Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

A Washington Post editorial on mountaintop removal’s dirty consequences

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 - posted by thom
The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

Today, the editorial board of The Washington Post published a strongly worded condemnation of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The piece begins with what we all know:

“For decades, coal companies have been removing mountain peaks to haul away coal lying just underneath. More recently, scientists and regulators have been developing a clearer understanding of the environmental consequences. They aren’t pretty.”

As evidence, the editorial highlights two recent studies that we’ve also covered here. First, the U.S. Geological Survey’s findings that pollution from mountaintop removal is devastating fish populations in Appalachian streams. We summed up that research on this blog in July:

Over the summer, a U.S. Geological Survey study compared streams near mountaintop removal operations to streams farther away. In what should be “a global hotspot for fish biodiversity,” according to Nathaniel Hitt, one of the authors, the researchers found decimated fish populations, with untold consequences for downstream river systems. The scientists noted changes in stream chemistry: Salts from the disturbed earth appear to have dissolved in the water, which may well have disrupted the food chain.

The second study the editorial points to is new research out of West Virginia University that found dust pollution from mountaintop removal promotes lung cancer. We wrote last week:

The Charleston Gazette reported on a new study finding that dust from mountaintop removal mining appears to contribute to greater risk of lung cancer. West Virginia University researchers took dust samples from several towns near mountaintop removal sites and tested them on lung cells, which changed for the worse. The findings fit into a larger, hazardous picture: People living near these sites experience higher rates of cancer and birth defects.

We’re glad one of the largest newspapers in the country is paying attention, even when many policymakers are not. The editorial does, however, give a bit too much credit to the Obama administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their actions to reduce the environmental and human toll of mountaintop removal. Actions have been taken, certainly, but mountaintop removal is still happening in Appalachia.

With the mounting scientific evidence that mining pollution is decimating fish populations, causing air and water pollution, wiping out trees and mountains, and promoting a host of human health problems, there is no excuse for the Obama administration to allow mountaintop removal to continue.

Take a moment to let the president know that Appalachian communities are still being put at risk.

North Carolinians speak out against fracking: Are elected officials listening?

Monday, October 20th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

More than two dozen environmental and social justice groups came together recently to hand deliver 59,500 petition signatures to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, calling on him and other elected officials to reinstate the ban on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for natural gas in the state.

Groups of the Frack Free N.C. Alliance, which include environmental organizations, environmental justice groups and grassroots organizations, have been working diligently all across the state to educate citizens about the potential impacts of fracking and encourage them to get involved. The nearly 60,000 petition signatures are a testament to the strong opposition to fracking throughout North Carolina.

Despite a forecast of rain, the organizations and supporters gathered at the governor’s office last Tuesday to rally and hold a press conference before hand delivering the petitions to McCrory’s staff (the governor, unsurprisingly, was unavailable to receive the petitions). Supporters held anti-fracking signs, images of North Carolina’s unique landscape, and art created by citizens portraying the dangers of fracking and the value of clean water.

The speakers came from all across the state, and included Kathy Rigsbee from Yadkin-Davie Against Fracking, an every-day citizen and mother turned activist, Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for N.C., the founding organization of the Frack Free Alliance, and Luke Crawford from EnvironmentaLEE, a grassroots organization in Lee County, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the state.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices' North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

I was honored to speak on behalf of the numerous grassroots organizations from western North Carolina that contributed significantly to the petition and the anti-fracking movement sweeping across the state. Those organizations include the Coalition Against Fracking in western N.C., Frack Free Madison County, and community groups from Swain and Jackson counties.

As the sun came out, we began carrying boxes of the signed petitions into the governor’s office. As the petitions were passed from person to person and on into the building, elementary students on a field trip joined us in chanting “Frack Free N.C.!”

Governor McCrory has yet to acknowledge the concerns of the 59,500 signees on the petition, though it is clear that opposition to fracking across North Carolina has grown as more citizens learn about the risks associated with the practice.

