Posts Tagged ‘Water’

Citizen stories counter coal industry deception

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 - posted by willie
Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va.

Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va., where clean water advocates argued for stronger protections and coal industry representatives relied on deception to rally against the rule.

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a draft of its Stream Protection Rule, a long-awaited regulation aimed at reducing the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Along with coalfield community members and allied organizations, Appalachian Voices is asking the agency to close loopholes in the rule that state agencies might exploit, allowing coal companies to continue polluting our streams. We are also pushing for clear language in the final rule that states citizens may enforce water quality standards under the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the Office of Surface Mining to strengthen the draft Stream Protection Rule.

As part of its rule-making process, OSM held six public hearings across the nation in order to gather comments from stakeholders and impacted residents. Only two hearings were held in the central Appalachian coalfields; one in Big Stone Gap, Va., and another in Charleston, W.Va.

The hearing in Big Stone Gap provides a glimpse into how the whole series of hearings played out. About 250 people were present at the hearing, which took place on the evening of Sept. 15. At 6 p.m., U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s 9th district, the first speaker of the evening, approached the podium. Griffith did not address any details of the Stream Protection Rule in his comments, and he provided no tangible evidence of whether or not it would achieve its intended effect. Instead, Griffith seized the opportunity to spout “war on coal” rhetoric and to accuse the rule’s supporters of caring more about mayflies than human beings.

Concluding his comments after five minutes, Rep. Griffith was on his way out of the building when Wise County resident Jane Branham confronted him and asked him to stay and listen to what his constituents had to say. Griffith declined this invitation and left promptly at 6:11 p.m.

Had Rep. Griffith stayed, he would have heard Mary Darcy from Wise who said:

Despite rules and laws, tons of waste are dumped into these waterways regularly. How does this happen? Do the states not enforce clean water regulations? Do our elected representatives turn their backs on the needs of the people with something as critical as water?

Darcy was not the only speaker to call out state agencies for repeatedly failing to enforce regulations. Diana Withen, a local high school biology teacher, implored the OSM to include clear language allowing for citizen monitoring and enforcement, stating, “We know that government budgets are tight and that regulatory agencies are going to continue to face budget cuts in the future. So allowing concerned citizens to help monitor the water quality in our streams makes sense.”

A reconstructed "stream" below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

A reconstructed “stream” below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

Countering the many citizens who spoke up for clean water were the numerous coal industry representatives that railed against the rule. But instead of addressing the rule’s content, they expended a great deal of time and energy accusing the Office of Surface Mining and President Obama of deliberately attacking coal mining for political gain.

Scott Barton, a mine superintendent at Murray Energy’s Harrison County Mine in northern West Virginia, argued that the Obama administration “hides behind the myth of global warming to justify it’s job destroying agenda. Everyone in the coal industry knows this is a lie.”

Other pro-industry, anti-regulatory speakers described the rule as a “weapon of mass destruction,” the “nuclear option” and “the last nail in the crucifixion of the coal industry.” Sadly, preference on the part of the industry and politicians for rhetoric over substance was not unique to the Big Stone Gap hearing. Much more of the same could be heard at each of the five other hearings in Charleston, Denver, Lexington Ky., Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule has been extended in response to industry requests and will now remain open until Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

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Formidable Costs

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

Coal Company Conducts Business as Usual Near Kanawha State Forest

By Tarence Ray

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. A recent inspection recorded pH values between 3 and 4, which is 100 to 1,000 times more acidic than allowed by law. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. A recent inspection recorded pH values between 3 and 4, which is 100 to 1,000 times more acidic than allowed by law. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Seven miles south of Charleston, W.Va., sits a 9,300-acre expanse of trails, streams and wildlife known as the Kanawha State Forest. The forest’s diverse wildflower and bird species attract naturalists from all over the region, and trails and fully-equipped campgrounds bring in a variety of visitors, from mountain bikers and campers to students on field trips.

When Keystone Industries applied to open a 413-acre mountaintop removal coal mine adjacent to the forest in spring 2014, concern for the land’s recreational and ecological diversity prompted outrage from West Virginians. During the mine’s permitting process, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources received 180 comments from the general public. Every single one of them opposed the mine.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged some of these concerns when reviewing Keystone’s permit for the KD #2 mine. According to a statement from the DEP, the agency included provisions in the permit that would have minimized the mine’s impact on tourism and water quality. These provisions required that a ridge facing the forest be mined last, that the buffer between the mining and the forest would be increased, and that blasting would be prohibited during times of heavy forest usage, such as holidays and weekends.

But many residents in the area still had questions. Daile Boulis lives roughly 2,000 feet from the mine in the small community of Loudendale, five miles south of the state’s capital, Charleston. Her house faces the state forest, and she relies on well water. During the January 2014 Charleston water crisis, when a chemical spill contaminated Elk River and the city water supply, residents of the city came to her house to shower and fill jugs with fresh water.

