Posts Tagged ‘Coal Ash’

EPA finalizes long-awaited coal ash regulations

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by brian
The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy's Dan River plant.

The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant.

The day we’ve been waiting for has finally come. Yes it’s Friday, but today was also the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s court-imposed deadline to release federal regulations for coal ash storage and disposal.

As expected, the rule it took the EPA five years to finalize is modest at best, falling short of what it takes to truly address the prevalent problems associated with coal ash such as contamination of waterways and drinking water supplies.

Rather than classifying coal ash as the hazardous waste it clearly is, the EPA rule places it under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the nation’s primary law for regulating solid waste. Other types of waste regulated under Subtitle D include household garbage — you know, banana peels, candy wrappers and the like.

“For the thousands of citizens whose groundwater is no longer safe for consumption due to leaching ponds or whose air is contaminated by fugitive dust, failing to regulate coal ash as hazardous is a slap in the face,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator. “While we’re pleased that we finally have federal regulations, they are far from perfect and demand we continue fighting for cleanup of these toxic sites.”

U.S. coal plants produce around 140 million tons of coal ash each year. Much of that is stored near waterways in unlined pits held in place by earthen dams. Even years after coal plants have closed, ponds that have stored toxic coal ash for decades can continue to pollute water and put communities at risk.

In 2012, Appalachian Voices and several partner groups, represented by Earthjustice, sued the EPA in federal court to force the agency to issue a rule. Late last year our coalition reached a settlement holding the EPA to today’s deadline.

According to the EPA, the rule establishes safeguards to protect communities from catastrophic spills, like the Kingston, Tenn., spill in 2008. It was the disaster in Kingston that spurred the agency to act.

But more spills, like the one at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River plant in Eden, N.C., have happened in the time since, representing hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental and economic costs.

To address the threat of another catastrophic failure, the EPA rule calls for the the closure of inactive sites that fail to meet engineering and structural standards, more frequent inspections and monitoring, and restrictions on where coal ash impoundments are located.

The rule also requires water quality monitoring and public disclosure of the results, which should help groups like Appalachian Voices and our community partners better track pollution and take companies to court that fail to stop it. More frequent reports and accurate information coming directly from utilities could be a big boost for efforts to protect clean water, as long as coal plant operators commit to transparency.

But while the regulations set a minimum federal criteria, states are not required to adopt them, develop a permitting program, or submit a program to the EPA for approval. That’s all more of a suggestion, really. So while the EPA says it expects states to be “active partners” in regulating coal ash, well, states unfriendly to the EPA may feel differently. And should states refuse to clean up coal ash pollution or fail meet the new standards, the EPA will not step in to enforce the rule. That job will still fall to citizens who identify the insidious pollution and file lawsuits to correct it.

According to Earthjustice, unsafe disposal of coal ash into the nation’s more than 1,400 coal ash waste dumps has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and sources of underground drinking water in 37 states. There are 331 high- and significant-hazard coal ash ponds in the country. Many of the highest hazard sites are concentrated in the eastern U.S. and in North Carolina in particular.

Coal ash is a hazardous waste just as sure as Christmas is around the corner.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices work to clean up coal ash.

Exposed: Linking Human Health and the Environment

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison
TVA-coalash-2

The dam holding more than one billion gallons of coal ash waste at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil coal-fired power plant collapsed on Dec. 22, 2008. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices

As an assortment of pollutants leach into our lives, the harmful effects continue to surface in public health. Yet many questions about environmental contaminants remain difficult to study, such as long-term health effects of low-level exposure, and how these different chemicals interact in the environment.

At every stage in the life-cycle of fossil fuels — mining or drilling, transportation, processing and use — toxic waste contaminates land, air and water. And at the same time that pesticides have allowed food production to expand, these same poisonous chemicals may affect every life form on Earth, from bacteria to humans.

