Posts Tagged ‘Mountaintop Removal’

Same coal company, same old (illegal) tricks

Monday, November 17th, 2014 - posted by eric

“We do all those old tricks electronically now.” By Charles Barsotti.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That certainly seems to be the case with Frasure Creek Mining. Four years ago we took legal action against the company for submitting false water monitoring reports, and now they are at it again, but this time the false reporting is even more extensive. Almost 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act in what is likely the largest non-compliance of the law in its 42-year history.

In 2010, Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations served Frasure Creek and International Coal Group (ICG) with a notice of our intent to sue them for submitting falsified pollution monitoring reports to Kentucky regulators. Back then, both companies were reusing the same quarterly reports, changing the dates on the reports but duplicating all the water monitoring data. The reports have changed from paper to electronic documents, but Frasure Creek’s practice of reusing them has returned.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed a slap-on-the-wrist settlement with the companies, writing off the duplications as “transcription errors” and effectively preventing our legal case from going forward. We challenged the settlement in state court and eventually reached an agreement with ICG, but not with Frasure Creek. We are still waiting on a decision in that case.

In the meantime, we discovered that Frasure Creek has been up to its old tricks. So today, we sent the company another notice of intent to sue for the new batch of duplicated reports.

Before our initial legal action, the companies rarely, if ever, submitted reports that showed violations of their pollution limits. As a result of our investigation, the companies hired new, more reputable labs and began reporting lots of pollution problems, making it clear that their false reports were covering up serious issues. We tried to sue Frasure Creek for these pollution violations, but the state reached another deal with the company, tying our hands.

Frasure Creek Mining reports only a few violations of their pollution limits when they are turning in false reports.

All of this raises one important question: Who would be stupid enough, or so utterly disdainful of federal law, to do the exact same thing they had gotten in trouble for before? One would think that it must have been an accident, because no one would ever purposefully do this again, but there are a few factors that seem to contradict that idea.

• In 2014, when Frasure reused data, it occasionally changed a little bit more than just the dates. There are a number of new duplications where the original report showed violations of pollution limits. All of the data in these reports was reused except for violations, which were replaced with a few very low numbers. (Personally, I am really looking forward to the convoluted tale that Frasure will tell to try to explain away these as “transcription errors.”)

• The new duplications are far too common to be made accidentally by someone who was putting any modicum of effort into their job. In the first quarter of 2014, the company submitted over 100 duplicated reports, so almost half of its reports that quarter were false. That’s almost three times the number of false reports it got caught for the first time around, and translates to almost $1 billion in potential fines.

• Frasure Creek isn’t afraid of getting caught because the consequences are extremely low. The state’s past settlements with the company have been too weak to discourage this type of false reporting, and in fact, may have given the company a sense of security. Under the Clean Water Act, the potential maximum fine per violation is $37,500. One of the state’s past settlements with Frasure Creek set automatic penalties of only $1,000 per violation. So interestingly, it’s when those penalties were in effect that Frasure Creek, submitted lots of duplicated reports, but only reported a handful of pollution violations. (See the period in the blue box on the graph.)

This is one of about 70 Frasure Creek Mining discharges that the company has been submitting duplicated water monitoring reports for.

Frasure Creek has about 60 coal mining permits across Eastern Kentucky, mostly for mountaintop removal mines. Most of the new reporting duplications occurred at mines in Floyd County, but some occurred at its mines in neighboring counties. Pollution from these mines flows into the Big Sandy, Licking and Kentucky rivers.

Frasure Creek may be a bad actor in the mining industry, but it’s not alone in this type of false reporting. A few years ago we took legal action against the three largest coal producers in Kentucky (including Frasure Creek), all of which were turning in false water monitoring reports produced by three different laboratories. In recent weeks there have been two criminal cases in West Virginia for false water monitoring, one at coal mines, and one for duplicating reports exactly like what has been going on here.

