Posts Tagged ‘Coal’

Great News for Clean Water in Virginia!

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - posted by eric

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today’s court decision and what it means for Appalachia

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - posted by thom

good_day_for_mtns2

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

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

Read a statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One fish, two fish … Dead fish

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - posted by matt

USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

onefish_twofish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mountain Justice Summer – 10 Years Strong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take Action: Protect Appalachian Streams from Toxic Selenium

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 - posted by eric

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new national recommended water quality criteria for selenium. Because these new standards are weaker and more complex than the current standards, they pose a major threat to the health of streams in coal-impacted communities.

Selenium is a pollutant released from many mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia that is extremely toxic to fish at very low levels. Over time, it builds up in fish and other aquatic organisms leading to reproductive failure, deformities and death.

The EPA’s proposed standards are too weak to be protective of aquatic life. Studies have shown negative effects of selenium at levels half as high as the fish tissue standards proposed by the agency. These standards are even weaker than those proposed by the EPA in 2004, which were withdrawn after public comments from agencies and scientists demonstrated that they would not protect aquatic life.

A table of current and proposed EPA selenium standards. Click to enlarge.

By partially basing the standards on fish tissue sampling, the EPA has created a significant burden for citizens and agencies trying to enforce the limits on selenium pollution. Fish tissue sampling will be more expensive and time consuming, and it will require special permits for collecting fish. This is especially problematic in Appalachia, where selenium standards have primarily been enforced through citizen actions. These standards will be more difficult to enforce, and will just lead to more streams being degraded.

Tell the EPA not to weaken Selenium Standards

Please take a few minutes to email ow-docket@epa.gov with the subject line “Attention Docket No. EPA-HQ-OW-2004-0019”, and let them know that we need strong water based standards for selenium, that will protect all aquatic life. The comment period has been extended through July 28, 2014.

On Capitol Hill, Appalachian citizens make the case against mountaintop removal

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 - posted by Marissa Wheeler
Appalachian citizens walk into the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency meet with officials about mountaintop removal coal mining and protecting clean water. Photo by Joanne Hill.

Appalachian citizens walk into the headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency meet with officials about mountaintop removal coal mining and protecting clean water. Photo by Joanne Hill.

Last week, Appalachian Voices and Earthjustice brought a team of Appalachian residents to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of the U.S. House of Representatives to cosponsor the Clean Water Protection Act (H.R. 1837).

The events of this lobby week — including meetings with 24 House offices, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement — paved the way for progress as we reminded our public officials that mountaintop removal is an urgent and even life-threatening issue for communities across Appalachia.

Representatives from Earthjustice also met with congressional appropriators to argue against amendments that would restrict federal agency action on mountaintop removal.

Representing five different organizations within the Alliance for Appalachia, our lobbying team sought to provide a comprehensive look at the environmental devastation and socioeconomic distress in Appalachia resulting from mountaintop removal coal mining. A representative from Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) mentioned the nearly $75 billion in annual healthcare costs attributed to coal pollution.

On the subject of unequal access to clean drinking water, one member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth pointed out that during the national coverage of the Charleston, W.Va., chemical spill in January, very few commentators asked why 300,000 people in nine different counties shared a single water system. The answer: Local wells were already contaminated by the chemical byproducts of mountaintop removal mining.

Another member of KFTC shared her opinion from more than two decades of work in surface mining regulation that the rules and standards set by state agencies simply aren’t doing enough to protect the land and water from serious damage. Further, members of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and the Coal River Mountain Watch called for federal oversight in surface mining operations in order to reduce environmental destruction and restore clean drinking water to some of the nation’s most impoverished counties and municipalities.

As a result of our lobbying efforts, five new representatives joined the Clean Water Protection Act by the end of the week, bringing the total to 91 cosponsors. These new additions to the bill were Lloyd Doggett (D-TX35), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA47), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY4), Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA40), Paul Tonko (D-NY20), and Colleen Hanabusa (D-HI1). Encouraged by this success, we hope to gain even more support in the House as we continue to defend Appalachians’ right to clean water.

Science-backed lawsuits protect clean water in Central Appalachia

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Caldwell

A citizen’s photo of sediment from George’s Fork entering the South Fork Pound River

On Thursday, June 5, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia ruled that high levels of conductivity in water discharged from mountaintop removal mines are harmful to West Virginia streams.

The Sierra Club issued a press release that calls the ruling a “landmark decision” and quotes the district court’s decision that, “Losing diversity in aquatic life, as sensitive species are extirpated and only pollution-tolerant species survive, is akin to the canary in a coal mine. These West Virginia streams … were once thriving aquatic ecosystems.”

The ruling comes at a pivotal time for citizen action groups engaging in litigation under the Clean Water Act. The same day of the court’s ruling on conductivity, citizen groups including Appalachian Voices filed a suit in Virginia arguing that four mines owned by Red River Coal Company had failed to comply with a state-imposed Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for the South Fork Pound River.

The South Fork Pound TMDL stipulates the level of total dissolved solids (TDS) and total suspended solids (TSS) the river can tolerate, while still protecting aquatic life. Mines that discharge into the South Fork Pound watershed are given waste load allocations (WLAs) for their contribution of TDS and TSS. Our case against Red River Coal argues that data from company water monitoring indicates that they have exceeded WLAs for the South Fork Pound River.

At a first glance, these two cases seem to be only distantly related, but with a closer look and some basic science, it becomes clear that they are actually incredibly similar.

Conductivity is the measurement of the ability of a material to conduct electricity. In the case of water, the more positive and negative ions in the water, the more conductive it becomes. TDS measures the concentrations of dissolved ions in the water, so the higher the TDS, the higher the water’s electrical conductivity.