By Kimber Ray

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FRACKING

The last decade has seen a rapid expansion of the drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Sand and chemicals — including known carcinogens — are mixed with water and injected deep underground to extract natural gas from shale rock formations. Yet many chemicals remain unknown because companies may claim them as trade secrets… [Full Story]
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PESTICIDES

Whether in food, water or air, current research suggests that no corner of the global environment is spared from pesticide contamination — not even the bacteria and fungi needed to regenerate soil. Pesticides include popular products such as insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and rodenticides. Many properties and impacts of these chemicals remain unstudied…[Full Story]
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MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL COAL MINING

Nearly 650 mountaintop removal coal mining sites scar the landscape of central Appalachia. Neighboring communities experience greater levels of air and water pollution and suffer from higher rates of illness than similar communities located further away, says Dr. Michael Hendryx, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University who has contributed to more than 30 studies on the subject…[Full Story]
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CLIMATE CHANGE

Much of Appalachia is predicted to experience increased temperatures and precipitation over the coming decades, with temperatures rising by four to nine degrees Fahrenheit and fewer — but more intense — storms interspersed with short droughts…[Full Story]
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COAL COMBUSTION

Coal is currently the largest source of global energy. When coal is burned, its carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, nitrogen and trace metals combine to form greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen oxides. Other emissions include sulfur dioxide gas, which can contribute to acid rain and respiratory diseases, particulate matter, which can cause lung and heart disease and mercury gas, a neurotoxin…[Full Story]

Coal ash cleanup still contested in North Carolina

Friday, December 5th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
 Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

In two weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will finally release the first-ever rule regulating the storage and disposal of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal. For years, communities and environmental groups across the country have pushed the EPA to finalize the regulations, and now, due to a court ordered mandate, the rules are expected to be released on Dec. 19.

In the years following the 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., the EPA repeatedly delayed finalizing a coal ash rule, allowing the dangerous waste to sit in unlined landfills and contaminate groundwater at sites across the country. As a result, there have been more coal ash disasters, including the February 2014 spill into the Dan River at Duke Energy’s plant in Eden, N.C. A new study conducted by Wake Forest University research biologist Dennis Lemly puts the cost of the Dan River spill at $300 million.

Spurred by the devastating Dan River spill, enormous public outcry, and a federal criminal investigation into the ties between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, state lawmakers set about writing their own coal ash regulations prior to the EPA rule’s release. The result was not what North Carolinians hoped for.

The Coal Ash Management Act, which became law in September without Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature, only requires the full cleanup of four out of the 14 coal ash storage sites in the state. The fates of the remaining 10, including Belews Creek (home to the the largest coal ash deposits in the state) have been left in the hands of a Coal Ash Commission, which may allow sites to be capped in place, a method of coal ash storage that does not eliminate the possibility of groundwater contamination.

McCrory did not sign the bill because he felt that the Coal Ash Commission was unconstitutional since a majority of its members were appointed by legislators and not the governor. On Nov. 13, McCrory and former governors James Hunt and James Martin sued the General Assembly, stating that the commission has been tasked with carrying out executive branch functions, as well as functions normally overseen by state agencies such as DENR. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, who are listed as defendants in the case, issued a statement opposing McCrory’s lawsuit as costly and time-consuming.

Despite the weaknesses of the Coal Ash Management Act, the law has already forced Duke Energy to begin cleaning up the coal ash at four high-priority sites, and to submit preliminary cleanup plans and groundwater assessment plans for the remaining 10. But now new controversies are emerging over where the company plans to relocate its waste.

Last month, Duke announced plans to move 2.9 million tons of ash from its Riverbend and Sutton plants to former clay mines in Chatham County and Lee County. Citizens in both counties are upset by the proposal, stating that they feel blindsided and citing the lack of an environmental or health impact study as problematic. In Chatham County, some residents already live near coal ash ponds located at Duke’s Cape Fear plant, which are not currently designated for cleanup.

