Posts Tagged ‘Environment’

Reflections from the second SOAR Summit

Friday, May 22nd, 2015 - posted by Adam
SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. But the initiative must foster a more inclusive conversation if it hopes to create lasting change.

SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. But the initiative must foster a more inclusive conversation if it hopes to create lasting change.

I remembering hearing about the SOAR Initiative when it was first announced in 2013.

Like a lot of people working for a better Appalachia, I was excited to hear that the question of “what comes next?” was finally receiving some high-level attention.

Last week’s summit was the first time I had connected directly with the initiative and I had high hopes. Although SOAR focuses specifically on enhancing economic opportunities in eastern Kentucky, I was counting on bringing back ideas and inspiration that could be applied to Appalachian Voices’ economic development work in far southwest Virginia.

The event was well attended — an estimated 1,300 people showed up. But, even with so many who care deeply about transitioning the eastern Kentucky economy gathering in one place, there was disappointingly little time or space created for discussion amongst the people who are doing the lion’s share of the on-the-ground work in Appalachian communities. There was a lot of “talking at” and not nearly enough “talking with.”

MACED’s Ivy Brashear had a similar reaction and shared her thoughts in an eloquent post titled “SOAR still important, but second summit falls short of expectations.”

This is not to say that some of the “talking at” portions of the summit were not inspiring or worth hearing. U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez was on the scene, and he gave a very enthusiastic and hopeful speech about the future of the region.

During his plenary address, Secretary Perez officially rolled out $35 million in federal implementation grants available through the POWER Initiative, a coordinated effort led by the U.S. Economic Development Administration to invest in communities negatively impacted by changes in the coal industry and power sector.

These grants were first announced back in March, and were described by the Obama administration as “a down payment” on the POWER+ Plan.

There was plenty of talk in the hallways among my colleagues about POWER+, and I heard a few related questions asked during Q&A section of multiple presentations. But I was surprised that no one on stage that I saw throughout the day mentioned it on their own. My most recent post was all about how POWER+ deserved a warmer welcome, and it seems like that’s still the case.

Even though POWER+ got the cold shoulder, there was a lot of attention given to other worthy issues such as broadband expansion, technology job creation, local foods, youth leadership development and the arts.

Taken as a whole, SOAR is an outstanding example of regional, bipartisan collaboration on the biggest question facing central Appalachia. When so many different players come to the table with varying backgrounds and interests, it’s naturally a delicate process to keep the boat afloat.

It was never a secret that the coal economy was headed for an eventual collapse. Regional production peaked in 1997, but a web of social and political forces have kept clinging to the past. Finally, we’ve reached a place where we see a robust regional discussion and federal programs focused on diversifying the central Appalachian economy.

The role of Appalachian Voices and our allies is, and will continue to be, ensuring that promising initiatives like SOAR include new ideas and ways of thinking are not stuck in that old and tired web that no longer serves the best interests of Appalachian communities.

Duke Energy to close aging Asheville coal plant

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 - posted by brian

Duke Energy plans to retire its Asheville coal plant and build a natural gas-fired facility in its place. The announcement should be celebrated as progress, but it also represents another precarious step toward a future reliant on fossil fuels.

A plan to “end an era of coal” in Asheville and enter an era of natural gas.

In a surprise announcement that some predicted and many have long advocated for, Duke Energy shared plans today to “end an era of coal” in Asheville, N.C., by retiring the coal-fired power plant that sits on the banks of nearby Lake Julian.

The aging power plant, which began operating in 1964, has been a constant target for Appalachian Voices and many of our allies in North Carolina working to address coal ash pollution and promote investments in cleaner energy.

The company plans to spend around $750 million over the next four or five years to retire the coal plant and replace it with a 650-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant, nearly doubling the current plant’s capacity. The plans also include building solar generation on the site, but it’s unclear how large — or small — the size of the renewable portion of the project will be.

While the news should be celebrated as progress, it also represents another precarious step along a dangerous road that will prolong our region’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and saddle consumers with long-lived investments in natural gas.

