Posts Tagged ‘EPA’

New Federal Water Quality Guidance on Selenium

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Eliza Laubach

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released final changes to a water quality criterion for selenium in July. The criterion guides state and tribal agency selenium rules and replaces a previous, more stringent, criterion.

Selenium, an essential nutrient for humans in small amounts, is toxic to fish even in small amounts. It accumulates in fish and aquatic organisms that live in contaminated waters and can cause deformations or death. It also can harm birds that eat organisms from contaminated waters. This naturally occurring element enters the water through coal mining, coal-fired power plants, irrigated agriculture and natural weathering processes.

Environmental groups criticize the EPA changes, which allow industries to discharge more selenium. The Sierra Club said in a press release that the missed chance to create a strong national standard is disappointing, as it “placed responsibility in the hands of state regulators who have already established that they will not miss an opportunity to aid their polluter friends in the mining industry.”

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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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.


  • 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


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


  • 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.”

How coal ash impacts civil rights

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by sarah

Residents of Walnut Cove have fought to win justice for those who have been harmed by coal ash pollution at the nearby Belews Creek power plant.

Residents of Walnut Cove, N.C., testified about the threats coal ash poses to their community during a hearing organized by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Residents of Walnut Cove, N.C., testified about the threats coal ash poses to their community during a hearing organized by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

March flew by in North Carolina, where coal ash continues to make headlines and the state government continues to make missteps.

Last month, more than 1,500 North Carolinians flocked to the 14 public hearings on coal ash basin closure held by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. The turnout was great, the news coverage was thorough, and the oral comments delivered by residents (many of whom live within 1,500 feet of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds) were pointed and poignant.

Residents commented on a lack of science and data in Duke Energy’s groundwater reports and noted the cozy relationship between Duke, Gov. Pat McCrory and DEQ. They explained why they do not feel safe drinking their well water and demanded that all coal ash sites be made high-priority for cleanup and that no site be capped-in-place. And they shared heart-wrenching stories of family and friends who have passed away or are currently suffering from illnesses associated with exposure to heavy metals.

On the heels of the series of March hearings, the U.S. government added one more critical hearing to North Carolina’s expansive schedule: a hearing on coal ash as it relates to civil rights.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is currently preparing a report for Congress, President Obama, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on coal ash and its impact on civil rights, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. In February, the commission held a hearing in Washington, D.C., where hundreds of coal ash activists and coal ash neighbors from across the country gathered and testified about the impacts coal ash has had on their communities. State advisory committees to the commission also had the opportunity to hold local field hearings, but only two in the nation did, and one of those was in the small town of Walnut Cove, N.C.

This was a big deal for residents of Walnut Cove, who have fought for over three years to make their tragic story known and to win justice for those who have been harmed by Duke’s coal ash pollution at the nearby Belews Creek power plant. In response to the interest in coal ash expressed by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Walnut Cove community showed up in a big way.

Citizens Speak Up

Throughout the day, the Walnut Cove Public Library was packed with local residents and allies. Several community members were featured on the panels, including Tracey Edwards and David Hairston, lifelong residents of Walnut Cove who spoke to their experience of growing up with the coal ash falling like snow and witnessing the alarming rates of illness, especially cancer, and subsequent deaths in their small, rural community.

“Duke Energy promotes poison for profit at the expense of human life,” remarked Edwards. “You can’t drive in any direction from the coal power plant without knowing someone who has cancer.”

“You won’t understand until you’ve lived what we’ve lived and lost what we’ve lost,” Hairston explained. “My only mother is dead, Tracey’s only mother is dead. Who else we gonna lose over the next ten years?”

Long-time volunteer and activist, Caroline Armijo, who grew up in a neighboring town of Walnut Cove, presented on a panel alongside DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder. While Reeder praised DEQ and the McCrory administration for their efforts to clean up coal ash in North Carolina, Armijo made it clear that those efforts were not enough. She cited the pervasive illnesses, and the desire among community members to look at solutions that would last longer and be more protective than lined landfills.

The advisory committee members were attentive and moved by the stories and information presented. They were concerned not just about the health impacts of coal ash, but also the associated health care costs and psychological trauma, repeatedly asking community panelists if anyone is helping them in their plight. Committee Member Thealeeta Monet commented on the shameful lack of mental health care available to coal ash neighbors saying, “You cannot be collateral damage without being damaged.”

