Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Learn more about the bill here.

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

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 - posted by Erin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a Clear Case on Mountaintop Removal and Health

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Opportunity Ahead

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

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

Endangered Species are New Focus in Legal Case against Kentucky’s Water Quality Protections and EPA

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014 - posted by eric

Contact
Appalachian Voices: Eric Chance, 828-262-1500, eric@appvoices.org
Kentuckians For The Commonwealth: Suzanne Tallichet, 606-776-7970, stallichet1156@aol.com
Center for Biological Diversity: Tierra Curry, 971-717-6402, tcurry@biologicaldiversity.org
Sierra Club: Adam Beitman, (202) 675-2385, adam.beitman@gmail.com
Defenders of Wildlife: Melanie Gade, (202) 772-0288, mgade@defenders.org
Kentucky Waterways Alliance: Tim Joice, (502) 589-8008, Tim@kwalliance.org

LOUISVILLE, Ky. –
A coalition of national and Appalachian conservation groups today asked the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky to compel the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect imperiled wildlife in Kentucky. The groups want the EPA to reassess the dangers posed to wildlife by a new set of water quality standards covering Kentucky’s coal mining and agricultural operations.

In November 2013, the EPA approved the weakening of Kentucky’s water quality standards for selenium, a pollutant commonly released by mountaintop removal coal mines. The EPA also approved Kentucky’s weakened standards for nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff, which causes toxic algae blooms in local bodies of water and depletes the oxygen needed to support most aquatic life. A coalition of conservation groups, including Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Waterways Alliance and Sierra Club, immediately filed suit, asserting that the EPA’s new guidelines are insufficient to protect waterways and wildlife under the Clean Water Act.

Today, two national wildlife conservation groups, Defenders of Wildlife and Center for Biological Diversity, joined the case. The groups assert that, in addition to violating the Clean Water Act, the EPA’s approval of Kentucky’s weakened water quality standards also violates the Endangered Species Act. Under that law, the EPA is required to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to assess the impacts of changed standards on federally listed species. The groups allege that the EPA violated the Endangered Species Act by initiating, but failing to complete, that consultation process.

The groups issued the following statements:

Jane Davenport, senior staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife:
“Coal mining has devastating impacts on water-dependent wildlife. The new, weaker water quality standards were originally proposed by the coal mining lobby so it’s unfortunate to see the Environmental Protection Agency essentially rubber stamp them without even checking to see how imperiled wildlife would be affected. Implementation of these new standards needs to be put on hold until the EPA fulfills all of its obligations under the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.”

Eric Chance, water quality specialist with Appalachian Voices:
“This weakened selenium standard is basically a handout to the coal industry at the expense of the people and streams of Kentucky. The EPA and state are just making it easier for polluters to get away with poisoning streams. This is a misguided rule at odds with well-established science, existing laws and common sense.”

Tierra Curry, senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity and a native of Knott County:
“Kentucky is home to more kinds of freshwater animals than nearly any other state. Keeping the water safe for them will also help protect healthy water quality for people.”

Alice Howell of Sierra Club’s Cumberland (Kentucky) Chapter:
“Mountaintop removal coal mining threatens our health and our environment, including our most vulnerable species. The EPA has acted irresponsibly by approving Kentucky’s dangerously weak standards. It’s time for the courts to intervene and uphold the strong protections required under the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.”

Suzanne Tallichet, state chair of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth:
“KFTC members are concerned with the health and well-being of all species. We all share the planet, so when one species is being harmed, we are all at risk – including people. Kentucky state officials and the EPA should help us strengthen – rather than diminish – our natural resources. Many Kentuckians are working hard to build a brighter future for coal-impacted communities. But that bright future depends on having healthy streams that are necessary for wildlife, tourism, communities, and businesses to thrive. Appalachia’s bright future can’t be built on polluted waterways that are doing damage to fish and wildlife, not to mention local communities. Kentucky deserves better than these weakened water quality standards.”

