Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

Coal ash controversy continues in North Carolina

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Hannah Petersen

A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality's risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state.

A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state. Click to enlarge.

UPDATE: As of June 22, North Carolina lawmakers had taken no further action on legislation related to coal ash cleanup in the state.

On May 18, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the rankings for Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments across the state following 15 public hearings throughout March.

Eight sites are classified “high priority,” meaning the impoundments must be closed and the toxic ash excavated and moved to a lined landfill by 2019. Duke has already agreed to fully excavate these sites. The remaining 25 were ranked intermediate and must be closed and excavated by 2024. It will be Duke’s decision as to whether the intermediate sites’ ash remains on Duke property or is moved to sites such as those in Chatham or Lee counties.

But those rankings could still change. DEQ requested a change to the state law governing coal ash disposal and asked the General Assembly for an 18-month extension during which Duke Energy can take action to remediate issues such as dam deficiencies, one of the key factors leading to the intermediate classifications.

DEQ officials also say that providing water to communities around the impoundments will alleviate drinking water quality concerns, another key factor. Giving Duke 18 months to make these changes would likely cause DEQ to reclassify the sites, opening the door for Duke to cap ponds in place. Citizens living near coal ash sites disagree with DEQ’s suggestion.

“Residents are angered that DEQ is already asking the legislature to consider changing the coal ash law in 18 months, likely creating further delays and loopholes,” according to The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash — a coalition of community members directly impacted by the state’s coal ash.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, an independent commission is required to approve DEQ’s rankings within 60 days. But that commission no longer exists. In March, Gov. McCrory disbanded the state Coal Ash Management Commission after the state Supreme Court found commission appointment process encroached on the executive branch’s power.

Citizens waitiing for clean water

On May 24, however, the legislature announced that it was currently revising Senate Bill 71 to reestablish the commission and provide future regulation for coal ash cleanup. Under the current writing of the bill the commission would have seven members, five of whom would be appointed by McCrory. Duke would have to provide water to residents within half a mile of coal ash impoundments. And if the appointed commission does not approve of the rankings within 120 days after recommendations, the rankings would be rejected.

The bill could relieve Duke from the responsibility of excavating coal ash threatening the water quality and harming nearby residents by causing air quality concerns and reducing property values.

Both the state House and Senate have approved the bill, but Gov. McCrory has vetoed it saying that it “weakens environmental protections, delays water connections for well owners, ignores dam safety, hinders efforts to reuse coal ash and violate the state constitution.”

Both the House and the Senate have enough votes to override the veto, but it now appears unlikely that lawmakers will take action.

“This bill is the latest attempt by Raleigh politicians to bail out Duke Energy,” said Frank Holleman in a statement for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Now, after heavy lobbying by Duke Energy, the Raleigh politicians want to reopen the process to try to find a way to let Duke Energy off the hook.”

While the law has been the center of attention for policymakers, it also concerns North Carolinians.

“This is a way for Duke to wiggle out of fixing the problem,” says Doris Smith, a Walnut Cove resident who lives roughly two miles from Duke’s Belews Creek Power Station, which was ranked intermediate. “And providing water does nothing for the pollution. The only solution is to get the ash out of here.”

Last year, more than 300 residents living near Duke Energy coal ash ponds were sent “Do Not Drink” letters from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services informing them of unsafe levels of heavy metals in their well water including hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen. This March, the state agencies rescinded the majority of these letters claiming that further studies revealed the recommendations were overly cautious.

But no well testing or on the ground studies had occurred. DHHS State Epidemiologist Megan Davies revealed during a deposition that the “extensive study” that the letters referenced were actually literature reviews of other state and federal policies for regulating contaminants.

“I know the language of the letter says, ‘after extensive study,’ said Davies. “To me, that doesn’t mean — it just means after reviewing the literature.”

When asked if she thought the letters should have been rescinded, the deposition transcript shows Davies’ response was, “No.”

“They treat us like we are dirt,” said Doris Smith of Walnut Cove. “I know why they don’t want to move the ash, it’s because there is so much of it. But it’s done enough damage.”

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DEQ dodges legitimate coal-ash safety concerns

Thursday, May 19th, 2016 - posted by amy

Editor’s note: The following op-ed about how far the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality has strayed from its mission appeared in The News & Observer on Monday, May 16. On Wednesday, the department announced tentative closure deadlines for coal ash ponds at Duke Energy facilities across the state, but told lawmakers it wants to revisit those rankings in late 2017. Read our statement on the tentative rankings here.

Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.

Dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become. Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on truly cleaning up coal ash ponds.