These pollution reports are the foundation of the Clean Water Act regulations. Without accurate reporting, it’s impossible for regulators to effectively protect the people and the environment from dangerous pollution. The fact that the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and the Environmental Protection Agency have done so little to stamp out false reporting in Kentucky is simply deplorable.

Appalachian Voices is joined in this effort by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

>> View The Notice of Intent to Sue here (.pdf)

>> View our Press Release here

Citizen groups take legal action against Kentucky coal company for falsifying water pollution reports

Monday, November 17th, 2014 - posted by cat

State regulators ignore clean water protections and enforcement

CONTACTS

Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500, erin@appvoices.org
Ted Withrow, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, 606-784-6885 (h) or 606-782-0998 (c), tfwithrow@windstream.net
Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper, 859-200-7442, kyriverkeeper@eku.edu
Pete Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance, 828-582-0422, pharrison@waterkeeper.org

Eastern Kentucky – Over the course of 2013 and 2014, Frasure Creek Mining – one of the largest coal mining companies in Kentucky – sent the state false pollution reports containing almost 28,000 violations of federal law, and the Kentucky Energy and the Environment Cabinet failed to detect the falsifications, according to a letter of notification served to the company by four citizen groups. It was the second time the groups have taken legal action against Frasure Creek for similar violations.

In a 30-page notice of intent to sue mailed Friday, the groups document that Frasure Creek duplicated results from one water pollution monitoring report to the next, misleading government officials and the public about the amount of water pollution the company has been discharging from its eastern Kentucky coal mines. In some cases, Frasure Creek changed only the values that would have constituted violations of pollution limits in the company’s discharge permits. With a potential fine of $37,500 per violation, the maximum penalty could be more than $1 billion.

The notice letter was sent by Appalachian Voices, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic. Under the Clean Water Act, citizens must give the government 60-days notice of their intent to sue for violations. If Frasure Creek fails to correct the violations within the 60-day time period, the groups said they will file suit in federal court.

>>The notice letter can be downloaded here.

Four years ago, the groups found that Frasure Creek had sent similar falsified pollution reports, copying data from one report to the next. When the violations were brought to light, the state cabinet gave the company a minimal fine and promised reforms to ensure the agency would identify misreporting in the future. However, according to the notice served yesterday, the more recent duplications are even more extensive, and the state again failed to detect the violations or take enforcement action.

“Copy and paste is not compliance,” said Eric Chance, a water quality specialist with Appalachian Voices. “The fact that Frasure Creek continued to flout the law to this extent, even after being caught before, shows it has no regard for the people and communities they are impacting. Equally disturbing is the failure of state officials to act to stop the obvious violations. We’re not sure state officials even look at the quarterly reports.”

Frasure Creek has filed false reports or violated permit limits at more than 70 discharge points from the company’s numerous coal mines across eastern Kentucky. In the first quarter of 2014, more than 40% of the all reports filed by Frasure Creek contained data that the company had already submitted in 2013. These violations occur primarily at mines in Floyd County, but also at mines in Pike, Magoffin, Knott and Perry counties. The impacted waterways include tributaries of the Big Sandy River, Licking River and Kentucky River.

“The Clean Water Act absolutely depends on accurate reporting of pollution discharges. False reporting like this undermines the entire regulatory framework that safeguards the people and waters of Kentucky from dangerous pollution,” said Waterkeeper Alliance attorney Pete Harrison. “By all indications, this case looks like the biggest criminal conspiracy to violate the federal Clean Water Act in the history of that law. The refusal of the U.S. attorney in Lexington and the Environmental Protection Agency to bring criminal cases against Frasure Creek is just as inexcusable as the state’s failure to bring this company into compliance.”

