Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

To protect or prosecute polluters?

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - posted by eric
Water flowing from one of the discharge points in eastern Kentucky where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports.

Water flowing from one of the discharge points in eastern Kentucky where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports.

Last week the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed an administrative complaint against Frasure Creek Mining for hundreds of violations of the Clean Water Act at its mines in eastern Kentucky.

The filing comes just days before the end of the 60-day waiting period following an intent to sue letter sent by Appalachian Voices and our partners to Frasure Creek and the cabinet last November. Our notice letter described our discovery that the coal company had falsified pollution records over the course of 2013 and 2014, racking up almost 28,000 violations that state regulators failed to notice.

The cabinet’s filing includes all of the violations identified by Appalachian Voices and our partners. Under the Clean Water Act, the state’s action essentially preempts our ability to pursue a federal lawsuit.

Four years ago, when we first revealed that Frasure Creek had been falsifying records, the cabinet preempted our lawsuit by reaching a settlement with the company without our knowledge or participation. Later we were allowed to intervene in the settlement between the cabinet and Frasure Creek, a right which was upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Because the cabinet only filed a complaint and not a settlement in the latest case, we do not know how vigorous its enforcement will be. But if past enforcement is any guide, then one could expect it will not be very strong. The cabinet’s earlier enforcement actions against Frasure Creek were so paltry that they were thrown out in a recent court ruling, and were clearly not strong enough to ensure that Frasure Creek was in compliance since the company returned to submitting false water monitoring reports.

We will have to wait and see if the cabinet is going to take its responsibility to protect the people and water of Kentucky from dangerous pollution seriously. In the meantime, Appalachian Voices and our partners will continue to do whatever we can to ensure that Frasure Creek and other polluters are held accountable for their actions.

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The citizens’ groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

EPA finalizes long-awaited coal ash regulations

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by brian
The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy's Dan River plant.

The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant.

The day we’ve been waiting for has finally come. Yes it’s Friday, but today was also the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s court-imposed deadline to release federal regulations for coal ash storage and disposal.

As expected, the rule it took the EPA five years to finalize is modest at best, falling short of what it takes to truly address the prevalent problems associated with coal ash such as contamination of waterways and drinking water supplies.

Rather than classifying coal ash as the hazardous waste it clearly is, the EPA rule places it under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the nation’s primary law for regulating solid waste. Other types of waste regulated under Subtitle D include household garbage — you know, banana peels, candy wrappers and the like.

“For the thousands of citizens whose groundwater is no longer safe for consumption due to leaching ponds or whose air is contaminated by fugitive dust, failing to regulate coal ash as hazardous is a slap in the face,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator. “While we’re pleased that we finally have federal regulations, they are far from perfect and demand we continue fighting for cleanup of these toxic sites.”

U.S. coal plants produce around 140 million tons of coal ash each year. Much of that is stored near waterways in unlined pits held in place by earthen dams. Even years after coal plants have closed, ponds that have stored toxic coal ash for decades can continue to pollute water and put communities at risk.

In 2012, Appalachian Voices and several partner groups, represented by Earthjustice, sued the EPA in federal court to force the agency to issue a rule. Late last year our coalition reached a settlement holding the EPA to today’s deadline.

According to the EPA, the rule establishes safeguards to protect communities from catastrophic spills, like the Kingston, Tenn., spill in 2008. It was the disaster in Kingston that spurred the agency to act.

But more spills, like the one at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River plant in Eden, N.C., have happened in the time since, representing hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental and economic costs.

To address the threat of another catastrophic failure, the EPA rule calls for the closure of inactive sites that fail to meet engineering and structural standards, more frequent inspections and monitoring, and restrictions on where coal ash impoundments are located.

The rule also requires water quality monitoring and public disclosure of the results, which should help groups like Appalachian Voices and our community partners better track pollution and take companies to court that fail to stop it. More frequent reports and accurate information coming directly from utilities could be a big boost for efforts to protect clean water, as long as coal plant operators commit to transparency.

But while the regulations set a minimum federal criteria, states are not required to adopt them, develop a permitting program, or submit a program to the EPA for approval. That’s all more of a suggestion, really. So while the EPA says it expects states to be “active partners” in regulating coal ash, well, states unfriendly to the EPA may feel differently. And should states refuse to clean up coal ash pollution or fail to meet the new standards, the EPA will not step in to enforce the rule. That job will still fall to citizens who identify the insidious pollution and file lawsuits to correct it.

According to Earthjustice, unsafe disposal of coal ash into the nation’s more than 1,400 coal ash dumps has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and sources of underground drinking water in 37 states. There are 331 high- and significant-hazard coal ash ponds in the country. Many of the highest hazard sites are concentrated in the eastern U.S.

