Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

Mine Safety, Water Quality Targeted in West Virginia Bills

Wednesday, April 12th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

A proposed bill, S.B. 582, would significantly diminish the state’s authority to regulate and enforce safety standards in coal mines. Critics say it undoes years of legislative progress toward protecting miners.

“It’s breathtaking in its scope,” Davitt McAteer, a mine safety expert, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Among other changes, the industry-backed bill reduces the number and limits the scope of visits by state safety inspectors, limits the ability to cite violations unless “imminent danger” can be proven and targets individual employees rather than mine operators and companies when violations are discovered.

Another bill that changes how the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection measures water pollution passed through the state Senate on March 28 and is awaiting the governor’s signature. The current rules are based on the amount of pollution that can be allowed in a waterway during the lowest seven-day water flow over a ten-year period. The new bill, H.B. 2506, would set levels based on average stream flow.

The new regulation would allow more pollution to be permitted in waterways and was lobbied for by industry groups.

The state DEP also removed language from its permitting process that protected communities from noise and light pollution near compressor stations and other facilities. The change was undertaken at the request of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association.

Coal companies owned by Jim Justice, now the state’s governor, owe the state $4.4 million in unpaid back taxes.

Protect natural resources for Southwest Virginia’s future

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices

Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule using a rarely invoked law called the Congressional Review Act. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends rushed to urge lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal coal mining. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Central Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies, state agencies and the federal government accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.

Ron Short

Ron Short

I was born and raised in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. My father was a coal miner, and without his efforts to send me to school, I would have been a coal miner also. For all my life, the coal economy has ruled this region and its people. Now we are facing the demise of the coal industry, and we must save the valuable natural resources that we have left if we are ever to develop cultural tourism and eco-tourism as important parts of a new economy that works for everyone.

When I was small, one company dumped coal waste into the Pound River and I saw the deadly effects that followed: thousands of dead fish, mink, muskrats, frogs, birds and water so polluted with metals and minerals that for the first time in my life I could not swim in the river. I was 10 years old and it took the river 50 years to heal itself. My father was 90 years old before we could go fishing in the Pound River together again. Sadly, pollution from mining operations is still contaminating our waterways today.

The Stream Protection Rule — the product of nearly a decade of community engagement and scientific and economic studies — is designed to preserve this life-giving resource. Unfortunately, Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to kill the Stream Protection Rule using an obscure procedure known as a Congressional Review Act as part of the mad rush to rip the last of the coal out of the ground at any cost.

Water truly is life! We have more pristine and biologically valuable waters than most places in the world, and we need to protect them for our health, our economic future and our grandchildren. Senators Kaine and Warner, you are our only allies in Washington. Please do not let your colleagues kill the Stream Protection Rule. Killing this rule would produce a short-term political gain for their ilk, but it could create a future that we in Southwest Virginia may never be able to recover from.

Ron Short

Fighting for clean water after the Stream Protection Rule

Tuesday, February 7th, 2017 - posted by Erin
A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

A valley fill beneath a mountaintop removal mine in eastern Kentucky. The Stream Protection Rule would have limited the practice.

UPDATE: On Feb. 16, President Donald Trump signed a bill to reverse the Stream Protection Rule. Read our press release here.

Citizens across the nation are talking about mountaintop removal right now, following the House and Senate votes last week to repeal the Stream Protection Rule.

The Senate voted 54-45 on Friday to repeal the rule through a rarely-used law called the Congressional Review Act. Contrary to some claims that the Stream Protection Rule was a last-minute Obama dig at the coal industry, the rule had actually been under development by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement for most of Obama’s presidency.

It would have updated a 34-year-old version of the regulations, known as the Stream Buffer Zone Rule. Both rules spell out implementation details of the 1977 Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act, which remains in effect even without the Stream Protection Rule.

