Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

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.”

kayaker

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 americanrivers.org/2016-russell-fork

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.

Cleaning Up A Mess: Coal Ash Across Appalachia

Friday, August 12th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Hannah Petersen and Elizabeth E. Payne

Little Blue Run in Pennsylvania is the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Little Blue Run in Pennsylvania is the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Shortly past midnight on the morning of Dec. 22, 2008, a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., ruptured. In the nightmare that followed, more than 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash rushed from a storage impoundment into nearby rivers, covering at least 300 acres with toxic sludge.

This was the nation’s largest coal ash spill, yet in the six years that followed no federal rule was passed to prevent such a disaster from happening again. And then it did.

On Feb. 2, 2014, a pipe running beneath a coal ash impoundment in Eden, N.C., failed. As a result 39,000 tons of coal ash, together with 27 million gallons of contaminated water, spilled into the nearby Dan River.

These two major spills brought national attention to the dangers of coal ash, as advocates and residents dealt with both the damage and lack of state and federal oversight that allowed for the disasters.

The Making of a Mess

Barbara Morales of Belmont, N.C., speaks about coal ash cleanup at a public hearing. Photo by Appalachian Voices

Barbara Morales of Belmont, N.C., speaks about coal ash cleanup at a public hearing. Photo by Appalachian Voices

Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal to create electricity. Nearly 140 million tons are produced each year in the United States. The ash contains heavy metals and contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium that can pollute water sources if not properly managed. These pollutants have been linked to negative health effects including cancer, reproductive problems and lung disease, according to Physicians For Social Responsibility.

The majority of the coal ash across the country is stored near waterways in unlined wet impoundments. Scientists at Duke University have recently proven that this form of storage threatens the quality of water and health of communities nearby, when the toxins can leak out of the pits into ground and surface water.

In 2012, Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to regulate coal ash on behalf of 11 groups including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this paper, and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. At that time, there was no federal rule surrounding coal ash storage or cleanup, and this toxic waste product was less regulated than household trash.

In December 2014, the EPA released a long-awaited federal rule for coal ash disposal. The rule lays out guidelines for greater monitoring for dust and groundwater contamination, publication of monitoring data, and regular inspections of the containment facilities. The rule also established deadlines for closing ponds, but allows for a practice called “cap-in-place.” This closure method allows the utilities to leave the ash in an unlined pond and to simply cover the impoundment with a liner, which doesn’t prevent the ash from entering the groundwater.

The 2008 Kingston spill was the worst coal ash disaster in United States history. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The 2008 Kingston spill was the worst coal ash disaster in United States history. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But the rule also classifies coal ash as a solid — not hazardous — waste, the opposite of what the advocacy groups had requested. A hazardous classification would have required all states to adopt the EPA rule as a minimum standard for coal ash disposal, and set stricter national standards.

Given the solid waste classification, it’s mandatory for utilities that produce coal ash to follow the EPA’s rule, but it’s optional for states. This means that utilities must monitor their facility’s actions in accordance with the EPA standards, but the state doesn’t have to enforce compliance. Without the state regulators ensuring that facilities are meeting federal standards, the responsibility falls on citizens. To enforce the regulations, citizens can file lawsuits against the utilities for non-compliance.

“We see in state after state, that the state bends to the will of industry,” says Rhiannon Fionn, an independent journalist and filmmaker who has covered coal ash since 2009. “That’s the biggest thing about the EPA regulation, it’s leaving so much on the shoulders of the people.”

North Carolina resident Amy Brown lives near a Duke Energy coal ash impoundment and lives with elevated levels of heavy metals in her well water. “Unless you have to fight for protection, you have no clue that you even need to fight for protection, because you assume that the government is doing their job to make sure that everything is taken care of in an appropriate way,” says Brown.

The Buck Steam Station coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. Photo © Les Stone / Greenpeace

The Buck Steam Station coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. Photo © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Responding to the Mess

Appalachian states have relied heavily on coal as a source of energy. As a result, they now have a legacy of coal ash that threatens to burst free of aging dams or to leach toxins into surrounding water sources. And in most states, the volume of coal ash continues to grow by millions of tons each year.