In August and September, 1,800 North Carolinians attended Mining and Energy Commission hearings on the proposed rules to regulate fracking. The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed fracking. The MEC reports that they received between 100,000-200,000 additional written comments addressing the rules and that the majority suggested the rules be strengthened. According to Commissioner Jim Womack, about half the comments were statements opposing fracking. Womack told reporters that those “didn’t really count.” Clearly, thousands of North Carolinians oppose fracking, the question is, are our elected officials listening to us?

The organizations and citizen groups of Frack Free N.C. promise to continue fighting to protect North Carolina’s air, water, communities, property values and way of life from the dangers of fracking.

A Family’s Troubled Water

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra
Ginger Halbert, photo by Molly Moore

In her dining room, Ginger Halbert discusses the state reports on the investigation into her property damage and water contamination. Photo by Molly Moore.

After mountaintop removal coal mining began near their eastern Kentucky home, the Halberts saw their water quality and quality of life plummet. Three years later, they continue to seek answers.

By Molly Moore

Ginger and Mark Halbert have a knack for fermentation, and their flavorful pickled corn is so popular among friends and family that the couple crafted a plan in 2011 to bring their recipe to local and regional stores. They certified the recipe, and started the process of transforming Mark’s mechanical shop, which is attached to their home, into a commercial kitchen that could produce nourishing, locally grown goods prepared on-site with their mountain spring water.

The Halberts dreamed that their business might expand to nearby states and include items such as pickled green tomatoes and sauerkraut, and Mark started plans for a vineyard on the slope beside their home. In the fall of 2011 they arranged for a plumber to finish preparing for the commercial kitchen, but had to stop the project before it was complete. Everything was put on hold when the water and land that the Halberts’ vision relied on began to fall apart.

A Life Disrupted

Perched on a flat bench along an otherwise steep slope, the west side of the house faces toward the forested ridge and the second-story entrance and deck are parallel to the steep mountainside. That fall, the ground around the home began to shift, sometimes in sudden, violent movements that shook and cracked the walls.

After one intense shake, Ginger ran downstairs to check on Mark in the shop below and found the door jammed shut. She frantically tried to open it, praying that no heavy equipment had fallen on her husband. Thankfully, he was unharmed.

Following heavy rains, the shop began to flood. Standing water filled the floor, which signaled the start of a mold problem that worsened when the pipes corroded that spring and water seeped beneath the rugs.

Putting their plans on hold because of the property damage was “a bitter pill to swallow,” Ginger says, but as time progressed the family faced more pressing concerns. In the spring of 2012, their water developed a strange taste. At first Ginger thought the change might be due to snowmelt and would pass along with the winter’s built-up grime, but by May the taste worsened and the plants that she watered began to wither.

That spring, Mark and their children began experiencing a nagging pain in their legs, a sensation that Ginger felt in her arms and elbows. Over the next year, the pain escalated — her children said it felt as if their legs were pulling away from their bodies. Ginger started washing the dishes in the sink because the water had destroyed the dishwasher, but her arms broke out in rashes afterward.

Mark’s leg began to hurt so intensely that the former Marine had trouble walking. At the V.A. Hospital, the doctors looked for a blood clot and other indications of trouble but couldn’t find anything wrong, though one healthcare worker said it sounded like the cause could be metals in his muscles. Mark then went to a chiropractor who came to the same conclusion. The family already knew that their water quality was in decline when their health symptoms began in 2012. At that time, they used their tap water for showering and cleaning but hauled bottled water to the upstairs residence for drinking. When the Halberts discovered the extent of the water contamination in the spring of 2014, they installed a 300-gallon rainwater cistern to supply water for washing dishes and bathing — and their symptoms disappeared.

“I took it for granted that water was going to be there forever, and I think by nature it should have been,” Ginger says.