Headlines widely shared over social media alerted the nation to the end of a rule that would have “stopped” coal companies from dumping waste in streams. In the comments, people braced themselves for the coming impacts. But what many do not realize is that coal companies have been dumping their waste into streams in Central Appalachia for decades, and continue to do so now. They did it under President Bush. They did it under President Obama. The practice is called “valley filling” and is a byproduct of mountaintop removal coal mining in Central Appalachia. The new rule would have limited this practice, but it would not have ended it.

Threats to public water from corporate and political interests are nothing new in Central Appalachia, nor is the problem unique to this area. The chemical spill in Charleston, W.Va., coal ash contamination across North Carolina, lead contamination in Flint, Mich., and the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock Reservation have shown us that.

Despite intense polarization in the United States, polling shows that a majority of Americans are concerned about threats to clean drinking water. Communities that already have contaminated water are imploring their leaders to do something about it.

“We can’t live without clean water,” said Paula Swearigen of Sophia, W.Va. “This administration has totally dismissed the health and safety of people in places like Flint and Appalachia. What does it say about America if we don’t value the lives of innocent people? We have to hold our leaders accountable. Our children have to contend with the decisions they make.”

Meanwhile, politicians in Appalachia and elsewhere ignore this public demand and continue to act in favor of corporate interests.

Mountaintop removal production in Central Appalachia has declined by about 70 percent since its peak in 2008. Coal is being outcompeted by natural gas and renewables, and the easily accessible coal in Central Appalachia is running out. Appalachian people know this. They know that now is the time to diversify the economy and protect critical resources like clean water. Despite the decline, mountaintop removal is still happening. New permits are still being issued and citizens living downstream are still suffering the consequences. The Stream Protection Rule was not going to end mountaintop removal, but it would have improved clean water protections.

The communities of Flint, of Standing Rock and of the Central Appalachian coalfields are glad for the attention they are receiving right now because it strengthens their fight. But what they really need is continued support for a long fight. Indigenous people, communities of color, Appalachian Americans, and poor and working class people across the country have always had to fight for basic rights like clean water. This fight will continue. Not because it is easy, but because it is necessary.

Here’s what you can do:

  • Donate to help us fight for Appalachian streams and communities.
  • Learn how your representative and senators voted on the Stream Protection Rule
  • Call your elected officials regularly to share your concerns
  • Support the RECLAIM Act
  • Vote in the midterm elections in 2018
  • Read reliable news sources fully and critically
  • Show your support to water causes across the country by joining direct actions, writing letters to politicians and newspapers, or making donations

Final Stream Protection Rule released

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016 - posted by Erin
The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Monday released the final Stream Protection Rule, which aims to protect streams from the impacts of surface and longwall mining.

Based on updated science and technology, the rule offers modest improvements for the protection of public waterways. But despite the fact that the rule could have been much stronger, it still faces immense opposition from the coal industry’s supporters in Congress.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement began work on the rule in 2009. At that time, George W. Bush’s 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule was in effect after having replaced the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule, written in 1983. The Bush-era rule weakened stream protections and virtually eliminated prohibitions on mining through streams. When it was struck down by a federal court in 2014, the 1983 rule was reinstated.

The new Stream Protection Rule includes several improvements including increased requirements for water monitoring and forest reclamation. But it falls short of preventing mining through streams or stopping mountaintop removal. The rule also includes ample leeway for state interpretation of the requirements, which could easily lead to lax enforcement.

Donald Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, is a proponent of coal and could effectively undo the rule through an administrative route. But that could take years. Instead, it is likely that the rule will be thrown out via the Congressional Review Act. The act allows Congress to overturn rules within 60 legislative days of their enactment. The president could veto such a move, but given the change in administration, this seems unlikely. This law not only allows Congress to toss out a rule, it prevents another “substantially similar” rule from being written in the future. The act has only been used successfully once, so it’s unclear what the courts would consider “substantially similar” in regard to a future mining rule from OSMRE or another agency.

