Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

Duke Energy to close aging Asheville coal plant

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015 - posted by brian

Duke Energy plans to retire its Asheville coal plant and build a natural gas-fired facility in its place. The announcement should be celebrated as progress, but it also represents another precarious step toward a future reliant on fossil fuels.

A plan to “end an era of coal” in Asheville and enter an era of natural gas.

In a surprise announcement that some predicted and many have long advocated for, Duke Energy shared plans today to “end an era of coal” in Asheville, N.C., by retiring the coal-fired power plant that sits on the banks of nearby Lake Julian.

The aging power plant, which began operating in 1964, has been a constant target for Appalachian Voices and many of our allies in North Carolina working to address coal ash pollution and promote investments in cleaner energy.

The company plans to spend around $750 million over the next four or five years to retire the coal plant and replace it with a 650-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant, nearly doubling the current plant’s capacity. The plans also include building solar generation on the site, but it’s unclear how large — or small — the size of the renewable portion of the project will be.

While the news should be celebrated as progress, it also represents another precarious step along a dangerous road that will prolong our region’s over-reliance on fossil fuels and saddle consumers with long-lived investments in natural gas.

Duke, more than any other southeastern utility, has been at the forefront of the coal-to-gas fuel-switching trend, retiring seven of its 14 North Carolina coal plants in the past five years. The utility is also slated to be the largest customer of the proposed 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline, but, in this case, plans to upgrade an existing natural gas pipeline to supply the new plant.

Even though the company has brought on large-scale solar projects in recent years, Duke’s enthusiasm for clean energy doesn’t come close to its eagerness to expand natural gas generation and infrastructure. That fact is reflected in the mixed responses of environmental groups and clean energy advocates to today’s news.

“The retirement of the Asheville Plant is a step in the right direction, but it is a half measure, undermined by continuing reliance on an economically unpredictable and polluting source of power. Duke can do better, and our community deserves better,” a coalition of groups made up of MountainTrue, Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center and Waterkeeper Alliance announced in a joint statement. “We will continue to use every tool at our disposal to fight for clean energy solutions for Western North Carolina.”

According to Duke, electricity demand in the Asheville area has doubled over the past forty years and the Asheville plant is a “must run” facility, meaning it operates around the clock to maintain reliability. But data charted by SNL Energy shows the plant’s capacity factor has been trending down since 2010, likely due to new capacity at the more-economical Cliffside power plant coming online.

Closing the plant will dramatically reduce harmful emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury, and the new natural gas plant will emit about 60 percent less carbon dioxide per-megawatt hour. But its larger generating capacity could mean overall carbon emissions stay about the same.

The cost of retrofitting the plant’s coal ash ponds to comply with the state’s Coal Ash Management Act is sure to have played a role in the decision to retire the plant. The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources also cited Duke in February for contaminating groundwater at the facility, which could lead to fines.

The Asheville plant is the only facility out of the four deemed “high priority” by the coal ash law that still burns coal. It is also one of the few still-operating plants involved in the federal lawsuit over coal ash pollution that led Duke to plead guilty to nine misdemeanors under the Clean Water Act.

The case for closing the Asheville coal plant is clear. But Duke must do more to meet its promises to North Carolinians. At a time of tremendous opportunity to expand clean energy, America’s largest electric utility has the obligation and more than enough influence to lead.

Residents in Mountain Valley path pipe up at hearing

Thursday, May 7th, 2015 - posted by hannah
The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

The James River Spinymussel crew of Craig County outside the first of two public hearings on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline. Siltation from tree clearing and pipeline construction could further threaten the endangered species. Click to enlarge.

Turnout was tremendous at the first of two hearings this week in Virginia, where federal energy regulators are taking public comments on the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Residents of Giles, Craig, Montgomery, Roanoke and Franklin counties and nearby areas told their stories and highlighted their environmental concerns on Tuesday night in Elliston in an effort to make sure the impact study process on the project is thorough.

Most commenters shared common themes: that the companies proposing the Mountain Valley Pipeline would not be able to carry out their vision for the 330-mile natural gas pipeline without egregiously damaging the area’s ecological treasures, and that the project is not in local residents’ interest and should not be allowed to proceed.