Duke, more than any other southeastern utility, has been at the forefront of the coal-to-gas fuel-switching trend, retiring seven of its 14 North Carolina coal plants in the past five years. The utility is also slated to be the largest customer of the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but, in this case, plans to upgrade an existing natural gas pipeline to supply the new plant.

Even though the company has brought on large-scale solar projects in recent years, Duke’s enthusiasm for clean energy doesn’t come close to its eagerness to expand natural gas generation and infrastructure. That fact is reflected in the mixed responses of environmental groups and clean energy advocates to today’s news.

“The retirement of the Asheville Plant is a step in the right direction, but it is a half measure, undermined by continuing reliance on an economically unpredictable and polluting source of power. Duke can do better, and our community deserves better,” a coalition of groups made up of MountainTrue, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance announced in a joint statement. “We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight for clean energy solutions for Western North Carolina.”

According to Duke, electricity demand in the Asheville area has doubled over the past forty years and the Asheville plant is a “must run” facility, meaning it operates around the clock to maintain reliability. But data charted by SNL Energy shows the plant’s capacity factor has been trending down since 2010, likely due to new capacity at the more-economical Cliffside power plant coming online.

Closing the plant will dramatically reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury, and the new natural gas plant will emit about 60 percent less carbon dioxide per-megawatt hour. But its larger generating capacity could mean overall carbon emissions stay about the same.

The cost of retrofitting the plant’s coal ash ponds to comply with the state’s Coal Ash Management Act is sure to have played a role in the decision to retire the plant. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also cited Duke in February for contaminating groundwater at the facility, which could lead to fines.

The Asheville plant is the only facility out of the four deemed “high priority” by the coal ash law that still burns coal. It is also one of the few still-operating plants involved in the federal lawsuit over coal ash pollution that led Duke to plead guilty to nine misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act.

The case for closing the Asheville coal plant is clear. But Duke must do more to meet its promises to North Carolinians. At a time of tremendous opportunity to expand clean energy, America’s largest electric utility has the obligation and more than enough influence to lead.

Residents in Mountain Valley path pipe up at hearing

Thursday, May 7th, 2015 - posted by hannah
The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. Siltation from tree clearing and pipeline construction could further threaten the endangered species. Click to enlarge.

Turnout was tremendous at the first of two hearings this week in Virginia, where federal energy regulators are taking public comments on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Residents of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties and nearby areas told their stories and highlighted their environmental concerns on Tuesday night in Elliston in an effort to make sure the impact study process on the project is thorough.

Most commenters shared common themes: that the companies proposing the Mountain Valley Pipeline would not be able to carry out their vision for the 330-mile natural gas pipeline without egregiously damaging the area’s ecological treasures, and that the project is not in local residents’ interest and should not be allowed to proceed.

Citizens voiced a wide range of environmental concerns, many of which relate to issues unaffected by the potential rerouting of the pipeline. Among the risks that can only be prevented in a no-build scenario include:

  • Creek and river siltation from the tree clearing and installation process that threatens populations of James River spinymussel in Craig County. This species was also hard-hit by the Dan River coal ash spill in 2014. A precedent exists for protecting these areas from development based on the potential negative outcome for threatened creatures; in the ‘90s a high-voltage transmission project was undone in part due to the anticipated adverse impact on freshwater mussels.
  • Unique caves in the area, including Pig Hole Cave and Tawney’s Cave, have been used for years by cave diving explorers for recreation and have provided research opportunities for Virginia Tech students. While building is not normally allowed over their mapped passages, the proposed pipeline route lies directly over Pig Hole Cave and would make it inaccessible during construction and possibly permanently unsafe. New species of cave-adapted arthropods and other rare specialized lifeforms have only recently been found to exist there.
  • Numerous area homeowners also spoke about the proximity of their homes to the “centerline” or middle of the up-to-40-yard-wide swath proposed for each of the various possible alternative pipeline routes. Homes, wells, gardens, trees and creeks are all in the path of proposed routes. In the event of a pipeline rupture, if the combustible gas the pipeline would carry were to ignite or explode, some neighborhoods would have no road outlet. Local leaders spoke about those fears, adding that the increase in housing in Montgomery County in the past 20 years makes it difficult to avoid these kind of direct impacts by rerouting.