Even as coal company executives call on Trump to temper his promises to coal mining communities so as not to falsely elevate expectations, other politicians are also returning to the old “war on coal” rhetoric. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) called the Stream Protection Rule “the Obama Administration’s last attempt to kill the coal industry,” and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) vowed to file a Congressional Review Act resolution himself.

While we wish the final rule were stronger, it is well worth defending from congressional attack. We will urge the White House and Congress to focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward, rather than waste time on counterproductive political fights. A better use of time would be to pass the RECLAIM Act, which would ensure that mine sites are reclaimed and repurposed to provide economic benefit to the region.

Building a healthy economic future in Central Appalachia requires attracting new industries and encouraging community members to stay in the region. Protecting the remaining assets of the region, like clean water and healthy communities, is an integral part of building that new future.

Trump’s pick for Commerce has troubled history in coal

Monday, December 5th, 2016 - posted by Erin
(Creative Commons; copyright Palm Beach Daily News.)

(Creative Commons; copyright Palm Beach Daily News.)

President-elect Trump announced last week that he has chosen Wilbur Ross, Jr., as the Secretary of Commerce. Ross, a billionaire investor, has strong ties to Central Appalachian coal and a history of disregard for regulations that protect miners, communities and the environment.

Ross purchased the Kentucky coal mining company Horizon Resources in 2004, when the company went bankrupt, and renamed it International Coal Group (ICG). Ross owned the company until 2011. During that period, ICG was one of several companies Appalachian Voices caught falsifying federally required water pollution reports. The discovery sparked a years-long string of legal cases against several of the largest mountaintop removal coal mining companies in Kentucky.

In 2010, we identified more than 10,000 violations of the Clean Water Act committed by ICG between 2008 and 2009. Appalachian Voices and our partners — Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance — filed a notice of intent to sue the company for its violations. The case was preempted by a settlement between ICG and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet for just 1,245 violations. In the settlement, the violations were blamed on “transcription errors” rather than on intentional falsification.

We later discovered an additional 4,000 violations that occurred in the first three months of 2011. Ross sold ICG to Arch Coal in June 2011, shortly after its last string of falsified data was submitted. Appalachian Voices and our partners were eventually granted the right to intervene in the state enforcement action against ICG and a settlement was reached in 2012 with the cabinet and Arch Coal. The settlement includes $575,000 in fines and instituted a robust third-party monitoring requirement for Clean Water Act compliance at all of ICG’s Kentucky mines.

Actual pollution levels from coal mines in Kentucky told a different story.

Actual pollution levels from coal mines in Kentucky told a different story.

Despite an early defense of “transcription errors,” more accurate water monitoring data later showed a spike in permit limit violations for common coal mining pollutants such as manganese, iron, pH and total suspended solids, demonstrating that the falsified data was covering up real water pollution issues.

False reporting was not the only water pollution issue at ICG mines. In 2011, the Sierra Club, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and West Virginia Highlands Conservancy sued ICG for excessive discharges of selenium, a pollutant toxic to aquatic life. The discharges occurred at an ICG mine in West Virginia and had been going on for years prior to 2011, including during Ross’s time as head of the company. That same year, the Sierra Club sued ICG for similar selenium discharges from a Kentucky mine.

And in 2006, still under Ross’s tenure, an ICG mine was the site of one of the worst mining accidents in recent history — the Sago Mine disaster, which killed 12 miners. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration determined that better safety practices could have prevented the disaster. Despite these findings, a judge reduced the number of violations cited and decreased the fine to just $71,800.

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin's appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

Charles Snavely, Gov. Bevin’s appointment for Kentucky Energy & Environment Cabinet Secretary

This is also not the first time an ICG executive has been named to a government agency. Last year, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin appointed Charles Snavely as the Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary. Snavely held several different vice president titles at ICG during the Sago Mine accident and the string of water pollution cases. Now he runs the state agency that oversees enforcement at mines in Kentucky.

The mission of the U.S. Department of Commerce is to create conditions for economic growth and opportunity. If Trump truly believes that economic growth and opportunity can only be gained at the expense of worker safety, community health and clean water, he could make no better pick than Wilbur Ross.

