Posts Tagged ‘Selenium’

Clean Water Laws Wrestle With Coal

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 - posted by molly

By Molly Moore

America’s clean water laws have hampered the coal industry to varying degrees for decades, with the strength of various laws often determined by political winds. The effectiveness of the Clean Water Act and other laws often depends on whether the regulations reflect the latest advances in science and technology, and whether state and federal agencies have the will and resources to enforce the rules. That saga continues today.

Acid mine drainage flows from a mountaintop removal coal mine into Looney Creek in Wise County, Va.

Acid mine drainage flows from a mountaintop removal coal mine into Looney Creek in Wise County, Va.

Acid Mine Drainage

What: Mining exposes metal sulfides to air and water, which react to form acidic discharges. Affected water can harm or kill aquatic life and is not safe for recreation or drinking.
Where: Generated by surface and underground coal mines — both active and inactive — as well as hardrock mines.
It’s Still Happening: Acid mine drainage was among the 2015 water-quality violations at the KD #2 mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia.
The Law: The Clean Water Act and Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act require that waterways meet state and federal water quality standards.
The Problem: The Clean Water Act allows mining companies to declare that a natural body of water is not a legally protected waterway but is instead a “waste treatment system,” exempt from the law. In 2002, a change to the Clean Water Act allowed companies to begin using untreated mining waste as construction “fill material.” Also, state enforcement of the federal surface mining law is inconsistent, and acid mine drainage can begin decades after mining ceases, which can leave state governments responsible for cleanup.

Selenium

What: A mineral necessary for life in extremely small amounts, but even low levels of contamination can harm or kill aquatic life.
Where: Affects ground and surface water near coal mines and coal ash ponds.
It’s Still Happening: In a landmark 2012 settlement, Patriot Coal Corp. agreed to phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining in order to resolve $400 million in liability for selenium pollution cleanup in West Virginia.
The Law: The Clean Water Act and Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act require that companies cannot pollute in excess of state and federal water quality standards.
The Problem: In 2013, Kentucky adopted weaker state selenium standards approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Appalachian Voices and partner organizations filed a lawsuit challenging Kentucky’s changes. And in May 2014, the EPA proposed a new federal standard that is less protective of aquatic life than the current standard.

Total Maximum Daily Loads

What: The amount of a pollutant that a waterway can tolerate while meeting water quality standards.
Where: TMDLs can be calculated for any pollutant in any impaired waterway.
It’s Still Happening: Virginia regulators set a TMDL for the South Fork Pound River. Citizens groups, including Appalachian Voices, alleged in a 2014 lawsuit that four mines owned by Red River Coal Company were violating their permits because the company’s discharges exceeded the TMDL for the entire watershed.
The Law: The Clean Water Act requires that states keep a list of impaired waterways and calculate how much of each pollutant each of those water bodies can safely handle.
The Problem: Many states have not completed their TMDL obligations. Kentucky, for example, had only assessed a quarter of state rivers and streams as of 2012. Of those, 67 percent were impaired, but officials set TMDLs for just 11 percent of those streams.

Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices collects a sample from Fields Creek following the 2014 slurry spill. Testing revealed high levels of contaminants including MCHM.

Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices collects a sample from Fields Creek following the 2014 slurry spill. Testing revealed high levels of contaminants including MCHM.

Coal Slurry

What: Sludge leftover from washing coal, this mixture consists of water, coal dust, clay and chemicals, and includes toxic heavy metals.
Where: Stored in massive, often unlined impoundments, and has also been injected into underground mines. Leaches into ground and surface water.
It’s Still Happening: Studies from 2012 show that underground slurry injections contaminated drinking water in Prenter, W.Va. In 2013, the Brushy Fork slurry impoundment was permitted to increase its capacity to 8.5 billion gallons. And in 2014, more than 100,000 gallons of slurry spilled into Fields Creek at a West Virginia coal processing plant.
The Law: The Mining Safety and Health Administration is responsible for the structural safety of a slurry impoundment, and the Clean Water Act requires state and federal enforcement of water quality standards.
The Problem: State and federal enforcement of water pollution standards can be weak and intermittent, and MSHA-inspected impoundments have failed in the past, raising concerns about dam stability.