The onset of their troubles coincided with the opening of a new mountaintop removal coal mine near their home, and Ginger believes the surface mining operation is responsible for the ruined water. But proving a connection between a new mining operation and contaminated water in a region riddled with decades of mining infrastructure is a task for only the most dogged and determined. Ginger Halbert is both.

Practicing Perseverance

The Halbert property has always been intimate with coal — two coal seams crop out of the mountainside behind their home, and one runs beneath. Their spring discharges from one of the abandoned coal seams. The last underground mining on these seams ended in 1959, and in the 1990s the owners of the legacy mines met the legal requirements for reclamation and had their bonds returned, freeing them from legal or financial responsibility for any future troubles. In the ‘90s and the early 2000s, the Halberts called the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement asking for assistance with rockslides and gushing water, but until 2012, their drinking water always tasted good.

In 2011, When the Halberts received notice that FCDC Coal, Inc. was opening a surface mine on the adjacent hollow, they were offered a pre-blasting survey that measured existing water quality. The survey showed a pH level of 6.8, which is within the healthy drinking water parameters of 6.5 to 8.5. In November 2012 — after blasting began — staff from the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources and the Division of Mine Reclamation & Enforcement inspected the spring in response to a water quality complaint from the Halberts. Their test results showed a pH of 4.

While the Halberts waited for more information from the state agency, they spoke with an employee of FCDC Coal who said the company could assess the water and discuss possible solutions if it was indeed impaired. After the company also found dangerously low pH, Ginger called to ask whether the company would either connect them to city water or provide filters. This time her contact denied that FCDC Coal could be responsible. “‘You take what we give you or we’ll make sure you have no water,’ thats the way he put it,” Ginger recalls, bristling at the memory.

Mark picked up the phone next, this time dialing the state DMRE. The original inspector was unavailable, so Mark began describing the coal company’s response to her supervisor, Eric Allen. He told Mark that the state inspector had concluded the new surface mine was too far away and could not have impacted the water, so DMRE had stopped the investigation.

“We never received a letter, never received nothing from them, and they stopped investigating,” Ginger says in disbelief.

After Mark countered that the family wouldn’t have been asked to participate in a pre-blast survey if their home was too far away to be impacted, Allen agreed to reopen the investigation.

Over the next year, DMRE hydrologists visited the property and surrounding area, sampling water at the home, on the mine permit, and at nearby drainages. When the agency issued its report in February 2014, some facts were clear: water quality at the Halbert home had declined substantially and was impacted by mining, and the change coincided with the start of the new FCDC Coal surface mine.

But when it came to assigning responsibility for the damage the report concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to assign blame to a particular mine. “The volume of water in the underground mine works that supply the Halbert’s spring is far too large to be directly affected [by] the FCDC disturbance,” the report stated. “It is far more likely that conditions within the underground mines changed in some way, causing more acidic water to be produced.”

Ginger was dismayed with the state’s inconclusive findings and pored over the report, putting together a list of questions: Could the blasting at the FCDC site have impacted the fragile underground mines, causing a cave-in or other problem that ruined their water? Why didn’t a blasting inspector accompany the hydrologist or respond to their concerns in a timely manner? In March, she and Mark compiled more than a dozen such questions in a formal request for an administrative review of the February 2014 report.

“You would not believe what I went through just to find out what I could do,” she says of the process. “I did so much research I felt like I took three years of college in a week.”

Driven by her and her family’s escalating pain, she also called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Atlanta regional office. The representative she spoke with said he would ensure that someone from the state Division of Water assessed her water, and in March 2014 the inspector arrived. The test results were sobering.

Before the Halberts learned that their water contained 14 ug/l of total beryllium compared to an EPA drinking water standard of 4 ug/l, they were unfamiliar with the metal. Now they know that it is a cancer-causing agent also linked to respiratory ailments, skin rashes and a chronic disease called berylliosis, which damages the heart and lungs. People are typically exposed to airborne beryllium through industrial work, not drinking water, but the agency theorized that the water’s high acidity might be allowing the metal to leach from the coal-bearing rocks.