“Once gain we find ourselves in the position of having to take action against Frasure Creek for the exact same type of violations we found four years ago. The Environmental Cabinet says they do not have the personnel to enforce the Clean Water Act. I would add they do not have the will to do so,” said Ted Withrow with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

When the citizen groups made those violations public four years ago, the cabinet attributed the false reporting to “transcription errors” and attempted to let Frasure Creek off the hook with minimal fines and no consequences if the violations continued. That case is still pending in Franklin Circuit Court. Though the false reporting stopped for a short time, during those months when accurate monitoring reports were submitted the pollution levels spiked.

“Frasure Creek’s false reports are hiding very serious water pollution problems,” said Kentucky Riverkeeper Pat Banks. “It’s reprehensible that our state officials are ignoring the serious consequences of this illegal activity for the people and the economy of eastern Kentucky.”

“We cannot make an economic transition in eastern Kentucky without clean water for the future,” added Withrow. “More than 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act cannot be swept under the rug.”

###

Be cool and keep fighting

Wednesday, November 5th, 2014 - posted by thom
After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

After the tumultuous midterm elections, not that much has changed and our job in Washington, D.C., remains much the same.

For the next couple of weeks, you’ll have a hard time turning on the TV or going online without seeing reactions to the midterm elections. Most pundits will analyze what happened, and some will try to tell you what it means.

Here’s what it really means: maybe not that much.

To put things in historical perspective, let’s take a moment to look back at some very recent elections and their outcomes.

2008: Democrats take the White House and a supermajority in both the House and Senate! They proceed to pass climate legislation, stop mountaintop removal coal mining, usher in a new age of clean energy take a few moderate steps toward reducing the amount of permits issued for mountaintop removal coal mining.

2010: Republican wave! The GOP takes the House by a wide margin and nearly takes the Senate. They proceed to remove EPA’s ability to regulate carbon pollution and then expedite all mountaintop removal permits create a fuss while federal agencies continue to take moderate steps towards limiting coal pollution.

2012: Democrats keep the White House, and improve their numbers in both the House and Senate! They proceed to make permanent changes to coal mining and coal ash regulations while stopping global warming in its tracks make no headway on coal mining regulations, allow mountaintop removal mines to be permitted, and take only moderate steps on coal ash regulation and carbon emissions.

We don’t know what the future holds, but considering what happened yesterday there are a few things that we can be pretty sure of moving forward.

The politics of Virginia and Tennessee are not much different today than they were yesterday. No major incumbent lost their race, and the election’s outcomes gives us no reason to believe federal office holders from either state will change their behavior going forward. Appalachian Voices, for one, is happy to continue to work with members from both states and both parties.

West Virginia and Kentucky are still in Big Coal’s stranglehold. But like coal itself, the industry’s power is finite. We can’t say how soon the politics of coal will change in Central Appalachia, but we will continue to work with our allies in those states to change the conversation. For now, members of the two states’ delegations will continue to vote the way they have for years.

After 30 years as an advocate for coal miners and the coal industry alike, Rep. Nick Rahall lost to his Republican challenger, Evan Jenkins, in the race for West Virginia’s 3rd district. Rahall was the senior Democratic member and had a firm grasp on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Clean Water Act. His replacement in that role will likely be someone who opposes mountaintop removal coal mining. For that, we can be all be happy.

North Carolina’s Senate election was a bit of a surprise. Though, aside from Democrat Kay Hagan being replaced by Thom Tillis, the rest of delegation is unchanged.

Appalachian Voices has worked hard to build relationships with members of Congress and their staffs in both the House and the Senate. But we have known for a long time that getting comprehensive legislation through Congress is not a good short-term goal.

The White House, on the other hand, is armed with the science and has the legal authority and moral obligation to take on mountaintop removal, coal ash pollution, climate change and other threats. President Obama was never going to be able to rely on Congress to act on those issues. So from that perspective, nothing has changed.

It’s okay to be excited about a candidate you like winning an election. It’s okay to be bummed when a candidate you like loses. But it’s not okay to get so caught up in it all that you forget the big picture.