Learn more about our work to clean up coal ash.

Fighting Mountaintop Removal During the Obama Years

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

It’s Still Happening

Editorial by Thom Kay, Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate

In 2009, after President Obama took office, there was a great deal of optimism among Appalachian Voices and our allies. New agency heads and White House spokespersons parroted the talking point that “the administration will do what the science calls for.” In Appalachia, the science calls for an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.

It’s been nearly six years since the Obama administration took over. In that time, together with those who have been directly impacted by mountaintop removal, Appalachian Voices staff has met with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Army Corps of Engineers, the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement more times than we can count. On top of that, our supporters have sent tens of thousands of letters to these agencies.

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A series of Google Earth images of Magoffin County, Ky., shows the growth of the Right Oakley Surface Mine operated by Licking River Mining, LLC. The images are from June 2008, June 2010 and October 2013, which is the most recent date available.

So what has all of that gotten us? The administration has fallen woefully short of what we had hoped. Of all of the ways to gauge success, one simple question sits atop the list: is mountaintop removal coal mining still happening in Appalachia? Sadly, the answer is “Yes.”

I don’t want to be unfair to the people in these agencies who have worked tirelessly to limit the pollution from mountaintop removal. Indeed, they have done far more to curtail the destructive mining practice than either the Clinton or Bush administrations. While that’s a low bar, they have made significant changes, and there is less mountaintop removal mining today then there was between 2002 and 2008. Part of that is due to market forces, and part of that is due to the actions of the Obama administration. These actions, however, have not been enough.

There is only one sufficient solution to the problem of mountaintop removal, and that is total abolishment. Anything short of that is a failure. At first glance, this may sound extreme, and even unreasonable. But there is never a time when it is okay to blow up a mountain, dump the waste into valleys, and put the health of local communities at risk by filling their air and water with dangerous chemicals, heavy metals and particulate matter. There is a right and wrong way to do many things, but there is no right way to do mountaintop removal coal mining.

The Obama administration should allow the science around mountaintop removal to drive their policy making. Regrettably, they have chosen politics and public perception as their top priorities. They want people to think they are moderate and reasonable, and they are willing to sacrifice good policy in order to maintain that appearance.

When I have met with administration officials, they seem to believe they have done enough work on mountaintop removal. They have taken steps to limit the amount of mines, valley fills and overall pollution. But modest steps are not good enough for us, and they are not good enough for communities in Appalachia who continue to live with the nightmare of mountaintop removal.

Since the beginning of the administration’s first term in 2009, Appalachian Voices has advocated for them to stop issuing any permits for mountaintop removal mines. Instead of refusing all permits associated with mountaintop removal mining, they have chosen to issue permits for mines and valley fills. The Obama administration has issued fewer permits than its predecessors, but permits have been issued nevertheless.

Our next goal was for the EPA and the Army Corps to work together to change the definition of the term “fill material” in the Clean Water Act to exclude mining waste, which would eliminate the use of valley fills, and, thus, eliminate the biggest mines in Appalachia. From the first meeting we had with them, the White House has refused to change the definition of “fill material.” While we pushed at the beginning of the president’s first term, it soon became clear that they would never even consider taking action.

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Members of the Alliance for Appalachia rally outside the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. in 2013. During the citizen lobby week, members of The Alliance, which is comprised of 15 organizations including Appalachian Voices, met with representatives of the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, and Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

Right from the start, we were met with disappointment, but there still are alternative paths forward. There are several things the administration can do between now and the end of Obama’s term in January of 2017. In order to make long-lasting changes that benefit Appalachia, the EPA, OSMRE, Army Corps and DOI will all need to be involved, and it will take White House leadership to make that happen.

Since 2009, OSMRE has been developing a much-needed Stream Protection Rule. A draft is not expected to be released until the middle of 2015, so the precise contents of the rule are unknown. What we do know is that the rule will regulate surface coal mining in or near streams, and would replace an outdated 1983 rule. It has the potential to be the most important action the administration takes to curtail mountaintop removal, if they choose to include strong safeguards against mining waste polluting Appalachian streams.

Politics will of course play a big role in the final version of the Stream Protection Rule. Coal industry allies in Congress have already put enormous pressure on OSMRE and Department Director Joe Pizarchik. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in spring of 2014 that would prohibit OSMRE from completing the rule-making process. While that effort has been blocked from moving forward in the Senate by Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), next Congress will be different, as Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), an ardent ally of the coal industry, is expected to take over as majority leader. It’s almost certain we will have a fight on our hands in the Senate at some point next year.