When water has been discharged from a surface mine, it often runs through valley fills and other areas where heavy metals have been disturbed. Dr. Anthony Timpano of the Virginia Water Research Center authored a paper that explores the effects of high levels of TDS on aquatic life. Timpano states that streams impacted by coal pollution can often have a TDS greater than 2000 mg/L. A normal stream should have a TDS of less than 200 mg/L. Ions that typically contribute to high TDS levels include calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate and sulfate. Sulfate has been shown to have deadly effects on aquatic life.

Another theme present in both of these cases is the lack of state oversight and enforcement for water pollution violations in coal-impacted communities. These lawsuits were filed by citizen groups that advocate for clean water in areas where industry is often favored over local communities. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy failed to hold Alex Energy, Elk Run Coal Company, and Red River Coal Company accountable. Instead, citizens have stepped up to the job.

Appalachian Voices’ Water Quality Specialist Eric Chance hits the nail on the head, saying, “Unfortunately, it takes lawsuits like this one to get the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to do its job and enforce existing laws that were created to protect the health of people and streams.”

Another coal-related chemical spill in Central Appalachia

Monday, June 9th, 2014 - posted by Erin

Hundreds of fish were killed by a chemical released into Kentucky’s Clover Fork River by Cumberland Coal Company. Photos by Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

On Friday, May 30, another coal-related chemical spill polluted a public waterway in Central Appalachia, killing hundreds of fish and alarming local residents.

The chemical spill happened at a Cumberland Coal Company prep plant in Harlan County, Ky. This time, the spill was not of coal slurry or a coal-washing chemical, but of a flocculant — a type of compound usually used to control other substances in sediment ponds or clean up spilled material in creeks.

Reminiscent of the slurry spill from the Patriot prep plant in February, this spill began when a pipe carrying slurry between the prep plant and an impoundment failed. This time, however, the slurry was contained by the facility’s sediment ponds. Due to concerns about the slurry entering the river, a flocculent called Praestol A6291 was used to help settle the spilled material and prevent it from leaving the pond.

Unfortunately, too much of the chemical was used, causing it to spill into Kelly’s Branch, a tributary of the Clover Fork River. This particular flocculant is toxic to aquatic life and it killed hundreds of fish and other wildlife in the Clover Fork in the days following the spill.

Dead fish in the Clover Fork River. Photo: Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

The Harlan County Emergency Management was notified first, but the state Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement was not notified until the next day. When DMRE arrived, there was no evidence that any coal slurry spilled into the creek and water samples taken at that time complied with applicable mining laws. Unfortunately, it does not seem that water samples were taken on the day the spill occurred.

Dead fish in the Clover Fork River. Photo: Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

A Kentucky Fish and Wildlife employee told a local reporter that the chemical spilled was not harmful to humans. However, the material data safety sheet lists two components of this particular Praestol that are known carcinogens in laboratory animals: diethanolamine and coco diethanolamide. Thankfully, this spill was not near a drinking water intake. Still, local residents expressed a great level of concern about both their own safety and the loss of local wildlife.

Cumberland Coal Company has already been cited for a violation of general hydrologic compliance. Although fines cannot erase the damage done to a community and an ecosystem, hopefully further investigation will result in sufficient fines to compel Cumberland and other companies to prevent future spills. They have been, and remain, far too commonplace.

Groups Seek Protection of Virginia Waterways from Mining Pollution

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 - posted by eric


Red River Coal Co. Violating “Last Line of Defense” Clean Water Act Protections

Contact:
Eric Chance, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500 eric@appvoices.org
Sean Sarah, Sierra Club, 202-548-4589 sean.sarah@sierraclub.org
Matt Hepler, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, 540-871-1564 mhepler24@gmail.com

Big Stone Gap, VA –Citizen and environmental groups today filed suit in federal court over illegal water pollution from four mines in Southwest Virginia owned by the Red River Coal Company. Virginia regulators previously determined that the South Fork Pound River, which receives the pollution from the mines, does not adequately support aquatic life. To protect the streams, Virginia imposed a “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) for mining pollutants that harm aquatic life, including total dissolved solids and total suspended solids.

Appalachian Voices, Sierra Club and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. The groups found that Red River is violating its permit conditions that require compliance with the state TMDL.

“These mountain streams in southwest Virginia were once known for their purity and served as a habitat for diverse species of aquatic life, but mining pollution’s changed that,” said Jane Branham of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “It is shameful that citizens must take action to address this issue, but with the failure of the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to oversee and enforce laws that protect our waterways, we are left with no other choice.”

“Every coal mine in Virginia has to get a permit that limits the amount of pollution it can release, but still many streams below these mines are unsafe to fish and swim in,” said Eric Chance, water quality specialist for Appalachian Voices. “Sometimes it takes lawsuits like this one to get the state Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to do its job and enforce existing laws that were created to protect the health of people and streams.”

“This case highlights the failure of state regulators to stop the damaging pollution from mountaintop removal mines in our state, even after they’ve recognized the harm that pollution is causing,” said Glen Besa, Virginia Director of the Sierra Club. “Coal companies cannot police themselves and the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy is no help, so we feel compelled to take action in order to protect our precious streams and rivers from mining pollution.”

TMDLs are essentially the last line of defense against mountaintop removal mining pollution. Mountaintop removal mines generate high levels of total dissolved solids, which is often measured as conductivity. The Environmental Protection Agency has conducted scientific studies that found high levels of conductivity, dissolved solids, and sulfates are a primary cause of water quality impairments” downstream from valley fills and other mining operations.

The three groups filing today’s suit are represented by Isak Howell, Joe Lovett and Ben Luckett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

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