Navigating the Russell Fork

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

Poised to bolster a flagging economy, one river also faces threats from coal mining

Kayakers at race finish

Kayakers gather at the finish of the Lord of the Fork Race on the Russell Fork River. Photo by Gareth Tate.

By Erin Savage

The Russell Fork River, with its steep gorge walls, impressive rapids and tranquil pools, is one of the best-known and most-visited rivers in Central Appalachia.

Like many waterways in the region, human activity has impacted the Russell Fork for well over a hundred years. At times, coal mining has had a significant impact, but so too have natural gas drilling, construction, sewage and trash dumping. In general, the Russell Fork’s water quality has improved over the last few decades, due to efforts by local residents and stronger regulations from state and federal governments.

Despite better water quality, the Russell Fork faces new threats from potential coal mining. Last year, Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, submitted an application to the national river advocacy group American Rivers asking that the Russell Fork River be included in their 2016 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. In April, the annual list — which highlights 10 at-risk waterways — was announced and the Russell Fork was included and ranked at No. 7.

The river’s listing was due to a proposed surface mine in the Russell Fork headwaters known as the Doe Branch Mine. A portion of the current mine proposal was approved back in 2005, but the mine’s future remains unclear, as do its impacts on the Russell Fork watershed. At a time when the coal industry has seen massive declines and the region is grappling with an uncertain future, opinions regarding the mine vary widely.

More Than Just a River

Part of the Big Sandy River Basin, the Russell Fork begins in Dickenson County, Va., and flows north into Pike County, Ky. It is the main attraction at Breaks Interstate Park, which spans the border between the two states. In the park, the river forms one of the deepest gorges east of the Mississippi and is home to the Big Sandy crayfish, which is listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In an area challenged by the economic realities of a declining coal industry, the Russell Fork and Breaks Interstate Park provide a welcome economic boost for the region. In 2015 alone, visitation to Breaks Interstate Park generated $9.95 million in economic impact.

The Russell Fork River is the main attraction of Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles Virginia and Kentucky.

The Russell Fork River is the main attraction of Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles Virginia and Kentucky.

The 52-mile waterway boasts many recreational opportunities, including fishing, swimming and paddling. The Army Corps of Engineers controls the Flannigan Dam, a flood control dam upstream of the sections most commonly used for rafting and kayaking. In the fall, the reservoir is drawn down, creating predictable weekend flows throughout October. These recreational releases attract intermediate and advanced paddlers from around the country. An annual experts-only race through the gorge at the end of October, the Lord of the Fork Race, includes local and international competitors.

Other regional tourism efforts also contribute to new economic impacts in the region. The annual Cloudsplitter ultrarunning race, which travels beside a portion of the Russell Fork and ends in Elkhorn City, Ky., generated $25,000 in new economic impact in 2015 alone, according to a study by Eastern Kentucky University. Other groups in the region are working with the Army Corps of Engineers and their congressional representatives to potentially increase the number of recreational releases from Flannigan Dam.

The Russell Fork has a dedicated following, including local residents and others from surrounding areas in Kentucky and Virginia. For over a decade, the Friends of the Russell Fork, a small but determined group of community members in and around Haysi, Va., have worked to improve the quality of the watershed and promote the river as a vital cultural and economic resource for the area. Under the leadership of Director Gene Counts, a local kayaker and retired public school administrator, Friends of the Russell Fork has worked with other local leaders, school children and visiting AmeriCorps volunteers to clean illegal dump sites and monitor tributary streams for pollution. The organization has provided steady leadership in advancing sustainable environmental practices throughout the watershed.

Map by Jimmy Davidson/Appalachian Voices

Map by Jimmy Davidson/Appalachian Voices

“We work with schools within the watershed, teaching students how to monitor the health of our watershed through hands-on microinvertebrate studies,” says Counts. “I believe engaging young people in our home towns is key to maintaining the health of the Russell Fork.”

