Posts Tagged ‘Mountaintop Removal’

What happened on Pine Creek?

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Another example of the costs that communities near coal mines pay in ecological, economic and human health.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky. Photos by Tarence Ray

A lot of folks have had questions about the recent mine blowout on Pine Creek, in Letcher County, Ky. So we’ve put together an explainer that runs through the facts, the science and the regulatory protocols behind spills like this.

Where is Pine Creek?

Pine Creek is a small creek that flows off Pine Mountain and into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The point where Pine Creek and the Kentucky River meet is roughly five miles upstream of the municipal drinking water intake that serves Whitesburg, Ky., and the surrounding county.

So what happened?

On Friday, March 18, an auger mine company, Hardshell Tipples, was mining at the head of Pine Creek when they inadvertently drilled into an old underground mine. Water had stored up in the mine over time, slowly increasing in acidity and iron content creating what is called “acid mine drainage.” This water rushed out into a sediment pond when the mine was breached by the auger drill, and the pond overflowed into the creek.

What is acid mine drainage?

Acid mine drainage occurs when water flows over or leaches through minerals and materials with high sulfur content. Many times, as in the case at Pine Creek, the minerals exposed to water contain iron pyrite, also known as “fool’s gold.” The result is orange-colored water, which stains rocks and river beds. Acid mine drainage also very likely contains other metals, such as manganese. (The polluted water/mine drainage that spilled into Pine Creek contained manganese, and we’ll get to those test results momentarily). As is indicated by its name, acid mine drainage is also highly acidic — so don’t touch it.

But if all these things are found in nature, isn’t this simply a natural occurrence?

All of the ingredients for making acid mine drainage are naturally occurring, that much is correct. But what is not natural is the excavation of these minerals and their exposure to air and water. Ask yourself: is there anything natural about a stream that is unable to support wildlife?

In the case of Pine Creek, water had stored up in the old underground mine over time, slowly gaining acidity and various metals. These mountains are porous; therefore water got into the mine in the first place through years and years of rain. When the iron pyrite in the mine was exposed to oxygen in the water (you know, the “O” in H2O), it created a highly acidic substance that was harmful for aquatic life. When the mine was breached, this highly acidic substance got into the creek, and was indeed very harmful to aquatic life.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

Got it. So back to what happened. What happened?

Our Appalachian Water Watch team was contacted by a concerned citizen who lives on Pine Creek, and we were able to document the spill as it occurred in real-time. Photos of dead fish and turtles were posted and shared by hundreds of people on Facebook and Twitter. We also spoke to residents on the creek who had been trying to catch minnows that morning. Instead, they had a net full of dead fish.

Officials at the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection initially denied that the spill was responsible for killing wildlife. However, due to public pressure from social media and citizens filing complaints, state officials reversed their findings and determined that over 700 fish were killed as a result of the spill.

The state eventually issued four violations against Hardshell Tipples, and compelled the company to commit to a fish-restocking plan for Pine Creek — a huge victory for clean water advocates and a sign that the state is aware of the public’s concern about how state agencies respond to spills like this.

Was this preventable?

Samples taken on the day after the spill show massive amounts of iron and manganese in the water. State documents obtained by Appalachian Voices and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center show that Hardshell Tipples had been issued multiple violations in the past for discharging high amounts of iron from its permit. However, these violations were considerably lower than the most recent Pine Creek spill, and the pictures show it.

It’s established fact that Hardshell Tipples has been reckless in the past with what it choose to discharge off of the permit. But state documents reveal that the company was also issued a citation in 2002 for failing to submit comprehensive underground mine maps to the state. It might be impossible to determine whether this documented negligence had anything to do with the recent mine blowout; however, it’s safe to say that the company has been a consistently careless operator in a watershed that is both ecologically and aesthetically important to eastern Kentucky.

The mine blowout on Pine Creek was clearly preventable. However, this is not to imply that all incidents of acid mine drainage are preventable. The majority of acid mine drainage problems in Letcher County, for example, are from mining that occurred decades ago, and persist to this day. These legacy problems will likely exist for many more decades, unless action is taken by state and federal government agencies.

The main point is that the Pine Creek spill is yet another example of the costs that communities near coal mines have to pay for in terms of ecological, economic and human health.

What do I do if this happens to my creek?

In this case, the quick response of nearby citizens and our team pushed the state to action and prevented the mine waste from affecting Letcher County’s municipal water system. However, in other instances, communities may not be aware of the problem for days, or they may be unable to contact their proper state agencies — especially if the problem begins on a weekend.

In any case, there are several things you can do to get the state to respond:

1. Take photos. Put your photos on social media, and make sure you tag the respective state or federal agencies in your post. Pictures of dead wildlife are especially useful, as they paint a more comprehensive portrait of the affected stream.

You can also send the photos to us through the Appalachian Water Watch Facebook page. If you don’t use social media, make sure you hang on to the photos, and call us immediately at 1-855-7WATERS.