Several speakers described the sense of looming danger generated by the pipeline proposal, and articulated their feelings about the project in memorable ways: as a tentacle of a symbolic Kraken representing the fossil fuel industry seeking greater profits at the expense of communities; as a wrong-headed distraction from the right of residents’ to their own property; and as a destructive force that perpetuates the exploitation of Appalachian counties threatening what is among the nation’s most valued, biodiverse and scenic environments

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has only scheduled hearings for Virginia in Elliston and Chatham this week. Organizers and local leaders are currently petitioning for an extended comment period beyond the current deadline of June 16.

Click here to submit your comment about the Mountain Valley Pipeline to federal regulators.

UPDATE: FERC will also hold public hearings in Weston, W.Va., on May 12 and Summersville, W.Va., on May 13. Learn more here.

A new challenge to fracking in North Carolina

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 - posted by brian
Fracking rig

Clean Water for North Carolina filed a constitutional challenge to the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission’s authority to strike down local ordinances on fracking. Photo by Bob Warhover

Clean Water for North Carolina and three residents of counties where fracking could occur are challenging the authority of the state to preempt local ordinances offering communities greater protections from the practice.

The group’s complaint, which was filed in Wake County Superior Court last Friday, alleges that the law legalizing fracking in the state unconstitutionally grants the Mining and Energy Commission judicial powers, including the authority to determine whether local ordinances restrict fracking and can be overturned.

The complaint cites a section of the North Carolina constitution declaring “the legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from one another.”

“The courts, and not the Mining and Energy Commission, which is stacked with pro-industry legislative appointees, should rule on ordinances enacted by local governments,” Clean Water for North Carolina Executive Director Hope Taylor said in a press statement.

“Last year, tens of thousands of people, including many [Clean Water for North Carolina] members, commented at hearings or in writing to say the Oil and Gas rules do not come close to protecting their communities,” Taylor said. “And yet we’ve been told to accept drilling and fracking 650 feet from our homes, drinking water wells and schools, and 200 feet from our streams. If local governments decide democratically to enact protections that their citizens need, the MEC shouldn’t be able to toss them out.”

North Carolina prohibits local ordinances that could restrict drilling, because, according to the language in the law, it is “the intent of the General Assembly to maintain a uniform system” for fracking statewide. But dozens of North Carolina counties and towns have already passed resolutions calling on the General Assembly to hand over control, while others urge lawmakers to reinstate the ban on fracking altogether.

The challenge follows lawsuits disputing the constitutionality of several state commissions — including the Mining and Energy Commission and the Coal Ash Management Commission — with a majority of members appointed by the legislature.

Appalachian Crayfish: Canaries in a Coal Mine

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Dac Collins

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that two species native to Appalachia — The Big Sandy crayfish (pictured) and Guyandotte River crayfish — be listed as endangered under federal law after determining the species are in danger of extinction “primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities” such as mountaintop removal coal mining. Photo by Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University on Flickr

If you find yourself at a crawfish boil anytime soon, don’t be afraid to go back for seconds. The two species that are sold commercially — red swamp and white river crayfish — are prolific. They can be found in the wild throughout the South and are especially abundant in Louisiana, where they are also farm-raised in ponds.

But here in Appalachia, some of our native crayfish populations are teetering on the brink of extinction, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Whether or not they are pushed past the point of no return depends largely on the outcome of a recent proposal by the agency to add them to the federal list of endangered species.

Like most creek-dwelling crawdads, the two species in question — the Big Sandy crayfish, which are native to the Big Sandy River basin in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, and the Guyandotte River crayfish, a closely related subspecies found in West Virginia — spend a majority of their lives wedged into the crevices of the creek bottom. These nooks and crannies shelter the crayfish from predators and serve as places to lie dormant during the winter months. But when these rocky creek beds are covered up in sediment, the habitat that these creatures depend on to survive is lost entirely.

This is precisely what is occurring in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River drainages of West Virginia. The sedimentation has become so severe in recent years that the Guyandotte crayfish population has retreated to the mid-reaches of a single stream, Pinnacle Creek, in Wyoming County.