To the surprise of the audience, committee member Rick Martinez, who has ties to the conservative John Locke Foundation and the McCrory administration, told Duke Energy’s Mike McIntire that he should tell his superiors that the people of Walnut Cove would not accept anything less than full excavation of the coal ash pond. “Tell your management to start budgeting for that eventuality,” Martinez said, “not just here but throughout the state.”

In addition to the scheduled panelists, around 40 additional community members and allies spoke during the open comment section of the hearing. Some speakers had travelled from other North Carolina communities near to Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, and spoke for both their communities and in solidarity with residents of Walnut Cove. The final speakers of the day were all locals who had lost numerous loved ones to cancer.

Shuntailya Graves, a college student studying to become a biologist brought many in the audience to tears when she listed the cancers that each of her immediate family members have sufferred. Adding to the concerns of health care costs she explained, “My mother was diagnosed with thyroid, ovarian and uterine cancers. She had a full hysterectomy and later was diagnosed with thyroid and brain cancer. She has had nine cancerous brain tumors. Her medicines for a 30-day supply are $1,900. Who is going to pay for that? This all comes from coal ash.”

Vernon Zellers told the commission about losing his wife to brain cancer. The committee chair, Matty Lazo-Chadderton, walked over to give him tissues as he sobbed in front of the crowd. “When am I going to die?” he asked, “Am I next?”

Committee Members Respond

Not only were the committee members clearly moved by the day’s events, but so were the three presidentially appointed members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who sat in the audience. Because of the excitement felt by everyone in the weeks leading up to the hearing, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ chairman, vice-chair and another commission member all journeyed to Walnut Cove to listen to the day’s speakers. Chairman Martin Castro commented that the Walnut Cove hearing was the most powerful he had ever been to, both in content, community engagement, and emotional persuasiveness.

With tears in her eyes, Commissioner Karen Narasaki told the community members, “You have given life to the policy issues that can get so wonky. You have made it clear that in this case, it is just about common sense.”

Castro told the community that he related strongly with their stories, having grown up in an industrial area in a community that also suffered from high rates of cancer.

“Don’t tell me there is not a correlation,” he remarked. “This is not just a constitutional or public policy issue. This is a real life issue. Know your stories did not go unfelt or unnoticed. There is something wrong with the system and we need to figure out how to change the system.”

“You will have an advocate,” he promised, “not just here, but in Washington.”

The hearing was a blessing for the community of Walnut Cove, and not one person left without feeling the sense of sorrow, hope, love, passion and joy that emanated from the day’s speakers. As we continue to fight for justice for the little town next to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant, we can take solace in the knowledge that when residents, DEQ and Duke each presented their testimonies during a federal hearing, the light of truth shone unmistakably bright upon the everyday people who have lived, lost, and fought a Goliath in the shadow of its smokestacks.

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Scientists Review to EPA Fracking Report

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board raised questions about the scientific basis of a report by the agency on fracking. Years in the making, the June 2015 report presented the groundwater pollution from fracking as localized and not a major threat to drinking water. The advisory board pointed out the ambiguity of this conclusion and requested more context for apparent data gaps — citing need for more toxicology information — as well as rewriting the conclusion to be more accessible to the general public. — Eliza Laubach

Clean Power Plan Clears Legal Hurdle

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Brian Sewell

Editor’s Note: This article was written before the U.S. Supreme Court issued a stay that temporarily halts implementation of the Clean Power Plan. To read more about this update, visit here.

States challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan in federal court are running out of legal options and losing valuable time as most states look to a carbon-constrained future. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals refused to suspend the Obama administration’s climate regulations while lawsuits move through the courts.

That’s bad news for states including North Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky that are seeking to block the plan despite public support for clean energy and limits on carbon emissions from power plants. But according to West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who is leading the case against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the plaintiffs “remain confident that our arguments will prevail as the case continues.”

Days after the the decision, states and industry groups petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to put a stop to the Clean Power Plan. While early legal challenges appear to be floundering, attempts to obstruct the plan at the state level are alive and well.

Officials in North Carolina crafted what its critics are calling a “plan to fail,” primarily to draw the EPA into a legal battle, that achieves less than 3 percent of the reduction in annual carbon emissions required under the Clean Power Plan. Kentucky’s top environmental regulator announced the state would seek an extension for its compliance plan, taking care to note that there is no “minimal level of progress” required for an extension.

At press time, the EPA and groups supporting the Clean Power Plan — including 18 states, more than two dozen power companies, clean energy associations and public health and environmental groups — were filing their responses to the request before the Supreme Court.

