Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

Thank God for our Kentucky newspapers

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators' lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky's politicians and agencies aren't shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Local newspapers in Kentucky have helped expose environmental regulators’ lax treatment of industry. But Kentucky’s politicians and agencies aren’t shy in revealing whose interests they truly serve either. Photo of downtown Whitesburg, Ky.

Earlier this year, former Kentucky state Rep. Keith Hall was convicted of bribing a state mine inspector while the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet looked the other way. It was only after the Lexington Herald-Leader revealed the bribery through an open records request that the FBI began an investigation.

Now, the Louisville Courier-Journal has uncovered a confidentiality agreement between the cabinet and Whitesburg, Ky.-based Childers Oil Company that would have kept secret a proposed lawsuit settlement between the cabinet and the oil company.

As Tom Loftus of the Courier-Journal writes, “The proposed settlement in the case against Childers Oil Co. contained a sweeping confidentiality clause in which cabinet officials agreed to seal the settlement and ‘forever remain silent at all times and places and under all circumstances’ regarding all aspects of the settlement — even the existence of the settlement itself.”

The Courier-Journal, and subsequently the public, only found out about the agreement because a judge was required to reject it since it had not been signed by the cabinet’s lawyer.

The lawsuit stems from a February 2011 incident in which Childers Oil Company, owned by Whitesburg businessman Don Childers, leaked diesel fuel into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The fuel made it into the city’s water supply, triggering a three-day water advisory. Many residents were not immediately notified of the chemical’s presence in the water supply. Businesses and restaurants were critically impacted by the leak.

As a resident of Whitesburg with a vested interest in seeing my community transition to a sustainable economy independent of the region’s collapsing coal industry, this is especially troubling. This month two restaurants and a moonshine distillery opened their doors in our community. It isn’t hard to see how incidents like the 2011 diesel spill and future water advisories — they occur with frightening regularity here — make it hard for institutions to do business.

But even more importantly is what this says about the agencies that are supposed to be looking out for our health and safety. As my colleague Evan Smith told the Courier-Journal:

The most important danger that comes from this is not what’s actually in the water, it’s the public perception that you can’t trust what comes out of your pipe and what the government is doing to protect the water. And when you’ve got confidential settlements that look like sweetheart deals, it further erodes the public’s trust in our government’s process and ability for protecting our drinking water.

This point was driven home at a recent public hearing in Lexington on the proposed Stream Protection Rule. I listened in amazement as state Rep. Jim Gooch decried the rule — which is aimed at cutting down on the amount of mining waste dumped into streams — as pointless and unnecessary because, according to Gooch, “the biggest threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky is straight piping.”

By “straight piping,” Gooch is referring to the act of running a sewage line directly from a house to a creek, rather than a municipal sewage system or septic tank. This is very common in topographically rugged and economically distressed areas like eastern Kentucky.

And Gooch wasn’t the wasn’t the only one blaming Kentuckians for their water quality problems. Multiple politicians at this hearing claimed that the “trash and litter problem” was a greater threat to the region’s streams than industrial pollution.

This isn’t particularly surprising. Misleading rhetoric about the “true threats” to ecological and human health gets peddled every time new regulations threaten the coal industry’s bottom line. What’s truly egregious here is that Jim Gooch is the chair of the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee. His comments display a shocking disconnect from what’s actually going on on the ground in eastern Kentucky.

While it is true that straight piping is a significant threat to water quality in eastern Kentucky, it’s dangerous to assume that phenomena like straight piping and litter, as opposed to diesel spills and mining pollution, are entirely separate issues. Separating them out and assigning them arbitrary prioritization conveniently diverts attention away from the issue at hand. The need to address one problem in no way diminishes the need to address the other.

But these diversion tactics are quite lucrative. A follow-up investigation by the Courier-Journal revealed that Don Childers, a registered Republican, and others affiliated with Childers Oil Co. donated a combined $4,000 to the Kentucky Democratic Party while Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration was negotiating its secret settlement with the company.

Sadly, whether it’s agreeing to secret settlement deals over diesel spills or blaming Kentucky citizens for their water quality problems, these politicians and the agencies they oversee reveal whose interests they truly serve: those of the fossil fuel industry.

Citizen stories counter coal industry deception

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015 - posted by willie
Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va.

Citizens sign up to speak at a public hearing on the Stream Protection Rule in Big Stone Gap, Va., where clean water advocates argued for stronger protections and coal industry representatives relied on deception to rally against the rule.