Citizens voiced a wide range of environmental concerns, many of which relate to issues unaffected by the potential rerouting of the pipeline. Among the risks that can only be prevented in a no-build scenario include:

  • Creek and river siltation from the tree clearing and installation process that threatens populations of James River spinymussel in Craig County. This species was also hard-hit by the Dan River coal ash spill in 2014. A precedent exists for protecting these areas from development based on the potential negative outcome for threatened creatures; in the ‘90s a high-voltage transmission project was undone in part due to the anticipated adverse impact on freshwater mussels.
  • Unique caves in the area, including Pig Hole Cave and Tawney’s Cave, have been used for years by cave diving explorers for recreation and have provided research opportunities for Virginia Tech students. While building is not normally allowed over their mapped passages, the proposed pipeline route lies directly over Pig Hole Cave and would make it inaccessible during construction and possibly permanently unsafe. New species of cave-adapted arthropods and other rare specialized lifeforms have only recently been found to exist there.
  • Numerous area homeowners also spoke about the proximity of their homes to the “centerline” or middle of the up-to-40-yard-wide swath proposed for each of the various possible alternative pipeline routes. Homes, wells, gardens, trees and creeks are all in the path of proposed routes. In the event of a pipeline rupture, if the combustible gas the pipeline would carry were to ignite or explode, some neighborhoods would have no road outlet. Local leaders spoke about those fears, adding that the increase in housing in Montgomery County in the past 20 years makes it difficult to avoid these kind of direct impacts by rerouting.

Several speakers described the sense of looming danger generated by the pipeline proposal, and articulated their feelings about the project in memorable ways: as a tentacle of a symbolic Kraken representing the fossil fuel industry seeking greater profits at the expense of communities; as a wrong-headed distraction from the right of residents’ to their own property; and as a destructive force that perpetuates the exploitation of Appalachian counties threatening what is among the nation’s most valued, biodiverse and scenic environments

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has only scheduled hearings for Virginia in Elliston and Chatham this week. Organizers and local leaders are currently petitioning for an extended comment period beyond the current deadline of June 16.

Click here to submit your comment about the Mountain Valley Pipeline to federal regulators.

UPDATE: FERC will also hold public hearings in Weston, W.Va., on May 12 and Summersville, W.Va., on May 13. Learn more here.

Appalachian Crayfish: Canaries in a Coal Mine

Tuesday, May 5th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Dac Collins

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing that two species native to Appalachia — The Big Sandy crayfish (pictured) and Guyandotte River crayfish — be listed as endangered under federal law after determining the species are in danger of extinction “primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities” such as mountaintop removal coal mining. Photo by Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University on Flickr

If you find yourself at a crawfish boil anytime soon, don’t be afraid to go back for seconds. The two species that are sold commercially — red swamp and white river crayfish — are prolific. They can be found in the wild throughout the South and are especially abundant in Louisiana, where they are also farm-raised in ponds.

But here in Appalachia, some of our native crayfish populations are teetering on the brink of extinction, according to a recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Whether or not they are pushed past the point of no return depends largely on the outcome of a recent proposal by the agency to add them to the federal list of endangered species.

Like most creek-dwelling crawdads, the two species in question — the Big Sandy crayfish, which are native to the Big Sandy River basin in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, and the Guyandotte River crayfish, a closely related subspecies found in West Virginia — spend a majority of their lives wedged into the crevices of the creek bottom. These nooks and crannies shelter the crayfish from predators and serve as places to lie dormant during the winter months. But when these rocky creek beds are covered up in sediment, the habitat that these creatures depend on to survive is lost entirely.

This is precisely what is occurring in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River drainages of West Virginia. The sedimentation has become so severe in recent years that the Guyandotte crayfish population has retreated to the mid-reaches of a single stream, Pinnacle Creek, in Wyoming County.

If the crayfish disappear completely, the ecology of these creeks could change drastically. The freshwater crustaceans are a primary food source for many of the native fish species, including smallmouth bass and trout, which also happen to be the two most sought after sport fish here in Appalachia. Take away the food source and these creeks might eventually be fishless.

The cause of siltation is obvious when you look at where these creeks are located. There are 192 active coal mines in the area, many of which are mountaintop removal mines that are dumping their waste into the headwaters of streams, effectively burying them. And that’s just standard operating procedure. If an accident occurs, a toxic slurry of silt and chemicals spills into the creeks that feed the rivers that run into the reservoirs we drink out of, wreaking havoc on species like crayfish along the way.

The Fish and Wildlife Service specifically mentioned mountaintop removal coal mining in its report on the two crayfish species. The agency determined that, “the Big Sandy crayfish and Guyandotte River crayfish are in danger of extinction, primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities that increase erosion and sedimentation, which degrades the stream habitat required by both species,” and that, “an immediate threat to the continued existence of the Guyandotte River crayfish is several active and inactive surface coal mines, including MTR mines, in the mid and upper reaches of the Pinnacle Creek watershed.”

The FWS report also called attention to impaired water-quality — especially hazardous concentrations of sulfate and aluminum — in areas where most of the mines are closed, proving that “the detrimental effects of coal mining often continue long after active mining ceases.”

