Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

What do Duke Energy and a messy teenager have in common?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - posted by amy
Dark gray coal ash permeates the soils along the Dan River. Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Dark gray coal ash permeates the soils along the Dan River. Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Nearly six months have passed since news of the Dan River coal ash spill first reached the public in North Carolina. Since that time, Duke Energy has been working slowly to vacuum up the large, readily identifiable deposits of coal ash from the approximately 39,000 tons that spilled. Most of the cleanup has been focused close to the location of the broken pipe and near Danville, Va., where sediment was trapped behind the low Schoolfield Dam.

Nearly six months of work, and a staggering six percent has been recovered – staggering for how little that is. Duke and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was overseeing the work, seem satisfied with this recovery rate and have declared the cleanup complete, leaving behind more than 35,000 tons or slightly more than 90 percent of spilled coal ash in the Dan River.

Let’s look at it from another perspective. Say you ask your teenager to clean up his messy bedroom. He picks up a few articles of dirty clothing from the floor and puts them in the laundry, and calls it quits. “That’s it?” you ask.

The sad truth is the premature ending of the cleanup means the Dan River will forever be sullied by the toxic, dark grey ash that lurks below the surface. Coal ash does not biodegrade. It will remain in the river unless removed.

So, where is the remaining 35,000 tons (130 thousand cubic yards) of ash, and why is it not being removed? One of Duke’s replies has been that such a thin layer exists over such a large area – about 70 miles of river that it’s impractical or nearly impossible to recover. But remember the Kingston, Tenn., disaster that spilled 5.4 million cubic yards (1.4 million tons) of coal ash into the Emory River in 2008? The Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the Kingston coal-fired power plant, worked for six years on the cleanup. Ultimately, TVA removed 3.5 million cubic yards of ash in a 12-month period, with 85 percent of the ash being removed in 10 months. This fact makes Duke Energy’s six percent in six months an outrage and a failure.

Another argument has been that continued dredging will stir up more contamination. This is the same argument that has been used by polluters in other spill sites as justification to quit work before the work is complete. When GE spilled PCBs in the Hudson River between 1947 and 1977, it declared that the cleanup would destroy the river and dry up the local economy. However, dredging in Plattsburgh, N.Y., reduced PCB contamination by 90 percent, did not disrupt the community, and was deemed a huge success.

Copyright Yinan Chen; photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright Yinan Chen; photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Returning to the teenager’s messy bedroom, you ask why he hasn’t cleaned up the rest of the junk. “Well there’s so much dust and grime, if I pick up anything else, it’ll just get everywhere.”

Would you accept that answer? I didn’t think so. Then why are North Carolinians expected to accept such a pitiful cleanup of one of our most treasured rivers. We have fallen far short of even half-assed. Every excuse from Duke Energy is like the little boy crying wolf. Most of the actions they say cannot be done, have been done in other states, and done successfully. How long before someone calls their bluff?

The coal ash bill currently in conference committee to reconcile the differences between the state Senate and House versions doesn’t have a regulatory backbone or enforcement teeth. It fails to stand up to the toxic threat to our citizens, and instead of providing accountability, it continues to accommodate Duke Energy. It actually helps pave the way to relieve Duke of responsibility for real cleanup at all of its coal ash pits. With so much at stake, so much public outcry, documented contamination and national attention, this bill is simply not good enough.

You wouldn’t let the teenager just walk away from the mess in his room. We should not let Duke, or North Carolina legislators, walk away from the state’s coal ash mess.

Great News for Clean Water in Virginia!

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - posted by eric

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution.

Last week a federal judge upheld a previous decision requiring a Virginia coal company to get a permit for their discharges of toxic selenium.

Selenium is a mineral that is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life at very low levels. It is commonly discharged from many coal mines and coal ash ponds. Even in small amounts, selenium causes deformities, reproductive failure and even death in fish and birds. Even though its toxic effects and prevalence in coal mine discharges are well known, this is the first mine in Virginia that will be required to monitor and obtain a permit for its selenium discharges.

Water testing done by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) revealed that A&G Coal Corporation’s Kelly Branch Surface Mine was discharging selenium in toxic amounts. So in 2012, Appalachian Voices, SAMS and the Sierra Club, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed suit against A&G for illegal discharges of selenium.

