Posts Tagged ‘Health’

VIDEO: “Contaminated, But Smart!”- Duke Energy’s New Coal Ash Assessment

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015 - posted by sarah

Duke Energy claims coal ash pollution stops at their boundary, impacted families angered

On Monday evening, Duke Energy released the executive statement from the company’s study assessing the groundwater contamination at two of their largest coal ash sites in North Carolina, the Allen and Buck Steam Stations in Belmont and Salisbury, respectively. Unsurprisingly, Duke Energy’s finding suggested they were likely not responsible for the contamination found in the drinking water wells of over 200 households within 1,000 feet of the company’s coal ash dumps.

From Duke’s executive summary:

Based on data obtained during this CSA, the groundwater flow direction, and the extent of exceedances of boron and sulfate, it appears that groundwater impacted by the ash basin is contained within the Duke Energy property boundary.

Check out local Belmont resident’s reaction to the the summary:

Duke Energy has not proven that contamination from ash basins isn’t moving in the direction of the neighbors’ wells. They have only said what “appears” to be the case, and while they may hope it gives them some legal cover (though that certainly remains to be seen), it does nothing to assuage the overwhelming concerns and fears of families who have been told their water is unsafe for drinking and cooking.

One glaring omission is that Duke Energy did not test for hexavalent chromium, a dangerous heavy metal and known carcinogen that has been found at high levels in dozens of private wells neighboring the utility’s coal ash dumps. According to the Charlotte Observer, Duke did not report results for hexavalent chromium because of a “a lack of time to collect and analyze the data.”

This isn’t the first time Duke Energy has neglected to test for the harmful contaminant; they have never tested for hexavalent chromium, and therefore there is no historical data on which to base their claims that the heavy metal is not migrating to neighbors’ wells from the company’s coal ash ponds.

Trivalent chromium can transform into its more toxic form, hexavalent chromium when it comes in contact with high-heat industrial processes (like burning coal). Exceedances for total chromium have been found in groundwater monitoring results conducted by Duke Energy at their property line. How much of that chromium is hexavalent is unknown.

Duke Energy’s release of the report comes on the heels of a N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources blog post stating that the agency has tested 24 background wells and found levels of contaminants similar to those in private wells.

Although DENR claims that the levels are similar, the agency has yet to make the actual levels public. However, at a community meeting hosted by the N.C.Department of Health and Human Services and DENR last Thursday, Dr. Ken Rudo, the state toxicologist began the meeting by disclosing the levels of hexavalent chromium found in the background wells.

Dr. Rudo revealed that of the 24 wells sampled, 23 had levels of hexavalent chromium between “non-detect” (meaning the levels are too low for labs to read) to 1.7 parts per billion (ppb). Rudo explained that in communities within 1,000 feet of Duke’s coal ash sites, 120 to 140 wells showed levels of hexavalent chromium that exceed the average levels of the background wells.

Clean Water for AllSo why are both DENR and Duke making statements that hexavalent chromium is naturally occurring when the numbers don’t necessarily demonstrate that?

The state’s health screening level for hexavalent chromium is .07 ppb. In Belmont, levels of hexavalent chromium found in wells range from .24 ppb to a whopping 5 ppb. At Thursday’s meeting, Dr. Rudo explained that the standard for hexavalent chromium is based on up-to-date science and standards in other states, and that the state health department “can defend these standards in any venue that we need to defend them.” He also warned the crowd that he is

“…much more concerned about the effects of hexavalent chromium because the science is so clear that hexavalent chromium is a chemical that has significant risk associated with it. It’s a mutagenic carcinogen, so any level can pose a risk, by definition.”

When asked by a resident if Dr. Rudo would drink her water, he firmly replied, “no”.

So where does this leave the residents who are living on bottled water? Still confused and scared about the safety of their water, nervous about their home values, wondering if they have been giving their children contaminated water to drink.

Duke Energy needs to collect data on hexavalent chromium in order to provide a more complete picture.

Peculiar Patriot Coal deal raises questions

Thursday, August 20th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

What would a health care executive-turned-environmentalist want with the dying business of mining coal?

That’s the question some are asking after it was announced this week that Tom Clarke, a Virginia businessman, plans to acquire assets, and assume around $400 million in liabilities, from recently-bankrupt Patriot Coal through one of his companies, ERP Compliant Fuels.

The deal is part of an elaborate and untested business model that will allow ERP — an affiliate of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund — to continue mining Patriot permits in West Virginia, bundling this coal with “carbon offsets” accrued from planting trees, and selling these bundled products to electric utilities.

Because trees absorb atmospheric carbon, Clarke believes credits created through reforestation will help states meet carbon emissions targets set forth by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the plan does not make clear that coal-carbon offsets will count towards states’ emissions targets.

