Posts Tagged ‘Kentucky’

Mountaintop removal is the 800-pound gorilla at the SOAR Health Impact Series

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Erin

If the SOAR initiative is to go beyond political rhetoric, Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear must take public concerns about mountaintop removal’s health impacts seriously.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

I attended the first Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit held in Pikeville, Ky., last December. Following Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s Appalachia’s Bright Future economic development meeting, I was excited at the prospects such a large summit might generate.

As a joint effort between U.S. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, it was clear that SOAR had the power to make real change in eastern Kentucky, but only if those involved had the will.

The results of SOAR following the summit have been mixed so far. Several people have pointed out issues with the process — specifically, the stakeholders most involved in SOAR may not accurately represent the needs and concerns of eastern Kentuckians. Since the summit, my hope for the outcomes of SOAR have waned. But when I learned that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, would be visiting eastern Kentucky as part of the SOAR Health Impact Series, I saw an opportunity for the voices of residents from coal-impacted communities in eastern Kentucky counties to be heard.

Making a Clear Case on Mountaintop Removal and Health

Over the past several years, more than 20 peer-reviewed studies have been published linking a range of health problems including above-average cancer and birth defect rates to the presence of mountaintop removal coal mining. Yet just last month, the Obama administration pulled funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for research underway on air pollution from mountaintop removal and its link to respiratory issues. The need for a serious effort to identify and address health issues related to mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia has never been more clear. Despite this, I was not optimistic that Dr. Frieden and Rep. Rogers would address this need during their visit.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Prior to the CDC visit, the SOAR health committee held 11 listening sessions across eastern Kentucky from April through July. Each of the sessions drew an average of more than 20 participants. Although SOAR has thus far limited the role of key community members in leadership positions, the health committee has provided a forum for some community involvement.

The CDC meetings consisted of four sessions — two shorter evening sessions in Somerset and Paintsville, and two longer daytime sessions in Hazard and Morehead. I attended the daytime session in Hazard last Tuesday, where there was standing room only. Several individuals spoke, including Rep. Rogers and several doctors from eastern Kentucky.

As the morning went on, I began to lose hope that environmental concerns would be brought up. Then, Dr. Nikki Stone, the health committee chair and event moderator, spoke about the issues that came up during the listening sessions. She began listing the top 10 concerns that had come up throughout the listening sessions, and much to my surprise, environmental impacts, including air and water pollution from mountaintop removal mines, was the top concern resulting from the listening sessions, tied with a desire for coordinate health programs in public schools.

To be honest, I was stunned. I was so sure that the topic would be avoided at a meeting that attracted so much attention. Suddenly, I was hopeful that the health impacts of mountaintop removal would receive some real attention from those that have the power to address the issue.

Unfortunately, the rest of the meeting quickly turned back to lengthy speeches about taking personal responsibility for one’s own health and an announcement of federal funding for the Appalachian Cancer Patient Navigation Project. The talks left me with the distinct impression that those speaking would rather focus on dealing with the prevalence of disease, rather than preventing it.

The Health Impact Series did not improve later that evening in Paintsville. The closest mention of environmental impacts on health came from Rep. Rogers, who referred to dirty streams but then went on to blame water quality degradation on people dumping and straight piping waste into streams. It seemed once again that it was easier to blame eastern Kentuckians, rather than the industry they have been beholden to for generations.

The Opportunity Ahead

There was a strong press presence at both meetings, which may have salvaged some chance of addressing the impacts of mountaintop removal. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, when “asked whether he would support having the CDC study the public health effects of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, Frieden said the agency ‘only goes where it’s invited.’” Following the disappointing Paintsville meeting, I felt like I had one last opportunity to make the most of the meetings and approached Dr. Frieden fully expecting to be turned away. Instead, he listened carefully for a moment and then directed me to his assistant. I spoke with several CDC employees and was disappointed to find that they were unaware of the multitude of health studies linking health problems to mountaintop removal. They did, however, encourage me to contact them directly for follow up on the issue.