Judy Petersen, executive director of Kentucky waterways Alliance:
“The selenium pollution allowed under these new rules could impact birds and other wildlife dependent on the bugs and small fish in our waterways. And we’ve already seen the impacts of too many nutrients in our waters. Taylorsville and Barren River Lakes have levels of harmful algae that put them in the moderate health risk for recreational exposure. People can get sick and even dogs and pets could die after swimming in these lakes. We must do a better job protecting our waterways from pollution, and not look to weaken protections.”

###

Seleni-what?

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

A little-known pollutant has big implications for the health of Appalachian streams

By Eric Chance, Water Quality Specialist for Appalachian Voices

Illustration by Jack Rooney

Illustration by Jack Rooney

Most people have probably never heard of selenium, but for coal operators and fish it is a big deal.

The mineral selenium occurs naturally and is necessary for life in extremely small amounts, but it is toxic to aquatic life even at very low levels. Once in the environment, selenium accumulates in birds, fish and other aquatic organisms, building up to toxic levels in their tissues. It is especially harmful to fish, causing reproductive failure, deformities and even death.

In 2012, Patriot Coal Corp. agreed to phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining in order to resolve $400 million in liability for selenium pollution cleanup. Many coal mines and coal ash ponds release selenium, but it is difficult and expensive for companies to remedy the problem because even small amounts can be hazardous.

A brief, high discharge of selenium into a stream might not be that toxic at first. Yet over time selenium deposits in the stream’s soils can be absorbed through an organism’s diet and build up to toxic levels in insects and fish.

Duke Energy’s Dan River coal ash spill this past February is a good example. Although selenium concentrations in water downstream from the spill were relatively low, the selenium in the coal ash that coated the bottom of the river for dozens of miles poses a long-term hazard for fish and other aquatic life.

Selenium is expensive to remove from water, and its effects on the environment are complicated. This makes water quality standards for selenium a prime target for attacks from industries who wish to avoid water treatment costs and regulators who are easily bogged down in complicated science.

There have been quite a few strikes on selenium regulations in recent years, and many of them have focused on changing the basis of water quality standards for the mineral from the amount of selenium in the water to the amount found in fish tissue. Once adopted by individual states, water quality standards are used to determine which streams are impaired and to determine the amount of pollution allowed in permits. Every state with mountaintop removal coal mining has made some attempt to change its selenium standards in recent years, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has tried several times to change the national standards.

A fish tissue-based standard seems to make sense from a purely scientific perspective, since selenium accumulates in fish over time. Yet these standards add complexity and costs to already underfunded and overworked environmental agencies. The changes also make it much harder for citizens to enforce these standards under the Clean Water Act because of the increased cost and difficulty of collecting fish for testing.

Collecting fish creates its own set of problems. Extremely polluted streams might not have any fish at all, or the only fish surviving might be less-sensitive species that accumulate selenium levels in their bodies at a slower rate. Repeatedly gathering fish from streams with selenium problems could also further stress those fish populations. Collecting fish for scientific purposes requires special equipment such as an electro-shocker and special permits that may not always be available. The process is also more time-consuming than collecting water samples. And even when specimens are collected, it is impossible to know how long a certain fish has been near a particular pollution discharge point.

Late in 2013, Kentucky proposed, and EPA approved, weaker state selenium standards that rely on fish-tissue testing. Appalachian Voices, along with a number of partner organizations including the Sierra Club, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Waterways Alliance, Defenders of Wildlife, and the Center for Biological Diversity — represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates — has filed a lawsuit challenging these changes.

The groups argue that the new standards are too weak to serve their intended purpose, and that the rules violate the Endangered Species Act because the EPA failed to consult the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as required by law. Fish and Wildlife has serious concerns about the new rule and stated in a letter to the EPA that the Kentucky standards “may result in negative impacts to federally listed species.”

In May, the EPA released a draft of a new national water quality standard for selenium. The agency has proposed to replace the single standard for long term toxicity of five parts per billion in water with a complex set of five different numbers and one formula.

EPA’s newly proposed standard is actually slightly weaker than the version the agency proposed back in 2002. The new draft standard includes an 8.1 parts per million criteria for whole fish, compared to the slightly stronger 2002 proposed standard of 7.9 parts per million. Among the many scientists and agencies that criticized the 2002 proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service told the EPA that “Based on a large body of scientific evidence, the service believes these criterion values will not protect federally listed fish and wildlife species. Furthermore, the service believes these values are not even sufficient to protect the aquatic life for which the criteria were developed.”