In 2011, the organization surveyed more than 200 homes along Russell Fork tributaries for sewage straight pipes and faulty septic systems, providing critical information to state agencies with resources to upgrade the communities’ sewage systems.

The river obtains some additional protections through state and federal programs. In 2010 the state of Virginia designated the Russell Fork a Virginia Scenic River. While the designation does not specifically limit human activity in the river corridor, it does help to increase the influence of local residents’ voices in decisions that may impact the river.

The federal Clean Water Act has also led to improvements in water quality for the Russell Fork and its tributaries through more protective regulations and additional monitoring requirements. The law also requires that states keep a list of impaired waterways and develop pollution management plans for these areas. In 1996, Virginia added Russell Prater Creek, a Russell Fork tributary, to the state’s list. The creek was listed due to its diminished ability to support aquatic life. The state identified two types of pollutants, total suspended solids and total dissolved solids, as the most probable stressors.

Identifying Pollutants

Total Dissolved Solids: substances dissolved in water, including minerals, metals and salts. Common sources include sewage, road salt used in the winter, and heavy metals and minerals exposed through mining and dissolved by rain.

Total Suspended Solids: small solid material floating in the water, such as sediment, plant material and sewage. Common sources include sewage, and debris from construction, logging
and mining.

Total Maximum Daily Load: A TMDL is a pollution budget and management plan developed by states for streams and rivers that do not meet water quality standards. The TMDL identifies which pollutants are causing stream impairment and calculates the maximum amount of each pollutant that a waterway should be able to handle while still meeting water quality standards.

In 2006, the state of Virginia proposed — and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved — a pollution budget, known as a total maximum daily load, for Russell Prater Creek. At that time, there were at least 35 mining facilities discharging pollutants into the tributary. The state identified mining as a major contributor to the creek’s poor health, and developed plans for reducing pollution in the watershed. However, the most recent monitoring data from 2014 and 2015 indicate that the watershed is still exceeding its allowed total dissolved solids wasteload by 1,076,907 kilograms per year — more than twice the target limit established by the state.

The Doe Branch Mine

The Doe Branch mine, as currently proposed, would be one of the newest and largest mines in the Russell Fork headwaters. It began as a plan submitted by Paramont Coal for a 245-acre permit in 2005. At that time, Paramont was owned by Alpha Natural Resources, which was one of the largest coal companies in Central Appalachia and in the country. The mine was also slated to be part of a large highway construction project known as the Coalfields Expressway.

The Coalfields Expressway was originally designed in 2001 as a highway to link U.S. Route 23 in Virginia to Interstates 77 and 64 in West Virginia. Early construction plans were hampered by steep terrain and associated high costs. In 2006, the Virginia Department of Transportation began working with Alpha Natural Resources and another coal company, Pioneer Group, to explore an option where surface coal mines would provide the first steps in constructing the roadbed. The new plan significantly changed the route of the highway so that key mines could be worked into the project, including the Doe Branch mine.

The highway project is controversial — supporters claim it would bring much-needed economic development opportunities to the region, but those opposed to the plan feel it unnecessarily enables additional surface mining and does not adequately consider what is best for nearby communities.

“Road construction in the area could benefit the region, at least through short-term employment, and could motivate new industries to move to the region, but only if the project is well thought out and economically viable,” says Matt Hepler of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

Both Appalachian Voices and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards oppose the Coalfields Expressway, as the plan currently stands, due to its reliance on surface mining.

Plans for the Doe Branch Mine and the highway have progressed slowly — as of the last state inspection in June 2016, no mining activity had started and no wastewater was being released, though there had been some logging. In 2012, Paramont applied for a permit modification that would expand the mine by an additional 860 acres. The update would increase the total size of the mine to approximately 1,100 acres, fill four additional valleys with excess rock and dirt, and increase the number of wastewater discharge points from three to 14. Five of the new wastewater discharge points would release into Doe Branch and Wolfpen Branch, which feed into Russell Prater Creek, the Russell Fork tributary already impaired by mining-related pollutants.