Duke Energy contends that the clay mines are ideal for coal ash storage because of their close proximity to railways and the added environmental protection of impervious clay. The company says it will put in liners and install groundwater monitoring systems at the sites.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, millions of tons of coal ash precariously stored along North Carolina’s waterways will have to be moved somewhere. But the unfortunate reality of the law is that many previously unburdened communities and others already burdened by toxic waste dumps may be forced to house some of the ash. Ideally, most of the coal ash will remain on Duke Energy-owned property, but what cannot safely stay on Duke’s land will have to go somewhere. Every North Carolinian has a ton of coal ash to their name, but not every North Carolinian will have to deal with their ton.

In addition to considering new landfill sites, Duke Energy is also looking into the potential of beneficial reuse of coal ash.

If the EPA’s coal ash rule is weak, it will not protect communities from potentially dangerous coal ash landfills or coal ash reuse. Though there are no ideal solutions for the toxic waste, moving forward with the understanding that the substance is indeed hazardous would lead to more safeguards for human health.

If you haven’t already, take a moment to think about why you care about coal ash pollution and explore this topic with others. As North Carolina and the rest of the country move toward coal ash cleanup, it’s more important than ever for us to stand united to demand the safest storage possible.

DENR deserves an environmental leader to replace John Skvarla

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 - posted by brian
John Skvarla, the embattled secretary of DENR, is leaving the agency to lead the state Commerce Department.

John Skvarla, the embattled secretary of DENR, is leaving the agency to lead the state Commerce Department.

After a tumultuous two years as secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, John Skvarla is stepping over to lead the state’s Commerce Department. Skvarla will replace Secretary of Commerce Sharon Decker, who is leaving her post to join a digital media company.

Environmental groups, concerned citizens and prominent media outlets have been critical of Skvarla throughout his tenure, and unsurprisingly so — he has expressed doubt over whether oil is a non-renewable resource claiming, “There is a lot of different scientific opinion on that,” and he questions the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

After assuming his position, Skvarla rewrote DENR’s mission statement to be in the service of industries in North Carolina. Under his watch, information related to climate change was removed from the agency’s website, and the department was reorganized and reduced to nearly inept levels.

READ MORE: DENR found critics and praise under Skvarla

By any measure, Skvarla is committed to being business-friendly. Responding to an op-ed by Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams in the News & Observer last December, he called DENR a “customer-friendly juggernaut.” But many saw Skvarla as being too cozy with companies like Duke Energy. A federal grand jury is still investigating ties between DENR and the company responsible for the Dan River coal ash spill.

While this announcement should engender optimism in the North Carolina environmental community, that hopefulness is tempered by trepidation over who will take over the position, and concern that he could be replaced by an even more extreme and environmentally detrimental successor.

There is no word on who will replace Skvarla yet, but Gov. McCrory says he is interviewing candidates and plans to appoint a new secretary later this month. Here’s to hoping he or she is the environmental leader DENR deserves and North Carolina desperately needs.

A statement from Appalachian Voices North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams:

John Skvarla ushered in an era of regressive environmental policies and procedures that placed industry over the needs of the environment and people. It is our sincere hope that his departure from DENR will allow the return of accountability and reason to the agency.

Gov. McCrory must choose a leader who will balance real environmental protection and industry growth without the wholesale abandonment of either. The goal of the new DENR secretary should be to restore the mission and integrity of the department by prioritizing environmental protection.

We look forward to working with someone who will reconsider Skvarla’s industry-first approach, which repeatedly put North Carolina’s natural resources as risk as exemplified by the handling of Duke Energy’s coal ash contamination.

Why do you care?

Monday, December 1st, 2014 - posted by kara

Whether you’re two days or 20 years deep in environmental or social justice organizing, we all ask ourselves the same question day in and day out: why do I care?

It’s an important question — and the act of asking can be just as important as proclaiming your answer. You can feel an increased ability to contribute just by opening your heart and mind to your deeper values and motivations.

Rhiannon Fionn, creator of Coal Ash Chronicles, brings “Why I Care” to the social media scene in the spirit of story-sharing, collaboration, power building and advocacy. You can watch more than a dozen short clips submitted by moms, lawyers, Riverkeepers, doctors and many others who want to see coal ash cleaned up and stored in a safe manner.