Boulis first heard about the Keystone mine through a local news affiliate’s coverage of the permit on Facebook. “This thing pops up on my newsfeed with a map of the mine,” she says. “I’m looking at the map and I’m thinking, wait a minute, I think that’s my house right there!”

Many of Boulis’ and her neighbor’s anxieties about the mine centered on water quality and flooding. In 2003 the community of Loudendale experienced a horrific flood. Houses were lost; one person was killed. Because of the increased risks of flooding associated with mountaintop removal, and because Loudendale is located in a narrow valley that is already prone to flooding, the trauma of this experience resurfaced when the KD #2 permit was approved. “We were so concerned about water that we had to remind [our neighbors] that we were [also] going to have to worry about air quality.”

Since the DEP approved the permit in May 2014, the mine has accumulated more than 20 violations — many of them water-related — as well as three cessation-of-work orders. Many of these violations are water quality issues that are not easily mitigated, such as the orange-tinted acid drainage that runs off of many mine sites in the Appalachian coalfields. Despite the DEP’s attempts to create a buffer between the KD #2 mine and the forest’s watershed, acid mine runoff from the mine is now contaminating the nearby Davis Creek watershed.

“This [was] the tightest, best-written permit in the state of West Virginia — which for me, that single sentence is probably the scariest description [of the KD #2 mine],” says Boulis, referring to the fact that the state’s heightened scrutiny still could not prevent the amount of subsequent violations.

Jim Waggy and his colleagues at the grassroots Kanawha Forest Coalition were fully aware of the danger to the forest’s watershed when the permit was issued. At a WVDEP Surface Mine Board hearing in August 2014, Waggy and Doug Wood, a retired DEP water quality specialist, testified to the company’s prior history, as well as the potential water quality issues at the site. “[The agency’s] response was, ‘well we can’t just say there might be acid mine drainage problems,’” Waggy says.

In light of the 20-plus violations that the company has amassed since the mine opened, Waggy is dismayed by the agency’s dismissive attitude. “You would think that with this being such a controversial permit and with so much attention focused on it that the companies would have been so careful to follow the rules and to engage in the best practices possible,” Waggy says. “But apparently the companies are just so accustomed to bending or ignoring the rules — and getting away with it — that that’s how they behaved on this site as well.”

In June 2015, the amount of violations, in addition to political pressure and water monitoring efforts from citizens, finally forced the state’s hand. The DEP halted work at the mine, and placed Keystone and its operator, Revelation Energy, on the federal Office of Surface Mining’s Applicant Violator System. Inclusion in this nationwide database forbids them from holding another mining permit in the nation until the WVDEP approves their plans to mitigate the environmental problems on the site. This does not necessarily mean that Keystone could lose its KD #2 permit — but there is always that possibility.

Revoking Keystone’s permit would not repair the environmental damages that have already occurred. In fact, the evidence seems to indicate that a great deal of the damage is permanent. As Waggy noted in a Charleston Gazette editorial, “The citizens of West Virginia will have to choose between accepting a biologically degraded watershed or paying the formidable costs of perpetual water treatment.”

But despite the scrutiny the DEP has given to this mine, when asked if the more rigorous KD #2 permit process would have an effect on how the agency issues future mining permits in the state, a DEP spokesperson responded, “While the agency is always looking to improve how it operates, there is nothing about this particular situation that would warrant an immediate change in procedures.”

For residents in the more rural and economically distressed areas of the state, the lack of legal resources, time and political capital to hold the DEP and the companies it permits accountable continues to be a problem. Because the KD #2 mine is not far from relatively affluent neighborhoods in the greater Charleston area, Waggy says, “There is a very strong feeling that if other [mountaintop removal] sites in West Virginia were given the same level of attention and scrutiny, a large majority — if not all of them — would reveal the same degree of acid drainage and environmental impact.”

Yet Daile Boulis remains determined to fight back against what she perceives as the coal industry’s indifference to West Virginia’s communities. “I don’t deserve to be treated like a cost of business,” she says. “In fact I refuse to be treated as a cost of doing business.”

A Deluge of Dam Removals

Thursday, August 6th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

Why Some Stand Tall and Others Must Fall

American Rivers’ 2009 Steeles Mill Dam removal project in North Carolina revitalized the area, opening up 15 miles of habitat for shad fish and fostering the creation of a paddling trail. The 15-foot tall dam powered a cotton mill, but at the turn of the millennium was no longer being used. Photos courtesy American Rivers

By Julia Lindsay

The high-profile failure of some of the United States’ aging infrastructure has caused devastation. In 2007, a bridge on I-35 over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis collapsed. Two years prior, levee breaches in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina had catastrophic consequences. With the public eye focused on infrastructure, the game-changing removal of the Elwha Dam and Glines Canyon Dam in Washington state, the largest dam removal project in history, opened up national discussion on the role of dams in this country.