The agency report also showed a pH reading of 3.33, a level considered unsafe for human use, and a conductivity reading of 2200 that indicated a high presence of minerals. Among the minerals violating drinking water standards were iron, manganese, aluminum and sulfate.

“It’s stopped all of our lives,” Ginger says. “We can’t enjoy the little things people always take for granted.” The family no longer accepts overnight visitors. Their oldest son is serving with the Air Force in South Korea, and to Ginger’s great delight he used to bring fellow servicemembers home for visits. But Ginger no longer welcomes these visitors to the house — she doesn’t want to put him and his friends at risk.

Pausing to look out of her second-story hillside window at the small houses scattered throughout the hollow, Ginger’s eyes well up with tears. She gestures to the homes, telling the stories of eight neighbors who have battled cancer in the past five years, and describing going to the small town grocery store and seeing multiple shoppers with cancer. Ginger jokes that she will go down fighting, but she is still concerned, and provides her family with detoxifying foods and supplements.

Worth Fighting For

In August 2014, Ginger received a report from a DMRE geologist who responded to the Halberts’ list of questions by reviewing the other inspectors’ work. The geologist reached the same conclusion as her colleagues, reporting that there was insufficient evidence to link the recent FCDC mining to the family’s ruined spring and expressing the opinion that the Halbert troubles stemmed from the older mines nearby.

Ginger says she isn’t satisfied with the answers, and still wonders whether the blasting impacted the abandoned mines nearby, setting off changes that contaminated their formerly reliable spring. Now represented by Jeffrey R. Morgan and Associates in Hazard, Ky., the Halberts are continuing to appeal the state’s findings in the hopes that a court might decide a more thorough investigation into the Halbert’s problems is warranted.

The Halberts are also in the discovery phase of a lawsuit against FCDC Coal to receive compensation for the damage done to their property — compensation that might allow the family to find a new home and return to their dream of processing fresh, fermented vegetables with healthy mountain water.

For now, the weeds are tall in the Halbert backyard, where a triangular stretch of flat land is flanked by the family’s spring, the home and a shifting, quickly eroding drop-off. There are no longer any deck chairs out here to take advantage of the rural valley views — ironweed and other plants grow unchecked to help catch any beryllium-laced water or dust that might blow towards the home.

It upsets Ginger that her eleven-year-old son must stay away from the yard his older siblings used to play in, and that a few miles downstream children might be playing in a creek fed by her toxic spring. She reflects that her oldest son, who is overseas in the military, might be safer than her two at home.

“We’re never promised of getting any help if we sit back and do nothing,” she says. “I was raised that you have a duty to be an American, and it does take work when you are an American to keep your rights and your laws going. And if you stop, and everybody stops, then who gets control?”


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Learn more about mountaintop removal coal mining.
Ask the Obama Administration to stop mountaintop removal coal mining.

Seeking Justice: Activists and agencies react to systemic violations of mining laws

Monday, October 13th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra

By Brian Sewell

James C. Justice is larger than the outwardly humble life he leads. A West Virginia native and the Mountain State’s sole billionaire, he is the rare, modern-day coal baron who actually resides in Appalachia. He is beloved by many for rescuing the historic Greenbrier resort from bankruptcy and is well-known for his philanthropic pursuits. At Christmas, he dons a custom-made red suit, and at 6 feet 7 inches, Justice might have even Santa Claus outsized.

But for all his friends, Justice has no shortage of critics. Struggling with the same challenges facing the entire Appalachian coal industry, Justice-owned operations in five states possess dismal regulatory records, earning him a reputation among environmental advocates as one of Appalachia’s worst violators of mining laws. In all, coal mines owned by Justice in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have racked up more than 250 violations and cessation orders over the past four years — many resulting from failure to meet reclamation requirements at mountaintop removal coal mines left idle.

