Posts Tagged ‘EPA’

White House budget leaves Appalachia in the dust

Tuesday, March 21st, 2017 - posted by thom
The White House's budget won't become law, but it should alarm people across the country — and perhaps especially people in Appalachia.

The White House’s budget won’t become law, but it should alarm people across the country — and perhaps especially people in Appalachia.

The White House released its budget blueprint last week, and the proposal is nothing short of a disaster for Appalachia and rural communities across the country. The Trump administration will release a more complete budget request in May, but we have a lot of information to go on already.

Congress, not the president, holds America’s purse strings, so the majority of the White House budget proposal will never become a reality. But the “skinny budget” still reveals a great deal about where Appalachian communities fall on the administration’s list of priorities.

First, let’s look at a few agencies and programs the White House wants to completely eliminate:

Appalachian Regional Commission – For more than 50 years, the ARC has provided funding for projects throughout the region to create economic opportunities and improve critical infrastructure. ARC funding and assistance has created an entire highway system, and introduced broadband, all while supporting local and sustainable projects like all of these. Recently, ARC has improved efforts to build leadership and community participation. Republican leaders from Kentucky, most notably Rep. Hal Rogers (KY-5), have successfully increased annual funding for the ARC in the past four years from about $60 million to over $120 million.

Economic Development Administration: The only federal agency focused entirely on economic development, the EDA promotes innovation and competitiveness in regions in need. The EDA has a crucial role in the diversification of Appalachia’s economy, as well as communities throughout the country coming together and seeking ways to overcome the downturn in the coal industry.

Weatherization Assistance Program and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program: While the programs are quite different, they work in tandem to help low-income families reduce their energy bills. Energy efficiency and weatherization can greatly improve Americans’ health and quality of life, save money, and improve the value of homes. But without assistance, many low-income families cannot afford to make the necessary home improvements to achieve these benefits. Housing in Appalachian is among the least efficient in the country, and these two programs are needed to change that fact.

Abandoned Mine Lands: In response to widespread support from Appalachian local governments for ideas outlined in the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan, Rep. Rogers and Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) last year carved out money for a pilot program to repurpose Abandoned Mine Lands for economic development projects. The program sent $30 million each to Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania for projects on previously mined sites. While the pilot program was never intended to continue indefinitely, Congress plans to continue funding it for one more year, this time including funds for Virginia, Ohio and Alabama.

We haven’t even gotten to the big cuts yet. You might have noticed I been buried the lead, and that’s mostly because it’s been widely reported since rumors started to emerge about a month ago.

Environmental Protection Agency: The White House wants to slash the agency’s budget by 31 percent. The EPA is America’s best defense against air and water pollution. Appalachian Voices has long worked to hold the EPA accountable for its shortcomings, but we should not for a moment overlook the immeasurable benefits the thousands of EPA employees have had on all of our lives. Before the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and National Environmental Policy Act were passed to provide us with the protections we now enjoy, we were racing down a dangerous path of pollution. The challenges have only gotten greater in the past 40 years, but we live in a stronger, healthier, more sustainable world because of the EPA. Hampering the agency’s ability to carry out its job is unacceptable.

Climate change programs: The official position of the White House Office of Management and Budget is that climate programs are a “waste of your money.” If you believe that climate change is a hoax, then I suppose that makes sense. On the other hand, if you agree with the rest of the world and recognize that an urgent and effective response to this global crisis is long overdue, then this is more than just crazy talk — it’s catastrophic thinking.

Everything else: The White House budget also eliminates the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. These are not uniquely relevant to Appalachia, but the region is hardly unaffected by cutting these types of programs. Despite what the Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney seems to think, eliminating funding for things like PBS is not a favor to coal miners or anyone else in West Virginia. Mulvaney indicated that people in Appalachia have no use for PBS, NPR, or the arts, and maybe that just tells us what he thinks of those programs. Then again, maybe it tells us more about what he thinks of people in Appalachia.

It bears repeating that Congress has control of the budget and none of these proposals have become law. We are confident that most of the programs will continue to be funded at or near current levels for the near future. But the budget is the clearest, most comprehensive picture we have of the dangerous direction in which President Trump wants to take the country. And it’s a call to arms for everyone to protect successful programs that Americans support and benefit from every day.