Moving forward, Appalachian Voices and our allies intend to follow up with the CDC, to be sure that they are fully aware of the current research that indicates quite clearly that one of the major health issues we should be concerned about in Central Appalachia is mountaintop removal coal mining. We will be sure that the CDC knows that, at least when it comes to the citizens of eastern Kentucky, the CDC is invited to investigate this pressing issue. We will also be sure that the SOAR Health Committee acts upon its finding that citizens are most concerned about environmental impacts on health, because, as the Herald-Leader stated, “when a congressman and governor invite people to ‘listening sessions,’ there’s an obligation to take what they say seriously.”

Endangered Species are New Focus in Legal Case against Kentucky’s Water Quality Protections and EPA

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014 - posted by eric

Contact
Appalachian Voices: Eric Chance, 828-262-1500, eric@appvoices.org
Kentuckians For The Commonwealth: Suzanne Tallichet, 606-776-7970, stallichet1156@aol.com
Center for Biological Diversity: Tierra Curry, 971-717-6402, tcurry@biologicaldiversity.org
Sierra Club: Adam Beitman, (202) 675-2385, adam.beitman@gmail.com
Defenders of Wildlife: Melanie Gade, (202) 772-0288, mgade@defenders.org
Kentucky Waterways Alliance: Tim Joice, (502) 589-8008, Tim@kwalliance.org

LOUISVILLE, Ky. –
A coalition of national and Appalachian conservation groups today asked the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky to compel the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect imperiled wildlife in Kentucky. The groups want the EPA to reassess the dangers posed to wildlife by a new set of water quality standards covering Kentucky’s coal mining and agricultural operations.

In November 2013, the EPA approved the weakening of Kentucky’s water quality standards for selenium, a pollutant commonly released by mountaintop removal coal mines. The EPA also approved Kentucky’s weakened standards for nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff, which causes toxic algae blooms in local bodies of water and depletes the oxygen needed to support most aquatic life. A coalition of conservation groups, including Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Waterways Alliance and Sierra Club, immediately filed suit, asserting that the EPA’s new guidelines are insufficient to protect waterways and wildlife under the Clean Water Act.

Today, two national wildlife conservation groups, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity, joined the case. The groups assert that, in addition to violating the Clean Water Act, the EPA’s approval of Kentucky’s weakened water quality standards also violates the Endangered Species Act. Under that law, the EPA is required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assess the impacts of changed standards on federally listed species. The groups allege that the EPA violated the Endangered Species Act by initiating, but failing to complete, that consultation process.

The groups issued the following statements:

Jane Davenport, senior staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife:
“Coal mining has devastating impacts on water-dependent wildlife. The new, weaker water quality standards were originally proposed by the coal mining lobby so it’s unfortunate to see the Environmental Protection Agency essentially rubber stamp them without even checking to see how imperiled wildlife would be affected. Implementation of these new standards needs to be put on hold until the EPA fulfills all of its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.”

Eric Chance, water quality specialist with Appalachian Voices:
“This weakened selenium standard is basically a handout to the coal industry at the expense of the people and streams of Kentucky. The EPA and state are just making it easier for polluters to get away with poisoning streams. This is a misguided rule at odds with well-established science, existing laws and common sense.”

Tierra Curry, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity and a native of Knott County:
“Kentucky is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than nearly any other state. Keeping the water safe for them will also help protect healthy water quality for people.”

Alice Howell of Sierra Club’s Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter:
“Mountaintop removal coal mining threatens our health and our environment, including our most vulnerable species. The EPA has acted irresponsibly by approving Kentucky’s dangerously weak standards. It’s time for the courts to intervene and uphold the strong protections required under the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.”

Suzanne Tallichet, state chair of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth:
“KFTC members are concerned with the health and well-being of all species. We all share the planet, so when one species is being harmed, we are all at risk – including people. Kentucky state officials and the EPA should help us strengthen – rather than diminish – our natural resources. Many Kentuckians are working hard to build a brighter future for coal-impacted communities. But that bright future depends on having healthy streams that are necessary for wildlife, tourism, communities, and businesses to thrive. Appalachia’s bright future can’t be built on polluted waterways that are doing damage to fish and wildlife, not to mention local communities. Kentucky deserves better than these weakened water quality standards.”