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released a draft of its Stream Protection Rule, a long-awaited regulation aimed at reducing the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Along with coalfield community members and allied organizations, Appalachian Voices is asking the agency to close loopholes in the rule that state agencies might exploit, allowing coal companies to continue polluting our streams. We are also pushing for clear language in the final rule that states citizens may enforce water quality standards under the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act.

TAKE ACTION: Urge the Office of Surface Mining to strengthen the draft Stream Protection Rule.

As part of its rule-making process, OSM held six public hearings across the nation in order to gather comments from stakeholders and impacted residents. Only two hearings were held in the central Appalachian coalfields; one in Big Stone Gap, Va., and another in Charleston, W.Va.

The hearing in Big Stone Gap provides a glimpse into how the whole series of hearings played out. About 250 people were present at the hearing, which took place on the evening of Sept. 15. At 6 p.m., U.S. Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia’s 9th district, the first speaker of the evening, approached the podium. Griffith did not address any details of the Stream Protection Rule in his comments, and he provided no tangible evidence of whether or not it would achieve its intended effect. Instead, Griffith seized the opportunity to spout “war on coal” rhetoric and to accuse the rule’s supporters of caring more about mayflies than human beings.

Concluding his comments after five minutes, Rep. Griffith was on his way out of the building when Wise County resident Jane Branham confronted him and asked him to stay and listen to what his constituents had to say. Griffith declined this invitation and left promptly at 6:11 p.m.

Had Rep. Griffith stayed, he would have heard Mary Darcy from Wise who said:

Despite rules and laws, tons of waste are dumped into these waterways regularly. How does this happen? Do the states not enforce clean water regulations? Do our elected representatives turn their backs on the needs of the people with something as critical as water?

Darcy was not the only speaker to call out state agencies for repeatedly failing to enforce regulations. Diana Withen, a local high school biology teacher, implored the OSM to include clear language allowing for citizen monitoring and enforcement, stating, “We know that government budgets are tight and that regulatory agencies are going to continue to face budget cuts in the future. So allowing concerned citizens to help monitor the water quality in our streams makes sense.”

A reconstructed "stream" below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

A reconstructed “stream” below a surface mine in Central Appalachia. The Stream Protection Rule is intended to safeguard streams and people by reining in the ravages of mountaintop removal.

Countering the many citizens who spoke up for clean water were the numerous coal industry representatives that railed against the rule. But instead of addressing the rule’s content, they expended a great deal of time and energy accusing the Office of Surface Mining and President Obama of deliberately attacking coal mining for political gain.

Scott Barton, a mine superintendent at Murray Energy’s Harrison County Mine in northern West Virginia, argued that the Obama administration “hides behind the myth of global warming to justify it’s job destroying agenda. Everyone in the coal industry knows this is a lie.”

Other pro-industry, anti-regulatory speakers described the rule as a “weapon of mass destruction,” the “nuclear option” and “the last nail in the crucifixion of the coal industry.” Sadly, preference on the part of the industry and politicians for rhetoric over substance was not unique to the Big Stone Gap hearing. Much more of the same could be heard at each of the five other hearings in Charleston, Denver, Lexington Ky., Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

The public comment period for the draft Stream Protection Rule has been extended in response to industry requests and will now remain open until Oct. 26. Click here to add your voice.

Stay informed by subscribing to The Front Porch Blog.

Clean Water Laws Wrestle With Coal

Friday, September 4th, 2015 - posted by molly

Formidable Costs

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

Coal Company Conducts Business as Usual Near Kanawha State Forest

By Tarence Ray

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. A recent inspection recorded pH values between 3 and 4, which is 100 to 1,000 times more acidic than allowed by law. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. A recent inspection recorded pH values between 3 and 4, which is 100 to 1,000 times more acidic than allowed by law. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Seven miles south of Charleston, W.Va., sits a 9,300-acre expanse of trails, streams and wildlife known as the Kanawha State Forest. The forest’s diverse wildflower and bird species attract naturalists from all over the region, and trails and fully-equipped campgrounds bring in a variety of visitors, from mountain bikers and campers to students on field trips.

When Keystone Industries applied to open a 413-acre mountaintop removal coal mine adjacent to the forest in spring 2014, concern for the land’s recreational and ecological diversity prompted outrage from West Virginians. During the mine’s permitting process, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources received 180 comments from the general public. Every single one of them opposed the mine.

The state’s Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged some of these concerns when reviewing Keystone’s permit for the KD #2 mine. According to a statement from the DEP, the agency included provisions in the permit that would have minimized the mine’s impact on tourism and water quality. These provisions required that a ridge facing the forest be mined last, that the buffer between the mining and the forest would be increased, and that blasting would be prohibited during times of heavy forest usage, such as holidays and weekends.

