Posts Tagged ‘Mountaintop Removal’

Appalachian Voices testifies before Senate panel on coal-mining rule

Tuesday, February 2nd, 2016 - posted by cat

Matt Wasson, Program Director, 828-773-0799,
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

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.”


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:­at­risk

An end to Frasure Creek’s water violations in Kentucky — finally

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 - posted by Erin

The Settlement

Late Monday evening, Appalachian Voices finalized a historic settlement in a case against Frasure Creek Mining. The settlement follows a five-year-long legal battle to protect eastern Kentucky’s waterways and bring a coal company notorious for violating environmental laws to justice.

The agreement is notable not only for the large penalty imposed, but also because it effectively bars Frasure Creek from further mining in Kentucky. It also marks a welcome, if uncommon, collaboration between clean water advocates and state regulators. The settlement was crafted through cooperation between the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet, citizens groups — including Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance — and Frasure Creek.
The settlement includes a total potential penalty of $6 million – the highest environmental fine ever levied against a coal company by the Kentucky cabinet. Frasure Creek will not have to pay the fine, however, as long as it does not mine in the state. Regardless of whether the company hopes to ever mine coal in Kentucky again, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to admit to its violations and immediately pay $500,000. If Frasure Creek fails to pay the $500,000, it will be liable for the full $6 million fine.

During the course of settlement negotiations, Frasure Creek transferred its remaining Kentucky mining permits to Liberty Management. The mines were no longer producing coal, but were in the process of reclamation and still had active Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and Clean Water Act permits.

If at some later point Frasure Creek or its owners wish to apply for new permits, they must first pay $2.75 million before their mining application will be processed by the state. Essentially, the settlement requires Frasure Creek to either leave the state of Kentucky for good or pay a fine sufficient enough to deter it from returning to its illegal practices.

The Cases

Though this settlement arose out of a notice of intent to sue sent in 2014, the story begins a half-decade earlier.

In 2010, Appalachian Voices began an investigation into the two largest surface mining coal companies in Kentucky. After reviewing discharge monitoring reports (DMRs) – Clean Water Act compliance reports submitted by coal companies to state agencies – Appalachian Voices determined that Frasure Creek Mining and another company, International Coal Group (ICG), were duplicating reports. We later discovered that the third largest coal company in Kentucky at the time, Nally & Hamilton, was also falsifying data in its DMRs.

This pattern made it clear that ignoring regulations is common in the coal industry. In another case of falsified water pollution reporting, a lab employee of Appalachian Labs in West Virginia pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the Clean Water Act. The lab conducted sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia. At least four different water-testing labs were involved in the duplicate data cases in Kentucky.

When we first discovered the duplicate reports at ICG and Frasure Creek, we took steps to file a citizens’ lawsuit against the companies under the Clean Water Act. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed its own case against the companies in state court, effectively preempting our case. We intervened in the state’s case to ensure diligent enforcement by the state — a right of citizens that was ultimately upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

In 2011, we filed an additional suit against the companies for permit limit violations that arose when both companies began reporting more accurate data. State officials once again preempted our case, but this time the cabinet filed its case in the Kentucky Office of Administrative Hearings. The cabinet and Frasure Creek then entered a slap-on-the-wrist settlement, over our objections and despite our right to intervene in the case. That settlement was thrown out last year on the grounds that it violated our due process rights. The cabinet has appealed that decision.

In 2014, Appalachian Voices again discovered that Frasure Creek was duplicating DMRs, this time with a different water testing laboratory. Once again, the cabinet failed to identify the problem until we filed a notice of intent to sue over the violations. This time, when the cabinet filed a case in its administrative court, we were granted intervention and allowed much more input in the settlement. The result is the historic settlement filed earlier this week.
Finally, not only did the cabinet allow meaningful citizen input, it pursued an enforcement action that may actually be strong enough to prevent this problem from happening again, at least with Frasure Creek. Unfortunately, the settlement was entered on the last day of Governor Steve Beshear’s term and the progress we made with the Beshear administration is not guaranteed to continue during Governor Matt Bevin’s time in office.

The Agency

It is too early to determine how friendly the new Bevin administration will be toward coal companies that flout regulations, but there is already reason to be concerned. Former Gov. Beshear appointed Len Peters as Secretary of the Energy and Environment Cabinet. On paper, Peters had many of the right credentials for the position — he is a scientist and an academic with broad experience working for universities, nonprofits and the federal government. Despite these qualifications, under his leadership, the cabinet still routinely allowed coal companies and other industries to violate environmental regulations with minimal consequences.

