Posts Tagged ‘Kentucky’

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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White House POWER Initiative grants awarded

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by brian
The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

Dozens of groups working to increase employment and diversify the economies of historically coal-reliant communities got some good news today.

The White House has announced $14.5 million in grant awards for organizations and local governments across 12 states that are building a better economic future for their communities. A majority of the 36 awards, and most of the grant dollars, are going to plan or implement projects in Central Appalachia.

Appalachian Voices congratulates all the grant recipients, especially our friends and allies among them, on receiving funding for their incredibly deserving and meaningful efforts.

You may have seen news about the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan on this blog, in The Appalachian Voice, or in other regional or national media. The White House describes today’s round of grants as a “down payment” on that plan — a swifter move that recognizes the “immediacy of the economic need in coal country.” Here’s some helpful background from the White House’s announcement:

In the spring of 2015, four federal agencies announced coordinated funding solicitations for grant awards on two parallel tracks to partnerships anchored in communities impacted by the downturn in the coal economy.

The POWER Planning Grants solicitation was released in April by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to assist community-based partnerships develop comprehensive economic development strategic plans for their regions.

The POWER Implementation Grants Federal Funding Opportunity was released in May with available funding from the Economic Development Administration, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, the Small Business Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Federal Funding Opportunity made funding available to partnerships in impacted communities to help them: (1) diversify their economies; (2) create jobs in new or existing industries; (3) attract new sources of job-creating investment; and (4) provide a range of workforce services and skills training for high-quality, in-demand jobs.

Based on those goals it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the funding will support projects in Kentucky and West Virginia, the two states most severely impacted by coal’s economic decline. A handful of the awards will help groups in rural areas of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia that have also seen significant job losses.

We’ll be following some of these projects and look forward to sharing the successes to come. But for now, take a look at the list of POWER grant recipients and you’ll get a sense of the range of exciting projects taking place in Central Appalachia.

Oh, and we’d be remiss not to mention that the POWER Initiative and POWER+ Plan have broad and growing bipartisan support. More than two dozen Central Appalachian localities have passed resolutions that support the POWER+ Plan specifically and call for economic development funding to soften the acute effects of the regional coal industry’s collapse and spur sustainable economic growth.

There are critics, of course, but most of them are either paid by the coal industry or so ideologically driven and wedded to “war on coal” rhetoric that, well, they say things like National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich. “These are tantamount to war reparations paid by a government guilty of indiscriminate destruction,” Popovich told E&E News shortly before comparing President Obama to a 15th-century Mongol conquerer.

We’re cautiously optimistic that that kind of astronomical hyperbole is on its way out. Even some of coal’s greatest champions in Congress seem like they’re are coming down to earth. According to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY):

“We know there isn’t a silver bullet to overcome the many challenges we face in the Appalachian region, but with continued collaboration of resources and ingenuity, the future is much brighter for the people who want to live and work here at home.”

Rogers’ words are a reminder that siding with coal should never come before stepping up and doing what’s right for Appalachia’s future.

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Rails To Trails

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by interns

Former Railways Find Second Calling as Bicycle Paths

By Joe Tennis
All over the Appalachians, railroads were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s as a means to move coal, timber and people. More than a century later, with expansion of highways and a change in industries, many of those railroads have since been abandoned.

Now, from the Virginias to the Carolinas, old rails have turned to trails. What were once rail lines have become paths for hiking, biking and even horseback riding. Such projects range from the 34-mile downhill grade of the Virginia Creeper Trail to the river-hugging path of the New River Trail State Park, spanning 57 miles, to the relatively flat 78 miles of the Greenbrier River Trail in West Virginia.

Each rail-turned-to-trail has a tale to tell. Here are three, including some that are new and maybe lesser-known:

VIRGINIA: Chessie Nature Trail, 7 miles

Chessie Nature Trail, photo by Joe Tennis

Chessie Nature Trail, photo by Joe Tennis

Chessie Nature Trail follows a path along the Maury River that has been fractured by floods. Its bridges have been broken. Still, the Chessie, which connects Lexington to Buena Vista, remains a remarkable riverside ramble — with chiseled rock walls and scenic views.

