Posts Tagged ‘Water’

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 Services (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 it’s 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 up 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.

Science-backed lawsuits protect clean water in Central Appalachia

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Caldwell

A citizen’s photo of sediment from George’s Fork entering the South Fork Pound River

On Thursday, June 5, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia ruled that high levels of conductivity in water discharged from mountaintop removal mines are harmful to West Virginia streams.

The Sierra Club issued a press release that calls the ruling a “landmark decision” and quotes the district court’s decision that, “Losing diversity in aquatic life, as sensitive species are extirpated and only pollution-tolerant species survive, is akin to the canary in a coal mine. These West Virginia streams … were once thriving aquatic ecosystems.”

The ruling comes at a pivotal time for citizen action groups engaging in litigation under the Clean Water Act. The same day of the court’s ruling on conductivity, citizen groups including Appalachian Voices filed a suit in Virginia arguing that four mines owned by Red River Coal Company had failed to comply with a state-imposed Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plan for the South Fork Pound River.

The South Fork Pound TMDL stipulates the level of total dissolved solids (TDS) and total suspended solids (TSS) the river can tolerate, while still protecting aquatic life. Mines that discharge into the South Fork Pound watershed are given waste load allocations (WLAs) for their contribution of TDS and TSS. Our case against Red River Coal argues that data from company water monitoring indicates that they have exceeded WLAs for the South Fork Pound River.

At a first glance, these two cases seem to be only distantly related, but with a closer look and some basic science, it becomes clear that they are actually incredibly similar.

Conductivity is the measurement of the ability of a material to conduct electricity. In the case of water, the more positive and negative ions in the water, the more conductive it becomes. TDS measures the concentrations of dissolved ions in the water, so the higher the TDS, the higher the water’s electrical conductivity.

When water has been discharged from a surface mine, it often runs through valley fills and other areas where heavy metals have been disturbed. Dr. Anthony Timpano of the Virginia Water Research Center authored a paper that explores the effects of high levels of TDS on aquatic life. Timpano states that streams impacted by coal pollution can often have a TDS greater than 2000 mg/L. A normal stream should have a TDS of less than 200 mg/L. Ions that typically contribute to high TDS levels include calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, chloride, bicarbonate and sulfate. Sulfate has been shown to have deadly effects on aquatic life.

Another theme present in both of these cases is the lack of state oversight and enforcement for water pollution violations in coal-impacted communities. These lawsuits were filed by citizen groups that advocate for clean water in areas where industry is often favored over local communities. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and Virginia’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy failed to hold Alex Energy, Elk Run Coal Company, and Red River Coal Company accountable. Instead, citizens have stepped up to the job.

Appalachian Voices’ Water Quality Specialist Eric Chance hits the nail on the head, saying, “Unfortunately, it takes lawsuits like this one to get the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to do its job and enforce existing laws that were created to protect the health of people and streams.”

Another coal-related chemical spill in Central Appalachia

Monday, June 9th, 2014 - posted by Erin

Hundreds of fish were killed by a chemical released into Kentucky’s Clover Fork River by Cumberland Coal Company. Photos by Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

On Friday, May 30, another coal-related chemical spill polluted a public waterway in Central Appalachia, killing hundreds of fish and alarming local residents.

The chemical spill happened at a Cumberland Coal Company prep plant in Harlan County, Ky. This time, the spill was not of coal slurry or a coal-washing chemical, but of a flocculant — a type of compound usually used to control other substances in sediment ponds or clean up spilled material in creeks.

Reminiscent of the slurry spill from the Patriot prep plant in February, this spill began when a pipe carrying slurry between the prep plant and an impoundment failed. This time, however, the slurry was contained by the facility’s sediment ponds. Due to concerns about the slurry entering the river, a flocculent called Praestol A6291 was used to help settle the spilled material and prevent it from leaving the pond.