The regulations passed by the EPA in 2014 provided guidelines for how states could address this problem. While some states have taken actions toward cleanup, no Appalachian states have adopted the EPA regulations. Instead states have taken varied approaches toward regulating cleanup.

    North Carolina

  • Coal ash generated annually: 5.5 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: If Duke Energy provides water to residents and fixes dam problems, it can follow EPA guidelines instead of previous state requirements.
  • State fact: A new law overturns the state’s previous, stricter coal ash law.

    South Carolina

  • Coal ash generated annually: 2.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: All coal ash near waterways is being excavated and moved to lined storage.
  • State fact: First state in Southeast to commit to full excavation.

The Carolinas

Perhaps nowhere is the contrast between cleanup efforts more stark than in North and South Carolina.

Under pressure from the Southern Environmental Law Center and other advocacy groups, the three main utilities in South Carolina have committed to cleaning up their coal ash. As of 2015, the utilities have pledged to excavate approximately 20 million tons of ash, removing all impoundments located along waterways to dry, lined storage, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

South Carolina is the first state in the Southeast to commit to full excavation of its coal ash impoundments. North Carolina has taken a different path.

“What happened in North Carolina — which did not happen in South Carolina — is the state agency tried to block and obstruct the enforcement of clean water laws by us and local conservation groups,” says Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has worked on coal ash issues in both states. Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, is among the groups advocating for stronger coal ash cleanup rules in the state.

Following the Dan River spill in 2014, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act, which established guidelines for cleaning up the state’s coal ash that were more rigorous than regulations passed later that year by the EPA.

The law also created a commission to oversee the process, which was disbanded by Gov. Pat McCrory in March of this year.

In accordance with the 2014 law, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality determined timelines and levels of cleanup for each impoundment across the state by classifying each as either low, intermediate or high priority. But in July of this year, the governor passed legislation that overturned these rankings and reduced Duke’s cleanup responsibility.

While the new law requires provision of water to residents near impoundments who have not been drinking their water for over a year because of elevated levels of heavy metals, it also delays the deadlines for cleanup and requires the DEQ to classify intermediate-risk ponds as low risk if Duke Energy takes measures to fix leaking dams and provides water.

The bill also allows low-risk sites to be closed according to the EPA’s federal coal ash rule, which is less stringent than North Carolina’s original requirements.

    Tennessee

  • Coal ash generated annually: 3.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State fact: The 2008 Kingston spill is the largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history.

    Alabama

  • Coal ash generated annually: 3.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State Fact: Residents are being sued for libel for speaking out against nearby coal ash.

    Georgia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 6.1 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State Fact: Only 7 percent of Georgia’s coal ash dams have been inspected by the state in the past five years.

Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia

In Tennessee, cleanup of the 2008 Kingston spill has progressed, but the Tennessee Valley Authority has made no plan to remove impoundments statewide.

Instead, TVA released a report in December 2015 outlining its intention to cap-in-place. Citizen and environmental groups have challenged this decision. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the drinking water of three million people is downstream of TVA’s unlined, leaking coal ash impoundments in both Tennessee and Alabama.

“TVA should do the right thing, as other utilities are doing, clean up these polluting ash ponds and remove the toxic contents to secure, lined, dry storage facilities away from our waterways,” Charles Rose, president of the Alabama-based Shoal Environmental Alliance, told the TimesDaily in June.

Alabama Power and Georgia Power, subsidiaries of Southern Company serving their respective states, have both announced that they will close their coal ash ponds. Alabama Power hasn’t released a timetable for closure or details on how the ash will be handled, but Georgia Power has released a plan to excavate 19 sites and cap 13 in place over the next 14 years, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

As part of the cleanup of the 2008 disaster in Kingston, Tenn., four million tons of coal ash were shipped to the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, Ala.

Dozens of workers who cleaned up the spill have filed lawsuits against the contractor claiming that they were told the ash was safe, were not given proper protection and are now suffering health consequences, according to the Center For Public Integrity.

