Posts Tagged ‘Mountaintop Removal’

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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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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Peculiar Patriot Coal deal raises questions

Thursday, August 20th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

What would a health care executive-turned-environmentalist want with the dying business of mining coal?

That’s the question some are asking after it was announced this week that Tom Clarke, a Virginia businessman, plans to acquire assets, and assume around $400 million in liabilities, from recently-bankrupt Patriot Coal through one of his companies, ERP Compliant Fuels.

The deal is part of an elaborate and untested business model that will allow ERP — an affiliate of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund — to continue mining Patriot permits in West Virginia, bundling this coal with “carbon offsets” accrued from planting trees, and selling these bundled products to electric utilities.

Because trees absorb atmospheric carbon, Clarke believes credits created through reforestation will help states meet carbon emissions targets set forth by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the plan does not make clear that coal-carbon offsets will count towards states’ emissions targets.

According to The Roanoke Times, Clarke says he’s not in it for the money, but for the earth. But that isn’t clear from the available literature on ERP, which seeks to bring together a coalition of conflicting environmental and capital interests — “coal mining businesses, electric power producers, forestland owners, government, and the scientific community” — in order to reduce global CO2 emissions. In the same literature, Clarke and the ERP/VCLF tout their business partnership with Jim Justice, a notorious scofflaw mine operator who owes nearly $2 million in mine violation fines.

As if these relationships weren’t enough to raise suspicion, ERP/VCLF’s definition of a “carbon offset” is dubious. As The Roanoke Times points out:

It doesn’t matter that Clarke will target coal-fired electrical generating plants in the Ohio River Valley with his pitch, while the designated trees are in Central America and the U.S. South or would be planted in Appalachia. Carbon emissions spread in the atmosphere and the concentration evens out; a party that wants to offset its carbon output can fund tree planting or tree preservation anywhere and benefit the globe, he said.

If there’s no requirement that trees be planted on deforested land in Appalachia, what’s stopping ERP from destroying mountains and externalizing the costs onto Appalachian communities for the social mission of stopping climate change? How does ERP plan to address coal ash and mercury and the many other harmful externalities that are inflicted on communities as coal is mined, processed and burned? How will the company account for the numerous injuries, fatalities, and black lung incidences that result from both underground and surface mining? Coal’s impact goes far beyond CO2 pollution.

These are crucial questions to ask as the coal industry in central Appalachia undergoes massive structural changes. If the history of the coal industry in the region has taught us anything, it’s that we should be highly suspect of outside corporate interests looking to exploit the region’s natural resources.

This is just as true today, in an era in which investors and politicians stand to gain substantial material and social capital off of the region’s diversification.

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.

A moment of truth for Kentucky’s coal regulators

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes.

A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes. Photo from LRC (Ky.) Public Information.

In June 2013, mine operator and Kentucky state representative Keith Hall went to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with a complaint.

Kelly Shortridge, a mine inspector with the Division of Mine Enforcement and Reclamation in Pikeville, had been soliciting Hall for bribes to ignore violations on Hall’s Pike County surface mines.

Hall told two cabinet officials that he had already paid Shortridge “a small fortune,” and that the mine inspector “liked the Benjamins.” A report was drawn up, forwarded to the cabinet’s investigator general and Secretary Len Peters, and went nowhere.

The FBI began investigating the matter when the Lexington Herald-Leader published Hall’s complaint report through an open records request. In June, Hall was found guilty of bribing Shortridge to ignore Hall’s safety and environmental violations.

During the trial, the bureau submitted evidence that strongly suggests Keith Hall was not the only operator paying Kelly Shortridge. Shortridge himself has admitted to taking bribes from other Pike County operators.

So how deep does the conspiracy go? That’s the question many are asking in the wake of Hall’s trial. The Herald-Leader published a recent editorial that pointed out the familiar territory here:

This is not the first time questions have arisen about the Pikeville office of the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement where Shortridge, an inspector for 24 years, worked.

Other Pikeville-based inspectors allowed a surface mine (not owned by Hall) to operate without a permit for 18 months, until July 2010, when rain dislodged the unreclaimed mountain and flooded out about 80 families. One of the inspectors retired a month later.

Remember, too, that the division went years without penalizing coal companies for filing bogus water pollution reports by copying and pasting the same data, month after month.

This falsified water pollution data was only discovered after a coalition of environmental and citizen groups including Appalachian Voices discovered water monitoring reports that the department had neglected to review for over three years. The fact that the FBI had to find out about Hall’s allegations by reading the newspaper – and not through the cabinet itself – reveals a similar pattern of negligence.

