Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

EPA finalizes long-awaited coal ash regulations

Friday, December 19th, 2014 - posted by brian
The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy's Dan River plant.

The failed coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant.

The day we’ve been waiting for has finally come. Yes it’s Friday, but today was also the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s court-imposed deadline to release federal regulations for coal ash storage and disposal.

As expected, the rule it took the EPA five years to finalize is modest at best, falling short of what it takes to truly address the prevalent problems associated with coal ash such as contamination of waterways and drinking water supplies.

Rather than classifying coal ash as the hazardous waste it clearly is, the EPA rule places it under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the nation’s primary law for regulating solid waste. Other types of waste regulated under Subtitle D include household garbage — you know, banana peels, candy wrappers and the like.

“For the thousands of citizens whose groundwater is no longer safe for consumption due to leaching ponds or whose air is contaminated by fugitive dust, failing to regulate coal ash as hazardous is a slap in the face,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator. “While we’re pleased that we finally have federal regulations, they are far from perfect and demand we continue fighting for cleanup of these toxic sites.”

U.S. coal plants produce around 140 million tons of coal ash each year. Much of that is stored near waterways in unlined pits held in place by earthen dams. Even years after coal plants have closed, ponds that have stored toxic coal ash for decades can continue to pollute water and put communities at risk.

In 2012, Appalachian Voices and several partner groups, represented by Earthjustice, sued the EPA in federal court to force the agency to issue a rule. Late last year our coalition reached a settlement holding the EPA to today’s deadline.

According to the EPA, the rule establishes safeguards to protect communities from catastrophic spills, like the Kingston, Tenn., spill in 2008. It was the disaster in Kingston that spurred the agency to act.

But more spills, like the one at Duke Energy’s retired Dan River plant in Eden, N.C., have happened in the time since, representing hundreds of millions of dollars in environmental and economic costs.

To address the threat of another catastrophic failure, the EPA rule calls for the the closure of inactive sites that fail to meet engineering and structural standards, more frequent inspections and monitoring, and restrictions on where coal ash impoundments are located.

The rule also requires water quality monitoring and public disclosure of the results, which should help groups like Appalachian Voices and our community partners better track pollution and take companies to court that fail to stop it. More frequent reports and accurate information coming directly from utilities could be a big boost for efforts to protect clean water, as long as coal plant operators commit to transparency.

But while the regulations set a minimum federal criteria, states are not required to adopt them, develop a permitting program, or submit a program to the EPA for approval. That’s all more of a suggestion, really. So while the EPA says it expects states to be “active partners” in regulating coal ash, well, states unfriendly to the EPA may feel differently. And should states refuse to clean up coal ash pollution or fail meet the new standards, the EPA will not step in to enforce the rule. That job will still fall to citizens who identify the insidious pollution and file lawsuits to correct it.

According to Earthjustice, unsafe disposal of coal ash into the nation’s more than 1,400 coal ash dumps has contaminated more than 200 rivers, lakes, streams and sources of underground drinking water in 37 states. There are 331 high- and significant-hazard coal ash ponds in the country. Many of the highest hazard sites are concentrated in the eastern U.S.

Learn more about our work to clean up coal ash.

Hey North Carolina, New York just banned fracking

Wednesday, December 17th, 2014 - posted by brian
Before rushing into fracking, North Carolina could learn something from New York, which just announced it would ban the practice, citing health concerns and uncertain economic prospects.

Before rushing into fracking, North Carolina should look to New York, which just announced it would ban the practice, citing health concerns and uncertain economic prospects. Photo by Daniel Foster/Creative Commons.

New York’s debate over whether or not to allow fracking came to a close today when Gov. Andrew Cuomo sided with the state’s top public health and environmental officials in calling for a ban on the practice.

The governor’s end-of-year cabinet hearing, where the announcement was made, looked like so many other meetings that often end in disappointment. But this one was exceptional for inserting some much-needed truth into fracking fight that could, just maybe, help other states come to their senses.

During the portion of the meeting on fracking, Joseph Martens, the commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, set the stage during a 10-minute presentation that pretty much served as a debunking of the best arguments for fracking. It was clear that Martens had done his homework before concluding that fracking should not be done anywhere in New York.

Just in terms of practicality, Martens told Cuomo and his fellow cabinet members, more than 63 percent of the Marcellus Shale deposits in New York would be off limits under state rules and local zoning. On top of that, dozens of New York towns — most famously the upstate town Dryden — have already approved their own bans on fracking and took their case before the state’s highest court, which ruled in their favor earlier this year.

Following the court’s decision in June, Dryden Town Supervisor Mary Ann Sumne told the New York Times, “I hope our victory serves as an inspiration to people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Florida, North Carolina, California and elsewhere who are also trying to do what’s right for their own communities.”