EPA is currently revising their national standards for selenium. If implemented, their new draft standards will make it more difficult for citizens groups protect streams they care about through legal actions like this one.

A&G Coal Company is owned by billionaire, frequent political campaign contributor and coal baron James Justice.

Last year, a federal judge ruled in our favor and ordered A&G to begin daily selenium monitoring and to apply for a permit from the Commonwealth of Virginia to cover its selenium discharges. A&G appealed that decision with the support of a number of industry groups including the National Mining Association, the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance, the Virginia Mining Association, the Virginia Mining Issues Group, the American Petroleum Institute and several others. That appeal failed last week.

A&G claimed that their current water discharge permit provided them a “permit shield.” Basically, since they were meeting the terms of their current permit, they were shielded from any liability for other water pollution not included in that permit.

In his decision federal district judge James P. Jones disagreed. The decision states that the validity of a “permit shield” is a two-prong test, requiring that a permittee disclose the presence of the pollutant in its permit application, and that the state agency considers that pollutant. If you fail one prong then you lose the shield. In this case A&G never disclosed the presence of selenium in their permit application, and there is no evidence that Virginia considered selenium pollution, so the company failed both parts of the test. The decision concludes:

To allow the [permit shield] defense in these circumstances would tear a large hole in the [Clean Water Act], whose purpose it is to protect the waters of Appalachia and the nation and their healthfulness, wildlife, and natural beauty.

Today’s court decision and what it means for Appalachia

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - posted by thom

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Today was a big day for those fighting to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia.

A federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge.

Read a statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons.

In 2009, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers began an Enhanced Coordination Process for permitting valley fills associated with large-scale mountaintop removal mining. The process encouraged improved coordination between the two agencies and greater scrutiny of the environmental impacts of each valley fill permit before them.

But as you probably know, the environmental impacts of valley fills are inherently damaging. Just last week, a major study from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) found that headwater streams beneath valley fills in southern West Virginia had two-thirds fewer fish than normal streams. Keep in mind that those Appalachian streams are the headwater streams for the drinking water of millions of Americans. Appalachian Voices was also curious about the potential economic impacts of coal pollution and found that there are a lot more jobs supported by the sportfishing industry in Appalachia than surface coal mining jobs — about seven times as many.

The second part of the court decision was related to the EPA’s guidance on conductivity. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. The USGS study also confirmed that conductivity levels below mountaintop removal valley fills are almost always elevated, damaging waters throughout the region.

The EPA released its guidance on conductivity pollution just over four years ago. At the time, then-EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson claimed that “either no or very few valley fills are going to meet standards like this.”

In order to “end coal mining pollution,” as she put it, the EPA was going to use its authority to restrict mountaintop removal valley fills, and thus significantly reduce the amount of mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia. While the guidance would not have put a much-needed permanent end to mountaintop removal, it was an enormous step.

The coal industry fought the guidance with everything that had. Their allies on Capitol Hill held hearings to put political pressure on the EPA to stand down, while industry lawyers simultaneously took the agency to court.

Two years after the guidance had been proposed, it was thrown out by a U.S. District Court. With one bad court decision, EPA’s job to end coal mining pollution was made a lot harder.

Meanwhile, the EPA Region 4 office, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for Kentucky and other southeastern states, has been ignoring both the guidance and the rigorous science on which it was based. They continue to approve permits for valley fills, including six at one massive mine that got the agency’s OK just last year.

But on Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals turned the tables. The panel of judges concluded that the guidance stands, as it is not a final rule, and therefore is not subject to legal challenge. Furthermore, they confirmed, and in fact encouraged, the EPA’s enhanced coordination process.

The EPA has the legal authority, scientific evidence, and moral obligation to block every mountaintop removal valley fill permit that comes through its doors. We all share the responsibility of making sure it does just that.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to end mountaintop removal.

Court sides with EPA on science-based mountaintop removal permitting

Friday, July 11th, 2014 - posted by brian
A federal appeals court reaffirmed EPA's authority to coordinate with other agencies to apply science throughout the mountaintop removal permitting process.

A federal appeals court sided with the EPA today on mountaintop removal permitting.