Spanning about seven miles, this gravel and dirt path offers a mix of open and forested scenes. Look along the Maury River for the remains of locks and dams. Also see railroad markers, like a “W” (a signal for the engineer to blow the train whistle) that stands along the trail amid cows in a field.

As early as 1860, this line began as a towpath for boats — using the power of mules and horses — at a canal along the North River, which was renamed Maury River in 1945. That towpath was abandoned due to flooding, but a railroad was built in its place in 1881, connecting Lexington to the Balcony Falls on the James River.

That railroad ultimately became part of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway. Trouble was, floods continued along the river. Hurricane Camille damaged the line so extensively in 1969 that the railroad to Lexington was abandoned.

In 1978, the Nature Conservancy acquired the railroad grade. Later, the rail became a trail overseen by the VMI Foundation initially, in 1979, and later by Virginia Military Institute in 2009.

Originally only open to foot traffic, bicyclists are now also welcome, even though the Buena Vista portion of the trail remains a tough trek when encountering cattle gates.

On the north, the trail begins near Mill Creek just off Old Buena Vista Road, east of U.S. 11. Originally, the trail connected to what is locally called “VMI Island,” but a flood wiped out a footbridge. Later, Hurricane Isabel slammed the South River crossing in 2003, about halfway between Lexington and Buena Vista, which forced trail-users to use an on-road detour on Stuartsburg Road.

KENTUCKY: Dawkins Line Rail Trail, 18 miles

Autumn colors emerge along this bike-friendly wooden bridge. Photo courtesy of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail

Autumn colors emerge along this bike-friendly wooden bridge. Photo courtesy of the Dawkins Line Rail Trail

At 18 miles long, the Dawkins Line Rail Trail ranks as the longest rail-to-trail conversion in Kentucky. It’s also an affiliate of the state park system.

“We own anywhere from 30 to 60 feet from center of the trail,” says Ron Vanover, assistant director of interpretations and program services at Kentucky State Parks.

The first section of the trail opened in 2013, offering a passage for bikers, hikers and horseback riders from Hagerhill in Johnson County to Royalton in Magoffin County. Along the way, the passage travels over a couple dozen trestles and passes through the 662-foot-long Gun Creek Tunnel.

Rail-Trail Roundup

Dozens of rail-trails are scattered across central Appalachia. For more information about these and other trails in the region, visit — Compiled by Elizabeth E. Payne

Allegheny-Highlands Trail: 24.5 miles

Randolph, Tucker Counties, W.Va. Scenic mountain views. Biking, horse riding, hiking, skiing. Visit

Brevard Bike Path: 5 miles

Transylvania County, N.C. Flat trail along Carr Lumber Company rail line. Biking and hiking. Visit

Kingsport Greenbelt: 8 miles

Sullivan County, Tenn. Civil War sites and historic landmarks. Biking and hiking. Visit
UPDATE: Kingsport Greenbelt is not a rail-trail. We regret the error.

New River Trail State Park: 57 miles

Carroll, Grayson, Pulaski and Wythe Counties, Va. Follow the nation’s oldest river. Biking, horse riding, hiking, skiing. Visit

North Bend Rail Trail: 72 miles

Doddridge, Harrison, Ritchie and Wood Counties, W.Va. See tunnels from 1850s belonging to original line. Biking, horse riding, hiking, skiing. Visit

Railroad Grade Road:10.8 miles

Ashe County, N.C. Popular with bikers, shared with slow-moving traffic. Biking and hiking. Visit

Virginia Creeper National Recreation Trail: 34 miles

Grayson and Washington Counties, Va. Varied landscapes and beautiful views. Biking, horse riding, hiking, skiing. Visit

Now, work continues on expanding the trail. Nearly nine more miles are expected to be open by the end of 2015 while another nine miles will remain under construction in 2016, passing into Breathitt County and through the 1,556-foot-long “Tip Top” Tunnel, Vanover says.

The trail takes its name from the Dawkins Lumber Company, which developed a railroad in the early 1900s to haul timber. The line was silenced to rail traffic in 2004. Next came plans to turn the rail into a trail — with the encouragement of the Kentucky General Assembly, which approved start-up funds for the project.