Sworn testimony of a state epidemiologist that became public over the weekend confirms what many North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds already assumed. Health experts who developed the drinking water standard that led officials to tell hundreds of residents last year that their water is not safe did not support the McCrory administration’s decision in March to rescind the warnings.

The disclosure comes as state lawmakers consider a bill that would prohibit local health departments from issuing health advisories to private well or public water users unless contaminants exceed levels set by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But that law is intended as a backstop to be built upon, not as a floor for states like North Carolina that are content with the bare minimum.

From the state’s perspective, the bill is a quick fix to make certain that officials with the Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health and Human Services never again suffer the backlash they have seen since lifting the warnings about high levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium – potentially due to proximity to coal ash ponds. Residents were told their water was unsafe to drink or use for cooking. There is no federal drinking water standard for vanadium or hexavalent chromium.

These are just the latest examples in a long pattern of attempts by the McCrory administration to insulate itself from outside criticism and, more importantly, from citizens’ legitimate concerns. These tactics have been central to the dismantling of DEQ, where I worked for nearly nine years. I resigned in 2013, around the time former Secretary John Skvarla pledged to transform the agency into a “customer-friendly juggernaut” with the primary role of serving industry.

After Skvarla’s departure, the promotion of Donald van der Vaart to the position showed McCrory’s skill at hand-picking leaders guided by an ideological compass that points away from environmental protection. Enabled by anti-regulatory powers in the legislature, DEQ’s leadership has abandoned the principles necessary to serve the public. North Carolinians across the political spectrum should be alarmed at the state of the agency today.

As we await the announcement this month of DEQ’s final plans for closing coal ash ponds across the state, we recognize that there has been progress toward addressing this significant problem. But the pledges to safely close ponds and protect communities after the Dan River disaster are distant memories now. Instead, DEQ’s top-down decision-making has dominated the process.

Read More: NCDEQ wants changes to coal ash law before finalizing rankings

The final months of the coal ash pond ranking process have been particularly frustrating for citizens, advocates and, presumably, many of the rank-and-file at DEQ. After a draft report leaked last December revealed that DEQ’s own experts recommended full closure of most coal ash ponds, van der Vaart stepped in, assuring the public that the draft was based on “incomplete data.” Two weeks later, the agency’s final report listed only eight of the state’s 32 ponds as being “high” risk and deserving full closure. Most are now proposed as “low” or “low-intermediate” risk, meaning the coal ash could be capped in place and continue to threaten to water quality.

What would have been the only remaining line of defense, the Coal Ash Management Commission, was created in part to review DEQ’s recommendations before they become final. But McCrory disbanded the commission in March as a series of hearings to gather public input on the state’s coal ash sites was underway. Rather than acknowledging the independent role the commission was created to play, van der Vaart has asserted that his department has everything under control.

DEQ leaders know citizens are concerned about their water and health. The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash, a statewide coalition of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal ash sites, has made that evident. They’re concerned with good reason. When the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights arranged a town hall meeting in Walnut Cove near Duke’s Belews Creek power plant, it wasn’t to spotlight DEQ’s success mitigating an environmental injustice.

Some state lawmakers are taking urgent action to re-establish the Coal Ash Management Commission. I’m glad; a strong independent commission is critical to earning the public’s trust and properly closing coal ash ponds. But dangerous attempts to cover up, rather than clean up, drinking water contamination only reveal how detached DEQ has become.

Lawmakers should acknowledge DEQ’s failures and focus on moving forward on coal ash cleanup, not continuing to enable an agency that has lost its way.

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Drinking water problems still plague eastern Kentucky

Friday, May 6th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Basic needs must be met to ensure successful economic transition

A creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow in April. The state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. Photo via Facebook

A creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow in April. The state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. Photo via Facebook.

When Rockhouse Creek in Martin County, Ky., ran bright yellow last month, Tomahawk resident Gina Patrick said she had one major concern: that the pollution might ruin her water well.

Patrick has relied on well water her whole life and didn’t want to pay to be hooked up to the municipal water system. That’s because the Martin County Water District is one of the worst water infrastructure systems in the state in terms of water quality and water loss.

Patrick lives on Rockhouse Creek. She said that as she watched the bright yellow plume move down the creek, she took a sample of the water and put it in a paint bucket under her porch. Two curious newborn puppies on her property found the paint bucket and drank its contents. They became violently ill and died later that day.

At the end of April, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet released a report detailing the state’s investigation into the spill, but there was no mention of Patrick’s dead dogs. Although many local residents thought the pollution might have been related to fracking — an oily sheen was noticed on the surface of the water — the state claimed that yellow highway-marking paint was to blame. According to Lanny Brannock, a spokesman for the Energy and Environment Cabinet, regulators do not know if someone intentionally put paint in the creek or if it was an accident.

