Posts Tagged ‘Kentucky’

Bleak outlook for coal in 2016

Friday, January 8th, 2016 - posted by brian

The new year brings more bad news for a battered industry

It probably comes as no surprise that, after the dismal year coal had in 2015, more hard times for the industry are ahead. Nowhere is the struggle more real than here in Central Appalachia.

The latest look into a window of coal’s burning house comes courtesy of Downstream Strategies. The West Virginia-based environmental consulting firm has been charting Central Appalachian coal’s decline for years and is urging policymakers to plan for a future in which coal is no longer king.

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies "All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?"

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?”

The group’s new white paper, creatively titled “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?,” tells the story of Appalachian coal over the past few decades in five simple charts like the one above. It also considers how coal’s decline contributes to the budget deficits wracking West Virginia. In summary:

Future demand for Central Appalachian coal will likely continue to decline—primarily due to the increasing cost of mining thinner, harder-to-access coal seams and competition from cheaper natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency improvements at homes and businesses. Future environmental regulations on coal mines and power plants, such as the federal Clean Power Plan, may further reduce demand for West Virginia coal.

For data related to regional coal production and projections, Downstream Strategies looked to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Just today, that agency shared its own update on coal prices and production in 2015. While the main lesson from the chart above is probably that it’s best to be skeptical when it comes to EIA projections, the severity of the situation in Appalachia becomes even clearer when the region is viewed relative to other domestic coal reserves.

Screen shot from EIA's Today in Energy "Coal production and prices decline in 2015."

Screen shot from EIA’s Today in Energy “Coal production and prices decline in 2015.”

According to the EIA, the amount of coal produced in the Central Appalachian basin in 2015 was 40 percent below its annual average during the period from 2010 to 2014. Wherever coal is still competitive, less and less of it is coming from Central Appalachia.

Anyway, back to the Downstream Strategies report, which wraps up with yet another firm reminder that coal’s steep decline and its consequences are anything but unexpected. As the authors conclude:

For years, we have known that coal production was likely to drop significantly in southern West Virginia, and that coal production will likely continue to decline in the future. Now that these projections are coming true, the state is grappling with fewer jobs, bankrupt companies, and declining severance tax revenues.

Together, these present unprecedented challenges not just for southern West Virginia counties, but also for the state as a whole.

New approaches are needed.

When it comes to coal, the question for regional policymakers now is not so much how to make it better, but what to do when it gets even worse. If we may suggest a resolution for the new year: Don’t wait any longer. Recognize and respond to the realities of today’s energy market and the economic challenges facing the region.

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Coal’s death knell in Kentucky

Monday, January 4th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Industry’s decline produces a political shakeup in the Bluegrass State

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

The final months of 2015 may prove to be a historic moment for Kentucky’s politics and the state’s struggling coal industry.

When Governor Matt Bevin took office at the beginning of December after a surprise victory over Democratic challenger Jack Conway, he took a brazen shot at environmentalists by appointing former coal executive Charles Snavely to oversee the state’s environmental protection cabinet. Snavely was an executive with International Coal Group (ICG), a company that Appalachian Voices, along with allied groups, sued for covering up thousands of water pollution violations in the state.

To make matters worse, state Representative Fitz Steele was appointed this week to chair the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, after Representative Jim Gooch switched to the Republican party earlier in the week. House Speaker Greg Stumbo greeted the move with this statement: “Rep. Steele has built a strong reputation as a defender of sensible environmental laws and is an excellent choice to lead this committee as we ready for the legislative session.”

Stumbo’s statement is perplexing; back in 2012 Fitz boasted that he “can take [a mountain] down and put it back better than what it is.” If that view of mountaintop removal coal mining is what Stumbo thinks is a “sensible environmental law,” then we really are in trouble.

But it’s not as if Steele is all that different from Jim Gooch, the man he is replacing. For example, here’s Gooch’s statement from Monday on why he left the Democratic Party: “Let my departure from the Democrat Party send a message loud and clear. I stand behind the thousands of Kentuckians who have lost their jobs all across the coalfields.” This is coming from a man who blames impoverished eastern Kentuckians for their water problems, rather than mining companies and coal executives like Charles Snavely.

Gooch’s departure — as well as Bevin’s election win — are hardly surprising if we are to look at West Virginia. In that state, large numbers of Democrats have either left the party or have been voted out, due in part to the industry’s “war on coal” campaign. It has become increasingly clear that this campaign was an incredibly cynical crusade to consolidate political power in an uncertain market environment. The political realignment of West Virginia — and now Kentucky — is proof of that.