In April of this year, owners of the Uniontown landfill brought a $30 million suit for libel against four local residents, and also sued two of the four for defamation. The residents, members of grassroots group Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, had spoken out about environmental and health risks associated with the landfill’s coal ash.

    Virginia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 2.4 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State fact: Home to the only unlined impoundment along the southeastern coast without a plan for excavation.

    West Virginia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 7.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: The state’s solid waste rule applies only to coal ash impoundments built after May 1, 1990.
  • State fact: Many of the state’s coal ash ponds were built before May 1, 1990.

    Kentucky

  • Coal ash generated annually: 9 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place, and legislation mirroring the EPA’s is being drafted.
  • State Fact: Doesn’t require groundwater monitoring or emergency action planning at all sites.

Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky

Coal ash disposal in Virginia is making national news this summer, as the commonwealth hosts the first federal-level court case to address one utility’s violation of the Clean Water Act. Testimony ended in June in the Sierra Club and Southern Environmental Law Center’s suit alleging that arsenic leaching from impoundments at Dominion Virginia Power’s retired Chesapeake Energy Center had contaminated surrounding water.

ABC News reports that the ruling “could have far-reaching effects on how energy companies dispose of coal ash waste left over from decades of burning coal.”

Dominion’s plan for cleaning up the coal ash in Virginia relies heavily on discharging the water into surrounding waterways and then capping the impoundments in place.

West Virginia has not adopted the EPA standards and regulates coal ash disposal based on the state’s Solid Waste Management Rule. This rule exempts coal ash impoundments built before May 1, 1990, from following all requirements except for groundwater monitoring. According to Earthjustice, at least 12 of the impoundments in the were built before 1990.

In Kentucky, utilities are increasingly using dry storage for newly produced coal ash, but opting to cap-in-place many existing impoundments. Seven dams across the state are rated high hazard according to Earthjustice, meaning failure could result in the loss of human life. The state is drafting legislation that enforces the EPA rule, but doesn’t require emergency response plans.


Pennsylvania and Ohio

    Pennsylvania

  • Coal ash generated annually: 15.4 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Unknown.
  • State fact: Home to the largest coal ash impoundment in the U.S

    Ohio

  • Coal ash generated annually: 10 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities haven’t announced plans.
  • State fact: In 2002, a utility bought a town near their coal plant for $20 million to gain future amnesty.

The nation’s largest coal ash containment pond is primarily in Pennsylvania and also encroaches into Ohio and West Virginia. The forty-year-old impoundment at Little Blue Run stores ash produced by FirstEnergy Corp.’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant. The 1,700-acre site has been used to dispose of more than 20 billion gallons of coal ash waste.

Three years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered the site to be closed and stop receiving new coal ash by the end of 2016.

The closure of Little Blue Run will require cleanup of that site and a new plan for disposal of coal ash produced in the future. One plan being considered is to ship the coal ash to LaBelle, Penn., and use it to fill an abandoned coal mine.

The EPA considers this form of disposal a “beneficial use” and does not regulate it. The U.S. Department of the Interior has the authority to set standards but has yet to compile regulations.

Residents of LaBelle are fighting to prevent the coal ash from coming to their community.

In July, FirstEnergy announced plans to close five of its Ohio coal-fired plants by 2020. The state has retired more coal-fired capacity since 2010 than any other state, according to Earthjustice.

But the pace of coal ash cleanup is lagging behind. “Ohio is one of the largest coal ash producers in the country, and they have some of the worst state regulations,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at EarthJustice, told WCPO News in June.

People Impacted by the Mess

Annette and William Gibbs

Annette and William Gibbs live in Perry County, Ala., near a landfill that now contains four million tons of coal ash from the 2008 Kingston spill. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

As states delay cleanup efforts and lawsuits are challenged in court, coal ash continues to disproportionately affect low income and minority communities. Almost 70 percent of coal ash ponds are in areas with household incomes below the national median, Evans testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment in 2013.