That same year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an objection to the company’s request to expand the Doe Branch Mine. The EPA’s objection cited inadequate wastewater permit limits and water quality remediation plans, including the fact that the state did not impose numeric limits on the amount of dissolved solids that could be discharged from the mine’s wastewater outfalls.

The company’s 2011 plan included the construction of 16 wetlands to theoretically reduce both total dissolved solids and total suspended solids in the watershed. However, the EPA stated in its objection that wetlands won’t solve the problem. “We also are unaware of any generally accepted, peer-reviewed literature identifying any geochemical process through which wetlands would remove dissolved, as opposed to suspended solids,” regulators wrote. The agency’s objections still stand in 2016.

Current Developments

In August 2015, Alpha Natural Resources filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was expected and came in a long line of similar bankruptcies filed by other coal mining companies over the last several years. The change slowed but did not halt plans for the Doe Branch Mine.

Alpha’s plan for emergence from bankruptcy was approved by the court in the summer of 2016. The plan involves the formation of two new companies. One is a privately held, smaller Alpha, which will retain most of the Central Appalachian coal mines. The other is Contura Energy, formed by Alpha’s senior lenders, which purchased Alpha’s Wyoming, Pennsylvania and better-performing Central Appalachian mines. Doe Branch is included in the short list of Central Appalachian mines that Contura now owns.

Though Alpha stated earlier this year that its 10-year plan did not include pursuing the Doe Branch Mine, the change in ownership may indicate otherwise. “When Alpha split in two in order to emerge from bankruptcy, it conspicuously loaded all of its valuable assets into Contura, and left the reorganized Alpha with high-liability assets needing to be wound down and reclaimed,” says Sierra Club Staff Attorney Peter Morgan. “Because the Doe Branch Mine went to Contura, it appears clear that the company sees value in the mine and hopes to continue developing it.”


Andria Davis runs a Russell Fork rapid during a release of the Flannigan Dam. Photo by Leland Davis

In August 2016, a new draft water pollution permit was published by the Virginia Division of Mine Land Reclamation, for the mining operator now know as Paramont Contura, LLC. The new draft permit still does not impose numeric limits on the amount of dissolved solids that can be discharged from the Doe Branch Mine.

The following month, the EPA notified the state of a general objection to the new draft permit, because the 2012 specific objection regarding the amount of dissolved solids the mine would generate had not yet been resolved. Though the EPA will review the new draft to determine if it resolves the issues raised in 2012, given the lack of changes, it seems likely that they will continue to object. But if Paramont can address the EPA’s concerns, the company could secure the last remaining permit it needs in order to move forward.

International prices for coal have increased recently, driven by demand for steel-making coal in China, which could increase production in Central Appalachia. The construction of the Coalfields Expressway could also shift the economic calculations in favor of moving forward. The plan not only makes road construction cheaper, but also decreases the costs of permitting and reclamation for Paramont.

Environmental groups and concerned citizens are continuing to track the progress of the Doe Branch Mine. Even if the mine moves forward, it is likely that increased oversight from these stakeholders could lead to more stringent and protective permit requirements.

Though the coal-bearing mountains on either side of the Russell Fork are part of what places it at risk, the river’s stunning surroundings are also a reason for optimism. Between decades of local stewardship and growing national concern for this Appalachian treasure, there is a community of advocates watching out for the Russell Fork.