Judy Petersen, executive director of Kentucky waterways Alliance:
“The selenium pollution allowed under these new rules could impact birds and other wildlife dependent on the bugs and small fish in our waterways. And we’ve already seen the impacts of too many nutrients in our waters. Taylorsville and Barren River Lakes have levels of harmful algae that put them in the moderate health risk for recreational exposure. People can get sick and even dogs and pets could die after swimming in these lakes. We must do a better job protecting our waterways from pollution, and not look to weaken protections.”

###

Head in Clouds, Feet on Trail: Kentucky’s Cloudsplitter 100

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

By Amber Ellis

Come Oct. 4-5, folks from all over the United States and the world will be arriving in Pine Mountain, Ky. for the state’s first 100-mile race.

The Cloudsplitter 100 is endorsed by USA Track & Field as an official mountain, ultra and trail-running championship. There will be accompanying races of 25, 50 and 100 kilometers as well as food, music, games and storytelling.

Cutting through Pike and Letcher counties, the race route follows the Pine Mountain Scenic Trail, “one of the most physically demanding trails in the East,” and highlights the area’s rugged beauty and nearly untouched landscape as a promising possibility for Kentuckian ecotourism. Visit: cloudsplitter100.com

Quarry Opposition in Ky.

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

By Amber Ellis

Citizens in Powell County, Ky., are not taking kindly to the threat of a new rock quarry atop Furnace Mountain courtesy of Red River Materials.

More than 150 people discussed their questions and concerns at a public forum in April, but many left unsatisfied. They responded by creating a petition to stop the permit.

The Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement processed the permit application and returned it to Red River for further hydrologic, geologic and cave and species mapping investigation, according to Mark Tarter, an agency official.

To read citizens’ concerns, visit their petition at Change.org or their Facebook group, Save Furnace Mountain.

Ky. Proposes Updates to Coal General Permit

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis

By Brian Sewell

New permitting rules could have far-reaching implications for Kentucky coal mines, processing facilities and the streams that carry away their waste. The state’s “general permit,” which is updated every five years, is available to coal companies seeking pollution discharge permits judged to have a lesser environmental impact than larger operations.

Currently, pollution discharges within five miles of a public water intake are not eligible for the general permit, but the new proposal would change that and instead ask coal companies to create response plans for “catastrophic releases” into public water supplies.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must also sign off on the changes. The previous general permit expired on July 31.

Expecting Justice: The backward priorities of a billionaire coal baron

Thursday, August 7th, 2014 - posted by brian

If spending $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is paying your debts.

One of these things is not like the other, but they're all owned by Jim Justice. Premium Coal's Zeb Mountain (top) and Windrock Mountain mines in Tennessee, and the Greenbrier's new training complex. Photos from tnleaf.org and Facebook.

One of these things is not like the other, but they’re all owned by Jim Justice. Premium Coal’s Zeb Mountain (top) and Windrock Mountain mines in Tennessee, and the Greenbrier’s new training complex. Photos from tnleaf.org and Facebook.

On July 25, as opponents of mountaintop removal celebrated an order that halted three companies’ surface mining operations in Tennessee, New Orleans Saints fans flocked to the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where the NFL football team began training camp at a brand new $30 million facility.

At the center of both stories is Jim Justice, a billionaire West Virginia native who in recent years cut his coal losses by investing heavily in resort properties like the Greenbrier.

The Sierra Club and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment shared the news that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued 39 cessation orders against National Coal, Premium Coal and S&H Mining, each owned by Justice, for failing to report water monitoring data and meet mine reclamation requirements.

In fact, coal mines owned by Justice in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have racked up more than 250 violations, with unpaid penalties of about $2 million.

“I guess I just screwed up,” Justice said to the Roanoke Times in July about his subsidiaries’ transgressions. “I mean, we’re not a public company … The majority of this is all paperwork, and I’m cleaning it up.”

Purchased Power

Justice is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion. Forbes magazine puts him at number 292 on a list of wealthiest Americans and estimates that his personal wealth has grown by $500 million in the last year.