2. Take notes. Make sure you note the date, time, location and any other characteristics of the affected stream. This includes changes in water color, consistency and/or smell. Don’t touch the water unless you’re taking a sample, in which case you should wear gloves.

3. Take a sample. Contact us and we can likely sample the spill within a few hours. If nothing else, purchase a plastic water bottle from your nearby grocery, empty it out, fill it with the contaminated water, and store it on ice until it can be tested. Be sure to wear latex gloves when you grab a sample. The water is likely highly acidic, and could burn your skin. Also, be careful — don’t risk a broken ankle or worse by wading into a fast moving stream just to get a sample. Pictures and notes are often the best course of action.

Responding to “Appalachia’s Distress”

Tuesday, March 1st, 2016 - posted by brian

We have to address the economic and environmental burdens created by a dependence on coal

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal moves closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant, and mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities — even as coal production declines. Photo by Matt Wasson

Earlier this month, a letter to the editors of The New York Times by Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons appeared on the newspaper’s website.

Tom penned the letter following a piece by the Times editorial board that described a “grossly disfigured landscape” where steep mountain ridgelines that formed over millions of years old stand “flat as mesas … inhospitable to forest restoration.”

After decades of mountaintop removal and large-scale surface mining, these grim descriptions of Central Appalachia are familiar in the media, literature and the daily experience of those that live near mines.

Not only does this devastating practice continue to reduce mountains to rubble, poisoning the air and water, Tom points out:

… mountaintop removal is moving closer to communities as the industry searches out ever-dwindling coal seams, and residents continue to suffer from a multitude of health effects related to mining pollution, not to mention dire economic conditions.

The influence of the extractive industries embedded in the region is a constant. Backers of mountaintop removal believe the debate ends with the reclamation of mines — a superficial “fix” that Ken Hechler, a former congressman and long-time opponent of mountaintop removal, has unsettlingly compared to putting “lipstick on a corpse.” But new research challenges the myth that reclamation can restore mountains, much less ecological health.

Donate now to help us continue to protect Appalachian streams

The Times’ welcome editorial drew attention to this study, by researchers at Duke University, that found mountaintop removal has left large swaths of Central Appalachia 40 percent flatter than they were before mining, leading to staggering changes in erosion patterns and water quality that are, essentially, permanent.

“We have data that the water quality impacts can last at least 30 years, but the geomorphology impacts might last thousands of years,” according to the study’s lead author, Matthew Ross.

The editorial also makes a brief mention of the Stream Protection Rule, which would go far to reducing the worst impacts of mountaintop removal. Tom wrote his letter in part to stress the importance of this science-based rule and to urge federal regulators to stand firm in the face of industry opposition, and finalize it before President Obama leaves office.

Not doing so could come at a high cost to Appalachia’s environmental and economic future. As Tom’s letter concludes:

… unless the [U.S. Department of the Interior] has the courage to issue a strong rule later this year that reflects the most current science, achieving a prosperous future here will be all but impossible.

Read the Times’ editorial here. Click here for Tom’s letter.

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Blasted: Homeowners near mine seek recourse for property damage

Thursday, February 18th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Molly Moore

Karen and Jerry Kirk stand on the front porch of their home. Their property damage coincided with blasting at a mountaintop removal coal mine associated with the King Coal Highway. Photo by Molly Moore

Karen and Jerry Kirk stand on the front porch of their home. Their property damage coincided with blasting at a mountaintop removal coal mine associated with the King Coal Highway. Photo by Molly Moore

Karen Kirk’s father was a carpenter. He built her childhood home from local chestnut and oak in the mid-1960s near the small town of Gilbert, W.Va., close to the confluence of Browning Fork and Horsepen Creek. Growing up, Karen and her siblings would play in the clear water and roam the nearby woods. Her home is one of several situated on a narrow strip of flat land between tall ridgelines. Mountains are everywhere: Gilbert’s town motto is “You should see the hills from here!”

In 1982, Karen and her husband Jerry inherited the tidy four-room ranch house from her aunt, adding two rooms a couple years later to accommodate three sons. When he built the addition, Jerry Kirk found that the beams were so well-seasoned that he couldn’t drive a nail through — he had to drill holes and fasten bolts to the timbers instead.

The house was in good shape, the Kirks maintain, until blasting from nearby surface coal mining started in 2007. The explosions shook and cracked the walls, knocked doors and windows out of alignment, and noticeably lowered the floor in the center of the home. Nearly 10 years later, the couple is still trying to prove that the mining company is responsible for the damages and compel the company to repair their home.

The Kirks’ story is a common one among families that live near surface coal mining. Their neighbors complained of similar problems, and other homeowners near mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia report mirrors falling from walls, chimneys separating from homes, and foundations, windows and bathtubs cracking. Some residents describe damage to their water supply such as tap water turning black or orange or wells going dry after particularly intense explosions. And although the market for Central Appalachian coal is depressed and coal production has declined sharply in recent years, residents near active mine sites still feel each blast just as powerfully as during coal’s boom years.

