Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

Protect natural resources for Southwest Virginia’s future

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices

Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule using a rarely invoked law called the Congressional Review Act. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends rushed to urge lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal coal mining. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Central Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies, state agencies and the federal government accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.

Ron Short

Ron Short

I was born and raised in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. My father was a coal miner, and without his efforts to send me to school, I would have been a coal miner also. For all my life, the coal economy has ruled this region and its people. Now we are facing the demise of the coal industry, and we must save the valuable natural resources that we have left if we are ever to develop cultural tourism and eco-tourism as important parts of a new economy that works for everyone.

When I was small, one company dumped coal waste into the Pound River and I saw the deadly effects that followed: thousands of dead fish, mink, muskrats, frogs, birds and water so polluted with metals and minerals that for the first time in my life I could not swim in the river. I was 10 years old and it took the river 50 years to heal itself. My father was 90 years old before we could go fishing in the Pound River together again. Sadly, pollution from mining operations is still contaminating our waterways today.

The Stream Protection Rule — the product of nearly a decade of community engagement and scientific and economic studies — is designed to preserve this life-giving resource. Unfortunately, Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to kill the Stream Protection Rule using an obscure procedure known as a Congressional Review Act as part of the mad rush to rip the last of the coal out of the ground at any cost.

Water truly is life! We have more pristine and biologically valuable waters than most places in the world, and we need to protect them for our health, our economic future and our grandchildren. Senators Kaine and Warner, you are our only allies in Washington. Please do not let your colleagues kill the Stream Protection Rule. Killing this rule would produce a short-term political gain for their ilk, but it could create a future that we in Southwest Virginia may never be able to recover from.

Ron Short

Fighting for clean water after the Stream Protection Rule

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 - posted by Erin
A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

UPDATE: On Feb. 16, President Donald Trump signed a bill to reverse the Stream Protection Rule. Read our press release here.

Citizens across the nation are talking about mountaintop removal right now, following the House and Senate votes last week to repeal the Stream Protection Rule.

The Senate voted 54-45 on Friday to repeal the rule through a rarely-used law called the Congressional Review Act. Contrary to some claims that the Stream Protection Rule was a last-minute Obama dig at the coal industry, the rule had actually been under development by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement for most of Obama’s presidency.

It would have updated a 34-year-old version of the regulations, known as the Stream Buffer Zone Rule. Both rules spell out implementation details of the 1977 Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act, which remains in effect even without the Stream Protection Rule.

Headlines widely shared over social media alerted the nation to the end of a rule that would have “stopped” coal companies from dumping waste in streams. In the comments, people braced themselves for the coming impacts. But what many do not realize is that coal companies have been dumping their waste into streams in Central Appalachia for decades, and continue to do so now. They did it under President Bush. They did it under President Obama. The practice is called “valley filling” and is a byproduct of mountaintop removal coal mining in Central Appalachia. The new rule would have limited this practice, but it would not have ended it.

Threats to public water from corporate and political interests are nothing new in Central Appalachia, nor is the problem unique to this area. The chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va., coal ash contamination across North Carolina, lead contamination in Flint, Mich., and the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock Reservation have shown us that.

Despite intense polarization in the United States, polling shows that a majority of Americans are concerned about threats to clean drinking water. Communities that already have contaminated water are imploring their leaders to do something about it.

“We can’t live without clean water,” said Paula Swearigen of Sophia, W.Va. “This administration has totally dismissed the health and safety of people in places like Flint and Appalachia. What does it say about America if we don’t value the lives of innocent people? We have to hold our leaders accountable. Our children have to contend with the decisions they make.”

Meanwhile, politicians in Appalachia and elsewhere ignore this public demand and continue to act in favor of corporate interests.

Mountaintop removal production in Central Appalachia has declined by about 70 percent since its peak in 2008. Coal is being outcompeted by natural gas and renewables, and the easily accessible coal in Central Appalachia is running out. Appalachian people know this. They know that now is the time to diversify the economy and protect critical resources like clean water. Despite the decline, mountaintop removal is still happening. New permits are still being issued and citizens living downstream are still suffering the consequences. The Stream Protection Rule was not going to end mountaintop removal, but it would have improved clean water protections.