As we see it, the job before us has not changed. Our responsibilities to Appalachia, and yours, are the same today as they were yesterday and will be tomorrow.

We will keep fighting for a better future for Appalachia, and push every decision-maker, regardless of their political leanings, to stand with us. We will fight to end to mountaintop removal and for a just economic transition away from fossil fuels. We will fight because no one else is going to do it for us, and we will need you there by our side.

A Washington Post editorial on mountaintop removal’s dirty consequences

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 - posted by thom
The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

Today, the editorial board of The Washington Post published a strongly worded condemnation of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The piece begins with what we all know:

“For decades, coal companies have been removing mountain peaks to haul away coal lying just underneath. More recently, scientists and regulators have been developing a clearer understanding of the environmental consequences. They aren’t pretty.”

As evidence, the editorial highlights two recent studies that we’ve also covered here. First, the U.S. Geological Survey’s findings that pollution from mountaintop removal is devastating fish populations in Appalachian streams. We summed up that research on this blog in July:

Over the summer, a U.S. Geological Survey study compared streams near mountaintop removal operations to streams farther away. In what should be “a global hotspot for fish biodiversity,” according to Nathaniel Hitt, one of the authors, the researchers found decimated fish populations, with untold consequences for downstream river systems. The scientists noted changes in stream chemistry: Salts from the disturbed earth appear to have dissolved in the water, which may well have disrupted the food chain.

The second study the editorial points to is new research out of West Virginia University that found dust pollution from mountaintop removal promotes lung cancer. We wrote last week:

The Charleston Gazette reported on a new study finding that dust from mountaintop removal mining appears to contribute to greater risk of lung cancer. West Virginia University researchers took dust samples from several towns near mountaintop removal sites and tested them on lung cells, which changed for the worse. The findings fit into a larger, hazardous picture: People living near these sites experience higher rates of cancer and birth defects.

We’re glad one of the largest newspapers in the country is paying attention, even when many policymakers are not. The editorial does, however, give a bit too much credit to the Obama administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their actions to reduce the environmental and human toll of mountaintop removal. Actions have been taken, certainly, but mountaintop removal is still happening in Appalachia.

With the mounting scientific evidence that mining pollution is decimating fish populations, causing air and water pollution, wiping out trees and mountains, and promoting a host of human health problems, there is no excuse for the Obama administration to allow mountaintop removal to continue.

Take a moment to let the president know that Appalachian communities are still being put at risk.

Mountaintop removal promotes lung cancer

Friday, October 17th, 2014 - posted by thom

A map from The Human Cost of Coal showing the above-average number of lung cancer deaths per 100,000 people in Central Appalachian Counties.

The body of research linking mountaintop removal mining to lung cancer just got a whole lot stronger.

Using dust samples collected in communities near mountaintop removal mines, a new study conducted by Dr. Sudjit Luanpitpong and other West Virginia University researchers found a direct link between air pollution and tumor growth.

From Ken Ward, Jr. of The Charleston Gazette:

The study results “provide new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of mountaintop removal dust emissions and “support further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control” for that dust, according to the paper, published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Six years ago, researchers found a close correlation between living in proximity of mountaintop removal coal mining sites and lung cancer mortality rates, even after adjusting for factors like smoking, poverty, race, etc. That 2008 study is just one of more than 20 studies linking mountaintop removal to health issues in neighboring communities.

While people in Appalachia have been aware of this strong correlation, this new study linking dust from mountaintop removal sites directly to the growth of lung cancer cells is the first of its kind.

“To me, this is one of the most important papers that we’ve done,” said [Dr. Michael Hendryx], a co-author of the new paper. “There hasn’t been a direct link between environmental data and human data until this study.”

Hendryx said, “The larger implication is that we have evidence of environmental conditions in mining communities that promote human lung cancer. Previous studies … have been criticized for being only correlational studies of illness in mining communities, and with this study we have solid evidence that mining dust collected from residential communities causes cancerous human lung cell changes.”