Blasting is an essential component of surface mining; using explosives to blow up the land and access the coal beneath is what makes this form of extraction cheaper than underground mining. Federal and state laws require mining companies to limit the size and frequency of the blasts, and — in theory — these regulations should protect nearby residences from property damage. If destruction does occur, federal law outlines a process that is supposed to lead to compensation. But as Jerry and Karen Kirk have found, it’s not that straightforward.

Due Diligence

Like many residents of Mingo County, the Kirks are no strangers to coal. Jerry worked as an underground miner from 1988 to 1997 at Marrowbone Development Company, a mine complex that included mountaintop removal mining, and he recalls an outcry of citizen complaints related to the strip mining. He also became familiar with the destructive power of blasting while working on road construction. So when he found out that two companies were planning massive surface mines on the mountains surrounding his home, he was immediately concerned.

Karen Kirk points out photographs of their sons, who all live out of the area now. She says it is unlikely that they will move back to Mingo County.  Photo by Molly Moore

Karen Kirk points out photographs of their sons, who all live out of the area now. She says it is unlikely that they will move back to Mingo County. Photo by Molly Moore

Blasting began in 2007 at the Premium Energy mine less than a mile to the south of their home; the project was part of the King Coal Highway, a massive coal mining and highway-building project that is still incomplete. The Premium Energy blasts came roughly three or four times per week in 2007 and 2008, according to the Kirks, and continued with slightly less frequency through 2009. For a while, the Kirks also felt blasts from the Hampden Coal, LLC, mine on the ridge to the east — sometimes both on the same day. They kept a record on their calendar, marking the time and the word “blast” and writing in all-caps or adding exclamation points to denote particularly forceful explosions.

Karen was often working at the Rite-Aid during the daytime blasting, but she clearly recalls what it was like when she was home for a blast. “I would get ready to run. It was so bad and it scared me. I don’t know where I was going,” she adds with a wry chuckle, “but I was going to run.”

“When it scares the dogs, the windows rattle, you knew to expect that from an air blast,” says Jerry. “But when the house starts [going] up and down, that’s time to worry. And that’s when the drywall started [cracking].”

In Compliance

The federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement requires that mine operators offer what’s known as a preblasting survey to people living within a certain distance of the mine. The survey documents the interior and exterior of the structure and the property’s water quality, and the resulting report provides a baseline to judge future damage against.

Nearly every room in the house has some sign of damage from the blasting. Photo by Molly Moore

Nearly every room in the house has some sign of damage from the blasting. Photo by Molly Moore

The usefulness of these surveys often depends on when they occur and how thoroughly they are conducted. Blasting was already underway and the Kirks had already filed an official complaint with the state when the contractor arrived to do a preblasting survey of their home in 2007, but the Kirks say they never saw a copy of that report. Another firm conducted a survey in May 2008, after the Kirks’ second complaint.

Residents who are concerned that a blast has damaged their home can file an official complaint with the state agency that oversees surface mining — in this case, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of Explosives and Blasting, which is obligated to send an inspector to investigate. The inspector checks the home and looks at the company’s blasting log and seismograph to determine whether the blasts complied with the law.

If the inspector determines that the property damage is a result of blasting, the state can issue a violation and fine to the company. But because any fines are paid to the state, homeowners have to seek other options for compensation. The homeowners can pursue a state-administered process, or seek compensation on their own through a civil lawsuit or an insurance claim.

Typically, however, inspectors find that the blasts were within legal limits, even when homeowners witness damages to their property that coincide with the explosions. In the Kirks’ case, the inspector who arrived in March 2008 found that the nearest seismograph “showed no evidence of excessive ground or air vibration limits.” According to the inspector, the blasts were in compliance.

Jerry recalls sitting at the kitchen table with an inspector who said “that for [the company] to be out of compliance it would have to shake a cup of coffee off this table onto the floor. I’m not talking an empty cup, I’m talking a cup of coffee.”

In other words, for a blast to exceed the legal limit, it has to be extremely forceful. These regulatory limits are based on a series of studies, particularly a 1989 U.S. Bureau of Mines study from southern Indiana. But while that study is frequently cited in the regulations, not all experts accept it as an adequate benchmark.

Dr. Sam Kiger, a now-retired Civil and Environmental Engineering professor at the University of Missouri, explained in an email that the southern Indiana homes in the 1989 study were mostly new construction and not representative of the older homes typical in Appalachia. “These more fragile homes are much more susceptible to damage from blasting-induced ground vibrations,” he wrote. “In many other countries, the experts established a much lower threshold for damage.”

The mine is just out of sight on top of the ridge to their south. Photo by Molly Moore

The mine is just out of sight on top of the ridge to their south. Photo by Molly Moore

In a 2010 report prepared for a court case involving blast complaints in Mingo County, W.Va., Kiger compared the blasting limits from the Indiana study to Australian standards for historical buildings, which designate a vibration level 500 times lower than the acceptable level for surface mine blasts in the United States. “Therefore, standards really represent an economic decision,” Kiger stated in the report.