“Why I Care” is a simple way for people to speak up for their interests when it comes to the dangers of coal ash. We are all connected to this toxic waste, whether you live near an ash impoundment or your electricity is sourced from a coal-fired power plant. I invite you to delve into why you care and share that with your family, friends and the world!

In November, I took this idea to Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup, a local group in Belews Creek, N.C., fighting to save their community from coal ash contamination by the nearby Duke Energy power plant. Seven residents shared their reasons for caring about coal ash. Take a minute to hear why Jeannie cares about the coal ash pond near her home.

She raises very valid points, considering there are more than 9,000 people that live within a 5-mile radius of the Belews Creek coal ash pond and thousands more who live downstream on the Dan River.

If you want to share why YOU care, here are some easy instructions:

1. Have a friend record a video of you with a phone or camera — make sure to do it in “landscape” mode on your phone and stand close to the phone so you get the best sound quality. Here are other phone video tips.

3. In the video, say your name, where you live and why YOU care about coal ash. Practicing before recording is always a good idea.

4. Upload the video file directly to your YouTube page or save it to your computer and then upload it to YouTube — you may have to make a Youtube account which is easy!

Include the tag “Coal Ash” in the video and use these hashtags for social media: #coalash and #whyicare. Rhiannon will find your video and add it to the full “Why I Care” playlist.

5. If you don’t know how or want to upload to Youtube, contact kara@appvoices.org or 828-262-1500 and I can help you upload through Appalachian Voices’ channel.

6. There is a Dropbox option — contact me to get set up.

7. SHARE that video and ask others to speak up!

A full list of “Why I Care” videos can be found here.

N.C.’s Sutton Lake finally gets the protection it deserves

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 - posted by Jaimie McGirt
Padding on the Cape Fear River. Photograph by Jaimie McGirt

Paddling on the Cape Fear River. Photo by Jaimie McGirt

Wilmington, N.C., is the site of the L.V. Sutton Power Station — a retired coal-fired power plant operated by Duke Energy along the Lower Cape Fear River. Though Duke recently converted Sutton to burn natural gas, the carcinogenic-laden waste generated from decades of coal combustion remains in 135 acres on site.

The largest is Sutton Lake, a cooling pond now managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission that previously received unregulated discharges from three adjacent coal ash ponds. According to Frank Holleman with the Southern Environmental Law Center, however, the District court of Wilmington ruled last week that Sutton Lake is a Water of the United States, meaning it will no longer be an authorized site for unpermitted coal ash discharges and the adjacent coal ash ponds ponds must undergo frequent inspection.

Though I’ve lived the past five years away from home, I am from the Wilmington area. I spent a lot of time as a kid on the Cape Fear River in a boat with my parents. We would idle along, my dad showing me the spots where he used to camp, squirrel hunt and shoot mistletoe from tree canopies along the river. Eventually, I began kayaking to those places, exploring them for myself and venturing further downriver. While I was often surrounded by wild things, periodic sights of clear-cut forests and the distant red and white-striped smokestacks of the Sutton plant reminded me that development and pollution was not far off.

At first, I wasn’t aware that I was paddling a stone’s throw from Sutton Lake or the ash ponds. Unlike so many people, I had never been out on the lake; I had only seen the brown recreational boat ramp sign off Hwy. 421 and wondered what it was like. But on one occasion my dad and I were heading downriver admiring the giant cypress trees and we stopped at the river bank where there was a small gap in some pines. We scrambled up the riprap and debris and suddenly I realized what I was seeing — Sutton Lake.

Unlike Sutton Station, the lake is hidden by a stand of trees adjacent to the river. Vast and obviously man-made, it seemed such a stark environment; I couldn’t imagine that anyone would actually visit it recreationally — and I didn’t even know about the coal ash dumping there at this point. But people did visit. They still do. Like so many other lakes that serve as illegitimate or unregulated coal ash dump sites, Sutton is a popular fishing and boating site.