Despite the fact that North Carolina’s law prohibits local ordinances that “directly or indirectly” restrict oil and gas drilling operations, towns across the state have approved ordinances or resolutions to discourage or prevent fracking in their limits.

According to Martens, the prospects for fracking in New York are “uncertain at best.” The same could be said of North Carolina, where supporters’ visions of economic grandeur don’t always follow the limitations of the state’s geology.

Martens’ rundown was refreshing for this North Carolinian — it was also a reminder of the disregard and misplaced priorities of many pushing to bring fracking to my beloved state. But New York’s acting health commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker, who spoke next, might truly be the voice of reason we’re missing in North Carolina.

Zucker, with a stack of reports on fracking’s health impacts in other states piled behind him, said he would not allow his family to drink tap water in an area where fracking took place. The point hit home with Cuomo, who said if Zucker believes fracking could put his children in harm’s way, then no child living in New York should be put in that position.

If no child in New York should be put at risk of contaminated water and the other threats that come with fracking, neither should North Carolina’s kids, nor those living in areas already ravaged by poorly regulated drilling.

Former New York Gov. David Paterson first imposed the state’s moratorium in 2008 while the state Department of Environmental Conservation studied fracking in the years leading up to today’s decision. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory and the state General Assembly, on the other hand, have rushed headlong toward fracking while requiring surprisingly little study for a state with no experience regulating it. Drilling could begin in North Carolina as early as this spring.

The latest fumble related to fracking in North Carolina came today too. Just as New York announced its ban, controversial fracking regulations in North Carolina sailed through final review against the recommendations of the Rules Review Commission’s staff attorney, who said Mining and Energy Commission staff emailed her 100 rules that were riddled with errors at 2 a.m. on the day of the deadline.

Mary Maclean Asbill, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, who attended the review told the News & Observer the latest misstep is basically par for the course at this point.

“All of the issues just highlighted how rushed the whole process was,” she said.

Coal ash cleanup still contested in North Carolina

Friday, December 5th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
 Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

Controversies still surround the environmentally destructive and costly Dan River coal ash spill. Now, as Duke Energy begins cleaning up the most high priority sites, new controversies are emerging. Photo from Duke Energy Flickr.

In two weeks, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will finally release the first-ever rule regulating the storage and disposal of coal ash, a toxic byproduct of burning coal. For years, communities and environmental groups across the country have pushed the EPA to finalize the regulations, and now, due to a court ordered mandate, the rules are expected to be released on Dec. 19.

In the years following the 2008 TVA coal ash spill in Kingston, Tenn., the EPA repeatedly delayed finalizing a coal ash rule, allowing the dangerous waste to sit in unlined landfills and contaminate groundwater at sites across the country. As a result, there have been more coal ash disasters, including the February 2014 spill into the Dan River at Duke Energy’s plant in Eden, N.C. A new study conducted by Wake Forest University research biologist Dennis Lemly puts the cost of the Dan River spill at $300 million.

Spurred by the devastating Dan River spill, enormous public outcry, and a federal criminal investigation into the ties between Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, state lawmakers set about writing their own coal ash regulations prior to the EPA rule’s release. The result was not what North Carolinians hoped for.

The Coal Ash Management Act, which became law in September without Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature, only requires the full cleanup of four out of the 14 coal ash storage sites in the state. The fates of the remaining 10, including Belews Creek (home to the the largest coal ash deposits in the state) have been left in the hands of a Coal Ash Commission, which may allow sites to be capped in place, a method of coal ash storage that does not eliminate the possibility of groundwater contamination.

McCrory did not sign the bill because he felt that the Coal Ash Commission was unconstitutional since a majority of its members were appointed by legislators and not the governor. On Nov. 13, McCrory and former governors James Hunt and James Martin sued the General Assembly, stating that the commission has been tasked with carrying out executive branch functions, as well as functions normally overseen by state agencies such as DENR. Speaker of the House Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, who are listed as defendants in the case, issued a statement opposing McCrory’s lawsuit as costly and time-consuming.

Despite the weaknesses of the Coal Ash Management Act, the law has already forced Duke Energy to begin cleaning up the coal ash at four high-priority sites, and to submit preliminary cleanup plans and groundwater assessment plans for the remaining 10. But now new controversies are emerging over where the company plans to relocate its waste.

Last month, Duke announced plans to move 2.9 million tons of ash from its Riverbend and Sutton plants to former clay mines in Chatham County and Lee County. Citizens in both counties are upset by the proposal, stating that they feel blindsided and citing the lack of an environmental or health impact study as problematic. In Chatham County, some residents already live near coal ash ponds located at Duke’s Cape Fear plant, which are not currently designated for cleanup.