The proposed endangered species listing could have considerable impacts on the coal mining industry. If the Big Sandy and Guyandotte crayfish are protected under the Endangered Species Act, it would lead to more strictly enforced water quality regulations, which could affect ongoing mining operations in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River basins as well as coal companies seeking permits to mine in the area.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is accepting public comments on this proposal until May 16. Click here to take action and ask the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect these two Appalachian species.

Appalachian communities at growing risk from mountaintop removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015 - posted by brian
Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Click through to explore the Communities at Risk tool on iLoveMountains.org

Announcing a new tool to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams

Coal is in the news a lot these days. The market forces and much-needed environmental and health protections cornering the dirty fuel are topics of endless interest as America’s energy landscape shifts toward cleaner sources. And yes, all signs point to coal’s continued decline.

In many ways though, the forces chipping away at coal’s historic dominance are overshadowing another big story — one that Appalachian citizens still need the public and policymakers to hear — about just how much the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal coal mining persist in Central Appalachia.

That mountaintop removal is an extremely dirty and dangerous way to mine coal has never been better understood. The overwhelming body of evidence is built on a foundation of the countless personal stories found in communities near mines and bolstered by dozens of studies investigating disproportionate health problems in coal-producing counties compared to elsewhere in Appalachia. More recently, advocates have employed technological tools to visualize complex data and add another dimension to arguments against the practice.

Appalachian Voices is committed to both creating a forum for those personal stories and sharing the most up-to-date data available about the ongoing risks mountaintop removal poses to our region’s communities and environment. Today, we’re excited to share a web tool we developed to reveal how mining continues to close in on nearby communities and send a resounding message to President Obama that ending mountaintop removal is a must if we hope to foster economic and environmental health in Appalachia.

Explore Appalachian Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal on iLoveMountains.org

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to enlarge.

The centerpiece of “Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal” is an interactive mapping tool on iLoveMountains.org that allows anyone to explore mountaintop removal’s expansion over the past 30 years.

Created using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, and mapping data and consultation from the nonprofit SkyTruth, the tool gives users greater perspective into the decades-long scourge surface mining has had on the Appalachian landscape and generations of families that live in the region.

The Communities at Risk tool also concentrates on impacts at the community level, where the powerful personal stories that first brought mountaintop removal to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and agenda for environmental change are found.

Fifty communities spread across Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are identified by the tool as being the most at risk. By clicking on a community icon on the map, you can see the number of acres classified as active mining within a 1-mile radius of a particular place over time. In some communities, the number has fallen. In others, it has grown dramatically in recent years even as regional coal production has plummeted.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

Inman, Va., resident Ben Hooper discusses the long-lasting impacts of mountaintop removal on his community. Click to open video.

In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at a handful of these communities, sharing local perspectives on how the proximity of mountaintop removal has affected local livelihoods. Our first “featured community” is Inman, Va., a small town in Wise County, where residents have successfully battled back a proposed mountaintop removal mine while experiencing the devastating impacts of another that began operating in the early 2000s. You’ll also see stories about featured communities on AppalachianVoices.org and in upcoming issues of The Appalachian Voice newspaper.

Learn about Inman, Va., from local residents Matt Hepler and Ben Hooper

If you want a fuller picture of the data we used to create the mapping tool, check out the companion white paper, which describes the background, methods, results and implications of our initial research.

Over time, we’ll work with impacted citizens in communities near active and proposed mines to expand the use of the tool and update our maps with current, high-resolution satellite imagery we’ll obtain through a partnership with Google’s Skybox for Good project.

Read our white paper for an in-depth look at the ways mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk.

The constant flow of news describing something close to the death of the Appalachian coal industry could leave outside observers with the impression that the problems of mountaintop removal have been resolved by the industry’s impending collapse. That impression, however, is at odds with the personal experience of many Appalachian citizens, the visible impacts of mining in communities across the region and the data that comprises Communities at Risk.

Visit CommunitiesAtRisk.org to explore the mapping tool, learn more about the 50 most at-risk communities and tell President Obama that more must be done to protect Appalachian communities.

Don’t drink the water

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy's coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking.

Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking. Photo by Avery Locklear

Dozens of residents across North Carolina received notices this week telling them not to drink or cook with their well water due to recent tests which show unsafe levels of contaminants that may be associated with coal ash.

As part of North Carolina’s coal ash law enacted last year, Duke Energy is required to test the well water of residents living within 1000 feet of the massive coal ash ponds that dot the state.

For years, the demands of residents in communities next to coal ash ponds and environmental advocates were ignored by Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, despite independent water sampling that showed elevated levels of contaminants. Now, more than a year after the Dan River coal ash spill, water testing results are coming back, giving residents and regulators a clear picture of just how widespread the problem is.

Tell Duke Energy to supply residents with safe water!