How committed is the cabinet to enforcing Kentucky’s environmental and safety regulations around mining? The answer may lie in the phenomenally small salary that the state was paying Shortridge at the time of his 2014 resignation: $45,160 a year.

This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it speaks volumes about how our regulatory systems function, what they prioritize, and what motivates the individuals who operate within them. Shortridge was using his small salary, in addition to the bribes he was taking from Hall and others, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. It’s impossible to speculate about his personal character, but it does seem clear that he was responding to a specific set of material conditions in a way that most individuals on that kind of salary – and in that kind of position – very likely would.

Without much incentive to enforce existing regulations, and knowing that it pays more to cozy up to the industry than to fight it, we really must ask: how many other Kelly Shortridges are out there? This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask of a regulatory system that, at best, lacks the political capital and material resources to enforce violations, and, at worst, is overseen by the very mine operators it’s supposed to be regulating. (Before being voted out of office in 2014, Keith Hall was the vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.)

Finally, Keith Hall’s remark that Kelly Shortridge “liked the Benjamins” – an incredibly condescending statement from a man who once appropriated his own county’s coal severance tax to the benefit of one of his companies – is revelatory. It hints that there are boundaries to what is and what isn’t acceptable within relationships between the coal industry and the state: Shortridge was getting ambitious; his greed was somehow different than Hall’s. Keep in mind that this was confessed to two cabinet officials, mob-style, as if Shortridge was breaking a set of established rules. Hall needed Shortridge until he didn’t, and then sold him down the river when he became an annoyance.

Now that they’re both paying for breaking the rules, will Governor Steve Beshear’s administration adequately investigate further possible corruption? It unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

As the Herald-Leader editorial notes, “This should be a moment of truth, but history tells us not to expect an aggressive self-examination of the state agency’s love affair with the coal industry.”

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Interior Department Issues Draft Stream Protection Rule

Thursday, July 16th, 2015 - posted by brian

Contact: Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

Today, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a long-awaited draft of the Stream Protection Rule, which the agency has been working on since 2010. The purpose of the rule is to prevent or minimize the impacts of surface coal mining on surface water and groundwater. The agency’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement to accompany the draft rule includes several alternative options, some of which include sections that are stronger than the agency’s preferred alternative.

The following is a statement from Thom Kay, Appalachian Voices’ Legislative Associate.

“The people of Central Appalachia have waited a long time for robust federal action to protect their streams and communities from the damages of surface coal mining. At first glance, the draft appears to improve some drastically outdated provisions of an ineffective rule. But it’s not worth cheering for the rule as long as it allows companies to continue dumping their mining waste in our streams.

“Despite the regional coal industry’s decline, existing surface mines have been expanding closer and closer to homes, continuing to put the health of local communities at risk.

“We will continue working with citizens to ensure the agency’s final rule presents the strongest possible protections.

“When finalized, this rule will largely define President Obama’s legacy on the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal coal mining.”

>> Read our blog post from yesterday: How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?
>> Read a brief overview of the Stream Protection Rule.
>> OSM’s press release about the rule with further links.

How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015 - posted by Erin
Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that surface coal production nationwide decreased about 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, while production from surface mines that include mountaintop removal mining in three central Appalachian states had decreased 62 percent.

At first, this seems like a huge win in the fight against mountaintop removal mining, a practice that is devastating to community health and the environment, and yields few jobs compared to traditional mining practices. While it is a step in the right direction, declining production is not a sufficient measure of the ongoing human and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal.

Closer examination of the data calls into question the adequacy of the legal definition of “mountaintop removal” and, more importantly, demonstrates that much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

First, let’s look at the numbers reported by the EIA. The post, published on the agency’s Today In Energy blog, opens by saying, “Coal production from mines with mountaintop removal (MTR) permits has declined since 2008, more than the downward trend in total U.S. coal production.” While this is true, comparing the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in nationwide surface production (62 and 21 percent, respectively) gives the false impression that mountaintop removal, in particular, is on its way out. However, when you compare the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in surface mine production only for Central Appalachia, the picture looks much different: surface mine production in Central Appalachia has declined by 55 percent from 2008 to 2014.

With this new information, it becomes apparent that mountaintop removal production has not declined much more than surface mining on the whole in Central Appalachia. Given the similarity, we can attribute the decline in mountaintop removal largely to the same market forces that are leading to a decline in all coal mining in Central Appalachia.