But many residents in the area still had questions. Daile Boulis lives roughly 2,000 feet from the mine in the small community of Loudendale, five miles south of the state’s capital, Charleston. Her house faces the state forest, and she relies on well water. During the January 2014 Charleston water crisis, when a chemical spill contaminated Elk River and the city water supply, residents of the city came to her house to shower and fill jugs with fresh water.

Boulis first heard about the Keystone mine through a local news affiliate’s coverage of the permit on Facebook. “This thing pops up on my newsfeed with a map of the mine,” she says. “I’m looking at the map and I’m thinking, wait a minute, I think that’s my house right there!”

Many of Boulis’ and her neighbor’s anxieties about the mine centered on water quality and flooding. In 2003 the community of Loudendale experienced a horrific flood. Houses were lost; one person was killed. Because of the increased risks of flooding associated with mountaintop removal, and because Loudendale is located in a narrow valley that is already prone to flooding, the trauma of this experience resurfaced when the KD #2 permit was approved. “We were so concerned about water that we had to remind [our neighbors] that we were [also] going to have to worry about air quality.”

Since the DEP approved the permit in May 2014, the mine has accumulated more than 20 violations — many of them water-related — as well as three cessation-of-work orders. Many of these violations are water quality issues that are not easily mitigated, such as the orange-tinted acid drainage that runs off of many mine sites in the Appalachian coalfields. Despite the DEP’s attempts to create a buffer between the KD #2 mine and the forest’s watershed, acid mine runoff from the mine is now contaminating the nearby Davis Creek watershed.

“This [was] the tightest, best-written permit in the state of West Virginia — which for me, that single sentence is probably the scariest description [of the KD #2 mine],” says Boulis, referring to the fact that the state’s heightened scrutiny still could not prevent the amount of subsequent violations.

Jim Waggy and his colleagues at the grassroots Kanawha Forest Coalition were fully aware of the danger to the forest’s watershed when the permit was issued. At a WVDEP Surface Mine Board hearing in August 2014, Waggy and Doug Wood, a retired DEP water quality specialist, testified to the company’s prior history, as well as the potential water quality issues at the site. “[The agency’s] response was, ‘well we can’t just say there might be acid mine drainage problems,’” Waggy says.

In light of the 20-plus violations that the company has amassed since the mine opened, Waggy is dismayed by the agency’s dismissive attitude. “You would think that with this being such a controversial permit and with so much attention focused on it that the companies would have been so careful to follow the rules and to engage in the best practices possible,” Waggy says. “But apparently the companies are just so accustomed to bending or ignoring the rules — and getting away with it — that that’s how they behaved on this site as well.”

In June 2015, the amount of violations, in addition to political pressure and water monitoring efforts from citizens, finally forced the state’s hand. The DEP halted work at the mine, and placed Keystone and its operator, Revelation Energy, on the federal Office of Surface Mining’s Applicant Violator System. Inclusion in this nationwide database forbids them from holding another mining permit in the nation until the WVDEP approves their plans to mitigate the environmental problems on the site. This does not necessarily mean that Keystone could lose its KD #2 permit — but there is always that possibility.

Revoking Keystone’s permit would not repair the environmental damages that have already occurred. In fact, the evidence seems to indicate that a great deal of the damage is permanent. As Waggy noted in a Charleston Gazette editorial, “The citizens of West Virginia will have to choose between accepting a biologically degraded watershed or paying the formidable costs of perpetual water treatment.”

But despite the scrutiny the DEP has given to this mine, when asked if the more rigorous KD #2 permit process would have an effect on how the agency issues future mining permits in the state, a DEP spokesperson responded, “While the agency is always looking to improve how it operates, there is nothing about this particular situation that would warrant an immediate change in procedures.”

For residents in the more rural and economically distressed areas of the state, the lack of legal resources, time and political capital to hold the DEP and the companies it permits accountable continues to be a problem. Because the KD #2 mine is not far from relatively affluent neighborhoods in the greater Charleston area, Waggy says, “There is a very strong feeling that if other [mountaintop removal] sites in West Virginia were given the same level of attention and scrutiny, a large majority — if not all of them — would reveal the same degree of acid drainage and environmental impact.”

Yet Daile Boulis remains determined to fight back against what she perceives as the coal industry’s indifference to West Virginia’s communities. “I don’t deserve to be treated like a cost of business,” she says. “In fact I refuse to be treated as a cost of doing business.”