In some circles, he is revered for rescuing West Virginia’s historic Greenbrier Resort from bankruptcy in 2009. And even as violations against Justice-owned operations pile up, West Virginia’s lone billionaire is helping his state through troubled times.

“Sure, some have raised questions about some of Justice’s companies’ practices, late payments, regulatory fines and the like,” a July editorial in the Charleston Daily Mail postured in guarded praise. “Yet, while many talk of diversifying the state’s economy in the face of market and regulatory setbacks for the coal industry, Jim Justice and company are doing something about it.”

Photo from the Justice to Justice campaign's Facebook page.

Photo from the Justice to Justice campaign’s Facebook page.

Some folks in Kentucky feel differently, and understandably so — nearly half of the 266 violations Justice faces resulted from problems at mines in that state’s eastern counties.

Along with violations for failing to pay fines or breaking promises after previous enforcement actions, the charges in Kentucky stem from companies failing to submit water monitoring reports and failing to meet reclamation requirements. The problem has gotten so bad that some states are considering bond forfeiture, a last resort that could push the costs of proper reclamation off on the communities Justice’s companies have already put in harm’s way.

It’s not the first time his companies’ poor regulatory records have hurt their ability to do business. Outstanding violations in Virginia led to a massive victory for opponents of mountaintop removal last year when the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a permit for Justice’s A&G Coal Corp. to strip-mine Ison Rock Ridge in Wise County.

But the recent cessation order in Tennessee represents the largest action to date taken against Justice’s companies. Unlike all the other states where his operations face violations and fines, Tennessee’s mining regulatory program is handled by the federal government.

Before the cessation orders were issued, the federal Office of Surface Mining held public hearings in Anderson County, Tenn., to address Premium Coal’s failure to meet reclamation requirements at two mine sites. Premium Coal requested the orders be dropped because the crew they hired had planted trees upside down with the roots sticking up.

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign this year to raise awareness about the dismal regulatory records and outstanding debts of Justice-owned coal companies. Photo from justicetojustice.org

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign to raise awareness about the dismal regulatory records and outstanding debts of Justice-owned coal companies. Photo from justicetojustice.com.

“You’d think a coal billionaire could hire firms that can plant a tree the right way around. Sadly, Premium Coal’s reasoning for not meeting permit requirements was simply that,” said Sierra Club Organizer Bonnie Swinford in a press release. “Justice and his firms have a legal responsibility to ensure adequate reclamation of strip-mined land in our state — and upside-down trees don’t cut it.”

Add it all up, and it’s no wonder the Southwest Virgnia-based Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign this year to call on the mogul to use his power to diversify Appalachia’s economy and put an end to mountaintop removal. In early July, SAMS members marched outside the Greenbrier and the towns of White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg, W.Va., holding signs with messages such as “You got rich, we got sick,” “Employ local people in reclamation,” and “Hey Jim Justice, be a good neighbor to ALL of Appalachia.”

According to the Justice to Justice website, many tourists and even local residents had no idea that the Greenbrier patriarch’s fortune had been built in part “on the backs of blasted mountains and abandoned communities.”

Courting the Saints

Sadly, media coverage of Justice’s latest major investment has obscured everything mentioned so far in this post. A USA Today story about the new facility built for the New Orleans Saints praised a genial, sports-loving Justice, calling him a “refreshingly grounded billionaire.” Justice was proud to share the amount he spent to see the Saints come to the Greenbrier.

“This is on me — I spent $30 million of my own money,” Justice told USA Today. “The Saints are paying for their rooms and their meals. Basically, that’s it. The Saints didn’t put money in this deal.”

The facility, which has variously been described as “posh,” “lavish,” and “state-of-the-art,” was built in about 100 days. You can watch the video at right from the Charleston Daily Mail’s YouTube account for a look inside.

“It’s unbelievable when you think about it,” Justice told reporters gathered in the locker room. “This is, gosh, I’m trying to think, a little over 90 days in the doing, and with a whole lot of earth-moving, it had to be done before that.”

Yes, it is unbelievable, and exceedingly hard to not just conclude that Justice sees himself as being above the law. If dropping $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is abiding by surface mining laws and properly reclaiming mines — trees planted root-side down and all.