The communities of Flint, of Standing Rock and of the Central Appalachian coalfields are glad for the attention they are receiving right now because it strengthens their fight. But what they really need is continued support for a long fight. Indigenous people, communities of color, Appalachian Americans, and poor and working class people across the country have always had to fight for basic rights like clean water. This fight will continue. Not because it is easy, but because it is necessary.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Donate to help us fight for Appalachian streams and communities.
  • Learn how your representative and senators voted on the Stream Protection Rule
  • Call your elected officials regularly to share your concerns
  • Support the RECLAIM Act
  • Vote in the midterm elections in 2018
  • Read reliable news sources fully and critically
  • Show your support to water causes across the country by joining direct actions, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, or making donations

Final Stream Protection Rule released

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016 - posted by Erin
The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Monday released the final Stream Protection Rule, which aims to protect streams from the impacts of surface and longwall mining.

Based on updated science and technology, the rule offers modest improvements for the protection of public waterways. But despite the fact that the rule could have been much stronger, it still faces immense opposition from the coal industry’s supporters in Congress.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement began work on the rule in 2009. At that time, George W. Bush’s 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule was in effect after having replaced the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule, written in 1983. The Bush-era rule weakened stream protections and virtually eliminated prohibitions on mining through streams. When it was struck down by a federal court in 2014, the 1983 rule was reinstated.

The new Stream Protection Rule includes several improvements including increased requirements for water monitoring and forest reclamation. But it falls short of preventing mining through streams or stopping mountaintop removal. The rule also includes ample leeway for state interpretation of the requirements, which could easily lead to lax enforcement.

Donald Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, is a proponent of coal and could effectively undo the rule through an administrative route. But that could take years. Instead, it is likely that the rule will be thrown out via the Congressional Review Act. The act allows Congress to overturn rules within 60 legislative days of their enactment. The president could veto such a move, but given the change in administration, this seems unlikely. This law not only allows Congress to toss out a rule, it prevents another “substantially similar” rule from being written in the future. The act has only been used successfully once, so it’s unclear what the courts would consider “substantially similar” in regard to a future mining rule from OSMRE or another agency.

Even as coal company executives call on Trump to temper his promises to coal mining communities so as not to falsely elevate expectations, other politicians are also returning to the old “war on coal” rhetoric. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) called the Stream Protection Rule “the Obama Administration’s last attempt to kill the coal industry,” and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) vowed to file a Congressional Review Act resolution himself.

While we wish the final rule were stronger, it is well worth defending from congressional attack. We will urge the White House and Congress to focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward, rather than waste time on counterproductive political fights. A better use of time would be to pass the RECLAIM Act, which would ensure that mine sites are reclaimed and repurposed to provide economic benefit to the region.

Building a healthy economic future in Central Appalachia requires attracting new industries and encouraging community members to stay in the region. Protecting the remaining assets of the region, like clean water and healthy communities, is an integral part of building that new future.

Trump’s Would-Be Coal Comeback Faces Long Odds

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

By Brian Sewell

Author’s Note, December 19:

In the weeks since this piece was published in the Dec./Jan. issue of The Appalachian Voice, President-elect Trump has chosen climate change deniers, coal and oil executives, and close friends of the fossil fuel industry for top positions in his administration.

For the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Trump selected Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt. A frequent foe of the agency’s rulemakings and federal court’s interpretation of the Clean Air Act, Pruitt describes himself as having “led the charge” against the EPA’s “activist agenda.” Trump’s Secretary of Commerce-Designate, Wilbur Ross, is a billionaire investor with strong ties to the Central Appalachian coal industry and a history of disregard for regulations that protect miners, communities and the environment. The president-elect’s choice for Energy Secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, will be tasked with leading an agency with budget of $30 billion that Perry once advocated for eliminating altogether—despite famously blanking on the department’s name during a presidential primary debate in 2011.

Beyond the president-elect’s appointments, his transitions team’s actions on energy and the environment are causing serious concern among environmentalists and the scientific community. In early December, Trump’s transition team sent a questionnaire to officials at the U.S. Department of Energy requesting, among other things, a list of individuals involved in international climate negotiations and the programs associated with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. Agency officials refused to respond to the controversial questionnaire and Trump’s team has since said it “was not authorized.”

With a month until the inauguration, Americans concerned about climate change and other environmental threats have little reason to believe that Trump will moderate his anti-scientific positions. He has instead surrounded himself with individuals that share those views. In response, environmental, economic and social justice advocates have amplified their calls to resist and defend against the regulatory rollbacks that Trump and soon-to-be members of his cabinet support.