The coal industry and its allies in Congress have always been eager to dismiss claims that air and water pollution caused by mountaintop removal mining have any link to the high rates of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects, or the decrease in life expectancy that counties with heavy mining have experienced over the past two decades.

Will this study get them to finally change their tune? It’s almost certain it won’t. It will be up to those of us who care about the health of Appalachian communities to raise our voices and simply drown them out.

Click here to learn more about how mountaintop removal impacts health in Appalachia, or visit The Human Cost of Coal on iLoveMountains.org.

The reclamation myth, it’s still happening too

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 - posted by thom

{ Editor’s Note } A 2014 study on post-mining reclamation efforts found that “There is no evidence that mitigation is meeting the objectives of the [Clean Water Act] and looking forward there is no reason to believe this will change unless new mitigation requirements and scientifically rigorous assessments are put into place.”

It seems that whenever a picture of an active mountaintop removal mine site is posted online or shared on social media, someone steps in to comment that coal companies “put it back” or that, a few years after they reclaim the land “you won’t be able to tell the difference.”

For years, Appalachian Voices has been combating misleading claims about reclamation used by the industry and pro-coal politicians — especially the myth that mountaintop removal is necessary because it creates flat land for economic development. In a 2010 survey of mountaintop removal sites, we found that, of the 1.2 million acres of leveled Appalachian mountains, around 90 percent of reclaimed mine sites are not being used for economic development. In fact, most are just rocky grasslands not being used for anything at all.

LEARN MORE: Post-Mountaintop Removal Reclamation of Mountain Summits for Economic Development in Appalachia

Industry pic

The industry argues that it does a good job of reclaiming the land, and will use a handful of good examples of reclamation with a few nice pictures, and pretend that this is the norm. I particularly like this tweet from the West Virginia Coal Association a few weeks back.

As you can see it’s basically a pretty picture of the sun coming through the clouds with a caption that reads “100 Years of Coal Mining and West Virginia Remains Wild and Wonderful. This proves mining is a temporary land use.”

I can’t figure out how this picture “proves mining is a temporary land use.” I suppose the picture shows that companies have not blown up those particular mountains. Or the sky.

The reality of reclamation usually looks more like this…

4615471054_45b553883e_b

Or this…

4614851837_bea71ccb8b_b

Or this…

4614774906_888ebf4231_b

The failure to recapture the beauty that was once a 300-million-year-old mountain covered in old-growth, biodiverse forest is tragic, but it’s not the only problem with reclamation. Attempts to mitigate water pollution have repeatedly failed.

A 2014 University of Maryland study shows that mitigation and reclamation have totally failed to protect stream health.

According to the study:

Loss of aquatic biodiversity below [mountaintop removal] mining operations is well documented and there is no evidence that these downstream impacts decline over time–mine sites reclaimed over 20 years ago still contribute to significant degradation of water quality.

Overall the reports provide no evidence that stream mitigations being implemented for coal mining in the southern Appalachian states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia are meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act to replace lost or degraded natural resource values and functions.

LEARN MORE: Mountaintop Mine Reclamation Not Adequately Restoring Affected Streams, Study Finds – Bloomberg BNA

The coal industry is blowing up mountains in Appalachia. They are not putting them back together again. The industry is polluting and burying streams, and they are not finding a way to fix them.

In 2009, the Obama administration promised to overhaul regulations meant to protect Appalachian communities and their waterways from mountaintop removal.

Yet, five years later, mountaintop removal coal mining is still happening. Until the Obama administration and Congress take serious actions, no amount of reclamation is going to fix the problems the mining is leaving behind.

Health Research Disregarded in Mountaintop Removal Mine Permitting

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Brian Sewell

In both West Virginia and Kentucky this year, federal courts have ruled against groups that believe scientific research into the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining on health should be considered by the agencies in charge of issuing permits.