As the Bevin administration moves into its first year, and as Central Appalachian coal prices continue to fall, it remains to be seen how the coal industry will maintain political power in the state. However, if recent developments serve any indication, we can almost guarantee that elected leaders in Kentucky will continue using “war on coal” rhetoric to exploit the fears of many, while ignoring the very real issues of clean energy, healthcare access, low wages and environmental catastrophe.

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Budget holds promise for Central Appalachia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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An end to Frasure Creek’s water violations in Kentucky — finally

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 - posted by Erin

The Settlement

Late Monday evening, Appalachian Voices finalized a historic settlement in a case against Frasure Creek Mining. The settlement follows a five-year-long legal battle to protect eastern Kentucky’s waterways and bring a coal company notorious for violating environmental laws to justice.

The agreement is notable not only for the large penalty imposed, but also because it effectively bars Frasure Creek from further mining in Kentucky. It also marks a welcome, if uncommon, collaboration between clean water advocates and state regulators. The settlement was crafted through cooperation between the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, citizens groups — including Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance — and Frasure Creek.
FrasurePondandSign
The settlement includes a total potential penalty of $6 million – the highest environmental fine ever levied against a coal company by the Kentucky cabinet. Frasure Creek will not have to pay the fine, however, as long as it does not mine in the state. Regardless of whether the company hopes to ever mine coal in Kentucky again, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to admit to its violations and immediately pay $500,000. If Frasure Creek fails to pay the $500,000, it will be liable for the full $6 million fine.

During the course of settlement negotiations, Frasure Creek transferred its remaining Kentucky mining permits to Liberty Management. The mines were no longer producing coal, but were in the process of reclamation and still had active Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and Clean Water Act permits.

If at some later point Frasure Creek or its owners wish to apply for new permits, they must first pay $2.75 million before their mining application will be processed by the state. Essentially, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to either leave the state of Kentucky for good or pay a fine sufficient enough to deter it from returning to its illegal practices.

The Cases

Though this settlement arose out of a notice of intent to sue sent in 2014, the story begins a half-decade earlier.

In 2010, Appalachian Voices began an investigation into the two largest surface mining coal companies in Kentucky. After reviewing discharge monitoring reports (DMRs) – Clean Water Act compliance reports submitted by coal companies to state agencies – Appalachian Voices determined that Frasure Creek Mining and another company, International Coal Group (ICG), were duplicating reports. We later discovered that the third largest coal company in Kentucky at the time, Nally & Hamilton, was also falsifying data in its DMRs.

This pattern made it clear that ignoring regulations is common in the coal industry. In another case of falsified water pollution reporting, a lab employee of Appalachian Labs in West Virginia pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act. The lab conducted sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia. At least four different water-testing labs were involved in the duplicate data cases in Kentucky.

When we first discovered the duplicate reports at ICG and Frasure Creek, we took steps to file a citizens’ lawsuit against the companies under the Clean Water Act. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed its own case against the companies in state court, effectively preempting our case. We intervened in the state’s case to ensure diligent enforcement by the state — a right of citizens that was ultimately upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

In 2011, we filed an additional suit against the companies for permit limit violations that arose when both companies began reporting more accurate data. State officials once again preempted our case, but this time the cabinet filed its case in the Kentucky Office of Administrative Hearings. The cabinet and Frasure Creek then entered a slap-on-the-wrist settlement, over our objections and despite our right to intervene in the case. That settlement was thrown out last year on the grounds that it violated our due process rights. The cabinet has appealed that decision.

In 2014, Appalachian Voices again discovered that Frasure Creek was duplicating DMRs, this time with a different water testing laboratory. Once again, the cabinet failed to identify the problem until we filed a notice of intent to sue over the violations. This time, when the cabinet filed a case in its administrative court, we were granted intervention and allowed much more input in the settlement. The result is the historic settlement filed earlier this week.
FrasureGraph
Finally, not only did the cabinet allow meaningful citizen input, it pursued an enforcement action that may actually be strong enough to prevent this problem from happening again, at least with Frasure Creek. Unfortunately, the settlement was entered on the last day of Governor Steve Beshear’s term and the progress we made with the Beshear administration is not guaranteed to continue during Governor Matt Bevin’s time in office.