Duke Energy contends that the clay mines are ideal for coal ash storage because of their close proximity to railways and the added environmental protection of impervious clay. The company says it will put in liners and install groundwater monitoring systems at the sites.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, millions of tons of coal ash precariously stored along North Carolina’s waterways will have to be moved somewhere. But the unfortunate reality of the law is that many previously unburdened communities and others already burdened by toxic waste dumps may be forced to house some of the ash. Ideally, most of the coal ash will remain on Duke Energy-owned property, but what cannot safely stay on Duke’s land will have to go somewhere. Every North Carolinian has a ton of coal ash to their name, but not every North Carolinian will have to deal with their ton.

In addition to considering new landfill sites, Duke Energy is also looking into the potential of beneficial reuse of coal ash.

If the EPA’s coal ash rule is weak, it will not protect communities from potentially dangerous coal ash landfills or coal ash reuse. Though there are no ideal solutions for the toxic waste, moving forward with the understanding that the substance is indeed hazardous would lead to more safeguards for human health.

If you haven’t already, take a moment to think about why you care about coal ash pollution and explore this topic with others. As North Carolina and the rest of the country move toward coal ash cleanup, it’s more important than ever for us to stand united to demand the safest storage possible.

Nothing to see here

Friday, December 5th, 2014 - posted by eric
The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet's attempts to rebuke critics can't make up for its failure to notice blatant Clean Water Act violations or prosecute coal company misdeeds.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s attempts to rebuke critics can’t make up for its failure to notice blatant Clean Water Act violations or prosecute coal company misdeeds.

Kentucky’s environmental regulators can’t have it both ways. On one hand, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet claims it does not have enough funding to do its job. On the other hand, it says it’s doing its job just fine.

Long-standing failures of the cabinet, which regulates coal mines and other polluters, have become even more evident in light of new legal action brought by Appalachian Voices and our partners and a recent court ruling.

In a scathing opinion issued Nov. 24, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd rejected two settlements that the cabinet had reached with Frasure Creek Mining for submitting false water pollution reports several years ago. A week before Judge Shepherd’s rulings, we had filed a Notice of Intent to Sue Frasure Creek for again submitting false reports in 2013 and 2014 that again went unnoticed by the cabinet.

Not Just a Matter of Money

For years, despite clear and persistent evidence of problems, the cabinet repeatedly claimed to be fulfilling its duties under the Clean Water Act. But it was ignoring the underlying problems, including potentially illegal water pollution discharges masked by false reporting.

In response to our recent notice that Frasure Creek has perpetrated some 28,000 new violations of the Clean Water Act, the cabinet issued a press release that essentially claimed it has everything under control. The cabinet says it’s focusing on “violations as submitted” on water monitoring reports, ignoring the fact that those reports are false or could even be fraud. The release goes on to defend the cabinet’s settlements with Frasure Creek — the ones later thrown out by Judge Shepherd — and said the cabinet had been looking into Frasure Creek’s more recent violations:

The Division of Enforcement within the Cabinet has been monitoring compliance with the April 13, 2013 Agreed Order with Frasure Creek and initiated an internal compliance review in January 2014 that has identified violations as submitted on DMRs [Discharge Monitoring Reports] to the agency. Administrative action on those violations is ongoing and is pending within the agency.

Seeking to understand the validity of these claims, our lawyers submitted a formal request for the information on the cabinet’s “internal compliance review.”

In a bold showing of its own incompetence, the cabinet asked us to clarify what we meant by “[v]iolations ‘mentioned in’ the press release.” It appeared that they did not even know what they were referring to in their own press release.

Once we clarified our request, we received this convoluted response:

The phrase ‘internal compliance review’ that was used in the November 17, 2014 press release is a term used to describe the primary function of staff in the Compliance and Operations Branch of the Division of Enforcement (DENF)…. The phrase does not encompass a specific period of time with dates certain for beginning and ending the compliance process, but it is used within DENF to refer to any ongoing review. With respect to Frasure Creek, our compliance review is ongoing and underway at this time, but it has not progressed to the point where NOVs [Notices Of Violation] have been issued or referrals for enforcement action have been generated.

In plain English, the cabinet’s response essentially says it has been looking at Frasure Creek’s violations, but officials either haven’t written anything down about them yet or, if they have written anything down, they refuse to disclose it. So, just like past claims that the cabinet is doing its job, this response is empty.

The fact that the agency is strapped for cash has never been in question — even Judge Shepherd agrees. As he stated in his recent ruling:

Commissioner Scott further testified that the cabinet has been subjected to a series of major budget cuts during the last 10 years that have drastically and adversely affected the ability of the cabinet to do its job in implementing the Clean Water Act.

[T]he record in this case makes it abundantly clear that the Cabinet simply lacks the personnel and budget to effectively investigate and enforce these requirements of law.

