Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

A growing mine is a growing problem for the Russell Fork River

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 - posted by Erin

Editor’s Note: This post, by Appalachian Voices’ Erin Savage, originally appeared on American Rivers’ blog. Earlier this year, the nonprofit named Central Appalachia’s Russell Fork among America’s Most Endangered Rivers due the threats posed by mountaintop removal coal mining to water quality and surrounding communities.

The Russell Fork snakes through Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentuky border.

The Russell Fork snakes through Breaks Interstate Park along the Virginia-Kentuky border.

The Russell Fork River is threatened by a new coal mine. A bankruptcy saga with the mine’s owner had stalled development in the past year, but things appear to be getting back on track.

The history of the Doe Branch Mine in Southwest Virginia is long and complicated, and its future remains unclear.

The mine is owned by Paramont Coal Company, once a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. Until recently, Alpha was one of the largest mining companies in the country, but is now emerging from bankruptcy. The Doe Branch Mine started with plans for a 245-acre surface coal mine in 2005, but it now has the potential to grow to 1,100 acres. If the current plan moves forward, the mine would include five valley fills and 14 wastewater discharges that would drain into tributaries of the Russell Fork River — a renowned resource in the region for river recreation and the star attraction of the Breaks Interstate Park.

While there is a long history of coal mining in the Russell Fork watershed, water quality in the river has improved over the last several decades due to better regulations and the watchful eye of local residents. At a time when coal mining is declining in Appalachia, the Doe Branch mine is among the largest mines still being pursued in Southwest Virginia, and it would undoubtedly lead to significant water quality impacts.

The Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork River.

The Doe Branch Mine and watershed connections to the Russell Fork.

The mine is also part of a large, controversial highway construction project known as the Coalfields Expressway. Some believe the Expressway will bring much needed economic development opportunities to the region, but others believe it unnecessarily enables additional surface mining and does not adequately consider what is best for nearby communities. Though a portion of the Doe Branch Mine has been approved by state and federal agencies, the expansion does not have final approval. Little work has been started on any portion of the mine over the last decade, beyond some tree clearing.

In 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an objection to the company’s application to increase the size of the mine. Specifically, the EPA objected to the application for additional wastewater permits under the Clean Water Act. The wastewater would be discharged into several tributaries of the Russell Fork that are already impaired by mining-related pollutants, according to Virginia’s list of impaired waterways. In order to secure discharge permits, the company must show that it will not increase the overall impairment of the watershed.

Trends for coal production in Central Appalachia. The decline has continued into 2015 and 2016.

Trends for coal production in Central Appalachia. The decline has continued into 2015 and 2016.

Since hitting its peak in 2008, coal production in Central Appalachia has declined precipitously. Alpha’s dominance in the Central Appalachian coal market has not shielded it from the economic downturn. The company declared bankruptcy in August 2015, creating a lull in the Doe Branch permit application process.

On July 26, 2016, Alpha announced its emergence from Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The plan to emerge from bankruptcy involves the formation of two new companies. One is a privately held, smaller Alpha, which will retain most of the Central Appalachian mines. The other is Contura Energy, formed by Alpha’s senior lenders, which purchased Alpha’s Wyoming, Pennsylvania and better-performing Central Appalachian mines. Doe Branch is included in the short list of Central Appalachian mines that Contura will own.

Before emerging from bankruptcy, Alpha stated that the Doe Branch Mine is not part of its 10 year plan. Now that Contura owns Doe Branch, the mine may be more likely to move forward. Just last month, a new Clean Water Act permit draft was issued by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. This new draft may be an attempt to address the objections raised by the EPA. Given the importance of the Russell Fork, the damage already done to its tributaries by mining, and the need for a serious economic shift in the region, the EPA should uphold its objection to this mine. Urge them to do so now.

Join Appalachian Voices and American Rivers in asking the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to deny Contura’s permit request for the Doe Branch Mine.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline could face further delays

Friday, September 9th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

U.S. Forest Service comments could push back pipeline construction

Laurel Run, a wild trout stream in the path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

Laurel Run, a wild trout stream in the path of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

In a letter sent to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on Sept. 1, the U.S. Forest Service voiced concerns that the proposed route for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline could threaten several streams in the George Washington National Forest.

In particular, the USFS said it was “highly concerned” about the potential impacts on the Laurel Run Stream in Bath County, Va.

In the most recent route for the proposed pipeline, this stream — home to wild brook trout — would not only be crossed by the pipeline itself, but it would be paralleled for nearly its entire length by an access road that would also cross it several times. The USFS called this “unacceptable.”

In its letter, the Forest Service also raised concerns about several streams in Augusta County that would also be crossed by the proposed routes for both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and its access roads.

These roads and the pipeline pose many risks, including to our forests’ streams and rivers. They would fragment habitats and threaten the species that live there, cause soil erosion and reduce water quality. For the trout populations, siltation is of particular concern.

According to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, brook trout are the only trout species native to Virginia, but this cold water fish has a “very low ability to reproduce.” In order to protect the silt-free gravel stream beds where trout spawns, the forest plan for the George Washington National Forest restricts activities that could disrupt the streams between Oct. 1 and April 1.

The Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, however, reports that “Dominion has indicated an intent to proceed with accelerated winter-time construction and to request waivers for time-of-year restrictions and other important environmental requirements.”

But there’s reason to believe that the Forest Service would deny Dominion’s request for a waiver and protect the reproduction cycle of the trout. In its September letter, the Forest Service “request[ed] that [Atlantic Coast Pipeline, LLC] re-evaluate its proposed stream crossings and proposed locations of access roads, while considering Forest Plan standards and [best management practices] relating to soil and water.”