An unlined coal ash pond at the now-shuttered Riverbend Steam Plant in Mt. Holly, N.C. Toxic seeps from the ash ponds are contaminating nearby groundwater.

An unlined coal ash pond at the now-shuttered Riverbend Steam Plant in Mt. Holly, N.C. Toxic seeps from the ash ponds are contaminating nearby groundwater.

Coal Ash

What: The waste left over from burning coal for electricity, coal ash contains 25 heavy metals and other chemicals.
Where: Often mixed with water and other industrial waste and stored in unlined impoundments near power plants, but can also be kept dry and stored in landfills. Dry ash contributes to air pollution, and liquid storage can infiltrate ground and surface water.
It’s Still Happening: Contamination of groundwater has occurred near all of North Carolina’s coal ash ponds. Between April and mid-July of 2015, the state health department deemed 301 wells near coal ash ponds unfit to drink (see map). Duke Energy denies that the contamination is related to its ash ponds. Read about the experience of one woman living near coal ash.
The Law: The EPA established the first federal regulations for coal ash in 2014. North Carolina passed its own regulations earlier that year following an impoundment failure that dumped 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River.
The Problem: Federal rules do not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. States are not required to adopt the EPA’s new standards, nor are those standards federally enforceable. The federal rule also leaves much of the responsibility for identifying coal ash contamination and seeking legal protection to citizens.

Power Plant Wastewater

What: Wastewater from coal-fired power plants includes heavy metals, carcinogens, neurotoxins and other pollutants.
Where: Rivers, streams, lakes and ponds near coal-fired power plants. Comprises half of all industrial surface water pollution, and contributes to problems such as high mercury and lead levels in fish.
It’s Still Happening: From 2008 to 2011, Eden, N.C., noticed harmful trihalomethanes in city drinking water. Investigation revealed that a nearby coal-fired power plant was releasing bromides into the Dan River, which react with water-treatment chemicals to form trihalomethanes — compounds linked to bladder cancer. In June 2015, Duke Energy settled with Eden and a nearby town.
The Law: Under the Clean Water Act, EPA regulates industrial pollution of surface water, and sets maximum levels for contaminants in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The Problem: The rules governing power plant wastewater were last updated in 1982, and do not regulate heavy metals and a range of other pollutants. In April 2013, the EPA proposed a range of scenarios for updated regulations — two would lead to a 96% reduction in pollution, while others include modest reductions in some pollutants and no reduction in arsenic and lead levels. The agency intends to finalize the rules by Sept. 30, 2015 and is currently accepting public comments. Submit a comment here.

Read about the newly released draft of the Stream Protection Rule here.

Another challenge facing coal: Cleaning up

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015 - posted by brian
As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about post-mine reclamation liabilities to state officials.

As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about companies’ ability to pay for post-mine reclamation.

After bankruptcies, legal fees, fines, plummeting share prices and years without a profit in sight, another aspect of the financial perils U.S. coal companies face is coming into full view.

Recently, regulators worried about the ability of coal companies to pay for post-mine reclamation have begun scrutinizing a practice known as “self-bonding,” which allows a company to insure the cost of restoring the land after mining without putting up collateral, provided it meets certain financial criteria.

Reuters reported last week that Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, is under the microscope and may be violating federal bonding regulations under the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

Peabody, which reported a $787 million loss in 2014, had roughly $1.38 billion in clean-up liabilities insured by self-bonding at the end of March, according to the report. In fact, as its finances deteriorate, analysts say Peabody is warping the language of the law and pointing to the relative strength of its subsidiaries’ balance sheets to continue meeting self-bonding requirements.

Peabody is not alone. Arch Coal, which Reuters found has also failed the financial test to meet self-bonding requirements, is restructuring its multibillion-dollar debt. The company ended 2014 with $418 million in cleanup liabilities and hasn’t turned a profit since 2011.