But many Martin County residents still have questions, and that’s not uncommon in a county that has seen its fair share of coal slurry spills and municipal water problems. The Mountain Citizen, located in the county seat of Inez, has doggedly reported water quality and environmental issues for decades. In fact, the newspaper’s diligence, combined with the hard work of local organizers, prompted the Kentucky Public Service Commission to investigate the county’s water system, which has a water loss rate of more than 60 percent and often delivers smelly, foul water.


In the aftermath of Flint, Mich., this video from Martin County caught the attention of consumer advocate and environmental activist Erin Brockovich, who posted it to her Facebook page.

When I spoke with Inez resident Josie Delong back in February, she was very clear about the long-term burdens that come with having bad water:

The biggest [burden] is definitely health issues. But also the fact that most of us are on a fixed income here. Everybody’s losing their jobs in the mines, losing their jobs here or there, and can’t afford these high water bills, and we can’t even use the water. We’re paying these bills and yet still having to go to the store and get water, and we don’t know what it’s doing to us. And that’s the big fear. We have no idea.

In 2015, the Martin County Water District accrued multiple non-compliance violations for known carcinogens such as trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids. In the offices of the Mountain Citizen, editor Gary Ball points to the back of his latest water bill, which includes a notice for anyone with an immunodeficiency disorder: do not drink the water. “In other words, if you’re as healthy as a horse, drink away,” Ball says. “But sooner or later it’s going to get to you.”

Ball and the Mountain Citizen have also extensively documented the unequal way in which water is distributed in the county, and how many customers are often not informed of boil water advisories or shut-offs in the system. According to Gary and Lisa Smith Stayton, owner and publisher of the Mountain Citizen, the excessive water loss rate often impacts the poorer or more remote areas of the county first. As water is diverted to more populated and wealthy areas in the county, some customers are forced to go without.


Sometimes there’s no water at all. As Ms. McCoy explains in this Facebook post, not having water creates all kinds of social and financial hardships on her day-to-day schedule.

Officials in the county have adamantly denied the extent of the problems, and often portray concerned citizens as alarmists and idealists. The Martin County Judge Executive, Kelly Callaham, has publicly stated that the 60 percent water loss rate in the system is due to people stealing water from fire hydrants and industrial coal mine sites. (I reached out to Mr. Callaham and the Martin County Water District; neither returned my requests for a comment).

“Our officials downplay every single issue, and go to great extents to discredit those who speak up,” says Lisa Smith Stayton. She described a recent fiscal court hearing that turned into an attempt to publicly discredit a Mountain Citizen report about disinfection byproducts in the water. Lisa was incredulous. “One magistrate even said ‘you’re more likely to get cancer from eating a hot dog.’”

In late March, due to pressure from citizens like Delong, Ball and Stayton, state Senator Ray Jones convened a meeting at his office in Frankfort to discuss issues with the water system. Watching footage of the meeting is frustrating; a great deal of time is wasted on discussing surreal and overstated accusations of “water theft.” At several points in the conversation, some variation of this statement is heard: “Martin County is not the only county where these problems occur.”

This is a familiar tactic deployed by the powerful: make the victims appear as if their demands are inherently selfish because, after all, it’s happening to everyone. If you can portray the powerless as hyperbolic and alarmist, you eventually start to convince them that their demands are crazy. This is known as “gaslighting,” and it’s a depressingly effective way to evade accountability.

But residents like Delong aren’t deterred. As she told me:

The more people who talk about it and share their concerns, the better. Because, I’ll be honest, I sat back for a long time and said, “Well why should I say anything about it? I’m just one person. That’s not gonna change anything.” And then the very second I did mention it on social media, and posted a picture, I saw a huge response. And that gave me confidence. Maybe we can change this.

Motivated by health problems that she believes to be caused by the water, as well as mounting medical bills, Delong started a public Facebook forum. She began polling her friends to see if they suffered from similar afflictions and medical costs. The results are astounding in their detail and specificity; many respondents reported skin irritations, stomach issues and autoimmune disorders.

It’s obvious from reading the comments on Delong’s poll, as well as the many comments on the Martin County Water Warriors’ Facebook page, that the public health costs of living in coalfield counties are increasingly burdensome. My own experience bears that out; I live in Letcher County, Ky., about an hour and a half south of Martin County. I spend upwards of $50 each month on bottled water, and most of my friends and neighbors do the same. With coal severance funds declining, we’re also forced to pay more for basic services like trash and recycle collections. The Letcher County Recreation Center, built with coal severance funds, is constantly at risk of closing.

