Posts Tagged ‘Coal Ash’

Gov. Cooper nominates new environmental secretary

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017 - posted by brian
Michael Regan, who was appointed this week as secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, pledged to increase transparency at the agency.

Michael Regan, who was appointed this week as secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, pledged to increase transparency at the agency.

After a month-long battle over his election and a last-minute special legislative session to curb his powers, North Carolina’s new governor is getting to work.

On Tuesday, Roy Cooper announced multiple senior staff hires and cabinet appointments, including his choice to lead the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. In a statement, Cooper said his pick for the agency, Michael Regan, understands that “protecting state resources is vital to our state’s health and economic climate.”

Regan, an air quality expert and North Carolina native, brings decades of experience to the position, serving at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clinton and Bush administrations. From 2008 to 2016, he was the senior southeastern director for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

During a press conference, Regan identified the need to develop greater transparency at DEQ and work with all stakeholders so they are “operating with pretty much similar information,” and said his first priority is meeting with veteran agency staff to gather feedback.

That alone could signal a shift from the prior DEQ leadership’s approach to public engagement on environmental issues, especially as it relates to coal ash management and drinking water quality. Environmental advocacy groups welcomed Regan’s appointment after years of calling for a return to science-based decision-making at the department.

Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams, a former DEQ regional supervisor, penned an op-ed for the News & Observer that was published a few days after the election’s outcome was finally clear.

“Under Gov. Pat McCrory, the agency scandalously cast doubt on science and made pariahs out of scientists and career public servants,” Adams wrote. “Leadership second-guessed its own professional staff’s reports, interfered with the recommendations of experts in other departments and knowingly spoke half-truths to the public about the safety of their well water results.

“We need men and women of science at the DEQ who are fact-minded, heart-guided and human-centered. We need people who are up to the task of rebuilding the department and regaining the public’s trust.”

A few days after her’s op-ed was published, Cooper spokesperson Ken Eudy said that restoring the credibility of DEQ was a top priority for the incoming administration. According to Brian Buzby, the executive director of the N.C. Conservation Network, Regan fits the bill.

“This choice is a clear signal from Gov. Cooper that his administration intends to restore a philosophy of transparency, integrity and sound science,” Buzby said in a statement.

Because of a new state law hastily passed by the legislature and signed by former Gov. Pat McCrory in the final days of his administration, Regan and other cabinet-level appointees are now subject to confirmation by the state Senate. A judge recently blocked a law passed during the special session that restructures county and state boards of elections, and Cooper has indicated more legal challenges to new laws could be coming.

The new governor brushed off questions about whether Regan’s background would be an obstacle to his confirmation by an oppositional and often anti-environmental legislature, saying it was important “to appoint the very best people to serve in each of these positions.”

Trouble is afoot in NC special session

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by brian

At the 11th hour, a vengeful display of power in Raleigh

North Carolina lawmakers have set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.

North Carolina lawmakers have set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.

You probably heard that last week North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, conceded to his Democratic challenger, Roy Cooper. It was a close race that dragged on for nearly a month after election day.

Upon conceding, Gov. McCrory told North Carolinians with a grin that “we now should do everything we can to support the 75th governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper.”

But it was widely rumored and is now abundantly clear that members of McCrory’s party in the state legislature had something else in mind. Last night, lawmakers set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.

As has become traditional in North Carolina politics, lawmakers wove a deliberately tangled web. Over the weekend, Gov. McCrory called a special session ostensibly for the purpose of passing a recovery bill for communities impacted by Hurricane Matthew. But the agenda wasn’t restricted only to funding recovery efforts and it left room for “any other matters” legislators wanted to consider.

After days of deflecting questions and refusing to explain their priorities for the “emergency session,” Republicans introduced a slew of bills that would make sweeping changes and dramatically shift the balance of power away from the governor.

For instance, a House bill would alter Governor-elect Cooper’s ability to appoint the heads of departments such as the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality by requiring the state Senate to confirm cabinet members. A bill in the Senate would give more power to the Republican-majority state Court of Appeals and make it less likely for legal challenges on environmental and any number of other issues to reach the more Democratic-friendly state Supreme Court.

Other legislation relates more directly to environmental protections. A 43-page regulatory reform bill would change rules governing riparian buffers, vehicle emissions inspections and stormwater control measures.

Reminiscent of the legislature’s fast-tracked passage of House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom bill,” the power grab is receiving national attention (see here and here). It’s also causing backlash from North Carolinians and hundreds have crowded the state capitol in Raleigh to protest, among them residents that suffered the impacts of Hurricane Matthew.

“The politicians in Raleigh are treating flood victims like political pawns,” Michelle Herring of Kinston told Progress NC Action. “If this special session was supposed to be about disaster relief, and relief funding has already been agreed to, then why are we still here?”

In an editorial this morning, the Charlotte Observer editorial board described the state leaders’ actions as both “breathtaking and hardly surprising” and defined by an “all-too-familiar disrespect for democracy.”

Legislators plan to start voting on bills at 2:30 p.m. today. There’s still time to call your representatives. Let them know you’re watching and that North Carolinians are tired of their shady, undemocratic dealmaking.

Find the contact information for your House Representative and your state Senator.

Coal Ash Cleanup News in North Carolina and Georgia

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

By Elizabeth E. Payne

A report issued by the federal Commission on Civil Rights in September examines whether the Environmental Protection Agency is complying with its environmental justice obligations. Environmental justice refers to the enforcement of environmental laws and policies fairly, regardless of an individual’s race, color or income.