Today, you can view elk from this trail as it cuts through the rugged mountains of the Bluegrass State. The Dawkins Line Rail Trail can be accessed from a handful of sites, including Jenny’s Branch. To get there from Pikeville, Ky., follow U.S. 23 north for 34 miles. Turn right toward KY-825, then turn left onto KY-825 to reach the trail access area.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Swamp Rabbit Trail, 20 miles

Swamp Rabbit Trail, photo by Joe Tennis.

Swamp Rabbit Trail, photo by Joe Tennis.

Today, what was once a railroad cutting through Greenville has been replaced by what is formally called the “Greenville Health System Swamp Rabbit Trail.” This multi-use greenway system for bicycles and foot traffic runs along the Reedy River and overlooks the giant waterfall on the river at the center of the city. It also connects Greenville County with schools, parks and local businesses.

As early as 1889, a group of businessmen gathered to create a new venture called the Carolina, Knoxville and Western Railway. Their purpose? Connect Greenville, S.C., with the ports on the Atlantic coast, as well as Tennessee.

Passengers, however, came up with a new name, calling this railroad the “Swamp Rabbit” — a moniker given, it’s believed, from the wetlands along the Reedy River and the bouncy nature of riding these rails.

For about a century, the railroad changed hands — and names — quite frequently. Then the line was abandoned in 1998 and the property acquired by Upstate Forever, a nonprofit group. Greenville County Economic Development Corporation later stepped in as plans evolved, building a trail from the old rail line. Volunteers also hopped aboard, working to remove vegetation and clear the path for a trail.

The ever-expanding trail between Greenville and Travelers Rest spans nearly 20 miles and has about 500,000 annual users.

“It kind of gives you the option to exercise and …see the entire city,” says 29-year-old Eric Helms, a frequent trail user and a restaurant manager in Greenville. “It’s a long trail, and you can … drop off the trail and stop and see the Reedy River.”

Parking is available at several sites, including the corner of Grandview Road and Main Street in Travelers Rest and at Furman University, Mayberry Park and Cleveland Park in Greenville.

TENNESSEE: Tweetsie Trail, 9.5 miles

Tweetsie Trail, photo by Joe Tennis.

Tweetsie Trail, photo by Joe Tennis.

Open since 2014, the Tweetsie Trail in eastern Tennessee links Johnson City, the home of East Tennessee State University, to Elizabethton. Bikers and walkers can access the seven-mile-long trail from a Johnson City parking area at the intersection of Legion and Alabama streets. From here, the trail rolls downhill — first passing big rock cuts and then, almost immediately, crossing high above Sinking Creek. Within the first half-mile, the trail crosses over U.S. Highway 321 on a bridge that includes a fenced canopy.

Cruising into Carter County, the trail passes a mix of woods, fields, businesses and residences. It slips past Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area before concluding in Elizabethton near the Betsytowne Shopping Center.

This route was once known as the East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad, using the initials “ET&WNC,” which connected Johnson City to Boone, N.C.

Folks invented at least a couple of nicknames, with some claiming those initials should really stand for “Eat Taters and Wear No Clothes.” Others, meanwhile, called this “Tweetsie,” saying that’s what the locomotive whistles seemed to say as they blew and echoed in the rocky mountain corridor along the Tennessee-North Carolina border.

Trains stopped running on the rail line between Johnson City and Elizabethton in 2003. About four years later, the dreams and visions of civic leaders and a nonprofit group, Friends of the Tweetsie Trail, began to turn the trail into a reality – thanks to monetary donations by individuals, businesses and local governments.


More KY Parks Certified as Monarch Waystations

Friday, October 9th, 2015 - posted by interns
Photo by Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Thomas Bresson via Wikimedia Commons

This year, five Kentucky state parks, including John James Audubon State Park, Buckhorn Lake State Park and Kentucky Dam State Park, have registered as certified monarch waystations.

Waystations provide milkweed habitat and other resources for migrating Monarch butterflies, currently being considered for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The Kentucky Garden Club and Kentucky State Parks have been working since 2013 to create waystations across the state. With this year’s additions, there are now 18 certified parks.

Thank God for our Kentucky newspapers

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators' lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky's politicians and agencies aren't shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators’ lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky’s politicians and agencies aren’t shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Earlier this year, former Kentucky state Rep. Keith Hall was convicted of bribing a state mine inspector while the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet looked the other way. It was only after the Lexington Herald-Leader revealed the bribery through an open records request that the FBI began an investigation.