There are signs that Justice himself questions coal’s future in Appalachia. Last year, as his operations around Appalachia were cracking, he told reporters for the Associated Press “you may be witnessing the death of the coal industry.”

JusticetoJustice_greenbrier

Members of the Justice to Justice campaign march outside of the West Virginia resort The Greenbrier, owned by billionaire businessman Jim Justice, to draw attention to the outstanding violations of coal companies he owns. Photo by Gabby Gillespie, courtesy Justice to Justice.

But not long ago, Justice’s coal interests were expanding. He moved into Kentucky in 2007, buying Sequoia Energy, LLC and Infinity Energy, Inc. In 2008, he acquired Premium Coal Co. and S&H Mining in Tennessee. And he grew his presence in Virginia in 2009, launching Southern Coal Corp and purchasing A&G Coal Group. Today, violations by those companies have spurred citizen groups, the media and regulators to hold Justice accountable.

“After centuries of resource extraction, poverty, and illness, the debt to Appalachia must be paid in full,” stated an open letter to Justice from leaders of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, a southwest Virginia-based group that began a regional campaign this year called “Justice to Justice.” Chris Holmes, a spokesperson for the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, told the Roanoke Times “the civil penalties are piling up.” And a Lexington Herald-Leader editorial in July emphasized that the “crucial point here is not unpaid fines but what they represent: violations of the law that put thousands of people who live near Justice’s mines in harm’s way.”

The story may be far from over, but for now, here is a brief look at how states are responding.

Kentucky

Nearly half of the more than 250 violations Justice faces resulted from problems at mines in eight eastern Kentucky counties. After months of outspoken media coverage and considerable citizen pressure, Justice and state regulators reached a plan in August to settle the spate of violations and ensure proper reclamation. As part of the plan, The Courier-Journal reports, Justice promised to post $10.5 million in bonding, about half of which will go toward reclaiming surface-mined “highwalls.” The deal also allows Justice to resume mining at mountaintop removal sites that were shut down due to violations. Regulators say this will facilitate faster reclamation by reducing enough rock and soil to rubble for recontouring the land after mining.

Tennessee

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement ordered Justice’s Tennessee subsidiaries — National Coal, Premium Coal and S&H Mining — to cease operations for failing to report water monitoring data or meet mine reclamation requirements. The orders came a month after Sierra Club and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment announced plans to sue Justice’s companies for violating the Clean Water Act.

Before the cessation orders were issued, the Office of Surface Mining held public hearings in Anderson County to address Premium Coal’s failure to meet reclamation requirements at two mine sites. Premium Coal requested the orders be dropped, saying reclamation was not completed because the crew they hired had planted trees upside down with the roots sticking up. Those requests were denied.

Virginia

Justice’s A&G Coal Group has had its fair share of slip-ups too. In June, the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy moved to seize $9.9 million from A&G Coal to reclaim an inactive mine at the company’s expense. Justice, who could appeal DMME’s action, claims market conditions left him no choice but to leave the mine in southwestern Virginia idle for more than a year.

West Virginia

Although Justice sold most of his active West Virginia coal operations in 2009, he is still running into trouble in his home state. On Sept. 1, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued an “imminent harm cessation” to the Justice-owned Kentucky Fuel Corporation after residents reported slurry leaking into Madison Creek in Logan County, W.Va.

Learn more about the Justice to Justice campaign at justicetojustice.com

Employees of DEP-certified lab conspired to violate Clean Water Act

Thursday, October 9th, 2014 - posted by brian
An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act.

An employee of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., a state-certified lab used by coal companies, plead guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act. Photo from Flickr.

We learned some unsettling news from West Virginia yesterday afternoon. The Charleston Gazette reports that an employee of a state-certified company pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act after he faked compliant water quality samples for coal companies between 2008 and 2013.