Initially, dams were erected for hydropower, irrigation, flood control and water storage for consumption and agriculture. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, only 42 rivers in the country continue to flow free of dams, and a National Geographic article published this year notes that “some 80,000 dams taller than six feet — along with tens of thousands of smaller dams — still obstruct U.S. rivers.”

The advent of new techniques in energy production, wastewater treatment, irrigation and transportation renders many of these structures useless. As a result, a torrent of dam removals has occurred across the country in the past decade. A hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service told Oregon Public Broadcasting that 548 dams were removed between 2006 and 2014 — nearly double the 298 removed between 1996 and 2005. The aim of most of these removals is stream restoration, as dams come with a host of negative environmental impacts, recreational restrictions and safety hazards.

Erin McCombs, regional associate director of the nonprofit American Rivers, estimates that there are 5,600 dams in North Carolina alone, many of which belong to long-closed textile mills and sawmills and no longer serve any purpose. “We look to remove a lot of these structures,” she says.”That’s really our angle.”

Dams Condemned

Currently, McCombs and her team are working on removing around 15 dams in the region, with one in eastern Tennessee slated to be removed this fall. The Citico Creek Dam in Monroe County was constructed in 1966 due to concerns that migrating warm-water fish would compete with native trout. Since then, researchers have found that the habitat would be inhospitable to warm-water fish, rendering the dam pointless. For half a century, the dam has segregated species into upstream and downstream populations, hampering genetic diversity, restricting nutrient flow and rendering aquatic organisms more susceptible to threats such as global climate change, poor water quality and disease.

According to McCombs, as dams slow the flow, water temperature increases. Ecosystems require balance, and wildlife are sensitive to unnatural shifts to their habitat. Some damage can be easily rectified; all that it requires, says McCombs, is “removing barriers to allow species to be resilient to climate change.”

Damage in other waterways, however, has been more extreme. Dams disorient migrating fish, the American Rivers website says, lengthening their journeys. Anadromous fish such as shad, herring and salmon, which move to salt water after birth and return to spawn in freshwater, find themselves blocked from returning to spawn. This has contributed to the dwindling populations of salmon in the Pacific Northwest and shad in the Atlantic states.

According to the Delaware River Shad Fishermen’s Association, “Between 1990 and the present, shad returning to the Delaware River to spawn declined from 500,000 to approximately 300,000 today.” Across the Southeast and farther north, a moratorium stands against harvesting these popular and profitable fish.

Diminished habitat due to fragmentation caused by dams also contributed to the decline of the Appalachian elktoe mussel, says McCombs, which is now federally listed as an endangered species.

Fontana Dam, run by the Tennessee Valley Authority, is 480 feet high, making it the tallest dam in the Eastern United States. Photo by Ashley Bradford.

Fontana Dam, run by the Tennessee Valley Authority, is 480 feet high, making it the tallest dam in the Eastern United States. Photo by Ashley Bradford.

Relicensing Difficulties

American Rivers approximates that 2,540 dams produce electricity in the United States. Due to their generally larger size and the high cost of removal, most of these dams are not the aim of removal projects.

Hydroelectric power may be a relatively clean energy source, but the environmental degradation caused by dams is leading communities to tighten the reins on energy companies.

Since the spate of dam building in the mid-20th century, many of the long-term hydroelectric dam licenses granted by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have run their course. Energy companies face challenges when applying to renew their licenses, as FERC convenes with representatives of environmental, community, recreational and power companies’ perspectives to determine if a plant’s benefits outweigh the drawbacks.

In the spring of this year, the state of North Carolina sued Alcoa Power Generating, Inc., for control of the 40 miles of the Yadkin River where Alcoa operates. The lawsuit was an attempt to keep Alcoa from renewing its license to operate four hydroelectric facilities on the river. These dams had previously powered an aluminum smelter in Stanly County, providing hundreds of jobs. With the smelter’s closing in 2007, Alcoa began selling the energy on the national market. Community members vied for state control of the Yadkin’s flow because, as Will Scott of Yadkin Riverkeeper puts it, “You get into the question of ‘is there a public benefit anymore?’”

Complications arose for North Carolina in April and June of this year. “At the time of statehood,” Scott says, “this is a water that was used and navigated [therefore] it belongs to the state.” A judge concluded, however, that the section of river holding the dams was not navigable at that time, making it difficult for North Carolina to claim ownership. Later, a judge overturned the N.C. Division of Water Resources’ denial of a water quality certificate to Alcoa, effectively pushing the division to grant Alcoa the certificate. Scott remains hopeful, saying the state has other angles, like challenging whether Alcoa can prove a chain of title.