In a major victory for Appalachia and clean water advocates, a federal appeals court has reaffirmed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when reviewing Clean Water Act permits for mountaintop removal mines. The court also ruled that the EPA’s guidance on conductivity is not a final rule and therefore is not subject to legal challenge. Read the court’s decision here.

More on today’s decision and what it means for Appalachia.

The three-judge panel rejected a 2012 ruling that the EPA overstepped its authority by pursuing an enhanced permitting process for certain mountaintop removal proposals. Today’s ruling sends the lawsuit back to U.S. District Court.

A statement from Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons:

“The court’s ruling today is as clear as the science indicting mountaintop removal coal mining, and it affirms what advocates working to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams have been saying for years.

“Overwhelming evidence of the toll mountaintop removal takes on water quality, wildlife and human health continues to emerge. Still, mountaintop removal permits are being approved with disregard for the basic science behind EPA’s conductivity guidance. The ruling should be a signal to states and the EPA to begin truly following that science. And it’s common sense that the agency coordinate with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make sure the science is applied throughout the permitting process.”

This month, yet another study pointing to the destructive impact mountaintop removal was released, adding to the body of science state and federal agencies should apply to the permitting process.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to end mountaintop removal.

One fish, two fish … Dead fish

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - posted by matt

USGS Study: Mountaintop Removal Decimates Fish Populations in Appalachia

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A study from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published this month provides strong new evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia is devastating downstream fish populations.

That’s hardly news for long-time followers of the controversy surrounding mountaintop removal, a coal mining practice that involves blowing off the tops of mountains to access thin seams of coal and dumping the waste into valleys below. In 2010, a group of 13 prestigious biologists published a paper in Science, the nation’s premier scientific journal, that found:

“Our analyses of current peer-reviewed studies and of new water-quality data from WV streams revealed serious environmental impacts that mitigation practices cannot successfully address… Clearly, current attempts to regulate [mountaintop removal mining] practices are inadequate.”

The authors of the study published last week found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. They made this important contribution to the science by using rigorous methodology to isolate several types of water pollution most likely to have caused these staggering declines.

But a more important contribution of the study may be that it draws the focus of water pollution impacts away from mayflies and other aquatic insects and onto a far more popular and charismatic organism that not only is important to rural people’s way of life, but supports a multi-billion dollar sportfishing industry in Appalachia.

Tellingly, industry spokespeople contacted by local reporters did not dispute the science as they typically have in the past. Those that didn’t dodge reporters entirely were quick to change the subject to the purported benefits of mountaintop removal to create more flat land for industrial and commercial development (in a region where less than 10 percent of the more than 1 million acres of mountains that have already been flattened has been used for economic development).

This muted response is in stark contrast to the coal industry’s response to previous science linking mountaintop removal to the loss of aquatic insects downstream from mine sites. The “EPA puts mayflies ahead of jobs” or “pests over people” became the rallying cries of coal industry supporters when the EPA first began bringing science back into the permitting process in 2009.

One suspects that the coal industry knows it isn’t likely to win a “jobs vs. fish” debate with America’s 33 million anglers.

Widespread damage to fish populations could also be important from the pocketbook perspective that political leaders in Kentucky and West Virginia take seriously. According to data [PDF] from the American Sportfishing Association, recreational fishing creates a lot more jobs than mountaintop removal does in the states where it occurs:

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In fact, sportfishing accounts for more than 12,000 jobs in Kentucky, which is more than the entire coal mining workforce in the state, including all underground and surface miners, coal preparation plant workers and industry office workers combined. Moreover, unlike coal, sportfishing is a growing industry in Appalachia — the number of jobs it created in West Virginia more than tripled between 2001 and 2011.

Of course, even if “jobs vs. fish” were a popular argument, it would be just as false a narrative as “pests over people.” Declines in populations of both fish and aquatic insects are important indicators of declining health of an ecosystem on which all organisms depend, including people. The “ecological indicator” theory is consistent with the dozens of scientific studies published in the last few years that show communities near mountaintop removal mines suffer poor health outcomes ranging from high rates of cancer, respiratory illness, heart disease and birth defects to low life expectancies that are comparable to those in developing nations like Iran, Syria, El Salvador and Vietnam.