Learn more and take action at

Alabama Coal Company Sued for Water Pollution and Other Shorts

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

Alabama Coal Company Sued for Water Pollution

On Sept. 1, conservation groups announced a lawsuit against Drummond Company for acid runoff from its abandoned Maxine Mine into the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River near Praco, Ala. The suit was brought by the Southern Environmental Law Center, Public Justice and Black Warrior Riverkeeper, the newest member of The Alliance for Appalachia. — Elizabeth E. Payne

Petition to Pause Nuke Plant

In a petition to the State Corporation Commission, the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council argued that Dominion Virginia Power must obtain a permit before proceeding with any further construction of a nuclear reactor at the North Anna Power Station. The $19 billion project has not been approved by regulators and, although it is included in Dominion’s long-term plan, the utility has not committed to bringing the reactor into service. Nearly $600 million has already been spent on preliminary construction, half of which has been passed on to Virginia ratepayers. — Brian Sewell

Duke Energy’s 15-year Plan

In its 15-year plan released in September, Duke Energy Carolinas projected a 1 percent growth in electricity demand. But between now and 2030, the company predicts a tripling of solar capacity and the continued displacement of coal-fired electricity by natural gas. Due to the uncertainty of fuel prices and future regulations, the plan analyzes the possibility of a new nuclear facility in upstate South Carolina.— Brian Sewell

Price of Met Coal Rises

Bucking the nationwide trend, Kentucky-based Ramaco Development, LLC, announced in September that it will begin operations next year at two mines in West Virginia and Virginia. Both mines will produce metallurgical coal used to manufacture steel. After a steep drop in 2015, global prices for metallurgical coal have rebounded in recent months largely, due to demand in China. But it’s not clear how many cash-strapped mining companies in Central Appalachia will benefit from the market’s shift.— Brian Sewell

Spill Leads to Gas Shortages

A pipeline supplying transportation fuel to much of the Southeast ruptured in September, spilling 338,000 gallons of gasoline in Alabama. Most of the gasoline collected in a man-made retention pond at a nearby strip mine, which minimized the impact to the Cahaba River system. But fuel shortages affected drivers in five states. On Sept. 21, Colonial Pipeline announced that service has been restored as cleanup continues.

Feds Account for Climate Change

A new guidance from the White House Council of Environmental Quality requires that federal agencies consider how their actions will influence climate change and how climate change will impact their actions.

N.C. Closer to Wind Energy

In August, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that it will lease more than 122,000 acres off the North Carolina coast for commercial wind energy development.

Natural Gas CO2 Emissions Rise

Although natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than coal when burned, it now accounts for more energy-related carbon dioxide emissions due to major increases in consumption, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Scientists Question Fracking Safety

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board is challenging a draft report by the agency that found little negative impact on drinking water from hydraulic fracturing. In a letter sent to the EPA on Aug. 11, the scientists called the report “comprehensive but lacking in several critical areas.”

Protecting a unique Kentucky fish from mountaintop removal coal mining

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by Erin

By Erin Savage

This week, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Kentucky arrow darter, a fish found only in eastern Kentucky, as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The listing also includes protection for 248 miles of stream habitat throughout 10 eastern Kentucky counties. The darter has disappeared from approximately half of its historical range, primarily due to water pollution from surface coal mining and other extractive land uses.

Kentucky arrow darter photo by Dr. Matthew R. Thomas, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

Kentucky arrow darter photo by Dr. Matthew R. Thomas, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

The listing results from a 2011 settlement between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center for Biological Diversity, which requires the agency to decide the protected status of 757 imperiled species — 55 of which are found in Kentucky. To date, 177 decisions have been made under this settlement.

Despite some protection provided by the Clean Water Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, surface mining still causes significant damage to streams and rivers in Central Appalachia. Over the last several decades, extensive research has demonstrated the serious and long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal mining. Some of the most recent studies indicate that impacts to streams can last for decades after reclamation is ostensibly complete.

The new protective status of the Kentucky arrow darter ensures that the Fish and Wildlife Service will provide oversight on the permitting process for surface mines that may impact the fish or its habitat. This oversight will go a long way not only in protecting this small, colorful fish, but other species that may rely on similar habitat. It also means protection more broadly for healthy ecosystems and communities. When coal mining companies are required to more fully account for the damage done through mining, fewer of those costs are pushed onto nearby communities.

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

Tuesday, September 27th, 2016 - posted by Erin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlantic Coast Pipeline could face further delays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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