The administration’s next opportunity is for the EPA to create a water quality standard for conductivity. For years, the EPA has known that conductivity, a measure of the amount of dissolved solids in water, is a critical indicator of stream health. Based on the best science, mountaintop removal mining results in conductivity levels elevated beyond what is healthy for streams, and a science-based water quality standard for conductivity would result in violations for practically all mountaintop removal mines.

A rule-making can take years, and at this point the current EPA may have already blown their opportunity to do a full water quality standard for conductivity. With the knowledge that mountaintop removal mines result in unhealthy conductivity levels for nearby streams, the EPA should, at the very least, refuse to issue permits for new mines.

The EPA also has an opportunity to create a federal standard for selenium pollution. Selenium bioaccumulates within fish, birds and reptiles, where it causes serious deformities, reproductive failure and death.

Grassroots Progress Report

The agency is currently considering a new selenium standard, but their latest proposal for a standard is convoluted, unenforceable, and may take away one of our most reliable tools in fighting water pollution from mountaintop removal. Instead of relying on regulators to handle monitoring for the thousands of cases of water pollution from mountaintop removal — a task they have repeatedly proven incapable of doing — citizens need to be able to monitor water in their own communities. Together with community members, we have been able to do that monitoring, but rules that make such monitoring more difficult are a huge step backward. EPA needs to implement a protective selenium standard that is enforceable by citizens and regulators alike.

The coal industry will continue doing everything in their power to prevent strong conductivity and selenium standards. Most industry resistance has been in the courts, but in several congressional hearings over the past few years, members of Congress have spewed coal company talking points in an attempt to put political pressure on the administration. The industry and their allies in Congress will continue to push back against effective safeguards. They will use every dollar and every trick they have to maintain their grip on the region. And they will do everything they can to hold off the day Appalachia can move past mountaintop removal.

It’s true, the Obama administration has taken steps to limit the pollution from mountaintop removal. But mountaintop removal coal mining is still happening, and that is unacceptable. If the White House fully commits over the next two years, they can make huge changes that will benefit Appalachia for generations. If they continue to take half measures, however, it will be an enormous opportunity lost.

Corruption and Enforcement Failures Raise Concern for Clean Water

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by allison

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By Brian Sewell

Recently uncovered conspiracies to violate the Clean Water Act have heightened concerns about corruption in central Appalachia and the effectiveness of state agencies responsible for enforcing the law.

In September, charges were filed against John W. Shelton, a former employee of West Virginia-based Appalachian Laboratories Inc., for tampering with water quality samples collected at surface coal mines in West Virginia between 2008 and 2013 to conceal permit violations and keep customers satisfied. He faces up to five years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine.

A federal investigation into Appalachian Labs is ongoing. But environmental watchdogs quickly noted that this is only the latest example of one of the Clean Water Act’s most important functions being compromised in Appalachia.

The Stigma of “Self-reporting”

Under the Clean Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency can regulate pollution discharged directly into surface waters. The agency has authorized 46 states across the U.S., including those in central Appalachia, to issue pollution discharge permits and take action when violations are discovered.

But the system’s success hinges on the honor code of environmental protection: self-reported data. States trust permit holders, who often hire private companies, to collect and test water samples and submit discharge monitoring reports to regulators for review. However flawed, this is the fundamental mechanism used to determine if coal companies and other polluting industries are obeying the law.

State action following John Shelton’s guilty plea has been relatively swift. On Oct. 21, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection revoked Appalachian Labs’ certification. The next week, the agency announced that “no permitting decisions will be made without verification of data submitted by Appalachian [Labs].”

The director of DEP’s Division of Mining and Reclamation, Harold Ward, said the decision affects a “wide array” of coal companies operating in West Virginia and all of their pending permits.

An analysis of West Virginia discharge monitoring reports by Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, found that Appalachian Labs was responsible for nearly 25 percent of the reports submitted to the state between 2009 and 2014, more than any other company certified in West Virginia.

Appalachian Labs responded by suing the DEP, which they say stigmatized their business to the point customers cannot risk using it for their water monitoring needs. On Nov. 26, a judge overturned the DEP memo requiring additional data for sites using Appalachian Labs and told regulators they must treat the company “the same as any other laboratory.”

Worries Grow Widespread

The story of Appalachian Labs is a striking example in an even more disturbing trend.

In 2010 and 2011, Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Waterkeeper Alliance and Kentucky Riverkeeper took legal action against three of the largest coal companies in Kentucky for routinely turning in false pollution reports to the state.