Back in West Virginia, Jerry believes that the regulations should be strong enough to protect nearby structures. “It doesn’t matter if you live in a tent, nobody has the right to knock your tent down,” he says.

In West Virginia, once an inspector determines that the blast was within the standards, the homeowner can decide whether to appeal or withdraw the complaint. Sitting in the kitchen in December, sifting through documents spread across the table, the Kirks discovered a line at the end of a March 20, 2008, inspection report: “Jerry Kirk withdrew the claim on 3/20/08.” They were both silent for a moment, then shook their heads back and forth in disbelief. “My claim?” Jerry wondered out loud. “I didn’t withdraw anything.”

Route to Recourse

Even if the state finds that the offending blasts were in compliance, some residents still seek civil damages for their property destruction through the courts. In addition, homeowners can file lawsuits for damages without also filing a complaint with the state. Still, some have difficulty finding and retaining a lawyer because there often isn’t much financial incentive for the legal team.

An attorney familiar with blasting, who requested anonymity due to ongoing litigation, described a situation where coalfield residents observed a decrease in blasting problems after many households in the area reported complaints, and theorized that the mine operator modified their practices in response to the public outcry.

At the Kirks’ orderly, inviting home in Gilbert, the couple points out the persistent drywall cracks in nearly every room and the way the kitchen floor slants toward the center of the home, where the dining room floor has settled lower than the adjoining hallway.

Jerry has done some cosmetic repairs, such as caulking and repainting over cracks that stubbornly reappear, but says a much bigger job is needed to re-support the foundation and subfloor, address the windows and doors that are out of alignment and fully repair the walls.

Following a mining injury in 1995, he now has a metal plate in his neck and cycles through periods of relative wellness and severe pain. Given his health, he’s loathe to do the repairs himself, and is continuing to work with a lawyer to see whether they can compel the coal company to take responsibility for fixing the home.

Despite years of frustration, Jerry Kirk says he and Karen are sticking with the case to seek compensation and document what’s happened. “Because they’re tearing my house up — it’s my house. Our house,” he adds with a laugh and a glance at his wife.

At this point, he’s skeptical of the state, the coal companies and the legal system. But he and Karen do not intend to give up. “We’re determined to see it through,” he says.

Federal Agency Considering Partial Surface Mining Ban in Tennessee

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Charlotte Wray

In 2010, Tennessee petitioned the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to prevent surface coal mining on land within 600 feet of certain ridgelines in a 67,000-acre area north of Knoxville.

The state contended that surface coal mining would not be in accordance with state or local land use plans for the areas, which are currently wildlife management areas and conservation easements, and that mining operations would “significantly damage the natural systems and aesthetic, recreational, cultural, and historic values of the ridgelines and their viewsheds.”

The federal agency’s draft Environmental Impact Statement, released on Dec. 10, 2015, outlined several possible responses to the state petition. The agency’s preferred alternative would designate the requested ridgetop corridors in the 67,000-acre area as unsuitable for coal mining.

At a hearing on Jan. 14, Tom Chadwell, a resident of Campbell County who lives beside the petition area on land that has been owned by his family since 1872, voiced his support for the ban.

”We have a beautiful county, a beautiful community and I don’t want to see us [risk] our land that nature has spent most of the last 50 years trying to recover,” he said.

The agency is now reviewing public input submitted during the 45-day comment period.

Appalachian Voices testifies before Senate panel on coal-mining rule

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016 - posted by cat

Contact:
Matt Wasson, Program Director, 828-773-0799, matt@appvoices.org
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

Appalachian Voices Director of Programs Matt Wasson, Ph.D., is testifying tomorrow morning before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a hearing on the implications and environmental impacts of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s draft Stream Protection Rule. (NOTE: We will add a link here for live-streaming video when it becomes available from the committee.)

The rule, expected to be finalized before the end of the Obama administration, is intended to prevent or minimize the impacts of surface coal mining on surface water and groundwater. It has become a flashpoint for the coal industry and its political allies who charge it will harm the industry, but in his testimony, Wasson disputes that charge and highlights the clear need for a strong rule.

Drawing on a wealth of scientific data, and directly citing comments made by citizens in Central Appalachia who wrote to the agency or spoke at one of the public hearings on the rule in September 2015, Wasson highlights five areas of particular concern arising from an under-regulated and at times unlawful coal industry: threats to human health, damage to streams and wildlife, and the need for proper bonding requirements, citizen enforcement, and economic diversification throughout the region.

The Stream Protection Rule would update a 1983 rule, which has failed to protect the health of Central Appalachian streams, wildlife and communities, according to Wasson. More than 2,000 miles of streams have been obliterated, and virtually all stream “restoration” projects have failed to produce healthy aquatic habitat. Life expectancy in Appalachian counties with the most strip mining declined between 1997 and 2007, even as it rose in the U.S. as a whole. Central Appalachian counties where mountaintop removal occurs have among the highest poverty rates in the country.