John W. Shelton, who worked as a technician and then a field supervisor for Appalachian Labs Inc., a Beckley, W.Va., firm, admitted to diluting water samples taken from mine pollution discharge points with clean water, among other unlawful measures taken, to ensure pollution levels were in compliance with permitted limits. Prosecutors say Appalachian Labs conducts water sampling at more than 100 mine sites in West Virginia, but for now it’s unclear what mine sites or coal companies could be implicated in the case.

As Ken Ward Jr. points out in The Gazette, this crime is a serious cause for concern, since state and federal agencies rely heavily on self-reported data to determine if coal companies are obeying the law. But honestly, while we’re appalled, it is hard to be surprised by this latest discovery. We have some experience with misreporting of water monitoring data that has taken place in Central Appalachia in recent years.

The way this story is coming together suggests a frightening collusion between employees at a lab that maintained certification from DEP. We know from the plea agreement that Shelton did not act alone. Check out the section titled “The Conspiracy to Violate the Clean Water Act” that begins on page 4. But the truly damning language comes in the following section, which states the “objects of the conspiracy were to increase the profitability of Appalachian by avoiding certain costs associated with full compliance with the Clean Water Act … and to thus encourage and maintain for Appalachian the patronage of [its] customers.”

Shelton faces up to five years of imprisonment and a fine of up to $250,000. The investigation into Appalachian Labs, however, is ongoing and is being handled by U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, the FBI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Following is a statement from Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator Erin Savage:

The discovery that a lab employee in West Virginia knowingly altered sampling procedures to assure that monitoring reports submitted for coal companies would be in compliance with the Clean Water Act raises serious questions about the reliability of monitoring reports for the coal industry across Central Appalachia.

False reporting of water quality data from mines in Central Appalachia is not unheard of. In 2010, Appalachian Voices uncovered water monitoring reports that contained duplicated data for the three largest mountaintop removal companies in Kentucky. During the period they were submitting erroneous monitoring reports, these companies never reported a single pollution violation.

No criminal charges have been brought in Kentucky in relation to those cases. In light of the charges brought in West Virginia, however, we have to wonder how widespread these criminal practices are. This shocking discovery further highlights the extreme need for state agencies to seriously reevaluate their enforcement efforts and for the EPA to step in when the states do not properly enforce the law.

Updated Oct. 21: Under oath in federal court, Shelton told a judge that coal companies “put a lot of pressure” on labs to get good water data. Read more in The Charleston Gazette.

Hundreds of North Carolinians attend final fracking hearing

Monday, September 22nd, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Hundreds of concerned citizens wait for the hearing to begin.

Hundreds of concerned citizens wait for the hearing to begin.

Earlier this month, hundreds of North Carolinians gathered in Cullowhee, N.C., for the fourth and final public hearing on rules drafted by the N.C. Mining and Energy Commission (MEC) to regulate hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in the state.

The afternoon started with a press conference and rally to show opposition to fracking in North Carolina. About a hundred people joined the rally to hold “No Fracking” signs and listen to a series of speakers including Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams, the mayor of Hayesville, and Ron Gulla, a farmer who travelled from Pennsylvania to speak about his experience living with fracking.

Gulla raises cattle next to a fracking operation, and spoke with great concern about the health issues and increased death rates among his farm animals since drilling began. The farmer brought the some in the crowd to tears as he described the cancer and eventual death that fell upon his neighbor, a fellow rancher and friend named Terry Greenwood, after fracking began on his land.

Speakers Denise DerGarabedian (founder of the Coalition Against Fracking in WNC), Amy Adams, Susan Leading Fox, and Mayor Baughn stand in front of the anti-fracking crowd.

Speakers Denise DerGarabedian (founder of the Coalition Against Fracking in WNC), Amy Adams, Susan Leading Fox, and Mayor Baughn stand in front of the anti-fracking crowd.

The rally concluded with Susan Leading Fox, a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and multi-generational native of western North Carolina. Fox spoke about the social costs that come with the fracking industry, including increased crime rates and displacement of low-income renters. After her emotional speech, her husband sung a Native American song to a steady drum beat, and the crowd listened intently as a prayer was sent out to protect North Carolina from the fracking industry.