The EIA report also relies on the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act’s (SMCRA) narrow definition of what constitutes mountaintop removal mining — essentially, a surface mine “running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill” that is exempt from returning the land to “approximate original contour” because the new land use is intended to be of equal or better economic or public value. The problem with this definition of mountaintop removal is that many Central Appalachian surface mines that cross ridgelines and employ many of the same problematic practices — large-scale blasting, mining through streams, and valley filling — are not, under SMCRA’s narrow definition, considered mountaintop removal mines.

The reality on the ground is that the rugged terrain of Central Appalachia makes it difficult to conduct any large-scale surface mine without mining across a ridgeline. Take for example the recently permitted Jim Justice-owned surface mine in McDowell County, W.Va. The Big Creek Surface Mine certainly cross multiple ridgelines and will construct a valley fill within half a mile of a Head Start preschool, yet this mine is not considered a mountaintop removal mine by either the federal government or the state of West Virginia. Furthermore, the valley fill does not require a 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, as it is not being constructed in public waters of the United States.

These facts mean there is little the local community, largely unsupportive of the mine, can do to stop it. Additionally, reclamation of the site requires that the company return the land to its “approximate original contour.” That phrase has never been clearly defined, however, so the land will be returned to a much lower elevation, lacking the fully functioning forest and ecosystems present before mining.

Another issue is that measuring mountaintop removal only by production and permit designation does not lead to a full accounting of the destruction done to the land as a whole.

Back in April, Appalachian Voices undertook a mapping analysis to look at how surface mines are impacting local communities. We had noticed that, even though mining is declining in the region, we are still regularly contacted by impacted residents. So we set out to determine if surface mining was moving closer to communities, and through our Communities at Risk project, we confirmed that mines are in fact encroaching even more on local residents.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on

To complete this analysis, we identified surface mines across the region using satellite imagery and other data to differentiate between mining and non-mining areas. We excluded areas less than 25,000 square meters. This left us with a map layer of large surface mines, including mountaintop removal mines (whether designated as such by any government agencies, or not), across the region.

This data set is useful not only for our Communities at Risk tool, but also for other analysis on the trends in surface mining in Central Appalachia over time. Using this map, we determined the current amount of land disturbance due to mining — basically any area that is barren due to active mining, recently idled or abandoned mines, or mines not yet reclaimed — has declined from 148,000 acres in 2008 to 89,000 acres in 2014.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly compare yearly production numbers to the number of acres disturbed to yield that production. Land within a surface mine is constantly being shifted, blown up, backfilled, and regraded. Basically, not all barren areas are actively producing coal at any given time. Many areas stay barren for years, while other areas of the mine are producing coal (despite legal requirements for contemporaneous reclamation).

The comparison we can make is that the amount of currently barren land is not falling as fast as production numbers. The extent of surface mined area (whether active, idled, or just unreclaimed) has declined about 40 percent, while production from Central Appalachian surface mines has declined 55 percent.

Essentially, we have more unreclaimed land in 2014, per ton of coal produced in 2014, than in previous years. This is likely due to a number of factors:

  • As thinner, deeper seams are mined, more land must be disturbed per ton of production;
  • Recently, mines have been idled, or even bond-forfeited due to market pressures; and
  • Reclamation is a slow and expensive process.

Mathew Louis-Rosenburg, a West Virginia resident, sums up the problem of only considering the EIA numbers without on-the-ground context:

“On the ground, we measure [mountaintop removal] in acres lost, in water contaminated, communities harmed. The steep decline in surface mine productivity means that a lot more land is being disturbed to get that smaller tonnage and idled mines still contaminate water at a similar rate to active ones. The battle here is far from over and stories like this just lead more and more resources and support to leave the region because people from elsewhere think that we have won already.”

It is beyond time for the Obama administration to take action to end destructive surface mining across Central Appalachia. We are hopeful that a strong Stream Protection Rule will go a long way toward protecting the streams and the people of the region. The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) could also go a long way in protecting communities from health impacts confirmed by mounting scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of success on either of these actions decreases every time misleading evidence suggests this problem has gone away. You can help prevent this by telling the Obama administration to end mountaintop removal and by keeping this conversation going among a national audience. We owe that to the people of Central Appalachia.

A “golden opportunity” in disguise

Thursday, July 9th, 2015 - posted by cat

AML report

They’re called “abandoned mine lands,” and they’re as dreadful as they sound — huge swaths of land scarred by massive strip mines and left behind by the coal industry almost 40 years ago or more.