The lawsuit also unveiled emails suggesting that Alcoa misled state regulators regarding water quality. According to WFAE, Alcoa had entered a settlement agreement in 2007 with 22 community, business and environmental groups, promising to make land and water improvements in exchange for their support in relicensing, but the 2010 email revelations caused the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission to withdraw support for relicensing and churned up concern among other conservationist groups.

Keeping Carp in Check

In the 1970s, a monster was introduced to the Mississippi River. Asian carp, a destructive, non-native species, have spread to 20 states along the Mississippi River watershed and have been detected in the Great Lakes.

These rapidly reproducing fish with no natural predators have recently been found spawning in the Ohio River near Louisville, Ky., crowding out profitable fish such as bass and catfish, according to Mark Marraccini of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. In 2013, commercial fisherman competing in a tournament pulled 82,953 pounds of Asian carp from Kentucky and Barkley lakes in only a weekend’s time.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Services reports that approximately 10,000 non-indigenous aquatic species exist in U.S waterways, with many posing threats to the local environment. Large dams which block fish migration actually help when those fish are invasive, acting as, Marraccini says, “natural barriers to [carp] migration.”

In Kentucky, the state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources plans to assess the feasibility of closing locks in dams along the Monongahela, Muskingum, and Allegheny rivers in its strategy to reduce the population of Asian carp. Locks on dams assist ships in essentially stepping up or down the river one water level at a time. “Every time that you open the locks to allow boats to go through,” Mark says, “you’re allowing a lot of fish to go back and forth.” Closing them keeps the population contained in one space, which helps commercial fishermen pull in more fish. These dams buy time and keep damage caused by the carp low while agencies search for more permanent solutions.

Reservoir Recreation

While some dams are removed to open up recreational activity, others provide it. The Federal Emergency Management Agency accredits 38.4 percent of U.S. dams with providing recreational opportunities. Fontana Dam, a 1940s-era hydroelectric power producer located in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, gave rise to the Fontana Village Resort which brings in 100,000 tourists annually.

Visitors come, in part, to see the historic Fontana Village, a construction town that housed the workers who built the tallest hydroelectric dam in the Eastern United States. The original buildings serve as the resort’s current lodgings; only 33 people reside in Fontana Village full time, most of whom work for the resort.

“We wouldn’t be here as a town, as a resort, if it weren’t for the dam,” town board member and employee of the resort, Sara Locke, says. “Most residents come by their ability to live here by living in the company’s housing.”

Recreational opportunities provided by Fontana Lake and the surrounding area keep the town strong. Those hiking the Appalachian Trail cross the approximately half-mile dam and marvel at the view from the top. Dam operators schedule water releases for whitewater rafting, and the Fontana Lake provides 238 miles of shoreline for swimming and boating.

Far below the surface, however, lies the remnants of five towns. The people of Proctor, Judson, Bushnell, Sugar Fork and Ja’pan had to relocate in 1941 so the Tennessee Valley Authority could flood their homes and form the basin.

Dams play a complex role, and there is no immediate resolution regarding the state of dams in this country, but finding balance is key. “We want to protect [rivers] for all their uses,” Scott says.

Cooling off in the Devil’s Bathtub

Thursday, August 6th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

A resident of Big Island, Va., wades into the swimming hole on the Devil’s Fork Trail, which hikers encounter before reaching the Devil’s Bathtub. Photo by Joe Tennis

A resident of Big Island, Va., wades into the swimming hole on the Devil’s Fork Trail, which hikers encounter before reaching the Devil’s Bathtub. Photo by Joe Tennis

By Joe Tennis

On a typical summer weekend, you can expect to find a crowd on the back roads of Scott County, Va., as dozens venture into the Jefferson National Forest near Fort Blackmore.

Destination: the fabled Devil’s Bathtub on the Devil’s Fork of Big Stony Creek — a natural wonder tucked away behind two tough trail miles.

What was once essentially a secret in southwest Virginia is now virtually a mainstream hangout, thanks to ever-spreading fame through YouTube videos and social media.

“It is a cool spot,” says Ishmael Richardson, Jr., the assistant park manager at nearby Natural Tunnel State Park.

Over time, the noisy waters of the Devil’s Fork have carved a hole about 20 feet long and eight feet wide in solid rock. Dubbed “The Devil’s Bathtub,” the name fits: the 12-foot-deep depression in the creek bed is shaped just like a bathtub, and a small waterfall drips into the basin like a faucet.

Problem: not everyone hiking here has prepared for the moderate — or even strenuous — hike that is required to reach this natural wonder.