Thus, the USGS study is an important contribution to the debate about mountaintop removal for anyone concerned about recreational fishing, human health or the economy of Appalachia. Hopefully that’s everybody.

It’s also a very timely contribution because it turns out that the EPA and other federal agencies are right now grappling with important rules to protect streams that will determine whether the pollution that leads to the kinds of declines in fish populations seen by the USGS researchers will be allowed to continue.

The study found that waters downstream from mountaintop removal mines contained elevated levels of two forms of pollution that the researchers believe could account for the declines in fish populations: conductivity and selenium. Conductivity is a measure of metals and salts in water, and elevated levels are toxic to aquatic life. Selenium has caused grotesque deformities in larval fish ranging from s-curved spines and double-headed larvae to fish with both eyes on the same side of their heads.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

This study should serve as a wake-up call to federal regulators that have been steadily backsliding from the Obama administration’s initial commitment to put science first in agency decision-making and to rein in the widespread damage from mountaintop removal mining. That backsliding has been particularly evident at the EPA’s Region 4 headquarters in Atlanta, which oversees Clean Water Act permitting for a number of southeastern states including Kentucky.

Enforcement officials at Region 4 have not incorporated the science and recommendations developed by the EPA for the guidance on conductivity since it was announced by previous EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in 2010. At the time, Jackson predicted the new guidelines would allow “few, if any, valley fills” to be permitted. Since then, valley fills — debris piles composed of the soil and rock that formerly made up the mountaintops of Central Appalachia — have continued to be approved by Region 4, including a massive new mountaintop removal permit with six valley fills that was approved last year.

Region 4 officials also recently approved a weakening of Kentucky’s standards for chronic selenium levels in streams, allowing the state to permit levels high enough to cause reproductive failure in some fish. Worse, at the federal level, the EPA recently released a draft revision to its nationwide selenium rule that is likely to be all but impossible to enforce. That’s a particular problem in states like Kentucky that have proven time and again to be incapable of enforcing rules on the politically powerful coal industry without citizen groups intervening. Here’s what the Lexington Herald-Leader had to say about the state’s “failure to oversee a credible water monitoring program by the coal industry”:

“In some cases, state regulators allowed the companies to go for as long as three years without filing required quarterly water-monitoring reports. In other instances, the companies repeatedly filed the same highly detailed data, without even changing the dates. So complete was the lack of state oversight it’s impossible to say whether the mines were violating their water pollution permits or not.”

Fortunately, the administration has an opportunity to take meaningful action to protect Appalachian streams this winter, when the Office of Surface Mining is scheduled to release a draft Stream Protection Rule to replace the outdated Stream Buffer Zone rule promulgated more than 30 years ago.

The message for the Obama administration from all this is that they are doing nobody any favors by taking half-measures to protecting water quality in Appalachia. When important recreational fish populations, a growing sector of the Appalachian economy and the health of Appalachian people clearly depend on strong water quality protections, the president’s spirit of compromise should not extend to compromising on science.

Here’s what you can do: tell President Obama to instruct his agencies to draft a strong Stream Protection Rule that will prohibit mining near streams and protect the health of people, fish and the economy of Appalachia. Take action here.

Stories from South Central Regional Jail, WV

Friday, June 27th, 2014 - posted by kara

Poisoned Water Comic

As a volunteer with the WV Clean Water Hub and RAMPS, Chris Gang has been helping citizens who were impacted by the January chemical spill that poisoned the tap water for 300,000 people. As he and others are just recently learning, some of those citizens were the inmates at South Central Regional Jail.

“What started as a response to the water crisis has grown into a larger effort shedding light onto ongoing issues like denial of health care, inadequate food, and arbitrary disciplinary measures at South Central Regional Jail and other West Virginia prisons,” tells Chris Gang a volunteer with the WV Clean Water Hub and RAMPS. The crisis he’s referring to is the mistreatment of inmates during the MCHM chemical spill at the prison located in Charleston, WV.

