In July, the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources announced the creation of the Rockcastle River Wildlife Management Area, which comprises more than 2,900 acres in eastern Pulaski County. According to the Commonwealth Journal, the parcel — known by many as the Ikerd Coal property — was purchased for $6.3 million from the Ikerd family using funds levied from a tax on firearms and ammunition sales.
The property is expected to open to the public soon.
In August, the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation finalized the purchase of a former industrial park in Bell County, Ky. According to the Associated Press, the 500-acre property was purchased from the Pine Mountain Regional Industrial Development Authority for $700,000.
The property is surrounded by an additional 1,200 acres leased by the foundation, according to the Harlan Daily Enterprise. Together the properties will house the Appalachian Wildlife Center, which is expected to open in 2019 and will provide a wildlife refuge, a museum of natural and regional history and an astronomy pavilion.
This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Kentucky arrow darter, a fish found only in eastern Kentucky, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The listing also includes protection for 248 miles of stream habitat throughout 10 eastern Kentucky counties. The darter has disappeared from approximately half of its historical range, primarily due to water pollution from surface coal mining and other extractive land uses.
Kentucky arrow darter photo by Dr. Matthew R. Thomas, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources
The listing results from a 2011 settlement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity, which requires the agency to decide the protected status of 757 imperiled species — 55 of which are found in Kentucky. To date, 177 decisions have been made under this settlement.
Despite some protection provided by the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, surface mining still causes significant damage to streams and rivers in Central Appalachia. Over the last several decades, extensive research has demonstrated the serious and long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal mining. Some of the most recent studies indicate that impacts to streams can last for decades after reclamation is ostensibly complete.
The new protective status of the Kentucky arrow darter ensures that the Fish and Wildlife Service will provide oversight on the permitting process for surface mines that may impact the fish or its habitat. This oversight will go a long way not only in protecting this small, colorful fish, but other species that may rely on similar habitat. It also means protection more broadly for healthy ecosystems and communities. When coal mining companies are required to more fully account for the damage done through mining, fewer of those costs are pushed onto nearby communities.
Editor’s Note: This post, by Appalachian Voices’ Erin Savage, originally appeared on American Rivers’ blog. Earlier this year, the nonprofit named Central Appalachia’s Russell Fork among America’s Most Endangered Rivers due the threats posed by mountaintop removal coal mining to water quality and surrounding communities.
The Russell Fork snakes through Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentuky border.
The Russell Fork River is threatened by a new coal mine. A bankruptcy saga with the mine’s owner had stalled development in the past year, but things appear to be getting back on track.
The history of the Doe Branch Mine in Southwest Virginia is long and complicated, and its future remains unclear.
The mine is owned by Paramont Coal Company, once a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. Until recently, Alpha was one of the largest mining companies in the country, but is now emerging from bankruptcy. The Doe Branch Mine started with plans for a 245-acre surface coal mine in 2005, but it now has the potential to grow to 1,100 acres. If the current plan moves forward, the mine would include five valley fills and 14 wastewater discharges that would drain into tributaries of the Russell Fork River — a renowned resource in the region for river recreation and the star attraction of the Breaks Interstate Park.
While there is a long history of coal mining in the Russell Fork watershed, water quality in the river has improved over the last several decades due to better regulations and the watchful eye of local residents. At a time when coal mining is declining in Appalachia, the Doe Branch mine is among the largest mines still being pursued in Southwest Virginia, and it would undoubtedly lead to significant water quality impacts.
The Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork.
The mine is also part of a large, controversial highway construction project known as the Coalfields Expressway. Some believe the Expressway will bring much needed economic development opportunities to the region, but others believe it unnecessarily enables additional surface mining and does not adequately consider what is best for nearby communities. Though a portion of the Doe Branch Mine has been approved by state and federal agencies, the expansion does not have final approval. Little work has been started on any portion of the mine over the last decade, beyond some tree clearing.