In 2009, Tennessee legislators tried and failed to weaken that state’s selenium standards to those that the EPA previously abandoned in 2002. As a leading expert on selenium, Wake Forest University associate professor and U.S. Forest Service biologist Dr. Dennis Lemly told Tennessee lawmakers, “Based on the work I’ve done, 7.9 would kill a lot of fish.”

The federal environmental agency’s newly proposed selenium standards still face a peer review process and public comment period before they can be finalized.

Full Disclosure?

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

As North Carolina considers its first natural gas drilling rules, a survey of the region shows how states are — and aren’t — regulating fracking

By Molly Moore

When Denise der Garabedian heard that fracking could come to the area near her home in the Smoky Mountains of Cherokee County, N.C., she began researching the controversial method of gas drilling and talking to neighbors who had seen the effects of the fracking boom in other states. The more she learned, the more determined she became to speak out against the practice.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, involves drilling a well into shale rock formations and injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the rock, prop open the fissures, and then withdraw the natural gas and less than half of the fracking fluids. The rest of the fracking brine remains underground, where some scientists are concerned that it could migrate into groundwater.

The relative abundance of natural gas has made it a cheap source of power. But as shale gas production has skyrocketed — from 169,026 million cubic feet in 2007 to 902,405 in 2012 — concerns about water contamination have grown.

In January, an Associated Press investigation of water contamination in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Texas found that some states have confirmed a connection between oil and gas drilling and well-water contamination.

Independent research points to similar conclusions. “A range of studies from across the United States present strong evidence that groundwater contamination occurs and is more likely to occur close to drilling sites,” states a compendium of research on fracking’s environmental and public health effects assembled by the Concerned Health Professionals of New York in July. Last year, a Duke University study in northeastern Pennsylvania found that higher levels of methane in wells near gas drilling sites were linked to shale gas extraction.

Proponents of fracking point to alternate studies — such as one conducted by the drilling company Cabot Oil and Gas — that they say disprove the conclusions drawn from other scientific research.

Still, there is no overarching scientific statement on how frequently fracking affects drinking water supplies or how those chemicals impact public health. In 2010, Congress ordered the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a comprehensive study on how fracking affects groundwater, but the release date for that study was pushed back from 2014 to 2016.

While they wait for answers, Appalachian states are moving ahead with fracking, their paths determined by a mix of geological happenstance, political will and citizen pressure. State-level decisions are even more important given a lack of federal oversight — fracking is exempt from federal laws that typically protect water, air and public health, such as the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Safe Drinking Water Acts. The industry is even exempt from Department of Transportation rules that set safety standards for the number of hours truck drivers can work. When states begin fracking, they venture into the Wild West of regulation.

Entering the Fracking Frontier

In 2012, the North Carolina legislature overturned the state’s fracking moratorium and created the Mining and Energy Commission to draft the state’s first natural gas drilling rules. Now, as the legislature accelerates the rulemaking process, the commission is at the center of a statewide debate.

“When the MEC formed and set out on this path they said they were going to make the strongest and most restrictive rules in the nation and since then everything they’ve done has been a step back from that,” says Mary MacLean Asbill, a North Carolina attorney with the nonprofit Southern Environmental Law Center.

page11graphic

The MEC proposals, released in July, would prohibit gas companies from injecting fracking waste underground, but would allow open waste pits. In fact, Asbill says, the draft rules don’t adequately address many areas of concern, including air emissions, liability for spills and baseline water quality testing to determine whether any water pollution problems are pre-existing.

The fracking industry’s exemption from the Clean Water Act also means that companies are not federally required to disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process. Instead, states have discretion to set chemical disclosure standards. North Carolina’s MEC proposals provide some safeguards on this front, but in June the state legislature passed a law making it a misdemeanor for anyone to reveal fracking chemical trade secrets, including doctors who would be granted access to the information in case of emergency.