The public health and safety crisis brought on by the chemical and coal industry has been going on for decades, as coal-impacted communities in Appalachia know full well. The MCHM spill into the Elk River brought this reality into the living rooms and conversations of the rest of America. Since February, inmates from the prison in Charleston have been communicating with Chris and other volunteers with WV Clean Water Hub and RAMPS Campaign. As their stories unfold, it’s becoming apparent that the jail staff gave inmates few or zero alternatives to drinking, cooking, and bathing with the contaminated water.

This abuse of basic human rights to clean water and personal safety are egregious and must be amended. The purpose of this story-sharing and grassroots campaign is to increase public awareness of the living conditions in West Virginia jails and to compel government agencies to respond to these abuses by the jail staff and administration.

These stories need to be shared beyond our circles to ensure the health and safety of these inmates is restored – please take a minute to sign this petition in support of:

  • An investigation into this crisis;
  • Adequate plans for similar future emergencies;
  • Universal medical care for inmates; and
  • Dismissal of charges against inmates who spoke up for clean water, and other changes called for by inmates.
  • You can read the full transcripts of these letters and the report “Negligence and Malice: A Preliminary Report on the Water Crisis at SCRJ” on the Stories from South Central, WV website. Here are a few excerpts exposing the abusive treatment by jail staff.

    “You can let them know that most of us are drinking as little water as possible and quite a few of us are sick from it and would greatly appreciate it if the jail were to flush the lines again – change the filters and provide us with bottled water. Why are the people in Charleston given free bottled water and we are not – I just thought about that. Just because we are convicted of a crime doesn’t mean that we rate different health standards than the general public.” – Anonymous 4/2/14

    “Also, this jail’s water system is an in-house recycled water system, meaning all of the water whether from sinks, toilets, showers, drinking fountains, etc. is recycled over and over here to cut down water cost. If the proper steps weren’t taken, filters changed, system flushes, etc. are we still using contaminated water? Potentially more contaminated than the public’s? And have there been any reports of joint problems? I’m still being prescribed ‘allergy meds’ for headaches, sneezing, chest cold like symptoms, respiratory problems brought on by ‘allergies!’ What a joke!” – Ray Legg 3/24/14

    Already this work has proven that the jail administrators had lied to the media about how they handled the water crisis in the jail.

    This will be an ongoing struggle and the volunteers with the Stories from South Central project need your help. For any of these volunteering options, please contact storiesfromsouthcentralwv@gmail.com or 681 214 0884 to learn more:

  • Inmates expressed that having regular pen pals allows the time pass better and is helpful through this traumatic experience – consider joining their pen pal effort.
  • Since printed materials are not allowed to be sent into jail, the group needs help handwriting copies of articles and petitions to send to inmates- please contact Stories from South Central before sending any letters or articles.
  • You can donate online or by check to support this 100% volunteer effort.
  • As the state falters, local governments support coal ash cleanup

    Friday, June 20th, 2014 - posted by amy

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    This week, the North Carolina Senate introduced a coal ash bill that would require Duke Energy to clean up coal ash at only four of its sites, potentially leaving the other 10 communities at risk from coal ash in the hands of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and a coal ash commission that will be appointed by the legislature and Governor Pat McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years.

    But as lawsuits quietly move forward, and state government continues to fail to hold Duke accountable for its coal ash pollution, local communities are stepping up and speaking out.

    Increasingly, North Carolinians who live near coal ash ponds and have seen waterways polluted are bravely speaking up about their experiences. Residents surrounding Duke Energy’s Buck Plant in Rowan County were featured in an Associated Press story this week about the high rates of cancer they have experienced in their community. Their story mirrors the stories of Belews Creek residents, who also have grave concerns about the serious impacts coal ash pollution may have on their health.

    In addition to drawing attention to very serious public health and safety concerns, local communities are also stepping up to propose solutions. Since the Dan River coal ash spill in February exposed the dangers of coal ash in North Carolina, nine communities have passed city or county resolutions that call for the proper cleanup of coal ash, and another 12 communities are in the process of drafting resolutions.

    Last October, Asheville made history as the first Southern city to pass a resolution to transition away from coal and replace it with renewable energy. This is a positive step toward protecting communities from coal ash pollution, which Duke and DENR have so far been incapable or unwilling to do.