This is good news for the environmental groups and impacted community members who are fighting to stop the construction of this pipeline.

“At the very least, this will push back Dominion’s timeline for release of its Draft Environmental Impact Statement which was previously set for December, 2016 release,” said Ernie Reed, Wild Virginia President, in a statement. “Or it could be another nail in the coffin for this misguided and unnecessary project.”

For more about the potential risk caused by the Atlantic Coast Pipeline access roads, visit the Ground Truth About ACP Access Roads.

Cleaning Up A Mess: Coal Ash Across Appalachia

Friday, August 12th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Hannah Petersen and Elizabeth E. Payne

Little Blue Run in Pennsylvania is the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Little Blue Run in Pennsylvania is the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Shortly past midnight on the morning of Dec. 22, 2008, a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., ruptured. In the nightmare that followed, more than 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash rushed from a storage impoundment into nearby rivers, covering at least 300 acres with toxic sludge.

This was the nation’s largest coal ash spill, yet in the six years that followed no federal rule was passed to prevent such a disaster from happening again. And then it did.

On Feb. 2, 2014, a pipe running beneath a coal ash impoundment in Eden, N.C., failed. As a result 39,000 tons of coal ash, together with 27 million gallons of contaminated water, spilled into the nearby Dan River.

These two major spills brought national attention to the dangers of coal ash, as advocates and residents dealt with both the damage and lack of state and federal oversight that allowed for the disasters.

The Making of a Mess

Barbara Morales of Belmont, N.C., speaks about coal ash cleanup at a public hearing. Photo by Appalachian Voices

Barbara Morales of Belmont, N.C., speaks about coal ash cleanup at a public hearing. Photo by Appalachian Voices

Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal to create electricity. Nearly 140 million tons are produced each year in the United States. The ash contains heavy metals and contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium that can pollute water sources if not properly managed. These pollutants have been linked to negative health effects including cancer, reproductive problems and lung disease, according to Physicians For Social Responsibility.

The majority of the coal ash across the country is stored near waterways in unlined wet impoundments. Scientists at Duke University have recently proven that this form of storage threatens the quality of water and health of communities nearby, when the toxins can leak out of the pits into ground and surface water.

In 2012, Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to regulate coal ash on behalf of 11 groups including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this paper, and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. At that time, there was no federal rule surrounding coal ash storage or cleanup, and this toxic waste product was less regulated than household trash.

In December 2014, the EPA released a long-awaited federal rule for coal ash disposal. The rule lays out guidelines for greater monitoring for dust and groundwater contamination, publication of monitoring data, and regular inspections of the containment facilities. The rule also established deadlines for closing ponds, but allows for a practice called “cap-in-place.” This closure method allows the utilities to leave the ash in an unlined pond and to simply cover the impoundment with a liner, which doesn’t prevent the ash from entering the groundwater.

The 2008 Kingston spill was the worst coal ash disaster in United States history. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The 2008 Kingston spill was the worst coal ash disaster in United States history. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But the rule also classifies coal ash as a solid — not hazardous — waste, the opposite of what the advocacy groups had requested. A hazardous classification would have required all states to adopt the EPA rule as a minimum standard for coal ash disposal, and set stricter national standards.

Given the solid waste classification, it’s mandatory for utilities that produce coal ash to follow the EPA’s rule, but it’s optional for states. This means that utilities must monitor their facility’s actions in accordance with the EPA standards, but the state doesn’t have to enforce compliance. Without the state regulators ensuring that facilities are meeting federal standards, the responsibility falls on citizens. To enforce the regulations, citizens can file lawsuits against the utilities for non-compliance.

“We see in state after state, that the state bends to the will of industry,” says Rhiannon Fionn, an independent journalist and filmmaker who has covered coal ash since 2009. “That’s the biggest thing about the EPA regulation, it’s leaving so much on the shoulders of the people.”

North Carolina resident Amy Brown lives near a Duke Energy coal ash impoundment and lives with elevated levels of heavy metals in her well water. “Unless you have to fight for protection, you have no clue that you even need to fight for protection, because you assume that the government is doing their job to make sure that everything is taken care of in an appropriate way,” says Brown.

The Buck Steam Station coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. Photo © Les Stone / Greenpeace

The Buck Steam Station coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. Photo © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Responding to the Mess

Appalachian states have relied heavily on coal as a source of energy. As a result, they now have a legacy of coal ash that threatens to burst free of aging dams or to leach toxins into surrounding water sources. And in most states, the volume of coal ash continues to grow by millions of tons each year.

The regulations passed by the EPA in 2014 provided guidelines for how states could address this problem. While some states have taken actions toward cleanup, no Appalachian states have adopted the EPA regulations. Instead states have taken varied approaches toward regulating cleanup.

    North Carolina

  • Coal ash generated annually: 5.5 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: If Duke Energy provides water to residents and fixes dam problems, it can follow EPA guidelines instead of previous state requirements.
  • State fact: A new law overturns the state’s previous, stricter coal ash law.

    South Carolina

  • Coal ash generated annually: 2.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: All coal ash near waterways is being excavated and moved to lined storage.
  • State fact: First state in Southeast to commit to full excavation.

The Carolinas

Perhaps nowhere is the contrast between cleanup efforts more stark than in North and South Carolina.

Under pressure from the Southern Environmental Law Center and other advocacy groups, the three main utilities in South Carolina have committed to cleaning up their coal ash. As of 2015, the utilities have pledged to excavate approximately 20 million tons of ash, removing all impoundments located along waterways to dry, lined storage, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

South Carolina is the first state in the Southeast to commit to full excavation of its coal ash impoundments. North Carolina has taken a different path.