In August, a federal judge for the Southern District of West Virginia sided with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and ruled that the agency did not act “arbitrarily” when it issued a permit for a 725-acre mountaintop removal mine in Boone County, W.Va., without considering health impacts. A coalition of environmental groups, including Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Coal River Mountain Watch, asserted that research the Corps called “ambiguous” in fact showed a strong link between mountaintop removal and health impacts, such as higher instances of birth defects, cancer and other diseases.

The judge claimed that too many of the studies environmental groups presented as evidence focused on health effects associated with coal in general and made no stated connection to mining discharges in streams below mountaintop removal sites.

The decision echoes a ruling six months ago in Kentucky in a case between the Corps and a coalition led by Earthjustice, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Appalachian Mountain Advocates over the 756-acre Stacy Branch mine. In that case, the Corps argued it was only responsible for considering the effects of dumping mining debris in streams — not the environmental or health impacts of the entire mining operation. That responsibility, the Corps contends, belongs to state agencies in charge of issuing mountaintop removal permits.

Currently, there is no clear agency tasked with studying or addressing the connection between mountaintop removal and health. Meanwhile, a bill that would place a moratorium on new permits until a federal study into the health impacts of mountaintop removal is completed sits stagnant in Congress.

Employees of DEP-certified lab conspired to violate Clean Water Act

Thursday, October 9th, 2014 - posted by brian
An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act.

An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act. Photo from Flickr.

We learned some unsettling news from West Virginia yesterday afternoon. The Charleston Gazette reports that an employee of a state-certified company pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act after he faked compliant water quality samples for coal companies between 2008 and 2013.

John W. Shelton, who worked as a technician and then a field supervisor for Appalachian Labs Inc., a Beckley, W.Va., firm, admitted to diluting water samples taken from mine pollution discharge points with clean water, among other unlawful measures taken, to ensure pollution levels were in compliance with permitted limits. Prosecutors say Appalachian Labs conducts water sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia, but for now it’s unclear what mine sites or coal companies could be implicated in the case.

As Ken Ward Jr. points out in The Gazette, this crime is a serious cause for concern, since state and federal agencies rely heavily on self-reported data to determine if coal companies are obeying the law. But honestly, while we’re appalled, it is hard to be surprised by this latest discovery. We have some experience with misreporting of water monitoring data that has taken place in Central Appalachia in recent years.

The way this story is coming together suggests a frightening collusion between employees at a lab that maintained certification from DEP. We know from the plea agreement that Shelton did not act alone. Check out the section titled “The Conspiracy to Violate the Clean Water Act” that begins on page 4. But the truly damning language comes in the following section, which states the “objects of the conspiracy were to increase the profitability of Appalachian by avoiding certain costs associated with full compliance with the Clean Water Act … and to thus encourage and maintain for Appalachian the patronage of [its] customers.”

Shelton faces up to five years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. The investigation into Appalachian Labs, however, is ongoing and is being handled by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, the FBI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Following is a statement from Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator Erin Savage:

The discovery that a lab employee in West Virginia knowingly altered sampling procedures to assure that monitoring reports submitted for coal companies would be in compliance with the Clean Water Act raises serious questions about the reliability of monitoring reports for the coal industry across Central Appalachia.

False reporting of water quality data from mines in Central Appalachia is not unheard of. In 2010, Appalachian Voices uncovered water monitoring reports that contained duplicated data for the three largest mountaintop removal companies in Kentucky. During the period they were submitting erroneous monitoring reports, these companies never reported a single pollution violation.

No criminal charges have been brought in Kentucky in relation to those cases. In light of the charges brought in West Virginia, however, we have to wonder how widespread these criminal practices are. This shocking discovery further highlights the extreme need for state agencies to seriously reevaluate their enforcement efforts and for the EPA to step in when the states do not properly enforce the law.

Updated Oct. 21: Under oath in federal court, Shelton told a judge that coal companies “put a lot of pressure” on labs to get good water data. Read more in The Charleston Gazette.