But it’s not a lack of funding keeping the cabinet from effectively enforcing laws as much as a lack of will.

You would think that if the cabinet truly were intent on protecting the environment, they would have punished Frasure Creek to make an example of the company, rather than wasting taxpayer dollars trying to prevent citizen involvement in this case. You would also think that the cabinet wouldn’t spend its limited resources on unsuccessful legal challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance on conductivity pollution from coal mines, or weakening water quality standards for selenium, a common coal mining pollutant.

Brown water at a Frasure Creek Mine. This is one of the discharge points that the company submitted false data for.

Brown water at a Frasure Creek Mine. This is one of the discharge points that the company submitted false data for.

The cabinet serves at the pleasure of Gov. Steve Beshear, whose strong pro-coal attitude is without doubt. In one State of the State address, Beshear went so far as to say, “Washington bureaucrats continue to try to impose arbitrary and unreasonable regulations on the mining of coal. And to them I say, ‘Get off our backs!’”

When elected officials are beholden to a single industry, as many are in Central Appalachia, it’s no surprise that regulators would be easy on that industry. But the level of corporate influence in Kentucky is out of control. Coal companies should not be able to flout the law without fear of serious prosecution. And whether the bosses like it or not, the cabinet still has the legal duty to uphold the Clean Water Act.

Could Criminal Charges Be in Store for Frasure Creek?

The cabinet and other Kentucky officials have generally ignored or dismissed the possibility that the false reporting was intentional fraud. But recent cases of laboratory fraud in West Virginia make criminal prosecution seem more feasible. One case involved discharges from coal mines where a lab employee was collecting water samples from a “honey hole,” a spot known to have good water quality, rather than from the actual pollution discharges. In another, a contract employee was reusing data from previous water monitoring reports because they had failed to pay their laboratory.

In a statement that indicates a criminal investigation should ensue, Judge Shepherd wrote:

The conditions observed by the cabinet’s inspectors during the performance audit of Frasure Creeks’ so-called “laboratory” demonstrated either a plan or scheme to submit fraudulent information in the DMRs or incompetence so staggering as to defy belief.

Kentucky Attorney General and gubernatorial hopeful Jack Conway has vowed to look into the new Frasure Creek violations. But several years ago, his team looked into the previous violations and told reporter Ronnie Ellis that they couldn’t find anything “that rises to the level of intent or criminal fraud that’s ready to be prosecuted.”

The cabinet’s dismissive attitude toward the seriousness of environmental problems in Kentucky is unsurprising given the state’s political climate, not to mention the fact that the Frasure Creek cases expose the agency’s utter incompetence. But the jig is up. It’s time for the cabinet to either start doing its job or step aside and let the EPA do it instead.

What will Obama’s legacy be on mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014 - posted by thom
After six years of the Obama presidency, mountaintop removal is still putting communities are at risk, leading many to wonder what his environmental legacy will be.

After six years of the Obama presidency, mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk, leading many to wonder what his legacy on the issue will be.

The Obama administration has taken steps to limit mountaintop removal coal mining pollution in Appalachia. The president and agency officials have also made quite a few promises. But mountaintop removal continues, so what have they actually done?

The Alliance for Appalachia, a coalition of groups including Appalachian Voices, just released a Grassroots Progress Report examining the administration’s successes and shortfalls in dealing with mountaintop removal. There have been successes, to be sure, but as the report clearly demonstrates, there have been many failures.

Large scale surface coal mining is still a huge problem in Central Appalachia. Although the pace has slowed due to the declining coal economy, many new permits are issued every year. In 2013 Virginia issued 9 new surface mining permits and 2 acreage expansions, West Virginia issued 25 new permits, and Kentucky issued 30. Only Tennessee issued no new permits. - Grassroots Progress Report

The report covers not only the scale of ongoing mining, but paints a clear picture of the costs that mountaintop removal continues to have on Appalachian communities. The poor economic outcomes and human health problems associated with mountaintop removal have not improved over the past six years. These issues are closely linked, and neither can improve without action from the White House.

The White House has already made commitments. A 2009 Memorandum of Understanding, signed by all of the relevant regulatory agencies, outlined a series of actions the administration was prepared to take to deal with mountaintop removal. The Alliance report goes through those commitments one by one, pointing out the shortcomings of the actions taken, and the failure of the administration to take further, stronger actions.

The report is not simply a list of grievances, however. There are four policy recommendations as well.

1) a Selenium Standard to ensure that citizens maintain the ability to test for selenium pollution in their own water,
2) a strong Conductivity Rule based on scientific research US EPA has already conducted because we, and our federal agencies, know that high conductivity can be a key measure of dangerous water,
3) a Stream Protection Rule that preserves a strong stream buffer zone requirement so that mining waste can no longer be dumped into our streams, and
4) a strong Minefill Rule to address the currently unregulated dumping of coal burning waste into abandoned mine sites.