The report focused largely on the agency’s regulation of coal ash disposal. The commission, members of which spoke with North Carolinians living near coal ash ponds in March 2016, found that “Racial minorities and low income communities are disproportionately affected by the siting of waste disposal facilities and often lack political and financial clout to properly bargain with polluters when fighting a decision or seeking redress.”

The commission made several recommendations, including listing coal ash as a “special hazard” and funding more research on the health impacts of exposure to coal ash.

In Georgia, the board members with the state’s Department of Natural Resources approved the Environmental Protection Division’s final coal ash disposal and storage rules on Oct. 26. “These rules are an important step forward, but they do not go far enough,” said a statement from the Southern Environmental Law Center, a nonprofit legal organization.

The new rules were adopted two days after heavy metals contamination was found in the groundwater near several Georgia Power plants, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In October 2016, Virginia Dominion Power withdrew an application to discharge wastewater from coal ash ponds at its Chesapeake power plant into surrounding waterways. Last year, the Sierra Club — represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center — sued Dominion for alleged groundwater contamination at the Chesapeake plant.

In North Carolina, conservation groups Yadkin Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance reached a settlement with Duke Energy on Oct. 5 after two years of litigation. The settlement requires that that the coal ash from the impoundments at its Buck Steam Station in Salisbury, N.C., be excavated and removed. Much of the ash will be recycled into concrete.

Lawsuits are still underway concerning the cleanup of other Duke Energy plants in the state, including Belews Creek, whose coal ash ponds Duke intends to cap in place (see page 27)

In early October, heavy rains accompanying Hurricane Matthew led to severe flooding across the eastern part of the state. According to United Press International, the storm caused $1.5 billion in property damage in the state and killed at least 26 people.

Among the structures damaged in the flooding following the storm was an inactive coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee facility, a retired coal-fired power plant near Goldsboro, N.C. The inactive ponds at this facility contain more than one million tons of coal ash.

According to Waterkeeper Alliance, the impoundment ponds were submerged under flood water for seven days. As floodwater receded, an undetermined amount of the toxic waste product spilled into the Neuse River. A white material — comprised of fly ash particles known as cenospheres, one of many waste products from burning coal — coated the trees, banks and river surfaces.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality is evaluating whether enforcement actions are needed.

Coal Ash Water Pollution Permit Disputed

Tuesday, December 13th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

On Nov. 15, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina team attended a wastewater permit hearing for the Belews Creek Steam Station to help local community members push for stricter water pollution requirements.

The permit sets pollutant limits that Duke Energy must follow when draining contaminated water from its 250-acre coal ash pond into the Dan River. Duke announced in November that it intends to cap the coal ash in these impoundments in place rather than removing it. Syphoning off the water from the pond is a part of this process.

Local residents in attendance objected because the permit would not require limits for many toxic components of coal ash such as lead, mercury or arsenic, does not use the best available technology for treating the wastewater, and would only require monthly testing when the most concentrated wastewater is released. The permit would also legalize dangerous seeps responsible for groundwater contamination and allow Duke to use Little Belews Creek, which runs underneath the coal ash pond, as an effluent channel.

The residents stated that the permit does not protect the area’s drinking water, recreation and tourism. They also raised concerns because the hearing was scheduled during another important town meeting of interest for many impacted residents. Nevertheless, there were over 100 residents from across Stokes County in attendance.

As a result of the hearing and internal decisions, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality has revised the Belews Creek wastewater permit and will hold a hearing for the revised permit in December.

Hurricane Matthew flooding elevates coal ash concerns

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016 - posted by amy

Environmental justice groups express solidarity with impacted communities

More than a million tons of coal ash at Duke Energy's H.F. Lee plant along the Neuse River were submerged by flood waters after Hurricane Matthew. Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance.

More than a million tons of coal ash at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee plant along the Neuse River were submerged by flood waters after Hurricane Matthew. Photo on Flickr by Waterkeeper Alliance.

Earlier this month, North Carolina was devastated by the impacts of Hurricane Matthew. Flooding occurred across much of the state, with the hardest impacts felt in the east.

Many of the communities hit the hardest, including lower income communities and communities of color, are those that are the least able to bounce back from such a catastrophic event. And much like they bear the brunt of industrial pollution, these communities are disproportionately suffering from the environmental impacts caused by flooding.

While the flood waters are still receding, we are learning about the impacts left in their wake. Flooding at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee Plant, near Goldsboro, caused a breach in one of the plant’s cooling ponds. In a separate incident, one of the inactive coal ash basins was overrun, releasing an unknown amount of coal waste into the Neuse River.

It is critical to point out that the ash flowed out of an inactive pond. It underscores the notion that simply capping these sites and leaving them in place is not enough to keep detrimental impacts from occurring in the future. The only way to ensure these sites cause no future harm is to remove the ash from compromised locations, including flood prone areas and place it in either appropriate landfills, or even more promising, recycled into products for the concrete industry which wants and needs Duke Energy’s ash for its production facilities.

Hurricane Matthew reminds us that we are living in a time of less predictable weather patterns and more extreme storms With an eye to the future, we must continue to insist that leaving coal ash in unlined, vulnerable pits is not a solution the problem of pollution.