During the period they were submitting duplicated monitoring reports, the companies reported virtually no pollution violations. But the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet failed to identify or address the falsified reports. Accurate reports revealed thousands of violations — and patterns of pollution that the false data had obscured.

Two of the three companies entered settlements in 2011 and 2012. But the third, Frasure Creek Mining, said it could not afford to pay the penalties, prolonging the case over the past few years.

Frasure Creek has since entered and reemerged from bankruptcy, but new evidence suggests the company quickly returned to submitting falsified water monitoring reports.

On Nov. 17, Appalachian Voices and its partners in Kentucky announced their intention to sue Frasure Creek for nearly 28,000 reporting violations in 2013 and 2014 — three times the amount the groups discovered in 2010 — carrying a maximum combined penalty of more than $1 billion.

Eric Chance, water quality specialist with Appalachian Voices, called the failure of the state agency to stop the violations “disturbing,” and questioned whether state officials read the quarterly pollution reports.

A week after the notice to sue Frasure Creek was issued, a Kentucky judge issued orders rejecting the settlement agreed to by the company and the cabinet in the 2010 case and ruled that the cabinet had circumvented the rights of citizens to intervene under the Clean Water Act.

The settlement, Judge Phillip Shepherd wrote, was unlikely to change Frasure Creek’s behavior because the economic benefit the company obtains from cheating the law “far outweighs the costs of compliance, or the risk of any fines and penalties that the cabinet will impose.”

Petitions asking the EPA to withdraw states’ Clean Water Act authority and replace it with federal oversight are pending in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, among other states.

Hey North Carolina, New York just banned fracking

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014 - posted by brian
Before rushing into fracking, North Carolina could learn something from New York, which just announced it would ban the practice, citing health concerns and uncertain economic prospects.

Before rushing into fracking, North Carolina should look to New York, which just announced it would ban the practice, citing health concerns and uncertain economic prospects. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

New York’s debate over whether or not to allow fracking came to a close today when Gov. Andrew Cuomo sided with the state’s top public health and environmental officials in calling for a ban on the practice.

The governor’s end-of-year cabinet hearing, where the announcement was made, looked like so many other meetings that often end in disappointment. But this one was exceptional for inserting some much-needed truth into the fracking fight that could, just maybe, help other states come to their senses.

During the portion of the meeting on fracking, Joseph Martens, the commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, set the stage during a 10-minute presentation that pretty much served as a debunking of the best arguments for fracking. It was clear that Martens had done his homework before concluding that fracking should not be done anywhere in New York.

Just in terms of practicality, Martens told Cuomo and his fellow cabinet members, more than 63 percent of the Marcellus Shale deposits in New York would be off limits under state rules and local zoning. On top of that, dozens of New York towns — most famously the upstate town Dryden — have already approved their own bans on fracking and took their case before the state’s highest court, which ruled in their favor earlier this year.

Following the court’s decision in June, Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumne told the New York Times, “I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere who are also trying to do what’s right for their own communities.”

Despite the fact that North Carolina’s law prohibits local ordinances that “directly or indirectly” restrict oil and gas drilling operations, towns across the state have approved ordinances or resolutions to discourage or prevent fracking in their limits.

According to Martens, the prospects for fracking in New York are “uncertain at best.” The same could be said of North Carolina, where supporters’ visions of economic grandeur don’t always follow the limitations of the state’s geology.

Martens’ rundown was refreshing for this North Carolinian — it was also a reminder of the disregard and misplaced priorities of many pushing to bring fracking to my beloved state. But New York’s acting health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, who spoke next, might truly be the voice of reason we’re missing in North Carolina.

Zucker, with a stack of reports on fracking’s health impacts in other states piled behind him, said he would not allow his family to drink tap water in an area where fracking took place. The point hit home with Cuomo, who said if Zucker believes fracking could put his children in harm’s way, then no child living in New York should be put in that position.

If no child in New York should be put at risk of contaminated water and the other threats that come with fracking, neither should North Carolina’s kids, nor those living in areas already ravaged by poorly regulated drilling.

Former New York Gov. David Paterson first imposed the state’s moratorium in 2008 while the state Department of Environmental Conservation studied fracking in the years leading up to today’s decision. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and the state General Assembly, on the other hand, have rushed headlong toward fracking while requiring surprisingly little study for a state with no experience regulating it. Drilling could begin in North Carolina as early as this spring.

The latest fumble related to fracking in North Carolina came today too. Just as New York announced its ban, controversial fracking regulations in North Carolina sailed through final review against the recommendations of the Rules Review Commission’s staff attorney, who said Mining and Energy Commission staff emailed her 100 rules that were riddled with errors at 2 a.m. on the day of the deadline.

Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who attended the review told the News & Observer the latest misstep is basically par for the course at this point.

“All of the issues just highlighted how rushed the whole process was,” she said.

Coal ash cleanup still contested in North Carolina

Friday, December 5th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
 Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

In two weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will finally release the first-ever rule regulating the storage and disposal of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal. For years, communities and environmental groups across the country have pushed the EPA to finalize the regulations, and now, due to a court ordered mandate, the rules are expected to be released on Dec. 19.

In the years following the 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., the EPA repeatedly delayed finalizing a coal ash rule, allowing the dangerous waste to sit in unlined landfills and contaminate groundwater at sites across the country. As a result, there have been more coal ash disasters, including the February 2014 spill into the Dan River at Duke Energy’s plant in Eden, N.C. A new study conducted by Wake Forest University research biologist Dennis Lemly puts the cost of the Dan River spill at $300 million.

Spurred by the devastating Dan River spill, enormous public outcry, and a federal criminal investigation into the ties between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, state lawmakers set about writing their own coal ash regulations prior to the EPA rule’s release. The result was not what North Carolinians hoped for.

The Coal Ash Management Act, which became law in September without Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature, only requires the full cleanup of four out of the 14 coal ash storage sites in the state. The fates of the remaining 10, including Belews Creek (home to the the largest coal ash deposits in the state) have been left in the hands of a Coal Ash Commission, which may allow sites to be capped in place, a method of coal ash storage that does not eliminate the possibility of groundwater contamination.

McCrory did not sign the bill because he felt that the Coal Ash Commission was unconstitutional since a majority of its members were appointed by legislators and not the governor. On Nov. 13, McCrory and former governors James Hunt and James Martin sued the General Assembly, stating that the commission has been tasked with carrying out executive branch functions, as well as functions normally overseen by state agencies such as DENR. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, who are listed as defendants in the case, issued a statement opposing McCrory’s lawsuit as costly and time-consuming.

Despite the weaknesses of the Coal Ash Management Act, the law has already forced Duke Energy to begin cleaning up the coal ash at four high-priority sites, and to submit preliminary cleanup plans and groundwater assessment plans for the remaining 10. But now new controversies are emerging over where the company plans to relocate its waste.

Last month, Duke announced plans to move 2.9 million tons of ash from its Riverbend and Sutton plants to former clay mines in Chatham County and Lee County. Citizens in both counties are upset by the proposal, stating that they feel blindsided and citing the lack of an environmental or health impact study as problematic. In Chatham County, some residents already live near coal ash ponds located at Duke’s Cape Fear plant, which are not currently designated for cleanup.

Duke Energy contends that the clay mines are ideal for coal ash storage because of their close proximity to railways and the added environmental protection of impervious clay. The company says it will put in liners and install groundwater monitoring systems at the sites.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, millions of tons of coal ash precariously stored along North Carolina’s waterways will have to be moved somewhere. But the unfortunate reality of the law is that many previously unburdened communities and others already burdened by toxic waste dumps may be forced to house some of the ash. Ideally, most of the coal ash will remain on Duke Energy-owned property, but what cannot safely stay on Duke’s land will have to go somewhere. Every North Carolinian has a ton of coal ash to their name, but not every North Carolinian will have to deal with their ton.

In addition to considering new landfill sites, Duke Energy is also looking into the potential of beneficial reuse of coal ash.

If the EPA’s coal ash rule is weak, it will not protect communities from potentially dangerous coal ash landfills or coal ash reuse. Though there are no ideal solutions for the toxic waste, moving forward with the understanding that the substance is indeed hazardous would lead to more safeguards for human health.

If you haven’t already, take a moment to think about why you care about coal ash pollution and explore this topic with others. As North Carolina and the rest of the country move toward coal ash cleanup, it’s more important than ever for us to stand united to demand the safest storage possible.

Nothing to see here

Friday, December 5th, 2014 - posted by eric
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet's attempts to rebuke critics can't make up for its failure to notice blatant Clean Water Act violations or prosecute coal company misdeeds.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s attempts to rebuke critics can’t make up for its failure to notice blatant Clean Water Act violations or prosecute coal company misdeeds.

Kentucky’s environmental regulators can’t have it both ways. On one hand, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet claims it does not have enough funding to do its job. On the other hand, it says it’s doing its job just fine.

Long-standing failures of the cabinet, which regulates coal mines and other polluters, have become even more evident in light of new legal action brought by Appalachian Voices and our partners and a recent court ruling.

In a scathing opinion issued Nov. 24, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd rejected two settlements that the cabinet had reached with Frasure Creek Mining for submitting false water pollution reports several years ago. A week before Judge Shepherd’s rulings, we had filed a Notice of Intent to Sue Frasure Creek for again submitting false reports in 2013 and 2014 that again went unnoticed by the cabinet.