“What happened in North Carolina — which did not happen in South Carolina — is the state agency tried to block and obstruct the enforcement of clean water laws by us and local conservation groups,” says Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has worked on coal ash issues in both states. Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, is among the groups advocating for stronger coal ash cleanup rules in the state.

Following the Dan River spill in 2014, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act, which established guidelines for cleaning up the state’s coal ash that were more rigorous than regulations passed later that year by the EPA.

The law also created a commission to oversee the process, which was disbanded by Gov. Pat McCrory in March of this year.

In accordance with the 2014 law, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality determined timelines and levels of cleanup for each impoundment across the state by classifying each as either low, intermediate or high priority. But in July of this year, the governor passed legislation that overturned these rankings and reduced Duke’s cleanup responsibility.

While the new law requires provision of water to residents near impoundments who have not been drinking their water for over a year because of elevated levels of heavy metals, it also delays the deadlines for cleanup and requires the DEQ to classify intermediate-risk ponds as low risk if Duke Energy takes measures to fix leaking dams and provides water.

The bill also allows low-risk sites to be closed according to the EPA’s federal coal ash rule, which is less stringent than North Carolina’s original requirements.

    Tennessee

  • Coal ash generated annually: 3.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State fact: The 2008 Kingston spill is the largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history.

    Alabama

  • Coal ash generated annually: 3.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State Fact: Residents are being sued for libel for speaking out against nearby coal ash.

    Georgia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 6.1 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State Fact: Only 7 percent of Georgia’s coal ash dams have been inspected by the state in the past five years.

Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia

In Tennessee, cleanup of the 2008 Kingston spill has progressed, but the Tennessee Valley Authority has made no plan to remove impoundments statewide.

Instead, TVA released a report in December 2015 outlining its intention to cap-in-place. Citizen and environmental groups have challenged this decision. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the drinking water of three million people is downstream of TVA’s unlined, leaking coal ash impoundments in both Tennessee and Alabama.

“TVA should do the right thing, as other utilities are doing, clean up these polluting ash ponds and remove the toxic contents to secure, lined, dry storage facilities away from our waterways,” Charles Rose, president of the Alabama-based Shoal Environmental Alliance, told the TimesDaily in June.

Alabama Power and Georgia Power, subsidiaries of Southern Company serving their respective states, have both announced that they will close their coal ash ponds. Alabama Power hasn’t released a timetable for closure or details on how the ash will be handled, but Georgia Power has released a plan to excavate 19 sites and cap 13 in place over the next 14 years, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

As part of the cleanup of the 2008 disaster in Kingston, Tenn., four million tons of coal ash were shipped to the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, Ala.

Dozens of workers who cleaned up the spill have filed lawsuits against the contractor claiming that they were told the ash was safe, were not given proper protection and are now suffering health consequences, according to the Center For Public Integrity.

In April of this year, owners of the Uniontown landfill brought a $30 million suit for libel against four local residents, and also sued two of the four for defamation. The residents, members of grassroots group Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, had spoken out about environmental and health risks associated with the landfill’s coal ash.

    Virginia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 2.4 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State fact: Home to the only unlined impoundment along the southeastern coast without a plan for excavation.

    West Virginia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 7.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: The state’s solid waste rule applies only to coal ash impoundments built after May 1, 1990.
  • State fact: Many of the state’s coal ash ponds were built before May 1, 1990.

    Kentucky

  • Coal ash generated annually: 9 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place, and legislation mirroring the EPA’s is being drafted.
  • State Fact: Doesn’t require groundwater monitoring or emergency action planning at all sites.

Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky

Coal ash disposal in Virginia is making national news this summer, as the commonwealth hosts the first federal-level court case to address one utility’s violation of the Clean Water Act. Testimony ended in June in the Sierra Club and Southern Environmental Law Center’s suit alleging that arsenic leaching from impoundments at Dominion Virginia Power’s retired Chesapeake Energy Center had contaminated surrounding water.

ABC News reports that the ruling “could have far-reaching effects on how energy companies dispose of coal ash waste left over from decades of burning coal.”

Dominion’s plan for cleaning up the coal ash in Virginia relies heavily on discharging the water into surrounding waterways and then capping the impoundments in place.

West Virginia has not adopted the EPA standards and regulates coal ash disposal based on the state’s Solid Waste Management Rule. This rule exempts coal ash impoundments built before May 1, 1990, from following all requirements except for groundwater monitoring. According to Earthjustice, at least 12 of the impoundments in the were built before 1990.

In Kentucky, utilities are increasingly using dry storage for newly produced coal ash, but opting to cap-in-place many existing impoundments. Seven dams across the state are rated high hazard according to Earthjustice, meaning failure could result in the loss of human life. The state is drafting legislation that enforces the EPA rule, but doesn’t require emergency response plans.


Pennsylvania and Ohio

    Pennsylvania

  • Coal ash generated annually: 15.4 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Unknown.
  • State fact: Home to the largest coal ash impoundment in the U.S

    Ohio

  • Coal ash generated annually: 10 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities haven’t announced plans.
  • State fact: In 2002, a utility bought a town near their coal plant for $20 million to gain future amnesty.

The nation’s largest coal ash containment pond is primarily in Pennsylvania and also encroaches into Ohio and West Virginia. The forty-year-old impoundment at Little Blue Run stores ash produced by FirstEnergy Corp.’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant. The 1,700-acre site has been used to dispose of more than 20 billion gallons of coal ash waste.