The Agency

It is too early to determine how friendly the new Bevin administration will be toward coal companies that flout regulations, but there is already reason to be concerned. Former Gov. Beshear appointed Len Peters as Secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet. On paper, Peters had many of the right credentials for the position — he is a scientist and an academic with broad experience working for universities, nonprofits and the federal government. Despite these qualifications, under his leadership, the cabinet still routinely allowed coal companies and other industries to violate environmental regulations with minimal consequences.

In contrast, Bevin’s appointment for cabinet secretary, Charles Snavely, spent the past three decades climbing the corporate ladders at several major Central Appalachian coal companies. Last I checked, the Energy and Environment Cabinet includes not just the division of mine permits, but also the divisions of water, air quality, and renewable energy, among others. Apparently running a company in one of the dirtiest industries in the county now qualifies you to protect communities and ecosystems from that industry, in Kentucky at least.

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin's appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin’s appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

It gets worse. Not all coal companies are equal. While I would argue that no surface mining coal company in Kentucky is particularly good for Kentucky, some are worse than others. Snavely has worked for both Massey Energy and Arch Coal. In September 2010, he was named the executive vice president of mining operations at ICG.

That’s right — when Appalachian Voices and our partners sued ICG for falsifying DMRs, Snavely was a member of the company’s senior management.

According to news reports, at the time, he was responsible for “all ICG mining operations and corporate oversight of safety and compliance performance.” Before this, when Snavely was just a run-of-the-mill vice president at ICG, 12 miners were killed in an explosion at ICG’s Sago Mine in West Virginia. Family members of the victims claimed the mine had violated safety regulations. In 2011, ICG settled a wrongful death suit.

Despite the current decline in the coal market in Central Appalachia, Governor Bevin seems just as beholden to the industry as many politicians who have preceded him. But appointing an industry insider to regulate the industry will not be enough to save it.

The Future

This settlement, and the commitment of groups like Appalachian Voices and our partners to bring polluters to justice, demonstrate to the new administration that citizens will hold the state accountable. But it’s not clear that Governor Bevin is getting the message. During his campaign, Bevin courted the coal industry and criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In October, at the height of the campaign, Bevin even chastised his opponent for saying coal can be done “cleaner.” If he had any downtime on his inauguration day, we hope Bevin read the news.

Coal is rapidly declining in Central Appalachia. But that does not mean the industry, or its influence, will disappear anytime soon or that enforcement of environmental regulations around mining will become any less important. If anything, the thin economic margins of coal companies operating in Central Appalachia today provide an incentive to break rules intended to prevent negative impacts on water, land and communities. As the region envisions a new economy that is not dominated by coal, oversight of mining’s impact on the region is as important as ever.

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States Hold Strong on Clean Power Plan Positions

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Brian Sewell

The legal assault on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan began long before Oct. 23, when it was published in the Federal Register. But that day, states and industry groups were able to officially challenge the rules, which are aimed at limiting carbon pollution from coal plants and boosting cleaner energy sources.

Within a day, more than 15 separate cases were filed, making the Clean Power Plan the most litigated environmental regulation in history, according to E&E Publishing. Appalachian states including Georgia, North Carolina, Kentucky and Ohio signed onto a lawsuit led by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey that includes 20 other states.

Attorneys general and agency officials fighting the EPA, however, may not have the public on their side. A poll released in November by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found that a majority of residents in every state except West Virginia, North Dakota and Montana believe there should be strict limits on carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants.

Virginia and Maryland are among a group of 18 states intervening in the case to defend the Clean Power Plan.

Describing his reasons for supporting the EPA, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring told reporters that policies to address climate change and invest in renewable energy are “exactly the kind of shot in the arm that we need to grow a real, vibrant clean-energy economy here in Virginia.”

The fight over the Clean Power Plan’s future is expected to last years, especially if the case reaches the U.S. Supreme Court. In the meantime, states are carefully considering their approaches to compliance.

The N.C. Department of Environmental Quality quickly crafted a plan focused entirely on improving power plant efficiency — the only component of the Clean Power Plan the state agency considers to be legal. Experts say that approach could easily backfire, leaving North Carolina with less control over its carbon-reduction efforts.

“If the EPA successfully defends the [legal] challenge and the EPA denies DEQ’s plan, it can impose a federal plan it is developing without the states,” Jonas Monast of Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions told the Charlotte Business Journal.

Kentucky could also be assigned a federal plan if incoming Gov. Matt Bevin keeps his campaign promise to rebuke the EPA. Due to Bevin’s refusal to even develop a compliance plan, the group Kentuckians For The Commonwealth has pledged to create its own.