Justice says the demands of his critics, who he calls “anti-mining activists,” are unrealistic. But considering the circumstances, a regional movement calling on his companies to clean up their mess, pay off their debts and stop poisoning water is not only realistic, it’s unavoidable. Justice practically created it. To do right by Appalachia, he should meet those demands and then some. And he could start by responding to the open letter and request for a meeting the Justice to Justice campaign sent him months ago.

Back at the Greenbrier, likely in a dining room every bit as lavish as the new sports complex, Saints’ Coach Sean Payton and Justice had dinner together the night before training camp started. At one point, according to USA Today, Payton told Justice, “You exceeded expectations.”

Given the same chance, someone from Central Appalachia expecting justice — whether an out-of-work miner, a contractor waiting to be paid, a fed up environmental regulator or a mother concerned about the poorly reclaimed mine looming over her community — might all say the opposite: “Not even close.”

Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment and Coal River Mountain Watch recently signed on to Justice to Justice campaign. Learn more here and by liking the campaign’s Facebook page.

Court sides with EPA on science-based mountaintop removal permitting

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - posted by brian
A federal appeals court reaffirmed EPA's authority to coordinate with other agencies to apply science throughout the mountaintop removal permitting process.

A federal appeals court sided with the EPA today on mountaintop removal permitting.

In a major victory for Appalachia and clean water advocates, a federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge. Read the court’s decision here.

More on today’s decision and what it means for Appalachia.

The three-judge panel rejected a 2012 ruling that the EPA overstepped its authority by pursuing an enhanced permitting process for certain mountaintop removal proposals. Today’s ruling sends the lawsuit back to U.S. District Court.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons:

“The court’s ruling today is as clear as the science indicting mountaintop removal coal mining, and it affirms what advocates working to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams have been saying for years.

“Overwhelming evidence of the toll mountaintop removal takes on water quality, wildlife and human health continues to emerge. Still, mountaintop removal permits are being approved with disregard for the basic science behind EPA’s conductivity guidance. The ruling should be a signal to states and the EPA to begin truly following that science. And it’s common sense that the agency coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make sure the science is applied throughout the permitting process.”

This month, yet another study pointing to the destructive impact mountaintop removal was released, adding to the body of science state and federal agencies should apply to the permitting process.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to end mountaintop removal.

One fish, two fish … Dead fish

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - posted by matt

USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

onefish_twofish

A study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published this month provides strong new evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is devastating downstream fish populations.

That’s hardly news for long-time followers of the controversy surrounding mountaintop removal, a coal mining practice that involves blowing off the tops of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dumping the waste into valleys below. In 2010, a group of 13 prestigious biologists published a paper in Science, the nation’s premier scientific journal, that found:

“Our analyses of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address… Clearly, current attempts to regulate [mountaintop removal mining] practices are inadequate.”

The authors of the study published last week found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. They made this important contribution to the science by using rigorous methodology to isolate several types of water pollution most likely to have caused these staggering declines.

But a more important contribution of the study may be that it draws the focus of water pollution impacts away from mayflies and other aquatic insects and onto a far more popular and charismatic organism that not only is important to rural people’s way of life, but supports a multi-billion dollar sportfishing industry in Appalachia.

Tellingly, industry spokespeople contacted by local reporters did not dispute the science as they typically have in the past. Those that didn’t dodge reporters entirely were quick to change the subject to the purported benefits of mountaintop removal to create more flat land for industrial and commercial development (in a region where less than 10 percent of the more than 1 million acres of mountains that have already been flattened has been used for economic development).

This muted response is in stark contrast to the coal industry’s response to previous science linking mountaintop removal to the loss of aquatic insects downstream from mine sites. The “EPA puts mayflies ahead of jobs” or “pests over people” became the rallying cries of coal industry supporters when the EPA first began bringing science back into the permitting process in 2009.

One suspects that the coal industry knows it isn’t likely to win a “jobs vs. fish” debate with America’s 33 million anglers.