— Brian Sewell

———-

Aside from his promises to "save the coal industry," Donald Trump has yet to address the need for investments to stimulate economic activity and job opportunities in Appalachia. Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons.

Aside from his promises to “save the coal industry,” Donald Trump has yet to address the need for investments to stimulate economic activity and job opportunities in Appalachia. Photo by Gage Skidmore, licensed under Creative Commons.

Ten days after winning the White House, Donald Trump called Jim Justice, the billionaire coal company owner and governor-elect of West Virginia, and asked him to pass along a message to residents of the Mountain State: “We are going to get those coal miners back to work.”

As he vetted candidates for cabinet-level positions, the president-elect made clear that the concern he showed for the coal industry during the campaign continues. Less clear is how exactly he will attempt to revive the struggling sector — or how he will confront the collateral damage to human health, the environment and the climate that could result.

Trump made bold promises throughout a campaign that often put feelings before facts. He has since waffled on a variety of stances, clouding expectations and adding to the speculation about his plans for the country.

Appalachia’s Choice

It’s impossible to fully parse the factors that led to Trump’s win. Having never served in public office or in the military, he was described as less qualified than a “speck of dirt” by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who later supported Trump. Other members of Congress claimed that Trump disqualified himself many times over during the course of the campaign.

Cast in a gold-plated veneer of populism, his speeches dredged up enmity toward Hillary Clinton and immigrants, expressed loudly by crowds chanting “lock her up” and “build the wall.” Among other popular targets were President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which Trump has called “an absolute disgrace” and accused of killing America’s energy companies.

In Appalachia, the electorate’s anxieties — whether stemming from economic, demographic or social change — were often viewed through the lens of coal and manufacturing job losses and economic stagnation. Clinton, already facing an uphill battle in the region, hurt herself even more when she told a town hall audience, “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” referring to the transition to cleaner energy sources already underway.

The gaffe became a sound bite used to validate Trump’s foreboding about coal’s future should Clinton become president. Inheriting the Republican Party’s mantle of ending a perceived regulatory “war on coal,” Trump assured mining communities of his allegiance to the industry. When the dust settled on the day after the election, Appalachia’s deep red complexion appeared again.

Kentucky was the first state called on election night, and it was quickly called for Trump. In Perry, Pike and Harlan, the state’s top three coal-producing counties, he won an average of more than 80 percent of the votes. Elliott County saw the largest swing toward Republicans in the country — 23 points more than in 2012 — and for the first time in its history voted against the Democratic presidential candidate. West Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina also went red.

U.S. election map

Click to enlarge.
Central Appalachian coal mining counties have shifted more Republican since 2004. Sources: 2016 election data from Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections; 2004-2012 election results from the National Atlas; Mine data from MSHA, Part 50 Address/Employment files, 2004-2016.

Clinton narrowly took Virginia, as Obama did in 2012, but every county in the far southwestern corner of the state voted for Trump by larger margins than they did for Mitt Romney four years ago. Most importantly for the election’s outcome was the fact that Trump’s strident take on energy, manufacturing and international trade resonated beyond the coalfields and throughout the Rust Belt.

After voting for Obama twice, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin all flipped Republican this year. In those four states, Trump won 47 counties that Obama carried in 2012, and he outperformed Mitt Romney in dozens of Appalachian counties by 10 points or greater.

Clinton’s lead in the national popular vote exceeded two million, and the counties she carried represent nearly two-thirds of the country’s economic output — 64 percent compared to Trump’s 36, based on county-level data compiled by the Brookings Institution. But Appalachia’s choice was clear.

Implausible Promises

coal train

Trains loaded with coal for transport. ©iStockphoto/bsauter

Trump has, at various times, vowed to “encourage the use of natural gas” and “save the coal industry,” apparently unaware that competition from cheap gas is the primary driver behind coal’s domestic decline. He claims that rescinding regulations on fossil fuel production and use will allow wealth to “pour into our communities.” But even a casual survey of Appalachia’s history of resource extraction reveals how the region’s wealth has been concentrated by absentee landowners and corporations.

In recent decades, the trend has been toward the industry’s long-term and irreversible decline, and the pain felt in Appalachia has been especially acute. Appalachian states have lost more than 35,000 mining jobs in just five years, a decline of nearly 60 percent since the end of 2011. Over that period, job losses in the region accounted for more than 80 percent of coal job losses nationwide.

