Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

Mountaintop removal is the 800-pound gorilla at the SOAR Health Impact Series

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Erin

If the SOAR initiative is to go beyond political rhetoric, Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear must take public concerns about mountaintop removal’s health impacts seriously.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

I attended the first Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit held in Pikeville, Ky., last December. Following Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s Appalachia’s Bright Future economic development meeting, I was excited at the prospects such a large summit might generate.

As a joint effort between U.S. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, it was clear that SOAR had the power to make real change in eastern Kentucky, but only if those involved had the will.

The results of SOAR following the summit have been mixed so far. Several people have pointed out issues with the process — specifically, the stakeholders most involved in SOAR may not accurately represent the needs and concerns of eastern Kentuckians. Since the summit, my hope for the outcomes of SOAR have waned. But when I learned that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, would be visiting eastern Kentucky as part of the SOAR Health Impact Series, I saw an opportunity for the voices of residents from coal-impacted communities in eastern Kentucky counties to be heard.

Making a Clear Case on Mountaintop Removal and Health

Over the past several years, more than 20 peer-reviewed studies have been published linking a range of health problems including above-average cancer and birth defect rates to the presence of mountaintop removal coal mining. Yet just last month, the Obama administration pulled funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for research underway on air pollution from mountaintop removal and its link to respiratory issues. The need for a serious effort to identify and address health issues related to mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia has never been more clear. Despite this, I was not optimistic that Dr. Frieden and Rep. Rogers would address this need during their visit.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Prior to the CDC visit, the SOAR health committee held 11 listening sessions across eastern Kentucky from April through July. Each of the sessions drew an average of more than 20 participants. Although SOAR has thus far limited the role of key community members in leadership positions, the health committee has provided a forum for some community involvement.

The CDC meetings consisted of four sessions — two shorter evening sessions in Somerset and Paintsville, and two longer daytime sessions in Hazard and Morehead. I attended the daytime session in Hazard last Tuesday, where there was standing room only. Several individuals spoke, including Rep. Rogers and several doctors from eastern Kentucky.

As the morning went on, I began to lose hope that environmental concerns would be brought up. Then, Dr. Nikki Stone, the health committee chair and event moderator, spoke about the issues that came up during the listening sessions. She began listing the top 10 concerns that had come up throughout the listening sessions, and much to my surprise, environmental impacts, including air and water pollution from mountaintop removal mines, was the top concern resulting from the listening sessions, tied with a desire for coordinate health programs in public schools.

To be honest, I was stunned. I was so sure that the topic would be avoided at a meeting that attracted so much attention. Suddenly, I was hopeful that the health impacts of mountaintop removal would receive some real attention from those that have the power to address the issue.

Unfortunately, the rest of the meeting quickly turned back to lengthy speeches about taking personal responsibility for one’s own health and an announcement of federal funding for the Appalachian Cancer Patient Navigation Project. The talks left me with the distinct impression that those speaking would rather focus on dealing with the prevalence of disease, rather than preventing it.

The Health Impact Series did not improve later that evening in Paintsville. The closest mention of environmental impacts on health came from Rep. Rogers, who referred to dirty streams but then went on to blame water quality degradation on people dumping and straight piping waste into streams. It seemed once again that it was easier to blame eastern Kentuckians, rather than the industry they have been beholden to for generations.

The Opportunity Ahead

There was a strong press presence at both meetings, which may have salvaged some chance of addressing the impacts of mountaintop removal. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, when “asked whether he would support having the CDC study the public health effects of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, Frieden said the agency ‘only goes where it’s invited.’” Following the disappointing Paintsville meeting, I felt like I had one last opportunity to make the most of the meetings and approached Dr. Frieden fully expecting to be turned away. Instead, he listened carefully for a moment and then directed me to his assistant. I spoke with several CDC employees and was disappointed to find that they were unaware of the multitude of health studies linking health problems to mountaintop removal. They did, however, encourage me to contact them directly for follow up on the issue.