In his testimony, Wasson debunks a recent study by the National Mining Association predicting the Stream Protection Rule would lead to job losses. The study is predicated on an unreliable methodology and unrealistic projections for coal production, and it fails to assess benefits resulting from the rule, such as safety and health improvements in communities.

Wasson concludes that while the draft Stream Protection Rule is far from perfect, it does represent an “honest effort to improve upon three decades of poor regulation that has allowed mountaintop removal coal mining to endanger Appalachian communities and devastate wildlife and aquatic ecosystems.”

>> Key excerpts from Wasson’s testimony, available here in its entirety, including direct quotes from Central Appalachian citizens.

Appalachian Voices believes the proposed rule represents, at best, two steps forward and one step back. But any discussion of the “Implications and environmental impacts of the Office of Surface Mining’s proposed Stream Protection Rule” needs to start with one basic fact: the permitting and enforcement regime that has been in effect since 1983 is not working, and indeed has never worked to protect the health of streams, communities and wildlife in Central Appalachia.

***
What is so notable about the science linking mountaintop removal to elevated death rates and poor health outcomes is not the strength of any individual study, but rather the enormous quantity of data from independent sources that all point toward dramatic increases in rates of disease and decreases in life expectancy and physical well-being. … Life expectancy for both men and women actually declined between 1997 and 2007 in Appalachian counties with the most strip mining, even as life expectancy in the U.S. as a whole increased by more than a year. In 2007, life expectancy in the five Appalachian counties with the most strip mining was comparable to that in developing countries like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

***
Our concern is that this rule is overly reliant on mitigation measures like stream replacement that have been shown to almost always fail to restore stream function. For instance, researchers at the University of Maryland published a peer-reviewed study in 2014 that synthesized information from 434 stream mitigation projects from 117 permits for surface mining in Appalachia. The study evaluated the success of both stream restoration and stream creation projects and concluded that “the data show that mitigation efforts being implemented in southern Appalachia for coal mining are not meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act to replace lost or degraded streams ecosystems and their functions.” Astoundingly, the study found that, “97% of the projects reported suboptimal or marginal habitat even after 5 years of monitoring.”

***
The Stream Protection Rule could help to address agency inaction, and improve the relationship between Central Appalachian residents and the agencies that are supposed to be serving those communities, but several additional improvements to the SPR are necessary. The SPR should clarify that coal mining operations must comply with water quality standards and that these standards are directly enforceable under SMCRA. Furthermore, the SPR should clarify that citizens can enforce this requirement. Citizen enforcement of the CWA has been crucial to protecting public water from coal mining pollution in Central Appalachia. That ability should be strengthened.

***
As many local citizens who testified in support of the SPR have said, protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region is an integral part of making a successful economic transition. … Protecting those natural assets begins with reining in (and ideally eliminating altogether) mountaintop removal coal mining, which is associated just as strongly with poor socioeconomic conditions in communities near where mines operate as it is with reduced life expectancy and poor health.

###

Coal, Congress and the art of lying

Monday, January 11th, 2016 - posted by tarence
By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that's finding an audience in Congress.

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a worthless study that’s finding an audience in Congress.

It’s amazing how much work goes into stretching the truth. It’s even more amazing when media outlets and political leaders latch onto that “truth” and peddle it without scrutiny.

A recent and relevant example: an economic impact analysis of the Stream Protection Rule, commissioned by the National Mining Association and written by Ramboll Environ, which is a member of the NMA. In short, the analysis predicts that the Stream Protection Rule will all but deal a lethal blow to the American coal industry. It is 82 pages of the kind of overblown, headline-grabbing hysteria found in modern politics, filled with doomsday scenarios, disingenuous methodologies and misinformation.

Doomsday Scenarios

The proposed Stream Protection Rule is intended to protect American streams from the worst environmental impacts of mountaintop removal. It represents an update on science and policy that the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has not addressed since 1983, the year the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule was added to the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

The NMA’s analysis of the Stream Protection Rule is grim: between 50 and 95 percent of the nation’s current coal workers will lose their jobs as a direct result of the rule. Its predictions for Appalachia are even grimmer: 30,000 to 52,000 workers, or 60 to 105 percent of the current Appalachian coal workforce, will be cut. 105 percent, that’s truly unbelievable.

According to Jonathan Halpern, a former economist at the World Bank Group and a current professor of energy and infrastructure economics at Georgetown University, the NMA’s projections are seriously flawed. Halpern points out that the NMA relied on unrealistically high coal projections for the 2020-2040 forecast period that do not take into account how factors such as natural gas production, coal seam access and availability, and national policies such as the Clean Power Plan will impact production. Additionally, the study factored in loss of access to coal reserves that are not currently controlled by coal or landholding corporations to project future “losses” in production and employment. As Halpern points out, “[This] inclusion … exaggerates the size of the economic resource base and the consequent ‘loss’ which the study posits.”