In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an objection to the company’s application to increase the size of the mine. Specifically, the EPA objected to the application for additional wastewater permits under the Clean Water Act. The wastewater would be discharged into several tributaries of the Russell Fork that are already impaired by mining-related pollutants, according to Virginia’s list of impaired waterways. In order to secure discharge permits, the company must show that it will not increase the overall impairment of the watershed.
Trends for coal production in Central Appalachia. The decline has continued into 2015 and 2016.
Since hitting its peak in 2008, coal production in Central Appalachia has declined precipitously. Alpha’s dominance in the Central Appalachian coal market has not shielded it from the economic downturn. The company declared bankruptcy in August 2015, creating a lull in the Doe Branch permit application process.
On July 26, 2016, Alpha announced its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The plan to emerge from bankruptcy involves the formation of two new companies. One is a privately held, smaller Alpha, which will retain most of the Central Appalachian mines. The other is Contura Energy, formed by Alpha’s senior lenders, which purchased Alpha’s Wyoming, Pennsylvania and better-performing Central Appalachian mines. Doe Branch is included in the short list of Central Appalachian mines that Contura will own.
Before emerging from bankruptcy, Alpha stated that the Doe Branch Mine is not part of its 10 year plan. Now that Contura owns Doe Branch, the mine may be more likely to move forward. Just last month, a new Clean Water Act permit draft was issued by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. This new draft may be an attempt to address the objections raised by the EPA. Given the importance of the Russell Fork, the damage already done to its tributaries by mining, and the need for a serious economic shift in the region, the EPA should uphold its objection to this mine. Urge them to do so now.
Activists and residents are currently fighting a plan to build a new federal prison in Roxana, Ky., on land where mountaintop removal coal mining and gas drilling have taken place. County officials have said that the prison, which will likely receive $444 million in federal funding, will bring local jobs to an area that has seen economic decline as the coal industry falters.
But local activist group Letcher Governance Project argues that there are better investments than prisons, and that the previous three prisons built in the state did not deliver on the economic promises made prior to construction.
The prison is proposed to be built on an abandoned mine, potentially exposing incarcerated individuals, prison staff and those living nearby to leftover contamination from mining and gas drilling that resurfaces during construction, Panagioti Tsolkas of the national organization Prison Ecology Project says. The group has also commented that the quality of water delivered to the prison could be affected from past mine activities.
“New prisons have been portrayed as an economic opportunity for the struggling residents of rural Appalachia, but prisoners in the coal fields are also on the front lines of Appalachia’s environmental justice struggle,” says Tsolkas.
A 2012 Appalachian Voices’ report mapped the findings of peer-reviewed health studies and data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, United Health Foundation and the Gallup-Healthways Well-being index.
Erin Savage, Central Appalachia Campaign Coordinator, 206-769-8286
The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) announced today that it will fund a $1 million review by the National Academy of Sciences of current research on the links between surface coal mining and human health risks.
It comes more than a year after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection formally requested such a review, and nearly a decade after the publication of the first in a series of two dozen peer-reviewed studies that have found correlations between mountaintop removal coal mining and increased rates of cancer, heart and respiratory diseases, and other negative health outcomes.
In recent years, multiple studies have established more direct, causal links between mountaintop removal and negative health impacts. Studies led by researchers at West Virginia University have concluded that exposure to mountaintop mining dust promotes tumor growth in human lung cells and decreases cardiac functioning in lab animals.
Research from outside the region show cause for concern regarding common mining pollutants such as manganese. Several studies1 over two decades have demonstrated a link between nervous system damage in children and manganese exposure through well water.
OSMRE will share additional information as it becomes available, including the dates of four public meetings to be held by the National Academy of Sciences.
A statement from Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator Erin Savage:
“We’re pleased that OSMRE has listened to the concerns coal-impacted residents have been voicing for years. And, while we always welcome additional research into the toll mountaintop removal takes on human health and the environment, action must be taken on the preponderance of existing evidence showing the known impacts of surface mining. If we value the lives of Central Appalachian citizens over coal profits, mine permitting would be halted until it could be proven safe for nearby residents.