“This is a hiker’s trail,” says Bill Cawood, a longtime interpreter for Natural Tunnel State Park. “It is not a groomed trail.”

The Devil’s Fork Trail makes a gradual uphill climb through a lush cove forest, says Cawood, a high school biology teacher in nearby Wise County, Va. “It’s high plant diversity and a unique micro-habitat. It’s rich soil, big trees.”

Want to hike? Come prepared with the proper footwear such as tennis shoes or hiking boots. Avoid flip-flops. But, you will get your feet wet. Over the roughly two miles it takes to reach the Devil’s Bathtub, you’ll step through running waters about a dozen times.

A gated road above the parking lot marks the start of the trail. From here, go about a quarter-mile and cross a stream.

“It’s easy to find the first stream crossing,” Cawood says. “And there’s where they seem to go wrong. Most people look at the right-hand fork of the trail, which seems to be a little more heavily used, and they go that way. That’s the wrong fork. The actual fork for the Devil’s Bathtub Trail is the left.”

Making that left, continue to follow the trail for about 20 yards. Then bear right and continue to follow the yellow-blazed trail as it goes up the creek.

Next, the trail makes its most dramatic crossing: it hops across a long row of rocks for about 60 yards in what appears to be a stream bed. Watch each step as you navigate this section and aim for a yellow blaze, marked on a tree, on the far bank.

Regaining level ground, look just beyond a small clearing to see an old, abandoned rail car. This rusty relic remains as evidence that this trail was once the path of a rail line hauling logs and coal.

From that rail car, the trail continues up the valley of the Devil’s Fork. It crosses the stream again and again for nearly another mile. Ultimately, the trail scales a small yet sometimes-slippery cliff on the creek’s left bank.

Just beyond the cliff lies the trail’s most popular point: the swimming hole.

“Lots of folks that I have brought up here thought we had achieved our goal when we got here,” Cawood says, pointing to the swimming hole. “They like the waterfall coming down into the swimming hole. This is what they expected.”

This is also where you’ll find a crowd when the temperature rises in the summertime. The creek runs cold year-round, and hikers like to take a dip in the cool waters.

The actual Devil’s Bathtub lies just about 100 yards beyond the swimming hole. At that point, though, most hikers turn back as the path grows more narrow and difficult to follow.

About once a month during the summer, Cawood leads guided hikes to the Devil’s Bathtub from Natural Tunnel State Park. “We have had nothing but positive comments and lots of thankful folks who told me that they would never have been able to come up here, find it or experience it without us helping them,” he says.

Joe Tennis is the author of “Virginia Rail Trails: Crossing the Commonwealth,” which features a chapter on the Devil’s Bathtub.

Devil’s Fork Trail

Difficulty: Moderate (includes stream crossings)

Length: About four miles (up and back)

Directions: From the intersection of State Routes 65 and 72 at Fort Blackmore, Va., follow SR 619 north for about 5 miles to the crossroads of SR 619 and SR 657. From here, turn left on SR 619 for about a quarter-mile. Then turn left on a gravel lane next to a white house. Follow this for about a half-mile to the parking area.

Guided hikes: Natural Tunnel State Park offers guided hikes to the Devil’s Bathtub once per month during the summer, weather permitting. View the schedule at Reservations are required by calling 276-940-2674.

Contact: Call the Clinch Ranger District of the Jefferson National Forest at 276-328-2931.

Train Fire Sparks Evacuations, Water Concerns

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

by Julia Lindsay

Late at night on July 1, more than 5,000 citizens of Maryville, Tenn., awoke to knocks on their doors after a CSX train caught fire. Officials evacuated citizens within two miles of the accident. The train was hauling acrylonitrile, a carcinogenic chemical used to produce plastics.

After the 17-hour burn, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tested the local air and water, deeming the area safe for repopulation on July 3. Two days later, biologists in Culton Creek found dead fish whose deaths, they believe, align with the time of the derailment, CNN reported.

Acrylonitrile has been detected in a well about 300 feet from the derailment site. According to a local TV station, all other wells tested negative for the chemical, but the EPA will drill new wells to monitor potential contamination.

Tennessee Rivers at Risk

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Cody Burchett

According to a report released this May by the nonprofit Tennessee Clean Water Network, surface water enforcement actions issued by Tennessee state regulators have dropped 75 percent since 2008.

Of the 53 enforcement orders issued last year by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, more than a quarter were related to paperwork rather than pollution events. The Clean Water Network concludes that this low number of enforcements is not due to a lack of violations, and that TDEC “needs to be more aggressive in taking swift, effective enforcement action.”

