Posts Tagged ‘Kentucky’

Central Appalachian-focused James River Coal Company enters bankruptcy

Friday, April 11th, 2014 - posted by brian
James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia's most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties.

James River Coal, which entered bankruptcy this week, has operations in Central Appalchia’s most economically vulnerable coal-producing counties. Click to enlarge.

This week, James River Coal Company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in federal court. Like Patriot Coal, which reemerged from bankruptcy in December, the Richmond, Va.-based company’s operations are concentrated in Central Appalachia and are located in some of the counties most economically vulnerable to coal’s downturn.

According to a 2013 report by Downstream Strategies, eastern Kentucky’s Knott, Letcher, Pike, Bell, and Harlan counties are particularly vulnerable to shifting coal demand and changes in electricity markets, and therefore, require the most immediate attention from policymakers seeking to alleviate the economic impacts of the region’s declining coal industry.

James River has historically operated in all of those counties. But in September 2013, poor demand forced the company to lay off 525 employees and idle production at its McCoy-Elkhorn complex in Pike and Floyd counties and the Bledsoe complex in Leslie and Harlan counties.

Two months later, the struggling coal operator idled four more mines and furloughed 200 workers.

James River has not posted an annual net profit since 2010 and reported net loss of approximately $16.4 million in 2013. Investors expected the bankruptcy was imminent after the company recently received a notice from Nasdaq that it was not complying with the stock market’s rules after its stock closed below $1 per share for 30 business days.

In its bankruptcy filing, the company said it has assets valued at about $1.06 billion and liabilities of about $818.7 million, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“The coal markets in the U.S. have changed dramatically during the past several years,” said James River Chairman and CEO Peter T. Socha. “Some of these changes are cyclical due to continued weakness in the real economy. Other of the changes are more permanent like changes in government environmental regulations, improved methods to produce natural gas, and switching between coal basins by domestic power utilities.”

A federal judge approved James River’s request to continue operations during its restructuring process, including paying wages and providing health care and other benefits to its 1,200 employees.

The company also appears committed to carrying out its contracts with electric utilities such as Indianapolis Power & Light, and Kentucky Utilities Co., which it supplies with coal from more productive mines in the Illinois Basin.

Either way, according to SNL Energy, James River’s chances for survival post-bankruptcy could be hindered by expiring contracts with electric utilities and the shrinking demand for Central Appalachian coal.

Volunteering in Kentucky

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by meredith
Photo courtesy Seedleaf

Photo courtesy Seedleaf

Seedleaf

In the heart of Lexington, Ky., Seedleaf maintains a total of 14 community gardens. Seedleaf helps to cultivate these spaces, participates in city-wide composting, and offers sustainable cooking and preserving classes to children and adults. Service opportunities are offered weekly, and involve mulching, tree and shrub planting and garden maintenance. All ages. Get involved! Visit seedleaf.orgK. Boyajian

Christian Appalachian Project

Participants in this faith-based volunteer program comprise the largest organization serving marginalized groups in eastern Kentucky, with more than 50 active volunteer corps members. CAP’s various programs include serving at food pantries, providing disaster relief in areas affected by hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, working with the elderly, and offering domestic violence survivor support. CAP serves six communities throughout Appalachian Kentucky and provides room and board for volunteers in each area. Time commitments are chosen by volunteers and range from a week to a year. 18 and older. Get involved! Call 606-256-0973 or visit christianapp.orgK. Boyajian

Appalachian Coal Companies Face Major Fines for Clean Water Act Violations

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 - posted by brian
Two recent federal enforcement actions against major Appalachian coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources and Nally & Hamilton, are a positive sign. But they do not solve the fundamental problem of water pollution that stems from mountaintop removal. Above, pollution water at Nally & Hamilton's Fugitt Creek mine in Harlan County, Ky.

Recent federal enforcement actions against Appalachian coal companies are a positive sign, but even record fines do not solve the fundamental problem of water pollution that stems from mountaintop removal. Above, polluted water at Nally & Hamilton’s Fugitt Creek site in Harlan County, Ky.

The Associated Press reported this morning that Nally & Hamilton, one of the largest coal companies in Kentucky, will pay $660,000 in fines for illegally dumping mining debris into Appalachian streams.