In contrast, Bevin’s appointment for cabinet secretary, Charles Snavely, spent the past three decades climbing the corporate ladders at several major Central Appalachian coal companies. Last I checked, the Energy and Environment Cabinet includes not just the division of mine permits, but also the divisions of water, air quality, and renewable energy, among others. Apparently running a company in one of the dirtiest industries in the county now qualifies you to protect communities and ecosystems from that industry, in Kentucky at least.

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin's appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin’s appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

It gets worse. Not all coal companies are equal. While I would argue that no surface mining coal company in Kentucky is particularly good for Kentucky, some are worse than others. Snavely has worked for both Massey Energy and Arch Coal. In September 2010, he was named the executive vice president of mining operations at ICG.

That’s right — when Appalachian Voices and our partners sued ICG for falsifying DMRs, Snavely was a member of the company’s senior management.

According to news reports, at the time, he was responsible for “all ICG mining operations and corporate oversight of safety and compliance performance.” Before this, when Snavely was just a run-of-the-mill vice president at ICG, 12 miners were killed in an explosion at ICG’s Sago Mine in West Virginia. Family members of the victims claimed the mine had violated safety regulations. In 2011, ICG settled a wrongful death suit.

Despite the current decline in the coal market in Central Appalachia, Governor Bevin seems just as beholden to the industry as many politicians who have preceded him. But appointing an industry insider to regulate the industry will not be enough to save it.

The Future

This settlement, and the commitment of groups like Appalachian Voices and our partners to bring polluters to justice, demonstrate to the new administration that citizens will hold the state accountable. But it’s not clear that Governor Bevin is getting the message. During his campaign, Bevin courted the coal industry and criticized the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In October, at the height of the campaign, Bevin even chastised his opponent for saying coal can be done “cleaner.” If he had any downtime on his inauguration day, we hope Bevin read the news.

Coal is rapidly declining in Central Appalachia. But that does not mean the industry, or its influence, will disappear anytime soon or that enforcement of environmental regulations around mining will become any less important. If anything, the thin economic margins of coal companies operating in Central Appalachia today provide an incentive to break rules intended to prevent negative impacts on water, land and communities. As the region envisions a new economy that is not dominated by coal, oversight of mining’s impact on the region is as important as ever.

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Land through the Lens

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

Photographs of Appalachia’s wild wonders have shaped our relationship with the mountains since the early 20th century, and witnessing the destruction of the region’s land and waters has long stirred residents to defend our natural heritage. - Compiled by Molly Moore

Image of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, left, presumed to be by George Masa, and postcard of Mt. Mitchell, above, made from George Masa photograph. Photos courtesy North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, N.C.

A postcard of Mt. Mitchell, made from George Masa photograph. Photos courtesy North Carolina Collection, Pack Memorial Public Library, Asheville, N.C.

Image of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, left, presumed to be by George Masa.

Image of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, left, presumed to be by George Masa.

George Masa’s stunning landscape images from the 1920s and ‘30s are credited with raising awareness of the natural beauty of the area that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. His black and white pictures were often hand-colored to create postcards promoting the area. A Japanese immigrant, Masa arrived in the United States in the early 1900s and moved to Asheville in 1915. He was close friends with naturalist Horace Kephart, another prominent advocate for the creation of the Smoky Mountains park, and the two explored and documented the natural features of the region in great detail. Masa also charted the path of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina.

Photos of mountaintop removal coal mining by Carl Galie

Photos of mountaintop removal coal mining by Carl Galie

The New River by Carl Galie

The New River by Carl Galie

Lost on the Road to Oblivion, The Vanishing Beauty of Coal Country” is a photography project by Carl Galie, a West Virginia native and current North Carolinian. Galie’s artist statement describes the images as both “an attempt to expose the devastating mining practice of mountaintop removal that has only one purpose, maximizing profits” and “to focus on the beauty of coal country rather than just devastation.”

The aerial image above was captured during a flight with Southwings, a nonprofit aviation organization that provides flights to decision-makers and members of the media to help illustrate the impact of environmental issues ranging from coal ash contamination to coastal erosion. The organization’s flights also assist scientists with remote monitoring efforts.