If the crayfish disappear completely, the ecology of these creeks could change drastically. The freshwater crustaceans are a primary food source for many of the native fish species, including smallmouth bass and trout, which also happen to be the two most sought after sport fish here in Appalachia. Take away the food source and these creeks might eventually be fishless.

The cause of siltation is obvious when you look at where these creeks are located. There are 192 active coal mines in the area, many of which are mountaintop removal mines that are dumping their waste into the headwaters of streams, effectively burying them. And that’s just standard operating procedure. If an accident occurs, a toxic slurry of silt and chemicals spills into the creeks that feed the rivers that run into the reservoirs we drink out of, wreaking havoc on species like crayfish along the way.

The Fish and Wildlife Service specifically mentioned mountaintop removal coal mining in its report on the two crayfish species. The agency determined that, “the Big Sandy crayfish and Guyandotte River crayfish are in danger of extinction, primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities that increase erosion and sedimentation, which degrades the stream habitat required by both species,” and that, “an immediate threat to the continued existence of the Guyandotte River crayfish is several active and inactive surface coal mines, including MTR mines, in the mid and upper reaches of the Pinnacle Creek watershed.”

The FWS report also called attention to impaired water-quality — especially hazardous concentrations of sulfate and aluminum — in areas where most of the mines are closed, proving that “the detrimental effects of coal mining often continue long after active mining ceases.”

The proposed endangered species listing could have considerable impacts on the coal mining industry. If the Big Sandy and Guyandotte crayfish are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it would lead to more strictly enforced water quality regulations, which could affect ongoing mining operations in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River basins as well as coal companies seeking permits to mine in the area.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on this proposal until May 16. Click here to take action and ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect these two Appalachian species.

Appalachian communities at growing risk from mountaintop removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 - posted by brian
Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Announcing a new tool to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams

Coal is in the news a lot these days. The market forces and much-needed environmental and health protections cornering the dirty fuel are topics of endless interest as America’s energy landscape shifts toward cleaner sources. And yes, all signs point to coal’s continued decline.

In many ways though, the forces chipping away at coal’s historic dominance are overshadowing another big story — one that Appalachian citizens still need the public and policymakers to hear — about just how much the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal coal mining persist in Central Appalachia.

That mountaintop removal is an extremely dirty and dangerous way to mine coal has never been better understood. The overwhelming body of evidence is built on a foundation of the countless personal stories found in communities near mines and bolstered by dozens of studies investigating disproportionate health problems in coal-producing counties compared to elsewhere in Appalachia. More recently, advocates have employed technological tools to visualize complex data and add another dimension to arguments against the practice.

Appalachian Voices is committed to both creating a forum for those personal stories and sharing the most up-to-date data available about the ongoing risks mountaintop removal poses to our region’s communities and environment. Today, we’re excited to share a web tool we developed to reveal how mining continues to close in on nearby communities and send a resounding message to President Obama that ending mountaintop removal is a must if we hope to foster economic and environmental health in Appalachia.

Explore Appalachian Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal on iLoveMountains.org

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

The centerpiece of “Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal” is an interactive mapping tool on iLoveMountains.org that allows anyone to explore mountaintop removal’s expansion over the past 30 years.

Created using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, and mapping data and consultation from the nonprofit SkyTruth, the tool gives users greater perspective into the decades-long scourge surface mining has had on the Appalachian landscape and generations of families that live in the region.

The Communities at Risk tool also concentrates on impacts at the community level, where the powerful personal stories that first brought mountaintop removal to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and agenda for environmental change are found.

Fifty communities spread across Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are identified by the tool as being the most at risk. By clicking on a community icon on the map, you can see the number of acres classified as active mining within a 1-mile radius of a particular place over time. In some communities, the number has fallen. In others, it has grown dramatically in recent years even as regional coal production has plummeted.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at a handful of these communities, sharing local perspectives on how the proximity of mountaintop removal has affected local livelihoods. Our first “featured community” is Inman, Va., a small town in Wise County, where residents have successfully battled back a proposed mountaintop removal mine while experiencing the devastating impacts of another that began operating in the early 2000s. You’ll also see stories about featured communities on AppalachianVoices.org and in upcoming issues of The Appalachian Voice newspaper.