Unfortunately, too much of the chemical was used, causing it to spill into Kelly’s Branch, a tributary of the Clover Fork River. This particular flocculant is toxic to aquatic life and it killed hundreds of fish and other wildlife in the Clover Fork in the days following the spill.

Dead fish in the Clover Fork River. Photo: Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

The Harlan County Emergency Management was notified first, but the state Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement was not notified until the next day. When DMRE arrived, there was no evidence that any coal slurry spilled into the creek and water samples taken at that time complied with applicable mining laws. Unfortunately, it does not seem that water samples were taken on the day the spill occurred.

Dead fish in the Clover Fork River. Photo: Alex DeSha, Sierra Club

A Kentucky Fish and Wildlife employee told a local reporter that the chemical spilled was not harmful to humans. However, the material data safety sheet lists two components of this particular Praestol that are known carcinogens in laboratory animals: diethanolamine and coco diethanolamide. Thankfully, this spill was not near a drinking water intake. Still, local residents expressed a great level of concern about both their own safety and the loss of local wildlife.

Cumberland Coal Company has already been cited for a violation of general hydrologic compliance. Although fines cannot erase the damage done to a community and an ecosystem, hopefully further investigation will result in sufficient fines to compel Cumberland and other companies to prevent future spills. They have been, and remain, far too commonplace.

Groups Seek Protection of Virginia Waterways from Mining Pollution

Thursday, June 5th, 2014 - posted by eric


Red River Coal Co. Violating “Last Line of Defense” Clean Water Act Protections

Contact:
Eric Chance, Appalachian Voices, 828-262-1500 eric@appvoices.org
Sean Sarah, Sierra Club, 202-548-4589 sean.sarah@sierraclub.org
Matt Hepler, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, 540-871-1564 mhepler24@gmail.com

Big Stone Gap, VA –Citizen and environmental groups today filed suit in federal court over illegal water pollution from four mines in Southwest Virginia owned by the Red River Coal Company. Virginia regulators previously determined that the South Fork Pound River, which receives the pollution from the mines, does not adequately support aquatic life. To protect the streams, Virginia imposed a “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL) for mining pollutants that harm aquatic life, including total dissolved solids and total suspended solids.

Appalachian Voices, Sierra Club and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. The groups found that Red River is violating its permit conditions that require compliance with the state TMDL.

“These mountain streams in southwest Virginia were once known for their purity and served as a habitat for diverse species of aquatic life, but mining pollution’s changed that,” said Jane Branham of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “It is shameful that citizens must take action to address this issue, but with the failure of the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to oversee and enforce laws that protect our waterways, we are left with no other choice.”

“Every coal mine in Virginia has to get a permit that limits the amount of pollution it can release, but still many streams below these mines are unsafe to fish and swim in,” said Eric Chance, water quality specialist for Appalachian Voices. “Sometimes it takes lawsuits like this one to get the state Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy to do its job and enforce existing laws that were created to protect the health of people and streams.”

“This case highlights the failure of state regulators to stop the damaging pollution from mountaintop removal mines in our state, even after they’ve recognized the harm that pollution is causing,” said Glen Besa, Virginia Director of the Sierra Club. “Coal companies cannot police themselves and the Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy is no help, so we feel compelled to take action in order to protect our precious streams and rivers from mining pollution.”

TMDLs are essentially the last line of defense against mountaintop removal mining pollution. Mountaintop removal mines generate high levels of total dissolved solids, which is often measured as conductivity. The Environmental Protection Agency has conducted scientific studies that found high levels of conductivity, dissolved solids, and sulfates are a primary cause of water quality impairments” downstream from valley fills and other mining operations.

The three groups filing today’s suit are represented by Isak Howell, Joe Lovett and Ben Luckett of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

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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

Coal-related Spills Connect Us All

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 - posted by tom
We all have rivers we love, such as the Moormans in Virginia, my favorite place for a swim. Unfortunately, many of these places are under threat of pollution, including Fields Creek, the Kanawha River and Dan River, the three waterways polluted by the past month's coal-related spills.