On May 29, Alpha Natural Resources received word from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that it is no longer eligible to self-bond in the state. The company now has less than 90 days to put up $411 million in anticipated mine cleanup costs. The nation’s second-largest producer by sales, Alpha told investors earlier this year that it had $640.5 million in reclamation liabilities at its mines in Appalachia and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Watching as even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal bonding program are voicing urgent concerns to state officials.

In April, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement sent a letter to West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection urging that the state conduct a fuller analysis of future risks — not just rely on historic data — to calculate reclamation costs.

“Given the precarious financial situation” of companies operating in West Virginia, the letter states, regulators should closely examine the risk of failure for sites with markedly more expensive liabilities such as pollution treatment facilities.

From where we’re standing, it’s tough to see how the situation could improve. Taken together, the country’s four largest coal companies — Peabody, Alpha, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy — have about $2.7 billion in anticipated reclamation costs covered by self bonding. Bloomberg News reported in March that nearly three quarters of Central Appalachian coal is mined at a loss.

As the problem grows, regulators and advocates for reform face their own predicament. Stricter self-bonding standards and enforcement push cash-strapped companies closer to bankruptcy. But inaction could leave taxpayers to pick up the bill if companies with unreclaimed mines eventually crumble.

Learn how mountaintop removal puts Appalachian communities at risk. Read the latest issue of
The Appalachian Voice.

Two wrongs don’t make a right: mountaintop removal and stream protection

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 - posted by Erin

The mining industry likes to claim that mountaintop removal results in minimal impacts to water and that reclamation can often result in new benefits. Unfortunately for the industry, several new studies add to the ever-growing body of work that contradicts these claims. The impacts to communities and ecosystems near mountaintop removal mines far outweigh the benefits of flat land for a new Walmart or prison.

In August, Margaret Palmer and Kelly Hondula published “Restoration As Mitigation: Analysis of Stream Mitigation for Coal Mining Impacts in Southern Appalachia.” The research examines the effectiveness of compensatory mitigation, where coal companies restore previously degraded sections of streams to compensate for other streams buried or damaged during mountaintop removal mining. The study found that mitigation is not meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act, due to factors including the following:

  • miles of stream restored were often less than the miles of stream damaged or lost completely;
  • the ecological functions of the streams restored were often different from those of streams buried;
  • regulatory assessment is often minimal;
  • where assessment is more robust, streams often fail to meet standards;
  • selenium levels toxic to aquatic life were found at a majority of the study sites.

The study found that most mitigation projects examined focused on restoring the physical structure of the stream, but not necessarily the ecological function. Basically, just because it kind of looks like a stream, doesn’t mean it is a functional stream. This research provides support to a fact those who live around mountaintop removal already know: once streams and valleys are destroyed by mining, you can’t get them back.

Photos from monitoring reports showing restoration projects. “Stream D” (top left) a created channel; “Upper Curry Branch” (bottom left); “Coal Hollow” (bottom right) a restored channel next to a highway; “Harpes Creek” (top right) a created channel. Palmer, 2014.

Another recent study by Nathaniel Hitt and David Smith, “Threshold-Dependent Sample Sizes for Selenium Assessment with Stream Fish Tissue,” provides additional cause for concern regarding both the impacts and regulation of selenium. Selenium is a naturally occurring element that often gets released into streams at unnaturally high levels through mountaintop removal mining. It is toxic to aquatic life at very low levels and is both difficult and expensive to treat.

In an effort to ease regulations around selenium, the state of Kentucky recently updated their freshwater selenium standards. The old standard was based on the amount of selenium in water. The new standard proposes to test the selenium level in fish tissues, when the concentration in the water exceeds 5 ug/L. Not only is this new standard less protective of aquatic life than the original, it will also be more difficult to enforce. The new Kentucky General Permit for eastern coal mines, which was issued last September, outlines enforcement of a permit limit of 8.6 mg/kg dry weight in fish tissue, obtained through two composite samples consisting of 2-5 fish.