According to The Roanoke Times, Clarke says he’s not in it for the money, but for the earth. But that isn’t clear from the available literature on ERP, which seeks to bring together a coalition of conflicting environmental and capital interests — “coal mining businesses, electric power producers, forestland owners, government, and the scientific community” — in order to reduce global CO2 emissions. In the same literature, Clarke and the ERP/VCLF tout their business partnership with Jim Justice, a notorious scofflaw mine operator who owes nearly $2 million in mine violation fines.

As if these relationships weren’t enough to raise suspicion, ERP/VCLF’s definition of a “carbon offset” is dubious. As The Roanoke Times points out:

It doesn’t matter that Clarke will target coal-fired electrical generating plants in the Ohio River Valley with his pitch, while the designated trees are in Central America and the U.S. South or would be planted in Appalachia. Carbon emissions spread in the atmosphere and the concentration evens out; a party that wants to offset its carbon output can fund tree planting or tree preservation anywhere and benefit the globe, he said.

If there’s no requirement that trees be planted on deforested land in Appalachia, what’s stopping ERP from destroying mountains and externalizing the costs onto Appalachian communities for the social mission of stopping climate change? How does ERP plan to address coal ash and mercury and the many other harmful externalities that are inflicted on communities as coal is mined, processed and burned? How will the company account for the numerous injuries, fatalities, and black lung incidences that result from both underground and surface mining? Coal’s impact goes far beyond CO2 pollution.

These are crucial questions to ask as the coal industry in central Appalachia undergoes massive structural changes. If the history of the coal industry in the region has taught us anything, it’s that we should be highly suspect of outside corporate interests looking to exploit the region’s natural resources.

This is just as true today, in an era in which investors and politicians stand to gain substantial material and social capital off of the region’s diversification.

Predictable politics giving way to popular support for POWER+

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo of Wise County, Va., by Flickr user biotour 13 licensed under Creative Commons.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan are less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate economic hardship. Photo of Wise County, Va., by biotour 13.

The recent growth in local support for a plan to boost Appalachia’s economy has been a bright spot in the region during some of the coal industry’s darkest days.

In Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan, a federal budget initiative proposed by the White House to build more diverse economies in the communities hardest hit by the regional coal industry’s decline.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors of Wise County, Va., unanimously approved a resolution supporting the plan, citing the “dramatic economic transition” and job losses the county has experienced. According to the resolution, the county “desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances” facing the region.

On the same night, the City Council of Benham, in Harlan County, Ky., passed a supporting resolution. Before Benham came the City of Whitesburg, Ky., and Virginia’s Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission.

The Campbell County Commission became the first locality in Tennessee to support POWER+, unanimously passing a resolution yesterday. Also on Monday, members of the Letcher County Fiscal Court voted unanimously in favor of the plan.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

It was only a few weeks ago that Norton, Va., became the first locality in the nation to pass a resolution in favor of the plan. More endorsements are expected in the days and weeks ahead.

Appalachian Voices and our allies have been promoting the POWER+ Plan, too. We’re heartened, but not surprised, to hear local perspectives that don’t reflect the tone legislators from Appalachian states often take in D.C.

After listening to residents speak at the Wise County Board of Supervisors meeting about how the plan could benefit their families and share their hopes for Southwest Virginia’s economy, board member Ron Shortt told the audience, “We’re behind you 100 percent on this. We realize how important it is to Southwest Virginia and Wise County.”

The implication could be that, so far, Congress doesn’t realize how important it is for the region.

Since it holds the federal purse strings, Congress must approve funding for elements of the POWER+ Plan. But after months of opportunity to consider the proposal, and some shirking by Appalachian politicians, lawmakers in the House and Senate weakened key provisions of the plan or left them out of the budget altogether.

We recently covered Congress’s muted response in The Appalachian Voice and pointed to how lawmakers are sticking to their political sides:

… rather than receiving the POWER+ Plan with enthusiasm, many Appalachian lawmakers’ comments echoed past criticisms of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and claims of a war on coal.

“The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that,” a spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Earlier this year, Capito introduced legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon pollution.

When asked about the plan, a spokesperson for first-term Rep. Alex Mooney responded to the Gazette-Mail with a simple “No, Representative Mooney does not support the [POWER+] Plan.”

Mooney has introduced a bill to prevent the U.S. Department of the Interior from finalizing the Stream Protection Rule to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. He has called stopping the rule his “top priority.”

Rather than investing in workforce training and reemployment programs or reforming the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund to focus more on economic development, as the POWER+ Plan would, congressional opponents of the president remain primarily concerned with undermining protections for Appalachian streams and fighting limits on carbon emissions — policy goals, sure, but nothing close to an economic development plan for the region.