“They are turning their backs, again, on our opportunity and Kentucky’s future,” the group wrote on the website for the project, Empower Kentucky. “If the politicians won’t do it, it’s up to us.”

Algae Blooms, Water Quality Withers

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

By W. Spencer King

Algae may not be the first pollutant that comes to mind, but in Kentucky, blue-green algae in the Ohio River has become a concern for water quality and human safety. The particular algae is a cyanobacteria containing a toxin that is harmful to humans who come in direct contact with it.

In April 2013, officials from the Kentucky Division of Water pledged to draft a plan to mitigate these toxic algal blooms that were affecting the waterways, but as of press time, no plan has been released.

Kentucky officials have made headway on controlling nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, which could help control the algae, Peter Goodman, director of the Division of Water, told the Courier Journal. According to Goodman, creating a plan to control the pollutants that feed the algae is a very complex task, as the pollutants are often found in runoff from farms, wastewater treatment plants, and commercial fertilizers.

Environmental organization Kentucky Waterways Alliance believes that the state should prioritize plans to deal with the problem and educate the public on how waterway pollution is causing the buildup of algae.

Although algal blooms are not currently threatening municipal water supplies, state officials have previously warned that direct contact with river water when algal blooms are occurring could result in skin, eye and respiratory irritation as well as sickness.

State Environmental Departments Criticized

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

By Eliza Laubach

North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality’s regulatory control is in jeopardy, according to a letter sent to the state department’s secretary from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October. In the letter, the EPA expressed concern that recent court cases limit citizen rights to appeal DEQ permits beyond federal standards.

The DEQ’s response claimed they were misunderstood and argued that state permitting rules give citizens greater input than the federal rules. If the court verdicts are upheld, the EPA could exercise its right to review DEQ’s permitting programs, the letter said, which would also encompass a package of changes to environmental regulations passed by the state earlier this fall. If discrepancies are found with federal requirements, the EPA could withdraw their authorization of DEQ’s permitting programs.

In Kentucky, a WFPL Louisville Public Media investigation found that the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has become lax in regulatory enforcement over the past 20 years. Budget cuts, staff reductions and recent industry-friendly administrations have contributed to decreasing violations and enforcement pursued in court. Legal proceedings over violations currently average about 50 percent less cases per year than 15 years ago, according to data reviewed by the investigation, which also found that some of Kentucky’s waterways are more polluted than they were a decade ago

Citizens groups, Kentucky reach historic settlement with coal company over water pollution

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by brian

Deal sends strong signal to incoming Bevin administration

Contact:
Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices, 206-769-8286, erin@appvoices.org
Ted Withrow, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, 606-784-6885, tfwithrow@windstream.net
Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper, 859-200-7442, kyriverkeeper@eku.edu
Peter Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance, 828-582-0422, pharrison@waterkeeper.org
Alice Howell, Sierra Club, 859-420-8092, a.howell0607@gmail.com

Frankfort, KY – A coalition of citizens groups entered a settlement late last night with Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet that resolves years of Clean Water Act violations numbering in the thousands at the company’s surface coal mines in eastern Kentucky. The violations include duplicated water pollution monitoring reports, failure to report pollution, and exceedences of pollution permit limits.

The settlement comes as the newly elected Bevin administration is taking office, setting a critical benchmark for the new Secretary of Energy and Environment.

The settlement includes a $6 million fine – the highest ever entered by Kentucky against a coal company for environmental violations. In the settlement, Frasure Creek admits to the violations and agrees to immediately pay $500,000. If the company defaults on payment, it will be liable for the full $6 million fine. In addition, if Frasure Creek, which is currently not mining in the state, or its owners want to resume mining, they must pay $2.75 million before a permit application will be processed.

“This settlement should send a strong signal to the new administration that citizens can and will hold the state accountable for vigorously enforcing laws against polluters to ensure the health of our waters and communities,” said Erin Savage, Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

“This settlement comes after a half decade of effort and a precedent-setting decision from the Kentucky Supreme Court affirming the importance of citizen intervention. It’s the product of the Energy and Environment Cabinet working with citizens to bring this outlaw company into compliance. We the citizens will remain vigilant to ensure that the laws are enforced and the people of the Commonwealth are protected,” said Ted Withrow with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

“Frasure Creek’s history of egregious violations spans nearly a decade now,” said Pete Harrison, an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. “Kentucky shouldn’t tolerate chronic lawbreakers like this, and under our settlement, Frasure Creek must stay out of the coal business in Kentucky. Unless the company’s owners prove they’re willing to take responsibility for the damage they’ve done by paying millions of dollars in additional fines, they won’t be allowed to come back,” Harrison added.