Not only is there a concern regarding streams where fish may be scarce or absent, but the new research indicates that the number of fish used in a sample likely has significant impacts on the results. The study investigated the effect of the number of fish in a sample on the likelihood of correctly determining the concentration of selenium in the fish tissue. The study examined both the likelihood of finding a false positive and the likelihood of a false negative result – that either the samples indicated selenium was exceeding the management threshold when it actually was not, or that samples indicated selenium was not exceeding the management threshold when in fact it was. From a conservation standpoint, the consequences of a false negative are clearly more worrisome. One way to decrease this risk is to increase the chance of determining selenium is exceeding the threshold when it actually is not (increasing the type I error rate), but I suspect the coal industry would not look favorably upon that option.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution.

The study includes a scenario that closely resembles the requirements of Kentucky’s permit — a sample size of 4 fish and a selenium level of 8.0 mg/kg. In this scenario, a violation would be detected at least 80% of the time only when the true selenium concentration is 9.9 mg/kg to 10.9 mg/kg, depending on the chosen error rate. Selenium would have to be up to 36% higher than the threshold of 8.0 mg/kg in order to know that the threshold has been exceeded.

Basically the study indicates that for small samples sizes and high selenium concentrations, you are very likely to incorrectly conclude that you have not exceeded the selenium limit, when in fact, you have. This is an especially big problem for selenium, as it shifts from harmless to toxic over a narrow range.

In short, these two studies seem to indicate that reconstructed streams are unlikely to adequately support ecological functions, like providing appropriate habitat for aquatic life. Even if the reconstruction does sustain fish populations, it is likely that selenium pollution will still pose an insurmountable, or at least underenforced, problem.

If you find this all a bit disheartening, don’t worry, there is something you can do! Take action to change these issues. Oppose permits that will further degrade streams and release selenium into the watershed, comment on the next draft of the EPA’s selenium standards, and keep an eye out for the new Stream Protection Rule expected from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement next year.

Endangered Species are New Focus in Legal Case against Kentucky’s Water Quality Protections and EPA

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014 - posted by eric

Contact
Appalachian Voices: Eric Chance, 828-262-1500, eric@appvoices.org
Kentuckians For The Commonwealth: Suzanne Tallichet, 606-776-7970, stallichet1156@aol.com
Center for Biological Diversity: Tierra Curry, 971-717-6402, tcurry@biologicaldiversity.org
Sierra Club: Adam Beitman, (202) 675-2385, adam.beitman@gmail.com
Defenders of Wildlife: Melanie Gade, (202) 772-0288, mgade@defenders.org
Kentucky Waterways Alliance: Tim Joice, (502) 589-8008, Tim@kwalliance.org

LOUISVILLE, Ky. –
A coalition of national and Appalachian conservation groups today asked the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky to compel the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect imperiled wildlife in Kentucky. The groups want the EPA to reassess the dangers posed to wildlife by a new set of water quality standards covering Kentucky’s coal mining and agricultural operations.

In November 2013, the EPA approved the weakening of Kentucky’s water quality standards for selenium, a pollutant commonly released by mountaintop removal coal mines. The EPA also approved Kentucky’s weakened standards for nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff, which causes toxic algae blooms in local bodies of water and depletes the oxygen needed to support most aquatic life. A coalition of conservation groups, including Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Waterways Alliance and Sierra Club, immediately filed suit, asserting that the EPA’s new guidelines are insufficient to protect waterways and wildlife under the Clean Water Act.

Today, two national wildlife conservation groups, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity, joined the case. The groups assert that, in addition to violating the Clean Water Act, the EPA’s approval of Kentucky’s weakened water quality standards also violates the Endangered Species Act. Under that law, the EPA is required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assess the impacts of changed standards on federally listed species. The groups allege that the EPA violated the Endangered Species Act by initiating, but failing to complete, that consultation process.

The groups issued the following statements:

Jane Davenport, senior staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife:
“Coal mining has devastating impacts on water-dependent wildlife. The new, weaker water quality standards were originally proposed by the coal mining lobby so it’s unfortunate to see the Environmental Protection Agency essentially rubber stamp them without even checking to see how imperiled wildlife would be affected. Implementation of these new standards needs to be put on hold until the EPA fulfills all of its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.”