In August and September, the commission is planning to hold public hearings to solicit input on the draft rules. Three hearings are scheduled in the Piedmont, and, after pressure from western North Carolina residents, the commission agreed to hold a fourth in the mountain town of Cullowhee.

Attention is centered on the natural gas potential of the Deep River and Dan River basins, where test drilling could begin this fall, but the state environmental agency also plans to test for indications of gas in seven western counties.

In the meantime, a recently formed grassroots organization called Coalition Against Fracking in Western North Carolina is organizing town hall meetings and urging local governments to take a stand against the practice. In July, several local governments stated their opposition to fracking, beginning with the Swain County Commission and the town of Webster in Jackson County. The North Carolina law passed in June invalidates local ordinances regarding fracking, but in other parts of the country such ordinances are gaining ground. New York’s top state court recently ruled that towns could use zoning laws to ban fracking near their borders.

As citizens in the western counties of North Carolina prepare for the public comment hearing in September, Denise der Garabedian will keep encouraging her neighbors to pay attention during the rulemaking process and beyond. “I know I can’t save the world, but I might be able to save my backyard and my neighbors’ maybe,” she says.

Science of Setbacks

Along with New York and Pennsylvania, West Virginia has been at the epicenter of fracking in the Eastern United States for a half-dozen years. The Associated Press reported that from 2009 to 2013, the state received roughly 122 complaints that drilling contaminated water wells and found that “in four cases the evidence was strong enough that the driller agreed to take corrective action.”

To address the boom, West Virginia passed a new set of rules in 2011 that environmental and property-rights groups criticized as being too weak; the West Virginia Citizens Action Group called them a “Christmas gift to drillers.”

Among their concerns, critics said that the buffer zones — designed to protect residents and water supplies from air and water pollution — were insufficient. In a 2013 study, Dr. Michael McCawley, a chairman at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health, found contaminants such as the carcinogen benzene in the air at seven drilling sites. Based on his research, he advised the DEP to stop relying on the boundary zones and instead conduct direct air quality monitoring near the sites.

His study was undertaken because of the 2011 law which required the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to research several aspects of the oil and gas industry, including air pollution, and then use the results to implement additional rules if necessary. After reviewing McCawley’s findings, however, the DEP reported to the legislature that no rule changes were needed. McCawley then took his concerns directly to state legislators in the fall of 2013, where he says he received an encouraging response. He is continuing to pitch the idea to decision-makers in West Virginia and neighboring states.

Wastewater Worries

Although Kentucky and West Virginia share a long border of similarly rolling mountain ridges, their geology is distinct enough that the Bluegrass State hosts far fewer hydraulic fracturing wells. But that may be changing. Recently, successful tests in the state’s northeastern corner have led to more fracking in the area, and applications to drill are increasing.

Tim Joice, water policy director at the nonprofit Kentucky Waterways Alliance, notes that the state’s oil and gas drilling regulations are decades old and do not consider how modern processes could allow gas or fracking fluids to migrate into aquifers or wells.

Essentially, the existing regulations were written to address nitrogen-foam fracturing, not hydraulic fracturing. In much of the state, hydraulic fracturing doesn’t work very well because the high clay content in some of the state’s shale formations absorbs water. So, beginning in 1978, eastern Kentucky drillers began to combine nitrogen and comparatively small amounts of water — roughly 120,000 gallons — with other chemicals and sand to create a briny foam that is then injected underground at high pressure.

Nitrogen-foam wells have the advantage of using less water and producing less chemical-laden brine for disposal. Yet whether a well is fracked with nitrogen foam or hydraulic fracturing fluid, the resulting toxic waste needs to go somewhere. Often, it’s injected back underground in designated wastewater wells, but companies have also dumped the waste into streams and gullies near drilling sites.

When Kentucky Waterways Alliance requested information about complaints of improper disposal of fracking brine from the state, the Kentucky Division of Water responded with a spreadsheet of 360 incidents between January 2012 and May 2014, six of which have resulted in formal violations.