SCOTUS pauses the Clean Power Plan, for now

Wednesday, February 10th, 2016 - posted by brian

What the decision means, and doesn’t mean, for the historic climate rule

After a setback dealt by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s imperative that decision makers in our region understand the opportunities presented by the Clean Power Plan rather than falsely attacking it as the cause of the coal industry’s hard times.

After a setback dealt by the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s imperative that decision makers in our region understand the opportunities presented by the Clean Power Plan rather than falsely attacking it as the cause of the coal industry’s hard times.

Last night, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily stayed the Clean Power Plan in a challenge brought by a coalition of states and industry groups.

Responses poured in from opponents and supporters following the court’s decision, some of which could cause a bit of confusion. Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that the Supreme Court did not “kill,” “block” or “overturn” the Clean Power Plan.

The hold is temporary until legal challenges to the rule are resolved, and we fully expect the plan will prevail. The court put the issue on an expedited docket, with oral arguments scheduled for June 2.

You also may see some opponents celebrating the decision as a “public victory.” But across the country, there is strong and growing public support for limiting carbon pollution from power plants — exactly what the Clean Power Plan is designed to do. In other words, public appetite for expanding energy efficiency and renewables has already been raised. Americans recognize the need to address climate change and the widespread economic and environmental benefits of clean energy. This temporary stay won’t change that.

As a spokeswoman with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said: “We’re disappointed the rule has been stayed, but you can’t stay climate change and you can’t stay climate action.”

The breakneck growth of solar and wind in many parts of the country, and coal’s concurrent decline, are not the result of the Clean Power Plan’s requirements, which would not be enforced until 2022. Instead, investments in renewables are taking off because of their increasing affordability and reliability.

In some cases, states in Central Appalachia and the Southeast could easily comply with the Clean Power Plan. Many are positioned to exceed their carbon-reduction targets, and they can do so while creating jobs, protecting ratepayers and fostering healthier communities. We hope states that are already pursuing compliance stay the course.

It’s imperative that decision makers in our region understand the opportunities presented by the Clean Power Plan rather than falsely attacking it as the cause of the coal industry’s hard times.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator Adam Wells:

The Clean Power Plan has never been a factor in the decline of the coal industry in Appalachia. Rather, the decline is a result of depleted reserves and low competitiveness when compared to western coal and other energy sources. Those trends are unlikely to reverse, no matter what the regulatory environment is. The Supreme Court’s actions yesterday won’t undo the decades-long trend of declining coal employment and production in Appalachia.

At the same time, the job-creating potential of the Clean Power Plan has been put at risk. We want to see a future in Appalachia where energy efficiency and solar power save people money, create local jobs and help build wealth in our communities. The Clean Power Plan is still years away from being implemented, so we can’t rely on it to bring about change tomorrow. But we still urgently need as much investment as we can get for a just transition to a new economy, and that’s why we’ll continue pushing for passage of the RECLAIM Act, the POWER+ Plan and state policies that create clean energy jobs.

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A winning approach for the Clean Power Plan in Virginia

Thursday, January 14th, 2016 - posted by hannah


A new study out today discusses Virginia’s opportunity to comply with the Clean Power Plan — the first-ever standard on carbon pollution from the nation’s power plants — in a way that benefits ratepayers and the economy. It shows that Virginia should strongly prioritize renewable energy and energy efficiency and allow for participation in carbon trading with other states in order to boost economic activity, cut electricity costs, and safeguard healthy air.

Such a plan, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists report, will result in appreciable monthly bill savings for residents, lead to investment in clean energy development and workforce training that will connect workers with new jobs, and reduce dangerous air pollution long-term while addressing our state’s contribution to global warming.

In particular, the carbon-trading approach would yield some $251 million annually for Virginia between 2022 and 2030. If that money were apportioned in a way that is currently being proposed in a bill this legislative session, approximately $25 million a year would be designated for workforce training in the coal mining region of Southwest Virginia, which is struggling with the ongoing decline of coal markets. The region could also see some of the additional $87.8 million that would be distributed statewide for renewable energy, energy efficiency and conservation programs.

Check out this post by Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists for a closer look at how choosing a more ambitious path will create positive ripples across Virginia.

And stay tuned for updates on how you can be involved with Appalachian Voices as we work to ensure that Virginians get the strong state plan we deserve.