The North Carolina citizen group Alliance of Carolinians (ACT) Against Coal Ash released the following statement to express solidarity with those impacted by the floods and took a hopeful and determined stance to continue to fight not only against the threat of coal ash, but for all those for whom environmental justice has not been served.

ACT Against Coal Ash Statement on Hurricane Matthew:

The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash stands together in support and solidarity with individuals, families, and communities across Eastern North Carolina devastated by the floods of Hurricane Matthew. The damage caused by this hurricane is compounded by contamination from coal ash, hog farms and other environmental hazards in their impacted communities.

Our alliance was formed and acts to protect and promote our health, the water we drink, the air that we breathe, and the land that sustains us. Hearing each other’s cries about coal ash and its threats to our communities, we’ve become a loud, unified voice for the rights of everyone to live in a healthy community. We are a family and there are times we need to lean on each other. Not all of us are impacted by this particular disaster, but, as in this case, the risk is exacerbated for us who live next to coal ash, whether now or in the future.

North Carolina’s people and elected officials cannot control a hurricane or other natural disaster, but if we heed the proactive pleas and concerns of our citizens, we can control the extent of the damage done. Much more needs to be done to secure coal ash, industrial hog waste and other threats to the health of our communities. Responsible and urgent action must be taken because natural disasters, and even more destructive ones, are happening with more frequency and intensity and will be sure to happen again. We are committed more than ever for permanent and safe solutions that protect all communities from all forms of environmental harm.

Across the Years: Updates from the Archives

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

For two decades, The Appalachian Voice has reported on environmental issues from across central and southern Appalachia. In honor of our 20th anniversary, we looked back through our archives to identify important topics that we’ve covered over the years and provide updates on where these issues stand today.

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining’s Ongoing Impact in Appalachia

Mountaintop removal coal mining continues to threaten the mountains and rivers of Central Appalachia. This image of Kayford Mountain was taken in July 2014. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of Appalachian Voices/Southwings

Mountaintop removal coal mining continues to threaten the mountains and rivers of Central Appalachia. This image of Kayford Mountain was taken in July 2014. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of Appalachian Voices/Southwings

In our inaugural issue in Winter 1996, The Appalachian Voice ran its first story about mountaintop coal removal mining. In “A View From Kayford Mountain: ‘Seng, Ramps, And The Human Casualties of Burning Coal,” Mary Hufford wrote about a particularly destructive form of surface mining that would grow in scope over the coming years.

In Winter 2003, we once again covered the issue when Tiffany Hartung discussed the damage already being caused by a recently permitted mine on Zeb Mountain in an article called “Mountaintop Removal by any Other Name… Elk Valley residents voice concern as cross ridge mining comes to Tennessee.” For 10 years, community members and advocacy groups fought to stop this destruction, and in June 2013, we reported on their victory. After repeated violations to the Clean Water Act, a legal settlement ended mining on Zeb Mountain.

Mountaintop removal coal mining has destroyed more than 500 mountains and over one million acres in Central and Southern Appalachia to date. In recent years the pace of the mining has slowed, but the health risks to nearby communities remain significant. With many regional coal companies now going through bankruptcy, citizens and advocacy organizations are increasingly focused on ensuring that these sites are properly cleaned up and reclaimed.

Read more about the continued threat of mountaintop removal coal mining here.

Hemlocks Under Threat

The aphid-like woolly adelgid is devastating hemlock populations in the southern Appalachians, leaving behind gray ghosts like these in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Photo by Steve Norman, courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

The aphid-like woolly adelgid is devastating hemlock populations in the southern Appalachians, leaving behind gray ghosts like these in the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. Photo by Steve Norman, courtesy of U.S. Forest Service


Hugh Irwin’s article, “Exotic Pest Invasion Threatens Many Tree Species,” in the Spring 1996 issue contained our first mention of the threat posed by the hemlock woolly adelgid. This non-native, aphid-like insect sucks the sap out of both the eastern and Carolina hemlocks and can damage or kill the trees within a few years.

Deborah Huso’s article, “Praying for a Good Predator: Biologists introduce beetles, try to save Eastern Hemlock,” in the Summer 2005 issue was one of several we’ve run over the years about the ongoing efforts to save the hemlock trees.

While the hemlock woolly adelgid is found across much of the eastern United States, its impact in the southern Appalachians has been profound. The U.S. Forest Service is combating this pest by introducing natural predators and insecticides that kill the woolly adelgid and looking for hybrid varieties of hemlocks that are more resistant to attack.

A recent study of hemlocks in North Carolina by U.S. Forest Service scientists found that once the trees are infested, more than 85 percent are dead within seven years.

A Haze Over the Great Smoky Mountains

Air pollution affects the visibility at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as evidenced by these images of clear versus hazy days. Photos courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service

Air pollution affects the visibility at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as evidenced by these images of clear versus hazy days. Photos courtesy of the U.S. National Park Service

The first issue of the publication in Winter 1996 was “partly devoted to the insidious, sometimes invisible problem of air pollution” — a topic that has been a regular theme since.

The Summer 2004 issue included a story by Matt Wasson and Harvard Ayers called “And the Winner Is… America’s Most Visited Park Is Also Its Most Polluted,” which covered air pollution in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At the time it was reported that, “Over the last five years, the Smokies have had more than 100 days when breathing is potentially dangerous due to excess ozone. Even healthy visitors and staff are warned to limit exertion of any kind on such days, including hiking and biking.”