Widespread damage to fish populations could also be important from the pocketbook perspective that political leaders in Kentucky and West Virginia take seriously. According to data [PDF] from the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing creates a lot more jobs than mountaintop removal does in the states where it occurs:

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In fact, sportfishing accounts for more than 12,000 jobs in Kentucky, which is more than the entire coal mining workforce in the state, including all underground and surface miners, coal preparation plant workers and industry office workers combined. Moreover, unlike coal, sportfishing is a growing industry in Appalachia — the number of jobs it created in West Virginia more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.

Of course, even if “jobs vs. fish” were a popular argument, it would be just as false a narrative as “pests over people.” Declines in populations of both fish and aquatic insects are important indicators of declining health of an ecosystem on which all organisms depend, including people. The “ecological indicator” theory is consistent with the dozens of scientific studies published in the last few years that show communities near mountaintop removal mines suffer poor health outcomes ranging from high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects to low life expectancies that are comparable to those in developing nations like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Thus, the USGS study is an important contribution to the debate about mountaintop removal for anyone concerned about recreational fishing, human health or the economy of Appalachia. Hopefully that’s everybody.

It’s also a very timely contribution because it turns out that the EPA and other federal agencies are right now grappling with important rules to protect streams that will determine whether the pollution that leads to the kinds of declines in fish populations seen by the USGS researchers will be allowed to continue.

The study found that waters downstream from mountaintop removal mines contained elevated levels of two forms of pollution that the researchers believe could account for the declines in fish populations: conductivity and selenium. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. Selenium has caused grotesque deformities in larval fish ranging from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This study should serve as a wake-up call to federal regulators that have been steadily backsliding from the Obama administration’s initial commitment to put science first in agency decision-making and to rein in the widespread damage from mountaintop removal mining. That backsliding has been particularly evident at the EPA’s Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for a number of southeastern states including Kentucky.

Enforcement officials at Region 4 have not incorporated the science and recommendations developed by the EPA for the guidance on conductivity since it was announced by previous EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010. At the time, Jackson predicted the new guidelines would allow “few, if any, valley fills” to be permitted. Since then, valley fills — debris piles composed of the soil and rock that formerly made up the mountaintops of Central Appalachia — have continued to be approved by Region 4, including a massive new mountaintop removal permit with six valley fills that was approved last year.

Region 4 officials also recently approved a weakening of Kentucky’s standards for chronic selenium levels in streams, allowing the state to permit levels high enough to cause reproductive failure in some fish. Worse, at the federal level, the EPA recently released a draft revision to its nationwide selenium rule that is likely to be all but impossible to enforce. That’s a particular problem in states like Kentucky that have proven time and again to be incapable of enforcing rules on the politically powerful coal industry without citizen groups intervening. Here’s what the Lexington Herald-Leader had to say about the state’s “failure to oversee a credible water monitoring program by the coal industry”:

“In some cases, state regulators allowed the companies to go for as long as three years without filing required quarterly water-monitoring reports. In other instances, the companies repeatedly filed the same highly detailed data, without even changing the dates. So complete was the lack of state oversight it’s impossible to say whether the mines were violating their water pollution permits or not.”

Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to take meaningful action to protect Appalachian streams this winter, when the Office of Surface Mining is scheduled to release a draft Stream Protection Rule to replace the outdated Stream Buffer Zone rule promulgated more than 30 years ago.

The message for the Obama administration from all this is that they are doing nobody any favors by taking half-measures to protecting water quality in Appalachia. When important recreational fish populations, a growing sector of the Appalachian economy and the health of Appalachian people clearly depend on strong water quality protections, the president’s spirit of compromise should not extend to compromising on science.

Here’s what you can do: tell President Obama to instruct his agencies to draft a strong Stream Protection Rule that will prohibit mining near streams and protect the health of people, fish and the economy of Appalachia. Take action here.

Another coal-related chemical spill in Central Appalachia

Monday, June 9th, 2014 - posted by Erin

Hundreds of fish were killed by a chemical released into Kentucky’s Clover Fork River by Cumberland Coal Company. Photos by Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

On Friday, May 30, another coal-related chemical spill polluted a public waterway in Central Appalachia, killing hundreds of fish and alarming local residents.