Senate confirms Scott Pruitt to lead EPA

Friday, February 17th, 2017 - posted by brian

A longtime opponent of the agency, Pruitt was sworn in as EPA administrator Friday

pruitt

As expected, the Senate has confirmed former Oklahoma attorney general and walking conflict of interest Scott Pruitt to be the next administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If President Trump still plans to cripple the EPA, as he repeatedly promised during his campaign, the man to lead that effort begins work on Monday. Pruitt will be tasked with making the EPA great again by dismantling climate programs and slashing funding for things like the enforcement of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The 52 senators, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted “yea” have much to answer for. Today, threats to clean water and air put millions of Americans at risk. We’re also running out of time act decisively on climate change. Putting a climate denier in charge of the federal agency in charge of climate policy is like pouring gasoline on a burning house.

The vote came down along party lines, except for Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, both of whom are Democrats from coal-producing states. Not coincidentally, both senators also attended President Trump’s signing of a bill to overturn the Stream Protection Rule yesterday. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican to break from her party.

Pruitt disqualified himself from effectively leading the agency long before being nominated by then President-elect Trump. During his seven-year stint as attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA no less than 14 times. Siding with industry in every case, his goal seems to have been sinking as many federal rules as possible — ozone limits, limits on power plant emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide, clean water protections, scenic protections for national parks, to name a few.

Following his nomination, Pruitt caught flak describing himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” on his LinkedIn profile. As of today, a few hours after the confirmation vote, that proud proclamation is still on his page. I checked.

And, really, why would he feel the need to downplay his opposition to the EPA’s mission? He’s received ringing endorsements from members of Congress including the majority leader. “Pruitt is just the candidate we need at the helm of the EPA,” Sen. McConnell said today.

Republican senators heaped praise on Pruitt during his confirmation hearing for his attempts to hamstring the EPA and for being a good baseball player — a quality some Democrats on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee turned on him in calling out his losing record in lawsuits against the EPA.

This also isn’t Pruitt’s first time in the national spotlight. He was the subject of a 2014 investigation that exposed his secretive ties to the oil and gas industry. The investigation famously revealed that, while attorney general, Pruitt took a letter drafted by lawyers for Devon Energy accusing the EPA of overstating the problem of air pollution from natural gas drilling in Oklahoma, changed a few words, slapped it on official letterhead and sent it to the EPA with his signature. “Outstanding!” a Devon Energy lobbyist replied.

The controversy du jour — because every day it’s something new — relates to emails and other documents detailing communications between Pruitt’s office and the oil and gas industry. The day before Pruitt’s confirmation vote, an Oklahoma court ruled in favor of the Center for Media and Democracy and ordered the release of as much as 3,000 emails that would presumably be of interest to senators weighing Pruitt’s confirmation.

In response to this development, Democrats pushed to delay the vote. Nevertheless, Sen. McConnell persisted. When asked why he did not extend debate and wait for the emails to be released, McConnell responded, “Because I choose not to.”

The fact that, unlike the president, Pruitt acknowledges that the decline of coal is not a result of the EPA’s “heavy hand” is of little consolation. He is a staunch proponent of deregulation and consolidation. Now that Congress has signed off on his nominee, Trump will waste no time. The president plans to pay a visit to EPA headquarters next week and sign a package of executive orders that a source told The Hill could “suck the air out of the room.”

Of course, not all is lost. Hundreds of current EPA staff took a moral stand in speaking out against Pruitt, while nearly 800 former agency staff signed onto a letter to McConnell stating that Pruitt’s record suggests he does not “share the vision or agree with the underlying principles of our environmental statutes.” In an interview today, Gina McCarthy, who became Obama’s EPA administrator in 2013, emphasized that most EPA employees are “smart, dedicated, hard-working, mission-driven public servants.”

We should keep in mind who the real protectors are as Pruitt takes his position atop the agency tasked with safeguarding our air and water.

The “Fox Guarding the Henhouse” cabinet

Monday, January 16th, 2017 - posted by molly

BREAKING: Scott Pruitt’s confirmation vote to head the EPA goes to the Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 1.

Call your senators today to reject Trump’s energy and environment picks!