According to AP, prosecutors allege Nally & Hamilton Enterprises violated the federal Clean Water Act by dumping mining waste in streams 1,000 feet beyond the permit’s boundary at its Fugitt Creek site in Harlan County, and by dumping waste in Knott County streams surrounding its Doty Creek site before a permit was even issued.

The fine is the result of a proposed consent order in a federal district court. The order must still be signed by a judge. Declining to comment, an attorney for Nally & Hamilton simply said “the consent decree speaks for itself.”

The news comes just a few days after a settlement was reached between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Alpha Natural Resources — the largest mountaintop removal mining operator in the U.S. — stipulating that the company must pay a $27.5 million fine for violations of the Clean Water Act at mines and coal preparation plants in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. It is the largest ever civil penalty under the water pollution permitting section of law.

In addition to the record-setting fine, Alpha said it will spend approximately $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and reduce pollution discharges at its coal mines in those five states.

These types of violations are nothing new, nor are they isolated incidents. Indeed, the enforcement action against Alpha alleges more than 6,000 discharge permit violations between 2006 and last year.

The eventual settlements we’re seeing for violations stretching back years only adds to the evidence of poor enforcement at the state level, especially in those states with close ties to the coal industry.

After exposing thousands of Clean Water Act violations and fraudulent reporting by coal companies in Kentucky, Appalachian Voices and our partners sued and overcame resistance from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in order to hold negligent mine operators accountable. Those lawsuits resulted in record-setting fines against the three largest mountaintop removal companies in Kentucky: International Coal Group, Frasure Creek Mining and Nally & Hamilton.

The media coverage of those cases in Appalachia and beyond also helped to pull back the curtain on the epidemic of lax enforcement that continues to damage mining communities throughout Central Appalachia.

While the recent pickup in federal enforcement is an extremely positive sign, as long as mountaintop removal permits are approved water quality will be at risk. Appalachian Voices’ water quality specialist, Eric Chance told the Bristol, Va., station WCYB that while coal companies can treat for some of these [pollutants], “they cannot treat for all of them, not all the time.”

Similarly, the executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Joe Lovett, told The New York Times that such deals do not solve the fundamental problem of pollution inherent in practices like mountaintop removal.

“What E.P.A. should do is stop issuing permits that it knows coal companies can’t comply with.”

Click here to learn more about Appalachian Voices’ Appalachian Water Watch program and our work to ensuring compliance with laws that protect clean water.

KY and NC: Different States, Same Recipe for Lax Clean Water Enforcement

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 - posted by eric

Yesterday there was a hearing in Franklin Circuit Court for our ongoing challenge of a weak settlement that the state of Kentucky reached with Frasure Creek Mining. The settlement is a slap on the wrist that lets Frasure Creek off the hook for thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act, and it bears a striking resemblance to the settlement between North Carolina and Duke Energy that has come under scrutiny after the company’s coal ash spill into the Dan River.

It seems that there is a pretty standard recipe for how these Clean Water Act cases usually go:

Step 1: Citizens concerned about water quality uncover major problems.
Step 2: They form a coalition of other concerned groups and lawyers and file a 60-day notice of intent to sue (as required by law).
Step 3: Wait around for 57 to 59 days.
Step 4: On the last day of the 60 day waiting period the state agency, that has a very cozy relationship with the industry it is supposed to regulate, will come in and file a sweetheart deal with the polluter and blocks the citizens from being able to file suit.
Step 5: Citizens are then left to either try to intervene or challenge the weak settlement, but they are left with many legal hurtles and polluted water.

In North Carolina, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources blocked several citizen suits aimed at forcing Duke Energy to clean up their coal ash ponds, which have been leaching pollution into the state’s rivers and groundwater. Instead, DENR and Duke formed a settlement that came with a fine of just $99,000, and the requirement they assess pollution from their ash ponds, but nothing more. However, increased scrutiny as a result of the Dan River coal ash spill has put this settlement on hold. We can only hope that a better settlement will come out of this now.