While ozone levels remain elevated, according to the U.S. National Park Service no ozone health advisories were issued in 2013, the latest year for which records are available.

Still Cleaning Up Coal Ash

Our February/March 2009 issue focused on the disastrous coal ash spill that took place in Kingston, Tenn., on Dec. 22, 2008.

Our February/March 2009 issue focused on the disastrous coal ash spill that took place in Kingston, Tenn., on Dec. 22, 2008.


Following the catastrophic coal ash spill in late 2008 at Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant, the February/March 2009 issue of The Appalachian Voice was devoted to this disaster that brought the problem of coal ash to national attention. We have followed the topic closely ever since.

Nearly eight years later, toxic coal ash — waste leftover from burning coal — continues to poison the region. In Alabama, communities are struggling to deal with coal ash that was transported to the area after the 2008 Kingston spill. Subsequent disasters, such as the North Carolina’s Dan River spill in 2014, keep the issue in the spotlight.

In December 2014, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released federal rules for disposing of coal ash, which environmental groups criticized as insufficient. Earlier that year, the N.C. General Assembly passed even stricter regulations, but many of the state’s guidelines have since been overturned. And in towns like Walnut Cove, N.C., toxic compounds are still leaching from neighboring coal ash impoundments into residents’ drinking water.

Protecting Migrating Birds

bird

The cerulean warbler’s population is in steep decline. Conservationists are working to preserve its summer habitat throughout Appalachia. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Migratory birds took center stage in “Less Twittering in the Trees: Migratory Birds Show Alarming Population Declines,” an article from April/May 2009 by Kathleen McFadden that described how the loss of habitat, especially through forest fragmentation, was threatening populations of many migratory birds.

While many populations are still in decline, conservationists are hoping to reverse this trend. Appalachian Mountain Joint Ventures — a regional coalition of organizations and agencies working to conserve the habitat of migratory birds that was cited in the 2009 article — continues to partner with private landowners to protect the natural homes of at-risk birds.

In January 2015, the coalition was awarded federal funding for a five-year program to enhance the habitat of the cerulean warbler. This program includes funding to manage and improve 12,500 acres of forest land and 1,000 acres of reclaimed mine land in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Ohio and Maryland.

Battle to Save Blair Mountain

Blair protest

In June 2011, environmental activists gathered for the March on Blair Mountain in an effort to save the historic site from destruction from mountaintop removal coal mining.


The largest labor uprising in American history took place in late August and early September, 1921, on Blair Mountain in southern West Virginia. At that time, thousands of miners joined forces to fight for better treatment and the right to unionize.

In the Summer 2005 issue, Denise Giardina wrote an article called “The Battle of Blair Mountain… Revisited” about the ongoing struggle to save the archaeological remains of the battle from destruction by mountaintop removal coal mining.

After years of victories and defeats for conservationists, for now it seems the site will be preserved. On July 26, 2016, the U.S. Department of the Interior dropped its appeal of an earlier case, paving the way for the site to be returned the National Register of Historic Places, which will add some protection to the battlefield.

Passing on the Pipelines

pipeline map

The East Coast is crossed by natural gas pipelines. Blue indicates existing pipelines, other colors are proposed pipelines. Map by Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition.

The expansion of natural gas pipelines into the Appalachian region was first mentioned in the Late Summer 2003 issue. In “Passing on the Patriot Pipeline: Duke Power Criss-Crossing New River Watershed,” Lynn Caldwell and Jeffrey Scott wrote of their fight to block a pipeline already under construction.

By the next year, the Patriot Extension was fully operational. The 95-mile pipeline is now operated by Spectra Energy, a spin-off company of Duke Energy, and extends from one natural gas pipeline in Wythe County, Va., to another pipeline in Rockingham County, N.C.

On July 23, more than 600 people gathered in Richmond, Va., for the “March on the Mansion” to ask Gov. Terry McAuliffe to stand against proposed pipelines in the state.

On July 23, more than 600 people gathered in Richmond, Va., for the “March on the Mansion” to ask Gov. Terry McAuliffe to stand against proposed pipelines in the state.

Since then, natural gas infrastructure has expanded across Appalachia, and so has our coverage. Today, community members and environmental groups, including Appalachian Voices, are fighting to block the construction of two more proposed lines — the Mountain Valley and the Atlantic Coast Pipelines, in Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina. For the latest, read more here.

Cleaning Up A Mess: Coal Ash Across Appalachia

Friday, August 12th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Hannah Petersen and Elizabeth E. Payne

Little Blue Run in Pennsylvania is the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Little Blue Run in Pennsylvania is the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Shortly past midnight on the morning of Dec. 22, 2008, a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., ruptured. In the nightmare that followed, more than 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash rushed from a storage impoundment into nearby rivers, covering at least 300 acres with toxic sludge.

This was the nation’s largest coal ash spill, yet in the six years that followed no federal rule was passed to prevent such a disaster from happening again. And then it did.

On Feb. 2, 2014, a pipe running beneath a coal ash impoundment in Eden, N.C., failed. As a result 39,000 tons of coal ash, together with 27 million gallons of contaminated water, spilled into the nearby Dan River.

These two major spills brought national attention to the dangers of coal ash, as advocates and residents dealt with both the damage and lack of state and federal oversight that allowed for the disasters.