But long before the proliferation of fracking and the growing role of natural gas in the nation’s energy mix, the mechanization of underground and surface mining led to lower employment even as coal production climbed.

Underneath all of the rhetoric there is widespread recognition among coal and utility executives, energy analysts and some in mining communities that it is not within Trump’s power to save the industry.

After meeting with Trump in May, Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray described him as “sobered” when told the coal industry cannot bounce back. A vehement critic of the Obama administration’s environmental policies, Murray suggested that Trump moderate his message to avoid creating “expectations that aren’t real.”

Even Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, one of the primary instigators of the “war on coal” narrative during Obama’s presidency, lowered the bar. “We are going to be presenting to the new president a variety of options that could end this assault,” McConnell said at the University of Louisville a few days after the election. “Whether that immediately brings business back is hard to tell because it’s a private sector activity.”

Still, by rolling back environmental regulations and reducing the federal government’s role in their enforcement, Trump may be able to slow the bleeding — but not without potentially opening new wounds.

Local (And Global) Implications

Environmentalists who have cheered falling carbon emissions and coal consumption worry the Trump administration’s policies could lead to long-term environmental and climate consequences that far outweigh any near-term economic gain. Under his watch, federal agencies are likely to take a more shortsighted approach to evaluating and permitting fossil fuel projects, including mountaintop removal coal mines and interstate oil and gas pipelines.

Trump says his administration will focus on “real environmental challenges, not phony ones.” But in his first 100 days as president he has pledged to lift the moratorium on federal coal leases in western states and rescind regulations including the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Stream Protection Rule and EPA rules limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Trump also promises to kill the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which instructs states to limit power plant carbon emissions, and withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which went into effect in November.

These, and many other of the incoming administration’s priorities, closely align with those of coal’s proponents in Congress. Where congressional action is needed to weaken environmental rules, President Trump will likely have many allies. His administration can take other steps — including walking away from the Paris deal — largely through executive action. Even before taking office, Trump’s anti-scientific stance on climate change has begun alienating key international partners like China and the European Union.

Based on recent statements, Trump’s grasp on the reality of climate change remains tenuous. When asked by The New York Times in a Nov. 22 meeting if he believes human activity contributes to global warming, he said that it “depends on how much it’s going to cost our companies.” America is sure to continue producing examples of climate leadership, whether in the private sector or at the state level, but there is no indication Trump’s administration will do anything but harm.

“The very thought of a Trump administration overseeing national energy policy will inevitably shift more of the action to the states,” David Victor, a professor at the University of California-San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, wrote in a post-election essay for Yale Environment 360.

On one hand, that could lead to a greater emphasis on efforts to reduce emissions in states like Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe has established a working group to recommend carbon-cutting strategies. But it could also embolden politically powerful industries in states where regulators lack the resources or willpower to adequately enforce environmental laws.

An Urgent Task

For all the attention paid to distressed Appalachian communities during the campaign, Trump has yet to address the growing need for targeted federal investments to stimulate economic activity and job opportunities in the region. Yet, when compared to Trump’s promises to save the industry, neither Hillary Clinton’s $30 billion plan for revitalizing coal communities nor existing White House initiatives received much national attention during the campaign. That’s not to say these ideas aren’t catching on in the coalfields.

Last fall, two dozen local governments in Central Appalachia passed unanimous resolutions in support of the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan, a set of budgetary earmarks and policy proposals to bolster economic diversification in communities that have historically relied on coal. Through the related POWER Initiative, the Appalachian Regional Commission has awarded a total of nearly $47 million to more than 70 economic development projects across nine Appalachian states.

Appalachian lawmakers in the House and Senate have also introduced bipartisan legislation to invest in the region’s economic future. One bill, the RECLAIM Act, would direct $1 billion of existing money from the federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund to clean up polluted post-mine sites and repurpose them for an economically beneficial use.

A September poll conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, found that 89 percent of registered voters in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana support the RECLAIM Act. By a two-to-one margin, those polled believe that elected officials should prioritize attracting new employers and transitioning the region’s economy rather than fighting regulations.

If Trump plans to refocus the federal government’s role in response to the frustrations of rural communities that overwhelmingly endorsed him, he will need a clear-eyed approach to the challenges facing the region. “Nobody knows the system better than me,” Trump told the country upon accepting his party’s nomination, “which is why I alone can fix it.” Facing enormous odds, he now has a chance to try.