Now, the Louisville Courier-Journal has uncovered a confidentiality agreement between the cabinet and Whitesburg, Ky.-based Childers Oil Company that would have kept secret a proposed lawsuit settlement between the cabinet and the oil company.

As Tom Loftus of the Courier-Journal writes, “The proposed settlement in the case against Childers Oil Co. contained a sweeping confidentiality clause in which cabinet officials agreed to seal the settlement and ‘forever remain silent at all times and places and under all circumstances’ regarding all aspects of the settlement — even the existence of the settlement itself.”

The Courier-Journal, and subsequently the public, only found out about the agreement because a judge was required to reject it since it had not been signed by the cabinet’s lawyer.

The lawsuit stems from a February 2011 incident in which Childers Oil Company, owned by Whitesburg businessman Don Childers, leaked diesel fuel into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The fuel made it into the city’s water supply, triggering a three-day water advisory. Many residents were not immediately notified of the chemical’s presence in the water supply. Businesses and restaurants were critically impacted by the leak.

As a resident of Whitesburg with a vested interest in seeing my community transition to a sustainable economy independent of the region’s collapsing coal industry, this is especially troubling. This month two restaurants and a moonshine distillery opened their doors in our community. It isn’t hard to see how incidents like the 2011 diesel spill and future water advisories — they occur with frightening regularity here — make it hard for institutions to do business.

But even more importantly is what this says about the agencies that are supposed to be looking out for our health and safety. As my colleague Evan Smith told the Courier-Journal:

“The most important danger that comes from this is not what’s actually in the water, it’s the public perception that you can’t trust what comes out of your pipe and what the government is doing to protect the water. And when you’ve got confidential settlements that look like sweetheart deals, it further erodes the public’s trust in our government’s process and ability for protecting our drinking water.”

This point was driven home at a recent public hearing in Lexington on the proposed Stream Protection Rule. I listened in amazement as state Rep. Jim Gooch decried the rule — which is aimed at cutting down on the amount of mining waste dumped into streams — as pointless and unnecessary because, according to Gooch, “the biggest threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky is straight piping.”

By “straight piping,” Gooch is referring to the act of running a sewage line directly from a house to a creek, rather than a municipal sewage system or septic tank. This is very common in topographically rugged and economically distressed areas like eastern Kentucky.

And Gooch wasn’t the only one blaming Kentuckians for their water quality problems. Multiple politicians at this hearing claimed that the “trash and litter problem” was a greater threat to the region’s streams than industrial pollution.

This isn’t particularly surprising. Misleading rhetoric about the “true threats” to ecological and human health gets peddled every time new regulations threaten the coal industry’s bottom line. What’s truly egregious here is that Jim Gooch is the chair of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. His comments display a shocking disconnect from what’s actually going on on the ground in eastern Kentucky.

While it is true that straight piping is a significant threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky, it’s dangerous to assume that phenomena like straight piping and litter, as opposed to diesel spills and mining pollution, are entirely separate issues. Separating them out and assigning them arbitrary prioritization conveniently diverts attention away from the issue at hand. The need to address one problem in no way diminishes the need to address the other.

But these diversion tactics are quite lucrative. A follow-up investigation by the Courier-Journal revealed that Don Childers, a registered Republican, and others affiliated with Childers Oil Co. donated a combined $4,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party while Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration was negotiating its secret settlement with the company.

Sadly, whether it’s agreeing to secret settlement deals over diesel spills or blaming Kentucky citizens for their water quality problems, these politicians and the agencies they oversee reveal whose interests they truly serve: those of the fossil fuel industry.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule ends on Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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Citizen stories counter coal industry deception

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 - posted by willie
Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va.

Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va., where clean water advocates argued for stronger protections and coal industry representatives relied on deception to rally against the rule.

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a draft of its Stream Protection Rule, a long-awaited regulation aimed at reducing the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Along with coalfield community members and allied organizations, Appalachian Voices is asking the agency to close loopholes in the rule that state agencies might exploit, allowing coal companies to continue polluting our streams. We are also pushing for clear language in the final rule that states citizens may enforce water quality standards under the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the Office of Surface Mining to strengthen the draft Stream Protection Rule.