“We are still awaiting a long-overdue Stream Protection Rule and are hopeful that a strong rule will be issued soon by the Obama administration. There is more than enough scientific research documenting the impacts of mountaintop removal on Central Appalachia’s streams and rivers to justify a moratorium on mining through streams, which irreparably harms aquatic ecosystems and likely contributes to a range of human health issues.
“It is unfortunate that OSMRE did not undertake this review sooner so the findings could help to inform the Stream Protection Rule. But despite the coal industry’s decline, mining in Central Appalachia will continue into the near future. This review could be the push the next administration needs to finally make this destructive practice illegal.”
Due to an agreement spearheaded by a citizens group in Boyd County, Ky., Big Run Landfill will stop accepting waste brought in by rail and will transition to a regional landfill accepting trash only from within 75 miles of the site. According to Boyd County Judge-Executive Steve Towler, the residents of Boyd County saw the last “trash train” delivery on April 19, after raising complaints of disruptive odors for nearly two years.
Ending the trash trains was the result of an agreement between the Citizens of Boyd County Environmental Coalition, Boyd County Fiscal Court, Big Run Landfill and the state Department for Environmental Protection. The agreement not only eliminates all rail deliveries but also requires the closure of large areas of the landfill and installation of air monitoring systems around the property.
“It was something I knew had to be taken care of,” says Towler. “This agreement brought everyone together to reach a beneficial and reasonable conclusion.”
Tourism to the state’s eastern region added more than a billion dollars to the state’s economy. This part of the state contains many natural attractions, including the Appalachian mountains and Daniel Boone National Forest, which have made Kentucky such a desirable destination. This area hosts a number of horse trails, mountain and lake state parks, more than 500 miles of hiking trails, and the Red River Gorge. — Dylan Turner
Patrick lives on Rockhouse Creek. She said that as she watched the bright yellow plume move down the creek, she took a sample of the water and put it in a paint bucket under her porch. Two curious newborn puppies on her property found the paint bucket and drank its contents. They became violently ill and died later that day.
At the end of April, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet released a report detailing the state’s investigation into the spill, but there was no mention of Patrick’s dead dogs. Although many local residents thought the pollution might have been related to fracking — an oily sheen was noticed on the surface of the water — the state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. According to Lanny Brannock, a spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, regulators do not know if someone intentionally put paint in the creek or if it was an accident.
But many Martin County residents still have questions, and that’s not uncommon in a county that has seen its fair share of coal slurry spills and municipal water problems. The Mountain Citizen, located in the county seat of Inez, has doggedly reported water quality and environmental issues for decades. In fact, the newspaper’s diligence, combined with the hard work of local organizers, prompted the Kentucky Public Service Commission to investigate the county’s water system, which has a water loss rate of more than 60 percent and often delivers smelly, foul water.
In the aftermath of Flint, Mich., this video from Martin County caught the attention of consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who posted it to her Facebook page.
When I spoke with Inez resident Josie Delong back in February, she was very clear about the long-term burdens that come with having bad water:
The biggest [burden] is definitely health issues. But also the fact that most of us are on a fixed income here. Everybody’s losing their jobs in the mines, losing their jobs here or there, and can’t afford these high water bills, and we can’t even use the water. We’re paying these bills and yet still having to go to the store and get water, and we don’t know what it’s doing to us. And that’s the big fear. We have no idea.
In 2015, the Martin County Water District accrued multiple non-compliance violations for known carcinogens such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. In the offices of the Mountain Citizen, editor Gary Ball points to the back of his latest water bill, which includes a notice for anyone with an immunodeficiency disorder: do not drink the water. “In other words, if you’re as healthy as a horse, drink away,” Ball says. “But sooner or later it’s going to get to you.”
Ball and the Mountain Citizen have also extensively documented the unequal way in which water is distributed in the county, and how many customers are often not informed of boil water advisories or shut-offs in the system. According to Gary and Lisa Smith Stayton, owner and publisher of the Mountain Citizen, the excessive water loss rate often impacts the poorer or more remote areas of the county first. As water is diverted to more populated and wealthy areas in the county, some customers are forced to go without.