Coal Ash in the Dan River, NC

In Kentucky, Appalachian Voices and our partners (KFTC, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance represented by Mary Cromer from Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center and Lauren Waterworth) have challenged the way in which this most recent settlement with Frasure Creek was reached.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed a case in their own administrative court to block our suit against Frasure Creek. We were made full parties to that case but Frasure Creek and the Cabinet entered a weak settlement without our agreement anyway. Basically, we are arguing that excluding us violates due process rights and the settlement is invalid because you can’t have a valid settlement without the agreement of all the parties.

One of the main excuses the cabinet gave for cutting such a nice deal for Frasure Creek was their supposed financial problems, but they completely ignored the fact that Frasure Creek is owned by Essar Group, a giant, multi-billion dollar company, owned by a family of billionaires. Frasure Creek entered bankruptcy, but it was recently bailed out with $150 million from Essar.

This is the second of two outstanding cases we have in Franklin Circuit Court against Frasure Creek. The first began in 2011 and challenges a settlement that was based on false water monitoring data that we uncovered. After that case began, Frasure Creek started using a reputable lab and submitting more accurate water monitoring reports. Those new reports showed lots of water pollution violations, and those are the basis for the case that was at issue yesterday.

At the hearing yesterday, the judge asked a lot of good questions, and we are hopeful that he will do what is right for the water and people of Kentucky.

In all these cases it seems like the key to getting state agencies to do their job is attention from the press and scrutiny from the public. When it comes to corruption, it’s often said sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Spotlight on Eastern Kentucky Economy

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Molly Moore

When more than 1,700 citizens gathered in Pikeville, Ky., to discuss ideas for regional economic revitalization at the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit last December, the crowd was diverse.

In attendance were concerned citizens, grassroots organizers and many of the state’s government and business leaders.

During breakout sessions, participants discussed topics such as jobs, entrepreneurship, infrastructure, tourism and regional identity. Common themes included the need to invest coal severance taxes back into coal-impacted communities and to encourage youth to remain in the region.

Progress was quick regarding one of the most popular ideas at the summit: the expansion of broadband internet in under-served eastern Kentucky. In January, Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers announced $100 million in federal, state and private funding to bolster the region’s internet access. The Lexington Herald-Leader reported that it could take three years to install fiber optic infrastructure, the first phase of the project.

Another project touted by politicians at the summit was the expansion of the Mountain Parkway between central Kentucky and Pikeville to four lanes, a $750 million, six-year project that Gov. Beshear has called on lawmakers to approve.

Also in January, President Obama declared that eastern Kentucky would be one of five new “promise zones” where the area will be given special preference for federal grant dollars through existing programs. The initiative also aims to diversify the economy by increasing support for education, leadership and job training and establishing a revolving loan fund for small businesses.

To learn more about the SOAR Summit, read the report at governor.ky.gov/Documents/SOAR-report.pdf.

Recent Conservation Gains in Appalachia

By Meredith Warfield

With the Southeastern Cave Conservancy’s recent 75-acre land acquisition, two caves that were formerly off-limits have now been opened to the public in eastern Tennessee. The Run to the Mill Cave Preserve includes a pit nearly 170 feet deep and the largest population of endangered Indiana Bats in the state. Preliminary studies have revealed a likely presence of white-nose syndrome — an infection that has wiped out roughly 5.7 million bats in eastern North America. By managing the property, researchers hope to contain this disease and maintain local ecosystem health.

A 21-acre addition to the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia will ensure protection of the Soque River, a critical tributary to Atlanta’s primary drinking water source. The Soque River is also home to a significant population of brook trout, Georgia’s only native species of trout. With the Trust for Public Land’s purchase, the public will have use of the fishing waters as well as easier access to thousands of surrounding acres of national forest.

The War on Poverty at 50

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014 - posted by molly
Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty from the front porch of a home in Martin County, Ky. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Fifty years ago today, President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty from the front porch of a home in Martin County, Ky. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

On this day 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson looked out from the front porch of a weary-looking eastern Kentucky home and declared war on poverty.

At the time, one in three Appalachians were considered poor. The poverty rate in the region is now closer to the national average — 16.1 percent in Appalachia compared to 14.3 percent nationally — but, as you might suspect, those statistics tell only part of the story. Economic disparities between Appalachian counties and sub-regions remain high, and, as it was in 1964, eastern Kentucky remains a focal point.