Eric Chance, water quality specialist with Appalachian Voices:
“This weakened selenium standard is basically a handout to the coal industry at the expense of the people and streams of Kentucky. The EPA and state are just making it easier for polluters to get away with poisoning streams. This is a misguided rule at odds with well-established science, existing laws and common sense.”

Tierra Curry, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity and a native of Knott County:
“Kentucky is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than nearly any other state. Keeping the water safe for them will also help protect healthy water quality for people.”

Alice Howell of Sierra Club’s Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter:
“Mountaintop removal coal mining threatens our health and our environment, including our most vulnerable species. The EPA has acted irresponsibly by approving Kentucky’s dangerously weak standards. It’s time for the courts to intervene and uphold the strong protections required under the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.”

Suzanne Tallichet, state chair of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth:
“KFTC members are concerned with the health and well-being of all species. We all share the planet, so when one species is being harmed, we are all at risk – including people. Kentucky state officials and the EPA should help us strengthen – rather than diminish – our natural resources. Many Kentuckians are working hard to build a brighter future for coal-impacted communities. But that bright future depends on having healthy streams that are necessary for wildlife, tourism, communities, and businesses to thrive. Appalachia’s bright future can’t be built on polluted waterways that are doing damage to fish and wildlife, not to mention local communities. Kentucky deserves better than these weakened water quality standards.”

Judy Petersen, executive director of Kentucky waterways Alliance:
“The selenium pollution allowed under these new rules could impact birds and other wildlife dependent on the bugs and small fish in our waterways. And we’ve already seen the impacts of too many nutrients in our waters. Taylorsville and Barren River Lakes have levels of harmful algae that put them in the moderate health risk for recreational exposure. People can get sick and even dogs and pets could die after swimming in these lakes. We must do a better job protecting our waterways from pollution, and not look to weaken protections.”

###

Seleni-what?

Monday, August 11th, 2014 - posted by interns

A little-known pollutant has big implications for the health of Appalachian streams

By Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist for Appalachian Voices

Illustration by Jack Rooney

Illustration by Jack Rooney

Most people have probably never heard of selenium, but for coal operators and fish it is a big deal.

The mineral selenium occurs naturally and is necessary for life in extremely small amounts, but it is toxic to aquatic life even at very low levels. Once in the environment, selenium accumulates in birds, fish and other aquatic organisms, building up to toxic levels in their tissues. It is especially harmful to fish, causing reproductive failure, deformities and even death.

In 2012, Patriot Coal Corp. agreed to phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining in order to resolve $400 million in liability for selenium pollution cleanup. Many coal mines and coal ash ponds release selenium, but it is difficult and expensive for companies to remedy the problem because even small amounts can be hazardous.

A brief, high discharge of selenium into a stream might not be that toxic at first. Yet over time selenium deposits in the stream’s soils can be absorbed through an organism’s diet and build up to toxic levels in insects and fish.

Duke Energy’s Dan River coal ash spill this past February is a good example. Although selenium concentrations in water downstream from the spill were relatively low, the selenium in the coal ash that coated the bottom of the river for dozens of miles poses a long-term hazard for fish and other aquatic life.

Selenium is expensive to remove from water, and its effects on the environment are complicated. This makes water quality standards for selenium a prime target for attacks from industries who wish to avoid water treatment costs and regulators who are easily bogged down in complicated science.

There have been quite a few strikes on selenium regulations in recent years, and many of them have focused on changing the basis of water quality standards for the mineral from the amount of selenium in the water to the amount found in fish tissue. Once adopted by individual states, water quality standards are used to determine which streams are impaired and to determine the amount of pollution allowed in permits. Every state with mountaintop removal coal mining has made some attempt to change its selenium standards in recent years, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tried several times to change the national standards.

A fish tissue-based standard seems to make sense from a purely scientific perspective, since selenium accumulates in fish over time. Yet these standards add complexity and costs to already underfunded and overworked environmental agencies. The changes also make it much harder for citizens to enforce these standards under the Clean Water Act because of the increased cost and difficulty of collecting fish for testing.