Sometimes there’s no water at all. As Ms. McCoy explains in this Facebook post, not having water creates all kinds of social and financial hardships on her day-to-day schedule.
Officials in the county have adamantly denied the extent of the problems, and often portray concerned citizens as alarmists and idealists. The Martin County Judge Executive, Kelly Callaham, has publicly stated that the 60 percent water loss rate in the system is due to people stealing water from fire hydrants and industrial coal mine sites. (I reached out to Mr. Callaham and the Martin County Water District; neither returned my requests for a comment).
“Our officials downplay every single issue, and go to great extents to discredit those who speak up,” says Lisa Smith Stayton. She described a recent fiscal court hearing that turned into an attempt to publicly discredit a Mountain Citizen report about disinfection byproducts in the water. Lisa was incredulous. “One magistrate even said ‘you’re more likely to get cancer from eating a hot dog.’”
In late March, due to pressure from citizens like Delong, Ball and Stayton, state Senator Ray Jones convened a meeting at his office in Frankfort to discuss issues with the water system. Watching footage of the meeting is frustrating; a great deal of time is wasted on discussing surreal and overstated accusations of “water theft.” At several points in the conversation, some variation of this statement is heard: “Martin County is not the only county where these problems occur.”
This is a familiar tactic deployed by the powerful: make the victims appear as if their demands are inherently selfish because, after all, it’s happening to everyone. If you can portray the powerless as hyperbolic and alarmist, you eventually start to convince them that their demands are crazy. This is known as “gaslighting,” and it’s a depressingly effective way to evade accountability.
But residents like Delong aren’t deterred. As she told me:
The more people who talk about it and share their concerns, the better. Because, I’ll be honest, I sat back for a long time and said, “Well why should I say anything about it? I’m just one person. That’s not gonna change anything.” And then the very second I did mention it on social media, and posted a picture, I saw a huge response. And that gave me confidence. Maybe we can change this.
Motivated by health problems that she believes to be caused by the water, as well as mounting medical bills, Delong started a public Facebook forum. She began polling her friends to see if they suffered from similar afflictions and medical costs. The results are astounding in their detail and specificity; many respondents reported skin irritations, stomach issues and autoimmune disorders.
It’s obvious from reading the comments on Delong’s poll, as well as the many comments on the Martin County Water Warriors’ Facebook page, that the public health costs of living in coalfield counties are increasingly burdensome. My own experience bears that out; I live in Letcher County, Ky., about an hour and a half south of Martin County. I spend upwards of $50 each month on bottled water, and most of my friends and neighbors do the same. With coal severance funds declining, we’re also forced to pay more for basic services like trash and recycle collections. The Letcher County Recreation Center, built with coal severance funds, is constantly at risk of closing.
In fact, Gina Patrick’s anxiety about having to switch from well water to potentially-dangerous municipal water is not uncommon. Whether it comes from a well or a municipal system, the drinking water of many eastern Kentuckians is at risk of being polluted. When a dangerous acid mine drainage spill occurred five miles upstream of the Letcher County water intake in March, we were reminded of the many times our water system was poisoned by diesel fuel from local oil magnate Don Childers. It doesn’t help knowing that the state actively works to sweep those violations under the rug, or that it neglects to include important factors like dead dogs in its investigation of a bright yellow creeks.
Delong articulates the full scope of this problem and the struggle to stay:
It just feels like we’re going downhill so fast. I’ve had a lot of friends move out of the county. And it’s sad. I grew up here. And everyone’s just leaving. And it’s becoming a ghost town. And I don’t want to leave. I mean, I could, I’m sure. But who’s going to want to buy a home in this county? How could you sell your home? When someone away from here looks up Martin County, they automatically see repeats of all these troubles and problems and people moving away and no jobs and no opportunities. It’s gonna be impossible to sell your home right now. And I don’t want to leave. I want to do what I can — I’m just one person but I want to do what I can to try and make things better for us, instead of just watching it go downhill.