Today President Obama announced that eight counties in southeastern Kentucky would comprise one of five new “Promise Zones.” This designation doesn’t provide new funding, but it grants those counties higher priority for existing federal funds, and federal assistance in accessing those opportunities. The announcement also coincides with a push toward collaboration and economic diversification in eastern Kentucky.

In these counties, as in much of Central Appalachia, the road out of poverty has been troubled by the region’s complicated relationship with coal. As Brian Sewell wrote in a 2013 issue of The Appalachian Voice, “The mixed results of economic initiatives in Appalachia are not for a lack of will. During the 20th century, social and labor movements repeatedly rose in opposition to unjust land leases, anti-union policy, insufficient medical care for miners with black lung disease and the destruction of mountaintop removal. Each time, there were powerful forces pushing back.” Read his analysis on why poverty is such a persistent challenge in Appalachia here.

In the next issue of The Appalachian Voice, we’ll look closer at the War on Poverty, exploring its goals and outcomes and examining what the lessons from the past 50 years can tell us about the way forward.

Independent journalist Ralph Davis, who is among the 27 visionaries featured in the current issue of the publication, created this excellent infographic about the impacts of the War on Poverty in Central Appalachia. Do these numbers reflect your experience? Tell us in the comments.

For Patriot Coal, Ending Mountaintop Removal is a “Win-Win”

Thursday, December 26th, 2013 - posted by brian
Having recently emerged from bankruptcy, Patriot Coal CEO Ben Hatfield said the 2012 settlement that forced the company to begin phasing out its mountaintop removal operations proved to be a "win-win."

Having recently emerged from bankruptcy, Patriot Coal CEO Ben Hatfield said the 2012 settlement that forced the company to begin phasing out its mountaintop removal operations proved to be a “win-win.”

A little more than a year ago, amid its bankruptcy proceedings and multiple lawsuits, Patriot Coal announced it would phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia as part of a settlement with environmental groups over selenium pollution.

Taken at face value, statements made at that time by Patriot’s CEO Bennett Hatfield held promise that the movement against mountaintop removal, focused on exposing the poor economics as well as the irreversible environmental impacts of the destructive practice, had reached a pivotal turning point.

Hatfield told the court that Patriot recognizes that its mining operations “impact the communities in which we operate in significant ways,” and that ending mountaintop removal will reduce the company’s environmental footprint. But the position the company took on phasing out mountaintop removal was largely strategic and focused on the financial benefits of reducing the company’s risks as it worked through bankruptcy.
(more…)

Changing Tides of Collaboration in Central Appalachia

Tuesday, December 24th, 2013 - posted by Erin
Participants in New Vision Renewable Energy's workshops build solar panels and cooperate on other clean energy projects for use at home and abroad. Photo by Lauren Norris

Participants in New Vision Renewable Energy’s workshops build solar panels and cooperate on other clean energy projects for use at home and abroad. Photo by Lauren Norris

For more than 15 years, Appalachian Voices has worked to protect the air, land and water of Central Appalachia. We do this work because the protection of the place we live is integral to the health, happiness and prosperity of our communities. We do this work for the benefit of all people in Central Appalachia.

Despite this, we often feel bogged down in contentious rhetoric that pits “treehuggers” against “friends of coal.” We often must spend all our time dealing with problems — water pollution, dust problems and violations of existing laws — when we’d much rather focus on collaboration and finding solutions.

As coal production continues to decline and cheaper reserves outcompete Central Appalachian coal, the need to diversify the regional economy is becoming even more critical. Several recent events demonstrate that many in Central Appalachia may be ready to take on the task.
(more…)

Appalachian Voices and Partners Challenge Kentucky’s Weakening of Water Pollution Standards for Selenium

Friday, December 13th, 2013 - posted by eric

This two headed trout was deformed by selenium pollution. Today, we have taken action to keep EPA and Kentucky from allowing pollution like this to get worse.

Earlier today Appalachian Voices and a number of partner organizations sued the EPA over their approval of Kentucky’s new, weaker standard for selenium pollution.

Selenium is extremely toxic to fish, and causes deformities and reproductive failure at extremely low levels. The pollutant is commonly discharged from coal mines and coal ash ponds, but currently Kentucky does not regulate its discharge from these facilities.