Why, when it looks nothing like a natural lake with its concrete retaining berms and gravel access roads on top of the berms and is polluted with heavy metals? I didn’t know about the nearby coal-fired power plant and coal ash ponds — and I grew up as a privileged, environmentally aware, English-speaking kid in the area. It’s a large body of water well stocked with bass, bluegill and a variety of other fish; on the surface, it appears normal. That’s my best guess as to why.

That’s how it’s been for a long time. Looking out over the pond that day, my dad said, “I used to fish here and now some people say that it’s bad. I didn’t know any better back then.” Despite the time that has passed, some people still believe it is safe to be on the lake, and worse, fish for subsistence. Today, contaminants like arsenic, chromium, boron and selenium exist in Sutton Lake. These toxins pose a major threat to fish and human health if consumed. While some fisherman catch-and-release, others, especially those from under-resourced and/or immigrant communities, don’t know better or don’t have an alternative — and that goes for fish caught in the river too. (While groundwater contamination affects people in close proximity and discharges affect people downriver, contaminated fish in the river are not stationary. Some species travel upriver to spawn, affecting plenty of people upriver from the waste sites.)

That’s what Kemp Burdette, the Lower Cape Fear Riverkeeper, shared with my dad, me and other Appalachian State University students during a “source-to-sea” kayak expedition I led two years ago. I was raised on fresh-caught freshwater fish and seafood, and despite having known about mercury levels in some fresh and saltwater fish, I couldn’t turn down fried catfish until Kemp told us that a woman shouldn’t eat catfish from the Cape Fear but once a year, and a pregnant woman — forget about it. At that moment I remember feeling such remorse for all of the people who had catfish lines trailing under low-hanging branches over the river, planning to take their catch home to their families, just as my dad used to do. And that doesn’t even account for the remorse I now feel for people across our state, nation and world seeking and finding their livelihood near coal ash ponds and other toxic waste sites.

Today, I know much more about coal ash and the associated threats. That counts for something. Today, my parents live about two miles upriver from the plant and the lake. No longer fishing in that area and having well water, they really aren’t at risk like so many others downriver in Flemmington Road, Navassa, Leland and other rural communities. But they know the risks. That counts for something. There are advocates inside and outside of communities — concerned local businessmen and women, children, parents, elders, hard laborers, fishermen, scientists, doctors and lawyers — that are challenging the corporate status quo and inadequate regulations that fail to protect their drinking water. That counts for something. And finally, our courts have listened and ruled to protect Sutton Lake from unpermitted discharges from Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Of course, until the coal ash waste is moved into lined ponds, as required under the new state coal ash law, we’re still left with 135 acres of coal ash ponds at the Sutton site that constantly leach contaminants and are at risk for structural failure. That’s not to mention the 13 other contaminated coal ash storage sites across North Carolina, 10 of which are not prioritized for cleanup under the new law.

Prioritization is on the table, however. By December 2015, all coal ash storage sites must have a priority designation — which will determine pond closure and cleanup plans under the N.C. Coal Ash Management Commission’s watch. Maybe the Sutton reclassification as a Waters of the United States is only a small move toward environmental justice, but it gives me hope for the remaining coal ash sites in North Carolina, and more importantly, hope for the marginalized residents that bear witness to the injustice in their communities every day.

In memory of an inspirational leader and friend

Wednesday, November 12th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Annie Brown: June 28, 1950 - September 28, 2014

Annie Brown:
June 28, 1950 – September 28, 2014

Appalachian Voices and Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup lost an amazing activist and dear friend in late September with the passing of Annie Fulp Brown.

Annie lived in the rural community of Walnut Cove, N.C., her entire life. Her first priority was always her family. She lived across the street from one of her daughters and best friend, Tracey, and she would speak proudly of her grandchildren, who love reading and excel in school. She was a natural nurturer. She would tell me stories about her family all the time, about how her granddaughter would cross the street to eat breakfast at her house before school, about big plans for a 100-person Thanksgiving event, about her prayers for her husband and daughter’s health.

