Posts Tagged ‘Mountaintop Removal’

Southwest Virginians speak out against Doe Branch Mine

Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 - posted by willie
A map of the Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River. At a recent hearings Southwest Virginians shared their concerns about Doe Branch with state regulators.

A map of the Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River. At a recent hearings Southwest Virginians shared their concerns about Doe Branch with state regulators.

“God gave us the water so we can stay clean, and so we can drink it. I don’t want poison in the water.”

Those are the words of 6-year-old Levi Marney, spoken on the evening of Nov. 7, to representatives of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) at a public meeting about the proposed Doe Branch mountaintop removal mine in Haysi. The mine, proposed by Contura Energy, would raze over 1,100 acres near young Levi’s home and discharge sediment and other mining-related pollutants into the Russell Prater Creek where children like Levi and his siblings play during the warm months.

Levi was the first of 10 individuals to speak that night. As he sat down, his grandmother Gail stood up, and with a hand on Levi’s shoulder said, “I’m here to speak against this mine for five reasons and this is one of them. He is one of my five grandchildren. He’s the seventh generation of our family on our property in Dickenson County. Many members of our family are in coal mining, but we know the future of Dickenson County is in tourism, and it’s in taking care of our environment better than we have in the past.”

The particular matter under question at this public meeting — called an “informal conference” by the state — was a renewal of the operation’s National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. The NPDES permitting process is the method by which point sources of pollution are monitored and legally allowed to release various pollutants into public waterways like the Russell Prater Creek and the Russell Fork River. The DMME approved the initial NPDES permit for the Doe Branch mine back in 2012. But, as several individuals who spoke out at the informal conference pointed out, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has maintained an objection to the project from its outset, citing the likelihood that the mine would cause further harm to the Russell Prater Creek, which is already listed by the state of Virginia as being impaired by mining-related pollution.

In addition to concerns over water quality, many individuals spoke to the urgent need to develop new economic opportunities that utilize exactly the natural assets that large-scale surface mining destroys. Underscoring her opposition to the Doe Branch project, Sister Jackie Hanrahan, a nun representing the Appalachian Faith and Ecology Center in neighboring Wise County said, “A healthy economy can only happen when we have a healthy ecosystem. We’ve focused on only extractive industries for so long, but now we’re finally at a point where we have people working together over different philosophies to build a healthy economy.”

“I can show exactly what mining has done to this area,” said Tammy Owens, an organic farmer with nearly 30 acres of reclaimed strip mine on her farm. “This is my top soil,” Owens said dropping a plastic bag of what appeared to be little more than sand and rock on the table in front of the DMME representatives. “There is no topsoil. Nothing grows on the mined areas of my farm. Here in our area is where ginseng grows the best. It’s where bloodroot, and yellow root grow best. These are highly valuable medicinal herbs. What we can get for an acre of ginseng is astronomical compared to what other row crop farmers would get but can we grow those medicinal herbs any more on our farm land?”

The Doe Branch mine has already received the other permits it needs to move forward. The EPA objection is one of the only things currently preventing the mine from moving forward. Cooperation between state and federal agencies in making permitting decisions is an intentional system that creates checks and balances in weighing factors that impact industries, communities and the environment. That’s exactly what is happening with the Doe Branch permit. But it could change quickly under a Trump presidency.

While many personnel will remain at the EPA, changes in high-level staff, budget, or regulations could alter how the agency handles permitting decisions for mountaintop removal coal mining. Market forces are another largely independent factor. There is no magic wand that can suddenly put more coal in the ground, or make the coal that remains more economically feasible to mine and burn in the face of stiff market competition from natural gas and increasingly competitive renewable energy sources. In light of this reality, it is difficult to gauge how eager Contura Energy is to begin work on an operation of this size.

A growing mine is a growing problem for the Russell Fork River

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 - posted by Erin

Editor’s Note: This post, by Appalachian Voices’ Erin Savage, originally appeared on American Rivers’ blog. Earlier this year, the nonprofit named Central Appalachia’s Russell Fork among America’s Most Endangered Rivers due the threats posed by mountaintop removal coal mining to water quality and surrounding communities.