Residents living near 9 of the 14 coal plants across the state have been notified of exceedances of the groundwater standard for concerning metals such as arsenic, chromium, and vanadium. According to DENR, 87 of the 117 wells Duke tested exceeded North Carolina’s groundwater standards for one or more toxic constituents. Some wells also had high levels of constituents that may be naturally occurring in North Carolina soil, such as iron, manganese and pH.

Duke has been quick to latch onto those exceedances as evidence that the contamination is not from their illegally leaking coal ash ponds. But residents who can see coal ash ponds from their yards and have watched Duke’s smokestacks for decades have little doubt why they are now being told “don’t drink the water.”

DENR officials say they will investigate the source of contamination and, if it is linked to coal ash pollution, Duke will be required to provide residents with clean water. But that reassurance is hardly recompense for North Carolinians who may have been unknowingly drinking contaminated water for an unknown amount of time. And until the source is determined, residents will have to foot the bill for bottled water.

Take action now!

Under Pressure: A Fractured Relationship with Natural Gas

Monday, April 13th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

A Fractured Relationship with Natural Gas

By Molly Moore

Drive along a winding country road in an active shale drilling area, and the oil and gas industry’s influence is unmistakable — streams of heavy truck traffic often straddle both lanes, a web of well-pad access roads and pipeline right-of-ways carve into the hillsides, erosion from fresh clearcuts spills into roadside ditches and creeks, and the occasional odor of natural gas can hover in the air for a quarter mile or more.

A natural gas drilling rig in Loyalsock Creek Valley, Pa., sits near a family cemetery and Baptist church. Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

A natural gas drilling rig in Loyalsock Creek Valley, Pa., sits near a family cemetery and Baptist church. Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.


Despite the industry’s omnipresence, much is still unknown about the form of natural gas extraction known as fracking, and researchers are regularly adding to the existing knowledge about the long chain of processes involved in shale exploration.

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques were first combined in the 1990s to form modern-day fracking, but the process didn’t launch a full-fledged frenzy of shale exploration until the 2000s.

According to the Wall Street Journal, at least 15.3 million people have lived within a mile of an oil and gas well drilled after 2000. Natural gas withdrawals from United States shale leapt from about 2 million cubic feet in 2007, the first year that the U.S. Energy Information Administration began collecting shale-specific data, to nearly 12 million cubic feet in 2013.

An Introduction

From rural roads to global economies, natural gas is big news. Over the past 15 years, the advancement of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — two steps in a method of oil and gas extraction that is commonly known as fracking — has transformed communities, national energy politics, and even international conflicts.

For all of the global and national repercussions of fracking, this form of extraction produces intensely local effects — it is experienced up-close in backyards, farms and neighborhoods, but fracking’s neighbors often have little say in the matter.

Gas travels from Point A to Point B — and points C through Z — in a process that is more than just a matter of transportation. Continued investment in an emerging pipeline network has the potential to shape the future of America’s power supply by engraining natural gas in the energy landscape.

As its grip grows stronger, this popular new fuel is bringing familiar burdens to a region long acquainted with the booms, busts and hidden costs of extractive energy industries.

This sudden abundance of natural gas positioned the fuel as a cheaper source of heat and electricity generation than coal. From 2007 to 2013, natural gas’ share of electricity generation grew by 5 percent while coal’s share dropped by 9 percent.

Natural gas has the advantage of emitting roughly half as much climate-changing carbon dioxide as coal, which also incentivized the transition to gas-fired power plants. Yet even the fuel’s climate-friendly reputation has suffered in light of new research.

Emerging Science

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, escapes into the atmosphere at every stage of natural gas development, from drilling and processing to transportation, storage and energy generation. Over a 100-year period methane traps heat in the atmosphere at 34 times the rate of carbon dioxide, and wells drilled with new fracking techniques are more likely to leak methane than wells drilled with older technology, according to a 2014 Cornell University study that examined Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania.

Fracking is exempt from many of the country’s bedrock environmental quality laws, including the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, and there is no federal law requiring companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluid. Some states require companies to post the chemicals they use, with the exception of trade secrets, on the website FracFocus.org. But a 2013 Harvard Law School study found significant flaws with the online forum, including the fact that the companies are responsible for determining what information is considered a trade secret and therefore exempt from disclosure.

Under Pressure

RELATED STORIES

Earlier this year, a Duke University study in West Virginia and Pennsylvania discovered high levels of two new contaminants — ammonium and iodide — in wastewater from both fracked and conventional drilling sites. Studies have also connected shale gas drilling with contamination of drinking water sources, and in August 2014, Pennsylvania’s environmental agency released information about 248 incidents where natural gas operations had damaged private water sources. Research published in September 2014 identified eight areas where groundwater was affected by fugitive gas from the drilling process and found that faulty well casings and well failure were to blame.