She was also an activist and a champion for her community. She was one of the first people in her neighborhood to speak publicly about her experience living next to the largest coal-fired power plant in the state, Duke Energy’s Belews Creek steam station. As busy as she was, she always took interviews with any media outlet that would listen to her story, from the Winston-Salem Journal to 60 Minutes. She was the rare kind of activist who is capable of boldly speaking their truth and inspiring others to join the cause — and she did it all for her family.

“I have children, and grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. I’m a young great grandmother,” Annie says in the video At What Cost?, “I want them to be able to have a life that’s free of constant problems caused by toxins. I’m concerned about them.”

Annie’s concern was born from her experience of living next to the Belews Creek power plant for decades.

When Duke Energy built the Belews Creek power plant in the early seventies, Annie and her neighbors had to move, but only a couple of miles down the road. “We still formed that community,” Annie said, “pretty much the same people, the same families.”

Annie suffered many ailments throughout her life. But as she got older, she began to see a connection between the pollution from the Belews Creek plant and the illnesses she and her neighbors were suffering.

After the Feb. 2 coal ash spill into the Dan River, the N.C. NAACP held a town hall in Eden, N.C. Annie spoke to a church packed with more than 70 people openly and clearly about her health concerns. She showed them the list of names she had collected of people in her community that suffered from strange illnesses and early deaths. She spoke about a mysterious illness that immobilized her right hand.

Annie told the crowd about the ash that used to fill the air every day, “The place where that fly ash landed ate the paint [off the car]. I didn’t think anything of it because no one had informed us of any toxins, any poisonous metals … it was just flying in the air, my kids were out playing in it.”

Rev. William Barber, a leader of the Moral Monday movement, told Annie at the town hall, “Sometimes God allows people to live so they can give their living testimony of the hell they’ve been through so that those who are yet living will hear that testimony and take up the cause of fighting for justice.”

I know Annie desperately wanted things to change for her family and her community. She stood up and spoke out against Duke Energy’s pollution — she knew it was an injustice. It’s not every day that you meet someone willing and brave enough to put their energy into stopping injustice, but Annie was one of those people, and I feel blessed to have known her.

“She was a courageous spokesperson for her community,” reflects Kara Dodson of Appalachian Voices, “Annie had such a trustworthy, friendly personality that really connected with people and allowed them to join our fight wholeheartedly. I think her faith and love for her family is what kept her speaking out, telling her story, motivating others to care. She always had a joke, a funny story that would keep the mood hopeful. And as far as I can tell, she was born to be a fighter.”

At her Homegoing Service, the church was packed — a testament to how well loved and respected she was by her community. As we lifted our voices in song and prayer, I remembered sitting outside a different, smaller church with Annie, watching as she picked five-petaled flowers. She told me about how the flowers were good luck, and how she and her grandmother used to pick them together. She told me about growing up in Walnut Cove, about wearing dresses made of flour sacks, spying on the local moonshiner, and the time she drove her daddy’s car down the road. I’ll always remember with great fondness and admiration her stories, her strong spirit, and her unending love for her family.

Today, Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup and Appalachian Voices continue the fight to clean up the toxic coal ash that has polluted Annie’s community for decades. As the newly formed coal ash commission begins deciding how, when, and even if each coal ash site will be cleaned up, Annie’s brave words and love of her grandchildren come to mind, “Clean water is a must, for all of us.”

Read more about the community of Belews Creek here
Read about the NAACP Town Hall and watch Annie Brown’s speech here
Read one of the first articles quoting Annie Brown here

Be cool and keep fighting

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 - posted by thom
After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

For the next couple of weeks, you’ll have a hard time turning on the TV or going online without seeing reactions to the midterm elections. Most pundits will analyze what happened, and some will try to tell you what it means.

Here’s what it really means: maybe not that much.

To put things in historical perspective, let’s take a moment to look back at some very recent elections and their outcomes.