In fact, Gina Patrick’s anxiety about having to switch from well water to potentially-dangerous municipal water is not uncommon. Whether it comes from a well or a municipal system, the drinking water of many eastern Kentuckians is at risk of being polluted. When a dangerous acid mine drainage spill occurred five miles upstream of the Letcher County water intake in March, we were reminded of the many times our water system was poisoned by diesel fuel from local oil magnate Don Childers. It doesn’t help knowing that the state actively works to sweep those violations under the rug, or that it neglects to include important factors like dead dogs in its investigation of a bright yellow creeks.

Delong articulates the full scope of this problem and the struggle to stay:

It just feels like we’re going downhill so fast. I’ve had a lot of friends move out of the county. And it’s sad. I grew up here. And everyone’s just leaving. And it’s becoming a ghost town. And I don’t want to leave. I mean, I could, I’m sure. But who’s going to want to buy a home in this county? How could you sell your home? When someone away from here looks up Martin County, they automatically see repeats of all these troubles and problems and people moving away and no jobs and no opportunities. It’s gonna be impossible to sell your home right now. And I don’t want to leave. I want to do what I can — I’m just one person but I want to do what I can to try and make things better for us, instead of just watching it go downhill.

Officials say that they want people to stay. Some even say that they want economic transition. But what are they doing to help us save money where it matters — on very basic needs like food, water and healthcare? The solutions to these needs amount to the most basic and essential forms of economic development: safe drinking water, functioning local services, affordable healthcare and access to adequately funded social programs. They are simple solutions to very real problems that would save people money and help them stay in the region that they love.

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Student Influences State Reptile Selection and other shorts

Friday, April 15th, 2016 - posted by molly

Middle School Student Influences State Reptile Selection

Thanks to the help of 11-year-old Aiden Coleman, Virginia’s official state reptile may soon be the eastern garter snake. The snake, though fearful and notoriously smelly, is harmless to humans and known to be excellent at pest control. Coleman believes these factors, among others, make it deserving of the state title. After he detailed this to State Delegate Brenda L. Pogge, she drafted a bill to honor the snake. The bill slithered its way through the general assembly with minimal opposition and was approved at the end of February. A decision from Gov. Terry McAuliffe will finalize the designation. — Dylan Turner

17-year Cicada Brood to Emerge This Spring

After 17 years of moving through five different stages of subterranean growth, this spring cicadas’ wings will sing across a swath of eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia, according to the Charleston Gazette. Scientists expect that around mid-May, when the soil is warm enough and sufficient rain has fallen, a mass emergence of the locust-like insects will occur. Severe weather and changes to the landscape, among other factors, influence how many will emerge. When these cicadas last flew, in 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture described the 17-year brood as the largest that occurs in either state. — Eliza Laubach

Tennessee National Forest May Be Designated Wilderness

For the fourth time in the past eight years, Congress has the chance to increase conservation protections for land in east Tennessee to the highest level. Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) introduced legislation in February to designate more than 7,000 acres of Cherokee National Forest as wilderness. Big Laurel Branch and Sampson Mountain wilderness areas would also be expanded in some areas along the Appalachian Trail corridor. This proposal includes far less acreage than past unsuccessful proposals in the Senate, but it still garners substantial local support. — Eliza Laubach

One-third of Southeastern Streams Contain Algal Toxin

In a study of 75 streams across the Southeast, the U.S. Geological Survey found that nearly 40 percent of the streams tested contained a toxin called microcystin. The toxin is produced by algae, and in high concentrations can cause “nausea, dermatitis and, in severe cases, liver failure,” the report stated.

While no areas tested contained high levels of the toxin, further research is needed to assess possible risks to drinking water and aquatic ecosystems. — Elizabeth E. Payne

Appalachian Trail Interns Wanted

Appalachian Trail Conservation Leadership Corps, formed by a partnership between The Appalachian Trail Conservancy and the CAN’d Aid Foundation, offers 10-week paid internships for 18 to 25 year-olds to experience leadership and gain outdoor management skills from May to June.

Focusing on various skills including trail crew operations, invasive species control, visitor management, conservation leadership and more, these internships aim to prepare participants to work in outdoor conversation programs. For more information, visit tinyurl.com/at-conserve
—Charlotte Wray

Connect to Sustainable Living at Whippoorwill Fest

Have you ever wanted to learn how to start a fire by friction? Or how to make bark into a basket? You can learn these skills and more at the sixth annual Whippoorwill Festival in eastern Kentucky this July.