More than 30 percent of Tennessee’s surface waterways are impaired by pollution, according to a 2012 assessment by the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. Among these are portions of the Holston and Harpeth Rivers located in northeast and middle Tennessee, both of which were listed in this year’s annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers report by the nonprofit American Rivers. The report highlights major waterways facing an upcoming decision this year that could significantly impact the river’s health.

Keep the Clean Water Act going strong

Thursday, June 4th, 2015 - posted by sandra

Is the Obama administration ready to continue modernizing the landmark law?

After releasing the final Clean Water Rule last week, the EPA should continue modernizing the Clean Water Act by better protecting clean water from power plant and industrial waste.

After releasing the final Clean Water Rule last week, the EPA should continue modernizing the Clean Water Act by better protecting clean water from power plant and industrial waste.

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the release of its long-awaited Clean Water Rule, which clarifies the scope of waters protected under the Clean Water Act.

The finalized rule ends a decade of confusion; a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision brought into doubt the definition of “navigable waters,” which the EPA had historically interpreted to include areas connected to waters by tributaries or other smaller streams.

As The Los Angeles Times reports:

Before the new rule, up to 60 percent of American streams and millions of acres of wetlands were potentially overlooked by the Clean Water Act, EPA officials say. One in three Americans … use drinking water affected by these sources that lacked clear protection from pollution before the rule change, according to the agency.

Is the Obama administration ready to continue the trend of strengthening and modernizing the Clean Water Act — the crucial environmental law that came about due to levels of water pollution that seem unfathomable today?

As the EPA pursues updating the Effluent Limitation Guidelines, which provide standards on wastewater discharge from power plants, we hope that is indeed the case. Sixty percent of water pollution comes from coal-fired power plants alone, and these guidelines would also include natural gas and nuclear facilities.

The primary reason the EPA is even updating these guidelines is because clean water groups sued the agency for not having updated the rule since 1982.

These out-of-date standards do not contain federally enforceable limits on toxic heavy metals. Any limits are left for individual states to decide; as a result, 70 percent of current Clean Water Act permits for power plants do not have limits for heavy metals.

Even worse, the water pollution from these plants has become more dangerous since many coal-fired power plants have installed air pollution technology that “scrubs” emissions before they leave the smokestack. This is good news for air quality, but not for water quality. The scrubbed pollution has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is in waste impoundments where these pollutants supposedly “settle” to the bottom. Power plants are then allowed to dump water from these impoundments into our river and lakes, which sometimes serve as drinking water sources.

Heavy metals are dangerous at varying levels to wildlife and human health. The industry is also discovering that the chemicals used in the “scrubbing” process can interact with chemicals from drinking water treatment plants to create trihalomethanes, which have been linked to bladder cancer.

The EPA released draft options of the Effluent Limitation Guidelines in 2013 and received more 160,000 comments, most asking for the strong technological options that would create zero waste. The agency is planning to release the final standard this fall. But there is real concern among clean water advocates that the final rule may not pursue the most technically feasible option for stopping pollution from heavy metals and other chemicals, as required by the Clean Water Act.

We are going to need your help to crank up the pressure on the White House to make sure the EPA listens to us water-drinkers as it works to finalize the rule for this fall. Sign up here to receive updates. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter, too.

Silas House: A Remembrance of Jean Ritchie

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Silas House is an author, Kentuckian and activist, who also serves on Appalachian Voices’ board of directors. Silas shares this remembrance of Jean Ritchie, the Kentucky-born folk icon, who died yesterday. Last May, Appalachian Voices was graciously invited to participate in and benefit from “Dear Jean,” a tribute concert to Ritchie in Berea, Ky. Portions of this tribute are excerpted from the 2009 book Something’s Rising: Appalachians Fighting Mountaintop Removal by Silas House and Jason Howard, University Press of Kentucky

Silas House (middle) with Jean Ritchie, and his partner Jason Howard, editor of literary magazine Appalachian Heritage.

Silas House (middle) with Jean Ritchie, and his partner Jason Howard, editor of the literary magazine Appalachian Heritage.

Above all, kindness always lit up the face of Jean Ritchie, who passed away June 1 at the age of 92. And she possessed the same kindness in her hands, in the slight, humble bend of her neck, in her beaming smile. And of course that kindness came through the clearest — the cleanest — in her voice.

It was there in her speaking voice, but also in her singing, the very thing that caused The New York Times to proclaim her “a national treasure” and the reason she became widely known as “The Mother of Folk.” But along with that kindness was a fierceness that led her to become one of the major voices in the fight for environmental justice.

I grew up in Southeastern Kentucky, two counties away from where Ritchie had been raised. She was a source of incredible pride for my people. Everyone I knew loved Jean Ritchie, and they especially loved the way she represented Appalachian people: with generosity and sweetness, yes. But also with defiance and strength. By the time I first met her in 2006, Jean was a true legend. Although I was in total awe of her, it didn’t take me long to feel right at home and we became fast friends.