The counties that stand to benefit most from the plan are some of the poorest in the United States and continue to face layoffs, the impacts of ongoing mining, and pollution from decades-old and poorly reclaimed mine sites.

Lawmakers representing those counties in Congress, including Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are positioned to rally other influential legislators around the plan, but they aren’t.

Some lawmakers have made statements expressing tacit support. But the resolutions make clear that these localities expect their representatives to do more; some call on members of Congress by name to support funding for economic development in the region.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan, and attempts to fit it into a “war on coal” framework, are understandably less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate the economic hardships they face.

Many of the communities now urging members of Congress to back the plan have been underrepresented over the years in their demands for a more diverse economy. They deserved to be heard then like they deserve to be heard now.

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U.S. coal giant Alpha Natural Resources files for bankruptcy

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by jamie
Alpha Natural Resources Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, West Virginia - Photo by Ami Vitale

Alpha Natural Resources’ Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, W.Va. Photo by Ami Vitale, www.amivitale.com.

Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States and a big player in the Appalachian coal market, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday of this week, coincidentally on the day President Obama announced his administration’s final Clean Power Plan.

In the announcement, Alpha blamed “an unprecedented period of distress with increased competition from natural gas, an oversupply in the global coal market, historically low prices due to weaker international and domestic economies, and increasing government regulation that has pushed electric utilities to transition away from coal-fired power plants.”

According to the release, the company does not anticipate closing the business down, but will “seek the necessary immediate relief from the Bankruptcy Court that will allow normal business operations to continue uninterrupted while in Chapter 11, with coal being mined, customer commitments honored, and wages and benefits for Alpha’s affiliated employees paid.”

A Bloomberg Business article notes that Alpha, which employs nearly 8,000 workers at more than 50 underground and surface mines and more than 20 coal preparation facilities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, has accumulated $3.3 billion in debt over the past several years.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Alpha has assets of $10.1 billion, liabilities of $7.1 billion, and is “seeking up to $692 million in bankruptcy financing from senior lenders and secured bondholders to fund its operations.”

United Mine Workers of America responded to the news:

“Today’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Alpha Natural Resources appears to follow the same script as others we’ve seen this year: pay off the big banks and other Wall Street investors at the expense of workers, retirees and their communities … Alpha needs to understand that while we are willing to discuss ways forward that will be of mutual benefit for the company and for our members, we are also prepared to do whatever we need to do to maintain decent jobs with the pension and health care benefits our retirees were promised and have earned.”

Alpha launched a new website to detail the Chapter 11 process, including contact information and FAQs for employees, customers, retirees and other stakeholders.

Is there an echo in here?

The move brings to mind the financial roller coaster of Patriot Coal, the West Virginia-based company that emerged from its first bankruptcy in 2012 only to file again a scant 3 years later in May of this year. Patriot’s initial 2012 “restructuring” plan was extremely controversial as it involved slashing the healthcare benefits of 1,800 union miners and retirees. Patriot initially won court approval for the cut, but, after significant public scrutiny and outrage, settled with the United Mine Workers of America in 2013 for $400 million to cover the benefits.

And now history seems to be repeating itself. According to an AP story that is quoted on Coal Tattoo (yet mysteriously disappeared from national news outlets, including the Washington Post), just a few weeks ago Patriot asked a judge’s permission to “reject the company’s collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees’ health care benefits …” The United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to the proposed plan, which includes $6.4 million in bonuses paid to management employees.

Just this week, the beleaguered company announced the layoff of 1,081 coal miners, most in West Virginia’s Kanawha County.

Patriot Coal is also the first coal company in Appalachia to announce it would phase out the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.

“Big Coal’s war on itself”

When examining the financial tribulations of big coal mining companies, industry officials are quick to point the finger at what they have dubbed the “war on coal,” claiming that environmental regulations are the primary culprits causing their fiscal misfortunes. But according to a recent article co-authored by independent financial analyst Andrew Stevenson and NRDC’s Dave Hawkins, coal mining’s economic downturn has more to do with bad investment decisions than anything else.

“The biggest cause of Big Coal’s loss of value is that Big 3 management bet big on a global coal boom and lost big when it went bust,” Stevenson and Hawkins write. Their article goes on to detail the five specific reasons Alpha and other coal companies are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“In sum, bad bets at the top of the market, weak met coal prices, cheap natural gas, and lower power demand due to energy efficiency reduced cumulative forecasted coal revenues for the Big 3 by approximately $21 billion over the past four years. This is a big hit for companies as highly leveraged as Alpha Natural, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy and the reason why these companies are struggling to stay afloat today.”