Clean Water Laws Wrestle With Coal

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 - posted by molly

By Molly Moore

America’s clean water laws have hampered the coal industry to varying degrees for decades, with the strength of various laws often determined by political winds. The effectiveness of the Clean Water Act and other laws often depends on whether the regulations reflect the latest advances in science and technology, and whether state and federal agencies have the will and resources to enforce the rules. That saga continues today.

Acid mine drainage flows from a mountaintop removal coal mine into Looney Creek in Wise County, Va.

Acid mine drainage flows from a mountaintop removal coal mine into Looney Creek in Wise County, Va.

Acid Mine Drainage

What: Mining exposes metal sulfides to air and water, which react to form acidic discharges. Affected water can harm or kill aquatic life and is not safe for recreation or drinking.
Where: Generated by surface and underground coal mines — both active and inactive — as well as hardrock mines.
It’s Still Happening: Acid mine drainage was among the 2015 water-quality violations at the KD #2 mountaintop removal mine in West Virginia.
The Law: The Clean Water Act and Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act require that waterways meet state and federal water quality standards.
The Problem: The Clean Water Act allows mining companies to declare that a natural body of water is not a legally protected waterway but is instead a “waste treatment system,” exempt from the law. In 2002, a change to the Clean Water Act allowed companies to begin using untreated mining waste as construction “fill material.” Also, state enforcement of the federal surface mining law is inconsistent, and acid mine drainage can begin decades after mining ceases, which can leave state governments responsible for cleanup.


What: A mineral necessary for life in extremely small amounts, but even low levels of contamination can harm or kill aquatic life.
Where: Affects ground and surface water near coal mines and coal ash ponds.
It’s Still Happening: In a landmark 2012 settlement, Patriot Coal Corp. agreed to phase out its use of mountaintop removal coal mining in order to resolve $400 million in liability for selenium pollution cleanup in West Virginia.
The Law: The Clean Water Act and Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act require that companies cannot pollute in excess of state and federal water quality standards.
The Problem: In 2013, Kentucky adopted weaker state selenium standards approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Appalachian Voices and partner organizations filed a lawsuit challenging Kentucky’s changes. And in May 2014, the EPA proposed a new federal standard that is less protective of aquatic life than the current standard.

Total Maximum Daily Loads

What: The amount of a pollutant that a waterway can tolerate while meeting water quality standards.
Where: TMDLs can be calculated for any pollutant in any impaired waterway.
It’s Still Happening: Virginia regulators set a TMDL for the South Fork Pound River. Citizens groups, including Appalachian Voices, alleged in a 2014 lawsuit that four mines owned by Red River Coal Company were violating their permits because the company’s discharges exceeded the TMDL for the entire watershed.
The Law: The Clean Water Act requires that states keep a list of impaired waterways and calculate how much of each pollutant each of those water bodies can safely handle.
The Problem: Many states have not completed their TMDL obligations. Kentucky, for example, had only assessed a quarter of state rivers and streams as of 2012. Of those, 67 percent were impaired, but officials set TMDLs for just 11 percent of those streams.

Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices collects a sample from Fields Creek following the 2014 slurry spill. Testing revealed high levels of contaminants including MCHM.

Erin Savage of Appalachian Voices collects a sample from Fields Creek following the 2014 slurry spill. Testing revealed high levels of contaminants including MCHM.

Coal Slurry

What: Sludge leftover from washing coal, this mixture consists of water, coal dust, clay and chemicals, and includes toxic heavy metals.
Where: Stored in massive, often unlined impoundments, and has also been injected into underground mines. Leaches into ground and surface water.
It’s Still Happening: Studies from 2012 show that underground slurry injections contaminated drinking water in Prenter, W.Va. In 2013, the Brushy Fork slurry impoundment was permitted to increase its capacity to 8.5 billion gallons. And in 2014, more than 100,000 gallons of slurry spilled into Fields Creek at a West Virginia coal processing plant.
The Law: The Mining Safety and Health Administration is responsible for the structural safety of a slurry impoundment, and the Clean Water Act requires state and federal enforcement of water quality standards.
The Problem: State and federal enforcement of water pollution standards can be weak and intermittent, and MSHA-inspected impoundments have failed in the past, raising concerns about dam stability.

An unlined coal ash pond at the now-shuttered Riverbend Steam Plant in Mt. Holly, N.C. Toxic seeps from the ash ponds are contaminating nearby groundwater.

An unlined coal ash pond at the now-shuttered Riverbend Steam Plant in Mt. Holly, N.C. Toxic seeps from the ash ponds are contaminating nearby groundwater.