The 200,000-Gallon Question

In Tennessee, the greatest problem with regulations is simple — the rules don’t apply to most drilling operations in the state. Fracking rules the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation passed in 2012 only apply to wells that use more than 200,000 gallons of water. The relatively sparse fracking happening in Tennessee uses the nitrogen process, which uses far less water than the limit, so most operations are exempt from the rules.

“It’s a partial regulatory scheme but they don’t apply it most of the time, so what we’re left with is virtually nothing,” says Anne Davis, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center who had recommended stronger regulations. “If you frack with nitrogen you’re not doing more than 200,000 gallons.”

Operations that use more than 200,000 gallons must issue public notice of new fracking operations, test nearby water wells and provide monitoring reports. Fracking operations using less water still need to file a permit stating their intention to frack, but no public notice is required and the permits are not available online. Once drilling is complete, operators are obliged to disclose the chemicals they use, but this requirement only applies to those chemicals that aren’t classified as trade secrets.

Reviewing Regulation

In Virginia, as part of an ongoing review of fracking, a state regulatory advisory committee recently agreed to recommend that the Virginia Gas and Oil Board change state regulations to require full public disclosure of all ingredients in fracking fluids. In their ongoing meetings, the committee also discussed whether baseline groundwater sampling should be required before the agency can authorize drilling and fracking.

As the rules review continues, several natural gas proposals are keeping the issue in the spotlight. Oil and gas companies are interested in fracking the Taylorsville Basin in eastern Virginia, and one Texas company has already leased 84,000 acres. In the George Washington National Forest, which overlies part of the Marcellus Shale formation, the U.S. Forest Service is considering whether to limit hydraulic fracturing in the area.

New pipelines to carry natural gas from the Marcellus Shale through Virginia have also generated controversy. Routes for the three pipeline proposals aren’t final, but some nearby communities are already organizing to express concerns about oil and gas leaks. And Dominion Resources’ proposed 450-mile project would transport natural gas through the George Washington National Forest, which environmental organizations such as Wild Virginia say endangers natural areas and drinking water supplies.

Efforts to expand fracking and natural gas infrastructure in Appalachia are forcing residents and decision-makers to confront basic questions about the role of natural gas in the region. Whether the industry grows will depend on how strongly states adopt energy efficiency and renewable sources of power and how citizens respond to new fracking and pipeline proposals. If the growing movement in western North Carolina is any indication, the future of fracking in Appalachia will be continue to be fraught with controversy.

Correction: This article has been updated to note that less than half of fracking fluids are withdrawn from wells after drilling — more than half remains underground.

Injustices Follow Elk River Chemical Spill

Sunday, August 10th, 2014 - posted by Jack Rooney

By Kimber Ray

For many in West Virginia whose water was contaminated by Freedom Industries this past January, the $11,000 fine issued against the company by federal officials in July demonstrated the failure of state and federal officials to demand corporate accountability.

In a Charleston, W. Va., prison, inmates are reporting that they had to choose between dehydration and drinking the contaminated tap water. Although the jail initially reported that inmates were supplied eight bottles of water a day, later investigation revealed that inmates sometimes had as little as a single bottle of water each day.

At press time, no action has been taken against jail officials.

Also in July, evidence emerged that the spill may have caused a greater health impact than initially indicated. Research funded by the National Science Foundation found that MCHM — the primary chemical that contaminated the water of 300,000 West Virginians — is significantly more toxic to aquatic life than the manufacturer had reported. The implications for human health are still being evaluated.

Cleanup of the Freedom Industries site is underway, and the public had a deadline of Aug. 1 to file claims against the company.

Expecting Justice: The backward priorities of a billionaire coal baron

Thursday, August 7th, 2014 - posted by brian

If spending $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is paying your debts.

One of these things is not like the other, but they're all owned by Jim Justice. Premium Coal's Zeb Mountain (top) and Windrock Mountain mines in Tennessee, and the Greenbrier's new training complex. Photos from tnleaf.org and Facebook.

One of these things is not like the other, but they’re all owned by Jim Justice. Premium Coal’s Zeb Mountain (top) and Windrock Mountain mines in Tennessee, and the Greenbrier’s new training complex. Photos from tnleaf.org and Facebook.