In other words, the NMA forecasted a falsely optimistic future for coal, then compared that future to a grim post-Stream Protection Rule future, and projected a doomsday scenario. There is a litany of other problems with the analysis:

  • It uses out-of-date information about the overall financial health of the coal industry. The figures used for coal production, new permits and number of employed miners only go through 2013.
  • It expands the definition of a coal worker to include 20,000 workers not currently employed by the coal industry. The study posits that these workers – which include the freight rail workforce, contractors to the mining companies, and service providers – are employed as the coal mining workforce base, against which the NMA applied employment and income loss multipliers to estimate overall job losses over 25 years. As Halpern points out, this inclusion greatly magnifies the resulting estimates of job loss.
  • It assumes an immediate implementation of the Stream Protection Rule. This is simply not the case, as the rule has not been finalized and won’t be implemented for at least another five years.

Disingenuous Methodology

Ramboll Environ, the NMA member commissioned to conduct the analysis, chose a curious methodology for estimating the Stream Protection Rule’s impact on future coal production. They sat down with 18 unnamed mining companies and asked them how they thought the Stream Protection Rule would impact their bottom lines. It probably doesn’t have to be pointed out that there is nothing scientific or objective about this approach.

Another serious shortcoming of the report is that it rejects any cost-benefit framework. In other words, this is simply a cost analysis. According to Halpern, we would likely see billions of dollars in benefits in the form of safety and health improvements for communities as a result of the Stream Protection Rule. A 2011 study estimated that the public health burden coal operations put on Appalachian citizens costs around $75 billion every year.”

But the NMA refused to take into account any benefits that the rule could provide.

“We don’t know what it’s worth exactly in dollars,” Halpern told me. “But we know what it’s worth in human terms. People are just as afraid of getting sick, of their crops and livestock withering, of their fisheries drying up and their surroundings being degraded, as they are of possible loss of coal mining jobs.”

Misinformation

As mentioned above, one of the biggest fallacies in the NMA’s report is its assumption that the Stream Protection Rule will be implemented immediately, rather than gradually. But to add to this, the study — or at least the coal executives who were polled for the study — assumes a 100-foot buffer zone around streams. This absolutely isn’t the case, and it’s the reason so many clean water advocates are disappointed with the draft version of the rule. (Such a policy would have completely prohibited all mining activities within 100 feet of streams.)

Perhaps the biggest — and most perplexing — fabrication in this report is its claim that the Stream Protection Rule will replace the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule. It will not. The Bush-era rule was tossed out by a federal judge in early 2014, so its inclusion casts further doubt on the validity of the report.

What Communities Really Need

By inflating the importance of some aspects of the coal economy, and outright ignoring others, the NMA has produced a study predicated entirely on the fear-inducing prospect of job loss that fails to even consider the potential benefits of environmental protection, of clean water, of lowered risks to health. This fact alone tells us where the NMA’s interests really reside; an organization whose mission is to protect coal mining profits, rather than promote the well-being and empowerment of miners, their families and their communities, can really only claim to be concerned with production loss, rather than job loss. It’s incredible and a little sad that the NMA spent 82 pages trying to convince us that it cares about anything else.

Unfortunately, without a strong policy program to replace lost mining jobs — whether that’s in the form of New Deal-like jobs programs, robust federal funding and grassroots initiatives, or something else entirely — studies like this will continue to impact federal legislation.

For example, this week the House is set to vote on the STREAM Act, which seeks to effectively kill the Stream Protection Rule. Members of Congress who are voting on this piece of legislation will no doubt have seen the headlines, strategically broadcast by the NMA, claiming that the Stream Protection Rule will slash nearly one hundred thousand coal jobs.

Without voices pushing back on this narrative in regional and national media, this disingenuousness has the unfortunate effect of holding back progress for coal miners who may face losing their jobs due to a failing industry, rather than presenting them with tangible solutions.

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Bleak outlook for coal in 2016

Friday, January 8th, 2016 - posted by brian

The new year brings more bad news for a battered industry

It probably comes as no surprise that, after the dismal year coal had in 2015, more hard times for the industry are ahead. Nowhere is the struggle more real than here in Central Appalachia.

The latest look into a window of coal’s burning house comes courtesy of Downstream Strategies. The West Virginia-based environmental consulting firm has been charting Central Appalachian coal’s decline for years and is urging policymakers to plan for a future in which coal is no longer king.

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies "All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?"

Screenshot from Downstream Strategies “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?”

The group’s new white paper, creatively titled “All Of Our Eggs In One Basket?,” tells the story of Appalachian coal over the past few decades in five simple charts like the one above. It also considers how coal’s decline contributes to the budget deficits wracking West Virginia. In summary:

Future demand for Central Appalachian coal will likely continue to decline—primarily due to the increasing cost of mining thinner, harder-to-access coal seams and competition from cheaper natural gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency improvements at homes and businesses. Future environmental regulations on coal mines and power plants, such as the federal Clean Power Plan, may further reduce demand for West Virginia coal.