If you’re interested in what the Obama administration has and has not done in dealing with mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia, take a moment to read the one-page summary or the full report.

Kentucky court sides with citizens and environment

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 - posted by eric

Viewed through a swing set on a nearby resident’s yard, this is one of Frasure Creek Mining’s many valley fills at their numerous Mountain Top Removal coal mines.

Last week, Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations won a major victory in the Kentucky courts when a judge overturned two slap-on-the-wrist settlements that the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet had reached with Frasure Creek Mining a few years ago.

These cases began in 2010, when we uncovered blatantly false water monitoring reports that Frasure Creek was submitting to state regulators. The judge’s decision comes just one week after Appalachian Voices and our partners filed a 60-day Notice of Intent to Sue Frasure Creek for returning to their practice of submitting hundreds of false water monitoring reports called Discharge Monitoring Reports or DMRs.

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, jointly represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Lauren Waterworth and the Pace University Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Franklin County Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd’s opinion is scathing and in many places simply speaks for itself:

The Cabinet took the position that it did not have sufficient evidence to support a claim of intentional submissions of knowingly false data, or fraud, by the Defendant or its contract lab…. The Cabinet took this position notwithstanding… that the signatures of the DMRs were often dated prior to the sampling that was being reported, and that multiple DMRs appear to be simply photocopies of prior reports without any evidence that actual sampling took place. The conditions observed by the Cabinet’s inspectors during the performance audit of Frasure Creeks’ so-called “laboratory” demonstrated either a plan or scheme to submit fraudulent information in the DMRs or incompetence so staggering as to defy belief. [Emphasis added]

The opinion goes on to make several other very important points:

The Cabinet chose to limit its investigation to reporting errors…, and not to investigate substantive pollution violations though there were indications of such violations

The integrity of the regulatory process is based on the accurate reporting of monitoring data. If the Cabinet suspects pollution violations but only investigates and assesses penalties for administrative reporting violations, the Cabinet creates incentives for inaccurate reporting or failing to report as opposed to honest reporting that reveals pollution violations.

The Court finds that the economic benefit realized by Frasure Creek in using a substandard laboratory with systematic problems in its DMRs, far exceeds the civil penalty agreed to by the Cabinet.

When one company so systematically subverts the requirements of law, it not only jeopardizes environmental protection on the affected permits, it creates a regulatory climate in which the Cabinet sends the message that cheating pays. [Emphasis added]

[T]he record in this case makes it abundantly clear that the Cabinet simply lacks the personnel and budget to effectively investigate and enforce these requirements of law. [Emphasis added]

Valley fill and pond at a Frasure Creek Mining MTR site.

Valley fill and pond at a Frasure Creek Mining MTR site.

Judge Shepherd actually issued two rulings, one on each of the two cases against Frasure Creek that were before him. The first case was based on the false water monitoring reports that we uncovered in 2010. The cabinet entered a settlement with Frasure Creek with miniscule fines compared to what is allowed under the Clean Water Act. We then challenged that weak settlement in court. In last week’s ruling, the judge threw out the settlement because it is not “fair, reasonable or in the public interest”.

The second case was based on pollution problems that became evident once Frasure Creek’s false reporting subsided. We intervened in that case and were made full parties to an administrative case that the Cabinet brought against the company (though the Cabinet only brought this case because we had already filed a Notice of Intent to Sue for pollution problems in question). Even though we were full parties to the case, the Cabinet and Frasure Creek reached another sweetheart settlement without our involvement. Judge Shepherd found this had violated our due process rights and threw out the settlement, sending the case back to administrative court.

Both of these decisions could be appealed, and since previous settlements were simply thrown out, the actual violations are still unresolved. We will have to wait and see how these outstanding issues play out. Nonetheless, this is still a great step forward, and a great vindication of citizens’ right to protect their environment.

Environmental agency asleep at the switch?

Friday, November 21st, 2014 - posted by tom
Water flowing from one of the discharge points in Floyd County, Ky., that Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports about.

Water flowing from one of the discharge points in Floyd County, Ky., that Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports about.

At first, I couldn’t believe what our Appalachian Water Watch team had discovered earlier this year: almost 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act by a single company in the coal counties of eastern Kentucky. It appeared to be the most extensive incident of non-compliance in the law’s 42-year history.

Frasure Creek Mining had duplicated or otherwise falsified hundreds of the water pollution reports it’s required to send to the state. Equally impressive is the fact that, over the course of a full year and a half, state regulators apparently failed to notice.

It’s shocking – but alas, not a surprise. This level of callous disregard for the laws meant to protect our health, safety, and natural heritage is all too common among Appalachia’s coal companies, regulators and often politicians. Here’s a short list.