Three years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered the site to be closed and stop receiving new coal ash by the end of 2016.

The closure of Little Blue Run will require cleanup of that site and a new plan for disposal of coal ash produced in the future. One plan being considered is to ship the coal ash to LaBelle, Penn., and use it to fill an abandoned coal mine.

The EPA considers this form of disposal a “beneficial use” and does not regulate it. The U.S. Department of the Interior has the authority to set standards but has yet to compile regulations.

Residents of LaBelle are fighting to prevent the coal ash from coming to their community.

In July, FirstEnergy announced plans to close five of its Ohio coal-fired plants by 2020. The state has retired more coal-fired capacity since 2010 than any other state, according to Earthjustice.

But the pace of coal ash cleanup is lagging behind. “Ohio is one of the largest coal ash producers in the country, and they have some of the worst state regulations,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at EarthJustice, told WCPO News in June.

People Impacted by the Mess

Annette and William Gibbs

Annette and William Gibbs live in Perry County, Ala., near a landfill that now contains four million tons of coal ash from the 2008 Kingston spill. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

As states delay cleanup efforts and lawsuits are challenged in court, coal ash continues to disproportionately affect low income and minority communities. Almost 70 percent of coal ash ponds are in areas with household incomes below the national median, Evans testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment in 2013.

“Self-implementing rules rely on citizen enforcement,” Evans says. “Citizen enforcement relies on resources. So the communities that are worst off when there’s a self-implementing rule are those communities that cannot afford to monitor compliance and cannot afford legal representation when non-compliance is discovered.”

“These citizens who already feel so isolated because they are poor, feel even more isolated when they are following the protocol, making the complaints and not seeing any relief,” says filmmaker Rhiannon Fionn.

Communities throughout Appalachia experience coal ash and its toxic effects in different ways. For some, like the citizens in Uniontown, Ala., their problems began when ash and its putrid smell was relocated to their area, despite residents’ objections.

For others, like Kentucky residents whose drinking water comes from the Ohio River, contaminants have been seeping into their communities’ water supplies for decades through Louisville Gas and Electric’s permitted but unmonitored discharge pipe. Still others, like prisoners at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute, saw elevated numbers of cancer cases and deaths linked to coal ash blowing onto prison grounds from a nearby impoundment, according to Scientific American.

Coal ash is impacting communities across the southeast in different ways. But from state to state, residents bear the responsibility of leading the fight for cleanup.

“I’m just like any other mother, I drive my kids to practice and have sports equipment in my minivan. The only difference is that I have to fight to protect my children from our water,” says Amy Brown. “Sitting down on the couch and relying on the state, expecting they will do the right thing, isn’t an option anymore. No one will fight for my children the way I will.”

Rebukes, a resignation and more reasons to worry about coal ash in NC

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 - posted by brian

In the war of words over drinking water health advisories between state employees and the McCrory administration, residents are clear on who they trust

North Carolina state epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from ncdhhs.gov

North Carolina state epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from ncdhhs.gov

North Carolina’s state epidemiologist, Megan Davies, abruptly resigned from her position last night, writing in a letter that “I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

The department she is referring to is the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where she worked for eight years. The administration is that of Gov. Pat McCrory, whose time in office has been tainted by his mishandling of the statewide problem of coal ash pollution.

Davies’ resignation is just the latest development in a public tussle between state employees and the McCrory administration that escalated last week when the transcript of sworn testimony by Dr. Ken Rudo, a toxicologist at DHHS, became public.

Rudo’s testimony raises troubling questions about the role leaders at DHHS and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had in downplaying the “Do Not Drink” warnings issued last year to hundreds of families on well water that live near Duke Energy coal ash sites. It also implicates McCrory’s office directly, with Rudo stating that he was called to the governor’s mansion to discuss the warnings and how to ease residents’ concerns about water contamination potentially caused by coal ash.

During his deposition, Rudo told lawyers that members of the McCrory administration wanted to tone down the warnings with language that “would not have been acceptable to me.”

News has happened fast since Rudo’s remarks became public and, when they probably should have played defense, high-ranking officials in the McCrory administration went on the attack.

On Tuesday, McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, repeatedly accused Rudo of lying. The next day, the administration released an editorial signed by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and Deputy Secretary for Health Services at DHHS, Dr. Randall Williams, that attacked Rudo for reaching “questionable and inconsistent” scientific conclusions and creating “unnecessary fear and confusion among North Carolinians who are concerned about the safety of their drinking water.”

Rudo stood by his deposition following the accusations by McCrory’s office. And, after the editorial, he released through his lawyers a point-by-point rebuttal of Reeder and Williams.

He’s not alone. Davies — who was Rudo’s superior at DHHS — also told lawyers under oath that she did not agree with the decision to lift the “Do Not Drink” warnings. She also stated that representatives of Duke Energy met with DHHS about the health screening levels set for well water and that she believes the department deliberately misled the public.

Based on Davies’ letter of resignation, it is that belief and the deliberately misleading editorial that led her to resign:

“Upon reading the open editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public. I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

So where does all this leave North Carolinians with contaminated drinking water? Exactly where they were before, as distrustful of DEQ and DHHS as they are of their water’s safety.

On Thursday morning, members of the Alliance for Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash held a press conference outside of the governor’s mansion where they defended Rudo and Davies for putting public health first and made it clear who they trust.

New law puts coal ash progress in NC at risk

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016 - posted by interns
Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.

Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.

By Hannah Petersen

In May, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the final rankings for Duke’s coal ash impoundments in accordance with deadlines set by the Coal Ash Management Act.