Learn about Inman, Va., from local residents Matt Hepler and Ben Hooper

If you want a fuller picture of the data we used to create the mapping tool, check out the companion white paper, which describes the background, methods, results and implications of our initial research.

Over time, we’ll work with impacted citizens in communities near active and proposed mines to expand the use of the tool and update our maps with current, high-resolution satellite imagery we’ll obtain through a partnership with Google’s Skybox for Good project.

Read our white paper for an in-depth look at the ways mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk.

The constant flow of news describing something close to the death of the Appalachian coal industry could leave outside observers with the impression that the problems of mountaintop removal have been resolved by the industry’s impending collapse. That impression, however, is at odds with the personal experience of many Appalachian citizens, the visible impacts of mining in communities across the region and the data that comprises Communities at Risk.

Visit CommunitiesAtRisk.org to explore the mapping tool, learn more about the 50 most at-risk communities and tell President Obama that more must be done to protect Appalachian communities.

Don’t drink the water

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy's coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking.

Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking. Photo by Avery Locklear

Dozens of residents across North Carolina received notices this week telling them not to drink or cook with their well water due to recent tests which show unsafe levels of contaminants that may be associated with coal ash.

As part of North Carolina’s coal ash law enacted last year, Duke Energy is required to test the well water of residents living within 1000 feet of the massive coal ash ponds that dot the state.

For years, the demands of residents in communities next to coal ash ponds and environmental advocates were ignored by Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, despite independent water sampling that showed elevated levels of contaminants. Now, more than a year after the Dan River coal ash spill, water testing results are coming back, giving residents and regulators a clear picture of just how widespread the problem is.

Tell Duke Energy to supply residents with safe water!

Residents living near 9 of the 14 coal plants across the state have been notified of exceedances of the groundwater standard for concerning metals such as arsenic, chromium, and vanadium. According to DENR, 87 of the 117 wells Duke tested exceeded North Carolina’s groundwater standards for one or more toxic constituents. Some wells also had high levels of constituents that may be naturally occurring in North Carolina soil, such as iron, manganese and pH.

Duke has been quick to latch onto those exceedances as evidence that the contamination is not from their illegally leaking coal ash ponds. But residents who can see coal ash ponds from their yards and have watched Duke’s smokestacks for decades have little doubt why they are now being told “don’t drink the water.”

DENR officials say they will investigate the source of contamination and, if it is linked to coal ash pollution, Duke will be required to provide residents with clean water. But that reassurance is hardly recompense for North Carolinians who may have been unknowingly drinking contaminated water for an unknown amount of time. And until the source is determined, residents will have to foot the bill for bottled water.

Take action now!

Apologies for the Dan River spill, guilt for coal ash crimes

Thursday, February 26th, 2015 - posted by brian
Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Facing federal criminal charges stemming from the Dan River spill and pollution at other sites across North Carolina, Duke will pay for its coal ash crimes.

Duke Energy likes to use a tagline that goes something like “For more than 100 years we’ve been providing customers with reliable, affordable electricity at the flip of a switch.”

It’s boilerplate, but it works. So I doubt the company will amend that punchy bit of self-praise to include “and we were recently found criminally negligent for polluting North Carolina rivers with coal ash.”

Even so, a year after the Dan River spill, Duke seems to understand that coal ash pollution has its own chapter in the company’s corporate story. Now, Duke will pay for its crimes.

The bombshell news came in two pieces around the same time last Friday; the U.S. Department of Justice announced the charges and Duke announced it struck a deal with prosecutors. A few days before the big reveal, Duke told shareholders in an earnings report that it set aside $100 million to resolve the federal investigation that began after the Dan River spill.

The company faces nine misdemeanor charges for violating the federal Clean Water Act at multiple coal ash sites across the state. On Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Western, Middle and Eastern Districts of North Carolina each filed charges in their respective federal courts, related to violations that occurred at coal ash ponds owned by Duke in their respective districts.