The chemical spill happened at a Cumberland Coal Company prep plant in Harlan County, Ky. This time, the spill was not of coal slurry or a coal-washing chemical, but of a flocculant — a type of compound usually used to control other substances in sediment ponds or clean up spilled material in creeks.

Reminiscent of the slurry spill from the Patriot prep plant in February, this spill began when a pipe carrying slurry between the prep plant and an impoundment failed. This time, however, the slurry was contained by the facility’s sediment ponds. Due to concerns about the slurry entering the river, a flocculent called Praestol A6291 was used to help settle the spilled material and prevent it from leaving the pond.

Unfortunately, too much of the chemical was used, causing it to spill into Kelly’s Branch, a tributary of the Clover Fork River. This particular flocculant is toxic to aquatic life and it killed hundreds of fish and other wildlife in the Clover Fork in the days following the spill.

Dead fish in the Clover Fork River. Photo: Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

The Harlan County Emergency Management was notified first, but the state Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement was not notified until the next day. When DMRE arrived, there was no evidence that any coal slurry spilled into the creek and water samples taken at that time complied with applicable mining laws. Unfortunately, it does not seem that water samples were taken on the day the spill occurred.

Dead fish in the Clover Fork River. Photo: Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

A Kentucky Fish and Wildlife employee told a local reporter that the chemical spilled was not harmful to humans. However, the material data safety sheet lists two components of this particular Praestol that are known carcinogens in laboratory animals: diethanolamine and coco diethanolamide. Thankfully, this spill was not near a drinking water intake. Still, local residents expressed a great level of concern about both their own safety and the loss of local wildlife.

Cumberland Coal Company has already been cited for a violation of general hydrologic compliance. Although fines cannot erase the damage done to a community and an ecosystem, hopefully further investigation will result in sufficient fines to compel Cumberland and other companies to prevent future spills. They have been, and remain, far too commonplace.

More Than a Market

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014 - posted by Carvan

By Megan Northcote

Families with young children particularly enjoy special event days at the Chattanooga Market, which offer sample tastings of seasonal produce, such as strawberries. Photo courtesy of Chattanooga Farmers Market.

Families with young children particularly enjoy special event days at the Chattanooga Market, which offer sample tastings of seasonal produce, such as strawberries. Photo courtesy of Chattanooga Farmers Market

Shopping for fresh, locally grown foods at farmers markets is always a refreshing way to find healthy foods while supporting the community. But in recent years, some farmers markets have transformed from grocery store alternatives to tourist destinations, featuring cooking and artisan demonstrations, hands-on healthy living activities for children, and food and farm festivals for all ages. While similarly innovative markets are popping up across the Appalachian region, these eight family-friendly markets offer a small taste of the kinds of educational entertainment that’s enticing both visitors and locals to spend a fun-filled day at the market.

Morgantown Farmers Market – W.Va.

Housed in a new pavilion, this innovative market is celebrating the opening of a grant-funded culinary station that will host healthy cooking classes and demonstrations. Youngsters can enjoy a new 10-week kids’ club called “POP” (Power of Produce), which provides each child with $2 in weekly market tokens and culminates in a healthy eating activity. Different fitness activities, including a yoga flash mob, belly dancing, and hula hooping sessions keep the grown-ups in shape too. Local musicians and nonprofit booths create a lively, atmosphere. Morgantown Market Place, 415 Spruce St. Open: May 3 – early Nov., Saturdays, 8:30 a.m. – noon. Visit: morgantownfarmers.org or call (304) 993-2410

Photo courtesy of Lexington Farmers Market

Photo courtesy of Lexington Farmers Market

Lexington Farmers Market – Ky.

Open since 1975, Lexington’s Saturday market in the heart of downtown features more than 60 vendors and draws more than 5,000 visitors during peak season. Each week, the Homegrown Authors series features talks and book signings by local writers. Monthly favorites include chef demonstrations led by local culinary students and an area master gardener information booth. Each week, different organizations host children’s activities, including arts and crafts and pony rides, along with live local music. Cheapside Park. Open: Saturdays, Spring-Fall, 7 a.m.-2p.m., Winter 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Visit: lexingtonfarmersmarket.com or call (859) 608-2655

Downtown Hickory Farmers Market – N.C.