Moving forward, Appalachian Voices and our allies intend to follow up with the CDC, to be sure that they are fully aware of the current research that indicates quite clearly that one of the major health issues we should be concerned about in Central Appalachia is mountaintop removal coal mining. We will be sure that the CDC knows that, at least when it comes to the citizens of eastern Kentucky, the CDC is invited to investigate this pressing issue. We will also be sure that the SOAR Health Committee acts upon its finding that citizens are most concerned about environmental impacts on health, because, as the Herald-Leader stated, “when a congressman and governor invite people to ‘listening sessions,’ there’s an obligation to take what they say seriously.”

An activist is born

Monday, August 4th, 2014 - posted by Marissa Wheeler
Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Fend, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Voices interns Marissa Wheeler and Jeff Feng, and Virginia Campaign Coordinator Hannah Weigard outside EPA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Last Tuesday, on the first day of the carbon rule hearings at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., I stepped off the Metro full of anticipation for my first-ever public rally for any cause, let alone an environmental one.

I arrived at the Federal Triangle station slightly overwhelmed by the unfamiliar surroundings but, following the sounds of live music to the front of the building, I knew upon first glance that I had found my destination.

On the wide semi-circular lawn, children ran with toy replicas of wind turbines. People of many ethnicities and a range of ages stood chatting and putting the finishing touches on colorful posters. A woman and a young musician led a call-and-response demanding “Clean Energy Now.” And on the street, volunteers handed out Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

I accepted a Moms Clean Air Force sticker from a helpful volunteer and hunted for more free items to show my support. Meanwhile, inside EPA headquarters, Hannah Wiegard and Jeff Feng from Appalachian Voices presented their testimony on the dangers of mountaintop removal coal mining and the need to take swift action to combat climate change.

Proudly sporting my “I Love Mountains” button, I was ready to hobnob with other Americans advocating for clean energy and climate action including lawyers, career environmental advocates, interns like me, and citizens who traveled great distances to appear before the EPA and raise their voices in support of cutting carbon pollution.

These are the people I surround myself with at home and at school, but I’ve often felt like somewhat of an imposter in their presence. I can’t talk knowledgeably about “carbon capture and sequestration” like they can. I waste far too much water, paper, gas, food and electricity. And this was my first-ever environmental rally. In these kinds of situations, my insecurities tend to build inside me like guilt and create a sense of otherness in my mind between myself and the people I admire and want to emulate.

But that morning, I felt immediately welcomed into the fold because just being there meant that I was contributing to the cause. Building grassroots support and demonstrating the power of people mark the beginnings of social and legislative change, as rally speakers such as Green Latino President Mark Magaña and the Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus impressed upon the crowd.

For me, catching the spirit and optimism of the rally has given greater clarity to both a collective vision of a clean energy future and what I can do as an individual to help us get there. It’s one thing to wear the pins and stickers; it’s another thing to feel empowered by your peers to take action and work toward a common goal. This sense of belonging is the most valuable thing I’ll take with me from the rally. The free sunglasses are pretty cool, too.

North Carolina “off the sidelines” to fast-track fracking

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 - posted by brian

Four months after a massive coal ash spill devastated the Dan River, and before the state has remedied its coal ash problem, North Carolina is poised to open a new can of worms.

Fracking operations like this on in Texas could soon spring up in North Carolina after Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill lifting the state's moratorium on natural gas drilling. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

Fracking operations like this one in Texas could soon spring up in North Carolina after Gov. Pat McCrory signed a bill lifting the state’s moratorium on natural gas drilling. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

On Wednesday, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory signed the Energy Modernization Act, lifting a moratorium on natural gas drilling in the state.

With few obstacles left in the way, test drilling to assess the amount of gas in the state’s Piedmont could occur this fall and fracking could officially begin in North Carolina by spring 2015.

Before reaching the governor’s desk, the legislation was rushed through the state House and Senate and ratified in the course of about 48 hours. The 26-page bill covers everything from exploration and permitting to reclamation and severance taxes.