The Russell Fork snakes through Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentuky border.

The Russell Fork snakes through Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentuky border.

The Russell Fork River is threatened by a new coal mine. A bankruptcy saga with the mine’s owner had stalled development in the past year, but things appear to be getting back on track.

The history of the Doe Branch Mine in Southwest Virginia is long and complicated, and its future remains unclear.

The mine is owned by Paramont Coal Company, once a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. Until recently, Alpha was one of the largest mining companies in the country, but is now emerging from bankruptcy. The Doe Branch Mine started with plans for a 245-acre surface coal mine in 2005, but it now has the potential to grow to 1,100 acres. If the current plan moves forward, the mine would include five valley fills and 14 wastewater discharges that would drain into tributaries of the Russell Fork River — a renowned resource in the region for river recreation and the star attraction of the Breaks Interstate Park.

While there is a long history of coal mining in the Russell Fork watershed, water quality in the river has improved over the last several decades due to better regulations and the watchful eye of local residents. At a time when coal mining is declining in Appalachia, the Doe Branch mine is among the largest mines still being pursued in Southwest Virginia, and it would undoubtedly lead to significant water quality impacts.

The Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River.

The Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork.

The mine is also part of a large, controversial highway construction project known as the Coalfields Expressway. Some believe the Expressway will bring much needed economic development opportunities to the region, but others believe it unnecessarily enables additional surface mining and does not adequately consider what is best for nearby communities. Though a portion of the Doe Branch Mine has been approved by state and federal agencies, the expansion does not have final approval. Little work has been started on any portion of the mine over the last decade, beyond some tree clearing.

In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an objection to the company’s application to increase the size of the mine. Specifically, the EPA objected to the application for additional wastewater permits under the Clean Water Act. The wastewater would be discharged into several tributaries of the Russell Fork that are already impaired by mining-related pollutants, according to Virginia’s list of impaired waterways. In order to secure discharge permits, the company must show that it will not increase the overall impairment of the watershed.

Trends for coal production in Central Appalachia. The decline has continued into 2015 and 2016.

Trends for coal production in Central Appalachia. The decline has continued into 2015 and 2016.

Since hitting its peak in 2008, coal production in Central Appalachia has declined precipitously. Alpha’s dominance in the Central Appalachian coal market has not shielded it from the economic downturn. The company declared bankruptcy in August 2015, creating a lull in the Doe Branch permit application process.

On July 26, 2016, Alpha announced its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The plan to emerge from bankruptcy involves the formation of two new companies. One is a privately held, smaller Alpha, which will retain most of the Central Appalachian mines. The other is Contura Energy, formed by Alpha’s senior lenders, which purchased Alpha’s Wyoming, Pennsylvania and better-performing Central Appalachian mines. Doe Branch is included in the short list of Central Appalachian mines that Contura will own.

Before emerging from bankruptcy, Alpha stated that the Doe Branch Mine is not part of its 10 year plan. Now that Contura owns Doe Branch, the mine may be more likely to move forward. Just last month, a new Clean Water Act permit draft was issued by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. This new draft may be an attempt to address the objections raised by the EPA. Given the importance of the Russell Fork, the damage already done to its tributaries by mining, and the need for a serious economic shift in the region, the EPA should uphold its objection to this mine. Urge them to do so now.

Join Appalachian Voices and American Rivers in asking the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to deny Contura’s permit request for the Doe Branch Mine.

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining in West Virginia

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016 - posted by interns

Two mines proposed, one denied, another faces pollution lawsuit

By Eliza Laubach and Willie Dodson

Alpha Natural Resources, a coal company in the process of emerging from bankruptcy, has applied for two new mountaintop removal mine permits on Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. If permitted, the two mines would destroy 1,589 acres above the Rock Creek and Arnett communities.

Coal River Mountain Watch, a local advocacy organization, is petitioning the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to deny one of the permits due to the community’s concerns about pollution and the effect on the local economy, roads and ecology. The other permit is not yet advertised for comment, according to the group’s website.