America’s miners deserve better than this; time to do your part

Thursday, December 8th, 2016 - posted by thom
Time is quickly running out for Congress to pass the Miners Protection Act. Photo by Ann Smith, special to the UMW Journal

Time is quickly running out for Congress to pass the Miners Protection Act. Photo by Ann Smith, special to the UMW Journal

America owes a debt to the nation’s coal miners. Not just a debt of gratitude, but a financial debt as well.

The good news is that there is a bill in Congress that would allow this country to begin to pay that debt: the Miners Protection Act. The bad news is that the opportunity to pass the bill is quickly slipping away.

The Miners Protection Act would provide retired members of the United Mine Workers of America the pensions they’ve been promised and the health benefits many of them and their families desperately need. There is broad bipartisan support for the bill — the Senate Finance Committee passed the Miners Protection Act earlier this year by a whopping 18 to 8 margin.

But Congress is on the verge of passing a budget that would leave out pensions altogether, and only provide a band-aid solution for the health benefits. As UMWA president Cecil Roberts explains:

The inclusion of a mere four months of spending on health care benefits for retired miners and widows is a slap in the face to all 22,000 of them who desperately need their health care next month, next year and for the rest of their lives.

Further, the complete exclusion of any language to provide help for the pensions of 120,000 current and future retirees puts America’s coalfield communities on a glide path to deeper economic disaster.
The miners are calling on “any and all allies” to join them in fighting for the pensions and health benefits they have earned. We hope you will join us in becoming one of those allies.

Please call your senator today and tell them that you support the Miners Protection Act, and that they need to pass it before Congress goes on recess. Tell them it is the right thing to do, and going home without doing it is totally unacceptable.

North Carolina – Richard Burr (202) 224-3154
Note: Sen. Burr is a cosponsor of the bill. We need him to show his support by insisting the entire bill passes before he goes home.

Kentucky – Mitch McConnell (202) 224-2541 Note: He is failing the miners by not working to secure their pensions. He needs to support the entire bill and bring it up for a vote before he goes home.

West Virginia – Shelley Capito (202) 224-6472 Note: Sen. Capito is a cosponsor of the bill. She needs to keep fighting, and do everything she can to get this entire bill passed before she goes home.

Tennessee – Bob Corker (202) 224-3344 Note: Sen. Corker needs to show support for the miners. It’s the right thing to do, and he should help get the entire bill passed before he goes home.

Virginia – Tim Kaine (202) 224-4024 Note: Sen. Kaine is a cosponsor of the bill. He needs to do everything he can to make sure the miners get their pensions before he goes home.

Rest of the country – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (202) 224-2541 Note: He is failing the miners by not working to secure their pensions. He needs to support the entire bill and bring it up for a vote before he goes home.

Southwest Virginians speak out against Doe Branch Mine

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 - posted by willie
A map of the Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River. At a recent hearings Southwest Virginians shared their concerns about Doe Branch with state regulators.

A map of the Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River. At a recent hearings Southwest Virginians shared their concerns about Doe Branch with state regulators.

“God gave us the water so we can stay clean, and so we can drink it. I don’t want poison in the water.”

Those are the words of 6-year-old Levi Marney, spoken on the evening of Nov. 7, to representatives of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) at a public meeting about the proposed Doe Branch mountaintop removal mine in Haysi. The mine, proposed by Contura Energy, would raze over 1,100 acres near young Levi’s home and discharge sediment and other mining-related pollutants into the Russell Prater Creek where children like Levi and his siblings play during the warm months.

Levi was the first of 10 individuals to speak that night. As he sat down, his grandmother Gail stood up, and with a hand on Levi’s shoulder said, “I’m here to speak against this mine for five reasons and this is one of them. He is one of my five grandchildren. He’s the seventh generation of our family on our property in Dickenson County. Many members of our family are in coal mining, but we know the future of Dickenson County is in tourism, and it’s in taking care of our environment better than we have in the past.”

The particular matter under question at this public meeting — called an “informal conference” by the state — was a renewal of the operation’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The NPDES permitting process is the method by which point sources of pollution are monitored and legally allowed to release various pollutants into public waterways like the Russell Prater Creek and the Russell Fork River. The DMME approved the initial NPDES permit for the Doe Branch mine back in 2012. But, as several individuals who spoke out at the informal conference pointed out, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has maintained an objection to the project from its outset, citing the likelihood that the mine would cause further harm to the Russell Prater Creek, which is already listed by the state of Virginia as being impaired by mining-related pollution.