Now that the bill is law, state-issued drilling permits could come sooner than the legislature previously promised. Oil and gas companies can now receive permits 60 days after the state Mining and Energy Commission’s proposed regulatory program is finalized, even though lawmakers originally said the rules would be reviewed before any subsequent legislation or vote to lift the moratorium took place.

Until recently, North Carolina had no reason to regulate oil and gas drilling, and the rules announced so far align closely with industry interests such as Halliburton and the American Legislative Exchange Council that have put external pressure on the commission.

Gov. McCrory likes to say that North Carolina has been on the sidelines of the U.S. gas boom, spectating while other states reap the economic benefits that can result from rampant natural gas development. But fracking has also burdened communities with the risk of water contamination, air pollution and other environmental and health hazards.

Apparently taking those well-established consequences into account, Gov. McCrory claims North Carolina has learned from other states’ experiences. “The expansion of our energy sector will not come at a cost to our precious environment,” the governor said in a statement. “This legislation has the safeguards to protect the high quality of life we cherish.”

As reassuring as that may sound, the push over the past few years to begin fracking has been mired in the types of missteps, broken promises and conflicts of interest considered characteristic of the state’s leadership of late.

Potential natural gas drilling sites and drinking water supplies. Graphic by Southern Environmental Law Center. Click to enlarge.

Potential natural gas drilling sites and drinking water supplies. Graphic by Southern Environmental Law Center.

The passage of the Energy Modernization Act, viewed as the beginning of the end to the General Assembly’s quest to see drilling begin in North Carolina, is both evidence and a direct result of that process. And a host of provisions that did make it into the final bill seem built to incent natural gas companies to operate in North Carolina.

One provision in the original Senate version would have made it a felony to disclose potentially harmful chemicals used in the drilling process. The penalty was reduced to a misdemeanor in the final bill, but it could still come with jail time, and even in cases of emergency, first responders would have to enter a strict confidentially agreement with permit holders before sharing information about chemicals or health concerns.

The novel approach to protect a company’s frack fluid recipe isn’t all that novel. It’s similar to a section of Pennsylvania’s Act 13, a law passed in 2012. Dr. Alfonso Rodriguez, a Pennsylvania physician specializing in renal diseases, sued the state over its “medical gag order,” which he says abridges his freedom to communicate with his patients and colleagues about fracking chemicals and the health hazards they present to the public. That case went to the state Supreme Court last year.

Like Pennsylvania and other states, North Carolina’s new fracking law prohibits local ordinances that would restrict drilling because it is “the intent of the General Assembly to maintain a uniform system” for fracking statewide. But similar language was struck from Pennsylvania’s laws, and is being challenged in New York.

Less publicized sections of the bill are no less dubious. Our friends at the N.C. Conservation Network who’ve been tracking the issue closely have a helpful breakdown of the bill, which they say does not address the most significant risks fracking poses to our health, communities and the environment.

While most of the attention on fracking in North Carolina is currently on a handful of counties in the Piedmont, the mountains of western North Carolina are not off-limits to gas exploration and drilling in the future. The state plans to analyze rock samples from seven western counties to determine whether there is retrievable gas under North Carolina’s mountains.

The challenges associated with regulating fracking can be as prevalent as the threats that come with it. Across the country, state agencies that regulate oil and gas drilling are spread thin. With recent cuts to the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, it’s hard to believe North Carolina would be any different.

The proposed 2014 N.C. Senate budget includes $1.7 million to support oil and gas activities. Nearly a million dollars would be used for additional geological and geophysical analysis of the shale basins in the state and $100,000 of what’s left would be spent to market the state’s untapped shale gas resources. At least this time around, funding for additional agency staff is mostly directed to meet another desperate need: monitoring and better regulating coal ash ponds. But those funds are contingent on Gov. McCrory’s coal ash bill passing.