After the rally, hundreds filed into the basketball stadium at Western Carolina University for the official hearing. More than 600 people were present, and almost all of them there to oppose fracking.

There was a small contingent of pro-fracking individuals, about 20 out of the 600, who wore bright blue t-shirts that said “Shale Yes!” and hats with “Energy Jobs” stitched in bold letters. When questioned about their position, however, several of them admitted that they had no idea what fracking was and that they were offered a meal to take a bus trip to the hearing. Read more about the how the oil and gas industry bussed in “pro-frackers” here.

During the hearing, more than 70 concerned citizens spoke for three-minute each on the proposed rules. Every single speaker was decidedly against fracking. The comments ranged from the very technical to the very passionate and were always received with cheers from the crowd. A local woman spoke of the need for better enforcement rules and harsher fines to discourage misbehavior from fracking companies, while a man told the crowd that, to him, commenting on the proposed rules for fracking, felt like a prisoner given a choice between death by hanging, death by firing squad, or death by electrocution — he simply did not want fracking. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

In total, more than 1,800 North Carolinians attended the four MEC hearings across the state that began last month and several hundreds gave oral comments. Thousands more are sending written comments to the MEC, which you can take a moment to do before the comment period closes on Sept. 30 by clicking here.

It’s obvious that North Carolinians overwhelmingly do not want fracking. The MEC will now have to consider all comments before finalizing the rules. So far, North Carolinians have sent a loud and clear message: if we can’t completely stop the rush to fracking, the regulations must be much stronger.

After last-minute compromise, N.C. legislature passes coal ash bill

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014 - posted by brian
Duke Energy's retired Dan River coal plant, where a massive coal ash spill in February spurred legislative action.

Duke Energy’s retired Dan River coal plant, where a massive coal ash spill in February spurred legislative action.

However dysfunctional, the North Carolina General Assembly always seems to come together in the end.

On Wednesday afternoon, the N.C. House voted 83 – 14 in favor of a compromise bill on what to do about the state’s coal ash problem. A few hours later, the Senate followed suit. The bill will now go to the governor.

Here’s what Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams said about the bill:

“A far cry from the historic bill lawmakers have touted, this plan chooses just four communities out of 14 across the state to be cleaned up in this decade. The others, our lawmakers have decided, will have to wait for a commission of political appointees to decide their fate.”

We’ll skip the self-congratulatory cheerleading coming out of Raleigh and share more of the finer details in the days and weeks ahead. But suffice it to say, by overlooking the present threats that most of the coal ash sites in the state pose, the final bill comes nowhere close to fulfilling lawmakers’ promises to protect North Carolina’s communities in the wake of the Dan River spill.

Learn more about the bill here.

Mountaintop removal is the 800-pound gorilla at the SOAR Health Impact Series

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Erin

If the SOAR initiative is to go beyond political rhetoric, Rep. Hal Rogers and Gov. Steve Beshear must take public concerns about mountaintop removal’s health impacts seriously.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

Water polluted by mining in eastern Kentucky. Photos by Appalachian Citizens Enforcement Project via Flickr.

I attended the first Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) Summit held in Pikeville, Ky., last December. Following Kentuckians For The Commonwealth’s Appalachia’s Bright Future economic development meeting, I was excited at the prospects such a large summit might generate.

As a joint effort between U.S. Representative Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) and Kentucky’s Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, it was clear that SOAR had the power to make real change in eastern Kentucky, but only if those involved had the will.

The results of SOAR following the summit have been mixed so far. Several people have pointed out issues with the process — specifically, the stakeholders most involved in SOAR may not accurately represent the needs and concerns of eastern Kentuckians. Since the summit, my hope for the outcomes of SOAR have waned. But when I learned that the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, would be visiting eastern Kentucky as part of the SOAR Health Impact Series, I saw an opportunity for the voices of residents from coal-impacted communities in eastern Kentucky counties to be heard.