Water woes related to shale drilling also include the portion of wastewater that returns to the surface after a well is fracked. Underground injection to dispose of this “produced water,” along with fracking itself, is linked to earthquakes, and there are reports from across the country of drilling companies dumping toxic, sometimes radioactive, wastewater into surface waterways or spraying the contaminated water along roads to suppress dust.

A review of public health studies published in 2014 found evidence of health risks, but noted that a lack of baseline data makes it difficult to make comprehensive claims about the before-and-after effects of drilling.

Critics and advocates of fracking both claim to have science on their side — energy industry groups have criticized some academic studies and research supported by health and environmental advocacy organizations, while those organizations raise doubts about studies conducted or funded by the gas industry.

Earlier this year, the nonprofit research organization Public Accountability Initiative reviewed a list of 130 studies that the oil and gas organization Energy In Depth had used to help convince the Allegheny County government in Pennsylvania to lease the mineral rights beneath a public park for drilling. Of the 130 studies and reports cited by the drilling advocates, Public Accountability Initiative reported that only 14 percent were peer-reviewed, and 60 percent were funded or authored by industry sources.

Among the known airborne side-effects of fracking are dust and diesel emissions from truck traffic, and silica from the sand used to prop open the shale fissures. Shale extraction and processing also results in air emissions such as benzene, toluene, nitrogen oxides and smog-inducing volatile organic compounds. Exposure to these pollutants is linked to a host of short-term and long-term health issues ranging from blood disorders and cancer to neurological, respiratory and cardiovascular problems and even premature death.

Fracking Footholds

Across the East, fracking is advancing in starts and stops — as some states embrace the practice, another bans it, and still more consider the risks and potential rewards of entering the fracking fray.

Starting this spring, North Carolina can issue permits for oil and gas drilling. After years of legislative maneuvering, new drilling rules went into effect in March and ended the state’s fracking moratorium.

Between low prices for natural gas and a reported lack of interest from major oil and gas companies in the Tar Heel State’s unproven reserves — mostly in the Piedmont — onlookers expect that land speculators and wildcat drillers will be the first to test the area’s shale gas potential.

In Kentucky, the first regulations for deep well drilling became law in March. The rules update decades-old regulations that did not reflect the challenges posed by fracking, and were crafted by regulators and several representatives of the oil and gas industry and environmental groups.

Signs at a gravel lot alongside Middle Island Creek in Doddridge County, W. Va., make it clear that only water trucks from drilling company EQT are permitted to withdraw water. In West Virginia, about 5 million gallons of fluid are used for each fractured well, and 80 percent or more of that water comes directly from streams and rivers. Photo by Molly Moore.

Signs at a gravel lot alongside Middle Island Creek in Doddridge County, W. Va., make it clear that only water trucks from drilling company EQT are permitted to withdraw water. In West Virginia, about 5 million gallons of fluid are used for each fractured well, and 80 percent or more of that water comes directly from streams and rivers. Photo by Molly Moore.

Yet there were no public health officials involved, and the rules were opposed by some grassroots organizations such as Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and Frack Free Foothills, a new network of concerned residents. In a testimony before the state Senate, Madison County resident Vicki Spurlock, who received a lease proposal from a gas drilling company, unsuccessfully requested an amendment to install a two-year fracking moratorium.

Among other provisions, the law requires companies to disclose all chemicals used in the process, though the exact mixture can remain a trade secret. The rules also mandate before-and-after water quality testing for homeowners within a 1,000-foot radius of the drill site and require companies to give surface owners advance notice of drilling.

The new regulations come as interest rises in the Rogersville Shale formation, which stretches from eastern Kentucky into West Virginia. In late February, the Kentucky Oil and Gas Conservation Commission met at a well-attended hearing to consider a drilling permit for what could be the state’s first deep horizontal natural gas well.

Until recently, the high clay content in much of the state’s shale formation had limited the kind of fracking in Kentucky to a nitrogen process that uses much less water. But the Rogersville Shale, nearly two miles deep, can be accessed through high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

But North Carolina and Kentucky’s adoption of fracking doesn’t necessarily signify a larger trend. In New York, the fracas about whether and how to allow fracking is over. Gov. Cuomo banned the practice in December, citing a state review that found significant health risks associated with the drilling technique. A large swath of the Empire State sits atop the productive Marcellus Shale, and Cuomo’s decision marked the first fracking ban in a state with proven shale gas reserves.