Poorly regulated, fracking poses intractable risks to water, air and human health – all of which have been demonstrated without a shadow of a doubt. It’s happening in Appalachian states including Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, with operations concentrated in rural, agricultural and coal-mining communities, where residents rely on private well water for drinking and irrigation. And it is creating strife in communities just as other destructive methods of resource extraction such as mountaintop removal coal mining have for decades.

Now, when they should be more concerned with improving rules to protect clean water and remedying coal ash pollution, state policymakers are luring gas companies to North Carolina and welcoming fracking with open arms.

Read more of our coverage of fracking in Appalachia from the Front Porch Blog and The Appalachian Voice.

Acting on Climate: EPA unveils carbon rule for existing power plants

Monday, June 2nd, 2014 - posted by brian
The EPA's plan to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants sends a strong signal that America is ready to act on climate. Photo licensed under Creative Commons.

The EPA’s plan to regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants sends a strong signal that America is ready to act on climate. Photo licensed under Creative Commons

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy announced a plan today to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 30 percent by 2030 compared with 2005 levels.

The highly anticipated plan is “part of the ongoing story of energy progress in America,” McCarthy said in a rousing speech that covered the host of risks, and opportunities, that come with a changing climate. Not neglecting the significant role coal and natural gas will continue to play in America’s power sector, McCarthy said the plan “paves a more certain path forward for conventional fuels in a carbon constrained world.”

The rule provides states flexibility to meet required reductions — a framework the McCarthy says makes the plan “ambitious but also achievable.” It will likely lead to an increased reliance on less carbon-intensive fuels than coal, including natural gas and nuclear energy, which McCarthy mentioned several times during the announcement. But it should also be a precursor to unprecedented investments in clean energy, deployment of renewable energy sources and the adoption of programs to significantly improve energy efficiency nationwide.

Every American city, town and community stands to benefit from cutting carbon pollution, and Appalachia and the Southeast have abundant opportunities to move beyond both a historical over-reliance on coal, and the destructive methods used to extract it.

Act now to support a strong carbon rule that incentivizes renewable energy development and clean energy jobs for Appalachia.

“Appalachia has traditionally borne the brunt of the damage from the nation’s coal-dependent economy and is suffering the health impacts and environmental and economic devastation of mountaintop removal coal mining and related industrial practices,” said Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons.

“Energy efficiency is the quickest, cheapest and most equitable way to meet our energy needs while reducing carbon, and it’s a tremendous unexploited opportunity in the Southeast,” Cormons said. “Strong efficiency programs will also boost economic prosperity, creating thousands of jobs. This is especially important in many parts of Appalachia where good jobs are scarce, and lower household incomes preclude too many from the benefits an energy-efficient home.”

Charting the decline in carbon emissions from energy consumption. Graphic by  New York Times using Energy Information Administration data.

Charting the decline in carbon emissions from energy consumption. Graphic by New York Times using Energy Information Administration data

Opposition to the plan will be fierce. You’ve probably noticed that some of coal’s staunchest supporters, the National Mining Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, for example, are already attempting to take the EPA to task for what they say will harm the economy and make little more than a dent in carbon emissions on a global scale.

The EPA is sure to be challenged in court. Luckily, the rule’s legality, in a broad sense, is almost as unambiguous as the science that compelled the Obama administration to take action in the first place.

Tell the EPA you support a strong rule to boost clean energy and cut carbon pollution.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the EPA has the authority to treat greenhouse gases as dangerous pollutants, enabling it to use the Clean Air Act to place limits on them. Then, in 2011, the high court issued a ruling in American Electric Power v. Connecticut that essentially requires the EPA to regulate carbon pollution from power plants.

Even Congress, albeit a past session, deserves a bit of credit. It was the enactment of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments that gave the federal government the authority, and the responsibility, to regulate pollutants that it has determined endanger public health and welfare. So

Overall, carbon emissions in the U.S. have declined since peaking in 2007 due to many factors including an economic slump, greater energy efficiency and a growing share of electricity generation coming from natural gas, falling about 12 percent between 2005 and 2012, before climbing 2 percent last year.