“Self-implementing rules rely on citizen enforcement,” Evans says. “Citizen enforcement relies on resources. So the communities that are worst off when there’s a self-implementing rule are those communities that cannot afford to monitor compliance and cannot afford legal representation when non-compliance is discovered.”

“These citizens who already feel so isolated because they are poor, feel even more isolated when they are following the protocol, making the complaints and not seeing any relief,” says filmmaker Rhiannon Fionn.

Communities throughout Appalachia experience coal ash and its toxic effects in different ways. For some, like the citizens in Uniontown, Ala., their problems began when ash and its putrid smell was relocated to their area, despite residents’ objections.

For others, like Kentucky residents whose drinking water comes from the Ohio River, contaminants have been seeping into their communities’ water supplies for decades through Louisville Gas and Electric’s permitted but unmonitored discharge pipe. Still others, like prisoners at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute, saw elevated numbers of cancer cases and deaths linked to coal ash blowing onto prison grounds from a nearby impoundment, according to Scientific American.

Coal ash is impacting communities across the southeast in different ways. But from state to state, residents bear the responsibility of leading the fight for cleanup.

“I’m just like any other mother, I drive my kids to practice and have sports equipment in my minivan. The only difference is that I have to fight to protect my children from our water,” says Amy Brown. “Sitting down on the couch and relying on the state, expecting they will do the right thing, isn’t an option anymore. No one will fight for my children the way I will.”

Rebukes, a resignation and more reasons to worry about coal ash in NC

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 - posted by brian

In the war of words over drinking water health advisories between state employees and the McCrory administration, residents are clear on who they trust

North Carolina state epidemiologist Dr. Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from ncdhhs.gov

North Carolina state epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from ncdhhs.gov

North Carolina’s state epidemiologist, Megan Davies, abruptly resigned from her position last night, writing in a letter that “I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

The department she is referring to is the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where she worked for eight years. The administration is that of Gov. Pat McCrory, whose time in office has been tainted by his mishandling of the statewide problem of coal ash pollution.

Davies’ resignation is just the latest development in a public tussle between state employees and the McCrory administration that escalated last week when the transcript of sworn testimony by Dr. Ken Rudo, a toxicologist at DHHS, became public.

Rudo’s testimony raises troubling questions about the role leaders at DHHS and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had in downplaying the “Do Not Drink” warnings issued last year to hundreds of families on well water that live near Duke Energy coal ash sites. It also implicates McCrory’s office directly, with Rudo stating that he was called to the governor’s mansion to discuss the warnings and how to ease residents’ concerns about water contamination potentially caused by coal ash.

During his deposition, Rudo told lawyers that members of the McCrory administration wanted to tone down the warnings with language that “would not have been acceptable to me.”

News has happened fast since Rudo’s remarks became public and, when they probably should have played defense, high-ranking officials in the McCrory administration went on the attack.

On Tuesday, McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, repeatedly accused Rudo of lying. The next day, the administration released an editorial signed by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and Deputy Secretary for Health Services at DHHS, Dr. Randall Williams, that attacked Rudo for reaching “questionable and inconsistent” scientific conclusions and creating “unnecessary fear and confusion among North Carolinians who are concerned about the safety of their drinking water.”

Rudo stood by his deposition following the accusations by McCrory’s office. And, after the editorial, he released through his lawyers a point-by-point rebuttal of Reeder and Williams.

He’s not alone. Davies — who was Rudo’s superior at DHHS — also told lawyers under oath that she did not agree with the decision to lift the “Do Not Drink” warnings. She also stated that representatives of Duke Energy met with DHHS about the health screening levels set for well water and that she believes the department deliberately misled the public.

Based on Davies’ letter of resignation, it is that belief and the deliberately misleading editorial that led her to resign:

“Upon reading the open editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public. I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

So where does all this leave North Carolinians with contaminated drinking water? Exactly where they were before, as distrustful of DEQ and DHHS as they are of their water’s safety.

On Thursday morning, members of the Alliance for Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash held a press conference outside of the governor’s mansion where they defended Rudo and Davies for putting public health first and made it clear who they trust.