Coal Ash

What: The waste left over from burning coal for electricity, coal ash contains 25 heavy metals and other chemicals.
Where: Often mixed with water and other industrial waste and stored in unlined impoundments near power plants, but can also be kept dry and stored in landfills. Dry ash contributes to air pollution, and liquid storage can infiltrate ground and surface water.
It’s Still Happening: Contamination of groundwater has occurred near all of North Carolina’s coal ash ponds. Between April and mid-July of 2015, the state health department deemed 301 wells near coal ash ponds unfit to drink (see map). Duke Energy denies that the contamination is related to its ash ponds. Read about the experience of one woman living near coal ash.
The Law: The EPA established the first federal regulations for coal ash in 2014. North Carolina passed its own regulations earlier that year following an impoundment failure that dumped 39,000 tons of ash into the Dan River.
The Problem: Federal rules do not classify coal ash as a hazardous waste. States are not required to adopt the EPA’s new standards, nor are those standards federally enforceable. The federal rule also leaves much of the responsibility for identifying coal ash contamination and seeking legal protection to citizens.

Power Plant Wastewater

What: Wastewater from coal-fired power plants includes heavy metals, carcinogens, neurotoxins and other pollutants.
Where: Rivers, streams, lakes and ponds near coal-fired power plants. Comprises half of all industrial surface water pollution, and contributes to problems such as high mercury and lead levels in fish.
It’s Still Happening: From 2008 to 2011, Eden, N.C., noticed harmful trihalomethanes in city drinking water. Investigation revealed that a nearby coal-fired power plant was releasing bromides into the Dan River, which react with water-treatment chemicals to form trihalomethanes — compounds linked to bladder cancer. In June 2015, Duke Energy settled with Eden and a nearby town.
The Law: Under the Clean Water Act, EPA regulates industrial pollution of surface water, and sets maximum levels for contaminants in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The Problem: The rules governing power plant wastewater were last updated in 1982, and do not regulate heavy metals and a range of other pollutants. In April 2013, the EPA proposed a range of scenarios for updated regulations — two would lead to a 96% reduction in pollution, while others include modest reductions in some pollutants and no reduction in arsenic and lead levels. The agency intends to finalize the rules by Sept. 30, 2015 and is currently accepting public comments. Submit a comment here.

Read about the newly released draft of the Stream Protection Rule here.

Proposed Stream Protection Rule Released

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Erin Savage

Polluted water runs off a surface mine valley fill in eastern Kentucky. Photo by Matt Wasson

Polluted water runs off a surface mine valley fill in eastern Kentucky. Photo by Matt Wasson

The agency responsible for regulating surface coal mining across the country released a proposed Stream Protection Rule on July 16, which is intended to limit mining impacts on streams.

The long-awaited rule is not the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s first attempt to control the effects of surface mining on public waterways.

Currently, a 1983 Stream Buffer Zone Rule regulates mining within 100 feet of streams. In practice, the ‘83 rule allows mining activities such as filling streams with waste rock. A 2008 revision attempted to clarify circumstances under which streams could be filled, but was vacated by a federal court for violating the Endangered Species Act. This reinstated the 1983 rule.

The newly proposed rule states that it attempts to revise regulations to “improve the balance between environmental protection and the Nation’s need for coal as a source of energy.” Community and environmental groups have criticized the proposal for failing to end the construction of valley fills and other mining activities that can heavily impact water quality.

In central Appalachia, where steep terrain and a high concentration of streams make water quality impacts from mining more difficult to avoid, the rule would have its greatest effect. Overall, the rule would clarify protections given to streams during the mining process, and provide more detail about when states may grant exceptions to those protections. It would also increase baseline data collection for water quality, include provisions that increase the likelihood that mined land would be reclaimed as forest, and mandate more stringent bonding requirements for coal companies.

Despite these changes, the rule would allow mountaintop removal mining to continue.

“This proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect streams and communities,” says Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley. “In the final rule, the Obama Administration should change course and preserve the buffer that protects streams from direct mining damage.”

The coal industry is critical of the rule’s potential impact on coal jobs. The Office of Surface Mining’s analysis examines a range of potential employment outcomes. Most scenarios predict almost no job loss over a 21-year time period due to jobs created through compliance with the rule. Worst-case scenarios predict a net job loss of roughly 120 jobs over the same period.

The agency will host public hearings on the proposed rule in Pittsburgh, Pa., Lexington, Ky., St. Louis, Mo., Charleston, W.Va., and Denver, Colo. Dates have not been announced. Appalachian Voices and other environmental groups are drafting input on the rule and plan to collaborate with impacted communities in the public comment process over the next several months.

A moment of truth for Kentucky’s coal regulators

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes.