As industry officials and coal-friendly politicians — including an outspoken Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who notedly said, “I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy” — themselves take aim at the Clean Power Plan, they have yet to acknowledge the most important question on the table: what will happen to residents in Appalachia’s coal country who, because of company bankruptcies, layoffs, revocation of pensions and lack of other job opportunities, remain among the poorest in the nation?

So far, the only offer of assistance to these folks has come from President Obama himself, in the form of the POWER+ Plan to revitalize the region.

“They’ll claim [the Clean Power Plan] is a “war on coal,” to scare up votes — even as they ignore my plan to actually invest in revitalizing coal country, and supporting health care and retirement for coal miners and their families, and retraining those workers for better-paying jobs and healthier jobs,” Obama said on Monday, taking aim at McConnell and his other critics. Communities across America have been losing coal jobs for decades. I want to work with Congress to help them, not to use them as a political football.

Community Rallies Around Need for Energy Efficiency in the High Country

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by jamie

Over 1,000 residents support greater energy efficiency investments to grow economy, lower energy costs

CONTACT:
Rory McIlmoil, Energy Policy Director, rory@appvoices.org
Sarah Kellogg, North Carolina Field Organizer, sarah@appvoices.org
(828) 262-1500

Boone, N.C. — More than thirty local residents, service organizations and local government officials gathered for an event Wednesday evening at the Jones House in Boone to raise awareness about the need for greater investments in energy efficiency in the High Country. Speakers included: Zach Dixon, Brooke Walker, Violet Scholar and Mary Ruble — local residents who need or have benefitted from home energy improvements; Sam Zimmerman of Sunny Day Homes, a local business that offers energy efficiency contracting services; and, Melissa Soto of WAMY Community Action Agency, which provides free weatherization and heating improvements for qualified low-income residents.

Appalachian Voices, a regional environmental non-profit organization promoting electric utility “on-bill energy efficiency finance” programs, organized the event with the support of local residents. On-bill financing offers residents a way to pay for energy efficiency upgrades to their homes through their electric bills using the savings gained as a result of the energy improvements. During the event, Appalachian Voices presented a folder containing more than 1,000 signatures by High Country residents and letters from more than 20 local businesses and service agencies supporting an increase in energy efficiency investments through on-bill finance programs. According to Appalachian Voices, such programs provide the best option for addressing high energy costs related to poorly weatherized homes and old, inefficient appliances, and for alleviating the impact that energy costs have on low- to moderate-income residents.

The event closed with a call for local electric utilities, government agencies, service organizations, businesses and residents to identify and invest in solutions such as on-bill financing for lowering energy costs, alleviating poverty and creating new jobs in the High Country.

“Energy waste isn’t just an environmental problem, it’s also an economic problem,” said Rory McIlmoil, energy policy director for Appalachian Voices. “Here in the High Country we see a high incidence of poverty, lower-than-average family income, a housing stock that is mostly decades old and in need of efficiency improvements, and energy costs that for some folks accounts for nearly half of their income in the winter months. Together those issues are having a negative economic impact on the area, and this is a problem that we need to work together to address.”

To illustrate the need for home energy improvements and the benefits such improvements can have on local residents, Appalachian Voices hosted the High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest, which ended last February with three residents receiving free efficiency upgrades. Zach Dixon, a resident of Boone and the grand prize winner of the contest, described the benefits he’s received, saying, “Before winning the contest and getting my attic and floors insulated, I had so much heat escaping right through the attic, and I was paying as much as $200 a month on my electricity bills. Just having that insulation has made a major difference.”

An analysis of the three winning homes was conducted by ResiSpeak — a Cary, N.C.-based utility data collection and analysis service. Daniel Kauffman, general manager of ResiSpeak, summarized the results by saying, “Based on the few months of data since the retrofits, the homes appear to be consuming between ten and thirty percent less electricity than they were before. We will have a clearer picture of the energy savings due to the retrofits after this coming winter, and if current trends continue we should see significant savings.”

In addition to the services WAMY provides, much is already being done in the region to assist families who struggle with their energy bills in the winter or are in need of home energy improvements. For instance, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.’s donation-based Operation RoundUp program provides bill payment assistance for residents who are unable to pay their energy bills in the winter. Community service organizations such as WeCAN help distribute these funds, while other organizations provide free firewood for winter heating needs. Many High Country residents have taken steps to lower their own energy costs. Despite all of these efforts, the fundamental lack of financial support remains largely unaddressed, leaving thousands of residents without the means for improving their home’s energy efficiency.

Speaking at the event, WAMY’s Executive Director Melissa Soto said “WAMY can weatherize homes for individuals that fall below 200% of [the U.S. poverty line]; however, there is always a long waiting list and never enough funding. There is also a huge gap between those that qualify for our services and those that can afford to make the improvements themselves. That’s why an on-bill financing program is so exciting — it gives those in the middle income brackets an opportunity to improve their quality of life.”