  • An employee of a major W.Va.-certified lab pled guilty in October to faking water quality samples for coal companies — not just a few times, but for six years.
  • Last week, Tennessee fined three companies owned by Jim Justice $1.36 million for failing to submit pollution reports at 25 coal facilities, all of which had been warned twice. The companies appealed the fines, as is the MO for Justice-owned companies.
  • Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy when 29 miners died in 2010 at the company’s Upper Big Branch mine in W. Va., was indicted in November on four criminal counts for conspiring to willfully violate safety rules, conceal violations, and then lying about it.
  • According to a recent investigation by National Public Radio, 9 out of 10 coal mining companies with the highest unpaid fines for safety violations are in Appalachia, ranging from $1 million to almost $4.5 million, with a total of 9,839 violations.

Back to Frasure Creek Mining, this wasn’t the first time we’d caught the company falsifying pollution records and found the state apparently asleep at the switch. In 2010, Appalachian Voices discovered 9,000 violations over a two-year period. We and our allies in Kentucky took legal action to compel the state to enforce the law, and the company to comply.

The pattern is clear. Coal companies continue to benefit from a widespread failure to enforce the law that is devastating the land and water and communities’ health. The toll on the citizens and communities of Appalachia is equally clear –- higher than average rates of cancer and birth defects, persistent poverty, poisoned streams, and a deep-rooted sense of place rocked by the blasts of explosives that flatten mountain after mountain.

With this in mind, Appalachian Voices and our partners served Frasure Creek Mining on November 17 with a notice of our intent to sue for the recent spate of Clean Water Act violations. The fight for justice continues.

For the waters,
Tom

PS: See this excellent article from the New York Times.

N.C.’s Sutton Lake finally gets the protection it deserves

Wednesday, November 19th, 2014 - posted by Jaimie McGirt
Padding on the Cape Fear River. Photograph by Jaimie McGirt

Paddling on the Cape Fear River. Photo by Jaimie McGirt

Wilmington, N.C., is the site of the L.V. Sutton Power Station — a retired coal-fired power plant operated by Duke Energy along the Lower Cape Fear River. Though Duke recently converted Sutton to burn natural gas, the carcinogenic-laden waste generated from decades of coal combustion remains in 135 acres on site.

The largest is Sutton Lake, a cooling pond now managed by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission that previously received unregulated discharges from three adjacent coal ash ponds. According to Frank Holleman with the Southern Environmental Law Center, however, the District court of Wilmington ruled last week that Sutton Lake is a Water of the United States, meaning it will no longer be an authorized site for unpermitted coal ash discharges and the adjacent coal ash ponds ponds must undergo frequent inspection.

Though I’ve lived the past five years away from home, I am from the Wilmington area. I spent a lot of time as a kid on the Cape Fear River in a boat with my parents. We would idle along, my dad showing me the spots where he used to camp, squirrel hunt and shoot mistletoe from tree canopies along the river. Eventually, I began kayaking to those places, exploring them for myself and venturing further downriver. While I was often surrounded by wild things, periodic sights of clear-cut forests and the distant red and white-striped smokestacks of the Sutton plant reminded me that development and pollution was not far off.

At first, I wasn’t aware that I was paddling a stone’s throw from Sutton Lake or the ash ponds. Unlike so many people, I had never been out on the lake; I had only seen the brown recreational boat ramp sign off Hwy. 421 and wondered what it was like. But on one occasion my dad and I were heading downriver admiring the giant cypress trees and we stopped at the river bank where there was a small gap in some pines. We scrambled up the riprap and debris and suddenly I realized what I was seeing — Sutton Lake.

Unlike Sutton Station, the lake is hidden by a stand of trees adjacent to the river. Vast and obviously man-made, it seemed such a stark environment; I couldn’t imagine that anyone would actually visit it recreationally — and I didn’t even know about the coal ash dumping there at this point. But people did visit. They still do. Like so many other lakes that serve as illegitimate or unregulated coal ash dump sites, Sutton is a popular fishing and boating site.

Why, when it looks nothing like a natural lake with its concrete retaining berms and gravel access roads on top of the berms and is polluted with heavy metals? I didn’t know about the nearby coal-fired power plant and coal ash ponds — and I grew up as a privileged, environmentally aware, English-speaking kid in the area. It’s a large body of water well stocked with bass, bluegill and a variety of other fish; on the surface, it appears normal. That’s my best guess as to why.