In addition to concerns over water quality, many individuals spoke to the urgent need to develop new economic opportunities that utilize exactly the natural assets that large-scale surface mining destroys. Underscoring her opposition to the Doe Branch project, Sister Jackie Hanrahan, a nun representing the Appalachian Faith and Ecology Center in neighboring Wise County said, “A healthy economy can only happen when we have a healthy ecosystem. We’ve focused on only extractive industries for so long, but now we’re finally at a point where we have people working together over different philosophies to build a healthy economy.”

“I can show exactly what mining has done to this area,” said Tammy Owens, an organic farmer with nearly 30 acres of reclaimed strip mine on her farm. “This is my top soil,” Owens said dropping a plastic bag of what appeared to be little more than sand and rock on the table in front of the DMME representatives. “There is no topsoil. Nothing grows on the mined areas of my farm. Here in our area is where ginseng grows the best. It’s where bloodroot, and yellow root grow best. These are highly valuable medicinal herbs. What we can get for an acre of ginseng is astronomical compared to what other row crop farmers would get but can we grow those medicinal herbs any more on our farm land?”

The Doe Branch mine has already received the other permits it needs to move forward. The EPA objection is one of the only things currently preventing the mine from moving forward. Cooperation between state and federal agencies in making permitting decisions is an intentional system that creates checks and balances in weighing factors that impact industries, communities and the environment. That’s exactly what is happening with the Doe Branch permit. But it could change quickly under a Trump presidency.

While many personnel will remain at the EPA, changes in high-level staff, budget, or regulations could alter how the agency handles permitting decisions for mountaintop removal coal mining. Market forces are another largely independent factor. There is no magic wand that can suddenly put more coal in the ground, or make the coal that remains more economically feasible to mine and burn in the face of stiff market competition from natural gas and increasingly competitive renewable energy sources. In light of this reality, it is difficult to gauge how eager Contura Energy is to begin work on an operation of this size.

Duke Energy’s empire grows with natural gas

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 - posted by brian
 The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., and Duke Energy is at the forefront of a historic fuel switching trend.

It’s both a sign of the times and a warning of things to come. Duke Energy’s purchase of Piedmont Natural Gas was finalized this week after North Carolina utility regulators signed off on the deal.

Duke executives say the $4.9 billion acquisition will bolster the company’s position in the natural gas sector by tripling its existing base of 525,000 gas customers and expanding its footprint into Tennessee. Their cheerful announcement also casts natural gas in a familiar light — as the clean, climate-friendly fuel of the future.

“This combination provides clear benefits to our customers and the environment as we continue to expand our use of low-cost and clean natural gas and invest in pipelines,” Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a statement.

These days, terms like “clean” and “low-cost” come standard with efforts to tout the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas relative to other energy sources. By now, they should also set off alarm bells.

One of the nation’s largest electric providers, Duke has brought four natural gas-fired power plants online in North Carolina since 2011 to replace shuttered coal-fired capacity. Earlier this year, the company received expedited approval of plans to convert a fifth, its Asheville plant, from coal to gas.

A similar story is playing out in other states where Duke operates. Florida, which ranks third in solar potential but 14th in installed capacity, relies on gas to meet two-thirds of its electricity demand. Duke subsidiary Progress Energy operates several gas-fired facilities in the Sunshine State, including the 1,912-megawatt Hines Energy Complex.

Other large investor-owned utilities aren’t far behind. Florida Power & Light, also among the nation’s largest electric utilities, and Duke are partners in the controversial $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Pipeline, which will stretch nearly 500 miles from Alabama to central Florida.

Duke based its decision to purchase the Charlotte-based Piedmont on sustained market trends that forecast a continued expansion of natural gas’ role in the nation’s energy mix. The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011. Click to enlarge.

And the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Duke’s most recent long-term resource plan proposes constructing three plants that would add nearly 2,500 megawatts of gas-fired generation in the Carolinas. The plan also calls for multiplying installed solar capacity threefold by 2031, but says solar’s “limited ability to meet peak demand conditions” makes more gas generation essential to ensure reliability.