Every impoundment in the state was classified as either “high” or “intermediate” risk, meaning the ash would have to be excavated and stored in a lined landfill. After years of attending public hearings and submitting comments to advocate for access to clean water for all North Carolinians, residents finally witnessed DEQ order Duke Energy to clean up all of the coal ash across the state.

For a moment, it appeared that the state had made progress with its coal ash policies. But in the same press release that announced the final rankings, DEQ asked to revisit them in 18 months. This would effectively give Duke time to remediate dam deficiencies and ultimately lead to a lower classification.

Six days after the department announced the rankings, the N.C. General Assembly announced the revision of Senate Bill 71, which would reinstate the Coal Ash Commission that Gov. Pat McCrory shut down in early March and extend deadlines for cleanup. McCrory vetoed the bill and, despite having enough votes to override, both the state House and Senate instead decided to drop the bill and create a new compromise bill at the end of the legislature’s 2016 short session.

A New Coal Ash Law

The rushed introduction, concurrence and signing of House Bill 630 puts at risk many aspects of the progress that residents and environmental groups have made since the introduction of the Coal Ash Management Act in 2014. The new law requires Duke to provide clean water to residents living within half a mile of coal ash impoundments, while leaving the door open for the company to cap coal ash ponds in place.

“If they go through with putting in water lines to our community, that’s a great step in the right direction, but it’s a half a step, it’s not getting all the way there by cleaning up the ash,” said Roger Hollis, a neighbor of Duke Energy’s Cliffside plant in Cleveland County, N.C., in an ACT Against Coal Ash press release.

In exchange for providing clean water, DEQ is required to classify impoundments as “low risk” so long as dam deficiencies are addressed. This classification largely ignores the environmental risks associated with the ash’s presence and simply buries the problem instead of remediating it. As a low-risk impoundment, the law permits capping in place as a closure option, despite the proximity of the impoundment to groundwater.

The new law also pushes back the deadline for when an alternative water source is to be provided to residents near coal ash sites and for when the rankings are considered final to October and November of 2018, respectively. Alongside the deadlines, HB 630 expands DEQ’s authority to grant extensions and variances for Duke Energy’s cleanup timeline.

“It satisfies everyone, because we weren’t a factor anyway,” said Amy Brown, who lives near Duke’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C. “The lawmakers didn’t include who is going to pay for the water bill, who is going to pay for plumbing, who is going to pay a regulator, and who is going to pay for new piping because we have old homes. No one included all that.”

“They presented it in a pretty package. And the outside is, ‘you’re going to get water,’” Brown said. “They didn’t show the inside, which is dirty toxic contaminants that are going to be left in place. They passed this problem onto my children now.”

“The legislature has done what Duke Energy’s lobbyists told it to do, threw thousands of public comments in the trash can, and protected Duke Energy while sacrificing the well-being of North Carolina’s clean water and communities,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a written statement.

Duke’s request to block release of deposition

The Southern Environmental Law Center is involved with a variety of lawsuits regarding coal ash across the state. Around the time that the risk rankings were finalized and new bills were being debated, SELC lawyers released transcripts of the depositions of state employees and scientists that they conducted.

In May, SELC released the deposition of Megan Davies, state epidemiologist for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which highlighted the lack of consensus surrounding the “Do Not Drink” letters that had been sent out across the state and later rescinded. In the deposition, Davies admits that she thought the letters should not have been rescinded and that no on-the-ground testing had been done to determine that residents’ well water was safe to drink.

State toxicologist Ken Rudo was deposed in July, but Duke has asked a federal judge to block the release of the deposition. Rudo had expressed skepticism about the rescinding of the “Do Not Drink” letters earlier in July, but Duke claims releasing the deposition publicly infringes upon its right to a free trial.

“How dare you try to stop the public from hearing from a state employee,” said Brown. “This is a man we trust. He gained our trust when he treated us like human beings and called every person to make sure we understood what the ‘Do Not Drink’ letters meant.”

“I want to be able to say that I trust my state,” Brown said. “I want to say that the system didn’t fail us, but at this point I can’t, because they haven’t proven it.”

A good idea is right under your nose

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Greensboro, N.C. artist and activist Caroline Armijo grew up in Stokes County, N.C., near one of the state’s largest coal ash impoundments. This post originally appeared on Caroline’s website.

Caroline Armijo

Caroline Armijo

Last summer, as I was pondering about how to resolve this coal ash situation, I came across these words of wisdom on the bottom of a coffee bag: “A good idea is right under your nose.” I cut it out and placed it on a coal ash ideas collage that has been hanging in my closet for the last year. Granted, the collage is incomplete.

But this recent opinion piece from the Greensboro New & Record, based on a more in-depth report on a coal ash breakthrough, reminds me that perhaps we are that much closer to a solution than we think.

In June 2014, I read an article featuring a professor from North Carolina A&T University who created Eco-Core, a material to be used in submarines because of its exceptional resistance to fire. I kept wondering about the project over the next 18 months. I finally reached out to them in February.

When I first met with Professor Kunigal Shivakumar and Wade Brown, I told them stories of my loved ones from Belews Creek and about the illness and devastation found in all of the communities surrounding coal ash pits. Even though they had been working in the industry for 15 years or longer, they had no idea of these issues. However, they did have a new product, which can be molded and shaped into anything you can dream of! They were looking to create a wide range of marketable products, like chair railings or sound barriers. I loved that the lab reminded me a lot of an art studio. Yet, we had more serious matters at hand than art projects.