But we’re still dumping billions of tons of the greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. And until a rule for existing plants is implemented, the nation’s fleet of more than 600 coal-fired facilities will face no cap on carbon pollution. Today’s announcement sends a strong signal that America is ready to act on climate.

Stay tuned for more of our coverage of the rule. In the meantime, read “Confronting Carbon Pollution” in The Appalachian Voice and visit Appalachian Voices’ carbon & climate pages.

Supreme Court Rejects Spruce Mine Mountaintop Removal Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Deadline is Set for EPA Coal Ash Rule

Thursday, January 30th, 2014 - posted by amy
The EPA must finalize the first-ever federal regulation of coal ash by Dec. 19, 2014. The deadline is the result of a settlement between the EPA and a coalition of environmental groups.

The EPA must finalize federal rules regulating the disposal of coal ash by Dec. 19, 2014. The deadline is the result of a settlement between the EPA and a coalition of environmental groups.

By the end of this year, the EPA will finally publish the first-ever federal rule regulating the disposal of coal ash. The agency’s Dec. 19 deadline is the result of a settlement reached today in a lawsuit brought by Earthjustice, representing a coalition of environmental groups including Appalachian Voices, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and others.

After five years of delays, multiple rounds of public comments, and mounting evidence of environmental cost and damage to human health from storing coal in unlined ponds and landfills, the rule needed to protect clean water and human health is now in sight. But we only have a date, the rules are yet to be written.

The coal ash spill at TVA’s Kingston plant in 2008 was the alarm bell that drew public, media, and the government’s attention to the very real dangers of this toxic byproduct of coal-fired power plants.

The constituents of coal ash include mercury, selenium, arsenic, lead and others. Storing coal ash in unlined ponds or landfills gives the toxic components the ability to infiltrate into ground waters and contaminate drinking water wells. Contaminated groundwater can also discharge into neighboring streams that may serve as drinking water sources as well as recreational areas for fishing and swimming.

The EPA, states including North Carolina, environmental groups and researchers have documented hundreds of cases of coal ash contamination. In 2010, the EPA considered regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste, the stronger of the two options the agency proposed. But after a lengthy review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), along with pushback from the powerful coal industry, the EPA was asked to consider regulations that would regulate coal ash as solid waste, but not as hazardous.

The interference from OIRA and industry pressured the EPA to modify its proposal based on politics and profit, not on sound science. This is a flawed process that shuts the public out of a black box process. The Center for Effective Government stated:

“It’s almost as though the process is designed to create less protective rules. An agency spends months, sometimes years, writing regulations consistent with statute and responsive to some public need, only to be second-guessed by those without the substantive or technical expertise possessed by the agency that proposed the rule. It’s like replacing all the plumbing in your brand-new house after the walls are painted and the carpets installed – and your plumber is actually an electrician!”

It seems logical that the regulations meant to protect human and environmental health would acknowledge this waste stream as hazardous and regulate it as such. Communities near coal plants have suffered years of increased rates of cancer, neurological disorders, respiratory ailments and other health concerns waiting on the EPA to regulate this threat.

Coal ash is the nation’s second largest industrial waste stream and the benefits of a strong rule regulating where and how it is stored would be immense. The law, strong science and good public policy all support regulating coal ash as a hazardous waste. Will the EPA stand up for environmental and public health?

Click here to learn more about coal ash and stay up-to-date with the rule-making process.

Fighting for Clean Water in Virginia: Standing up to Coal Industry Bullies

Tuesday, January 28th, 2014 - posted by eric
Kelly Branch

Kelly Branch and several other tributaries of Callahan Creek, near the town of Appalachia Virginia are the subject of a new lawsuit for selenium pollution. (Photo: SAMS)

Today, Appalachian Voices along with our allies in Virginia filed a lawsuit against Penn Virginia for water polluted by selenium coming from abandoned mines on their land. This lawsuit is one in a series of suits aimed at cleaning up selenium pollution in Callahan Creek.