The Making of a Mess

Barbara Morales of Belmont, N.C., speaks about coal ash cleanup at a public hearing. Photo by Appalachian Voices

Barbara Morales of Belmont, N.C., speaks about coal ash cleanup at a public hearing. Photo by Appalachian Voices

Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal to create electricity. Nearly 140 million tons are produced each year in the United States. The ash contains heavy metals and contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium that can pollute water sources if not properly managed. These pollutants have been linked to negative health effects including cancer, reproductive problems and lung disease, according to Physicians For Social Responsibility.

The majority of the coal ash across the country is stored near waterways in unlined wet impoundments. Scientists at Duke University have recently proven that this form of storage threatens the quality of water and health of communities nearby, when the toxins can leak out of the pits into ground and surface water.

In 2012, Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to regulate coal ash on behalf of 11 groups including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this paper, and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. At that time, there was no federal rule surrounding coal ash storage or cleanup, and this toxic waste product was less regulated than household trash.

In December 2014, the EPA released a long-awaited federal rule for coal ash disposal. The rule lays out guidelines for greater monitoring for dust and groundwater contamination, publication of monitoring data, and regular inspections of the containment facilities. The rule also established deadlines for closing ponds, but allows for a practice called “cap-in-place.” This closure method allows the utilities to leave the ash in an unlined pond and to simply cover the impoundment with a liner, which doesn’t prevent the ash from entering the groundwater.

The 2008 Kingston spill was the worst coal ash disaster in United States history. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The 2008 Kingston spill was the worst coal ash disaster in United States history. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But the rule also classifies coal ash as a solid — not hazardous — waste, the opposite of what the advocacy groups had requested. A hazardous classification would have required all states to adopt the EPA rule as a minimum standard for coal ash disposal, and set stricter national standards.

Given the solid waste classification, it’s mandatory for utilities that produce coal ash to follow the EPA’s rule, but it’s optional for states. This means that utilities must monitor their facility’s actions in accordance with the EPA standards, but the state doesn’t have to enforce compliance. Without the state regulators ensuring that facilities are meeting federal standards, the responsibility falls on citizens. To enforce the regulations, citizens can file lawsuits against the utilities for non-compliance.

“We see in state after state, that the state bends to the will of industry,” says Rhiannon Fionn, an independent journalist and filmmaker who has covered coal ash since 2009. “That’s the biggest thing about the EPA regulation, it’s leaving so much on the shoulders of the people.”

North Carolina resident Amy Brown lives near a Duke Energy coal ash impoundment and lives with elevated levels of heavy metals in her well water. “Unless you have to fight for protection, you have no clue that you even need to fight for protection, because you assume that the government is doing their job to make sure that everything is taken care of in an appropriate way,” says Brown.

The Buck Steam Station coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. Photo © Les Stone / Greenpeace

The Buck Steam Station coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. Photo © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Responding to the Mess

Appalachian states have relied heavily on coal as a source of energy. As a result, they now have a legacy of coal ash that threatens to burst free of aging dams or to leach toxins into surrounding water sources. And in most states, the volume of coal ash continues to grow by millions of tons each year.

The regulations passed by the EPA in 2014 provided guidelines for how states could address this problem. While some states have taken actions toward cleanup, no Appalachian states have adopted the EPA regulations. Instead states have taken varied approaches toward regulating cleanup.

    North Carolina

  • Coal ash generated annually: 5.5 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: If Duke Energy provides water to residents and fixes dam problems, it can follow EPA guidelines instead of previous state requirements.
  • State fact: A new law overturns the state’s previous, stricter coal ash law.

    South Carolina

  • Coal ash generated annually: 2.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: All coal ash near waterways is being excavated and moved to lined storage.
  • State fact: First state in Southeast to commit to full excavation.

The Carolinas

Perhaps nowhere is the contrast between cleanup efforts more stark than in North and South Carolina.

Under pressure from the Southern Environmental Law Center and other advocacy groups, the three main utilities in South Carolina have committed to cleaning up their coal ash. As of 2015, the utilities have pledged to excavate approximately 20 million tons of ash, removing all impoundments located along waterways to dry, lined storage, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

South Carolina is the first state in the Southeast to commit to full excavation of its coal ash impoundments. North Carolina has taken a different path.

“What happened in North Carolina — which did not happen in South Carolina — is the state agency tried to block and obstruct the enforcement of clean water laws by us and local conservation groups,” says Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has worked on coal ash issues in both states. Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, is among the groups advocating for stronger coal ash cleanup rules in the state.

Following the Dan River spill in 2014, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act, which established guidelines for cleaning up the state’s coal ash that were more rigorous than regulations passed later that year by the EPA.

The law also created a commission to oversee the process, which was disbanded by Gov. Pat McCrory in March of this year.

In accordance with the 2014 law, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality determined timelines and levels of cleanup for each impoundment across the state by classifying each as either low, intermediate or high priority. But in July of this year, the governor passed legislation that overturned these rankings and reduced Duke’s cleanup responsibility.

While the new law requires provision of water to residents near impoundments who have not been drinking their water for over a year because of elevated levels of heavy metals, it also delays the deadlines for cleanup and requires the DEQ to classify intermediate-risk ponds as low risk if Duke Energy takes measures to fix leaking dams and provides water.

The bill also allows low-risk sites to be closed according to the EPA’s federal coal ash rule, which is less stringent than North Carolina’s original requirements.

    Tennessee

  • Coal ash generated annually: 3.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State fact: The 2008 Kingston spill is the largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history.