New law puts coal ash progress in NC at risk

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016 - posted by interns
Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.

Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.

By Hannah Petersen

In May, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the final rankings for Duke’s coal ash impoundments in accordance with deadlines set by the Coal Ash Management Act.

Every impoundment in the state was classified as either “high” or “intermediate” risk, meaning the ash would have to be excavated and stored in a lined landfill. After years of attending public hearings and submitting comments to advocate for access to clean water for all North Carolinians, residents finally witnessed DEQ order Duke Energy to clean up all of the coal ash across the state.

For a moment, it appeared that the state had made progress with its coal ash policies. But in the same press release that announced the final rankings, DEQ asked to revisit them in 18 months. This would effectively give Duke time to remediate dam deficiencies and ultimately lead to a lower classification.

Six days after the department announced the rankings, the N.C. General Assembly announced the revision of Senate Bill 71, which would reinstate the Coal Ash Commission that Gov. Pat McCrory shut down in early March and extend deadlines for cleanup. McCrory vetoed the bill and, despite having enough votes to override, both the state House and Senate instead decided to drop the bill and create a new compromise bill at the end of the legislature’s 2016 short session.

A New Coal Ash Law

The rushed introduction, concurrence and signing of House Bill 630 puts at risk many aspects of the progress that residents and environmental groups have made since the introduction of the Coal Ash Management Act in 2014. The new law requires Duke to provide clean water to residents living within half a mile of coal ash impoundments, while leaving the door open for the company to cap coal ash ponds in place.

“If they go through with putting in water lines to our community, that’s a great step in the right direction, but it’s a half a step, it’s not getting all the way there by cleaning up the ash,” said Roger Hollis, a neighbor of Duke Energy’s Cliffside plant in Cleveland County, N.C., in an ACT Against Coal Ash press release.

In exchange for providing clean water, DEQ is required to classify impoundments as “low risk” so long as dam deficiencies are addressed. This classification largely ignores the environmental risks associated with the ash’s presence and simply buries the problem instead of remediating it. As a low-risk impoundment, the law permits capping in place as a closure option, despite the proximity of the impoundment to groundwater.

The new law also pushes back the deadline for when an alternative water source is to be provided to residents near coal ash sites and for when the rankings are considered final to October and November of 2018, respectively. Alongside the deadlines, HB 630 expands DEQ’s authority to grant extensions and variances for Duke Energy’s cleanup timeline.

“It satisfies everyone, because we weren’t a factor anyway,” said Amy Brown, who lives near Duke’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C. “The lawmakers didn’t include who is going to pay for the water bill, who is going to pay for plumbing, who is going to pay a regulator, and who is going to pay for new piping because we have old homes. No one included all that.”

“They presented it in a pretty package. And the outside is, ‘you’re going to get water,’” Brown said. “They didn’t show the inside, which is dirty toxic contaminants that are going to be left in place. They passed this problem onto my children now.”

“The legislature has done what Duke Energy’s lobbyists told it to do, threw thousands of public comments in the trash can, and protected Duke Energy while sacrificing the well-being of North Carolina’s clean water and communities,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a written statement.

Duke’s request to block release of deposition

The Southern Environmental Law Center is involved with a variety of lawsuits regarding coal ash across the state. Around the time that the risk rankings were finalized and new bills were being debated, SELC lawyers released transcripts of the depositions of state employees and scientists that they conducted.

In May, SELC released the deposition of Megan Davies, state epidemiologist for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which highlighted the lack of consensus surrounding the “Do Not Drink” letters that had been sent out across the state and later rescinded. In the deposition, Davies admits that she thought the letters should not have been rescinded and that no on-the-ground testing had been done to determine that residents’ well water was safe to drink.

State toxicologist Ken Rudo was deposed in July, but Duke has asked a federal judge to block the release of the deposition. Rudo had expressed skepticism about the rescinding of the “Do Not Drink” letters earlier in July, but Duke claims releasing the deposition publicly infringes upon its right to a free trial.