A striking case of corruption related to mine inspections in Kentucky led to the recent criminal conviction of former Democratic state representative Keith Hall. But questions remain about how deep the conspiracy goes. Photo from LRC (Ky.) Public Information.

In June 2013, mine operator and Kentucky state representative Keith Hall went to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with a complaint.

Kelly Shortridge, a mine inspector with the Division of Mine Enforcement and Reclamation in Pikeville, had been soliciting Hall for bribes to ignore violations on Hall’s Pike County surface mines.

Hall told two cabinet officials that he had already paid Shortridge “a small fortune,” and that the mine inspector “liked the Benjamins.” A report was drawn up, forwarded to the cabinet’s investigator general and Secretary Len Peters, and went nowhere.

The FBI began investigating the matter when the Lexington Herald-Leader published Hall’s complaint report through an open records request. In June, Hall was found guilty of bribing Shortridge to ignore Hall’s safety and environmental violations.

During the trial, the bureau submitted evidence that strongly suggests Keith Hall was not the only operator paying Kelly Shortridge. Shortridge himself has admitted to taking bribes from other Pike County operators.

So how deep does the conspiracy go? That’s the question many are asking in the wake of Hall’s trial. The Herald-Leader published a recent editorial that pointed out the familiar territory here:

This is not the first time questions have arisen about the Pikeville office of the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement where Shortridge, an inspector for 24 years, worked.

Other Pikeville-based inspectors allowed a surface mine (not owned by Hall) to operate without a permit for 18 months, until July 2010, when rain dislodged the unreclaimed mountain and flooded out about 80 families. One of the inspectors retired a month later.

Remember, too, that the division went years without penalizing coal companies for filing bogus water pollution reports by copying and pasting the same data, month after month.

This falsified water pollution data was only discovered after a coalition of environmental and citizen groups including Appalachian Voices discovered water monitoring reports that the department had neglected to review for over three years. The fact that the FBI had to find out about Hall’s allegations by reading the newspaper – and not through the cabinet itself – reveals a similar pattern of negligence.

How committed is the cabinet to enforcing Kentucky’s environmental and safety regulations around mining? The answer may lie in the phenomenally small salary that the state was paying Shortridge at the time of his 2014 resignation: $45,160 a year.

This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it speaks volumes about how our regulatory systems function, what they prioritize, and what motivates the individuals who operate within them. Shortridge was using his small salary, in addition to the bribes he was taking from Hall and others, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. It’s impossible to speculate about his personal character, but it does seem clear that he was responding to a specific set of material conditions in a way that most individuals on that kind of salary – and in that kind of position – very likely would.

Without much incentive to enforce existing regulations, and knowing that it pays more to cozy up to the industry than to fight it, we really must ask: how many other Kelly Shortridges are out there? This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask of a regulatory system that, at best, lacks the political capital and material resources to enforce violations, and, at worst, is overseen by the very mine operators it’s supposed to be regulating. (Before being voted out of office in 2014, Keith Hall was the vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.)

Finally, Keith Hall’s remark that Kelly Shortridge “liked the Benjamins” – an incredibly condescending statement from a man who once appropriated his own county’s coal severance tax to the benefit of one of his companies – is revelatory. It hints that there are boundaries to what is and what isn’t acceptable within relationships between the coal industry and the state: Shortridge was getting ambitious; his greed was somehow different than Hall’s. Keep in mind that this was confessed to two cabinet officials, mob-style, as if Shortridge was breaking a set of established rules. Hall needed Shortridge until he didn’t, and then sold him down the river when he became an annoyance.

Now that they’re both paying for breaking the rules, will Governor Steve Beshear’s administration adequately investigate further possible corruption? It unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

As the Herald-Leader editorial notes, “This should be a moment of truth, but history tells us not to expect an aggressive self-examination of the state agency’s love affair with the coal industry.”

Stay informed by subscribing to The Front Porch Blog.

Interior Department Issues Draft Stream Protection Rule

Thursday, July 16th, 2015 - posted by brian

Contact: Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373,

Today, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued a long-awaited draft of the Stream Protection Rule, which the agency has been working on since 2010. The purpose of the rule is to prevent or minimize the impacts of surface coal mining on surface water and groundwater. The agency’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement to accompany the draft rule includes several alternative options, some of which include sections that are stronger than the agency’s preferred alternative.

The following is a statement from Thom Kay, Appalachian Voices’ Legislative Associate.

“The people of Central Appalachia have waited a long time for robust federal action to protect their streams and communities from the damages of surface coal mining. At first glance, the draft appears to improve some drastically outdated provisions of an ineffective rule. But it’s not worth cheering for the rule as long as it allows companies to continue dumping their mining waste in our streams.