The festival’s goal is to promote sustainable living through sharing and practicing earth-based skills. The event also seeks to preserve ways of life that have fallen out of practice since modernity and manufacturing have changed the way humans interact with nature. At Whippoorwill, in addition to onsite camping, people can participate in workshops on medicinal plants, birds, sustainable agriculture and survival skills. The gathering also honors Appalachian culture with a workshop on ballads and by offering nightly entertainment from regional musicians and jam sessions around the fire. — Eliza Laubach

When: July 7-10
Where: Lago Linda Hideaway in Beattyville, Ky.
Cost: $35 – $125
Visit: whippoorwillfest.com

Response to Spill Leads to Action Against Coal Polluter

Friday, April 15th, 2016 - posted by molly
Acid mine drainage from a coal mine flooded into Pine Creek in eastern Kentucky, killing wildlife and raising concerns over drinking water safety. Photo by Tarence Ray

Acid mine drainage from a coal mine flooded into Pine Creek in eastern Kentucky, killing wildlife and raising concerns over drinking water safety. Photo by Tarence Ray

Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky., is a small creek that flows through a hollow off Pine Mountain and into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The point where Pine Creek and the Kentucky River meet is about five miles upstream of the municipal drinking water intake that serves Whitesburg, Ky., and the surrounding county.

When an auger mine operator drilled into an old underground mine at the head of Pine Creek on March 18, releasing a flood of acidic, orange-colored water into the creek, residents were concerned about the proximity of Pine Creek to the water intake. Our Appalachian Water Watch team was contacted by some of these concerned citizens, and was able to document the spill as it occurred in real-time. Photos of dead fish and turtles were posted to Facebook and Twitter, where they quickly went viral.

Due to public pressure from social media and citizens filing complaints, the state of Kentucky acted to control the spill, and filed three violations against the company, Hardshell Tipples. The state initially denied that the mine waste killed any wildlife, but eventually reversed its findings and issued an additional violation to the company. The state also compelled the company to commit to a fish-restocking plan for Pine Creek — a huge victory for water advocates and a sign that the state is aware of the public’s concern.

While water and fish tissue samples are still being processed, the quick response of our team pushed the state to action and prevented the mine waste from affecting the county’s municipal water system. Unfortunately, this is yet another example of the costs that communities near coal mines have to pay in terms of ecological, personal and financial health.

Read more about what happened on Pine Creek on our Front Porch Blog.

Another step toward clean water in Southwest Virginia

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 - posted by Erin
Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Appalachian Voices, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) and the Sierra Club recently lodged a settlement addressing several sources of water pollution in Southwest Virginia. The settlement must still be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. If approved, several sources of the toxic pollutant selenium in Wise County, Va., will be cleaned up and the city of Norton, Va., will be one big step closer to cleaning up an abandoned coal-loading facility.

The Case

In 2014, SAMS, the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, filed a legal action against Penn Virginia for violations of the Clean Water Act. In response to our allegations, Penn Virginia filed claims against A&G Coal Corp., a Jim Justice-owned company, claiming the company was responsible for at least some the pollution. A&G operates a mine neighboring the Penn Virginia land identified in the case.

The violations included unlawful discharge of the toxic pollutant selenium into several tributaries of Callahan Creek. The violations were discovered by SAMS through a review of records submitted by A&G Coal to state regulators in Virginia. The reports showed discharges of selenium and sulfate. Both pollutants are harmful to aquatic life. Selenium can be particularly harmful, resulting in fish deformities and reproductive failure.

A two-headed trout deformed from exposure to selenium

The Settlement

If approved, the settlement will resolve this case and results in several important water quality improvements in Southwest Virginia. Under the settlement terms, A&G Coal will treat three seeps currently discharging selenium into the Kelly Branch tributary of Callahan Creek. The settlement also requires the companies to provide $35,000 for the initial cleanup assessment of a nearby abandoned coal processing site in Norton known as Tipple Hill. Once the site has been restored, it could be included in the Norton Guest River Walk project. The Tipple Hill project is supported by the City of Norton, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable.

Moving Forward

This settlement offers our organizations a unique opportunity to resolve pollution from both an active mine and from legacy mining on land owned by a large landholding company. Large swaths of land in Southwest Virginia are owned by companies like Penn Virginia that lease land to timber, coal and gas companies for resource extraction. These landholding companies often escape liability when problems arise from the activities on the land.

Several mechanisms exist for addressing water pollution and other problems associated with coal mining. On active mines, including those undergoing reclamation, the coal company is responsible for monitoring conditions and addressing problems that arise. The state oversees this monitoring to make sure the law is enforced, but a lot of problems still occur.

Problems arising from mines that were closed prior to passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) are eligible for federal Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funding. There is a fairly large amount of money available through the AML reclamation fund, but not enough to cover every problem left over from these pre-SMCRA mines. Mines permitted after the passage of SMCRA include bonds to cover the cost of reclamation should the company fall into bankruptcy. Unfortunately, in many instances, bonding has proved insufficient for proper reclamation, especially as many coal companies go bankrupt in close succession.