Collecting fish creates its own set of problems. Extremely polluted streams might not have any fish at all, or the only fish surviving might be less-sensitive species that accumulate selenium levels in their bodies at a slower rate. Repeatedly gathering fish from streams with selenium problems could also further stress those fish populations. Collecting fish for scientific purposes requires special equipment such as an electro-shocker and special permits that may not always be available. The process is also more time-consuming than collecting water samples. And even when specimens are collected, it is impossible to know how long a certain fish has been near a particular pollution discharge point.

Late in 2013, Kentucky proposed, and EPA approved, weaker state selenium standards that rely on fish-tissue testing. Appalachian Voices, along with a number of partner organizations including the Sierra Club, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity — represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates — has filed a lawsuit challenging these changes.

The groups argue that the new standards are too weak to serve their intended purpose, and that the rules violate the Endangered Species Act because the EPA failed to consult the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as required by law. Fish and Wildlife has serious concerns about the new rule and stated in a letter to the EPA that the Kentucky standards “may result in negative impacts to federally listed species.”

In May, the EPA released a draft of a new national water quality standard for selenium. The agency has proposed to replace the single standard for long term toxicity of five parts per billion in water with a complex set of five different numbers and one formula.

EPA’s newly proposed standard is actually slightly weaker than the version the agency proposed back in 2002. The new draft standard includes an 8.1 parts per million criteria for whole fish, compared to the slightly stronger 2002 proposed standard of 7.9 parts per million. Among the many scientists and agencies that criticized the 2002 proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service told the EPA that “Based on a large body of scientific evidence, the service believes these criterion values will not protect federally listed fish and wildlife species. Furthermore, the service believes these values are not even sufficient to protect the aquatic life for which the criteria were developed.”

In 2009, Tennessee legislators tried and failed to weaken that state’s selenium standards to those that the EPA previously abandoned in 2002. As a leading expert on selenium, Wake Forest University associate professor and U.S. Forest Service biologist Dr. Dennis Lemly told Tennessee lawmakers, “Based on the work I’ve done, 7.9 would kill a lot of fish.”

The federal environmental agency’s newly proposed selenium standards still face a peer review process and public comment period before they can be finalized.

Study Shows Steep Decline in Fish Populations Near Mountaintop Removal

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by interns

By Matt Wasson, Ph.D., Director of Programs for Appalachian Voices

A study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey published in July provides strong new evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is devastating downstream fish populations.

The new findings echo previous science demonstrating the negative environmental effects of mountaintop removal, a coal mining practice that uses explosives to blast away the tops of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dump the waste into valleys below. In 2010, a group of 13 prestigious biologists published a paper in the scientific journal Science that analyzed peer-reviewed studies and West Virginia water quality data. According to the paper, the group found “serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address.”

Selenium has caused grotesque deformities from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads. These fish (above) were caught at Belews Lake, N.C., which is adjacent to a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant. Photo  by Dr. Dennis Lemly

Selenium has caused grotesque deformities from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads. These fish (above) were caught at Belews Lake, N.C., which is adjacent to a Duke Energy coal-fired power plant. Photo by Dr. Dennis Lemly

The authors of the recent study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Freshwater Science, found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage.

“Our results indicate that headwater mining may be limiting fish communities by restricting the prey base available for fish,” Nathaniel Hitt, a USGS research fish biologist and lead author of the study, said in a press statement. “For instance, fish species with specialized diets of stream insects were more likely to be lost from the streams over time than fish species with more diverse diets.”

The study also indicated that water quality played a more significant role than habitat in influencing fish population health. Previous research has focused on how water quality deterioration from mountaintop removal mining has impacted aquatic insects, but the July study is the first USGS paper to examine the issue from the perspective of fish.

Declines in populations of both fish and aquatic insects indicate the declining health of an ecosystem on which all organisms depend, including people. The “ecological indicator” theory is consistent with the dozens of scientific studies published in the last few years that show communities near mountaintop removal mines suffer an array of poor health outcomes ranging from high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects to low life expectancies that are comparable to those in developing nations like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Stream decline also has a significant impact on the economy. In Appalachia, sportfishing is a multi-billion dollar industry, creating more jobs than surface mining in each of the states where mountaintop removal mining occurs. Unlike coal, it is also a growing industry: the number of jobs it created in West Virginia more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.