Not Just a Matter of Money

For years, despite clear and persistent evidence of problems, the cabinet repeatedly claimed to be fulfilling its duties under the Clean Water Act. But it was ignoring the underlying problems, including potentially illegal water pollution discharges masked by false reporting.

In response to our recent notice that Frasure Creek has perpetrated some 28,000 new violations of the Clean Water Act, the cabinet issued a press release that essentially claimed it has everything under control. The cabinet says it’s focusing on “violations as submitted” on water monitoring reports, ignoring the fact that those reports are false or could even be fraud. The release goes on to defend the cabinet’s settlements with Frasure Creek — the ones later thrown out by Judge Shepherd — and said the cabinet had been looking into Frasure Creek’s more recent violations:

The Division of Enforcement within the Cabinet has been monitoring compliance with the April 13, 2013 Agreed Order with Frasure Creek and initiated an internal compliance review in January 2014 that has identified violations as submitted on DMRs [Discharge Monitoring Reports] to the agency. Administrative action on those violations is ongoing and is pending within the agency.

Seeking to understand the validity of these claims, our lawyers submitted a formal request for the information on the cabinet’s “internal compliance review.”

In a bold showing of its own incompetence, the cabinet asked us to clarify what we meant by “[v]iolations ‘mentioned in’ the press release.” It appeared that they did not even know what they were referring to in their own press release.

Once we clarified our request, we received this convoluted response:

The phrase ‘internal compliance review’ that was used in the November 17, 2014 press release is a term used to describe the primary function of staff in the Compliance and Operations Branch of the Division of Enforcement (DENF)…. The phrase does not encompass a specific period of time with dates certain for beginning and ending the compliance process, but it is used within DENF to refer to any ongoing review. With respect to Frasure Creek, our compliance review is ongoing and underway at this time, but it has not progressed to the point where NOVs [Notices Of Violation] have been issued or referrals for enforcement action have been generated.

In plain English, the cabinet’s response essentially says it has been looking at Frasure Creek’s violations, but officials either haven’t written anything down about them yet or, if they have written anything down, they refuse to disclose it. So, just like past claims that the cabinet is doing its job, this response is empty.

The fact that the agency is strapped for cash has never been in question — even Judge Shepherd agrees. As he stated in his recent ruling:

Commissioner Scott further testified that the cabinet has been subjected to a series of major budget cuts during the last 10 years that have drastically and adversely affected the ability of the cabinet to do its job in implementing the Clean Water Act.

[T]he record in this case makes it abundantly clear that the Cabinet simply lacks the personnel and budget to effectively investigate and enforce these requirements of law.

But it’s not a lack of funding keeping the cabinet from effectively enforcing laws as much as a lack of will.

You would think that if the cabinet truly were intent on protecting the environment, they would have punished Frasure Creek to make an example of the company, rather than wasting taxpayer dollars trying to prevent citizen involvement in this case. You would also think that the cabinet wouldn’t spend its limited resources on unsuccessful legal challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance on conductivity pollution from coal mines, or weakening water quality standards for selenium, a common coal mining pollutant.

Brown water at a Frasure Creek Mine. This is one of the discharge points that the company submitted false data for.

Brown water at a Frasure Creek Mine. This is one of the discharge points that the company submitted false data for.

The cabinet serves at the pleasure of Gov. Steve Beshear, whose strong pro-coal attitude is without doubt. In one State of the State address, Beshear went so far as to say, “Washington bureaucrats continue to try to impose arbitrary and unreasonable regulations on the mining of coal. And to them I say, ‘Get off our backs!’”

When elected officials are beholden to a single industry, as many are in Central Appalachia, it’s no surprise that regulators would be easy on that industry. But the level of corporate influence in Kentucky is out of control. Coal companies should not be able to flout the law without fear of serious prosecution. And whether the bosses like it or not, the cabinet still has the legal duty to uphold the Clean Water Act.

Could Criminal Charges Be in Store for Frasure Creek?

The cabinet and other Kentucky officials have generally ignored or dismissed the possibility that the false reporting was intentional fraud. But recent cases of laboratory fraud in West Virginia make criminal prosecution seem more feasible. One case involved discharges from coal mines where a lab employee was collecting water samples from a “honey hole,” a spot known to have good water quality, rather than from the actual pollution discharges. In another, a contract employee was reusing data from previous water monitoring reports because they had failed to pay their laboratory.