>> Find your senators’ direct numbers here.
>> Capitol switchboard: 202-224-3121

Given President-elect Trump’s fossil-fuel-friendly philosophy and dismissive position toward climate science, it’s no surprise that many of his Cabinet appointees take positions that threaten public health, air and water quality, and our natural heritage, and that accelerate climate change.

As a region with astounding biodiversity and natural assets, Appalachia has a particularly large stake in environmental protection. And with the coal industry’s track record of pollution, the environmental and health consequences of fracking, and the encroachment of fracked-gas gas pipelines, effective regulation of polluting industries in Appalachia is critical.

Appalachian Voices is joining with clean energy advocates, climate activists and public health proponents across the country in urging the Senate to stand for our health and environment and reject these nominees.

Scott Pruitt. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Scott Pruitt. Photo by Gage Skidmore.


Scott Pruitt, E.P.A. Administrator nominee
Confirmation hearing set for Jan. 18

During his stint for the past seven years as Oklahoma’s Attorney General, Pruitt has sued the EPA no less than 14 times. His goal seems to have been sinking as many federal programs as he could — ozone limits, toxic mercury controls, clean water protections, scenic protections for national parks, to name a few. The favorite target of the staunch climate-denier is anything to do with reducing greenhouse gases.

The Sierra Club has called him the “worst of the worst” of Trump’s pick for energy and environmentally related posts.

Pruitt’s aggressive agenda is driven in large measure by hefty campaign contributions and an entanglement of PACs, super PACs, trade and professional associations and other financial influencing from fossil fuel players — familiar names to our readers, like Koch Industries and Murray Energy. As he heads to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works for his hearing on Wednesday, Senate Democrats and others are pressing various ethics officials to opine on his ability to head the agency.

So egregious have Pruitt’s actions been in the past that the head of Oklahoma’s environment agency retired in frustration under his leadership, and the for the first time in its 50-year history, Environmental Defense Fund is opposing the nomination. Said William K. Reilly, a Republican who headed the EPA, in an interview with Yale Environment 360: “For a prospective EPA administrator to doubt or even contest a conclusion that 11 national academies of science have embraced is willful political obstruction. Science is the secular religion underlying everything EPA does, and one who cannot rely on it, or is determinedly contemptuous of it, cannot effectively lead the agency or serve as the country’s environmental conscience, which is EPA’s unique mission.”

Clean energy advocates, climate activists and others around the country are urging senators to reject Pruitt. NextGen is airing a TV spot in D.C. and seven states, including Virginia and Tennessee.

Creative Commons; copyright Palm Beach Daily News.

Wilbur Ross. Creative Commons; copyright Palm Beach Daily News.


Wilbur Ross, Commerce Secretary nominee
Confirmation hearing set for Jan. 18

Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross has a history of disregarding protections for workers, communities and the environment in Central Appalachia. During his tenure as president of International Coal Group from 2004 until 2011, Appalachian Voices caught ICG falsifying federally required water pollution reports. In 2010, we identified more than 10,000 violations of the Clean Water Act committed by ICG between 2008 and 2009, and in 2011 we found an additional 4,000 violations that occurred in the first three months of 2011. Read more about the legal case.

False reporting was not the only water pollution issue at ICG mines. In 2011, the Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy sued ICG for excessive discharges of selenium, a pollutant toxic to aquatic life. The discharges were ongoing for years prior to the 2011 suit, including while Ross was leading the company.

And in 2006, still under Ross’s tenure, an ICG mine was the site of one of the worst mining accidents in recent history — the Sago Mine disaster, which killed 12 miners. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration determined that better safety practices could have prevented the disaster.

Rick Perry. Photo by Gage Skidmore

Rick Perry. Photo by Gage Skidmore


Rick Perry, Energy Secretary nominee
Confirmation hearing set for Jan. 19

Trump nominated former Texas governor, former presidential candidate and current climate denier Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy — one of the three departments that Perry suggested eliminating in 2011.

The DOE’s responsibilities include researching cutting-edge technologies like renewable power, maintaining and disposing of nuclear weapons, running national laboratories (like Oak Ridge National Laboratory in East Tennessee), managing energy efficiency standards and natural gas exports and overseeing nuclear environmental cleanup.