Making a Clear Case on Mountaintop Removal and Health

Over the past several years, more than 20 peer-reviewed studies have been published linking a range of health problems including above-average cancer and birth defect rates to the presence of mountaintop removal coal mining. Yet just last month, the Obama administration pulled funding from the U.S. Geological Survey for research underway on air pollution from mountaintop removal and its link to respiratory issues. The need for a serious effort to identify and address health issues related to mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia has never been more clear. Despite this, I was not optimistic that Dr. Frieden and Rep. Rogers would address this need during their visit.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Studies investigating mountaintop removal health impacts have found people living near surface mining are 50 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Prior to the CDC visit, the SOAR health committee held 11 listening sessions across eastern Kentucky from April through July. Each of the sessions drew an average of more than 20 participants. Although SOAR has thus far limited the role of key community members in leadership positions, the health committee has provided a forum for some community involvement.

The CDC meetings consisted of four sessions — two shorter evening sessions in Somerset and Paintsville, and two longer daytime sessions in Hazard and Morehead. I attended the daytime session in Hazard last Tuesday, where there was standing room only. Several individuals spoke, including Rep. Rogers and several doctors from eastern Kentucky.

As the morning went on, I began to lose hope that environmental concerns would be brought up. Then, Dr. Nikki Stone, the health committee chair and event moderator, spoke about the issues that came up during the listening sessions. She began listing the top 10 concerns that had come up throughout the listening sessions, and much to my surprise, environmental impacts, including air and water pollution from mountaintop removal mines, was the top concern resulting from the listening sessions, tied with a desire for coordinate health programs in public schools.

To be honest, I was stunned. I was so sure that the topic would be avoided at a meeting that attracted so much attention. Suddenly, I was hopeful that the health impacts of mountaintop removal would receive some real attention from those that have the power to address the issue.

Unfortunately, the rest of the meeting quickly turned back to lengthy speeches about taking personal responsibility for one’s own health and an announcement of federal funding for the Appalachian Cancer Patient Navigation Project. The talks left me with the distinct impression that those speaking would rather focus on dealing with the prevalence of disease, rather than preventing it.

The Health Impact Series did not improve later that evening in Paintsville. The closest mention of environmental impacts on health came from Rep. Rogers, who referred to dirty streams but then went on to blame water quality degradation on people dumping and straight piping waste into streams. It seemed once again that it was easier to blame eastern Kentuckians, rather than the industry they have been beholden to for generations.

The Opportunity Ahead

There was a strong press presence at both meetings, which may have salvaged some chance of addressing the impacts of mountaintop removal. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, when “asked whether he would support having the CDC study the public health effects of mountaintop mining in Central Appalachia, Frieden said the agency ‘only goes where it’s invited.’” Following the disappointing Paintsville meeting, I felt like I had one last opportunity to make the most of the meetings and approached Dr. Frieden fully expecting to be turned away. Instead, he listened carefully for a moment and then directed me to his assistant. I spoke with several CDC employees and was disappointed to find that they were unaware of the multitude of health studies linking health problems to mountaintop removal. They did, however, encourage me to contact them directly for follow up on the issue.

Moving forward, Appalachian Voices and our allies intend to follow up with the CDC, to be sure that they are fully aware of the current research that indicates quite clearly that one of the major health issues we should be concerned about in Central Appalachia is mountaintop removal coal mining. We will be sure that the CDC knows that, at least when it comes to the citizens of eastern Kentucky, the CDC is invited to investigate this pressing issue. We will also be sure that the SOAR Health Committee acts upon its finding that citizens are most concerned about environmental impacts on health, because, as the Herald-Leader stated, “when a congressman and governor invite people to ‘listening sessions,’ there’s an obligation to take what they say seriously.”

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.”

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Seleni-what?

Monday, August 11th, 2014 - posted by Amber Ellis

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.