“A thoughtful transition is what we are seeking, not a headlong rush to dependency on any one fuel,” Duke’s director of integrated resource planning, Glen Snider, told the Charlotte Business Journal.

Fair enough. Duke often claims credit for diversifying its portfolio ahead of the curve, although North Carolina’s renewable energy standard and tax credits for renewables have played a considerable role. But today, the company’s large stake in the $5 billion proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline threatens to counteract that thoughtful transition. If the 550-mile pipeline is built, Duke’s gas-burning power plants would be among its primary users.

Continuing to invest in massive pipelines designed to last decades could result in stranded assets, costly liabilities created when capital-intensive projects like pipelines or power plants are forced to retire before the end of their economic usefulness. This is especially true if the United States plans to do its part to meet international climate goals.

“We’ve been building gas power plants like crazy for the last 10 years,” Lorne Stockman, the author of a report on gas infrastructure for the group Oil Change International told Utility Dive. “I don’t see anyone really sitting down and saying how many more can we build if we are really going to make this transition.”

Replacing existing gas capacity with renewables may be unlikely in the near-term. But that doesn’t make the long-term planning decisions being made today any less problematic, because they foreshadow an energy future that experts are urging us to avoid.

A growing mine is a growing problem for the Russell Fork River

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 - posted by Erin

Editor’s Note: This post, by Appalachian Voices’ Erin Savage, originally appeared on American Rivers’ blog. Earlier this year, the nonprofit named Central Appalachia’s Russell Fork among America’s Most Endangered Rivers due the threats posed by mountaintop removal coal mining to water quality and surrounding communities.

The Russell Fork snakes through Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentuky border.

The Russell Fork snakes through Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentuky border.

The Russell Fork River is threatened by a new coal mine. A bankruptcy saga with the mine’s owner had stalled development in the past year, but things appear to be getting back on track.

The history of the Doe Branch Mine in Southwest Virginia is long and complicated, and its future remains unclear.

The mine is owned by Paramont Coal Company, once a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. Until recently, Alpha was one of the largest mining companies in the country, but is now emerging from bankruptcy. The Doe Branch Mine started with plans for a 245-acre surface coal mine in 2005, but it now has the potential to grow to 1,100 acres. If the current plan moves forward, the mine would include five valley fills and 14 wastewater discharges that would drain into tributaries of the Russell Fork River — a renowned resource in the region for river recreation and the star attraction of the Breaks Interstate Park.

While there is a long history of coal mining in the Russell Fork watershed, water quality in the river has improved over the last several decades due to better regulations and the watchful eye of local residents. At a time when coal mining is declining in Appalachia, the Doe Branch mine is among the largest mines still being pursued in Southwest Virginia, and it would undoubtedly lead to significant water quality impacts.

The Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River.

The Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork.

The mine is also part of a large, controversial highway construction project known as the Coalfields Expressway. Some believe the Expressway will bring much needed economic development opportunities to the region, but others believe it unnecessarily enables additional surface mining and does not adequately consider what is best for nearby communities. Though a portion of the Doe Branch Mine has been approved by state and federal agencies, the expansion does not have final approval. Little work has been started on any portion of the mine over the last decade, beyond some tree clearing.

In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an objection to the company’s application to increase the size of the mine. Specifically, the EPA objected to the application for additional wastewater permits under the Clean Water Act. The wastewater would be discharged into several tributaries of the Russell Fork that are already impaired by mining-related pollutants, according to Virginia’s list of impaired waterways. In order to secure discharge permits, the company must show that it will not increase the overall impairment of the watershed.

Trends for coal production in Central Appalachia. The decline has continued into 2015 and 2016.

Trends for coal production in Central Appalachia. The decline has continued into 2015 and 2016.

Since hitting its peak in 2008, coal production in Central Appalachia has declined precipitously. Alpha’s dominance in the Central Appalachian coal market has not shielded it from the economic downturn. The company declared bankruptcy in August 2015, creating a lull in the Doe Branch permit application process.

On July 26, 2016, Alpha announced its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The plan to emerge from bankruptcy involves the formation of two new companies. One is a privately held, smaller Alpha, which will retain most of the Central Appalachian mines. The other is Contura Energy, formed by Alpha’s senior lenders, which purchased Alpha’s Wyoming, Pennsylvania and better-performing Central Appalachian mines. Doe Branch is included in the short list of Central Appalachian mines that Contura will own.