For data related to regional coal production and projections, Downstream Strategies looked to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Just today, that agency shared its own update on coal prices and production in 2015. While the main lesson from the chart above is probably that it’s best to be skeptical when it comes to EIA projections, the severity of the situation in Appalachia becomes even clearer when the region is viewed relative to other domestic coal reserves.

Screen shot from EIA's Today in Energy "Coal production and prices decline in 2015."

Screen shot from EIA’s Today in Energy “Coal production and prices decline in 2015.”

According to the EIA, the amount of coal produced in the Central Appalachian basin in 2015 was 40 percent below its annual average during the period from 2010 to 2014. Wherever coal is still competitive, less and less of it is coming from Central Appalachia.

Anyway, back to the Downstream Strategies report, which wraps up with yet another firm reminder that coal’s steep decline and its consequences are anything but unexpected. As the authors conclude:

For years, we have known that coal production was likely to drop significantly in southern West Virginia, and that coal production will likely continue to decline in the future. Now that these projections are coming true, the state is grappling with fewer jobs, bankrupt companies, and declining severance tax revenues.

Together, these present unprecedented challenges not just for southern West Virginia counties, but also for the state as a whole.

New approaches are needed.

When it comes to coal, the question for regional policymakers now is not so much how to make it better, but what to do when it gets even worse. If we may suggest a resolution for the new year: Don’t wait any longer. Recognize and respond to the realities of today’s energy market and the economic challenges facing the region.

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Coal’s death knell in Kentucky

Monday, January 4th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Industry’s decline produces a political shakeup in the Bluegrass State

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

With the challenges facing coal in eastern Kentucky, it remains to be seen how the industry will maintain its political power in the state. Photo of Kentucky State Capitol via Wikimedia Commons.

The final months of 2015 may prove to be a historic moment for Kentucky’s politics and the state’s struggling coal industry.

When Governor Matt Bevin took office at the beginning of December after a surprise victory over Democratic challenger Jack Conway, he took a brazen shot at environmentalists by appointing former coal executive Charles Snavely to oversee the state’s environmental protection cabinet. Snavely was an executive with International Coal Group (ICG), a company that Appalachian Voices, along with allied groups, sued for covering up thousands of water pollution violations in the state.

To make matters worse, state Representative Fitz Steele was appointed this week to chair the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee, after Representative Jim Gooch switched to the Republican party earlier in the week. House Speaker Greg Stumbo greeted the move with this statement: “Rep. Steele has built a strong reputation as a defender of sensible environmental laws and is an excellent choice to lead this committee as we ready for the legislative session.”

Stumbo’s statement is perplexing; back in 2012 Fitz boasted that he “can take [a mountain] down and put it back better than what it is.” If that view of mountaintop removal coal mining is what Stumbo thinks is a “sensible environmental law,” then we really are in trouble.

But it’s not as if Steele is all that different from Jim Gooch, the man he is replacing. For example, here’s Gooch’s statement from Monday on why he left the Democratic Party: “Let my departure from the Democrat Party send a message loud and clear. I stand behind the thousands of Kentuckians who have lost their jobs all across the coalfields.” This is coming from a man who blames impoverished eastern Kentuckians for their water problems, rather than mining companies and coal executives like Charles Snavely.

Gooch’s departure — as well as Bevin’s election win — are hardly surprising if we are to look at West Virginia. In that state, large numbers of Democrats have either left the party or have been voted out, due in part to the industry’s “war on coal” campaign. It has become increasingly clear that this campaign was an incredibly cynical crusade to consolidate political power in an uncertain market environment. The political realignment of West Virginia — and now Kentucky — is proof of that.

As the Bevin administration moves into its first year, and as Central Appalachian coal prices continue to fall, it remains to be seen how the coal industry will maintain political power in the state. However, if recent developments serve any indication, we can almost guarantee that elected leaders in Kentucky will continue using “war on coal” rhetoric to exploit the fears of many, while ignoring the very real issues of clean energy, healthcare access, low wages and environmental catastrophe.

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Budget holds promise for Central Appalachia

Friday, December 18th, 2015 - posted by thom
The federal budget is settled. It’s not perfect. But it’s pretty darn good.

In the spending bill, Congress steered clear of the Stream Protection Rule and increased the budgets of agencies focused on economic development in areas including Central Appalachia.

Look for a deeper analysis on the budget deal from us next week.

Today the U.S. Congress passed a spending bill that covers all federal government expenditures and sets the budgets of agencies such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Labor, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The spending bill is a big deal for Appalachian Voices. And honestly, it looks pretty darn good.

Until President Obama signs the bill, which he said he will do, the details aren’t final. But negotiations between the White House and congressional leaders from both parties have been going on for months, including several straight all-nighters this past week. The horse trading has already happened. So while we can’t be certain that everything in the current draft bill will remain, I’d be shocked to see changes.

Spending bills offer a chance to do a lot of good and a lot of bad. Congress can fund projects to improve and diversify the economy of Appalachia (which it did, more on that later), and Congress can prevent federal agencies from completing much-needed environmental rules (which it did NOT(!), more on that now).