I asked if they could start with creating an alternative to the current landfill model. Professor Shivakumar said something beautiful about once you know the truth, you are able to find a solution. And so they started working on a prototype for a coal ash block, which can be created in any size, but ideally a half-ton to a ton. But more importantly, the block can be ground up by manufacturers and reused as technology advances.

From what I have gathered over my years of advocacy, coal ash is safest in a solid state.

FullSizeRender_2-1400x1050

I do not like landfills because they cause a spike in pollution as the ash is excavated and transported long distances via trucks and rail cars. Landfills come with a built-in need for a leachate system that requires monitoring. And landfills are likely to fail, as the bulldozers that install the plastic barrier often puncture it during the installation process. Plus, people really do not have a say as to when these landfills are placed in their communities. Their property values plummet, often followed by a decline in health. At the end of the day, it seems like an extremely expensive solution that still places our people and environment at risk. We can do better.

We demand a better way.

This coal ash block does just that. It eliminates the massive transportation needed to transport the 150 million tons of coal ash (in North Carolina alone) to off-site landfills in an unwelcoming community. The blocks can be made and stored on site. There is no leachate. There is no need for long-term monitoring. Plus the ash, which seems like an overwhelming waste now, can be safely stored for reuse as a valuable resource. It provides both short- and long-term solutions.

One night this spring, I woke up to write down a thought that came to me: We need to save these blocks. One day they will be more valuable than gold. At least one other person believes this is true.

Coal ash is an incredibly complex issue plaguing our world. Yes, the pollution will likely get worse before it gets better. But we know that groundwater quality will improve because of the clean-up happening in South Carolina. I understand that this is just one of multiple approaches that must be made to address this issue. Perhaps wetlands, bioremediation, reuse in the cement industry, and other technologies combined together will result in a solution that will lead to the healing of these spaces and our people. I am open to exploring any and all ideas. My motto is expect the best, get the best. And if it costs less than the current solution (landfills), even better.

This week, we return to DC for Moms Clean Air Force Play-In For Climate Action. This time I am bringing with me a solution inspired by my son’s favorite brand of toys – Lego. Watching him play led to a good idea from right under my nose. (And often under my feet!) As we speak, Lucy is explaining to Oliver that this block is made of coal ash. It’s a pretty simple idea. Even kids get it.

West Virginia files Clean Water Act suit against Kanawha County mine

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016 - posted by willie
Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. 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. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has brought a lawsuit against Florida-based Keystone Industries over a series of Clean Water Act violations at the controversial KD #2 surface mine.

The 413-acre mountaintop removal mine in southern Kanawha County, W.Va., has been met with much opposition by local residents and others concerned about the mine’s impacts on nearby communities and on Kanawha State Forest, which borders the mine.

The suit, filed on March 9 in the Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleges that runoff from the KD #2 mine contains measurements of aluminum, iron, manganese, selenium, total suspended solids and pH that are in violation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit granted to Keystone Industries under the Clean Water Act. The primary evidence supporting this claim is the company’s own quarterly discharge monitoring reports submitted to the DEP.

The Kanawha Forest Coalition, a grassroots environmental watchdog group comprised of local community members, has conducted water monitoring at the site since shortly after the mine began operating in 2014. Through these efforts, the coalition has identified numerous and persistent regulatory violations, prompting the DEP to issue 40 enforcement actions against the KD #2 mine to date.

“It was shocking to realize that it was through citizen complaints, and not DEP monitoring, that our land was being protected,” said Becky Park, a Kanawha Forest Coalition member from Charleston. “What it boils down to is we are the government. We can’t assume that DEP employees are monitoring permitted mining operations. We have to read the permits, understand the agreements made with mining companies, be willing to use the systems in place to submit complaints, and go to court when the systems fail to stop violators.”

Daile Boulis, who lives in the community of Loudendale immediately adjacent to the KD #2 mine feels similarly.

“From what I understand, this is one of best written permits in the state, and still, there are forty violations in two years? Imagine what the company would be getting away with, without the citizen enforcement and public media exposure? The same thing goes for the DEP,” said Boulis. “The only reason 75-80% of the violations have been enforced and fined is due to pressure from the Kanawha Forest Coalition. When you consider all of the other mines in West Virginia that don’t have a group like Kanawha Forest Coalition working on behalf of the impacted citizens, that’s terrifying! Our lives should not be the cost of doing business in West Virginia.”

By initiating its own suit against Keystone Industries, the DEP has prevented the Kanawha Forest Coalition or other grassroots organizations from filing suit on similar grounds. However, the organization may choose to file as an intervenor in the case, a move that would earn them a seat at the table — but not veto power — in potential future settlement negotiations with Keystone.

Doug Wood, a retired DEP official with 33 years of experience in water resources, is skeptical of his former agency’s motives in bringing this case against Keystone.

“This lawsuit seems to be an attempt to stop advocates from filing their own suits, and an attempt to get a little money to start water pollution treatment when Keystone says, ‘keep the bond, we’re outta here,’” said Wood. “… The DEP seems to be most interested in getting a court settlement so they can say, ‘we solved that problem’ even though the systemic problems that led to this disaster remain unsolved.”

The DEP’s suit against Keystone is expected to go to trial in spring 2017. Meanwhile, the Kanawha Forest Coalition continues to monitor conditions at the mine, regularly testing impacted streams and alerting the DEP of persistent problems.

An open letter to the North Carolina General Assembly

Monday, June 27th, 2016 - posted by brian

Editor’s note: The following post is an open letter to North Carolina lawmakers from citizens threatened by coal ash pollution across the state that came together last year to form the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Read our recent coverage for more information on where coal ash cleanup stands in the legislature.