Officials say that they want people to stay. Some even say that they want economic transition. But what are they doing to help us save money where it matters — on very basic needs like food, water and healthcare? The solutions to these needs amount to the most basic and essential forms of economic development: safe drinking water, functioning local services, affordable healthcare and access to adequately funded social programs. They are simple solutions to very real problems that would save people money and help them stay in the region that they love.
In Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, high-profile legislation related to mine safety laws and coal taxation policies is showing how far Appalachian lawmakers will go in attempts to sustain the ailing industry.
On April 1, West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed into law legislation that rolls back a requirement that coal companies provide private rescue teams in the event of a mine disaster, a measure enacted following the Sago Mine explosion in 2006 that killed 12.
The bill, which would also relax fines for not immediately reporting major incidents like fires or explosions, was passed before the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training was able to analyze its potential impact. Nor was the bill’s economic benefit to the industry calculated.
“I don’t know that that created or saved one job,” state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, a Democrat running for governor who opposed the bill, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail after the Senate vote. “Once again, just because the industry is asking for it, we’re willing to roll over and give it to them.”
The West Virginia Senate passed a bill in March to reduce the state’s coal severance tax from the current rate of 5 percent to 2 percent. Severance tax revenues, which provide critical funds for counties and the state budget, are already in steep decline, contributing to budget cuts and public employee layoffs.
According to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, which opposed the bill, the tax cut would cost the state $159 million and local governments $11.6 million annually while doing little to fight the forces making central Appalachian coal uncompetitive. The bill was shelved by the state House of Delegates.
Both efforts were backed by the West Virginia Coal Association.
In Kentucky, the severance tax pie is shrinking even faster than in West Virginia. Tax revenue in January 2016 was $8.9 million, compared to $20.5 million during the same month in 2011. Multiple bills have been introduced this session to direct a larger portion of the dwindling coal tax revenue to eastern Kentucky counties most affected by coal’s decline. But bickering over how to divide the total $44 million in severance taxes in the state budget has dimmed the prospect for reform.
Kentucky legislators are also at odds on mine safety. In March, the Senate easily passed measures to eliminate state safety inspections of coal mines — leaving the role to federal inspectors — and end mandatory safety training for mine foremen.
Sen. Robin Webb, a former coal miner, was appalled. “I cannot ever have the blood of my brothers and sisters on my hands as a state policymaker, and I cannot support this measure,” she told her colleagues.
The measure is supported by the administration of first-term Gov. Matt Bevin and the Kentucky Coal Association.
In a recurring battle in Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed House and Senate versions of a bill to extend state tax credits for the coal industry, which he described as “ineffective at creating or protecting economic activity or jobs.”
Between 1988 and 2015, the coal industry claimed more than $160 million under the Virginia credits. Over the same period, coal jobs in the state fell from 11,000 to less than 3,000.
UPDATE: On April 20, an effort to override Gov. McAuliffe’s veto of a bill to extend Virginia’s coal tax credit narrowly failed in the state Senate. The tax credit will expire on Dec. 31.
In March, the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust announced that it had acquired 2,050 acres of Pine Mountain in order to preserve the area’s natural habitats. The environmental conservation organization’s purchase will add to the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor project, which plans to protect a portion of land stretching the entire 125-mile length of the mountain from Virginia to Tennessee. The land will also be incorporated into the existing Great Eastern Trail, a hiking path that stretches 1,800 miles through the Appalachian mountains from Alabama to New York.
In a press release, Executive Director Hugh Archer called the tract of land “the single largest addition and most expensive investment in the Wildlands project in KNLT’s 20 year history.”
In recent months, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has proposed cutting $10 million from the budget of the Heritage Land Conservation Fund, a state board that provides funding for the conservation and preservation of natural areas. Though the newly protected section of Pine Mountain was purchased with private funds, the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor could still be affected. “Cuts to the heritage program could impede inclusion of this new reserve into the state parks system,” says KNLT Assistant Director Greg Abernathy.