That’s how it’s been for a long time. Looking out over the pond that day, my dad said, “I used to fish here and now some people say that it’s bad. I didn’t know any better back then.” Despite the time that has passed, some people still believe it is safe to be on the lake, and worse, fish for subsistence. Today, contaminants like arsenic, chromium, boron and selenium exist in Sutton Lake. These toxins pose a major threat to fish and human health if consumed. While some fisherman catch-and-release, others, especially those from under-resourced and/or immigrant communities, don’t know better or don’t have an alternative — and that goes for fish caught in the river too. (While groundwater contamination affects people in close proximity and discharges affect people downriver, contaminated fish in the river are not stationary. Some species travel upriver to spawn, affecting plenty of people upriver from the waste sites.)

That’s what Kemp Burdette, the Lower Cape Fear Riverkeeper, shared with my dad, me and other Appalachian State University students during a “source-to-sea” kayak expedition I led two years ago. I was raised on fresh-caught freshwater fish and seafood, and despite having known about mercury levels in some fresh and saltwater fish, I couldn’t turn down fried catfish until Kemp told us that a woman shouldn’t eat catfish from the Cape Fear but once a year, and a pregnant woman — forget about it. At that moment I remember feeling such remorse for all of the people who had catfish lines trailing under low-hanging branches over the river, planning to take their catch home to their families, just as my dad used to do. And that doesn’t even account for the remorse I now feel for people across our state, nation and world seeking and finding their livelihood near coal ash ponds and other toxic waste sites.

Today, I know much more about coal ash and the associated threats. That counts for something. Today, my parents live about two miles upriver from the plant and the lake. No longer fishing in that area and having well water, they really aren’t at risk like so many others downriver in Flemmington Road, Navassa, Leland and other rural communities. But they know the risks. That counts for something. There are advocates inside and outside of communities — concerned local businessmen and women, children, parents, elders, hard laborers, fishermen, scientists, doctors and lawyers — that are challenging the corporate status quo and inadequate regulations that fail to protect their drinking water. That counts for something. And finally, our courts have listened and ruled to protect Sutton Lake from unpermitted discharges from Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds.

Of course, until the coal ash waste is moved into lined ponds, as required under the new state coal ash law, we’re still left with 135 acres of coal ash ponds at the Sutton site that constantly leach contaminants and are at risk for structural failure. That’s not to mention the 13 other contaminated coal ash storage sites across North Carolina, 10 of which are not prioritized for cleanup under the new law.

Prioritization is on the table, however. By December 2015, all coal ash storage sites must have a priority designation — which will determine pond closure and cleanup plans under the N.C. Coal Ash Management Commission’s watch. Maybe the Sutton reclassification as a Waters of the United States is only a small move toward environmental justice, but it gives me hope for the remaining coal ash sites in North Carolina, and more importantly, hope for the marginalized residents that bear witness to the injustice in their communities every day.

Same coal company, same old (illegal) tricks

Monday, November 17th, 2014 - posted by eric

“We do all those old tricks electronically now.” By Charles Barsotti.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That certainly seems to be the case with Frasure Creek Mining. Four years ago we took legal action against the company for submitting false water monitoring reports, and now they are at it again, but this time the false reporting is even more extensive. Almost 28,000 violations of the Clean Water Act in what is likely the largest non-compliance of the law in its 42-year history.

In 2010, Appalachian Voices and our partner organizations served Frasure Creek and International Coal Group (ICG) with a notice of our intent to sue them for submitting falsified pollution monitoring reports to Kentucky regulators. Back then, both companies were reusing the same quarterly reports, changing the dates on the reports but duplicating all the water monitoring data. The reports have changed from paper to electronic documents, but Frasure Creek’s practice of reusing them has returned.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed a slap-on-the-wrist settlement with the companies, writing off the duplications as “transcription errors” and effectively preventing our legal case from going forward. We challenged the settlement in state court and eventually reached an agreement with ICG, but not with Frasure Creek. We are still waiting on a decision in that case.

In the meantime, we discovered that Frasure Creek has been up to its old tricks. So today, we sent the company another notice of intent to sue for the new batch of duplicated reports.

Before our initial legal action, the companies rarely, if ever, submitted reports that showed violations of their pollution limits. As a result of our investigation, the companies hired new, more reputable labs and began reporting lots of pollution problems, making it clear that their false reports were covering up serious issues. We tried to sue Frasure Creek for these pollution violations, but the state reached another deal with the company, tying our hands.

Frasure Creek Mining reports only a few violations of their pollution limits when they are turning in false reports.

All of this raises one important question: Who would be stupid enough, or so utterly disdainful of federal law, to do the exact same thing they had gotten in trouble for before? One would think that it must have been an accident, because no one would ever purposefully do this again, but there are a few factors that seem to contradict that idea.

• In 2014, when Frasure reused data, it occasionally changed a little bit more than just the dates. There are a number of new duplications where the original report showed violations of pollution limits. All of the data in these reports was reused except for violations, which were replaced with a few very low numbers. (Personally, I am really looking forward to the convoluted tale that Frasure will tell to try to explain away these as “transcription errors.”)