To which Mary Ruble of Boone, who is also a Blue Ridge Electric member, added, “I’m one of those that falls in the gap. I’ve been able to pay for some improvements myself, but not for everything that needs to be done. To me, on-bill financing is a win for all of us, and I’m really thankful that Blue Ridge is exploring ways they can help.”

“New solutions are required that provide comprehensive energy improvements while greatly increasing the level of investment in residential energy efficiency in our communities,” concluded McIlmoil. “We’re already seeing steps being taken to achieve this with the recent announcement by Blue Ridge Electric that they are considering developing an on-bill financing program for their members. We greatly appreciate this and are extremely encouraged by their leadership in tackling the issue.”

Appalachian Voices and local residents expressed hope that the event would spark a conversation throughout the High Country about how to develop more effective programs for addressing the problem of high energy costs. More information about on-bill financing and the Energy Savings for the High Country campaign can be found at appvoices.org/highcountry.

A moment of truth for Kentucky’s coal regulators

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes.

A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes. Photo from LRC (Ky.) Public Information.

In June 2013, mine operator and Kentucky state representative Keith Hall went to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with a complaint.

Kelly Shortridge, a mine inspector with the Division of Mine Enforcement and Reclamation in Pikeville, had been soliciting Hall for bribes to ignore violations on Hall’s Pike County surface mines.

Hall told two cabinet officials that he had already paid Shortridge “a small fortune,” and that the mine inspector “liked the Benjamins.” A report was drawn up, forwarded to the cabinet’s investigator general and Secretary Len Peters, and went nowhere.

The FBI began investigating the matter when the Lexington Herald-Leader published Hall’s complaint report through an open records request. In June, Hall was found guilty of bribing Shortridge to ignore Hall’s safety and environmental violations.

During the trial, the bureau submitted evidence that strongly suggests Keith Hall was not the only operator paying Kelly Shortridge. Shortridge himself has admitted to taking bribes from other Pike County operators.

So how deep does the conspiracy go? That’s the question many are asking in the wake of Hall’s trial. The Herald-Leader published a recent editorial that pointed out the familiar territory here:

This is not the first time questions have arisen about the Pikeville office of the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement where Shortridge, an inspector for 24 years, worked.

Other Pikeville-based inspectors allowed a surface mine (not owned by Hall) to operate without a permit for 18 months, until July 2010, when rain dislodged the unreclaimed mountain and flooded out about 80 families. One of the inspectors retired a month later.

Remember, too, that the division went years without penalizing coal companies for filing bogus water pollution reports by copying and pasting the same data, month after month.

This falsified water pollution data was only discovered after a coalition of environmental and citizen groups including Appalachian Voices discovered water monitoring reports that the department had neglected to review for over three years. The fact that the FBI had to find out about Hall’s allegations by reading the newspaper – and not through the cabinet itself – reveals a similar pattern of negligence.

How committed is the cabinet to enforcing Kentucky’s environmental and safety regulations around mining? The answer may lie in the phenomenally small salary that the state was paying Shortridge at the time of his 2014 resignation: $45,160 a year.

This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it speaks volumes about how our regulatory systems function, what they prioritize, and what motivates the individuals who operate within them. Shortridge was using his small salary, in addition to the bribes he was taking from Hall and others, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. It’s impossible to speculate about his personal character, but it does seem clear that he was responding to a specific set of material conditions in a way that most individuals on that kind of salary – and in that kind of position – very likely would.

Without much incentive to enforce existing regulations, and knowing that it pays more to cozy up to the industry than to fight it, we really must ask: how many other Kelly Shortridges are out there? This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask of a regulatory system that, at best, lacks the political capital and material resources to enforce violations, and, at worst, is overseen by the very mine operators it’s supposed to be regulating. (Before being voted out of office in 2014, Keith Hall was the vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.)

Finally, Keith Hall’s remark that Kelly Shortridge “liked the Benjamins” – an incredibly condescending statement from a man who once appropriated his own county’s coal severance tax to the benefit of one of his companies – is revelatory. It hints that there are boundaries to what is and what isn’t acceptable within relationships between the coal industry and the state: Shortridge was getting ambitious; his greed was somehow different than Hall’s. Keep in mind that this was confessed to two cabinet officials, mob-style, as if Shortridge was breaking a set of established rules. Hall needed Shortridge until he didn’t, and then sold him down the river when he became an annoyance.

Now that they’re both paying for breaking the rules, will Governor Steve Beshear’s administration adequately investigate further possible corruption? It unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

As the Herald-Leader editorial notes, “This should be a moment of truth, but history tells us not to expect an aggressive self-examination of the state agency’s love affair with the coal industry.”