Members of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash hold a press conference outside of a public hearing in March.

Members of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash hold a press conference outside of a public hearing in March.

To the Members of the N.C. General Assembly:

Since the Dan River coal ash spill in February 2014, seldom has a day passed in North Carolina when coal ash is not in the news; the disposition of coal ash in North Carolina is of vital importance to public health and the environment. Our communities are being profoundly impacted: some of us already living day to day with contaminated water and air, and others are facing new impacts in areas which have been targeted for the disposal of coal ash.

During the summer of 2015, North Carolina communities previously impacted by coal ash, and those currently dealing with new coal ash landfills, joined together with a shared vision and common goal to form the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Believing that the coal ash emergency in North Carolina deserves a real, comprehensive solution that will protect all communities, we crafted the ACT Against Coal Ash unifying principles. A few of the key principles are below, and the full document can be found here.

Please don’t let this short session close without taking action to assure that communities near coal ash sites have safe replacement water supplies as soon as possible, that communities facing new coal ash landfills are protected and that cleanups move forward quickly, with no “capping in place.”

We believe that all people, regardless of race and socio-economic class, have a right to healthy communities, clean water, clean air, and safe food and soil.

We believe that living in close proximity to coal ash infringes on these basic rights.

We demand a transparent process to coal ash cleanup in which Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers are open and honest about the health effects of chemicals found in coal ash, and any plans for disposal or recycling coal ash.

We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to urgently respond to the need to test any water supply well that may have been contaminated by coal ash, not just those within 1,000 feet. The tests must be paid for by Duke and performed by an independent lab using the most sensitive and comprehensive testing methods.

We call on N.C. decision makers to require Duke Energy to pay for independent oversight of the coal ash cleanup process, independent analysis of current coal ash contamination, research by public and private entities to find the best solutions to this problem, and random and unannounced inspections of the coal ash sites by state regulators.

We demand that N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy prioritize worker safety during all phases of coal ash cleanup and site remediation.

We call on N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy to strive for a permanent solution to coal ash that prioritizes community safety. We demand that any coal ash that cannot be safely recycled or processed be stored on Duke Energy property with the company maintaining liability. We will not accept dumping of the ash in other communities or capping-in-place as solutions. We demand that the ash be urgently isolated from ground and surface water at all locations.

We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to invest in a sustainable, healthy, affordable, and responsible energy future for N.C. that supports the growth of solar, wind energy, and energy efficiency programs, and moves away from coal, natural gas, and other harmful and expensive methods of generating power that poison communities and affect North Carolinians’ quality of life.

As our elected representatives, you have the opportunity — and responsibility — to do what is right for the residents of North Carolina. We call on the General Assembly to make sure no community is left to suffer from coal ash now, or in the future.

Sincerely,

The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash
actagainstcoalash.org

Individual community representatives:

Bobby Jones, representing Down East Coal Ash Coalition, Goldsboro
Caroline Armijo, representing Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup, Belews Creek
Roger Hollis, representing residents near Cliffside / Rogers Energy Complex
Debbie Baker and Amy Brown, representing neighbors of Allen Steam Station
Jeri Cruz-Segarra, representing resident near Asheville Steam Station
John Wagner and Judy Hogan, representing Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dumps
Deborah B. Graham, representing neighbors of Buck Steam Station

Coal ash controversy continues in North Carolina

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Hannah Petersen

A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality's risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state.

A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state. Click to enlarge.

UPDATE: As of June 22, North Carolina lawmakers had taken no further action on legislation related to coal ash cleanup in the state.

On May 18, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the rankings for Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments across the state following 15 public hearings throughout March.

Eight sites are classified “high priority,” meaning the impoundments must be closed and the toxic ash excavated and moved to a lined landfill by 2019. Duke has already agreed to fully excavate these sites. The remaining 25 were ranked intermediate and must be closed and excavated by 2024. It will be Duke’s decision as to whether the intermediate sites’ ash remains on Duke property or is moved to sites such as those in Chatham or Lee counties.

But those rankings could still change. DEQ requested a change to the state law governing coal ash disposal and asked the General Assembly for an 18-month extension during which Duke Energy can take action to remediate issues such as dam deficiencies, one of the key factors leading to the intermediate classifications.

DEQ officials also say that providing water to communities around the impoundments will alleviate drinking water quality concerns, another key factor. Giving Duke 18 months to make these changes would likely cause DEQ to reclassify the sites, opening the door for Duke to cap ponds in place. Citizens living near coal ash sites disagree with DEQ’s suggestion.

“Residents are angered that DEQ is already asking the legislature to consider changing the coal ash law in 18 months, likely creating further delays and loopholes,” according to The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash — a coalition of community members directly impacted by the state’s coal ash.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, an independent commission is required to approve DEQ’s rankings within 60 days. But that commission no longer exists. In March, Gov. McCrory disbanded the state Coal Ash Management Commission after the state Supreme Court found that the commission appointment process encroached on the executive branch’s power.

Citizens waitiing for clean water

On May 24, however, the legislature announced that it was currently revising Senate Bill 71 to reestablish the commission and provide future regulation for coal ash cleanup. Under the current writing of the bill the commission would have seven members, five of whom would be appointed by McCrory. Duke would have to provide water to residents within half a mile of coal ash impoundments. And if the appointed commission does not approve of the rankings within 120 days after recommendations, the rankings would be rejected.

The bill could relieve Duke from the responsibility of excavating coal ash threatening the water quality and harming nearby residents by causing air quality concerns and reducing property values.

