health and well-being of Appalachian communities.

Together with our allies and the pressure from people across the country, we believe we can stop the bill from moving any further. We haven’t won yet, but the significant opposition shown on Capitol Hill last week was a step in the right direction.

The floor debate lasted for well over an hour. Below is a compilation of key quotes from Republicans and Democrats from the hour-long floor debate.

Doc Hastings (R-WA): If we do not stop the administration from implementing its new coal regulation, thousands of Americans will be out of work, and home heating costs for working middle class families will rise.

Let’s pass this legislation to protect American taxpayer dollars, to protect American jobs, and to end this administration’s reckless, wasteful rewrite by putting in place a responsible process that will allow a proper new rule to be written.

Rush Holt (D-NJ): Hospitalizations, hypertension, lung cancer, heart disease, kidney disease, increased flooding. Water with dangerous concentrations of toxic metals? Yes. That is what the science says. And the destruction of forests and streams.

These are the impacts of mountaintop removal mining that Congress should be addressing today. This is what we should be holding hearings on and writing legislation about. We should be making the protection of people and the environment of the Appalachian region our top priority and making the mining companies act responsibly, not just cheaply.

Doug Lamborn (R-CO): The legislation before us today is very simple. It would cripple the Obama administration’s war on coal by ending their unnecessary rewrite and it would require the Office of Surface Mining to implement the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule.

John Yarmuth (D-KY):
It is bad enough that children who live in mining communities color their streams orange when they draw their environment, but it is tragic that the water they drink is denying them the healthy future they deserve.

We are risking the health of families in mining communities in Kentucky and throughout Appalachia by continuing to ignore the toxic orange water that pollutes their drinking supply.

Nick Rahall (D-WV):
It is clear, at least to me, that the effort by the current administration to revise the 2008 rule is aimed at halting a mining practice that is specifically condoned by SMCRA.

Fundamentally, there is no question; this debate is about jobs. It is about good-paying jobs in West Virginia and other areas of the Appalachian region.

Mike Kelly (R-PA):
Listen, what we are doing today just makes sense. We have already run the traps on it. We have already run the tests. We have done all the metrics. Coal is good for America. Coal has always been good for America. Coal has cleaned itself up incredibly and will continue to do so. These are the most responsible people.

Jim Moran (D-VA):
The goal of this bill is to require all States to incorporate a now vacated 2008 rule that was issued in the very last days of the Bush administration and was then struck down by a U.S. Federal court. It was an eleventh-hour regulation that was designed to repeal Reagan-era protections for streams and waterways from the impacts of mountaintop mining by providing a buffer zone for waste disposal. Its vague and permissive language sets an alarmingly low bar when it comes to protecting communities and wildlife habitats near mountaintop mining operations.

Steve Scalise (R-LA):
The President continues to pursue this global warming agenda. It is snowing outside of the Capitol right now as we speak in support of this bill, and they are still talking about global warming and imposing more regulations that are killing–killing–American jobs.

Earl Blumenauer (D-OR):
People can see for themselves the devastation from mountaintop removal and the fact that we have been negligent as a country for years providing adequate protections.

Supreme Court Rejects Spruce Mine Mountaintop Removal Case

Monday, March 24th, 2014 - posted by brian
The U.S. Supreme Court won't consider a case alleging the EPA overstepped its authority by retroactively vetoing mountaintop removal permits it deemed unacceptably harmful to water quality.

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t consider a case alleging the EPA overstepped its authority by retroactively vetoing mountaintop removal permits it deemed unacceptably harmful to water quality.

The U.S. Supreme Court says it won’t consider the case of Mingo Logan Coal v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s authority to veto mountaintop removal permits that would cause unacceptable harm to water quality and wildlife.

In this case, the permits in question are for Arch Coal’s Spruce Mine No. 1., which would span more than 2,000 acres and is the largest mountaintop removal mine ever proposed in West Virginia.

The court’s decisions comes almost a year after an appeals court sided with the EPA in the case, which dates back to the agency vetoed permits approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2011.

Appalachian Voices applauds this decision and urges the EPA and the Obama administration to hold strong in their ongoing efforts to protect clean water and Appalachia from mountaintop removal coal mining. As it becomes more difficult for large-scale mountaintop removal projects like the Spruce Mine to move forward, the coal industry will likely become more aggressive and desperate in their attacks.

“The EPA acted in accordance with the law when they vetoed this permit,” says Kate Rooth, Appalachian Voices’ campaign director. “Preserving its ability to do so in the future is critical for protecting vital watersheds and downstream communities threatened by mountaintop removal throughout Appalachia.”

Today’s news is also another indication that the effectiveness of the coal industry’s “war on coal” narrative is waning. Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. shared this statement on his Coal Tattoo post earlier from Jim Hecker of Public Justice — one of the lawyers who worked on the case that initially blocked the Spruce Mine:

“The coal industry has falsely painted the Spruce mine veto as an example of EPA overreach and a ‘war on coal,’ when in fact EPA’s authority to veto this permit is obvious from the face of the statute and EPA’s decision is based on clear scientific evidence of serious environmental harm from mining.”

The yearslong case will now continue in lower courts that have yet to rule on parts of the lawsuit.