Perry is a clear proponent of oil, gas and coal. Until December 31, 2016, he sat on the board of two major companies behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, Sunoco Logistics Partners and Energy Transfer Partners. He earned $270,000 through those board appointments in 2016 alone. Natural gas drilling increased in Texas under his leadership, and Perry defended offshore oil drilling after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. Yet, Texas also saw a significant jump in wind energy during Perry’s term.

“If history is prologue, it’s gonna be a pay-to-play Energy Department and a bidder’s war between the coal companies, the renewable energy companies, and the big nuclear companies,” Tom Smith, executive director of the Texas Office of Public Citizen, told Utility Dive.

It’s unclear if Perry would continue to advance scientific research into clean energy. His 2010 book called climate change a “contrived, phony mess,” despite the fact that climate change is overwhelmingly accepted by the scientific community. As Secretary of Energy, Perry would also oversee the agency’s role in science education. In Texas, Perry advocated for presenting creationism in classrooms alongside the scientific theory of evolution.

Bill Richardson, former New Mexico governor and energy secretary under Bill Clinton, told the New York Times that Perry’s political influence could be helpful on the job. But he added a major caveat: “My concern is that Perry will get sucked in by the Trump climate deniers and try to dismantle the valuable renewable energy and climate change programs that the department manages.”

Ryan Zinke. Official congressional portrait.

Ryan Zinke. Official congressional portrait.


Ryan Zinke, Interior Secretary nominee
Confirmation hearing set for Jan. 17

A one-term Republican representative from Montana and former Navy SEAL, Ryan Zinke, is an avid hunter and fisherman.

In his one term in office, Zinke took anti-environment positions on issues including endangered species protection, oil drilling on public lands, smog standards, public input and protecting streams from mining waste, to name a few. Yet he broke that pattern to support full funding of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which provides grants to local, state and federal governments to acquire and maintain land for recreation and conservation.

Zinke has a mixed record when it comes to preserving public lands. When the Republican Party’s platform-writing committee agreed to support transferring federally owned land to states, Zinke stepped down from the committee in protest. Transferring federal public land to states could allow states to sell the land to developers or accelerate fossil fuel development. But on Jan. 3, Zinke voted in favor of a House rules package that encourages transferring federal land to states by changing the way the cost of these transfers would be calculated.

Rex Tillerson. Creative Commons 4.0 Official transition portrait, Office of the President-elect

Rex Tillerson. Creative Commons 4.0 Official transition portrait, Office of the President-elect


Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State nominee
Confirmation hearing held Jan. 11

A longtime Exxon employee, Tillerson became CEO of Exxon Mobil in 2006 and stepped down in December 2016 after being nominated for Secretary of State. Under his leadership, the global fossil fuel giant embarked on a $720 million joint venture with a Russian firm that includes drilling in the Arctic, shale extraction and a Siberian gas export plant. Those projects were halted in 2014 by U.S. sanctions on Russian oil and gas companies, and several oil and gas industry representatives have expressed optimism that if Tillerson becomes secretary, the United States would ease Russian sanctions and accelerate these oil and gas projects.

Under Tillerson, Exxon has come under fire for funding groups that publicly denied climate science even though Exxon’s own experts have documented evidence of climate change since the 1970s. But Tillerson’s record on climate change is more complicated. In 2009, as Exxon CEO, he announced the company’s support for a tax on carbon, though no such tax was currently proposed. Congress was considering a cap-and-trade bill at the time, which Exxon lobbied against — the bill passed the House but failed to reach a Senate vote. But while Tillerson acknowledges the reality of climate science, his behavior isn’t reassuring.

“Look at the actions, not the words,” reads a statement from the Sierra Club. “Rex Tillerson’s actions make it obvious that he will willingly sacrifice a healthy climate for the sake of oil and gas.”

During his confirmation hearing, Tillerson said that “the risk of climate change does exist, and that the consequences could be serious enough that action should be taken.” When asked if human activity is contributing to climate change, he hedged, saying that, “The increase in the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are having an effect. Our ability to predict that effect is very limited.”

He also stated that climate change is not an “imminent national security threat,” which contradicts a 2015 Pentagon report that called it an “urgent and growing threat to our national security.”