I loved visiting with her and her wonderfully devoted husband, George Pickow, who passed away in 2010. Anytime I would comment on her legendary status, she’d brush it aside, embarrassed. But she was a true inspiration to so many of us. Her accolades are too many to list. In 2002 she was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the highest award given in the nation to traditional artists and musicians. Her original compositions have been performed by such artists as Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Judy Collins, Emmylou Harris, the Judds, Kathy Mattea, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and many others.

Jean Ritchie, 1922 - 2015

Jean Ritchie, 1922 – 2015

Born in 1922, she went to New York to work in a settlement school and was amazed to find that she eventually became well-known for her singing, playing, and songwriting. By the end of the 1960s Ritchie had recorded twenty albums, served on the board of and appeared at the first Newport Folk Festival (where her iconic performance of “Amazing Grace” is still talked about by anyone who was there), and was considered one of the leaders in the folk music revival.

She had also single-handedly popularized the mountain dulcimer. And steadily throughout her career she had become more and more concerned with the environmental injustices facing her homeland. She wrote her first environmental-minded songs under the pseudonym of Than Hall so her parents wouldn’t be harassed and because she felt using a man’s name might make them easier to become published. But eventually she embraced the fight for environmental justice and became a symbol of the movement.

In 1974 she recorded what many consider the first of her three true masterpieces (along with None But One and Mountain Born) out of her forty albums. Clear Waters Remembered contains three of the original compositions she is most often recognized for: “West Virginia Mine Disaster,” “Blue Diamond Mines,” and “Black Waters.” It would also be the album that would solidify Ritchie’s position as an environmentalist and activist.

“Black Waters” in particular became a rallying cry for an ever-growing outrage against the environmental devastation being caused by strip mining, a form of coal mining that became prominent in the 1960s. The practice was giving many Appalachians pause, especially since most of the coal companies were able to mine the coal with broad form deeds, many of which had been sold decades before. Ritchie became a part of this movement with “Black Waters,” which became its anthem.

After struggling with writing “Black Waters” for awhile, Ritchie finished the song after being invited to participate in a memorial concert for Woody Guthrie. She performed it for the first time during that show and introduced it as something Guthrie “might have written had he lived in Eastern Kentucky.” Besides being a powerful environmental song, it also resonated with Appalachians who might not have identified themselves as environmentalists but certainly had a love for the land in their very blood.

1977’s None But One is Ritchie’s most critically-lauded album; it was even awarded the prestigious Critics Award from Rolling Stone magazine. The album contained two more of Ritchie’s most famous songs of social consciousness, “None But One,” a treatise on racial harmony, and “The Cool of the Day,” an ancient-sounding spiritual which demands environmental stewardship and is now widely used as one of the major anthems in the fight against mountaintop removal. It is a song that has already achieved classic status by being included in the hymnal of the Society of Friends. Ritchie allowed Kentuckians For The Commonwealth to use the song on their popular compilation Songs for the Mountaintop, which raised money for the fight against mountaintop removal. In 2007 Ritchie performed the song at The Concert for the Mountains, an event held in New York City with Robert Kennedy, Jr. in conjunction with a delegation of Appalachians who attended the United Nations Conference on Environmental Stability to speak out about the devastation caused by the form of mining.

“I never feel that I’m doing very much to help our poor mountains,” Ritchie modestly told me in 2008 after I told her she was one of the reasons I had become an environmentalist. “Beyond making up songs and singing them, I don’t know what else to do. It seems an accolade I don’t deserve.” I wanted to tell her that words and music were the main ways we had always fought back, and that her words and music had done more than she could ever imagine. But then I saw that there were tears on her eyes. Her face was turned to the white light of the window and she was lit as if beatific. I had always thought she was. In that moment, Jean was visibly upset. “Sometimes, when I think of how it’s all gone …” she began, but had to stop speaking.

Jean leaves behind a legacy of love and light. Of kindness and dignity and strength. She fought back with words and music, and she taught us to do the same. I can’t imagine a better way to be remembered than that.

Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters” performed by John McCutcheon, Tim O’Brien, Suzy Bogguss, Kathy Mattea, Stuart Duncan and Bryn Davies.

Appalachian Crayfish: Canaries in a Coal Mine

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Dac Collins

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that two species native to Appalachia — The Big Sandy crayfish (pictured) and Guyandotte River crayfish — be listed as endangered under federal law after determining the species are in danger of extinction “primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities” such as mountaintop removal coal mining. Photo by Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University on Flickr

If you find yourself at a crawfish boil anytime soon, don’t be afraid to go back for seconds. The two species that are sold commercially — red swamp and white river crayfish — are prolific. They can be found in the wild throughout the South and are especially abundant in Louisiana, where they are also farm-raised in ponds.