As part of its rule-making process, OSM held six public hearings across the nation in order to gather comments from stakeholders and impacted residents. Only two hearings were held in the central Appalachian coalfields; one in Big Stone Gap, Va., and another in Charleston, W.Va.

The hearing in Big Stone Gap provides a glimpse into how the whole series of hearings played out. About 250 people were present at the hearing, which took place on the evening of Sept. 15. At 6 p.m., U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s 9th district, the first speaker of the evening, approached the podium. Griffith did not address any details of the Stream Protection Rule in his comments, and he provided no tangible evidence of whether or not it would achieve its intended effect. Instead, Griffith seized the opportunity to spout “war on coal” rhetoric and to accuse the rule’s supporters of caring more about mayflies than human beings.

Concluding his comments after five minutes, Rep. Griffith was on his way out of the building when Wise County resident Jane Branham confronted him and asked him to stay and listen to what his constituents had to say. Griffith declined this invitation and left promptly at 6:11 p.m.

Had Rep. Griffith stayed, he would have heard Mary Darcy from Wise who said:

Despite rules and laws, tons of waste are dumped into these waterways regularly. How does this happen? Do the states not enforce clean water regulations? Do our elected representatives turn their backs on the needs of the people with something as critical as water?

Darcy was not the only speaker to call out state agencies for repeatedly failing to enforce regulations. Diana Withen, a local high school biology teacher, implored the OSM to include clear language allowing for citizen monitoring and enforcement, stating, “We know that government budgets are tight and that regulatory agencies are going to continue to face budget cuts in the future. So allowing concerned citizens to help monitor the water quality in our streams makes sense.”

A reconstructed "stream" below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

A reconstructed “stream” below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

Countering the many citizens who spoke up for clean water were the numerous coal industry representatives that railed against the rule. But instead of addressing the rule’s content, they expended a great deal of time and energy accusing the Office of Surface Mining and President Obama of deliberately attacking coal mining for political gain.

Scott Barton, a mine superintendent at Murray Energy’s Harrison County Mine in northern West Virginia, argued that the Obama administration “hides behind the myth of global warming to justify it’s job destroying agenda. Everyone in the coal industry knows this is a lie.”

Other pro-industry, anti-regulatory speakers described the rule as a “weapon of mass destruction,” the “nuclear option” and “the last nail in the crucifixion of the coal industry.” Sadly, preference on the part of the industry and politicians for rhetoric over substance was not unique to the Big Stone Gap hearing. Much more of the same could be heard at each of the five other hearings in Charleston, Denver, Lexington Ky., Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule has been extended in response to industry requests and will now remain open until Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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Predictable politics giving way to popular support for POWER+

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

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

UPDATE: As of November 3, a total of 23 Appalachian government entities have passed resolutions to support POWER+.

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

United Mine Workers of America responded to the news:

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

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

Is there an echo in here?

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

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

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

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

“Big Coal’s war on itself”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disposing of a Chemical Past

Thursday, August 6th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

Kentucky chemical weapons stockpile slated for destruction by 2023

Craig Williams speaks about chemical weapons incineration at a rally. Photo courtesy Kentucky Environmental Foundation.

Craig Williams speaks about chemical weapons incineration at a rally. Photo courtesy Kentucky Environmental Foundation.

By Dan Radmacher

In a series of bunkers on the sprawling 14,500-acre Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond, Ky., more than 100,000 rockets and projectiles containing more than 500 tons of nerve gas and other chemical weapons from World War II and the Vietnam War era are stored.

If all goes according to plan, those weapons will be destroyed over the next few years in a multi-billion facility in final stages of construction at the depot, finishing out a decades-long project that began when the United States joined the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

The aging rockets and projectiles at the Blue Grass Army Depot are stacked in concrete igloos which have deteriorated over the years; about a third of them are covered with green plastic sheeting to keep out rain.

Low-level chemical leaks from the weapons have occurred over the past 10 years, including emissions of Sarin and mustard gas. Yet Army officials stress that no major leaks have escaped the igloos or threatened the surrounding community of Madison County, a fast-growing area of 85,000 residents.