    Alabama

  • Coal ash generated annually: 3.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State Fact: Residents are being sued for libel for speaking out against nearby coal ash.

    Georgia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 6.1 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State Fact: Only 7 percent of Georgia’s coal ash dams have been inspected by the state in the past five years.

Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia

In Tennessee, cleanup of the 2008 Kingston spill has progressed, but the Tennessee Valley Authority has made no plan to remove impoundments statewide.

Instead, TVA released a report in December 2015 outlining its intention to cap-in-place. Citizen and environmental groups have challenged this decision. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the drinking water of three million people is downstream of TVA’s unlined, leaking coal ash impoundments in both Tennessee and Alabama.

“TVA should do the right thing, as other utilities are doing, clean up these polluting ash ponds and remove the toxic contents to secure, lined, dry storage facilities away from our waterways,” Charles Rose, president of the Alabama-based Shoal Environmental Alliance, told the TimesDaily in June.

Alabama Power and Georgia Power, subsidiaries of Southern Company serving their respective states, have both announced that they will close their coal ash ponds. Alabama Power hasn’t released a timetable for closure or details on how the ash will be handled, but Georgia Power has released a plan to excavate 19 sites and cap 13 in place over the next 14 years, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

As part of the cleanup of the 2008 disaster in Kingston, Tenn., four million tons of coal ash were shipped to the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, Ala.

Dozens of workers who cleaned up the spill have filed lawsuits against the contractor claiming that they were told the ash was safe, were not given proper protection and are now suffering health consequences, according to the Center For Public Integrity.

In April of this year, owners of the Uniontown landfill brought a $30 million suit for libel against four local residents, and also sued two of the four for defamation. The residents, members of grassroots group Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, had spoken out about environmental and health risks associated with the landfill’s coal ash.

    Virginia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 2.4 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State fact: Home to the only unlined impoundment along the southeastern coast without a plan for excavation.

    West Virginia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 7.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: The state’s solid waste rule applies only to coal ash impoundments built after May 1, 1990.
  • State fact: Many of the state’s coal ash ponds were built before May 1, 1990.

    Kentucky

  • Coal ash generated annually: 9 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place, and legislation mirroring the EPA’s is being drafted.
  • State Fact: Doesn’t require groundwater monitoring or emergency action planning at all sites.

Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky

Coal ash disposal in Virginia is making national news this summer, as the commonwealth hosts the first federal-level court case to address one utility’s violation of the Clean Water Act. Testimony ended in June in the Sierra Club and Southern Environmental Law Center’s suit alleging that arsenic leaching from impoundments at Dominion Virginia Power’s retired Chesapeake Energy Center had contaminated surrounding water.

ABC News reports that the ruling “could have far-reaching effects on how energy companies dispose of coal ash waste left over from decades of burning coal.”

Dominion’s plan for cleaning up the coal ash in Virginia relies heavily on discharging the water into surrounding waterways and then capping the impoundments in place.

West Virginia has not adopted the EPA standards and regulates coal ash disposal based on the state’s Solid Waste Management Rule. This rule exempts coal ash impoundments built before May 1, 1990, from following all requirements except for groundwater monitoring. According to Earthjustice, at least 12 of the impoundments in the were built before 1990.

In Kentucky, utilities are increasingly using dry storage for newly produced coal ash, but opting to cap-in-place many existing impoundments. Seven dams across the state are rated high hazard according to Earthjustice, meaning failure could result in the loss of human life. The state is drafting legislation that enforces the EPA rule, but doesn’t require emergency response plans.


Pennsylvania and Ohio

    Pennsylvania

  • Coal ash generated annually: 15.4 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Unknown.
  • State fact: Home to the largest coal ash impoundment in the U.S

    Ohio

  • Coal ash generated annually: 10 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities haven’t announced plans.
  • State fact: In 2002, a utility bought a town near their coal plant for $20 million to gain future amnesty.

The nation’s largest coal ash containment pond is primarily in Pennsylvania and also encroaches into Ohio and West Virginia. The forty-year-old impoundment at Little Blue Run stores ash produced by FirstEnergy Corp.’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant. The 1,700-acre site has been used to dispose of more than 20 billion gallons of coal ash waste.

Three years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered the site to be closed and stop receiving new coal ash by the end of 2016.

The closure of Little Blue Run will require cleanup of that site and a new plan for disposal of coal ash produced in the future. One plan being considered is to ship the coal ash to LaBelle, Penn., and use it to fill an abandoned coal mine.

The EPA considers this form of disposal a “beneficial use” and does not regulate it. The U.S. Department of the Interior has the authority to set standards but has yet to compile regulations.

Residents of LaBelle are fighting to prevent the coal ash from coming to their community.

In July, FirstEnergy announced plans to close five of its Ohio coal-fired plants by 2020. The state has retired more coal-fired capacity since 2010 than any other state, according to Earthjustice.

But the pace of coal ash cleanup is lagging behind. “Ohio is one of the largest coal ash producers in the country, and they have some of the worst state regulations,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at EarthJustice, told WCPO News in June.

People Impacted by the Mess

Annette and William Gibbs

Annette and William Gibbs live in Perry County, Ala., near a landfill that now contains four million tons of coal ash from the 2008 Kingston spill. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

As states delay cleanup efforts and lawsuits are challenged in court, coal ash continues to disproportionately affect low income and minority communities. Almost 70 percent of coal ash ponds are in areas with household incomes below the national median, Evans testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment in 2013.