But here in Appalachia, some of our native crayfish populations are teetering on the brink of extinction, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Whether or not they are pushed past the point of no return depends largely on the outcome of a recent proposal by the agency to add them to the federal list of endangered species.

Like most creek-dwelling crawdads, the two species in question — the Big Sandy crayfish, which are native to the Big Sandy River basin in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, and the Guyandotte River crayfish, a closely related subspecies found in West Virginia — spend a majority of their lives wedged into the crevices of the creek bottom. These nooks and crannies shelter the crayfish from predators and serve as places to lie dormant during the winter months. But when these rocky creek beds are covered up in sediment, the habitat that these creatures depend on to survive is lost entirely.

This is precisely what is occurring in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River drainages of West Virginia. The sedimentation has become so severe in recent years that the Guyandotte crayfish population has retreated to the mid-reaches of a single stream, Pinnacle Creek, in Wyoming County.

If the crayfish disappear completely, the ecology of these creeks could change drastically. The freshwater crustaceans are a primary food source for many of the native fish species, including smallmouth bass and trout, which also happen to be the two most sought after sport fish here in Appalachia. Take away the food source and these creeks might eventually be fishless.

The cause of siltation is obvious when you look at where these creeks are located. There are 192 active coal mines in the area, many of which are mountaintop removal mines that are dumping their waste into the headwaters of streams, effectively burying them. And that’s just standard operating procedure. If an accident occurs, a toxic slurry of silt and chemicals spills into the creeks that feed the rivers that run into the reservoirs we drink out of, wreaking havoc on species like crayfish along the way.

The Fish and Wildlife Service specifically mentioned mountaintop removal coal mining in its report on the two crayfish species. The agency determined that, “the Big Sandy crayfish and Guyandotte River crayfish are in danger of extinction, primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities that increase erosion and sedimentation, which degrades the stream habitat required by both species,” and that, “an immediate threat to the continued existence of the Guyandotte River crayfish is several active and inactive surface coal mines, including MTR mines, in the mid and upper reaches of the Pinnacle Creek watershed.”

The FWS report also called attention to impaired water-quality — especially hazardous concentrations of sulfate and aluminum — in areas where most of the mines are closed, proving that “the detrimental effects of coal mining often continue long after active mining ceases.”

The proposed endangered species listing could have considerable impacts on the coal mining industry. If the Big Sandy and Guyandotte crayfish are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it would lead to more strictly enforced water quality regulations, which could affect ongoing mining operations in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River basins as well as coal companies seeking permits to mine in the area.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on this proposal until May 16. Click here to take action and ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect these two Appalachian species.

Don’t drink the water

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy's coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking.

Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking. Photo by Avery Locklear

Dozens of residents across North Carolina received notices this week telling them not to drink or cook with their well water due to recent tests which show unsafe levels of contaminants that may be associated with coal ash.

As part of North Carolina’s coal ash law enacted last year, Duke Energy is required to test the well water of residents living within 1000 feet of the massive coal ash ponds that dot the state.

For years, the demands of residents in communities next to coal ash ponds and environmental advocates were ignored by Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, despite independent water sampling that showed elevated levels of contaminants. Now, more than a year after the Dan River coal ash spill, water testing results are coming back, giving residents and regulators a clear picture of just how widespread the problem is.

Tell Duke Energy to supply residents with safe water!

Residents living near 9 of the 14 coal plants across the state have been notified of exceedances of the groundwater standard for concerning metals such as arsenic, chromium, and vanadium. According to DENR, 87 of the 117 wells Duke tested exceeded North Carolina’s groundwater standards for one or more toxic constituents. Some wells also had high levels of constituents that may be naturally occurring in North Carolina soil, such as iron, manganese and pH.

Duke has been quick to latch onto those exceedances as evidence that the contamination is not from their illegally leaking coal ash ponds. But residents who can see coal ash ponds from their yards and have watched Duke’s smokestacks for decades have little doubt why they are now being told “don’t drink the water.”

DENR officials say they will investigate the source of contamination and, if it is linked to coal ash pollution, Duke will be required to provide residents with clean water. But that reassurance is hardly recompense for North Carolinians who may have been unknowingly drinking contaminated water for an unknown amount of time. And until the source is determined, residents will have to foot the bill for bottled water.

Take action now!

Update May 31, 2015:

More residents have received results from their well water tests and 166 well owners out of the 207 wells tested so far have been told not to drink their water.

Duke Energy still denies that their leaking coal ash ponds have contaminated neighbors’ wells, but the company has agreed to supply bottled water to families who have been told that they can not safely drink or cook with their water. Duke is supplying a gallon per person today.