2008: Democrats take the White House and a supermajority in both the House and Senate! They proceed to pass climate legislation, stop mountaintop removal coal mining, usher in a new age of clean energy take a few moderate steps toward reducing the amount of permits issued for mountaintop removal coal mining.

2010: Republican wave! The GOP takes the House by a wide margin and nearly takes the Senate. They proceed to remove EPA’s ability to regulate carbon pollution and then expedite all mountaintop removal permits create a fuss while federal agencies continue to take moderate steps towards limiting coal pollution.

2012: Democrats keep the White House, and improve their numbers in both the House and Senate! They proceed to make permanent changes to coal mining and coal ash regulations while stopping global warming in its tracks make no headway on coal mining regulations, allow mountaintop removal mines to be permitted, and take only moderate steps on coal ash regulation and carbon emissions.

We don’t know what the future holds, but considering what happened yesterday there are a few things that we can be pretty sure of moving forward.

The politics of Virginia and Tennessee are not much different today than they were yesterday. No major incumbent lost their race, and the election’s outcomes gives us no reason to believe federal office holders from either state will change their behavior going forward. Appalachian Voices, for one, is happy to continue to work with members from both states and both parties.

West Virginia and Kentucky are still in Big Coal’s stranglehold. But like coal itself, the industry’s power is finite. We can’t say how soon the politics of coal will change in Central Appalachia, but we will continue to work with our allies in those states to change the conversation. For now, members of the two states’ delegations will continue to vote the way they have for years.

After 30 years as an advocate for coal miners and the coal industry alike, Rep. Nick Rahall lost to his Republican challenger, Evan Jenkins, in the race for West Virginia’s 3rd district. Rahall was the senior Democratic member and had a firm grasp on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act. His replacement in that role will likely be someone who opposes mountaintop removal coal mining. For that, we can be all be happy.

North Carolina’s Senate election was a bit of a surprise. Though, aside from Democrat Kay Hagan being replaced by Thom Tillis, the rest of delegation is unchanged.

Appalachian Voices has worked hard to build relationships with members of Congress and their staffs in both the House and the Senate. But we have known for a long time that getting comprehensive legislation through Congress is not a good short-term goal.

The White House, on the other hand, is armed with the science and has the legal authority and moral obligation to take on mountaintop removal, coal ash pollution, climate change and other threats. President Obama was never going to be able to rely on Congress to act on those issues. So from that perspective, nothing has changed.

It’s okay to be excited about a candidate you like winning an election. It’s okay to be bummed when a candidate you like loses. But it’s not okay to get so caught up in it all that you forget the big picture.

As we see it, the job before us has not changed. Our responsibilities to Appalachia, and yours, are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

We will keep fighting for a better future for Appalachia, and push every decision-maker, regardless of their political leanings, to stand with us. We will fight to end to mountaintop removal and for a just economic transition away from fossil fuels. We will fight because no one else is going to do it for us, and we will need you there by our side.

Coal ash rule reaches White House for final review

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 - posted by brian
After four years of hand wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

After years of hand-wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

On Monday night, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a long-awaited rule to regulate the disposal and storage of coal ash to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review.

“We are pleased to see the draft rule move into the final phase of review needed for its release in December,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator.

“Having experienced the consequences of poor enforcement and weak or non-existent state regulations, North Carolina serves as a clear example of why states must have federal baseline standards for coal ash,” Adams says. “We must place our hope in the strength of the EPA rules and the resolve of the federal government to protect citizens from this toxic waste.”

Observers say the administration should have enough time to finalize the rule by the EPA’s court-ordered deadline of Dec. 19, which the agency apparently “fully expects” to meet.

Until then, however, we won’t know much about how far the rule will go to protect communities across the United States from coal ash pollution.

Infographic: The Truth About Coal Ash

At least for the next several weeks, the substance of the rule is still subject to change and there are a few different ways it could go. Environmental groups have for years pressured the EPA to regulate coal ash as the dangerous substance that it is. This option would classify coal ash as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act. Utilities and other industries hope the rule will regulate coal ash under Subtitle D of RCRA, which emphasizes state oversight and enforcement through citizen lawsuits.