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Interior Department Issues Draft Stream Protection Rule

Thursday, July 16th, 2015 - posted by brian

Contact: Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

Today, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a long-awaited draft of the Stream Protection Rule, which the agency has been working on since 2010. The purpose of the rule is to prevent or minimize the impacts of surface coal mining on surface water and groundwater. The agency’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement to accompany the draft rule includes several alternative options, some of which include sections that are stronger than the agency’s preferred alternative.

The following is a statement from Thom Kay, Appalachian Voices’ Legislative Associate.

“The people of Central Appalachia have waited a long time for robust federal action to protect their streams and communities from the damages of surface coal mining. At first glance, the draft appears to improve some drastically outdated provisions of an ineffective rule. But it’s not worth cheering for the rule as long as it allows companies to continue dumping their mining waste in our streams.

“Despite the regional coal industry’s decline, existing surface mines have been expanding closer and closer to homes, continuing to put the health of local communities at risk.

“We will continue working with citizens to ensure the agency’s final rule presents the strongest possible protections.

“When finalized, this rule will largely define President Obama’s legacy on the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal coal mining.”

>> Read our blog post from yesterday: How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?
>> Read a brief overview of the Stream Protection Rule.
>> OSM’s press release about the rule with further links.

How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015 - posted by Erin
Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that surface coal production nationwide decreased about 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, while production from surface mines that include mountaintop removal mining in three central Appalachian states had decreased 62 percent.

At first, this seems like a huge win in the fight against mountaintop removal mining, a practice that is devastating to community health and the environment, and yields few jobs compared to traditional mining practices. While it is a step in the right direction, declining production is not a sufficient measure of the ongoing human and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal.

Closer examination of the data calls into question the adequacy of the legal definition of “mountaintop removal” and, more importantly, demonstrates that much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

First, let’s look at the numbers reported by the EIA. The post, published on the agency’s Today In Energy blog, opens by saying, “Coal production from mines with mountaintop removal (MTR) permits has declined since 2008, more than the downward trend in total U.S. coal production.” While this is true, comparing the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in nationwide surface production (62 and 21 percent, respectively) gives the false impression that mountaintop removal, in particular, is on its way out. However, when you compare the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in surface mine production only for Central Appalachia, the picture looks much different: surface mine production in Central Appalachia has declined by 55 percent from 2008 to 2014.

With this new information, it becomes apparent that mountaintop removal production has not declined much more than surface mining on the whole in Central Appalachia. Given the similarity, we can attribute the decline in mountaintop removal largely to the same market forces that are leading to a decline in all coal mining in Central Appalachia.

The EIA report also relies on the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act’s (SMCRA) narrow definition of what constitutes mountaintop removal mining — essentially, a surface mine “running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill” that is exempt from returning the land to “approximate original contour” because the new land use is intended to be of equal or better economic or public value. The problem with this definition of mountaintop removal is that many Central Appalachian surface mines that cross ridgelines and employ many of the same problematic practices — large-scale blasting, mining through streams, and valley filling — are not, under SMCRA’s narrow definition, considered mountaintop removal mines.

The reality on the ground is that the rugged terrain of Central Appalachia makes it difficult to conduct any large-scale surface mine without mining across a ridgeline. Take for example the recently permitted Jim Justice-owned surface mine in McDowell County, W.Va. The Big Creek Surface Mine certainly cross multiple ridgelines and will construct a valley fill within half a mile of a Head Start preschool, yet this mine is not considered a mountaintop removal mine by either the federal government or the state of West Virginia. Furthermore, the valley fill does not require a 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, as it is not being constructed in public waters of the United States.

These facts mean there is little the local community, largely unsupportive of the mine, can do to stop it. Additionally, reclamation of the site requires that the company return the land to its “approximate original contour.” That phrase has never been clearly defined, however, so the land will be returned to a much lower elevation, lacking the fully functioning forest and ecosystems present before mining.

Another issue is that measuring mountaintop removal only by production and permit designation does not lead to a full accounting of the destruction done to the land as a whole.

Back in April, Appalachian Voices undertook a mapping analysis to look at how surface mines are impacting local communities. We had noticed that, even though mining is declining in the region, we are still regularly contacted by impacted residents. So we set out to determine if surface mining was moving closer to communities, and through our Communities at Risk project, we confirmed that mines are in fact encroaching even more on local residents.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on iLoveMountains.org.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on iLoveMountains.org.

To complete this analysis, we identified surface mines across the region using satellite imagery and other data to differentiate between mining and non-mining areas. We excluded areas less than 25,000 square meters. This left us with a map layer of large surface mines, including mountaintop removal mines (whether designated as such by any government agencies, or not), across the region.