“Despite the regional coal industry’s decline, existing surface mines have been expanding closer and closer to homes, continuing to put the health of local communities at risk.

“We will continue working with citizens to ensure the agency’s final rule presents the strongest possible protections.

“When finalized, this rule will largely define President Obama’s legacy on the ongoing tragedy of mountaintop removal coal mining.”

>> Read our blog post from yesterday: How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?
>> Read a brief overview of the Stream Protection Rule.
>> OSM’s press release about the rule with further links.

How much progress are we making on ending mountaintop removal?

Wednesday, July 15th, 2015 - posted by Erin
Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration pointed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. But much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that surface coal production nationwide decreased about 21 percent between 2008 and 2014, while production from surface mines that include mountaintop removal mining in three central Appalachian states had decreased 62 percent.

At first, this seems like a huge win in the fight against mountaintop removal mining, a practice that is devastating to community health and the environment, and yields few jobs compared to traditional mining practices. While it is a step in the right direction, declining production is not a sufficient measure of the ongoing human and environmental impacts of mountaintop removal.

Closer examination of the data calls into question the adequacy of the legal definition of “mountaintop removal” and, more importantly, demonstrates that much more work is needed to truly end destructive mining practices in Central Appalachia.

First, let’s look at the numbers reported by the EIA. The post, published on the agency’s Today In Energy blog, opens by saying, “Coal production from mines with mountaintop removal (MTR) permits has declined since 2008, more than the downward trend in total U.S. coal production.” While this is true, comparing the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in nationwide surface production (62 and 21 percent, respectively) gives the false impression that mountaintop removal, in particular, is on its way out. However, when you compare the decline in mountaintop removal production to the decline in surface mine production only for Central Appalachia, the picture looks much different: surface mine production in Central Appalachia has declined by 55 percent from 2008 to 2014.

With this new information, it becomes apparent that mountaintop removal production has not declined much more than surface mining on the whole in Central Appalachia. Given the similarity, we can attribute the decline in mountaintop removal largely to the same market forces that are leading to a decline in all coal mining in Central Appalachia.

The EIA report also relies on the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act’s (SMCRA) narrow definition of what constitutes mountaintop removal mining — essentially, a surface mine “running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill” that is exempt from returning the land to “approximate original contour” because the new land use is intended to be of equal or better economic or public value. The problem with this definition of mountaintop removal is that many Central Appalachian surface mines that cross ridgelines and employ many of the same problematic practices — large-scale blasting, mining through streams, and valley filling — are not, under SMCRA’s narrow definition, considered mountaintop removal mines.

The reality on the ground is that the rugged terrain of Central Appalachia makes it difficult to conduct any large-scale surface mine without mining across a ridgeline. Take for example the recently permitted Jim Justice-owned surface mine in McDowell County, W.Va. The Big Creek Surface Mine certainly cross multiple ridgelines and will construct a valley fill within half a mile of a Head Start preschool, yet this mine is not considered a mountaintop removal mine by either the federal government or the state of West Virginia. Furthermore, the valley fill does not require a 404 permit under the Clean Water Act, as it is not being constructed in public waters of the United States.

These facts mean there is little the local community, largely unsupportive of the mine, can do to stop it. Additionally, reclamation of the site requires that the company return the land to its “approximate original contour.” That phrase has never been clearly defined, however, so the land will be returned to a much lower elevation, lacking the fully functioning forest and ecosystems present before mining.

Another issue is that measuring mountaintop removal only by production and permit designation does not lead to a full accounting of the destruction done to the land as a whole.

Back in April, Appalachian Voices undertook a mapping analysis to look at how surface mines are impacting local communities. We had noticed that, even though mining is declining in the region, we are still regularly contacted by impacted residents. So we set out to determine if surface mining was moving closer to communities, and through our Communities at Risk project, we confirmed that mines are in fact encroaching even more on local residents.

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on

A view of the Communities at Risk mapping tool. Click to explore the map on

To complete this analysis, we identified surface mines across the region using satellite imagery and other data to differentiate between mining and non-mining areas. We excluded areas less than 25,000 square meters. This left us with a map layer of large surface mines, including mountaintop removal mines (whether designated as such by any government agencies, or not), across the region.