This year, a new Thursday evening summer market, Tastin’, Tunes & Tomatoes, along with the city’s widely popular Saturday market, offers chef demonstrations as well as clogging, music and healthy food scavenger hunts for children. Wind down after the Saturday market with yoga at Union Square or grab a bite at a downtown restaurant. On June 12, Thursday’s market will host Schmoozapalooza, featuring 50 additional vendors as well as beer, wine and food sampling. Union Square, downtown Hickory. Open: April 16-Nov. 1, Saturdays, 8 a.m. – 1 p.m., Wednesdays, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m; and June 5-Aug. 28, Thursdays, 5-8 p.m. Visit: hickoryfarmersmarket.com or call (828) 306-6508

Chattanooga Farmers Market – Tenn.

Now in its 13th season, Chattanooga’s bustling market has exploded into one of the biggest in the region with more than 800 vendors drawing as many as 1,300 people each Sunday. Each market is themed and includes two free music concerts, 20 food trucks and numerous chef demonstrations. During June and July, foodie festivals abound, honoring the blueberry, tomato and peach as well as the Chattanooga Street Food Festival on June 22. Beat the heat at the July 13 Ice Cream Social where $5 buys five scoops from local creameries with proceeds benefiting a community childcare center. 1829 Carter St., Open: April 27- Nov. 23. Sundays, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Visit: chattanoogamarket.com or call 423-648-2496

Independence Farmers Market – Va.

Almost every Friday in the summer, this southwestern Virginia market hosts family-friendly special event days. At Dairy Day on June 13, youngsters can learn how to milk a cow. In July, build a vegetable vehicle to enter in the zucchini car races, or challenge the family to a pie-eating contest at Berry Fest on July 18. Enjoy monthly fiber and beekeeping demonstrations as well as chef presentations during the first market of the month and free kids activities at every market. McKnight Park, Hwy. 21 and 58 intersection. Open: May-Oct., Friday, 9 a.m.-2p.m. Visit: independencefarmersmarket.org or call (276) 655-4045

The Wild Ramp – W.Va.
This 125-vendor indoor farmers market in Huntington, W.Va., will more than double in size when it moves into the Old Central City Market building this summer. Staffed by volunteers, the year-round consignment market affords farmers more time for the harvest. Vendors can lead monthly classes about canning, cooking, herbal recipes, cheese making and more. Nonprofits lead various children’s activities, such as making seed bombs. In June, enjoy a grand opening celebration during Old Central City Days, featuring food, music and antiques. 555 14th St., Huntington. Open: year-round, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. – 7 p.m., Saturday, 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. Visit: wildramp.org or call (304) 523-7267

Charlottesville City Market – Va.

With more than 100 vendors, this downtown market is a bustling hub of seasonal cooking and artisan demonstrations accented by music. Chef Mark Gresge of l’etoile restaurant leads culinary workshops throughout the summer and food preservation classes later in the season. Ten community partners offer numerous children’s activities. The annual Labor Day weekend Farm Tour, sponsored by the nonprofit Market Central, is an excellent opportunity to explore more than 20 vendors’ farms by car. Corner of Water St. and South St. Open: Saturdays, April-Oct., 7 a.m. – noon, Nov.-Dec., 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. Visit: charlottesville.org or call (434) 970-3371

Asheville City Market – N.C.

Situated in the heart of the city’s thriving local food scene, Asheville’s eclectic Charlotte St. market attracts hundreds of foodies craving monthly cooking demonstrations. Every Saturday, the Growing Minds @ Market booth hosts a nonprofit to engage children in exercise and food-related arts and crafts. A strawberry summer festival features samples of creative berry recipes, while the Market Meal Challenge in late June awards prizes to the healthiest shopper. Live local music as well as healthy living booths round out the weekly experience. 161 S. Charlotte St. Open: April 5 – Dec. 20, Saturdays, 8 a.m.- 1 p.m. Visit: asapconnections.org or call (828) 348-0340