They are much more than a blight on the Appalachian landscape. Year after year, these sites discharge toxic compounds like arsenic and selenium, as well as loads of sediment into the creeks and streams that entwine the mountains, posing dangers to residents long after mining has stopped.

The national “Abandoned Mine Lands” (AML) fund was established by Congress in 1977 to collect a per-ton fee of mined coal to help mitigate this pollution and restore these lands. To date, some $5.7 billion has been spent to reclaim more than 800,000 acres of post-mined land, including in Appalachia.

At least twice that much is needed to finish the job. But infusing substantial amounts of money into Appalachia and other regions hard hit by the decline in coal can yield economic and social returns that far outweigh the cost. Data show that AML funds bring jobs to town, revive local economies, and ensure future sustainability of natural resources. For example, in 2013 alone, Central Appalachian states saw a total economic impact of $182 million and 1,317 jobs supported by the AML program.

Yet, just when these communities need it most, Congress is balking at stepping up the distribution of these funds.

A report out yesterday tells the full story and makes several crucial recommendations. Produced by the AML Policies Priorities Group, a joint project of The Alliance for Appalachia and The Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, the report is based on a participatory research approach that draws input from citizens, scientists, government agencies, academics, community organizers and others.

Among the group’s recommendations:

  • Distribute funds based on criteria such as number of remaining abandoned mine lands sites, unemployment rates, and opportunity for economic development, rather than rates of coal production as the current law mandates;
  • Accelerate the release of funds; there’s more than $2 billion in reserve right now;
  • Involve local communities more in determining allocation of funds; and
  • Return the per-ton fee to the original level, which was 20% higher prior to a reauthorization of the program in 2006.

The report comes not a day too late, as Congress debates budget bills and the Obama administration’s proposed “POWER+ Plan” that would mirror many of the report’s recommendations.

Ison Rock Ridge and land ownership in Appalachia

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Ison Rock Ridge was one of the "most endangered mountains" in America, until the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a mountaintop removal permit that would have obliterated approximately 1,300 acres of mountainous terrain in Wise County, Va. Map from

Ison Rock Ridge was one of the “most endangered mountains” in America, until the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a mountaintop removal permit that would have obliterated approximately 1,300 acres of mountainous terrain in Wise County, Va. Map from

Earlier this year, our friends at Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards celebrated a major victory.

The long campaign to defeat the Ison Rock Ridge mountaintop removal mining permit in Southwest Virginia came to an end after Jim Justice’s A&G Coal Corp. did not appeal a decision by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to deny the permit.

The now-defeated Ison Rock Ridge mine would have destroyed approximately 1,200 acres in Wise County, Va. The mine site would have threatened five communities: Inman, Andover, Arno, Derby and the Town of Appalachia. And the ridge itself is one of the last areas surrounding those communities that has not been destroyed by mountaintop removal. In other words, this was a huge win.

Victory was won over eight years of hard work through local organizing and legal appeal — our friends at SAMS deserve a well-earned congratulations. It’s certainly time to celebrate this victory, but we can’t let our guard down just yet.

While the imminent threat of mining is past, the land on Ison Rock Ridge is still owned by an absentee landholding company that’s in the business of leasing out its land to coal operators for mountaintop removal. So even though the DMME denied the permit, there’s nothing stopping A&G Coal or another company from submitting an application to mine the threatened mountain.

With coal prices in the gutter, many mines operating at a loss, and local Alpha Natural Resources’ finances in shambles, it’s unlikely that any company is racing to submit a new application. But that could change in a relatively short period of time if current market or regulatory conditions shift, which they do often.

The Ison Rock Ridge victory brings us back to the complicated and perennial issue of land ownership in Appalachia. Approximately 45 percent of the land in Wise County is owned by corporate landholding entities, according the county’s economic development director, Carl Snodgrass.

This isn’t a new development, and it’s not unique to coal-bearing counties in Appalachia. Still, much of our region’s resource-rich land was snatched up in the decades after the Civil War when coal reserves were first being discovered and mined. Ever since, companies whose only interest is to make as much money as possible by extracting the region’s natural resources have had control.

So while the issue of outside land ownership is nothing new, there’s an increasing number of people, including some elected officials, who are starting a renewed call for land reform.

The growing movement for economic diversification across Appalachia is creating the space for public discussion of this and other hard questions. And as more and more localities see the light of diversification, there will be a groundswell of citizens and leaders throughout the mountains calling for land reform.

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