“As the coal industry declines in eastern Kentucky, it’s extremely important that the pollution problems caused by irresponsible companies are addressed before those companies leave and saddle the state and Kentucky citizens with the burden of cleaning up their mess”, said Alice Howell, Cumberland Chapter Sierra Club Mining Committee Co-chair.

The violations occurred at Frasure Creek mountaintop removal mines in Floyd, Magoffin, Perry, and Pike counties in Eastern Kentucky. Frasure Creek is owned by Essar Group, a multinational corporation based in India.

Appalachian Voices first discovered that Frasure Creek was duplicating water pollution reports in 2010. In response to the citizens groups’ subsequent notice of intent to sue, the cabinet proceeded with enforcement action. The groups, believing the state’s enforcement was too lenient, sought to intervene. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court affirmed for the first time ever the importance of citizen intervention in Clean Water Act cases in Kentucky.

In 2014, the groups discovered that, once again, Frasure Creek was duplicating or otherwise falsifying water pollution reports. Almost half of the company’s data submitted for the first quarter of 2014 was copied from previous reports. In November 2014, the groups filed a notice of intent to sue over the new violations. The cabinet then filed an enforcement action against Frasure Creek, which the citizens groups joined.

“It takes all of us as citizens to protect our water and air for our children’s children from the abuse and robbery of polluters. That is what this is all about, that is why this is so important,” said Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper.

The administrative order filed yesterday resolves the cabinet’s case against the mining company. The citizens groups had also sued Frasure Creek in federal court over the same violations, and will soon file a consent judgment with the court that incorporates the terms of the order.

The citizens groups – Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance – are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, Lauren Waterworth of Waterworth Law Office, PLLC, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Student leaders support the POWER+ Plan

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015 - posted by brian
Members of the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Renaissance Initiative at Whitesburg City Hall. Photo courtesy of ARI.

Members of the eastern Kentucky Appalachian Renaissance Initiative at Whitesburg City Hall. Photo courtesy of ARI.

Yesterday, a group of student leaders in eastern Kentucky took a commendable step in support of Central Appalachia’s youth and economic future.

By a unanimous vote, the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative Student Senate passed a resolution of support for the POWER+ Plan, a White House initiative to build more diverse economies in communities hardest hit by the coal industry’s decline. More than 13,000 coal jobs have been lost in Central Appalachia since 2011 alone.

The group, which is comprised of high school juniors and seniors from seventeen school districts, has a particular interest in seeing economic prospects in the region improve. Rural communities in Central Appalachia are struggling with population loss due to a lack of opportunities.

“This POWER+ Plan can remove the need for people to leave,” said Kiley Short, a Junior Senator from Letcher County Central High School. “It stimulates economic growth and business opportunities, which are imperative to the fate of my home, my culture, my people, and my future.”

In Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan — and calling on their elected leaders to do the same. More than two dozen localities in Central Appalachia’s coal-bearing region have passed resolutions similar to the one approved by the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative.

Specifically, the POWER+ Plan directs millions of dollars in additional funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Department of Labor and other federal agencies focused on economic development. It also calls for an additional $200 million per year over the next five years for the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program to restore dangerous unreclaimed mines.

According to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which administers the program, additional funds would assist communities most severely impacted by coal “in a manner that facilitates economic revitalization on reclaimed lands and restored waterways.”

But the fate of that key component of POWER+, which must be approved by Congress, remains unclear.

Regional groups including Appalachian Voices are committed to seeing the POWER+ Plan succeed. And we’ve been inspired by the level of local support in spite of the uncertainty this bipartisan plan faces in a highly partisan Congress.

The need for new investment in Central Appalachian communities is urgent. In supporting POWER+, these young leaders aren’t just voting for their future, they’re voting for their families’ and neighbors’ present.

As Stacie Fugate, a Junior Senator from Hazard Independent, said after the vote: “My brother has recently been laid off from work. This plan hits home for not only me, but the majority of people in our region.”

We congratulate the Appalachian Renaissance Initiative for its vision and thank its members for speaking up for the region’s future.

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Understanding the Stream Protection Rule

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 - posted by Erin

SPR Meme 1

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a long-awaited draft Stream Protection Rule. While it’s far from perfect, the proposed rule is a long-overdue update to protections for both surface and groundwater from mountaintop removal coal mining. It also provides much-needed clarification regarding a host of other issues, including reclamation standards and bonding requirements.