In the two years since the WVDEP approved a mountaintop removal permit for Keystone Industries’ KD No. 2 surface mine, the agency has issued 40 enforcement actions on the mine. In March, the agency brought a lawsuit against the Florida-based company over a series of Clean Water Act violations at the controversial mine. The 413-acre mountaintop removal mine in southern Kanawha County, W.Va., was met with opposition by local residents and others concerned about the project’s impacts on nearby communities and on Kanawha State Forest, which borders the mine.

These actions were prompted by citizen oversight led by the Kanawha Forest Coalition, a grassroots watchdog group, which has conducted water monitoring at the site since shortly after the mine began operating. The company’s quarterly pollution reports support the claim that mine runoff violated the permit granted to Keystone Industries under the Clean Water Act.

A 15-year long permit battle over the Spruce No. 1 mine, a proposed 2,000-acre mountaintop removal site in Logan County, W.Va, saw decisive action in July. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 decision to block the mine’s permit due to the “unacceptable adverse effect” it would have on the environment.

OSMRE announces review of mountaintop removal health research

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016 - posted by brian
A 2012 Appalachian Voices' report mapped the findings of peer-reviewed health studies and data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, United Health Foundation and the Gallup-Healthways Well-being index.

A 2012 Appalachian Voices’ report mapped the findings of peer-reviewed health studies and data from the U.S. Center for Disease Control, United Health Foundation and the Gallup-Healthways Well-being index.

Contact:
Erin Savage, Central Appalachia Campaign Coordinator, 206-769-8286

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) announced today that it will fund a $1 million review by the National Academy of Sciences of current research on the links between surface coal mining and human health risks.

It comes more than a year after the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection formally requested such a review, and nearly a decade after the publication of the first in a series of two dozen peer-reviewed studies that have found correlations between mountaintop removal coal mining and increased rates of cancer, heart and respiratory diseases, and other negative health outcomes.

In recent years, multiple studies have established more direct, causal links between mountaintop removal and negative health impacts. Studies led by researchers at West Virginia University have concluded that exposure to mountaintop mining dust promotes tumor growth in human lung cells and decreases cardiac functioning in lab animals.

Research from outside the region show cause for concern regarding common mining pollutants such as manganese. Several studies1 over two decades have demonstrated a link between nervous system damage in children and manganese exposure through well water.

OSMRE will share additional information as it becomes available, including the dates of four public meetings to be held by the National Academy of Sciences.

A statement from Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator Erin Savage:

“We’re pleased that OSMRE has listened to the concerns coal-impacted residents have been voicing for years. And, while we always welcome additional research into the toll mountaintop removal takes on human health and the environment, action must be taken on the preponderance of existing evidence showing the known impacts of surface mining. If we value the lives of Central Appalachian citizens over coal profits, mine permitting would be halted until it could be proven safe for nearby residents.

“We are still awaiting a long-overdue Stream Protection Rule and are hopeful that a strong rule will be issued soon by the Obama administration. There is more than enough scientific research documenting the impacts of mountaintop removal on Central Appalachia’s streams and rivers to justify a moratorium on mining through streams, which irreparably harms aquatic ecosystems and likely contributes to a range of human health issues.

“It is unfortunate that OSMRE did not undertake this review sooner so the findings could help to inform the Stream Protection Rule. But despite the coal industry’s decline, mining in Central Appalachia will continue into the near future. This review could be the push the next administration needs to finally make this destructive practice illegal.”

1 – Bouchard, M.F., Sauve, S., Barbeau, B., Legrand, M., Brodeur, M.E., Bouffard, T., Limoges, E. Bellinger, D.C., Margler, D. 2011. Intellectual Impairment in School-Age Children Exposed to Manganese from Drinking Water. Environmental Health Perspectives Jan;119(1):138-43.

Hafeman, D., Factor-Litvak, P., Cheng, Z., van Geen, A., Ahsan, H. 2007. Association Between Manganese Exposure Through Drinking Water and Infant Mortality in Bangladesh. Hafeman, D. et al. Environmental Health Perspectives Jul;115(7):1107-12.

Woolf, A., Wright, R., Amarasiriwardena, C., Bellinger, D. 2002. Child with Chronic Manganese Exposure from Drinking Water. 2002. Woolf, A. et al. Environmental Health Perspectives Jun;110(6):613-6.