On July 25, as opponents of mountaintop removal celebrated an order that halted three companies’ surface mining operations in Tennessee, New Orleans Saints fans flocked to the Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where the NFL football team began training camp at a brand new $30 million facility.

At the center of both stories is Jim Justice, a billionaire West Virginia native who in recent years cut his coal losses by investing heavily in resort properties like the Greenbrier.

The Sierra Club and Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment shared the news that the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued 39 cessation orders against National Coal, Premium Coal and S&H Mining, each owned by Justice, for failing to report water monitoring data and meet mine reclamation requirements.

In fact, coal mines owned by Justice in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia have racked up more than 250 violations, with unpaid penalties of about $2 million.

“I guess I just screwed up,” Justice said to the Roanoke Times in July about his subsidiaries’ transgressions. “I mean, we’re not a public company … The majority of this is all paperwork, and I’m cleaning it up.”

Purchased Power

Justice is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.6 billion. Forbes magazine puts him at number 292 on a list of wealthiest Americans and estimates that his personal wealth has grown by $500 million in the last year.

In some circles, he is revered for rescuing West Virginia’s historic Greenbrier Resort from bankruptcy in 2009. And even as violations against Justice-owned operations pile up, West Virginia’s lone billionaire is helping his state through troubled times.

“Sure, some have raised questions about some of Justice’s companies’ practices, late payments, regulatory fines and the like,” a July editorial in the Charleston Daily Mail postured in guarded praise. “Yet, while many talk of diversifying the state’s economy in the face of market and regulatory setbacks for the coal industry, Jim Justice and company are doing something about it.”

Photo from the Justice to Justice campaign's Facebook page.

Photo from the Justice to Justice campaign’s Facebook page.

Some folks in Kentucky feel differently, and understandably so — nearly half of the 266 violations Justice faces resulted from problems at mines in that state’s eastern counties.

Along with violations for failing to pay fines or breaking promises after previous enforcement actions, the charges in Kentucky stem from companies failing to submit water monitoring reports and failing to meet reclamation requirements. The problem has gotten so bad that some states are considering bond forfeiture, a last resort that could push the costs of proper reclamation off on the communities Justice’s companies have already put in harm’s way.

It’s not the first time his companies’ poor regulatory records have hurt their ability to do business. Outstanding violations in Virginia led to a massive victory for opponents of mountaintop removal last year when the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a permit for Justice’s A&G Coal Corp. to strip-mine Ison Rock Ridge in Wise County.

But the recent cessation order in Tennessee represents the largest action to date taken against Justice’s companies. Unlike all the other states where his operations face violations and fines, Tennessee’s mining regulatory program is handled by the federal government.

Before the cessation orders were issued, the federal Office of Surface Mining held public hearings in Anderson County, Tenn., to address Premium Coal’s failure to meet reclamation requirements at two mine sites. Premium Coal requested the orders be dropped because the crew they hired had planted trees upside down with the roots sticking up.

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign this year to raise awareness about the dismal regulatory records and outstanding debts of Justice-owned coal companies. Photo from justicetojustice.org

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign to raise awareness about the dismal regulatory records and outstanding debts of Justice-owned coal companies. Photo from justicetojustice.com.

“You’d think a coal billionaire could hire firms that can plant a tree the right way around. Sadly, Premium Coal’s reasoning for not meeting permit requirements was simply that,” said Sierra Club Organizer Bonnie Swinford in a press release. “Justice and his firms have a legal responsibility to ensure adequate reclamation of strip-mined land in our state — and upside-down trees don’t cut it.”

Add it all up, and it’s no wonder the Southwest Virgnia-based Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards formed the Justice to Justice campaign this year to call on the mogul to use his power to diversify Appalachia’s economy and put an end to mountaintop removal. In early July, SAMS members marched outside the Greenbrier and the towns of White Sulphur Springs and Lewisburg, W.Va., holding signs with messages such as “You got rich, we got sick,” “Employ local people in reclamation,” and “Hey Jim Justice, be a good neighbor to ALL of Appalachia.”

According to the Justice to Justice website, many tourists and even local residents had no idea that the Greenbrier patriarch’s fortune had been built in part “on the backs of blasted mountains and abandoned communities.”