A huge win: Gainesville enacts policy to stop using mountaintop removal coal

Monday, September 29th, 2014 - posted by matt
Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

Gainesville Loves Mountains founder, Jason Fults, advocates for a policy discouraging the purchase of mountaintop removal coal before the Gainesville City Commission on Sept. 18

At a time when Congress can’t seem to conduct even routine business and nearly half of the country still denies climate change, that old Margaret Mead quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has,” can seem a little quaint and dated, if not hopelessly idealistic.

But earlier this month, a group of citizens in Gainesville, Fla., proved the truth of those words. Because of the heroic efforts of a small group of citizens, Gainesville became the first city in America to enact a policy to curtail — and possibly eliminate altogether — its reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

A cheer went up in the packed city hall chambers when the city commission voted 5-2 for a policy designed to break the city’s longstanding reliance on coal from mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia to power its electric grid. This victory was the culmination of three and a half years of work that included five hearings by the city commission, hundreds of hours of volunteer work, and dozens of meetings with city commissioners.

The policy’s passage, championed by city commissioner Lauren Poe and supported by three Democrats and two Republicans on the commission, proved that bipartisanship is still alive in some corners of the country and that democracy can still work the way it was intended to; responsive to the will of citizens instead of just private interests with the power to make unlimited campaign contributions.

At the hearing on Sept. 18, staff of Appalachian Voices gave commissioners a virtual tour of some of the mountaintop removal mines that had supplied coal to Gainesville in the past. Suppliers included the Samples mine in West Virginia, which the late Appalachian hero Larry Gibson fought for decades to prevent the destruction of his beloved Kayford Mountain. Another supplier was the nearby Twilight Surface Mine, which was responsible for turning the community of Lindytown into a ghost town, as The New York Times powerfully eulogized in this 2011 story.

Use the arrows on the slideshow below to see excerpts of the presentation Appalachian Voices shared with the Gainesville City Commission:

There are no mountains within 100 miles of Gainesville. So how a group called Gainesville Loves Mountains became one of the city’s most active and influential advocacy groups is an interesting story.

The group’s founder, Jason Fults, first became aware of mountaintop removal as a student at Berea College in eastern Kentucky. After graduating and moving back to Gainesville, he was horrified to learn the local power plant operated by Gainesville Regional Utilities, the Deerhaven Generating Station, was purchasing most of its coal from some of the biggest and most destructive mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

But Jason didn’t stop with being horrified; he resolved to do what it takes to break Gainesville’s connection to mountaintop removal, and he found others willing to makes the same commitment. Three and a half years later they succeeded — or at least they’ve come very close. But the battle is not over quite yet. The policy enacted by the city ensures that Gainesville Regional Utilities will not purchase coal mined using mountaintop removal as long as it has bids from other types of mines that are not more than 5 percent higher than bids from mountaintop removal operators.

Based on my experience, that should generally be sufficient to ensure the city does not purchase mountaintop removal coal. If bids from mountaintop removal operators do come in at least 5 percent lower than other bids, however, the utility can come back to the commission to request special dispensation to purchase the cheaper, but in many ways more costly, coal. Several commissioners indicated that they may still very well choose to purchase from the more expensive non-mountaintop removal coal suppliers if that’s the case, but it’s going to require a contentious vote. And, if that time comes, the folks at Gainesville Loves Mountains will undoubtedly pull out all the stops to ensure the city doesn’t vote to purchase mountaintop removal coal.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices' staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

Members of Gainesville Loves Mountains and Appalachian Voices’ staff celebrate with commissioner Lauren Poe after the vote.

The big question is whether other cities can follow Gainesville’s lead. The short answer is that some can, though there are not many other cities served by a municipally-owned utility that operates its own coal-fired power plant and buys coal from Central Appalachia. There are a few such examples — the city of Orlando, Fla., for example — but folks who are customers of private investor-owned utilities or municipal utilities that purchase power from investor-owned utilities will have a very different challenge on their hands if they want to ensure companies like Duke Energy, American Electric Power or Dominion Resources stop purchasing coal from mountaintop removal mines.