The USGS study comes as the EPA and other federal agencies grapple with rules intended to protect streams from the types of pollution cited by the study’s authors.

Science vs. Mining

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 - posted by eric

Fish deformed by selenium pollution

It’s no surprise to folks in coal-impacted communities that surface mining is bad for water quality. Orange streams, devoid of life, litter the landscape. But it would seem to most that this is contrary to many environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Unfortunately these laws are filled with loopholes, and the agencies tasked with enforcing them are usually underfunded and understaffed.

There have been numerous studies over the years showing surface mining’s detrimental effects on the health of nearby people and streams. There are two recent notable studies from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) alone. The first was aimed at linking air pollution from mountaintop removal mines to the health problems of nearby residents. Unfortunately, this study will not be completed because its funding has been cut. Earlier this month USGS was able to complete and publish a report that showed streams below mountaintop removal mines have two-thirds fewer fish than those in unpolluted streams. The study also found that selenium pollution is linked to declines in fish populations.

Appalachian Voices has been working to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and industry from opening new loopholes in our environmental laws that would make it easier to poison streams. Along with a number of our supporters and partner organizations, we recently submitted comments to the EPA on their newly proposed standards for selenium.

Selenium is a mineral commonly discharged from coal mines that is extremely toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. It is also very expensive to remove from water so there have been a number of efforts by the coal industry to get agencies to make the standards more lax. This newly proposed EPA standard will make citizen enforcement harder, and will make it easier for companies to get away with discharging toxic levels of selenium.

The new standards are slightly weaker than the selenium standards EPA tried, but failed, to adopt in 2004. A large number of scientists and even other federal agencies came out in opposition to those standards because they were too weak. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, told the EPA that “Based on a large body of scientific evidence, the Service believes these criterion values will not protect federally listed fish and wildlife species. Furthermore, the service believes these values are not even sufficient to protect the aquatic life for which the criteria were developed.”

>> See our comments here and here
>> Look through all the comments here

Take Action: Protect Appalachian Streams from Toxic Selenium

Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 - posted by eric

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new national recommended water quality criteria for selenium. Because these new standards are weaker and more complex than the current standards, they pose a major threat to the health of streams in coal-impacted communities.

Selenium is a pollutant released from many mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia that is extremely toxic to fish at very low levels. Over time, it builds up in fish and other aquatic organisms leading to reproductive failure, deformities and death.

The EPA’s proposed standards are too weak to be protective of aquatic life. Studies have shown negative effects of selenium at levels half as high as the fish tissue standards proposed by the agency. These standards are even weaker than those proposed by the EPA in 2004, which were withdrawn after public comments from agencies and scientists demonstrated that they would not protect aquatic life.

A table of current and proposed EPA selenium standards. Click to enlarge.

By partially basing the standards on fish tissue sampling, the EPA has created a significant burden for citizens and agencies trying to enforce the limits on selenium pollution. Fish tissue sampling will be more expensive and time consuming, and it will require special permits for collecting fish. This is especially problematic in Appalachia, where selenium standards have primarily been enforced through citizen actions. These standards will be more difficult to enforce, and will just lead to more streams being degraded.

Tell the EPA not to weaken Selenium Standards

Please take a few minutes to email ow-docket@epa.gov with the subject line “Attention Docket No. EPA-HQ-OW-2004-0019”, and let them know that we need strong water based standards for selenium, that will protect all aquatic life. The comment period has been extended through July 28, 2014.

EPA Proposal for Toxic Coal Pollutant Won’t Protect Clean Water

Thursday, May 15th, 2014 - posted by eric

Contact:
Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist, 828-262-1500, eric@appvoices.org
Erin Savage, Water Quality Specialist, 828-262-1500, erin@appvoices.org
Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft of new national water quality standards for selenium, a toxic pollutant discharged from many mountaintop removal coal mines and coal ash ponds. Even at very low concentrations, selenium is extremely toxic to fish, causing physical deformities and reproductive failure.