Before emerging from bankruptcy, Alpha stated that the Doe Branch Mine is not part of its 10 year plan. Now that Contura owns Doe Branch, the mine may be more likely to move forward. Just last month, a new Clean Water Act permit draft was issued by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. This new draft may be an attempt to address the objections raised by the EPA. Given the importance of the Russell Fork, the damage already done to its tributaries by mining, and the need for a serious economic shift in the region, the EPA should uphold its objection to this mine. Urge them to do so now.

Join Appalachian Voices and American Rivers in asking the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to deny Contura’s permit request for the Doe Branch Mine.

OSMRE announces review of mountaintop removal health research

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016 - posted by brian
A 2012 Appalachian Voices' report mapped the findings of peer-reviewed health studies and data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, United Health Foundation and the Gallup-Healthways Well-being index.

A 2012 Appalachian Voices’ report mapped the findings of peer-reviewed health studies and data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, United Health Foundation and the Gallup-Healthways Well-being index.

Contact:
Erin Savage, Central Appalachia Campaign Coordinator, 206-769-8286

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) announced today that it will fund a $1 million review by the National Academy of Sciences of current research on the links between surface coal mining and human health risks.

It comes more than a year after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection formally requested such a review, and nearly a decade after the publication of the first in a series of two dozen peer-reviewed studies that have found correlations between mountaintop removal coal mining and increased rates of cancer, heart and respiratory diseases, and other negative health outcomes.

In recent years, multiple studies have established more direct, causal links between mountaintop removal and negative health impacts. Studies led by researchers at West Virginia University have concluded that exposure to mountaintop mining dust promotes tumor growth in human lung cells and decreases cardiac functioning in lab animals.

Research from outside the region show cause for concern regarding common mining pollutants such as manganese. Several studies1 over two decades have demonstrated a link between nervous system damage in children and manganese exposure through well water.

OSMRE will share additional information as it becomes available, including the dates of four public meetings to be held by the National Academy of Sciences.

A statement from Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator Erin Savage:

“We’re pleased that OSMRE has listened to the concerns coal-impacted residents have been voicing for years. And, while we always welcome additional research into the toll mountaintop removal takes on human health and the environment, action must be taken on the preponderance of existing evidence showing the known impacts of surface mining. If we value the lives of Central Appalachian citizens over coal profits, mine permitting would be halted until it could be proven safe for nearby residents.

“We are still awaiting a long-overdue Stream Protection Rule and are hopeful that a strong rule will be issued soon by the Obama administration. There is more than enough scientific research documenting the impacts of mountaintop removal on Central Appalachia’s streams and rivers to justify a moratorium on mining through streams, which irreparably harms aquatic ecosystems and likely contributes to a range of human health issues.

“It is unfortunate that OSMRE did not undertake this review sooner so the findings could help to inform the Stream Protection Rule. But despite the coal industry’s decline, mining in Central Appalachia will continue into the near future. This review could be the push the next administration needs to finally make this destructive practice illegal.”

1 – Bouchard, M.F., Sauve, S., Barbeau, B., Legrand, M., Brodeur, M.E., Bouffard, T., Limoges, E. Bellinger, D.C., Margler, D. 2011. Intellectual Impairment in School-Age Children Exposed to Manganese from Drinking Water. Environmental Health Perspectives Jan;119(1):138-43.

Hafeman, D., Factor-Litvak, P., Cheng, Z., van Geen, A., Ahsan, H. 2007. Association Between Manganese Exposure Through Drinking Water and Infant Mortality in Bangladesh. Hafeman, D. et al. Environmental Health Perspectives Jul;115(7):1107-12.

Woolf, A., Wright, R., Amarasiriwardena, C., Bellinger, D. 2002. Child with Chronic Manganese Exposure from Drinking Water. 2002. Woolf, A. et al. Environmental Health Perspectives Jun;110(6):613-6.

Wasserman, G.A., Liu, X., Parvez, F. Ahsan, H., Levy, D., Factor-Litvak, P., Kline, J., van Geen, A., Slavkovich, V., Lolacono, N.J., Cheng, Z., Zheng, Y. Graziano, J.H. 2006. Water Manganese Exposure and Children’s Intellectual Function in Arailhazar, Bangladesh. Environmental Health Perspectives Jan;114(1):124-9.

Daile Boulis: One coalfield resident’s journey to action

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

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

Daile Boulis

Daile Boulis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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