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Budget holds promise for Central Appalachia

Friday, December 18th, 2015 - posted by thom
The federal budget is settled. It’s not perfect. But it’s pretty darn good.

In the spending bill, Congress steered clear of the Stream Protection Rule and increased the budgets of agencies focused on economic development in areas including Central Appalachia.

Look for a deeper analysis on the budget deal from us next week.

Today the U.S. Congress passed a spending bill that covers all federal government expenditures and sets the budgets of agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Labor, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The spending bill is a big deal for Appalachian Voices. And honestly, it looks pretty darn good.

Until President Obama signs the bill, which he said he will do, the details aren’t final. But negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders from both parties have been going on for months, including several straight all-nighters this past week. The horse trading has already happened. So while we can’t be certain that everything in the current draft bill will remain, I’d be shocked to see changes.

Spending bills offer a chance to do a lot of good and a lot of bad. Congress can fund projects to improve and diversify the economy of Appalachia (which it did, more on that later), and Congress can prevent federal agencies from completing much-needed environmental rules (which it did NOT(!), more on that now).

Appalachian Voices has been working for years to get a strong Stream Protection Rule. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) released a draft version of the Stream Protection Rule earlier this year, and while it’s in need of improvements, the rule is still expected to improve safeguards for streams near mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

Naturally, the coal industry and its backers in Congress have fought against the rule. They argue that protecting our streams from coal’s toxic waste will cost more than 100,000 jobs. While that’s absurd, it is true that forcing mining companies to stop haphazardly dumping all of their junk into streams, and instead coming up with plans to repair damage, will cost them money. So the industry has been begging its congressional advocates to block the rule from being finalized.

But the bill does not include a rider preventing OSMRE from completing the Stream Protection Rule, despite a large group of representatives pushing for one. We are relieved, to say the least.

On the positive side, there are elements of the POWER+ Plan in the budget. The Department of Labor will receive an additional $19 million in 2016 to aid displaced coal mine workers, which is a bigger problem in Central Appalachia than anywhere else. The Appalachian Regional Commission got a huge boost to its budget, from less than $90 million all the way up to $146 million. The agency has recently been concentrating its funding more towards economic development in the coalfield areas of Appalachia. We expect that trend to continue considering its exciting and unexpected 62 percent boost in funds.

Most surprisingly, the bill includes $90 million for abandoned mine cleanup in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The money is designed to be a pilot program that can later be applied to other states, and we can’t wait to see it expand to Virginia and Tennessee. The interesting part about the funding is that it’s not just about patching up abandoned mine sites, but also focuses on our region’s transition away from a coal-based economy. The purpose of the money is to create jobs and support projects that will aid business development in areas hit hardest by coal’s decline. We have been working hard to see these sorts of projects happen, and while this short-term funding is definitely not enough, we’re excited about the new direction.

So the federal budget is settled. The government won’t close down. Our federal agencies can continue their work to protect Appalachia from mining waste. And our region just got tens of millions of dollars tossed its way for economic development.

It’s not perfect. But it’s pretty darn good.

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EPA May Take Over Cleanup of Asheville Superfund Site

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

Civic action may influence the cleanup of a Superfund site that has been contaminating groundwater with toxic waste in south Asheville for decades.

From 1959 to 1986, the electronic manufacturing plant CTS of Asheville buried significant amounts of trichloroethylene. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed the area Superfund in 2012, and in the years since CTS Corporation has unsuccessfully challenged personal injury claims from individuals living nearby.

At a public meeting in mid-October, the EPA supported public comments calling for an expansion of the single acre CTS initially included in its cleanup plan. Craig Zeller, EPA project manager of the site, said that the agency is weighing whether to accept the plan or to manage the cleanup themselves, which would triple the corporation’s bill and may delay the cleanup, the Asheville Citizen-Times reported. At CTS’s request, the EPA gave the corporation another month to revise its cleanup plan. A decision about how the EPA will proceed is expected in January, according to the Citizen-Times. — Eliza Laubach

NC DEQ’s blatant bid for control

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by Ridge Graham

State agency clashes with the EPA and Coal Ash Management Commission

Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

Donald van der Vaart, Secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality

Over the past few months, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has seemed determined to have complete environmental regulatory control of the state, showing little regard for federal or public input.

In this endeavor, DEQ has taken every chance it can to highlight how external forces, including citizens groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are simply getting in its way. Upholding the best interests of North Carolina’s citizens and the environment only becomes a priority when the agency is threatened with losing power.