EPA is proposing a more complicated system for measuring selenium. Currently, the recommended standard for selenium consists of a four-day average concentration in water of 5 parts per billion (ppb). As proposed, the new rule will primarily rely on testing for the pollutant in fish tissue, a more complex method of monitoring than stream water testing. The complexity of this new standard will make it more difficult and expensive to implement for state agencies, industries, and concerned citizens.

The new standard does include water-based testing, but increases the recommended testing period from four days to 30 days. The new standard can be adjusted for fewer days of testing, if necessary. Under that provision, the new allowable selenium concentration for a four-day time period would be seven times higher than the current standard.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Water Quality Specialist Eric Chance:

“This new selenium standard is a step backwards. The scientific community has been fairly clear for some time that the current standards were too weak, but this newly proposed standard will actually allow more selenium pollution, not less. Headwater streams below mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia, and the people who depend on that water, are going to suffer from this decision.”

“This new rule would make it almost impossible for citizens to exercise their rights under the Clean Water Act to protect waters they care about. Citizens would be required to collect seven times as many water samples as they do now, or they’d have to collect fish to analyze which generally requires a special permit.”

“Fish tissue standards are good for measuring the effects of selenium on fish but they don’t take into account effects on other species like birds, and they are nearly impossible to translate into limits on a Clean Water Act permit for a coal mine that discharges selenium. For these reasons, we are glad to see that EPA has included water-based standards as well, but they aren’t strong enough.”

EPA is collecting public comments on this proposed rule until June 13, 2014. Those wishing to submit comments can email ow-docket@epa.gov with the subject heading: “Attention Docket No. EPA–HQ–OW–2004–0019.”

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Appalachian Voices is an award-winning, environmental non-profit committed to protecting the natural resources of central and southern Appalachia, focusing on reducing coal’s impact on the region and advancing our vision for a cleaner energy future. Founded in 1997, we are headquartered in Boone, N.C. with offices in Charlottesville, Va.; Knoxville, Tn. and Washington, D.C

Patriot Coal CEO: Ending Mountaintop Removal Mining a “Win-Win”

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by meredith

After emerging from bankruptcy, Patriot Coal CEO Bennett Hatfield said in an interview with SNL Energy that the 2012 settlement over selenium pollution that forced the company to begin phasing out mountaintop removal proved to be a “win-win.” Even before the settlement, Hatfield said, Patriot was finding it “increasingly undesirable to deploy mountaintop removal operations anyway” because of regulatory resistance and the likelihood that new permits would be met with litigation from environmental groups.

Solar Power Can Strengthen Economies, Researchers Say

A new report says that while the solar industries in neighboring states have generated thousands of jobs, West Virginia’s policies are holding the state back. Released by the West Virginia-based Downstream Strategies and The Mountain Institute’s Appalachia program, the report found that in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland there are approximately 9,000 jobs associated with solar. West Virginia, however, ranks 51st in solar jobs per capita, at just under 100 jobs. The report focuses on five specific recommendations — including third-party financing, tax credits and other incentives for residential and commercial solar power — to address barriers preventing West Virginia from establishing an economically viable solar industry.

Absentee Corporations Still WV’s Largest Landowners

Land ownership patterns in West Virginia, a state with a reputation for being influenced by large absentee corporations, have remained largely unchanged for the past century, according to a report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the American Friends Service Committee.

The report, titled “Who Owns West Virginia?” finds that not one of the state’s 10 largest private landowners is headquartered in West Virginia, and that large energy and land-holding corporations continue to control much of the resource-rich acres in the state. In five counties in the state’s southern coalfields – Wyoming, McDowell, Logan, Mingo and Boone – the top 10 landowners own at least 50 percent of private land. Researchers noted that during the last few decades, the number of major timber management operations on the list of the largest landowners has increased.

Hoping to raise awareness of the role that absentee and local land ownership has played in West Virginia’s economic development over time, researchers recommend policymakers devote resources to counties with the highest concentrations of land ownership and ensure that large landowners are adequately taxed.

To help accomplish this, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy has led a movement to establish the “Future Fund,” a permanent mineral trust fund to help asset-poor communities grow using revenue from coal and natural gas severance taxes.