Maryland is also grappling with the question of whether and how to permit fracking, which could occur in the state’s western region between West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

On March 25, Maryland’s House of Delegates passed a bill that would extend the state’s current moratorium on fracking — established by former Gov. Martin O’Malley in 2011 — for three more years while a state commission further studies potential health risks. The same day, the state Senate passed a bill that calls fracking an “ultrahazardous activity” and mandates that well operators carry $10 million in liability insurance for injuries and environmental and property damage. The bills are pending approval from the rest of the legislature and Gov. Larry Hogan.

“We’ve got to get this right, because if we get this wrong, it is unfixable,” Delegate Dereck Davis, a supporter of the moratorium, said during the House debate.

Frack Facts

During the fracking process, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is sent down a deep vertical well at high pressure, following the well as it turns to run horizontally through a layer of shale. The fracking fluid then bursts through holes in the well with enough force to penetrate the tight shale and form fissures. Particles of sand in the mixture get lodged in the tiny cracks and prop them open.

With the fractures in place, the oil and gas hydrocarbons in the shale escape. Some of the toxic fracking brew also returns to the surface, but approximately 90 percent remains underground.

The natural gas is separated from the associated oil and fracking fluid, often by equipment located at the wellhead. From here, it is transported to a nearby compressor station, which facilitates the flow of gas through the web of pipelines and can also serve as a field processing station to separate the natural gas and other components recovered from the shale.

The byproducts, such as ethane, propane and butane, may go on to feed the chemical industry, while the natural gas is transported, often via pipeline, to power plants and other consumers.

Community Resistance

A suite of counties and towns across the nation — from the oil-rich community of Denton, Texas, to the college town of Athens, Ohio — are also pushing back against natural gas development through local bans and stronger regulations. In some Appalachian states, this means legal skirmishes between municipal and state governments about whether communities have the right to restrict or outlaw fracking in their area.

Athens was one of four localities nationwide to ban fracking on Election Day 2014. But the town’s resolution — passed with 78 percent of the vote — might not survive a legal challenge.

Elsewhere in Ohio, the state supreme court ruled against Munroe Falls, a small city that had required a municipal permit for oil and gas drilling. In February the court affirmed that, under Ohio law, only the Ohio Department of Natural Resources can regulate oil and gas production. A few weeks later, a county court also struck down an oil and gas drilling ban in the Cleveland suburb of Broadview Heights.

Nathan Johnson, an attorney with the Ohio Environmental Council, told the college radio station WKSU that the Munroe Falls ruling still left an open door for some types of local ordinances to limit fracking.

“Local governments, particularly cities across the state, should feel somewhat emboldened by this decision and feel strongly about crafting some ordinance language that would allow zoning — though, of course, they’d have to be careful about it, but I think they do have the hint there that they would succeed in court if they go about it properly,” he said.

In eastern Virginia’s King George County, the board of supervisors is using its zoning authority to stem the possibility of fracking before it starts. The decision came after more than 84,000 acres of mineral rights in the area were leased to a drilling company. The January 2015 decision to institute a strict permitting process for potential drilling instead of issuing an outright ban places the county on safer legal footing, since the amount of authority Virginia municipalities have to restrict fracking is unclear.

A North Carolina state law passed in 2014 preemptively invalidates any “local ordinance that prohibits or has the effect of prohibiting oil and gas exploration, development, and production activities,” but this hasn’t prevented more than 40 localities from passing resolutions or ordinances against fracking or the underground injection of fracking waste.

Susan Leading Fox, a Swain County, N.C. resident and registered member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, notes that the far western part of the state is conscious of the tourism dollar, which is tied to local water resources. She decries the state legislature’s decision to override local ordinances, which she says reflect widespread popular opinion against the practice. “I just think it’s a blatant disregard for county elders and the community at large to completely ignore and just disregard what your community wants,” Fox says.

When speculation about shale deposits in her area began, she helped organize grassroots community meetings that led to a resolution against fracking in Swain County. State law trumps the county resolution, but Fox also contributed to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ resolution that prohibits fracking on sovereign tribal lands and calls for a statewide ban.

It’s unlikely that fracking will come to the western part of the state anytime soon, due to the region’s geology and the lack of gas infrastructure. But if it does, locals will be watching, keeping an eye on drilling operations as well as the strategies and tactics used by other Appalachian communities that are feeling the pressure of the shale boom.

State Legislative Updates

Monday, April 13th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

While lawmakers in Washington, D.C., might get most of the spotlight, the legislators in state capitols across the region are busy making — and blocking — laws that affect Appalachia’s land, air, water and people. Here are spring updates from state legislatures around the region.

Kentucky

Session convened Jan. 6, adjourned March 24

Perhaps the most publicized and contentious environmental law to pass during the Bluegrass State’s 30-day legislative session was an update to existing oil and gas drilling rules that addresses some of the challenges posed by fracking.

A new energy law creates an Environmental Regulation Task Force to review how electricity reliability in the state is affected by federal environmental regulations. The task force, which environmental groups say is skewed toward industry, will produce a report by December 2015.