Wasserman, G.A., Liu, X., Parvez, F. Ahsan, H., Levy, D., Factor-Litvak, P., Kline, J., van Geen, A., Slavkovich, V., Lolacono, N.J., Cheng, Z., Zheng, Y. Graziano, J.H. 2006. Water Manganese Exposure and Children’s Intellectual Function in Arailhazar, Bangladesh. Environmental Health Perspectives Jan;114(1):124-9.

Daile Boulis: One coalfield resident’s journey to action

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } The following is an abridged transcript of a testimonial given by Daile Boulis of Kanawha County, W.Va., about how she became involved in the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining. This speech was delivered at a grassroots policy training held by The Alliance for Appalachia at the Highlander Center on April 9, 2016. It was transcribed by Forrest Gray Yerman.

Daile Boulis

Daile Boulis

I moved to West Virginia about three years ago to help take care of my father-in-law. He has a home he’s lived in since 1963 in a hollow about 10 miles west of Charleston. When I looked on Google Maps to show my friends in Ohio where I live I saw lots of big scraped areas. I went next door to my neighbor and asked, “what is this?”

She said, “oh, that’s Rush Creek Mine, don’t worry about. It’s three miles away.”

But as Rush Creek Mine was working this way, we started hearing more and more booms, and occasionally the houses would shake.

Someone came in and did a pre-blast survey and they didn’t talk to us. We thought, okay, we complained about hearing these booms from this mine getting closer. So they must be doing this to cover their butts, in case we make a claim. What we didn’t know is they had filed for a permit for an extension to this mine.

One day in May I was on Facebook, and I saw that the Charleston Gazette had posted a map of this permit that had just been approved. I’m looking at this map going, “I think that’s my house.” This mine was 2,000 feet from my house and our house is the monitoring well. I’m learning all kinds of stuff here, and I was shocked!

There was an organization posting on Facebook about this article saying, “You need to come help us fight this mine.”

I immediately texted someone from the organization and asked, “where do I have to be and what do I have to do?” And that started my journey. That was the Kanawha Forest Coalition.

This mine, I mean, it’s like they slid it under. And none of us knew anything about it. I don’t check classifieds. Do you? I had no idea that’s the only place they announce them. When they did the public comment period, they did it in a community 30 miles away from us. So we weren’t involved at all. We were told that our property value dropped 50 percent the day the permit was signed.

I’m a social media girl, so I’m out there going, “This isn’t right. How can they do this?” And I’m getting hate mail back saying, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

No I can’t, because I can’t sell my house now for anything near enough to move somewhere else. And my father-in-law has been here since 1963. Should he have to move too?

I started going to the Kanawha Forest Coalition meetings and I was mad. I couldn’t understand why my neighbors weren’t mad. My neighbors were kind of mad, but they figured I’m so naive and you can’t fight coal.

The state Department of Environmental Protection office is in Kanawha City. Well I can get to Kanawha City. So my wife and I went down to the DEP office thinking that they were going to stand with us. That that’s what they’re for.

So I walked in and said that I wanted to talk to somebody about this. But they told me, “well that’s not how it’s done.” Then I said that I would not leave until somebody talked to me. So we sat down and waited for somebody to come talk to us.

Eventually, a woman came down and gave us all these forms that we could take home and fill out saying we were against this mine. I said, “This is ridiculous, who can I talk to?” Someone else came out and said, “We’re going to set you up with a meeting. You’re neighbors can come in. We’ll set you up with an informational meeting.”

I can only get two of my neighbors to go to the meeting with me. So it’s my wife and me, and two of our neighbors. And there were twenty-four DEP people. At least half of them have this I’m-supposed-to-be-home-now look on their faces.

We said to them, “Look, this mine is right next door — literally. The only thing that separates it from us is a little road to Kanawha State Forest. There are trailheads that come down from there, and they’re going to be in the radius of fly rock.”

Well, I was told fly rock doesn’t exist, that absolutely nothing is allowed to leave the permit boundary.

I said, “Everyone’s told us we’re going to lose our wells.”

