Posts Tagged ‘Kentucky Litigation’

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.”

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

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 - posted by eric

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

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

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

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

Coal Ash in the Dan River, NC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 13th, 2013 - posted by eric

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 13th, 2013 - posted by eric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Groups Win Latest Round in Frasure Creek Lawsuit

Friday, August 23rd, 2013 - posted by molly

By Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist

The lawsuits between Appalachian Voices and partners and Frasure Creek Mining read like the most complicated court crime novel, with fascinating — but slow-moving — plot twists galore. In mid-July, the latest development occurred when a circuit court judge blocked an attempt by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet to toss the groups out of court proceedings, effectively keeping Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeepers and Waterkeeper Alliance in the mix.

To provide some background, in October of 2010, the four environmental groups filed a legal action against Frasure Creek for submitting false water monitoring reports, which included duplicated data. Almost immediately following the lawsuit, the coal mining company’s water quality monitoring reports (also known as DMRs) which previously did not indicate any water quality violations, began showing hundreds of water quality violations every month when the company switched labs.

The environmental alliance then attempted to sue Frasure Creek for the subsequent violations, but the Kentucky cabinet filed a complaint in state administrative court for the same violations, effectively blocking a new lawsuit. Appalachian Voices and partners won the right to intervene, making them full parties to the case. But then, without the environmental alliance’s knowledge or consent, Frasure Creek and the cabinet entered into a slap-on-the-wrist settlement. Because Appalachian Voices and partners were completely excluded from the settlement they were parties to, they challenged this settlement in Franklin Circuit Court.

Which brings us back to the present. Earlier this year, the state cabinet requested that the court dismiss the group’s challenge of the settlement, a request Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd recently denied, ruling in favor of the environmental groups. In short, the ruling means the alliance of groups will now be allowed to proceed with their argument that the settlement between the state and Frasure Creek should be rejected.

Stay up-to-date on legal proceedings through our Appalachian Water Watch program at appvoices.org/waterwatch.

A Great Day for Virginia Streams

Tuesday, July 23rd, 2013 - posted by eric

Two headed trout, a result of selenium pollution. Courtesy of USFWS.

Yesterday, advocates for clean water won a major court victory in Virginia. Under a court order, A&G Coal will be the first coal company in Virginia required to get a permit for their discharges of toxic selenium. U.S. District Judge James P. Jones ruled that because the company did not tell regulators that they might discharge selenium, their permit does not allow them to.

Selenium is a common pollutant at many Appalachian coal mines and is toxic to fish at very low levels, causing deformities, reproductive failure and death.

The case was brought by the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS), Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

>> Read the press release to find out more
>> Read the judge’s ruling here

Court Victory for Clean Water in Kentucky: The Battle Continues

Friday, July 19th, 2013 - posted by eric

Acidic mine water being discharged from one of Frasure Creek’s Kentucky coal mines

Last week, an attempt by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet to toss concerned citizens out of court failed.

Judge Phillip Shepherd denied a motion to dismiss our challenge of a settlement between Frasure Creek Mining and the cabinet. Appalachian Voices and our partners KFTC, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, will now be allowed to proceed with our argument that the settlement should be vacated.

In October of 2010, we filed a Notice of Intent to Sue Frasure Creek for submitting false water monitoring data. Frasure Creek and the cabinet reached a settlement for those violations, but it has not been approved by the court. Before that, the data Frasure Creek submitted to the state never showed any violations. After our legal action, they switched labs and began showing hundreds of water quality violations every month.

We attempted to sue Frasure Creek for these subsequent violations, but the cabinet filed a complaint in state administrative court for the same violations. We intervened and became full parties to that case, but then a slap on the wrist settlement was entered between Frasure Creek and the cabinet completely without our consent. Our current challenge to this settlement is based on the fact that we are full parties in the case yet we had no say in the settlement’s creation.

The cabinet attempted to get our challenge thrown out because they claimed that we did not follow proper procedures when we filed it, but the judge dismissed their arguments. Now, the cabinet must respond to the substance of our challenge.

>> Click here to read the ruling
>> Click here to read more about this challenge
>> Click here for more information on our Kentucky Litigation

Appalachian Voices and Partners Challenge Kentucky’s Backroom Deal With Coal Company

Friday, May 17th, 2013 - posted by eric

Watercolors by Frasure Creek. State inspector's photos show a variety of colors of water at Frasure Creek mines.

Yesterday, Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations filed a “petition for review”, essentially an appeal of a settlement between Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. This settlement lets Frasure Creek off the hook for thousands of water quality violations over the past two years, while doing little to ensure that the company fixes its water quality problems.

Our challenge of this settlement focuses on the way in which it came about. But first, a bit of background.

We have a separate case that is ongoing against Frasure Creek for submitting false water monitoring data (entire reports were duplicated and only the dates were changed). After we uncovered this problem the company began turning in more accurate reports, which for the first time showed lots of pollution problems. We then filed a second suit against Frasure Creek for thousands of these pollution problems (which had been hidden by reporting problems before our first suit). Then the cabinet also filed a complaint for these pollution violations and more like them in state administrative court (a court run by the cabinet itself).