Gov. Beshear also signed a bill that helps local governments finance water and energy efficiency projects. A committee hearing on the Clean Energy Opportunity Act, which would require Kentucky utilities to meet a certain portion of electricity demand through energy efficiency and renewables, was cancelled due to a March snowstorm, but a hearing during the legislative interim is expected.

It will be more difficult for timber companies designated as “bad actors” to operate in the state without paying civil penalties and remediating logging sites under another new law. And new rules regarding how local governments can handle stray horses and cattle provide guidelines for identifying owners and for gelding, or sterilizing, male animals if an owner is not found. — By Molly Moore

North Carolina

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourns early July

Since the legislative session began in January, the rules regulating oil and gas drilling in North Carolina went into effect and the state’s long-standing moratorium on fracking was lifted. A bipartisan bill introduced to “disapprove” the rules was left to expire in March.

The first law passed this session clarifies technical issues with the Coal Ash Management Act passed last September and removes a previous legal requirement that the state develop rules to limit air pollution from fracking operations. A three-judge panel ruled in favor of Governor McCrory, who claims that the Coal Ash Management Commission is unconstitutional because there are more legislative appointments than executive. The ruling means that progress cleaning up coal ash throughout the state will stall. It also affects the commission that wrote the fracking rules, which could impact the validity of the drilling regulations.

The bipartisan Energy Freedom Bill, which would open up the state to third-party sales for solar projects, was introduced in March. The bill is supported by environmental groups, large businesses and the military, but strongly opposed by Duke Energy, which currently has a monopoly on the state’s power production.

Though polls show that North Carolinians overwhelmingly support renewable energy options, Gov. McCrory continues to push for opening the coast to offshore oil drilling, which is a possibility now that President Obama is allowing states to pursue offshore drilling in the Atlantic. — By Sarah Kellogg

Tennessee

Session convened Jan. 13, adjourns late April

At the end of March, a bill to transfer oversight of surface mining in Tennessee from federal to state regulators had passed through a state Senate committee and state House subcommittee. The Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee would end the federal Office of Surface Mining’s 31-year term as the regulatory agency charged with ensuring that coal mining operations in the state abide by surface mining and mined-land reclamation laws. That responsibility would pass to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. In 1984, the federal agency assumed oversight of surface mining in Tennessee due to the state’s poor enforcement of environmental laws.

The Tennessee Mining Association says a return to state regulation will lead to faster approval of mining permits. Opponents of the bill argue that fees levied on coal companies to pay for the costs of administering the regulatory program would be insufficient, and leave the state bearing an added cost.

A bill to provide a general permit for noncommercial gold mining appears idle for the year; opponents were concerned the bill could damage water quality and trout populations in the Cherokee National Forest. And a bill to help finance renewable energy and energy efficiency was moving through legislative committees at press time. — By Molly Moore

Virginia

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned Feb. 27

In the 2015 legislative session, Virginia electric utilities lobbied for what they described as a partial rate freeze, though consumer advocates said that average electric bills could still increase and the legislation would make it more difficult for regulators to catch utility over-earnings or require refunds. But amendments on the same bill declared solar energy development and energy efficiency programs as in the public interest, and the legislation passed.

Another bill would have joined Virginia into a regional network of states limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Through pollution allowance auctions, this initiative would raise funds for efforts such as coastal adaptation to sea level rise and renewable energy workforce training. The bill did not receive a vote, but this concept will likely be reintroduced next year.

Two new laws that passed will increase the size of nonresidential solar installations that can sell power back to the grid and encourage renewable energy and energy efficiency for multi-family and commercial buildings.

Meanwhile, Gov. McAuliffe reiterated his strong support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, one of three proposed pipelines that would, if built, carry fracked gas across ecologically sensitive areas. A bipartisan bill would have prevented interstate companies from entering and surveying private property without the written consent of the owner, but that legislation failed to pass, as did an attempt to make public service corporations using eminent domain subject to the Freedom of Information Act. — By Hannah Wiegard

West Virginia

Session convened Jan. 14, adjourned March 14

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin received criticism from mine-safety and environmental groups for signing the Coal Jobs Safety Act, a law that United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said “marks the first time in West Virginia history that our state has officially reduced safety standards for coal miners.” The legislation also prevents citizens from suing coal companies for violating Clean Water Act standards if those standards were not specified in the state mine permit, along with several other industry-supported changes to environmental rules.

The state also lowered the number of aboveground chemical storage tanks that need to comply with safety regulations by roughly 75 percent — the storage tank rules passed in the wake of the 2014 Elk River chemical spill. The legislature did agree to strengthen water quality standards for a 72-mile stretch of the Kanawha River so that it can be used as a backup drinking water source for the now-notorious Elk River intake.