In many cases, it is difficult to determine exactly how water pollution arose. Many areas around Central Appalachia have been mined underground, surface mined prior to SMCRA, and surface mined after SMCRA. Add gas well drilling to that mix, and it becomes very difficult to pinpoint the individual companies responsible. Many people, including all of us at Appalachian Voices, primarily want to see water problems cleaned up, regardless of who’s responsible. But with limited resources for cleanup, identifying liability can be a critical part of addressing the sources of water pollution.

Moving forward, we’re going to have to identify multiple resources – funding, expertise, and local knowledge – to help us restore Central Appalachia.

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What happened on Pine Creek?

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Another example of the costs that communities near coal mines pay in ecological, economic and human health.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky. Photos by Tarence Ray

A lot of folks have had questions about the recent mine blowout on Pine Creek, in Letcher County, Ky. So we’ve put together an explainer that runs through the facts, the science and the regulatory protocols behind spills like this.

Where is Pine Creek?

Pine Creek is a small creek that flows off Pine Mountain and into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The point where Pine Creek and the Kentucky River meet is roughly five miles upstream of the municipal drinking water intake that serves Whitesburg, Ky., and the surrounding county.

So what happened?

On Friday, March 18, an auger mine company, Hardshell Tipples, was mining at the head of Pine Creek when they inadvertently drilled into an old underground mine. Water had stored up in the mine over time, slowly increasing in acidity and iron content creating what is called “acid mine drainage.” This water rushed out into a sediment pond when the mine was breached by the auger drill, and the pond overflowed into the creek.

What is acid mine drainage?

Acid mine drainage occurs when water flows over or leaches through minerals and materials with high sulfur content. Many times, as in the case at Pine Creek, the minerals exposed to water contain iron pyrite, also known as “fool’s gold.” The result is orange-colored water, which stains rocks and river beds. Acid mine drainage also very likely contains other metals, such as manganese. (The polluted water/mine drainage that spilled into Pine Creek contained manganese, and we’ll get to those test results momentarily). As is indicated by its name, acid mine drainage is also highly acidic — so don’t touch it.

But if all these things are found in nature, isn’t this simply a natural occurrence?

All of the ingredients for making acid mine drainage are naturally occurring, that much is correct. But what is not natural is the excavation of these minerals and their exposure to air and water. Ask yourself: is there anything natural about a stream that is unable to support wildlife?

In the case of Pine Creek, water had stored up in the old underground mine over time, slowly gaining acidity and various metals. These mountains are porous; therefore water got into the mine in the first place through years and years of rain. When the iron pyrite in the mine was exposed to oxygen in the water (you know, the “O” in H2O), it created a highly acidic substance that was harmful for aquatic life. When the mine was breached, this highly acidic substance got into the creek, and was indeed very harmful to aquatic life.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

Got it. So back to what happened. What happened?

Our Appalachian Water Watch team was contacted by a concerned citizen who lives on Pine Creek, and we were able to document the spill as it occurred in real-time. Photos of dead fish and turtles were posted and shared by hundreds of people on Facebook and Twitter. We also spoke to residents on the creek who had been trying to catch minnows that morning. Instead, they had a net full of dead fish.

Officials at the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection initially denied that the spill was responsible for killing wildlife. However, due to public pressure from social media and citizens filing complaints, state officials reversed their findings and determined that over 700 fish were killed as a result of the spill.

The state eventually issued four violations against Hardshell Tipples, and compelled the company to commit to a fish-restocking plan for Pine Creek — a huge victory for clean water advocates and a sign that the state is aware of the public’s concern about how state agencies respond to spills like this.

Was this preventable?

Samples taken on the day after the spill show massive amounts of iron and manganese in the water. State documents obtained by Appalachian Voices and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center show that Hardshell Tipples had been issued multiple violations in the past for discharging high amounts of iron from its permit. However, these violations were considerably lower than the most recent Pine Creek spill, and the pictures show it.

It’s established fact that Hardshell Tipples has been reckless in the past with what it choose to discharge off of the permit. But state documents reveal that the company was also issued a citation in 2002 for failing to submit comprehensive underground mine maps to the state. It might be impossible to determine whether this documented negligence had anything to do with the recent mine blowout; however, it’s safe to say that the company has been a consistently careless operator in a watershed that is both ecologically and aesthetically important to eastern Kentucky.

The mine blowout on Pine Creek was clearly preventable. However, this is not to imply that all incidents of acid mine drainage are preventable. The majority of acid mine drainage problems in Letcher County, for example, are from mining that occurred decades ago, and persist to this day. These legacy problems will likely exist for many more decades, unless action is taken by state and federal government agencies.