• The new duplications are far too common to be made accidentally by someone who was putting any modicum of effort into their job. In the first quarter of 2014, the company submitted over 100 duplicated reports, so almost half of its reports that quarter were false. That’s almost three times the number of false reports it got caught for the first time around, and translates to almost $1 billion in potential fines.

• Frasure Creek isn’t afraid of getting caught because the consequences are extremely low. The state’s past settlements with the company have been too weak to discourage this type of false reporting, and in fact, may have given the company a sense of security. Under the Clean Water Act, the potential maximum fine per violation is $37,500. One of the state’s past settlements with Frasure Creek set automatic penalties of only $1,000 per violation. So interestingly, it’s when those penalties were in effect that Frasure Creek, submitted lots of duplicated reports, but only reported a handful of pollution violations. (See the period in the blue box on the graph.)

This is one of about 70 Frasure Creek Mining discharges that the company has been submitting duplicated water monitoring reports for.

Frasure Creek has about 60 coal mining permits across Eastern Kentucky, mostly for mountaintop removal mines. Most of the new reporting duplications occurred at mines in Floyd County, but some occurred at its mines in neighboring counties. Pollution from these mines flows into the Big Sandy, Licking and Kentucky rivers.

Frasure Creek may be a bad actor in the mining industry, but it’s not alone in this type of false reporting. A few years ago we took legal action against the three largest coal producers in Kentucky (including Frasure Creek), all of which were turning in false water monitoring reports produced by three different laboratories. In recent weeks there have been two criminal cases in West Virginia for false water monitoring, one at coal mines, and one for duplicating reports exactly like what has been going on here.

These pollution reports are the foundation of the Clean Water Act regulations. Without accurate reporting, it’s impossible for regulators to effectively protect the people and the environment from dangerous pollution. The fact that the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and the Environmental Protection Agency have done so little to stamp out false reporting in Kentucky is simply deplorable.

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

>> View The Notice of Intent to Sue here (.pdf)

>> View our Press Release here

Coal ash rule reaches White House for final review

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 - posted by brian
After four years of hand wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

After years of hand-wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

On Monday night, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a long-awaited rule to regulate the disposal and storage of coal ash to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review.

“We are pleased to see the draft rule move into the final phase of review needed for its release in December,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator.

“Having experienced the consequences of poor enforcement and weak or non-existent state regulations, North Carolina serves as a clear example of why states must have federal baseline standards for coal ash,” Adams says. “We must place our hope in the strength of the EPA rules and the resolve of the federal government to protect citizens from this toxic waste.”

Observers say the administration should have enough time to finalize the rule by the EPA’s court-ordered deadline of Dec. 19, which the agency apparently “fully expects” to meet.

Until then, however, we won’t know much about how far the rule will go to protect communities across the United States from coal ash pollution.

Infographic: The Truth About Coal Ash

At least for the next several weeks, the substance of the rule is still subject to change and there are a few different ways it could go. Environmental groups have for years pressured the EPA to regulate coal ash as the dangerous substance that it is. This option would classify coal ash as a hazardous waste under Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act. Utilities and other industries hope the rule will regulate coal ash under Subtitle D of RCRA, which emphasizes state oversight and enforcement through citizen lawsuits.

In both scenarios, the EPA says it won’t regulate the use of coal ash in concrete and other construction material, or as fill material — the latter will fall under the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s upcoming Mine Fill Rule. Beyond that, the description of the rule on OMB’s website offers little insight, which may be just how the White House wants it.

As Earthjustice’s Lisa Evans points out, the OMB review process is “a black box — opaque, inscrutable and exceedingly dangerous. Rules never come out the way they go in — the offices of OMB are littered with crumpled pages of strong rules gone soft after revision by the White House.”

Evans uses an example from 2009, when former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent the White House a plan to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste following the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Timeline: Five years after the TVA coal ash disaster, what do we have to show for it?

The EPA received more than 400,000 comments on the rule, and thousands attended public hearings to support stronger protections. But heavy lobbying by the coal and utility industries ultimately weakened the administration’s resolve.

Since then, the EPA hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about the status of the rule. In fact, had it not been for a lawsuit brought against the EPA by Earthjustice on behalf of Appalachian Voices and other environmental and public health groups last year, the timeline for a final rule might still be murky.

While unavoidable, Evans says the OMB review “introduces uncertainty at the end of a rulemaking process that must, by law, be based on science and transparency and governed by the requirements of the enabling statute.”

The evidence that coal ash poses significant risks to human health is abundant, and the need to do more could hardly be more urgent. The White House should listen to the thousands of citizens demanding strong protections against coal ash pollution.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to clean up coal ash.