    Since February, the towns of Warrenton and Creedmoor, as well as the Kerr-Tar Regional Council of Governments and Warren County, have passed resolutions supporting clean up of the coal ash spilled into the Dan River and coal ash removal at Dan River Power Plant. These resolutions have demonstrated to government officials that North Carolinians take the coal ash spill very seriously, and it is because of immense public pressure that the N.C. Senate’s coal ash bill lists the Dan River plant’s ash basins as top priority for closure.

    Unfortunately, the resolutions supporting clean up of all ash ponds in the Dan River Basin have not been sufficiently met by the legislature so far. As the legislature considers the lackluster coal ash bill, citizens are waiting to hear if the Belews Creek Power Plant, which houses the largest coal ash pond in the state, adjacent to the Dan River, will be included in the list of high priority sites for closure.

    Several towns including Davidson, Pineville, and Matthews passed resolutions that support strong legislative action to clean up coal ash across the state. Person County, which is historically and currently a center for environmental justice activism, has passed a resolution to protect their communities from coal ash being dumped in municipal landfills. Person County’s resolution places a moratorium on dumping coal ash waste in municipal landfills. The resolution comes as a result of concern that the communities of Person County will be harmed by the toxic heavy metals contained in coal ash and that the waste should be the responsibility of the producer, Duke Energy, and stored on their own property.

    The Roanoke River Basin Association, the Dan River Basin Association, and the National Wildlife Federation have also passed resolutions supporting coal ash clean up. Stokes, Vance, Franklin and Orange counties are preparing to present a resolution for consideration, as are the towns of Kinston, Goldsboro, Mint Hill, Wilmington, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.

    These local resolutions are sending a loud and clear message to legislators that communities across North Carolina want strong action on coal ash. Unfortunately, though some towns may wish to move beyond resolutions and actively regulate coal ash within their jurisdiction, the Senate’s coal ash bill, as currently written, invalidates any local ordinances that “prohibit or have the effect of regulating” coal ash.

    Together, we can get coal ash cleaned up across the state! Call or write to your legislator today to make sure they support strong clean up plans for all fourteen coal ash sites across North Carolina.

    A “strict proposal” that should be stronger

    Tuesday, June 17th, 2014 - posted by brian

    The North Carolina Senate’s coal ash bill includes cleanup plans that Duke Energy has already committed to, but it leaves too much up to DENR and a coal ash commission that has yet to be created.

    Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance

    Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance

    This week, Republican leaders of the North Carolina Senate introduced the Coal Ash Management Act of 2014 (SB 729), a bill that they hope will bring closure to the statewide issue of coal ash pollution, eventually.

    Introduced on Monday by Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson), the coal ash bill would require Duke Energy to close the 33 coal ash ponds across the state within 15 years – twice as fast as Duke claims is feasible. It also calls for a commission to oversee closure plans and encourages research into other uses of coal ash.

    The bill’s sponsors say it would be the most comprehensive and strict regulation of coal ash in the country — just what North Carolina needs.

    Demand a coal ash plan that protects all of North Carolina’s communities


    Four months ago, a massive coal ash spill at Duke’s retired Dan River plant raised the profile of coal ash pollution plaguing communities near North Carolina’s 14 coal plants. But it also spurred a regulatory and legislative response at the state level, and placed North Carolina in the center of a national debate over how to regulate the toxic waste.

    Both of the bill’s primary backers have coal ash ponds in their districts and were outspoken about the need for stronger protections in the lead-up to the current legislative session. Duke Energy’s Asheville plant is in Sen. Apodaca’s district. Sen. Berger’s district includes Rockingham County, where the Dan River spill occurred.

    The bill goes further than Governor Pat McCrory’s initial proposal, which fell short of the reforms needed to protect clean water and public health. But it still gives too much sway to Duke Energy and the Department of Environment and Natural Resources on how to go about closing most of the coal ash ponds in the state.

    Under the bill, coal ash sites considered “high-risk” because of their proximity to major waterways, including ponds at the Dan River, Asheville, Riverbend and Sutton power plants, would have to be excavated and closed no later than 2019. Coal ash stored in ponds classified as either high- or intermediate-risk could be moved to lined landfills or recycled. Sites deemed as low-risk sites could be drained and covered, a practice known as cap-in-place, if DENR and the coal ash commission created by the bill agree it would be safe.