Both the state House and Senate have approved the bill, but Gov. McCrory has vetoed it saying that it “weakens environmental protections, delays water connections for well owners, ignores dam safety, hinders efforts to reuse coal ash and violate the state constitution.”

Both the House and the Senate have enough votes to override the veto, but it now appears unlikely that lawmakers will take action.

“This bill is the latest attempt by Raleigh politicians to bail out Duke Energy,” said Frank Holleman in a statement for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Now, after heavy lobbying by Duke Energy, the Raleigh politicians want to reopen the process to try to find a way to let Duke Energy off the hook.”

While the law has been the center of attention for policymakers, it also concerns North Carolinians.

“This is a way for Duke to wiggle out of fixing the problem,” says Doris Smith, a Walnut Cove resident who lives roughly two miles from Duke’s Belews Creek Power Station, which was ranked intermediate. “And providing water does nothing for the pollution. The only solution is to get the ash out of here.”

Last year, more than 300 residents living near Duke Energy coal ash ponds were sent “Do Not Drink” letters from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services informing them of unsafe levels of heavy metals in their well water including hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen. This March, the state agencies rescinded the majority of these letters claiming that further studies revealed the recommendations were overly cautious.

But no well testing or on the ground studies had occurred. DHHS State Epidemiologist Megan Davies revealed during a deposition that the “extensive study” that the letters referenced were actually literature reviews of other state and federal policies for regulating contaminants.

“I know the language of the letter says, ‘after extensive study,’ said Davies. “To me, that doesn’t mean — it just means after reviewing the literature.”

When asked if she thought the letters should have been rescinded, the deposition transcript shows Davies’ response was, “No.”

“They treat us like we are dirt,” said Doris Smith of Walnut Cove. “I know why they don’t want to move the ash, it’s because there is so much of it. But it’s done enough damage.”

DEQ dodges legitimate coal-ash safety concerns

Thursday, May 19th, 2016 - posted by amy

Editor’s note: The following op-ed about how far the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has strayed from its mission appeared in The News & Observer on Monday, May 16. On Wednesday, the department announced tentative closure deadlines for coal ash ponds at Duke Energy facilities across the state, but told lawmakers it wants to revisit those rankings in late 2017. Read our statement on the tentative rankings here.

Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.

Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.

Sworn testimony of a state epidemiologist that became public over the weekend confirms what many North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds already assumed. Health experts who developed the drinking water standard that led officials to tell hundreds of residents last year that their water is not safe did not support the McCrory administration’s decision in March to rescind the warnings.

The disclosure comes as state lawmakers consider a bill that would prohibit local health departments from issuing health advisories to private well or public water users unless contaminants exceed levels set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But that law is intended as a backstop to be built upon, not as a floor for states like North Carolina that are content with the bare minimum.

From the state’s perspective, the bill is a quick fix to make certain that officials with the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services never again suffer the backlash they have seen since lifting the warnings about high levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium – potentially due to proximity to coal ash ponds. Residents were told their water was unsafe to drink or use for cooking. There is no federal drinking water standard for vanadium or hexavalent chromium.

These are just the latest examples in a long pattern of attempts by the McCrory administration to insulate itself from outside criticism and, more importantly, from citizens’ legitimate concerns. These tactics have been central to the dismantling of DEQ, where I worked for nearly nine years. I resigned in 2013, around the time former Secretary John Skvarla pledged to transform the agency into a “customer-friendly juggernaut” with the primary role of serving industry.

After Skvarla’s departure, the promotion of Donald van der Vaart to the position showed McCrory’s skill at hand-picking leaders guided by an ideological compass that points away from environmental protection. Enabled by anti-regulatory powers in the legislature, DEQ’s leadership has abandoned the principles necessary to serve the public. North Carolinians across the political spectrum should be alarmed at the state of the agency today.

As we await the announcement this month of DEQ’s final plans for closing coal ash ponds across the state, we recognize that there has been progress toward addressing this significant problem. But the pledges to safely close ponds and protect communities after the Dan River disaster are distant memories now. Instead, DEQ’s top-down decision-making has dominated the process.

Read More: NCDEQ wants changes to coal ash law before finalizing rankings

The final months of the coal ash pond ranking process have been particularly frustrating for citizens, advocates and, presumably, many of the rank-and-file at DEQ. After a draft report leaked last December revealed that DEQ’s own experts recommended full closure of most coal ash ponds, van der Vaart stepped in, assuring the public that the draft was based on “incomplete data.” Two weeks later, the agency’s final report listed only eight of the state’s 32 ponds as being “high” risk and deserving full closure. Most are now proposed as “low” or “low-intermediate” risk, meaning the coal ash could be capped in place and continue to threaten to water quality.

What would have been the only remaining line of defense, the Coal Ash Management Commission, was created in part to review DEQ’s recommendations before they become final. But McCrory disbanded the commission in March as a series of hearings to gather public input on the state’s coal ash sites was underway. Rather than acknowledging the independent role the commission was created to play, van der Vaart has asserted that his department has everything under control.

DEQ leaders know citizens are concerned about their water and health. The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, a statewide coalition of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash sites, has made that evident. They’re concerned with good reason. When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights arranged a town hall meeting in Walnut Cove near Duke’s Belews Creek power plant, it wasn’t to spotlight DEQ’s success mitigating an environmental injustice.

Some state lawmakers are taking urgent action to re-establish the Coal Ash Management Commission. I’m glad; a strong independent commission is critical to earning the public’s trust and properly closing coal ash ponds. But dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become.

Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on coal ash cleanup, not continuing to enable an agency that has lost its way.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.