Courting the Saints

Sadly, media coverage of Justice’s latest major investment has obscured everything mentioned so far in this post. A USA Today story about the new facility built for the New Orleans Saints praised a genial, sports-loving Justice, calling him a “refreshingly grounded billionaire.” Justice was proud to share the amount he spent to see the Saints come to the Greenbrier.

“This is on me — I spent $30 million of my own money,” Justice told USA Today. “The Saints are paying for their rooms and their meals. Basically, that’s it. The Saints didn’t put money in this deal.”

The facility, which has variously been described as “posh,” “lavish,” and “state-of-the-art,” was built in about 100 days. You can watch the video at right from the Charleston Daily Mail’s YouTube account for a look inside.

“It’s unbelievable when you think about it,” Justice told reporters gathered in the locker room. “This is, gosh, I’m trying to think, a little over 90 days in the doing, and with a whole lot of earth-moving, it had to be done before that.”

Yes, it is unbelievable, and exceedingly hard to not just conclude that Justice sees himself as being above the law. If dropping $30 million to see your favorite NFL team play in your backyard is possible, practical even, then so is abiding by surface mining laws and properly reclaiming mines — trees planted root-side down and all.

Justice says the demands of his critics, who he calls “anti-mining activists,” are unrealistic. But considering the circumstances, a regional movement calling on his companies to clean up their mess, pay off their debts and stop poisoning water is not only realistic, it’s unavoidable. Justice practically created it. To do right by Appalachia, he should meet those demands and then some. And he could start by responding to the open letter and request for a meeting the Justice to Justice campaign sent him months ago.

Back at the Greenbrier, likely in a dining room every bit as lavish as the new sports complex, Saints’ Coach Sean Payton and Justice had dinner together the night before training camp started. At one point, according to USA Today, Payton told Justice, “You exceeded expectations.”

Given the same chance, someone from Central Appalachia expecting justice — whether an out-of-work miner, a contractor waiting to be paid, a fed up environmental regulator or a mother concerned about the poorly reclaimed mine looming over her community — might all say the opposite: “Not even close.”

Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment and Coal River Mountain Watch recently signed on to Justice to Justice campaign. Learn more here and by liking the campaign’s Facebook page.

Science vs. Mining

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014 - posted by eric

Fish deformed by selenium pollution

It’s no surprise to folks in coal-impacted communities that surface mining is bad for water quality. Orange streams, devoid of life, litter the landscape. But it would seem to most that this is contrary to many environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Unfortunately these laws are filled with loopholes, and the agencies tasked with enforcing them are usually underfunded and understaffed.

There have been numerous studies over the years showing surface mining’s detrimental effects on the health of nearby people and streams. There are two recent notable studies from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) alone. The first was aimed at linking air pollution from mountaintop removal mines to the health problems of nearby residents. Unfortunately, this study will not be completed because its funding has been cut. Earlier this month USGS was able to complete and publish a report that showed streams below mountaintop removal mines have two-thirds fewer fish than those in unpolluted streams. The study also found that selenium pollution is linked to declines in fish populations.

Appalachian Voices has been working to keep the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and industry from opening new loopholes in our environmental laws that would make it easier to poison streams. Along with a number of our supporters and partner organizations, we recently submitted comments to the EPA on their newly proposed standards for selenium.

Selenium is a mineral commonly discharged from coal mines that is extremely toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. It is also very expensive to remove from water so there have been a number of efforts by the coal industry to get agencies to make the standards more lax. This newly proposed EPA standard will make citizen enforcement harder, and will make it easier for companies to get away with discharging toxic levels of selenium.

The new standards are slightly weaker than the selenium standards EPA tried, but failed, to adopt in 2004. A large number of scientists and even other federal agencies came out in opposition to those standards because they were too weak. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, for example, told the EPA that “Based on a large body of scientific evidence, the Service believes these criterion values will not protect federally listed fish and wildlife species. Furthermore, the service believes these values are not even sufficient to protect the aquatic life for which the criteria were developed.”

>> See our comments here and here
>> Look through all the comments here

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.