Callahan Creek flows south through a series of small communities and into the town of Appalachia in Wise County, Va. Along the way it passes a number of coal mines including the Kelly Branch Mine and the Stonega Slurry Impoundment. Last year, the same group of allies initiating this lawsuit filed legal actions for selenium pollution against the operators of both of those facilities. The operator of the Kelly Branch Mine, A&G Coal, submitted a report in response showing that much of the pollution in streams surrounding that mine was coming from old mines on Penn Virginia-owned property. That report is the primary basis of the lawsuit filed today.

Water monitoring by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) has shown that there are major selenium problems in Callahan Creek and its tributaries including Kelly Branch. Selenium is extremely toxic to fish at very low levels. It causes reproductive failure, deformities and death.

This two headed trout was deformed by selenium pollution.

Pennsylvania-based Penn Virginia owns nearly one-quarter of the land in Wise County and is the county’s largest landholder. Essentially, landholding companies like Penn Virginia operate by leasing their land to mining, natural gas and timber companies and collecting royalties from those companies. Once mines are abandoned, many continue to pollute nearby streams. Currently in Virginia, these types of pollution discharges are not regulated, so there is no one treating or monitoring them. These legacy mining discharges are a major source of pollution in Southwest Virginia and throughout Appalachia, but no one wants to claim responsibility for them. Through this lawsuit we hope to force large landholding companies like Penn Virginia to take responsibility for the pollution coming from the lands they own.

As required by the Clean Water Act, before filing this lawsuit we filed a Notice of Intent to Sue letter in late 2013. The purpose of such letters is to give polluters and state agencies a chance to address the pollution problems before a lawsuit is filed. Rather than trying to fix their pollution problems, Penn Virginia instead chose to use bully tactics and threaten members of SAMS. The company sent cease and desist letters to several members of SAMS banning them from entering Penn Virginia land that includes a family cemetery and a church that several of them attend.

The Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards are represented in this matter by Joe Lovett and Isak Howell of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

>> Find out more from our press release here
>> Read the legal filing here

The West Virginia Chemical Spill: A Warning for North Carolina

Monday, January 20th, 2014 - posted by amy
The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a wake up call for North Carolinians to demand lawmakers put health and the state's resources ahead of profit-driven industry agendas. Photo by @iwasaround / Flickr

The chemical spill in West Virginia should be a wake up call for North Carolinians to demand lawmakers put health and the state’s resources ahead of profit-driven industry agendas. Photo by @iwasaround / Flickr

There is a lesson in West Virginia’s water crisis for North Carolina policymakers and regulatory agencies akin to the saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. If you look at the changes to and by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources in 2013 and the road ahead, the General Assembly seems resolved to run headlong down a shortsighted path that will lead to the same inevitable consequences.

For years, West Virginia’s lawmakers and environmental regulators have been swayed by coal, chemical and other industries that helped give them influence and power in the first place. Motivated by profit, those industries influence how environmental regulations meant to protect the public are created and enforced. With that influence and a captive audience, they claim that strong environmental protections cost too much and burden the economy.

The North Carolina legislature and the top administrators in DENR are blazing down a similar path toward deregulation trail they call “progress.” But progress for who and toward what? This year, the Regulatory Rules Reform (HB 74) Act, enacted by the General Assembly and overseen through appointed committees, is poised to determine what DENR protections should be re-adopted, which will be changed, and which will expire altogether.

DENR’s regulatory divisions have been underfunded and agency’s staff has been reduced to a skeleton crew but is still expected to perform the monumental job of protecting our environment and public health. Secretary John Skvarla has even publicly mocked environmental groups for being critical of the administration and legislature’s and stated time and again their goal in growing the economy.

Skvarla’s description of DENR as a “customer friendly juggernaut” is actually quite accurate when you realize the “customer” no longer refers to the state’s environment and natural resources, but is now defined as the businesses and industries seeking permits. And since a juggernaut is defined as an “overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path” then yes, the description in Skvarla’s letter to the editor is accurate. DENR: an unstoppable business-friendly force, willing to crush everything in its path, including its state’s environmental resources and protections enacted to protect citizens right to clean air and water.