    The bill requires DENR and the coal ash commission to develop risk classifications by August 1, 2015. But according to an analysis of the bill by N.C. Conservation Network, the bill provides no specifics guidelines on how levels of risk should be determined.

    Once the level of risk is determined for the sites not included in the bill, the coal ash commission must hold a public meeting in the county where the site is located and accept comments. So residents in communities such as Belews Creek and Dukeville that live near massive coal ash ponds that both Duke Energy and state regulators know to be polluting groundwater will have to wait.

    “The truth is, no coal ash pond in the state of North Carolina is a low-risk site,” attorney D.J. Gerken of the Southern Environmental Law Center told the Hendersonville, N.C., newspaper Blue Ridge Now. “It is a disaster to leave DENR the discretion to stick with the plan it has embraced for years, which is covering them over with dirt and walking away.”

    When it comes to questions of accountability — an especially relevant issue considering the ongoing federal investigation into the close ties between DENR and Duke Energy in the wake of the Dan River spill — Apodaca says that’s where a proposed Coal Ash Management Commission would come in, and that the “true beauty of this bill is it won’t just be DENR making these decisions.”

    Tell legislators that N.C. can’t wait for clean water. The coal ash bill should be stronger.

    “That’s why we have a coal ash commission, which is made up of nine experts from different backgrounds: health, power, conservation, waste management,” Apodaca is quoted as saying in Blue Ridge Now. “We’re going to have a full mixture of folks and that’s who will be making these decisions.”

    The nine members on the coal ash commission would be appointed by legislature and the governor, a prospect that should be met with skepticism based on the the industry interests represented on the state Environmental Management Commission and the Mining and Energy Commission, for example.

    The commission would be tasked with approving risk classifications for coal ash ponds and their closure plans, and make recommendations on laws or regulations related to coal ash management. Under the bill, Duke Energy would be required to fund four seats on the commission as well as 25 positions at DENR.

    Other seemingly positive changes to the governor’s meager proposal turned out to be arbitrary — more shiny objects than substantial improvements. For example, lawmakers say a moratorium on electricity rate increases until January 2015 would protect ratepayers from incurring costs incurred related to cleaning up coal ash. But a rate case could not realistically begin that quickly.

    In short, according to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the Senate bill puts into law what Duke Energy has already committed to: cleaning up the ash at the most high-profile and dangerous sites in the state. But in its current form, the proposal leaves too much up to DENR and a coal ash commission that has yet to be created.

    Take action and learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to clean up coal ash.

    Take Action: Protect Appalachian Streams from Toxic Selenium

    Wednesday, June 11th, 2014 - posted by eric

    The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new national recommended water quality criteria for selenium. Because these new standards are weaker and more complex than the current standards, they pose a major threat to the health of streams in coal-impacted communities.

    Selenium is a pollutant released from many mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachia that is extremely toxic to fish at very low levels. Over time, it builds up in fish and other aquatic organisms leading to reproductive failure, deformities and death.

    The EPA’s proposed standards are too weak to be protective of aquatic life. Studies have shown negative effects of selenium at levels half as high as the fish tissue standards proposed by the agency. These standards are even weaker than those proposed by the EPA in 2004, which were withdrawn after public comments from agencies and scientists demonstrated that they would not protect aquatic life.

    A table of current and proposed EPA selenium standards. Click to enlarge.

    By partially basing the standards on fish tissue sampling, the EPA has created a significant burden for citizens and agencies trying to enforce the limits on selenium pollution. Fish tissue sampling will be more expensive and time consuming, and it will require special permits for collecting fish. This is especially problematic in Appalachia, where selenium standards have primarily been enforced through citizen actions. These standards will be more difficult to enforce, and will just lead to more streams being degraded.

    Tell the EPA not to weaken Selenium Standards

    Please take a few minutes to email ow-docket@epa.gov with the subject line “Attention Docket No. EPA-HQ-OW-2004-0019”, and let them know that we need strong water based standards for selenium, that will protect all aquatic life. The comment period has been extended through July 28, 2014.

    Another coal-related chemical spill in Central Appalachia

    Monday, June 9th, 2014 - posted by Erin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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