“Self-implementing rules rely on citizen enforcement,” Evans says. “Citizen enforcement relies on resources. So the communities that are worst off when there’s a self-implementing rule are those communities that cannot afford to monitor compliance and cannot afford legal representation when non-compliance is discovered.”

“These citizens who already feel so isolated because they are poor, feel even more isolated when they are following the protocol, making the complaints and not seeing any relief,” says filmmaker Rhiannon Fionn.

Communities throughout Appalachia experience coal ash and its toxic effects in different ways. For some, like the citizens in Uniontown, Ala., their problems began when ash and its putrid smell was relocated to their area, despite residents’ objections.

For others, like Kentucky residents whose drinking water comes from the Ohio River, contaminants have been seeping into their communities’ water supplies for decades through Louisville Gas and Electric’s permitted but unmonitored discharge pipe. Still others, like prisoners at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute, saw elevated numbers of cancer cases and deaths linked to coal ash blowing onto prison grounds from a nearby impoundment, according to Scientific American.

Coal ash is impacting communities across the southeast in different ways. But from state to state, residents bear the responsibility of leading the fight for cleanup.

“I’m just like any other mother, I drive my kids to practice and have sports equipment in my minivan. The only difference is that I have to fight to protect my children from our water,” says Amy Brown. “Sitting down on the couch and relying on the state, expecting they will do the right thing, isn’t an option anymore. No one will fight for my children the way I will.”

Rebukes, a resignation and more reasons to worry about coal ash in NC

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 - posted by brian

In the war of words over drinking water health advisories between state employees and the McCrory administration, residents are clear on who they trust

North Carolina state epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from ncdhhs.gov

North Carolina state epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from ncdhhs.gov

North Carolina’s state epidemiologist, Megan Davies, abruptly resigned from her position last night, writing in a letter that “I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

The department she is referring to is the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where she worked for eight years. The administration is that of Gov. Pat McCrory, whose time in office has been tainted by his mishandling of the statewide problem of coal ash pollution.

Davies’ resignation is just the latest development in a public tussle between state employees and the McCrory administration that escalated last week when the transcript of sworn testimony by Dr. Ken Rudo, a toxicologist at DHHS, became public.

Rudo’s testimony raises troubling questions about the role leaders at DHHS and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had in downplaying the “Do Not Drink” warnings issued last year to hundreds of families on well water that live near Duke Energy coal ash sites. It also implicates McCrory’s office directly, with Rudo stating that he was called to the governor’s mansion to discuss the warnings and how to ease residents’ concerns about water contamination potentially caused by coal ash.

During his deposition, Rudo told lawyers that members of the McCrory administration wanted to tone down the warnings with language that “would not have been acceptable to me.”

News has happened fast since Rudo’s remarks became public and, when they probably should have played defense, high-ranking officials in the McCrory administration went on the attack.

On Tuesday, McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, repeatedly accused Rudo of lying. The next day, the administration released an editorial signed by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and Deputy Secretary for Health Services at DHHS, Dr. Randall Williams, that attacked Rudo for reaching “questionable and inconsistent” scientific conclusions and creating “unnecessary fear and confusion among North Carolinians who are concerned about the safety of their drinking water.”

Rudo stood by his deposition following the accusations by McCrory’s office. And, after the editorial, he released through his lawyers a point-by-point rebuttal of Reeder and Williams.

He’s not alone. Davies — who was Rudo’s superior at DHHS — also told lawyers under oath that she did not agree with the decision to lift the “Do Not Drink” warnings. She also stated that representatives of Duke Energy met with DHHS about the health screening levels set for well water and that she believes the department deliberately misled the public.

Based on Davies’ letter of resignation, it is that belief and the deliberately misleading editorial that led her to resign:

“Upon reading the open editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public. I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

So where does all this leave North Carolinians with contaminated drinking water? Exactly where they were before, as distrustful of DEQ and DHHS as they are of their water’s safety.

On Thursday morning, members of the Alliance for Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash held a press conference outside of the governor’s mansion where they defended Rudo and Davies for putting public health first and made it clear who they trust.

New law puts coal ash progress in NC at risk

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016 - posted by interns
Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.

Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.

By Hannah Petersen

In May, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the final rankings for Duke’s coal ash impoundments in accordance with deadlines set by the Coal Ash Management Act.

Every impoundment in the state was classified as either “high” or “intermediate” risk, meaning the ash would have to be excavated and stored in a lined landfill. After years of attending public hearings and submitting comments to advocate for access to clean water for all North Carolinians, residents finally witnessed DEQ order Duke Energy to clean up all of the coal ash across the state.

For a moment, it appeared that the state had made progress with its coal ash policies. But in the same press release that announced the final rankings, DEQ asked to revisit them in 18 months. This would effectively give Duke time to remediate dam deficiencies and ultimately lead to a lower classification.

Six days after the department announced the rankings, the N.C. General Assembly announced the revision of Senate Bill 71, which would reinstate the Coal Ash Commission that Gov. Pat McCrory shut down in early March and extend deadlines for cleanup. McCrory vetoed the bill and, despite having enough votes to override, both the state House and Senate instead decided to drop the bill and create a new compromise bill at the end of the legislature’s 2016 short session.