According to DOJ, Duke was criminally negligent in discharging coal ash and coal ash wastewater from storage ponds its Dan River, Asheville, Lee, and Riverbend plants into North Carolina rivers. Violations related to equipment upkeep were found at the Cape Fear Steam Station, where Duke was cited by the state for illegally pumping 61 million gallons of toxic water from a coal ash pit into the Cape Fear River last year.

The DOJ’s press release makes clear that the filing of charges is not a finding of guilt, and most prominent news outlets left any indication that Duke is guilty of its coal ash crimes out of their coverage. We decided to use the word “guilty” in our press release largely because a proposed plea agreement including millions in fines had been reached.

Read one of the three criminal "bills of information" detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Read one of the three criminal “bills of information” detailing charges against Duke Energy (PDF).

Also, in a consent to transfer the plea and sentencing proceedings to the Eastern District court, an attorney for Duke wrote: “… the Defendants wish to plead guilty to the offenses charged.”

Of course, Duke steered clear from the words “guilty” or “plea” in its own announcement. But, as the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Frank Holleman told the Charlotte Observer, “When anyone pays $100 million to resolve a grand jury investigation, that indicates something serious happened.”

There’s still a lot of specifics we don’t know about the agreement between prosecutors and Duke. Prosecutors say they won’t comment until after court proceedings where the agreement must be approved by a federal judge.

It’s important to note, though, that this is a plea bargain to resolve a criminal investigation, not a settlement to avoid a civil trial. The proposed agreement includes $68.2 million in fines and restitution and $34 million for community service and mitigation. The fines cannot be passed on to customers, meaning Duke’s shareholders will take the hit.

Importantly, the agreement would also put Duke on probation for five years, during which a court-appointed monitor would ensure compliance with provisions related to training, audits and reporting. According to Duke, the full agreement will be made public if it is accepted by the court.

“We are sorry for the Dan River spill, and remain grateful to our friends and neighbors for your support,” Duke CEO Lynn Good said in a statement. “We are committed to moving forward in a safe and responsible way.”

For a year Duke has been saying sorry to its customers and communities along the Dan River — basically demanding that it be held to a higher standard. So even though the company is no longer in crisis mode, it’s still watching its back as it tries to repair its reputation and move beyond the spill.

The problem of coal ash pollution in North Carolina is far from resolved. According to Duke’s own assessment, 200 seeps at its power plants leak nearly 3 million gallons of polluted water into streams and rivers every year. Just yesterday, Duke was cited for contaminating groundwater at its Asheville Plant.

In addition to investigating Duke Energy, federal prosecutors subpoenaed current and former employees of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the North Carolina Utilities Commission, which used to regulate coal ash ponds. But none of the charges against Duke allege any improper, or illegal, dealings between the company and state regulators.

Without clarification from the U.S. Attorney’s office, it’s unclear whether the grand jury has finished its work, only finding Duke in the wrong, or if an investigation into actions of DENR is ongoing.

“While prosecutors aren’t legally obliged to explain charges they don’t file, in this case the public needs more substantial disclosures,” the Fayetteville Observer wrote in an editorial. “The Justice Department needs to let us know whether a cloud of suspicion remains over DENR.”

Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates. 

Déjà vu in Kentucky clean water cases

Monday, February 23rd, 2015 - posted by eric

frasure_creek

Appalachian Voices and our partners have filed a motion to intervene in a case between the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and Frasure Creek Mining to ensure clean water laws are being enforced in Kentucky.

Late last year we filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue against Frasure Creek after we uncovered thousands of false water monitoring reports the company turned into the state.

The Kentucky cabinet was unaware of these false submissions and responded by filing an administrative complaint against Frasure Creek covering all of the false data we found, a common tactic for state agencies to prevent citizen involvement in this type of case. Now, we are filing a motion to become parties to the cabinet’s enforcement action.

To anyone following our lawsuits against Frasure Creek, these recent developments will sound familiar. This isn’t the first time we’ve caught the company turning in false water monitoring reports. Frasure Creek was one of three Kentucky coal companies we filed legal actions against in 2010 and 2011 for submitting falsified pollution reports that were concealing water quality violations.