The main point is that the Pine Creek spill is yet another example of the costs that communities near coal mines have to pay for in terms of ecological, economic and human health.

What do I do if this happens to my creek?

In this case, the quick response of nearby citizens and our team pushed the state to action and prevented the mine waste from affecting Letcher County’s municipal water system. However, in other instances, communities may not be aware of the problem for days, or they may be unable to contact their proper state agencies — especially if the problem begins on a weekend.

In any case, there are several things you can do to get the state to respond:

1. Take photos. Put your photos on social media, and make sure you tag the respective state or federal agencies in your post. Pictures of dead wildlife are especially useful, as they paint a more comprehensive portrait of the affected stream.

You can also send the photos to us through the Appalachian Water Watch Facebook page. If you don’t use social media, make sure you hang on to the photos, and call us immediately at 1-855-7WATERS.

2. Take notes. Make sure you note the date, time, location and any other characteristics of the affected stream. This includes changes in water color, consistency and/or smell. Don’t touch the water unless you’re taking a sample, in which case you should wear gloves.

3. Take a sample. Contact us and we can likely sample the spill within a few hours. If nothing else, purchase a plastic water bottle from your nearby grocery, empty it out, fill it with the contaminated water, and store it on ice until it can be tested. Be sure to wear latex gloves when you grab a sample. The water is likely highly acidic, and could burn your skin. Also, be careful — don’t risk a broken ankle or worse by wading into a fast moving stream just to get a sample. Pictures and notes are often the best course of action.

DEQ’s “Do Not Drink” reversal elevates coal ash concerns

Tuesday, March 8th, 2016 - posted by brian

Residents are right to be skeptical of the state’s sudden claims that their water has been safe all along.

Update 3/17: After continuous news coverage of the decision to lift “Do Not Drink” warnings, citizens have still not received an adequate explanation from state officials. In-depth posts like this one from the journalist behind Coal Ash Chronicles, Rhiannon Fionn, and this one, from Clean Water for North Carolina explain why the sudden decision is so troubling. Another cause for concern came this week when the N.C. Coal Ash Commission, which was created to promote transparency and restore the public’s confidence in regulatory decisions, was abruptly disbanded.

Take Action: There’s still time for residents of North Carolina to attend a coal ash hearing or submit written comments.

Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality are controlling the narrative of coal ash cleanup and writing off the complaints of citizens most impacted by coal ash pollution. Help us hold them accountable.

Duke Energy and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality are controlling the narrative of coal ash cleanup and writing off the complaints of citizens most impacted by coal ash pollution. Help us hold them accountable.

North Carolina officials owe residents and local officials in Lee County an apology, and they owe every North Carolinian an explanation.

Over the past month, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality and N.C. Department of Health and Human Services have walked back their own recommendation that families in Lee County not drink or cook using water from wells with carcinogens that exceed their own standards.

The water is now safe, they say, and it always has been.

Last November, private wells within a half-mile of open-pit clay mines in the county were tested to collect baseline data. Duke Energy plans to move more than 7 million tons of coal ash from sites in Lumberton and Goldsboro and dispose of it in the abandoned Lee County clay mines.

The results from every well tested showed elevated levels of the carcinogen hexavalent chromium, vanadium or both. So, as they have for hundreds of citizens living near active coal ash ponds across the state, officials made sure affected families in Lee County received the message.

Residents took steps to protect themselves and their children; they bought bottled water, installed filters, and avoided the tap while waiting for further instructions. They did what the experts said to do.

Learn the Truth About Coal Ash.

Imagine their confusion now that those “do not drink” letters have been rescinded. Curious to learn what changed, residents packed a Lee County commissioner’s meeting on Monday where DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and Dr. Randall Williams, the state health director, provided their side of the story but failed to fully address the problem or accept any fault.

Given the opportunity for a public mea culpa, Reeder used misdirection and pointed to levels of the same contaminants in municipal water supplies across the state. Williams told commissioners the standards his department set were “exceedingly cautious.” They’re also apparently irrelevant.

Without actually changing the standards, this decision allows the state to lift “do not drink” warnings issued to hundreds of residents living near coal ash ponds. Many of their wells tested at much higher levels for hexavalent chromium and vanadium than those in Lee County. Meanwhile, the DEQ is hosting hearings across the state this month, where data collected from private wells near coal ash ponds will be used to help determine the risk classifications and closure timelines for those sites.