Rejecting the Clean Power Plan

DEQ joined a lawsuit with more than two dozen of the nation’s largest carbon-emitting states against the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. In October, DEQ submitted a proposal that would only address coal-based emissions because it believes the first component of the Clean Power Plan — improving coal fired power plant efficiency — is the only aspect the EPA has the legal authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act.

TAKE ACTION: Demand a REAL Clean Power Plan for North Carolina.

But if the Clean Power Plan survives in court, and the EPA rejects North Carolina’s plan, federal regulators can intervene in North Carolina’s emission reductions process. So, in case their strategy fails, state officials plan to submit an alternate plan that aligns with the EPA’s proposal.

EPA threatens to take away DEQ’s permitting authority

This year, DEQ permitted a cement plant in Wilmington that would emit more than 5,000 tons of particulates, mercury and other air pollution annually. The agency also OKed a quarry in Blounts Creek that would discharge up to 12 million gallons of waste a day into the Pamlico River. Residents of these areas, along with coastal environmental advocacy and conservation groups, challenged these permits. The state dismissed those challenges on the grounds that the groups did not have standing.

The EPA sent a letter to DEQ Secretary Donald van der Vaart stating that the inability of citizens to appeal permits was troubling. The letter warned that if DEQ continued to skirt federal regulations, the EPA would revoke its authority to issue pollution permits under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

DEQ responded by shifting the blame to a court decision and presented a list of regulations required by the EPA but not by state law — insinuating that the public process for challenging permits is less burdensome on the state level. State officials said they have no intention of losing permitting authority.

DEQ takes on the Coal Ash Management Commission’s responsibilities

UPDATE: A draft summary by DEQ classified 27 of Duke Energy’s 32 coal ash ponds in North Carolina as posing a “high” or “immediate” risk. If the ratings stand when they are finalized on Dec. 31, Duke would have to excavate the coal ash from those sites.

In another isolationist move, DEQ wants to move forward on the priority classification of coal ash containment sites without the Coal Ash Management Commission. But the commission was created by the Coal Ash Management Act to be housed under the N.C. Department of Public Safety because the General Assembly determined that DEQ was ineffectual and untrustworthy in regulating coal ash.

These site classifications will determine timelines for the cleanup of coal ash at each site, with up to a decade of difference in cleanup response. Sites deemed low priority could be closed using “cap-in-place,” a method that would leave nearby waterways and communities at risk. The commission has 60 days to review the classifications before they go into effect.

However, the state Supreme Court has not yet ruled on Governor Pat McCrory’s lawsuit challenging appointments to the commission, so the group is unable to reach a quorum. When Commission Chairman Michael Jacobs wrote a letter to McCrory and legislative leaders to point this out, van der Vaart responded to say DEQ has it under control.

“Fortunately, legislators had the foresight to include provisions in the coal ash law that prevent delays to the cleanup process including a provision that ensures the prioritization and public participation processes can proceed in the absence of the Coal Ash Management Commission,” van der Vaart wrote.

He did not mention why the commission was not housed under DEQ in the first place.

DEQ blames EPA for delay in coal ash cleanup

DEQ is currently making a public fuss about the EPA taking time to review a state-issued permit to dewater the coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Riverbend Steam Station in Mount Holly, N.C. DEQ claims that this is the fifth permitting delay this year from the EPA, and that North Carolina is receiving different treatment than other states with regard to its coal ash cleanup projects.

Duke Energy's retired Riverbend Steam Station, Photo from Flickr.

Duke Energy’s retired Riverbend Steam Station, Photo by Duke Energy, licensed under Creative Commons.

Duke’s plants are permitted a discharge rate of coal ash pond water as part of a multi-step treatment process. The nearby bodies of water, many of which supply drinking water to nearby cities and towns, are monitored to determine how much impact the discharge has on the surrounding environment and watershed. DEQ is rushing to dump the entirety of the coal ash pond water into Mountain Island Lake, which is already polluted from the coal ash ponds at the Riverbend plant.

Water samples taken from Mountain Island Lake in 2013 indicated there were levels of constituents in the surface water that exceeded public health standards. Tissues samples taken from fish caught in the lake were found to have high levels of heavy metals, which led to a state-issued fish consumption advisory. Mountain Island Lake is the drinking water source more than 750,000 people.

With these considerations, is it not reasonable to take more than 15 days to analyze such a permit? Or does DEQ just want to have its way regardless of what happens to the people downstream.

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