We intervened in that case and became full parties to it, but were then shut out of it completely. In fact the settlement was entered despite our previous objections, and there is no evidence that our objections were even considered. The cabinet and Frasure Creek negotiated a settlement completely without us. The law and common sense both dictate that an agreement is not valid unless all the parties involved agree to it, and that is the basis for our challenge of this settlement yesterday.
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Kentuckians Challenge Cabinet’s Order for Failing to Protect Clean Water from Coal Pollution

Friday, May 17th, 2013 - posted by eric

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Appalachian Voices * Kentuckians For The Commonwealth * Kentucky Riverkeeper * Waterkeeper Alliance

CONTACTS:
• Eric Chance, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500, eric@appvoices.org
• Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper, 859-200-7442, kyriverkeeper@eku.edu
• Peter Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance, 828-582-0422, pharrison@waterkeeper.org
• Ted Withrow, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, 606-784-6885 or 606-782-0998, tfwithrow@windstream.net

Frankfort Kentucky-Continuing their campaign to make sure Kentucky’s water is safe for everyone, several groups have challenged plans by the Beshear administration to let Frasure Creek Mining “off the hook” for repeated violations of the Clean Water Act.

Appalachian Voices, Waterkeeper Alliance, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper and several individuals (the petitioners) asked the Franklin Circuit Court Thursday to vacate an Agreed Order signed in April by Environment and Energy Cabinet Secretary Len Peters that claims to resolve all recent water quality violations by the company.

They point out that the settlement “is inadequate to address Frasure Creek’s pollution problems and prevent such harms from occurring in the future.” They called the administration’s action “arbitrary and capricious, an abuse of discretion, contrary to law, and not supported by substantial evidence.”

“This settlement lets Frasure Creek off the hook for thousands of water quality violations,” explained Eric Chance, a water quality specialist with Appalachian Voices. “For years Frasure Creek had been submitting false monitoring reports. During that time they never reported any water quality problems. After we exposed these false reports, they began using more reputable labs and started showing hundreds of water quality violations every month.

“Over the past few years Frasure Creek’s water discharges haven’t really improved and I don’t expect there to be any improvements in the water coming off Frasure’s mines from this settlement,” Chance added.

“Clean water is not just a good idea. Clean water is critical to our health and well being,” said Pat Banks with Kentucky Riverkeeper. “We have learned that we cannot be complacent. The Clean Water Act enforces the notion that if companies are out of compliance and enforcement by the state fails, then citizens can and must step in to protect our waters. That’s what we are doing here.”

The petitioners also point out that they were granted full party status in the administrative enforcement case but were shut out of negotiations between the Cabinet and Frasure Creek that resulted in the final Agreed Order.

“The Cabinet has once again systematically excluded Kentucky citizens who are fighting to protect the water they use. After bringing Frasure Creek’s false reporting and pollution to the Cabinet’s attention, the Cabinet has tried, at every step, to sweep this matter under the rug and quickly settle with the company and exclude citizens from the process,” said Mary Cromer, with the Appalachian Citizens Law Center and one of the attorneys representing the petitioners. “We bring suit against the Cabinet for failing to do what’s necessary to ensure that Frasure Creek’s pollution is cleaned up and for excluding the citizens from their rightful roles as co-enforcers of the Clean Water Act.”

“We as citizens have the right to intervene and see and participate in this process,” explained Ted Withrow with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. “Yet the Cabinet continues to ignore the law and shield another coal company from any meaningful enforcement. This Agreed Order was done behind closed doors shutting citizens out, even though we had full rights to be part of the process.”

BACKGROUND

In June 2011, the petitioners filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue, documenting more than 2,800 violations of the Clean Water Act by Frasure Creek in the first three months of 2011. After conducting its own investigation, the Cabinet filed an internal administrative enforcement action alleging many of these same violations.

In November 2011, the petitioners were granted full intervention status.

However, the Cabinet conducted negotiations with Frasure Creek without notice to and participation by the intervenors, resulting in the Agreed Order signed by Peters. Kentucky law prohibits the entry of an Agreed Order without the consent of each and every full party to the Administrative Proceeding.

The violations in this case are similar to those in a 2010 lawsuit pending in Franklin Circuit Court, in that older case false reporting made it impossible to identify pollution problems like the ones at issue in this case. In the original lawsuit, the Cabinet filed an enforcement action against Frasure Creek in Franklin Circuit Court after the same petitioners made public thousands of Clean Water Act violations. In that case, the court granted the petitioners full intervention status. So in the 2011 case, the Cabinet took a different enforcement route to avoid public intervention. However, the administrative judge also granted full intervention status.

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Kentucky’s Lab Certification- Is it strong enough?

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013 - posted by eric

Yesterday, Appalachian Voices submitted public comments on a proposed wastewater lab certification program in Kentucky. To discharge polluted water, coal companies must receive a permit under the Clean Water Act. This permit that requires companies to test wastewater and report the data to ensure it falls within the limits of the permit. In Kentucky, there are currently no standards for labs that do this type of testing.

The proposed certification program is a direct result of the lawsuits for falsified water monitoring data we filed against three of the state’s largest coal mining companies. Our investigation revealed that many coal companies were repeatedly submitting the same data and knowingly leaving out reports of any violations of their permits. After we filed these lawsuits, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet inspected the labs being used for this monitoring and found that in many cases they were not even capable of correctly performing the required tests.

This graph shows some of the inaccurate data submitted by Frasure Creek Mining before our lawsuits lead them to start using a new lab. Click to enlarge.

We believe that enforcing standards on labs used by coal companies will help ensure that labs report accurate data, and that the regulations meant to protect water and those that depend on it from dangerous pollution are effectively enforced. This proposed rule will be a big step forward and we have applauded the cabinet for its efforts to fix these problems. However, there are several weaknesses in the rule that we hope are fixed before it is finalized.

All too often the cabinet has failed to live up to its obligations to protect the people and environment in Kentucky. That is why our comments suggest that discretionary duties given to the cabinet in this rule be made mandatory. Appalachian Voices will continue to work to require the state agencies to actually enforce these standards.

>>Click here to see our comments
>>Click here to read the proposed lab certification rule
>>Click here to read the draft lab manual