Beyond these five cabinet nominees, a number of other Trump appointees are either feeble supporters of addressing climate change or are strident climate denialists. Read more from Climate Central.

Southwest Virginians speak out against Doe Branch Mine

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 - posted by willie
A map of the Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River. At a recent hearings Southwest Virginians shared their concerns about Doe Branch with state regulators.

A map of the Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River. At a recent hearings Southwest Virginians shared their concerns about Doe Branch with state regulators.

“God gave us the water so we can stay clean, and so we can drink it. I don’t want poison in the water.”

Those are the words of 6-year-old Levi Marney, spoken on the evening of Nov. 7, to representatives of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) at a public meeting about the proposed Doe Branch mountaintop removal mine in Haysi. The mine, proposed by Contura Energy, would raze over 1,100 acres near young Levi’s home and discharge sediment and other mining-related pollutants into the Russell Prater Creek where children like Levi and his siblings play during the warm months.

Levi was the first of 10 individuals to speak that night. As he sat down, his grandmother Gail stood up, and with a hand on Levi’s shoulder said, “I’m here to speak against this mine for five reasons and this is one of them. He is one of my five grandchildren. He’s the seventh generation of our family on our property in Dickenson County. Many members of our family are in coal mining, but we know the future of Dickenson County is in tourism, and it’s in taking care of our environment better than we have in the past.”

The particular matter under question at this public meeting — called an “informal conference” by the state — was a renewal of the operation’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The NPDES permitting process is the method by which point sources of pollution are monitored and legally allowed to release various pollutants into public waterways like the Russell Prater Creek and the Russell Fork River. The DMME approved the initial NPDES permit for the Doe Branch mine back in 2012. But, as several individuals who spoke out at the informal conference pointed out, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has maintained an objection to the project from its outset, citing the likelihood that the mine would cause further harm to the Russell Prater Creek, which is already listed by the state of Virginia as being impaired by mining-related pollution.

In addition to concerns over water quality, many individuals spoke to the urgent need to develop new economic opportunities that utilize exactly the natural assets that large-scale surface mining destroys. Underscoring her opposition to the Doe Branch project, Sister Jackie Hanrahan, a nun representing the Appalachian Faith and Ecology Center in neighboring Wise County said, “A healthy economy can only happen when we have a healthy ecosystem. We’ve focused on only extractive industries for so long, but now we’re finally at a point where we have people working together over different philosophies to build a healthy economy.”

“I can show exactly what mining has done to this area,” said Tammy Owens, an organic farmer with nearly 30 acres of reclaimed strip mine on her farm. “This is my top soil,” Owens said dropping a plastic bag of what appeared to be little more than sand and rock on the table in front of the DMME representatives. “There is no topsoil. Nothing grows on the mined areas of my farm. Here in our area is where ginseng grows the best. It’s where bloodroot, and yellow root grow best. These are highly valuable medicinal herbs. What we can get for an acre of ginseng is astronomical compared to what other row crop farmers would get but can we grow those medicinal herbs any more on our farm land?”

The Doe Branch mine has already received the other permits it needs to move forward. The EPA objection is one of the only things currently preventing the mine from moving forward. Cooperation between state and federal agencies in making permitting decisions is an intentional system that creates checks and balances in weighing factors that impact industries, communities and the environment. That’s exactly what is happening with the Doe Branch permit. But it could change quickly under a Trump presidency.

While many personnel will remain at the EPA, changes in high-level staff, budget, or regulations could alter how the agency handles permitting decisions for mountaintop removal coal mining. Market forces are another largely independent factor. There is no magic wand that can suddenly put more coal in the ground, or make the coal that remains more economically feasible to mine and burn in the face of stiff market competition from natural gas and increasingly competitive renewable energy sources. In light of this reality, it is difficult to gauge how eager Contura Energy is to begin work on an operation of this size.

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.

    Tennessee

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

    Alabama

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

    Georgia

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

Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Virginia

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

    West Virginia

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

    Kentucky

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

Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky

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

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

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

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

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


Pennsylvania and Ohio

    Pennsylvania

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

    Ohio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People Impacted by the Mess

Annette and William Gibbs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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