In both scenarios, the EPA says it won’t regulate the use of coal ash in concrete and other construction material, or as fill material — the latter will fall under the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s upcoming Mine Fill Rule. Beyond that, the description of the rule on OMB’s website offers little insight, which may be just how the White House wants it.

As Earthjustice’s Lisa Evans points out, the OMB review process is “a black box — opaque, inscrutable and exceedingly dangerous. Rules never come out the way they go in — the offices of OMB are littered with crumpled pages of strong rules gone soft after revision by the White House.”

Evans uses an example from 2009, when former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent the White House a plan to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste following the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Timeline: Five years after the TVA coal ash disaster, what do we have to show for it?

The EPA received more than 400,000 comments on the rule, and thousands attended public hearings to support stronger protections. But heavy lobbying by the coal and utility industries ultimately weakened the administration’s resolve.

Since then, the EPA hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about the status of the rule. In fact, had it not been for a lawsuit brought against the EPA by Earthjustice on behalf of Appalachian Voices and other environmental and public health groups last year, the timeline for a final rule might still be murky.

While unavoidable, Evans says the OMB review “introduces uncertainty at the end of a rulemaking process that must, by law, be based on science and transparency and governed by the requirements of the enabling statute.”

The evidence that coal ash poses significant risks to human health is abundant, and the need to do more could hardly be more urgent. The White House should listen to the thousands of citizens demanding strong protections against coal ash pollution.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to clean up coal ash.

Long-Awaited Coal Ash Bill Leaves Communities at Risk

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Sarah Kellogg

This September, North Carolina’s first bill regulating the disposal of coal ash became law. Legislators praised the law as the strongest in the nation, but environmental groups and citizens living next to coal ash ponds say it is not strong enough.

North Carolina’s toxic coal ash, the by-product of burning coal for electricity, is stored in wet impoundments at 14 Duke Energy facilities across the state, all of which are leaking toxic heavy metals. After a faulty pipe at a Duke Energy coal ash impoundment spilled 39,000 tons of the waste into the Dan River earlier this year, state legislators responded to public concern by promising to draft the strongest coal ash regulations in the nation.

Citizen and environmental groups say the resulting legislation does not offer assurance of a timely, complete cleanup to 10 impacted communities. Instead, the law requires full cleanup of the four sites Duke Energy already agreed to remediate after public outcry earlier this year: Dan River, Sutton, Asheville, and Riverbend. The day the bill became law, Environment North Carolina and partner organizations delivered 40,000 petition signatures to N.C. Governor Pat McCrory’s office demanding the full cleanup of all 14 sites.

The bill leaves the fates of the remaining 10 sites in the hands of a special coal ash commission comprised of six appointees from the general assembly and three from the governor. Governor McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years, stated that the commission is unconstitutional because the governor should be responsible for appointing the majority of a commission that executes legislative orders. Although he opposed the legislation, he did not veto it and allowed the bill to become law without his signature.

According to the bill, the commission will designate a rating of high, intermediate or low risk for each of the remaining 10 sites, and will also set timetables for the completion of cleanup, which Duke may appeal. The commission is also required to hold public hearings regarding cleanup plans at each site.

For coal ash sites deemed low-risk, the law allows “cap-in-place,” a storage method where water is drained from the coal ash pond and a cover is placed on top. Cap-in-place does not prevent groundwater contamination or the risk of dam failure.

The law also allows Duke Energy to request permission from the state to charge ratepayers for cleanup costs, though polls show that most North Carolinians think Duke’s shareholders should pay for all costs. Additionally, it weakens current laws protecting groundwater by allowing the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources to grant permits for illegal discharges of contaminated water from the coal ash ponds, rather than requiring Duke Energy to stop the source of the pollution.

Caroline Armijo helped deliver petitions opposing the bill to the governor’s office. She told reporters, “If coal ash is making us sick, then our leaders need to do something about it—now. We have a right to lead healthy lives.”