In a statement that indicates a criminal investigation should ensue, Judge Shepherd wrote:

The conditions observed by the cabinet’s inspectors during the performance audit of Frasure Creeks’ so-called “laboratory” demonstrated either a plan or scheme to submit fraudulent information in the DMRs or incompetence so staggering as to defy belief.

Kentucky Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Jack Conway has vowed to look into the new Frasure Creek violations. But several years ago, his team looked into the previous violations and told reporter Ronnie Ellis that they couldn’t find anything “that rises to the level of intent or criminal fraud that’s ready to be prosecuted.”

The cabinet’s dismissive attitude toward the seriousness of environmental problems in Kentucky is unsurprising given the state’s political climate, not to mention the fact that the Frasure Creek cases expose the agency’s utter incompetence. But the jig is up. It’s time for the cabinet to either start doing its job or step aside and let the EPA do it instead.

What will Obama’s legacy be on mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 - posted by thom
After six years of the Obama presidency, mountaintop removal is still putting communities are at risk, leading many to wonder what his environmental legacy will be.

After six years of the Obama presidency, mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk, leading many to wonder what his legacy on the issue will be.

The Obama administration has taken steps to limit mountaintop removal coal mining pollution in Appalachia. The president and agency officials have also made quite a few promises. But mountaintop removal continues, so what have they actually done?

The Alliance for Appalachia, a coalition of groups including Appalachian Voices, just released a Grassroots Progress Report examining the administration’s successes and shortfalls in dealing with mountaintop removal. There have been successes, to be sure, but as the report clearly demonstrates, there have been many failures.

Large scale surface coal mining is still a huge problem in Central Appalachia. Although the pace has slowed due to the declining coal economy, many new permits are issued every year. In 2013 Virginia issued 9 new surface mining permits and 2 acreage expansions, West Virginia issued 25 new permits, and Kentucky issued 30. Only Tennessee issued no new permits. - Grassroots Progress Report

The report covers not only the scale of ongoing mining, but paints a clear picture of the costs that mountaintop removal continues to have on Appalachian communities. The poor economic outcomes and human health problems associated with mountaintop removal have not improved over the past six years. These issues are closely linked, and neither can improve without action from the White House.

The White House has already made commitments. A 2009 Memorandum of Understanding, signed by all of the relevant regulatory agencies, outlined a series of actions the administration was prepared to take to deal with mountaintop removal. The Alliance report goes through those commitments one by one, pointing out the shortcomings of the actions taken, and the failure of the administration to take further, stronger actions.

The report is not simply a list of grievances, however. There are four policy recommendations as well.

1) a Selenium Standard to ensure that citizens maintain the ability to test for selenium pollution in their own water,
2) a strong Conductivity Rule based on scientific research US EPA has already conducted because we, and our federal agencies, know that high conductivity can be a key measure of dangerous water,
3) a Stream Protection Rule that preserves a strong stream buffer zone requirement so that mining waste can no longer be dumped into our streams, and
4) a strong Minefill Rule to address the currently unregulated dumping of coal burning waste into abandoned mine sites.

If you’re interested in what the Obama administration has and has not done in dealing with mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, take a moment to read the one-page summary or the full report.

Kentucky court sides with citizens and environment

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 - posted by eric

Viewed through a swing set on a nearby resident’s yard, this is one of Frasure Creek Mining’s many valley fills at their numerous Mountain Top Removal coal mines.

Last week, Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations won a major victory in the Kentucky courts when a judge overturned two slap-on-the-wrist settlements that the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet had reached with Frasure Creek Mining a few years ago.

These cases began in 2010, when we uncovered blatantly false water monitoring reports that Frasure Creek was submitting to state regulators. The judge’s decision comes just one week after Appalachian Voices and our partners filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue Frasure Creek for returning to their practice of submitting hundreds of false water monitoring reports called Discharge Monitoring Reports or DMRs.

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, jointly represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Lauren Waterworth and the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd’s opinion is scathing and in many places simply speaks for itself:

The Cabinet took the position that it did not have sufficient evidence to support a claim of intentional submissions of knowingly false data, or fraud, by the Defendant or its contract lab…. The Cabinet took this position notwithstanding… that the signatures of the DMRs were often dated prior to the sampling that was being reported, and that multiple DMRs appear to be simply photocopies of prior reports without any evidence that actual sampling took place. The conditions observed by the Cabinet’s inspectors during the performance audit of Frasure Creeks’ so-called “laboratory” demonstrated either a plan or scheme to submit fraudulent information in the DMRs or incompetence so staggering as to defy belief. [Emphasis added]

The opinion goes on to make several other very important points:

The Cabinet chose to limit its investigation to reporting errors…, and not to investigate substantive pollution violations though there were indications of such violations

The integrity of the regulatory process is based on the accurate reporting of monitoring data. If the Cabinet suspects pollution violations but only investigates and assesses penalties for administrative reporting violations, the Cabinet creates incentives for inaccurate reporting or failing to report as opposed to honest reporting that reveals pollution violations.