These new standards were proposed at the behest of coal industry groups, likely motivated by citizen groups’ success at requiring companies in other states to clean up their selenium pollution. We have also seen the state governments of Virginia and West Virginia take steps towards making similar rollbacks to their own standards, making the EPA’s approval of Kentucky’s weakened standards even more alarming.
(more…)

Groups Challenge EPA Decision to Gut Clean Water Protections in Kentucky

Friday, December 13th, 2013 - posted by eric

New Guidelines for Coal Mining Pollutant Fail to Protect Waterways and Wildlife

Contacts:
Eric Chance, Appalachian Voices 828-262-1500 eric@appvoices.org
Sean Sarah, Sierra Club 330 338-3740 sean.sarah@sierraclub.org
Doug Doerrfeld, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth 606-784-9226 dartherdoer@gmail.com|
Judy Petersen, Kentucky Waterways Alliance 502 589-8008 Judy@kwalliance.org

Louisville, KY – Today, community and environmental groups took action against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for a recent decision allowing Kentucky to weaken its water quality protections for selenium, a pollutant common to mountaintop removal coal mines. This new standard, which tests selenium levels in fish tissue instead of in rivers and streams where mine wastewater is discharged, is strikingly similar to one the Bush Administration rejected as too weak to protect sensitive aquatic species. The lawsuit alleges that the standard fails to meet protections in the Clean Water Act.

“There’s simply no scientific or legal justification for this EPA to approve a standard worse than one rejected by the Bush administration,” said Alice Howell, Chair of the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club. “In doing so, EPA has made a bad situation much worse. The new selenium standard endangers the health of Kentucky’s already compromised waterways while opening the door for other states to do the same.”

In mid-November, the EPA allowed Kentucky to change the way it monitors selenium pollution from surface mines, a change suggested by coal industry lobbyists, who appear to be motivated by citizen groups’ successful enforcement of the existing protections elsewhere in the region.

Selenium pollution is known to accumulate in fish and aquatic wildlife over time, causing deformities and reproductive failures. When a coal company destroys a mountain to get at the coal underneath, much of what’s left is dumped into nearby valleys and streams. This pollutes the local waterways with selenium, among other substances that pose a threat to fish and humans. Valley fills are a major source of the selenium pollution found at mountaintop removal mines.

“We repeatedly urged both EPA and the Commonwealth to have the US Geological Survey and US Fish and Wildlife Service look at the science behind the new standard. Both federal agencies were instrumental in the rejection of the prior Bush administration proposals. Ignoring our pleas, they moved to finalize the new criteria. We felt we had no other option to protect our waterways than to go forward with our legal challenge,” Judy Petersen, executive director of Kentucky Waterways Alliance stated.

In their lawsuit, the groups argue that the EPA decision was arbitrary and capricious. First, EPA violated the Clean Water Act by allowing Kentucky to institute a scientifically indefensible standard that fails to protect sensitive wildlife. Second, both citizens and EPA raised concerns about the difficulty of implementing a fish tissue based standard, yet EPA approved this standard based on a vague letter from Kentucky officials about how the new standard would be enforced. Kentucky’s assurances are not part of Kentucky state law and are thus unenforceable; therefore, EPA is not entitled to rely upon these assurances in approving the new standard.

“This new fish tissue based standard is just a novel way of letting polluters off the hook for poisoning our fish and waterways,” said Eric Chance, water quality specialist for Appalachian Voices. “The main point of this standard is to protect fish, but testing fish tissue can never tell you how many fish the selenium pollution already killed. A fish tissue based standard creates many more problems than just the ones mentioned in the letter EPA relied on to make this decision; I don’t think EPA or Kentucky have seriously thought through how this rule would work in the real world.”

Doug Doerrfeld of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth added, “KFTC and our allies have worked for years to make EPA fully aware of the systemic failures of Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet to protect our commonwealth’s people, waters and environment. In light of this history it is disgraceful that EPA would approve a weakened selenium standard that will not only leave aquatic life at risk but will make citizen enforcement all but impossible.”

This action was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. Sierra Club, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Appalachian Voices, and the Kentucky Waterways Alliance are represented in this case by Ben Luckett and Joe Lovett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

###