A bill that would have allowed “forced pooling” for horizontal oil and gas wells narrowly failed. Forced pooling, which is currently allowed for vertical wells in the state, requires all mineral owners to lease their land for drilling if a certain percentage of other mineral owners in an drilling tract agree.

Two bills intended to expand the scope of agricultural cooperatives and make it easier for growers to sell at farmer’s markets also passed. — By Molly Moore

WV Coal Lab Penalty Upheld

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

The West Virginia Environmental Quality Board upheld a decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection to revoke the certification of Appalachian Laboratories Inc., where employees routinely conspired to violate the federal Clean Water Act.

The Beckley-based water-testing lab had previously appealed the revocation of its state certificate to conduct water testing services for coal companies and other industrial customers, arguing the actions of one employee should not disrupt its entire business. But during the Feb. 25 sentencing hearing of lab employee John Shelton — who will spend 21 months in prison for falsifying water samples — a U.S. judge said, “essentially everyone at the company… participated in some way in this conspiracy.”

Going to Court for Clean Water

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

Federal Lawsuit Filed Against Frasure Creek

In mid-March, Appalachian Voices and our partners in Kentucky sued Frasure Creek Mining in federal court for more than 20,000 violations of the Clean Water Act, which could lead to nearly $700 million in fines.

In 2014, Frasure Creek Mining submitted more than 100 reports to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet that contained false water monitoring data. These reports are supposed to be used to make sure companies are meeting the water pollution limits in their permits, but when companies turn in false reports, that task becomes impossible.

In the first quarter of 2014, nearly half of Frasure Creek’s water monitoring reports were false — they contained data copied from previous reports. In a few cases, violations were removed from reports when they were duplicated.

A few years ago, Frasure Creek was the top producer of coal from mountaintop removal mines in Kentucky. Although Frasure Creek has stopped mining coal for the time being, its mines continue to produce toxic pollution and the company continues to rack up numerous violations from the state for failing to properly reclaim the mines.

If you think all of this sounds familiar, you would be right. We first uncovered similar false reports from Frasure Creek and two other coal companies almost five years ago. The subsequent legal actions are still ongoing. Late last year, inadequate settlements between Frasure Creek and the Cabinet were thrown out by a Kentucky judge, and that decision is now being appealed. We are also attempting to intervene in the state’s enforcement action for these 2014 violations.

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

A first for North Carolina, now open for fracking

Monday, March 23rd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Fracking rig

In the face of widespread public opposition and demand for stronger rules, fracking permits can officially be applied for in North Carolina. Photo by Bob Warhover

March 17 marked the first day in history that North Carolina has been fully open to the oil and gas industry for the dangerous, environmentally destructive practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Despite widespread public opposition, Governor McCrory and state legislators rushed to open the state to drilling, ignoring hundreds of North Carolinians who spoke at public hearings across the state and thousands more that sent written comments requesting stronger rules.

Despite legislators’ promises that the rules would be the strongest in the country, the final package leaves much to be desired. The rules lack any provisions to control air pollution and they do not clarify legal confusion about forced pooling, the controversial process by which landowners are pooled into a drilling unit without their consent.

Adding insult to injury, on March 18, the North Carolina legislature passed its first bill since the session began in January, which declares that it is optional for the state Environmental Management Commission to create rules regulating air emissions from fracking operations. Previously, the Energy Modernization Act, which paved the way for fracking in the state, required that the EMC develop regulations to protect communities from air pollution.

North Carolina has very small shale deposits and it is unclear where they are located and how much they will actually produce. What is known is that the shale deposits in North Carolina are closer to groundwater sources than the shale deposits in other states that have already experienced groundwater contamination from failed fracking well cases. Additionally, there are no facilities in North Carolina that can treat the toxic wastewater produced by drilling and there are currently no pipelines to transport the fracked gas.

Combine North Carolina’s weak rules, unclear picture of gas reserves, and a lack of infrastructure to transport what little gas the state can produce, with dropping gas prices and drilling companies operating in the red, and you can be sure that the only drillers North Carolina is likely to attract are wildcatters.

When multi-billion dollar oil and gas companies can’t even drill safely, it seems unlikely that small-time prospectors will take every precaution to protect groundwater and neighboring communities from harm.

Though the moratorium on fracking has been lifted, communities and environmental organizations across the state are prepared to continue fighting. We’ll be watching the Department of Energy Mineral and Land Resources closely for any applications to create a drilling unit or for a drilling permit. If a permit is applied for, we’ll be ready to fight it.

Learn more about the risks of fracking and stay up to date by signing up for “Frack Updates” from Frack Free N.C.