This data set is useful not only for our Communities at Risk tool, but also for other analysis on the trends in surface mining in Central Appalachia over time. Using this map, we determined the current amount of land disturbance due to mining — basically any area that is barren due to active mining, recently idled or abandoned mines, or mines not yet reclaimed — has declined from 148,000 acres in 2008 to 89,000 acres in 2014.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly compare yearly production numbers to the number of acres disturbed to yield that production. Land within a surface mine is constantly being shifted, blown up, backfilled, and regraded. Basically, not all barren areas are actively producing coal at any given time. Many areas stay barren for years, while other areas of the mine are producing coal (despite legal requirements for contemporaneous reclamation).

The comparison we can make is that the amount of currently barren land is not falling as fast as production numbers. The extent of surface mined area (whether active, idled, or just unreclaimed) has declined about 40 percent, while production from Central Appalachian surface mines has declined 55 percent.

Essentially, we have more unreclaimed land in 2014, per ton of coal produced in 2014, than in previous years. This is likely due to a number of factors:

  • As thinner, deeper seams are mined, more land must be disturbed per ton of production;
  • Recently, mines have been idled, or even bond-forfeited due to market pressures; and
  • Reclamation is a slow and expensive process.

Mathew Louis-Rosenburg, a West Virginia resident, sums up the problem of only considering the EIA numbers without on-the-ground context:

“On the ground, we measure [mountaintop removal] in acres lost, in water contaminated, communities harmed. The steep decline in surface mine productivity means that a lot more land is being disturbed to get that smaller tonnage and idled mines still contaminate water at a similar rate to active ones. The battle here is far from over and stories like this just lead more and more resources and support to leave the region because people from elsewhere think that we have won already.”

It is beyond time for the Obama administration to take action to end destructive surface mining across Central Appalachia. We are hopeful that a strong Stream Protection Rule will go a long way toward protecting the streams and the people of the region. The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) could also go a long way in protecting communities from health impacts confirmed by mounting scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of success on either of these actions decreases every time misleading evidence suggests this problem has gone away. You can help prevent this by telling the Obama administration to end mountaintop removal and by keeping this conversation going among a national audience. We owe that to the people of Central Appalachia.

Eliminating poverty housing with efficient and alternative energy use

Tuesday, July 14th, 2015 - posted by eliza
A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity lays a timber frame on their first house, which was built with energy efficiency and alternative energy to lessen the burden of utility bills on people living in poverty.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity lays a timber frame on their first house, which was built with energy efficiency and alternative energy to lessen the burden of utility bills on people living in poverty. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

When North Carolina’s Ashe County Habitat for Humanity formed five years ago, seven people, some who live off the grid, came together to study how to best build a home.

They made a commitment not only to affordability, but also to energy savings, and the board voted to build all Ashe County Habitat houses to maximize efficiency and place an emphasis on alternative energy.

“The benefits of energy efficiency fell into the basic requirements of the Habitat ministry,” says Gerry Tygielski, construction chairman for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity, which is founded on a “focus to eliminate poverty housing.”

To get a Habitat house, one must have an inherent need, be fiscally responsible, take part in the building process and take courses on house maintenance. The motive of Ashe County Habitat is to not only lower the cost of the mortgage, but also the cost of living in the house. Almost one in seven families in Ashe County live below the poverty line, according to the most recent census data.

“This past winter, we heard of some people having heating bills of $500 a month,” Tygielski says. “When you’re renting for another $500, that can bankrupt some people.”

The first Ashe Habitat house is a net-zero building, meaning that the energy produced by alternative energy on the house is equal to the energy used in the house. The average cost of heating and powering the house is $50 each month, says Tygielski. The second Ashe County Habitat house is currently underway and will be near, but not quite, zero net energy, due to budget constraints, but Tygielski says that they will be close since the price of solar has gone down.

The house is built with insulated concrete form, a novel construction material that uses what we commonly know as styrofoam, and has a higher insulation and fire rating than conventionally built homes with timber, insulation and drywall. It eliminates air leaks, which, on average, amounts to the air that escapes through an open window, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Insulated concrete foam is not widely used, but it is becoming more popular for constructing basements.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity set foam blocks into place. Concrete will be poured over the blocks to create an airtight wall.

A group of volunteers for Ashe County Habitat for Humanity set foam blocks into place. Concrete will be poured over the blocks to create an airtight wall. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

High-quality storm windows also reduce air leakage, a metal roof reduces the amount of energy absorbed in the attic and solar panels provide a renewable energy source. But arguably the most efficient aspect of the house is the heating system, a geothermal heat pump. A six-foot trench, a pond or a well accesses the water table at Earth’s year-round internal temperature of 55 degrees. A compressor extracts heat from the water to heat air and pump it into the house. A conventional heat pump extracts heat from the air outdoors down to five degrees.