READ MORE: State reversal on hexavalent chromium in well water an outrage

“There’s going to be hell to pay for somebody at the end of the day who has to explain to people why it was too dangerous to drink two days ago, but today it’s fine,” Appalachian Voices’ Amy Adams told WRAL. “You didn’t fix the problem. You lowered the number.”

While top officials at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality have repeatedly shown themselves to be clumsy when it comes to public statements, they always stress that they rely on the facts. But the situation in Lee County, and in other communities grappling with the threat of coal ash, shows the agency’s split-personality and an apparent disagreement on which facts matter and which can be ignored.

“As far as the state of North Carolina is concerned, they can drink their water,” Williams told Lee County commissioners on Monday.

But residents are skeptical of the state’s sudden claims that the water has been safe all along. Debra Baker, a resident of Belmont, N.C., was told nearly a year ago that her water was unsafe to drink due to elevated levels of vanadium and hexavalent chromium.

Baker lives next to Duke Energy’s G.G. Allen Plant. When officials tested her well water, the results showed vanadium at 40 times the state’s standard and hexavalent chromium at 13 times the standard. According to Baker:

“I absolutely do not feel safe. [Dr. Kenneth Rudo], the state toxicologist has personally called me and told me not to drink my water. My well is surrounded by the ash, so no I don’t feel that it’s suddenly alright to drink my water just because DEQ and DHHS are suddenly rescinding their do not drink orders. This makes me very afraid for my son and myself. I feel like this decision is just another slap in the face from regulators who are supposed to be protecting us.”


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Cleanup Plans for Region’s Coal Ash Cause Concerns

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne

On Dec. 31, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality released its recommendations for prioritizing the closure of the state’s 33 coal ash impoundments, as required by law. In a draft report made public prior to the announcement, NCDEQ staff determined that nearly all of the containment ponds had a high potential for risk. Despite this, the recommendations released by the agency assigned a reduced risk level to all sites not already identified as high priority.

The prioritization will determine how quickly Duke Energy must close each facility and what standards they must meet when securing the coal ash. In a statement released on Jan. 6, the Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash — a coalition of community members directly impacted by the state’s coal ash — criticized the agency’s recommendations (see page 22).

NC DEQ will hold public hearings at each of the 14 sites in March.

On Jan. 29, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that the appointment of most members of the independent commission tasked with overseeing these closures was unconstitutional. The fate of the commission is unknown.

In Virginia, Dominion Virginia Power is also closing many of its coal ash containment facilities, as required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On Jan. 14, Dominion was awarded permits to begin draining water from containment ponds at two of its power stations into Quantico Creek, which feeds into the Potomac River and then into the James River. Once drained, Dominion plans to consolidate the coal ash into a single lined pond and seal the toxins in place.

The Southern Environmental Law Center will appeal these permits on behalf of Potomac Riverkeeper Network, claiming that the permits do not require Dominion to adhere to the Clear Water Act or treat the water to remove toxins before dumping it in the rivers.

Similarly, Duke Energy has begun decanting water from the coal ash pond at its Riverbend Steam Station into Mountain Island Lake, a major source of drinking water for the city of Charlotte, N.C.

In other news, roughly half of the three million tons of coal ash at Duke Energy’s power plant in Eden, N.C., is being shipped by rail to a lined landfill in Amelia County, Va. The Eden plant was the source of the spill that dumped 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River on Feb. 2, 2012.

And in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights will hold a hearing on the “civil rights implications of [placing] coal ash disposal facilities near minority and low income communities.”

Editor’s Note: The print version of this article stated that North Carolina had 32 coal ash impoundments. This figure has been corrected to 33, reflecting the additional impoundment at the Roxboro facility announced by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality on Jan. 13.

Radioactive Sludge Being Removed from Sewage Facility

Wednesday, February 17th, 2016 - posted by interns

Two years after radioactive sludge was discovered, the Department of Energy is still removing it from the city of Oak Ridge’s sewage treatment facility.

The pollution was caused by technetium-99 that entered through pipelines in the sewer system from the demolition project at the federal government’s K-25 uranium-enrichment plant on the Clinch River, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel. The plant was built in 1943 as part of the U.S. government’s Manhattan Project, and at that time was the largest building in the world; it is now the U.S. Department of Energy’s largest demolition project.

Since 2014, containment and cleanup of the treatment facility has been in progress, and about 75,000 gallons of radioactive sludge has been removed from and transferred to a Perma-Fix Environmental treatment facility in Richland, Wash.

The Department of Energy contractor in charge of the cleanup recently told the Knoxville News Sentinel that as removal continues, they will approach the upcoming demolition work at the adjacent K-27 facility with the lessons learned from the K-25 project, taking steps to ensure the radioactive contaminants do not once more reach the town’s sewage treatment plant. — Charlotte Wray