The Court finds that the economic benefit realized by Frasure Creek in using a substandard laboratory with systematic problems in its DMRs, far exceeds the civil penalty agreed to by the Cabinet.

When one company so systematically subverts the requirements of law, it not only jeopardizes environmental protection on the affected permits, it creates a regulatory climate in which the Cabinet sends the message that cheating pays. [Emphasis added]

[T]he record in this case makes it abundantly clear that the Cabinet simply lacks the personnel and budget to effectively investigate and enforce these requirements of law. [Emphasis added]

Valley fill and pond at a Frasure Creek Mining MTR site.

Valley fill and pond at a Frasure Creek Mining MTR site.

Judge Shepherd actually issued two rulings, one on each of the two cases against Frasure Creek that were before him. The first case was based on the false water monitoring reports that we uncovered in 2010. The cabinet entered a settlement with Frasure Creek with miniscule fines compared to what is allowed under the Clean Water Act. We then challenged that weak settlement in court. In last week’s ruling, the judge threw out the settlement because it is not “fair, reasonable or in the public interest”.

The second case was based on pollution problems that became evident once Frasure Creek’s false reporting subsided. We intervened in that case and were made full parties to an administrative case that the Cabinet brought against the company (though the Cabinet only brought this case because we had already filed a Notice of Intent to Sue for pollution problems in question). Even though we were full parties to the case, the Cabinet and Frasure Creek reached another sweetheart settlement without our involvement. Judge Shepherd found this had violated our due process rights and threw out the settlement, sending the case back to administrative court.

Both of these decisions could be appealed, and since previous settlements were simply thrown out, the actual violations are still unresolved. We will have to wait and see how these outstanding issues play out. Nonetheless, this is still a great step forward, and a great vindication of citizens’ right to protect their environment.

Environmental agency asleep at the switch?

Friday, November 21st, 2014 - posted by tom
Water flowing from one of the discharge points in Floyd County, Ky., that Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports about.

Water flowing from one of the discharge points in Floyd County, Ky., that Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports about.

At first, I couldn’t believe what our Appalachian Water Watch team had discovered earlier this year: almost 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act by a single company in the coal counties of eastern Kentucky. It appeared to be the most extensive incident of non-compliance in the law’s 42-year history.

Frasure Creek Mining had duplicated or otherwise falsified hundreds of the water pollution reports it’s required to send to the state. Equally impressive is the fact that, over the course of a full year and a half, state regulators apparently failed to notice.

It’s shocking – but alas, not a surprise. This level of callous disregard for the laws meant to protect our health, safety, and natural heritage is all too common among Appalachia’s coal companies, regulators and often politicians. Here’s a short list.

  • An employee of a major W.Va.-certified lab pled guilty in October to faking water quality samples for coal companies — not just a few times, but for six years.
  • Last week, Tennessee fined three companies owned by Jim Justice $1.36 million for failing to submit pollution reports at 25 coal facilities, all of which had been warned twice. The companies appealed the fines, as is the MO for Justice-owned companies.
  • Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy when 29 miners died in 2010 at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine in W. Va., was indicted in November on four criminal counts for conspiring to willfully violate safety rules, conceal violations, and then lying about it.
  • According to a recent investigation by National Public Radio, 9 out of 10 coal mining companies with the highest unpaid fines for safety violations are in Appalachia, ranging from $1 million to almost $4.5 million, with a total of 9,839 violations.

Back to Frasure Creek Mining, this wasn’t the first time we’d caught the company falsifying pollution records and found the state apparently asleep at the switch. In 2010, Appalachian Voices discovered 9,000 violations over a two-year period. We and our allies in Kentucky took legal action to compel the state to enforce the law, and the company to comply.

The pattern is clear. Coal companies continue to benefit from a widespread failure to enforce the law that is devastating the land and water and communities’ health. The toll on the citizens and communities of Appalachia is equally clear –- higher than average rates of cancer and birth defects, persistent poverty, poisoned streams, and a deep-rooted sense of place rocked by the blasts of explosives that flatten mountain after mountain.

With this in mind, Appalachian Voices and our partners served Frasure Creek Mining on November 17 with a notice of our intent to sue for the recent spate of Clean Water Act violations. The fight for justice continues.

For the waters,
Tom

PS: See this excellent article from the New York Times.