The good news is that the city of Gainesville paved the way by coming up with a thoughtful and substantive policy that also provides some protection to ratepayers. That’s important because utilities have successfully used scare tactics about the potential for increases in electricity prices to defeat every previous attempt to pass bills banning the use of mountaintop removal in states like North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland. Even the students at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill were unable to get a policy passed to ban purchases of mountaintop removal coal from the power plant on campus because of the scare tactics employed by the operators of the plant.

Fortunately, the Gainesville policy provides a model that should alleviate those fears, and we can hope that students at UNC and Michigan State University, where local power plants are still purchasing mountaintop removal coal, will try again now that the City of Gainesville has led the way.

The People’s Climate March: Hope makes a comeback

Saturday, September 27th, 2014 - posted by Maggie Cozens
Approximately 100 Appalachian State University  students traveled to New York for the People's Climate March.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students traveled to New York for the People’s Climate March. Photo by Maggie Cozens.

“I know we’re exhausted; my feet hurt…actually my everything hurts,” said Dave Harman of 350 Boone, as our busload of students headed back toward North Carolina. “But I just wanted to say that this went beyond my wildest expectations. I’m still glowing from today.”

As we slowly wended our way out of Manhattan, tired and feet aching, I found myself struggling to process the overwhelming feeling that pervaded every inch of the nearly 4-mile long procession earlier that day. The feeling saturated every piece of artwork and humble homemade sign, resonated in each drumroll and singing voice, and illuminated the eyes of every one of the 400,000 marchers in attendance. Such was the overpowering feeling of hope at the People’s Climate March.

See more photos from the march.

Approximately 100 Appalachian State University students took part in Sunday’s march and happily found Appalachia well-represented upon arrival. We could not walk two feet without running into someone carrying a sign calling for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

One of the Appalachian State totems was garnished with a People’s Climate March sign that read “I’m marching for the end of mountaintop removal.” It was one among countless others, and no demographic, environmental or social issue went unrepresented. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, indigenous groups, politicians and celebrities joined together and walked in solidarity. The student section was alight with passionate youth from across the country, eager to roll up their sleeves and build a better future, as bright yellow and orange signs ebulliently bobbed up and down along the sea of marchers like rising suns.

The diversity of the marchers was a beautiful sight to behold, but perhaps more stunning was the common thread running between them. Everyone was united in their confidence to affect change; the understanding that tackling the factors behind climate change — the environmental degradation caused by poorly regulated industries, inadequate government involvement, overconsumption and our growth-obsessed economy — holds the solution to a myriad of interconnected global issues today. It quickly became apparent at the march that climate change is as much a political, social, and cultural issue as it is an environmental one. And that efforts to address the problem could lead to a transformation as expansive as climate change itself.

Later that evening on the bus, Dave mentioned in all his years of activism he had never seen anything like the People’s Climate March. The shift in morale was so strong it was almost palpable. In New York and in every sister march around the world, the air was electrified with hope and faith in the future. This was perhaps no more evident than at 1 p.m., when a moment of silence erupted into an explosion of noise. Every marcher raised their voice in opposition to climate change; shouting for each other, the future, and the planet. Dave remarked that the clamor was hair-raising, a sonic “atomic bomb” filled with promise and power.

After attending Sunday’s march, it is hard to shake that feeling of hope. It is disturbing how lacking it had been beforehand, but its return is beyond welcome and reassuring. In the face of such a daunting and massive problem as climate change, it is easy to throw up your hands in exasperation and become discouraged. But after this weekend we should realize this problem is not insurmountable and, if the numbers are any indication, that no one is fighting it alone.

Click here to submit your comment supporting the EPA’s efforts to act on climate.