The depot in Kentucky and Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado hold the country’s last remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons from the early-to-mid-20th century. The process to destroy them has taken much longer and cost much more than anticipated, largely because of wide-scale opposition to the original planned disposal method. The original budget for the the entire project was around $2 billion; the final cost will surpass $40 billion. Destruction of the Pueblo stockpile began in May.

When the United States first agreed to destroy its stockpile of chemical weapons in the 1980s, the Pentagon planned to incinerate most of it — including those stored at the Kentucky depot, much of which has been stored there since the 1940s.

That didn’t sit well with a lot of residents near the stockpiles, including Craig Williams, a Vietnam veteran and winner of the 2006 Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activism.

From the moment the Army publicly announced plans for an incinerator at Blue Grass in 1984, Williams and others lobbied for a more controlled and safer method of disposal. In 1992, the Chemical Weapons Working Group, part of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation that Williams helped found, released a report that described a dozen potential approaches that didn’t involve incineration.

“We took that report to the Army and to Congress and state regulators and to anyone else who would entertain the idea of listening,” says Williams. “We finally convinced Congress that there were viable options the Pentagon refused to research directly.”

According to Paul Walker, a former staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services Committee, “The chemical weapons demilitarization process has shown that we can treat highly toxic and dangerous waste in a way that can be a win-win for everybody. We don’t have to push toxic remnants of war into the environment.”

Walker, who witnessed and helped guide the congressional response to the controversy in the early ‘90s, remained involved in the disposal process as head of the Security and Sustainability Program at Global Green USA, the U.S. national affiliate of Green Cross International, a nonprofit organization started by former Soviet Union president Mikhail Gorbachev.

“We are in the final few yards of eliminating an entire class of weapons of mass destruction,” Walker says.

The contentious political fight between Congress, local communities and the Pentagon, in the end, made for a better process, Walker says, and recognition that protecting the public health and the environment ultimately trumped cost or treaty deadlines.

At the Blue Grass facility, the Army settled on a method that breaks down the chemical bonds in the agents that make them lethal, a process that can be better controlled than incineration.

A view of the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant. Photo courtesy Blue Grass Chemical Stockpile Outreach Office

A view of the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant. Photo courtesy Blue Grass Chemical Stockpile Outreach Office

Changes have taken place as the disposal facility has been designed and built. In one instance, the contractor recently suggested eliminating a step that involved rinsing rockets after they are disassembled to remove any remaining chemical agent, a process that could have created problems since water reacts with some of the agents, creating an acidic and corrosive material that could have compromised internal piping systems. According to Williams, the contractor developed an alternative method involving a thermal oxidizer and huge banks of carbon filters, along with a sophisticated detection and alarm system, which should safely neutralize any dangerous residue left on the rockets.

“Nothing’s perfect,” Williams says, “But our confidence is extremely high in the technology and the engineering of the facility. The risk mitigation efforts that have been taken will ensure that any issue or incident is minor compared to what it could have been with an incinerator.”

Walker hopes the lessons learned over the last 20 years of dealing with chemical weapons stockpiles will help the nation and world deal with other toxic legacies of war — like the chemical and conventional weapons dumped at various locations in the oceans.

“Most weapons were built to be used, not disposed of,” Walker says. “But historically, we never fire about 90 percent of the weapons we build. I’m not sure we’ll ever understand the public health impact of it all.”

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How a Small Kentucky Town Led the Fight to Safely Dismantle the World’s Chemical Weapons

The Kentucky Environmental Foundation is creating a documentary about the community’s successful effort to stop the incineration of toxic nerve gas and other chemical weapons. Watch the trailer at

Kentucky Flood Kills 4, Destroys 120 Homes

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Laura Marion

On July 13, an Ohio Valley flood devastated parts of southern Indiana and eastern Kentucky. Among the four known casualties was Scott Johnson, a Johnson County resident who reportedly saved several residents before he was lost in the flood.

An estimated 120 homes were destroyed. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear declared a state of emergency, which will make state funds and resources available to those affected by this flooding.

Cash donations are being accepted at:

Johnson County Long-Term Recovery Committee,
c/o Johnson County Fiscal Court,
P.O. Box 868,
Paintsville, KY, 41240