We all have rivers we love, such as the Moormans in Virginia, my favorite place for a swim. Unfortunately, many of these places are under threat of pollution, including Fields Creek, the Kanawha River and Dan River, the three waterways polluted by the past month’s coal-related spills.

You probably have a favorite waterway near your home where you like to cast a fishing line, paddle with friends, or swim with your children. For me, it’s the North Fork of the Moormans River, a lively mountain creek running off the Blue Ridge.

Over the last several weeks, with each report from our staff on the coal-related water crises in West Virginia and North Carolina, I couldn’t help but imagine the Moormans being poisoned by a mysterious chemical called MCHM, choked by toxic coal ash, or fouled by coal slurry.

In fact, it is my river that is threatened. And your river, too. We are all potential casualties of the kind of regulatory failures, political cronyism, and corporate avarice at the root of the three major water pollution crises that have occurred in our region in just the last six weeks.

By the same token, it’s our shared connection to the creeks and rivers running through our lives that unites us in the fight to protect our waters, and that’s what gives me hope.

First, the Freedom Industries chemical spill last month near Charleston, W.Va., left 300,000 people without safe tap water. Then one of Duke Energy’s coal ash dumps in North Carolina spilled into the Dan River, the third largest coal-ash spill in the U.S. Just a week later, a pipe at a Patriot Coal facility in West Virginia broke, oozing toxic coal slurry into a tributary of the Kanawha River.

Any one of these events would have served as a wake-up call about the vulnerability of our waters. Combined, they have touched off a national conversation about the widespread and deep cracks in the system that led to the disasters.

Appalachian Voices is a prominent voice in that conversation. Our team of water quality specialists responded to each crisis, taking water samples, documenting the incident, speaking with local residents, and providing the press with information and perspective that counters the “everything’s fine” mantra from the corporate and government flaks.

Our aim is to ensure that these spills are not allowed to pass into the nation’s distant memory without impelling real change in how our precious water resources are protected.

For our waters,
Tom

>> Visit AppalachianWaterWatch.org for data on the spills
>> Visit AV in the News for highlights of press coverage

Another Coal-related Spill Reported in West Virginia

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014 - posted by Jamie Goodman

Field Update from Erin, 10 a.m., February 12, 2014
We tested Fields Creek where the slurry spill entered the creek and upstream for electrical conductivity, which indicates the level of charged particles like salts, heavy metals and other pollutants associated with coal. The conductivity upstream was 391 μS/cm (microsiemens per centimeter) while the value below the spill was 1016 μS/cm. For reference, Central Appalachian streams should measure roughly between 300 and 500 μS/cm.

There is clearly a high level of pollutants from the spill in the immediate vicinity of the spill. Test results here.

So how are West Virginia officials responding to the spill? Check out this video that my colleague Matt Wasson put together:

Field Update from Erin, 11 p.m., February 11, 2014
Several staff responded to the spill this afternoon to collect samples and documentation. We were able to collect samples at the entrance of the coal prep plant, which is 1/4 to 3/4 of a mile downstream of the broken pipe causing the spill. We also collected samples at the end of the Fields Creek, just before it reaches the Kanawha River. We plan to analyze samples for heavy metals, total suspended solids, and organic compounds and will make those results available as soon as possible.

The water in the creek was extremely turbid and was a dark grey, almost black color. Significant sediment had already built up on the banks. We also noticed the same sweet smell we encountered during the crude MCHM spill. There have been several different reports regarding what coal processing chemicals might be in the slurry. Secretary Randy Huffman of the state Department of Environmental Protection said that the plant had used MCHM in the past, but had switched to polyethylene glycol or polypropylene glycol. We hope that as this situation continues to develop, accurate facts are released more quickly than in the recent crude MCHM/PHP spill.