Appalachian Voices has been working for years to get a strong Stream Protection Rule. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) released a draft version of the Stream Protection Rule earlier this year, and while it’s in need of improvements, the rule is still expected to improve safeguards for streams near mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia.

Naturally, the coal industry and its backers in Congress have fought against the rule. They argue that protecting our streams from coal’s toxic waste will cost more than 100,000 jobs. While that’s absurd, it is true that forcing mining companies to stop haphazardly dumping all of their junk into streams, and instead coming up with plans to repair damage, will cost them money. So the industry has been begging its congressional advocates to block the rule from being finalized.

But the bill does not include a rider preventing OSMRE from completing the Stream Protection Rule, despite a large group of representatives pushing for one. We are relieved, to say the least.

On the positive side, there are elements of the POWER+ Plan in the budget. The Department of Labor will receive an additional $19 million in 2016 to aid displaced coal mine workers, which is a bigger problem in Central Appalachia than anywhere else. The Appalachian Regional Commission got a huge boost to its budget, from less than $90 million all the way up to $146 million. The agency has recently been concentrating its funding more towards economic development in the coalfield areas of Appalachia. We expect that trend to continue considering its exciting and unexpected 62 percent boost in funds.

Most surprisingly, the bill includes $90 million for abandoned mine cleanup in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The money is designed to be a pilot program that can later be applied to other states, and we can’t wait to see it expand to Virginia and Tennessee. The interesting part about the funding is that it’s not just about patching up abandoned mine sites, but also focuses on our region’s transition away from a coal-based economy. The purpose of the money is to create jobs and support projects that will aid business development in areas hit hardest by coal’s decline. We have been working hard to see these sorts of projects happen, and while this short-term funding is definitely not enough, we’re excited about the new direction.

So the federal budget is settled. The government won’t close down. Our federal agencies can continue their work to protect Appalachia from mining waste. And our region just got tens of millions of dollars tossed its way for economic development.

It’s not perfect. But it’s pretty darn good.

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West Virginia Communities Still at Risk Despite Idled Mines

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 - posted by interns
An aerial drone video from Coal River Mountain Watch shows the Edwight Source Mine and Shumate coal sludge impoundment in fall 2015.

By Tarence Ray

As of the end of November, Alpha Natural Resources will have idled two of its coal mines near the community of Naoma, W.Va, citing “adverse market conditions” as their reason in both instances. In early October, 92 miners received notice of the impending layoffs. The decision follows Alpha’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in August.

One of the mines, the Edwight Source mountaintop removal mine, has affected several nearby communities in addition to Naoma, such as Sundial, Pettry Bottom and Edwight. The 2.8 billion gallon Shumate coal sludge impoundment is located 400 feet above the now­-abandoned Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial.

The Shumate coal sludge pond, which holds roughly twenty times the amount of coal sludge that was released in the fatal Buffalo Creek flood of 1972, is fed by Alpha’s Goals prep plant. It remains to be seen whether Alpha will idle operations at this prep plant.

The impoundment is listed by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection as a Class C dam — the type of dam “located where failure may cause a loss of human life or serious damage to [buildings and roads].” A report by the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation found that if the Shumate impoundment were to fail, it would release a wall of sludge more than 20 feet high. Within five minutes, the sludge would reach the community of Edwight a half-­mile downstream. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials have also cited the dam for safety violations on multiple occasions.

Map layer courtesy West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, design by Haley Rogers

Map layer courtesy West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, design by Haley Rogers

In April of this year, Appalachian Voices published a study of 50 communities in central Appalachia that are similarly “at risk” of the worst impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

These impacts include, but are not limited to, increased blasting, diminished water quality, and negative health, wealth and population trends. Sundial is Number 25 on this list of “Communities at Risk.”

According to Vernon Haltom, executive director of Naoma-­based Coal River Mountain Watch, these risks do not often get reported in local, or even national, media. Haltom references a recent New York Times article that claims “mountaintop removal…has all but ground to a halt.” “I wish somebody would tell Alpha that,” Haltom says. He points out that, although Alpha is idling its Edwight mine and recently filed for bankruptcy, it is still applying for permits in the area, including a new mountaintop removal mine one mile upstream from Sundial.

“Bankruptcy doesn’t mean that you go out of business,” Haltom says. “It means you get some special financial treatment, a loan from Citibank. Yeah you shut down, you lay some people off. But they don’t just immediately shut down and go away.”

According to Haltom, the back and forth between idling mines and re­applying for permits has had depressing effects on local communities like Sundial. “You see For Sale signs on a number of houses,” he says. “There’s houses been for sale for five or six years at least. So there’s nobody rushing in to buy it up. But people shouldn’t have to leave. You shouldn’t have to be a refugee.”

“It’s one thing to go someplace else to find work,” Haltom says. “It’s another thing to leave because you can’t live there because it’s toxic.”

To view maps and information about other communities at risk from the health and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, visit: ilovemountains.org/communities­at­risk