Most North Carolinians feel it is the government’s job to ensure safe, clean air and water resources for its citizens. Why do we not see that reflected in lawmakers and regulators’ actions? Maybe it’s because of political donations — in North Carolina, millionaire Art Pope and Duke Energy have used their pocketbooks to influence policy.

The spill in West Virginia should be a wake up call to North Carolinians. Are weaker regulations and fewer environmental protections what we want for our state? Do we want to be in the same position where our industries run roughshod over public health, go largely uninspected and unchecked for decades, and where regulations we do manage to keep fail to provide any meaningful enforceable provisions for accountability?

North Carolinians can change how this story ends. It’s time we demand our lawmakers put citizen’s health and the precious, limited resources of our state ahead of profit-driven industry agendas. As another saying goes, “It doesn’t matter how far you’ve gone down the wrong path, you can always turn around.”

The Gap Between Environmental Protection and DENR’s Skewed Self-perception

Tuesday, January 7th, 2014 - posted by brian
Vacant responses to public criticism do nothing to lessen the disappointment of a vocal public demanding a safe environment. Above, a Moral Monday protest. Photo courtesy Yash Mori via Flickr/Creative Commons

Vacant responses to public criticism do nothing to lessen the disappointment of a vocal public demanding a safe environment. Above, a Moral Monday protest. Photo courtesy Yash Mori via Flickr/Creative Commons

On Dec. 20, a press release from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources arrived in my inbox. Intended to “help journalists with year-end stories” the release celebrated the agency’s “new mission, customer service improvements and coal ash lawsuits” as being North Carolina’s big environmental stories in 2013.

Among the self-promoted stories of DENR’s accomplishments in the past 12 months is the legal action it took against Duke Energy to address the threat of coal ash contamination from leaky ponds at 14 coal-fired power plants.

Not included, however, is the role that citizens first had in making North Carolina a poster child for the poor regulation of coal ash. And absent is any mention of the questionable settlement proposed by DENR in July that came with a fine of just $99,000 and the requirement that Duke assess the extent of contamination, or other examples where it has failed to put the public before polluters since.

Beyond that, the release – which celebrates the consolidation of barely related divisions and the streamlining of administrative functions with a significantly smaller staff – is an example of how those in charge at DENR have taken to peddling a dangerous misrepresentation of the year the agency has had and the challenges that lie ahead.

With DENR management’s penchant for self-praise, the future must seem pretty bright. But beyond the narrative contrived in media releases, public criticism and displays of distrust in the agency’s direction have become commonplace in North Carolina’s largest newspapers and media outlets. And it’s making the state’s environmental community stronger.
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For Patriot Coal, Ending Mountaintop Removal is a “Win-Win”

Thursday, December 26th, 2013 - posted by brian
Having recently emerged from bankruptcy, Patriot Coal CEO Ben Hatfield said the 2012 settlement that forced the company to begin phasing out its mountaintop removal operations proved to be a "win-win."

Having recently emerged from bankruptcy, Patriot Coal CEO Ben Hatfield said the 2012 settlement that forced the company to begin phasing out its mountaintop removal operations proved to be a “win-win.”

A little more than a year ago, amid its bankruptcy proceedings and multiple lawsuits, Patriot Coal announced it would phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia as part of a settlement with environmental groups over selenium pollution.

Taken at face value, statements made at that time by Patriot’s CEO Bennett Hatfield held promise that the movement against mountaintop removal, focused on exposing the poor economics as well as the irreversible environmental impacts of the destructive practice, had reached a pivotal turning point.

Hatfield told the court that Patriot recognizes that its mining operations “impact the communities in which we operate in significant ways,” and that ending mountaintop removal will reduce the company’s environmental footprint. But the position the company took on phasing out mountaintop removal was largely strategic and focused on the financial benefits of reducing the company’s risks as it worked through bankruptcy.
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