In all of those cases the cabinet stepped in with slap-on-the-wrist settlements, compelling us to intervene in cases where we had brought the violations to light. The only difference in this case is that Frasure Creek and the cabinet have yet to reach a settlement, so we haven’t seen how lax the enforcement will be this time around.

Both of the cabinet’s previous settlements with Frasure Creek were thrown out by Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd last December. In a scathing opinion, Shepherd stated that when “one company so systematically subverts the requirements of law, it not only jeopardizes environmental protection on the affected permits, it creates a regulatory climate in which the Cabinet sends the message that cheating pays.”

Judge Shepherd’s rulings are being appealed by the cabinet (think about that, the state agency, not Frasure Creek, is asking for an appeal). But we are hoping that this time around the cabinet will take us seriously, and won’t reach a weak settlement or resort to legal run-arounds to prevent citizen involvement. After all aren’t our state agencies supposed to be accountable to the people, not to the corporations they are supposed to regulate?

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The citizens’ groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Read past posts about our clean water lawsuits in Kentucky. Subscribe to the Front Porch Blog to receive regular updates.

Virginia lawmakers act on energy bills

Monday, February 23rd, 2015 - posted by hannah
There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

There has been no shortage of activity on energy policy during Virginia’s 2015 legislative session.

As the Virginia General Assembly enters the final days of its 2015 session, we can look back on five intense weeks.

Among the many issues our lawmakers labored over, a few were explosive enough to consistently make headlines. Energy policy was one of those issues thanks largely to electric utilities’ efforts to capitalize on worries about upcoming federal rules on carbon pollution.

Here’s a recap of the drama, along with a few important policies that received less fanfare.

>> First, a measure that shocked newspaper editorial boards, dismayed consumer groups, and stunned many of us who have challenged the utilities’ business-as-usual plans, but passed the legislature easily: under SB 1349, Virginia would see a five-year period when state regulators do not review rates set by Dominion Power and Appalachian Power, likely preventing any refunds of utility over-earnings to customers. The base portion of rates will be fixed, but other charges related to fuel costs can still rise during the period.

Political dynamics and election sensitivities made this legislation especially charged, and ultimately some of our top legislative champions for advancing clean energy stepped in and saw to it that the measure includes a designation for up to 500 megawatts of solar energy to be in the public interest, thereby authorizing state regulators to approve large scale solar farms — of which there are exactly zero in Virginia right now. The champs also added provisions for utilities to pay for low-income home weatherization programs.

Gov. McAuliffe signed the bill into law on Tuesday.

>> Last Wednesday, legislation passed both houses capping Virginia’s coal production and employment tax credits at $7.5 million annually. Appalachian Voices and other advocates have called for comprehensive study of whether such credits have their intended effects, including sustaining coal-related jobs in Southwest Virginia. A study by Downstream Strategies a few years ago suggests they do not. SB 741, which originally extended the tax credits by five years, is expected to come out of conference committee this week extending the credits for only two years while analysis is done by a reform-oriented panel.

>> On to one enormous highlight of the session: several bills containing extreme language against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed Clean Power Plan — aimed at reducing carbon pollution from power plants — never made it out of committee. One was an effort to empower the General Assembly to sue the EPA. Another bill that is still alive directs the state Department of Environmental Quality to consider concerns and take the input of legislators, and requires the General Assembly to express its approval of DEQ’s compliance plan in the form of a resolution.

>> Lastly, a bill based on a central concept of Gov. McAuliffe’s Energy Plan creates a Solar Energy Development Authority for Virginia. In spite of some legislators’ concerns about growing government, the promise of boosting job growth in the solar industry propelled this measure through both houses. A net energy metering expansion bill also still stands a good chance of passing.

With some great concepts like the Virginia Coastal Protection Act unable to find sufficient support in committee to pass this year, the work to pave the way for next year’s legislative efforts lies before us. Citizen contact with delegates and senators can continue year-round, and there are many ways to stay engage.

In addition to calling or writing your elected officials, enrolling in an energy-efficiency program offered by your power company or going solar sends a clear signal to our legislators about Virginia residents’ preferences and expectations on important energy policy issues.