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Update 7:03 p.m., February 11, 2014
Current reports put the spill at 108,000 gallons of slurry, affecting 6 miles of Fields Creek and, despite plant workers’ efforts to stem the spill, discharging some slurry into the Kanawha River. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has acknowledged the gravity of the incident, with acting director of the Division of Mining and Reclamation, Harold Ward, stating in Ken Ward’s latest update, “There has been a significant environmental impact.”

A previous incident apparently occurred at the same plant in November 2013, with the plant “discharging black water into south hollow stream and leading to a discoloration of Field’s creek.”

Our folks on the scene worked until nearly dark to gather samples and document the incident; more info to come as news filters in.

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According to several news reports, a coal slurry spill of “significant” size has taken place in Kanawha County, W.Va. As reported by Ken Ward, Jr., in The Charleston Gazette, the spill of slurry — a toxic byproduct of washing toxins off of coal after mining — happened between midnight and 5:30 a.m. this morning when a pipe ruptured between a processing plant on Fields Creek and an impoundment where the slurry is stored. According to a spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, there are no drinking water intakes “in the immediate vicinity of the spill.”

Members of the Appalachian Voices Water Watch team are in West Virginia and heading to the scene nowstay tuned for updates and an on-site report as we learn more about this developing story.

First photos from a slurry spill in Kanawha County, W.Va.

First photos from a slurry spill in Kanawha County, W.Va. — visit Flickr for more images and high-resolution versions

The handling of slurry in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia has a long and contentious history that was revealed to the world by the Buffalo Creek disaster in 1972 that killed 125 West Virginians and left more than 4,000 homeless. Beyond the threat of massive surface impoundment failures, slurry injected in abandoned underground mines has permanently poisoned the wells of thousands in Appalachia. Check out our story in the August/September 2012 issue of The Appalachian Voice, “Buried Blackwater: Revealing Coal’s Dirty Secret” to learn more.

MORE INFO

Wary and Waiting

Monday, February 10th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Karen Smith Zornes

I didn’t have a problem with the spill at first; I thought, “Accidents happen.” But when it came time for us to flush, I had an asthma attack from the smell. I went outside for fresh air and tried to flush again later — and had another asthma attack. After our flush, our water still looked blue and still had the smell. So I waited for three days after the flush to shower, and got a skin rash from the water.

After that I called the water company. The man at West Virginia American Water told me the strong smell meant the water was safe to use. I told him about my blisters, and he said it was probably my shampoo, though I’ve used the same shampoo for years. I asked him about the water discoloration, and he said I must have spilled something in it. He made me feel like an idiot. He told me to keep flushing my lines and that someone would be out to test my water. Four days have passed, and we haven’t heard anything.

We’ve spent hundreds of dollars on new filters for the fridge and the home, bottled water, and gas to drive to get water and supplies. We’re spending money we don’t have. The money we’ve spent on water was supposed to pay my electric bill.

Being a three-time cancer survivor makes me wary about the long-term effects of this. I don’t think the customers should be the ones to pick up the bill for this disaster.

Karen Smith Zornes is a concerned citizen living in Boone County, W.Va.

Forty Minutes from Fresh Water

Monday, February 10th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By S. Rhodes

My community is partially in Putnam and partially in Cabell County. I have many elderly neighbors, and yes, there are also children and handicapped individuals that need access to clean water. Water distribution in this area was cut off on Jan. 18.

I own a small business that I run out of my home and have been unemployed during this water crisis. Needless to say, driving an hour each day to Charleston for water is causing financial hardship, and is just not feasible for myself and many others here. The closest bottled water distribution available is in Nitro, W.Va., 40 minutes away, and it ends soon.

We are really just getting the chemical heavy in our tap. The smell alone, with no physical contact, is burning our eyes, nose and mouth, and it’s causing headaches and even chest pains in myself, my husband and many of our neighbors. Our main water lines have not been flushed, so the multiple times that we have flushed our house is just pulling more chemical into our lines and tanks, filling our homes with that noxious smell.

S. Rhodes is an artist in Putnam County, W.Va.