Not surprisingly, the industry is fighting the Stream Protection Rule tooth and nail. Instead of focusing on the substance of the rule though, opponents’ rely on tired “war on coal” talking points. The industry also argues these regulations are unnecessary and will undermine an otherwise viable industry — even though several large coal companies have declared bankruptcy. Let’s examine those claims.

First, this new rule was developed to update the rule currently in use — the 1983 Stream Buffer Zone rule — based on new science and realities on the ground. The past 32 years have provided ample time for additional research to prove what many Central Appalachian residents already know: that burying streams with mining waste permanently damages waterways and that mountaintop removal is linked to a host of other environmental and health problems. The Stream Protection Rule aims to address a number of current problems.

The Stream Protection Rule aims to improve methods for monitoring for and preventing damage to surface and groundwater. It’s important to note that the rule still allows for mining activities, including waste disposal, in streams. The new rule is actually weaker than the 1983 rule in this regard. The ‘83 rule prohibited mining disturbances within 100 feet of streams and prohibited damage to streams by mountaintop removal mining. In practice, however, states routinely grant variances to the ‘83 Stream Buffer Zone rule, allowing valley fill construction and other mining impacts to streams on a regular basis. This is often done by allowing companies to remediate other areas of streams that have already been degraded as a substitution for the stream miles they will bury or otherwise damage.

While it does not include a stream buffer zone requirement, the Stream Protection Rule does provide a number of added benefits for aquatic resources. New requirements include enhanced baseline monitoring data for both surface and groundwater. The availability of such data will make it easier to identify damage caused by mining. Under existing regulations, coal companies too often escape liability for damage to waterways because there is no baseline data to prove pollutants were not present before mining began. The draft rule also includes a definition of “material damage to the hydrologic balance”, which was never previously defined. Clarifying language like this is an important part of making sure that rules are enforceable on the ground.

An important question to ask is whether this type of regulation is necessary. In this case, the additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed. Research over the past decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. A recent study examined coal companies’ success in restoring or recreating streams as a form of “trade” for other streams damaged or buried during mining. The study found that 97 percent of these projects failed optimal habitat scores for aquatic life. This is strong indication that rebuilding a stream’s form will not necessarily restore its function. Additionally, the study found that a majority of these restoration projects were completed in perennial streams, while mining damage was mostly occurring in intermittent and ephemeral streams. This is important because intermittent and ephemeral streams often provide unique habitat and food resources critical to the survival of many species.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

The science clearly indicates the need for more protection of streams and other environmental resources, but would the cost of these protections be justifiable? Do the benefits to streams — and people, and tourism, and recreation, and … — outweigh the impact that the rule may have on the industry? The industry would like you to believe that this new rule will be so costly that it will create an unwarranted burden on an otherwise beneficial Central Appalachian industry. The OSMRE attempted to answer this debate through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which includes cost-benefit analyses. In most scenarios, the OSMRE expects minimal job loss due to the new rule, in part due to jobs created through the need to comply with the rule.

What the EIS doesn’t adequately do is take into consideration the larger context of surface mining in Appalachia and the impacts it has on local communities. First, the coal industry already has a net negative impact on the economies of the states where it occurs. Several different studies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky indicate this. In 2006, the coal industry cost the state of Kentucky $115 million. In 2009, the coal industry was estimated to cost the state of West Virginia $97.5 million and the state of Virginia $21.9 million.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

The EIS also does not consider surface mining’s global impact. The burning of coal in power plants releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Surface mining in Central Appalachia also exacerbates climate change through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, forests in the region will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by the year 2035. This is due both to deforestation during the mining process and grassland reclamation. The Stream Protection Rule improves reclamation requirements so that more mined lands are returned to native forests, instead of the now-prevalent grasslands.

Lastly, the EIS does not consider the negative health outcomes associated with mountaintop removal. The prevalence of health problems the region is well documented. Most recently, a study showed that dust from surface mines can promote the growth of lung tumors. The negative impacts to the health of communities near mines alone should be enough to justify an end to mountaintop removal.

It is true that the coal industry in Central Appalachia is facing a particularly difficult time. Unlike previous boom and bust cycles, this downturn looks to be permanent. This is exactly why additional safeguards are necessary to protect public water. Companies desperate to turn a profit in a more competitive energy market may be more inclined to bend rules or ignore regulations all together. This time marks a critical and exciting opportunity to address economic diversification throughout the region. Protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region will be integral to a successful transition.

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