A New Coal Ash Law

The rushed introduction, concurrence and signing of House Bill 630 puts at risk many aspects of the progress that residents and environmental groups have made since the introduction of the Coal Ash Management Act in 2014. The new law requires Duke to provide clean water to residents living within half a mile of coal ash impoundments, while leaving the door open for the company to cap coal ash ponds in place.

“If they go through with putting in water lines to our community, that’s a great step in the right direction, but it’s a half a step, it’s not getting all the way there by cleaning up the ash,” said Roger Hollis, a neighbor of Duke Energy’s Cliffside plant in Cleveland County, N.C., in an ACT Against Coal Ash press release.

In exchange for providing clean water, DEQ is required to classify impoundments as “low risk” so long as dam deficiencies are addressed. This classification largely ignores the environmental risks associated with the ash’s presence and simply buries the problem instead of remediating it. As a low-risk impoundment, the law permits capping in place as a closure option, despite the proximity of the impoundment to groundwater.

The new law also pushes back the deadline for when an alternative water source is to be provided to residents near coal ash sites and for when the rankings are considered final to October and November of 2018, respectively. Alongside the deadlines, HB 630 expands DEQ’s authority to grant extensions and variances for Duke Energy’s cleanup timeline.

“It satisfies everyone, because we weren’t a factor anyway,” said Amy Brown, who lives near Duke’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C. “The lawmakers didn’t include who is going to pay for the water bill, who is going to pay for plumbing, who is going to pay a regulator, and who is going to pay for new piping because we have old homes. No one included all that.”

“They presented it in a pretty package. And the outside is, ‘you’re going to get water,’” Brown said. “They didn’t show the inside, which is dirty toxic contaminants that are going to be left in place. They passed this problem onto my children now.”

“The legislature has done what Duke Energy’s lobbyists told it to do, threw thousands of public comments in the trash can, and protected Duke Energy while sacrificing the well-being of North Carolina’s clean water and communities,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a written statement.

Duke’s request to block release of deposition

The Southern Environmental Law Center is involved with a variety of lawsuits regarding coal ash across the state. Around the time that the risk rankings were finalized and new bills were being debated, SELC lawyers released transcripts of the depositions of state employees and scientists that they conducted.

In May, SELC released the deposition of Megan Davies, state epidemiologist for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which highlighted the lack of consensus surrounding the “Do Not Drink” letters that had been sent out across the state and later rescinded. In the deposition, Davies admits that she thought the letters should not have been rescinded and that no on-the-ground testing had been done to determine that residents’ well water was safe to drink.

State toxicologist Ken Rudo was deposed in July, but Duke has asked a federal judge to block the release of the deposition. Rudo had expressed skepticism about the rescinding of the “Do Not Drink” letters earlier in July, but Duke claims releasing the deposition publicly infringes upon its right to a free trial.

“How dare you try to stop the public from hearing from a state employee,” said Brown. “This is a man we trust. He gained our trust when he treated us like human beings and called every person to make sure we understood what the ‘Do Not Drink’ letters meant.”

“I want to be able to say that I trust my state,” Brown said. “I want to say that the system didn’t fail us, but at this point I can’t, because they haven’t proven it.”

If I had a hammer…

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 - posted by Lara Mack

Finding collective power at the “March on the Mansion”

Appalachian Voices' Virginia Field Organizer Lara Mack (l) and friend Amy Cantrell from Harrisonburg.

Appalachian Voices’ Virginia Field Organizer Lara Mack (l) and friend Amy Cantrell from Harrisonburg.

Last Saturday, more than 600 Virginians gathered at the footsteps of Governor McAuliffe’s mansion in Richmond to demand energy justice for all citizens of the Commonwealth. Chartered buses arrived from major cities including Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, and Roanoke, as well as rural areas like Nelson County and Montgomery County.

I helped organize the bus from Harrisonburg, where I live, and we started our drive to Richmond with the song If I had a Hammer:

“If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land

And I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land…”

This well-known song was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 in support of social justice efforts of the time. For us, starting with the historical tune was a clear reminder that this march was not just about fracked-gas pipelines, climate change, coal ash, and renewable energy, but also about the stories and struggles of people impacted by corporate power and monied special interests.

Our voices were represented in an open letter, signed by more than 60 organizations, sent to Governor McAuliffe last month. Saturday’s march was the next step; We walked as a part of a legacy for democracy, environmental justice, and the power of community.

The bus arrived and the doors opened to a hazy and hot day on the banks of the James River. The temperature was expected to reach 99 degrees, which meant the day felt more like 104 degrees. We took a group photo before the march (why not get a photo of us before we all wilt?) with our signs and grins and enthusiasm easily seen in the snapshot.

by laraAs other marchers slowly arrived from all corners of the Commonwealth, I saw the crowd of dedicated and concerned citizens grow. Many carried creative signs about the local issue their community was struggling with (my favorite was “NO PIPELINES. Especially [from schools] to prisons”). Though the messages were diverse, the overarching statement was very clear. We know what is best for our communities. We know that we can create a system that can be safe and healthy for all, that doesn’t create sacrifice zones or climate change to meet monolithic electricity production expectations, that doesn’t deny a person’s rights and humanity no matter their race, age, income or sexual orientation, or whether they live in the country or in the city. And the current system is not meeting our needs.

The “March on the Mansion” was a message directed at Governor Terry McAuliffe and our voices rang loud and clear. But as we gathered back on our buses to head home, I realized this gathering was also a reminder to all those in the crowd that we each carry a hammer, a bell, and a song and when we stand as a community together, we can get work done.