This data set is useful not only for our Communities at Risk tool, but also for other analysis on the trends in surface mining in Central Appalachia over time. Using this map, we determined the current amount of land disturbance due to mining — basically any area that is barren due to active mining, recently idled or abandoned mines, or mines not yet reclaimed — has declined from 148,000 acres in 2008 to 89,000 acres in 2014.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly compare yearly production numbers to the number of acres disturbed to yield that production. Land within a surface mine is constantly being shifted, blown up, backfilled, and regraded. Basically, not all barren areas are actively producing coal at any given time. Many areas stay barren for years, while other areas of the mine are producing coal (despite legal requirements for contemporaneous reclamation).

The comparison we can make is that the amount of currently barren land is not falling as fast as production numbers. The extent of surface mined area (whether active, idled, or just unreclaimed) has declined about 40 percent, while production from Central Appalachian surface mines has declined 55 percent.

Essentially, we have more unreclaimed land in 2014, per ton of coal produced in 2014, than in previous years. This is likely due to a number of factors:

  • As thinner, deeper seams are mined, more land must be disturbed per ton of production;
  • Recently, mines have been idled, or even bond-forfeited due to market pressures; and
  • Reclamation is a slow and expensive process.

Mathew Louis-Rosenburg, a West Virginia resident, sums up the problem of only considering the EIA numbers without on-the-ground context:

“On the ground, we measure [mountaintop removal] in acres lost, in water contaminated, communities harmed. The steep decline in surface mine productivity means that a lot more land is being disturbed to get that smaller tonnage and idled mines still contaminate water at a similar rate to active ones. The battle here is far from over and stories like this just lead more and more resources and support to leave the region because people from elsewhere think that we have won already.”

It is beyond time for the Obama administration to take action to end destructive surface mining across Central Appalachia. We are hopeful that a strong Stream Protection Rule will go a long way toward protecting the streams and the people of the region. The Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act (H.R. 912) could also go a long way in protecting communities from health impacts confirmed by mounting scientific evidence.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of success on either of these actions decreases every time misleading evidence suggests this problem has gone away. You can help prevent this by telling the Obama administration to end mountaintop removal and by keeping this conversation going among a national audience. We owe that to the people of Central Appalachia.

Ison Rock Ridge and land ownership in Appalachia

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Ison Rock Ridge was one of the "most endangered mountains" in America, until the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a mountaintop removal permit that would have obliterated approximately 1,300 acres of mountainous terrain in Wise County, Va. Map from

Ison Rock Ridge was one of the “most endangered mountains” in America, until the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy denied a mountaintop removal permit that would have obliterated approximately 1,300 acres of mountainous terrain in Wise County, Va. Map from

Earlier this year, our friends at Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards celebrated a major victory.

The long campaign to defeat the Ison Rock Ridge mountaintop removal mining permit in Southwest Virginia came to an end after Jim Justice’s A&G Coal Corp. did not appeal a decision by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy to deny the permit.

The now-defeated Ison Rock Ridge mine would have destroyed approximately 1,200 acres in Wise County, Va. The mine site would have threatened five communities: Inman, Andover, Arno, Derby and the Town of Appalachia. And the ridge itself is one of the last areas surrounding those communities that has not been destroyed by mountaintop removal. In other words, this was a huge win.

Victory was won over eight years of hard work through local organizing and legal appeal — our friends at SAMS deserve a well-earned congratulations. It’s certainly time to celebrate this victory, but we can’t let our guard down just yet.

While the imminent threat of mining is past, the land on Ison Rock Ridge is still owned by an absentee landholding company that’s in the business of leasing out its land to coal operators for mountaintop removal. So even though the DMME denied the permit, there’s nothing stopping A&G Coal or another company from submitting an application to mine the threatened mountain.

With coal prices in the gutter, many mines operating at a loss, and local Alpha Natural Resources’ finances in shambles, it’s unlikely that any company is racing to submit a new application. But that could change in a relatively short period of time if current market or regulatory conditions shift, which they do often.

The Ison Rock Ridge victory brings us back to the complicated and perennial issue of land ownership in Appalachia. Approximately 45 percent of the land in Wise County is owned by corporate landholding entities, according the county’s economic development director, Carl Snodgrass.

This isn’t a new development, and it’s not unique to coal-bearing counties in Appalachia. Still, much of our region’s resource-rich land was snatched up in the decades after the Civil War when coal reserves were first being discovered and mined. Ever since, companies whose only interest is to make as much money as possible by extracting the region’s natural resources have had control.

So while the issue of outside land ownership is nothing new, there’s an increasing number of people, including some elected officials, who are starting a renewed call for land reform.

The growing movement for economic diversification across Appalachia is creating the space for public discussion of this and other hard questions. And as more and more localities see the light of diversification, there will be a groundswell of citizens and leaders throughout the mountains calling for land reform.

Stay up to date. Subscribe to The Front Porch Blog.