The exhibit is accompanied by poems from North Carolina poet laureate Joseph Bathanti, and will be on display at the Portsmouth Art & Cultural Center in Portsmouth, Va., in spring 2016. Visit

Photo by E.S. Shipp, courtesy U.S. Forest Service and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

Photo by E.S. Shipp, courtesy U.S. Forest Service and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

A note archived with this 1923 image of Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina states, “Here fire swept through repeatedly after destructive logging with the result that today … this peak is a distressing sight.” Images of logging in the southern Appalachians helped spur the movement to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Blue Ridge Country Magazine, WV Living Magazine, WNC Magazine

Photographs of Appalachia’s natural beauty still beckon visitors to the area, and invite locals to explore and relish their surroundings.

Blue Ridge Country Magazine’s September/October 2015 cover featured a fall image by Michele Sons, and WV Living Magazine selected a frosty image of Paw Paw Creek by graphic designer Carla Witt Ford for their Winter 2014 issue. WNC Magazine chose a photograph of sunrise on Roan Bald in the Roan Highlands, by Kevin Adams, to grace the cover of their May/June 2014 special Travel & Outdoors Issue.

Two New Children’s Books Share Tales of the Outdoors and Activism

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015 - posted by interns

Fostering Stewardship Through Stories


“Saving Annie’s Mountain” is a new children’s book that follows four school children to a mountaintop removal coal mining protest at Blair Mountain, W.Va., where they meet an elderly woman named Annie who tells them about her childhood experiences in the area and its history. She recalls her memories about the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor dispute in American history, when over 10,000 miners banded together in an attempt to unionize. Along the way, the children learn about the harm that mountaintop removal coal mining brings to the area and the positive impact that speaking up about an issue can have.

A group of four homeschooled children, Lillie Gill-Newton (age 9), Maryam Keeley (age 11), Samantha Stewart (age 11) and Nicholas Mokhiber (age 13) wrote the book with the guidance of Leslie Milbourne, an educator at Wind Dance Farm and Earth Education Center in Morgan County, W.Va. The children were taking supplementary courses in history, writing and science at Wind Dance Farm when they wrote the book.

“The book really stems from the dearth of information on the issue of mountaintop coal removal aimed at young students,” says publisher Gary Stewart. “So, mainly out of frustration, Leslie and four of the kids at Wind Dance Farm decided to create their own take on the subject, hoping that it would be of help to others in the same predicament.”

The book is beautifully illustrated by O’Ryan, a local illustrator and activist, with images of scenic landscapes starkly contrasted with the ugly images of coal mining.

“I think everyone knows, at some level at least, that the environment influences the physical characteristics of species, and that all species have a niche,” says Leslie Milbourne. “I think it’s crucial that kids learn about the complex interactions and interrelationships between living and nonliving components of our Earth so they can be better stewards than we were.”

Saving Annie’s Mountain is published by Cold Run Books, Hard cover, $18.99,

— Review by W. Spencer King

A Tale of Trails and Time


In “The Adventures of Bubba Jones: Time Traveling Through the Great Smoky Mountains,” readers follow young Bubba Jones, his sister Hug-a-Bug and their grandfather Papa Lewis on an adventure through trails and time.

“The Appalachians have something that feels old,” says author Jeff Alt. “I’ve hiked out West and various other places around the world, and my heart still brings me back to the Appalachians.”

Alt set the first book in the Bubba Jones adventure series in the Smoky Mountains because of their status as the most visited park in the country.
Alt’s own experiences with through-hiking the Appalachian Trail and overall interest in the outdoors inspired him to write children’s books. “I learned about eight weeks into my AT adventure, after my schedule of domestic society [had] left my mind, that [the woods are] the most awesome thinking room on Earth,” he says.

Alt’s exciting, inquisitive and engaging writing style reflects his sense of adventure.

“Nature is so profound, so simple to access, but more complicated than any computer that we could ever design,” he says. “It’s mentally and physically healing to walk in the woods. It gives your mind time to just decompress.”
The book emphasizes the importance of experiential learning, as Bubba Jones learns many things simply by going out into nature. By getting kids excited about the outdoors, Alt hopes to change attitudes about what it means to be outside. “The whole premise is they’re not [just] hiking, they’re exploring,” he says. “It’s an adventure.”