They said, “well, this is an awesome opportunity to get on city water,” at our expense, of course.

I looked at the guy — and mind you this is in May 2014, the water crisis happened in January of the same year — and I asked, “have you forgotten January that fast? Where do you think people went to get water and to take showers and to maybe wash a load of clothes? They came to my house, and the other houses in the holler.” I told them that we already have good water. Why is it okay, why is it just understood that I’m going to lose my water?

But I started this journey, and I saw people at Kanawha Forest Coalition meetings that showed me they were going to do something, that we could fight this. Everybody knows someone who works in the coal industry. I respect that. I understand that. But policies that say that our lives are the cost of doing business, that we’re an acceptable loss, are not OK. What does it take to get you fired up? I get it. You’re downtrodden. You’re tired and exhausted. But somebody has to scream, and stomp their feet, and go do whatever it takes to get their attention.

And this group in particular, the Alliance for Appalachia, has become family for me, and this family, I could contact any one of them and say, “Help me get mad!” Because mad is better than sad, and I’ll leave you with that.

West Virginia files Clean Water Act suit against Kanawha County mine

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016 - posted by willie
Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has brought a lawsuit against Florida-based Keystone Industries over a series of Clean Water Act violations at the controversial KD #2 surface mine.

The 413-acre mountaintop removal mine in southern Kanawha County, W.Va., has been met with much opposition by local residents and others concerned about the mine’s impacts on nearby communities and on Kanawha State Forest, which borders the mine.

The suit, filed on March 9 in the Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleges that runoff from the KD #2 mine contains measurements of aluminum, iron, manganese, selenium, total suspended solids and pH that are in violation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit granted to Keystone Industries under the Clean Water Act. The primary evidence supporting this claim is the company’s own quarterly discharge monitoring reports submitted to the DEP.

The Kanawha Forest Coalition, a grassroots environmental watchdog group comprised of local community members, has conducted water monitoring at the site since shortly after the mine began operating in 2014. Through these efforts, the coalition has identified numerous and persistent regulatory violations, prompting the DEP to issue 40 enforcement actions against the KD #2 mine to date.

“It was shocking to realize that it was through citizen complaints, and not DEP monitoring, that our land was being protected,” said Becky Park, a Kanawha Forest Coalition member from Charleston. “What it boils down to is we are the government. We can’t assume that DEP employees are monitoring permitted mining operations. We have to read the permits, understand the agreements made with mining companies, be willing to use the systems in place to submit complaints, and go to court when the systems fail to stop violators.”

Daile Boulis, who lives in the community of Loudendale immediately adjacent to the KD #2 mine feels similarly.

“From what I understand, this is one of best written permits in the state, and still, there are forty violations in two years? Imagine what the company would be getting away with, without the citizen enforcement and public media exposure? The same thing goes for the DEP,” said Boulis. “The only reason 75-80% of the violations have been enforced and fined is due to pressure from the Kanawha Forest Coalition. When you consider all of the other mines in West Virginia that don’t have a group like Kanawha Forest Coalition working on behalf of the impacted citizens, that’s terrifying! Our lives should not be the cost of doing business in West Virginia.”

By initiating its own suit against Keystone Industries, the DEP has prevented the Kanawha Forest Coalition or other grassroots organizations from filing suit on similar grounds. However, the organization may choose to file as an intervenor in the case, a move that would earn them a seat at the table — but not veto power — in potential future settlement negotiations with Keystone.

Doug Wood, a retired DEP official with 33 years of experience in water resources, is skeptical of his former agency’s motives in bringing this case against Keystone.

“This lawsuit seems to be an attempt to stop advocates from filing their own suits, and an attempt to get a little money to start water pollution treatment when Keystone says, ‘keep the bond, we’re outta here,’” said Wood. “… The DEP seems to be most interested in getting a court settlement so they can say, ‘we solved that problem’ even though the systemic problems that led to this disaster remain unsolved.”

The DEP’s suit against Keystone is expected to go to trial in spring 2017. Meanwhile, the Kanawha Forest Coalition continues to monitor conditions at the mine, regularly testing impacted streams and alerting the DEP of persistent problems.

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.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

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.