“How dare you try to stop the public from hearing from a state employee,” said Brown. “This is a man we trust. He gained our trust when he treated us like human beings and called every person to make sure we understood what the ‘Do Not Drink’ letters meant.”

“I want to be able to say that I trust my state,” Brown said. “I want to say that the system didn’t fail us, but at this point I can’t, because they haven’t proven it.”

A good idea is right under your nose

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Greensboro, N.C. artist and activist Caroline Armijo grew up in Stokes County, N.C., near one of the state’s largest coal ash impoundments. This post originally appeared on Caroline’s website.

Caroline Armijo

Caroline Armijo

Last summer, as I was pondering about how to resolve this coal ash situation, I came across these words of wisdom on the bottom of a coffee bag: “A good idea is right under your nose.” I cut it out and placed it on a coal ash ideas collage that has been hanging in my closet for the last year. Granted, the collage is incomplete.

But this recent opinion piece from the Greensboro New & Record, based on a more in-depth report on a coal ash breakthrough, reminds me that perhaps we are that much closer to a solution than we think.

In June 2014, I read an article featuring a professor from North Carolina A&T University who created Eco-Core, a material to be used in submarines because of its exceptional resistance to fire. I kept wondering about the project over the next 18 months. I finally reached out to them in February.

When I first met with Professor Kunigal Shivakumar and Wade Brown, I told them stories of my loved ones from Belews Creek and about the illness and devastation found in all of the communities surrounding coal ash pits. Even though they had been working in the industry for 15 years or longer, they had no idea of these issues. However, they did have a new product, which can be molded and shaped into anything you can dream of! They were looking to create a wide range of marketable products, like chair railings or sound barriers. I loved that the lab reminded me a lot of an art studio. Yet, we had more serious matters at hand than art projects.

I asked if they could start with creating an alternative to the current landfill model. Professor Shivakumar said something beautiful about once you know the truth, you are able to find a solution. And so they started working on a prototype for a coal ash block, which can be created in any size, but ideally a half-ton to a ton. But more importantly, the block can be ground up by manufacturers and reused as technology advances.

From what I have gathered over my years of advocacy, coal ash is safest in a solid state.

FullSizeRender_2-1400x1050

I do not like landfills because they cause a spike in pollution as the ash is excavated and transported long distances via trucks and rail cars. Landfills come with a built-in need for a leachate system that requires monitoring. And landfills are likely to fail, as the bulldozers that install the plastic barrier often puncture it during the installation process. Plus, people really do not have a say as to when these landfills are placed in their communities. Their property values plummet, often followed by a decline in health. At the end of the day, it seems like an extremely expensive solution that still places our people and environment at risk. We can do better.

We demand a better way.

This coal ash block does just that. It eliminates the massive transportation needed to transport the 150 million tons of coal ash (in North Carolina alone) to off-site landfills in an unwelcoming community. The blocks can be made and stored on site. There is no leachate. There is no need for long-term monitoring. Plus the ash, which seems like an overwhelming waste now, can be safely stored for reuse as a valuable resource. It provides both short- and long-term solutions.

One night this spring, I woke up to write down a thought that came to me: We need to save these blocks. One day they will be more valuable than gold. At least one other person believes this is true.

Coal ash is an incredibly complex issue plaguing our world. Yes, the pollution will likely get worse before it gets better. But we know that groundwater quality will improve because of the clean-up happening in South Carolina. I understand that this is just one of multiple approaches that must be made to address this issue. Perhaps wetlands, bioremediation, reuse in the cement industry, and other technologies combined together will result in a solution that will lead to the healing of these spaces and our people. I am open to exploring any and all ideas. My motto is expect the best, get the best. And if it costs less than the current solution (landfills), even better.

This week, we return to DC for Moms Clean Air Force Play-In For Climate Action. This time I am bringing with me a solution inspired by my son’s favorite brand of toys – Lego. Watching him play led to a good idea from right under my nose. (And often under my feet!) As we speak, Lucy is explaining to Oliver that this block is made of coal ash. It’s a pretty simple idea. Even kids get it.