Alt also aims to highlight how each individual’s actions have an influence on the planet. “We’re realizing now that we’re in the day and age of climate change, and it’s becoming a national security threat,” he says. “Each and every one of us, by preserving your local park or monitoring a fragile species, you are [playing] a role in not only preserving your park, but you’re serving your country.”

“The Adventures of Bubba Jones” is published by Beaufort Books. Ages 8-14. Paperback, $9.99. Official website:

— Review by W. Spencer King

Citizens groups, Kentucky reach historic settlement with coal company over water pollution

Tuesday, December 8th, 2015 - posted by brian

Deal sends strong signal to incoming Bevin administration

Erin Savage, Appalachian Voices, 206-769-8286,
Ted Withrow, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, 606-784-6885,
Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper, 859-200-7442,
Peter Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance, 828-582-0422,
Alice Howell, Sierra Club, 859-420-8092,

Frankfort, KY – A coalition of citizens groups entered a settlement late last night with Frasure Creek Mining and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet that resolves years of Clean Water Act violations numbering in the thousands at the company’s surface coal mines in eastern Kentucky. The violations include duplicated water pollution monitoring reports, failure to report pollution, and exceedences of pollution permit limits.

The settlement comes as the newly elected Bevin administration is taking office, setting a critical benchmark for the new Secretary of Energy and Environment.

The settlement includes a $6 million fine – the highest ever entered by Kentucky against a coal company for environmental violations. In the settlement, Frasure Creek admits to the violations and agrees to immediately pay $500,000. If the company defaults on payment, it will be liable for the full $6 million fine. In addition, if Frasure Creek, which is currently not mining in the state, or its owners want to resume mining, they must pay $2.75 million before a permit application will be processed.

“This settlement should send a strong signal to the new administration that citizens can and will hold the state accountable for vigorously enforcing laws against polluters to ensure the health of our waters and communities,” said Erin Savage, Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices.

“This settlement comes after a half decade of effort and a precedent-setting decision from the Kentucky Supreme Court affirming the importance of citizen intervention. It’s the product of the Energy and Environment Cabinet working with citizens to bring this outlaw company into compliance. We the citizens will remain vigilant to ensure that the laws are enforced and the people of the Commonwealth are protected,” said Ted Withrow with Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

“Frasure Creek’s history of egregious violations spans nearly a decade now,” said Pete Harrison, an attorney for Waterkeeper Alliance. “Kentucky shouldn’t tolerate chronic lawbreakers like this, and under our settlement, Frasure Creek must stay out of the coal business in Kentucky. Unless the company’s owners prove they’re willing to take responsibility for the damage they’ve done by paying millions of dollars in additional fines, they won’t be allowed to come back,” Harrison added.

“As the coal industry declines in eastern Kentucky, it’s extremely important that the pollution problems caused by irresponsible companies are addressed before those companies leave and saddle the state and Kentucky citizens with the burden of cleaning up their mess”, said Alice Howell, Cumberland Chapter Sierra Club Mining Committee Co-chair.

The violations occurred at Frasure Creek mountaintop removal mines in Floyd, Magoffin, Perry, and Pike counties in Eastern Kentucky. Frasure Creek is owned by Essar Group, a multinational corporation based in India.

Appalachian Voices first discovered that Frasure Creek was duplicating water pollution reports in 2010. In response to the citizens groups’ subsequent notice of intent to sue, the cabinet proceeded with enforcement action. The groups, believing the state’s enforcement was too lenient, sought to intervene. Ultimately, the state Supreme Court affirmed for the first time ever the importance of citizen intervention in Clean Water Act cases in Kentucky.

In 2014, the groups discovered that, once again, Frasure Creek was duplicating or otherwise falsifying water pollution reports. Almost half of the company’s data submitted for the first quarter of 2014 was copied from previous reports. In November 2014, the groups filed a notice of intent to sue over the new violations. The cabinet then filed an enforcement action against Frasure Creek, which the citizens groups joined.

“It takes all of us as citizens to protect our water and air for our children’s children from the abuse and robbery of polluters. That is what this is all about, that is why this is so important,” said Pat Banks, Kentucky Riverkeeper.

The administrative order filed yesterday resolves the cabinet’s case against the mining company. The citizens groups had also sued Frasure Creek in federal court over the same violations, and will soon file a consent judgment with the court that incorporates the terms of the order.

The citizens groups – Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Sierra Club, and Waterkeeper Alliance – are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, Lauren Waterworth of Waterworth Law Office, PLLC, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.