In northwestern North Carolina’s High Country, harsh winters are commonplace and days with temperatures below five degrees are increasing.

Conventional electric heat pumps are three times more efficient than a gas or oil furnace, Tygielski says. A geothermal heat pump is three times more efficient than an electric pump, reducing a $300-400 heating bill to $100.

“There is a premium you pay for having that opportunity, but it pays for itself so quickly that it’s a good investment,” he says. Their initial estimate says that the extra costs of making the first Ashe County Habitat house will be paid back in 10 years through lower utility bills, mainly due to greatly reduced heating costs.

This concept has a similar ring to on-bill financing, a utility-led program that provides loans for energy efficiency upgrades. The repayments, made on a homeowner’s utility bill, are structured so that they are equal to or less than the amount of energy savings resulting from the upgrades.

John Parker, an electrician who founded Parker Electric, donated his time to install solar panels on both Ashe County Habitat for Humanity's houses.

John Parker, an electrician who founded Parker Electric, donated his time to install solar panels on both Ashe County Habitat for Humanity’s houses. Photo by Gerry Tygielski.

Tygielski recognizes that there is a lack of public understanding about the basics of energy efficiency and that something can be done about high heating bills. Not to mention “people are busy working themselves to death to pay the bills,” he says. “They’re not in the position to be investing in home improvements.” He says an on-bill financing program gives people a chance to do something they probably would never be able to do otherwise.

In the last two years at least six people in Ashe County have been referred to Tygielski that cannot afford their utility bills. His response is to direct them to a Habitat for Humanity house application. Within a year, he may also be able to direct people to apply for an on-bill finance program offered by Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp, an electric co-op that serves the High Country.

The electric cooperative is currently looking into on-bill finance program designs. If you are a member, please sign our letter of support to Blue Ridge Electric!

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Ison Rock Ridge and land ownership in Appalachia

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Ison Rock Ridge was one of the "most endangered mountains" in America, until the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a mountaintop removal permit that would have obliterated approximately 1,300 acres of mountainous terrain in Wise County, Va. Map from iLoveMountains.org

Ison Rock Ridge was one of the “most endangered mountains” in America, until the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a mountaintop removal permit that would have obliterated approximately 1,300 acres of mountainous terrain in Wise County, Va. Map from iLoveMountains.org

Earlier this year, our friends at Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards celebrated a major victory.

The long campaign to defeat the Ison Rock Ridge mountaintop removal mining permit in Southwest Virginia came to an end after Jim Justice’s A&G Coal Corp. did not appeal a decision by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to deny the permit.

The now-defeated Ison Rock Ridge mine would have destroyed approximately 1,200 acres in Wise County, Va. The mine site would have threatened five communities: Inman, Andover, Arno, Derby and the Town of Appalachia. And the ridge itself is one of the last areas surrounding those communities that has not been destroyed by mountaintop removal. In other words, this was a huge win.

Victory was won over eight years of hard work through local organizing and legal appeal — our friends at SAMS deserve a well-earned congratulations. It’s certainly time to celebrate this victory, but we can’t let our guard down just yet.

While the imminent threat of mining is past, the land on Ison Rock Ridge is still owned by an absentee landholding company that’s in the business of leasing out its land to coal operators for mountaintop removal. So even though the DMME denied the permit, there’s nothing stopping A&G Coal or another company from submitting an application to mine the threatened mountain.

With coal prices in the gutter, many mines operating at a loss, and local Alpha Natural Resources’ finances in shambles, it’s unlikely that any company is racing to submit a new application. But that could change in a relatively short period of time if current market or regulatory conditions shift, which they do often.

The Ison Rock Ridge victory brings us back to the complicated and perennial issue of land ownership in Appalachia. Approximately 45 percent of the land in Wise County is owned by corporate landholding entities, according the county’s economic development director, Carl Snodgrass.

This isn’t a new development, and it’s not unique to coal-bearing counties in Appalachia. Still, much of our region’s resource-rich land was snatched up in the decades after the Civil War when coal reserves were first being discovered and mined. Ever since, companies whose only interest is to make as much money as possible by extracting the region’s natural resources have had control.

So while the issue of outside land ownership is nothing new, there’s an increasing number of people, including some elected officials, who are starting a renewed call for land reform.

The growing movement for economic diversification across Appalachia is creating the space for public discussion of this and other hard questions. And as more and more localities see the light of diversification, there will be a groundswell of citizens and leaders throughout the mountains calling for land reform.

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