Posts Tagged ‘Water Pollution’

Surprised? McCrory’s Coal Ash Proposal Falls Short

Saturday, April 19th, 2014 - posted by brian
Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance

Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is catching flak for a proposal on coal ash that could derail state legislators’ efforts to reform regulation of the toxic waste during the upcoming legislative session.

According to the News & Observer, McCrory’s proposal calls for “site-specific closures.” Coal ash from some ponds could be moved, other ponds would be drained and capped but likely still threaten groundwater. In other words, basically what Duke Energy has already said it plans to do.

McCrory and John Skvarla, secretary of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, have been adamant that a one-size-fits-all approach to coal ash isn’t prudent, talking down a vocal public that believes the toxic waste should be moved from storage near waterways to safer, lined landfills.

On its face, the bill seems to signal progress, or at least make a bad situation a little bit better. For example, it would shorten the time in which Duke would have to notify the public of spills, from 48 hours to 24. OK, probably shouldn’t have been 48 hours to begin with, but we’ll take it.

Also, while the plan would not impose deadlines on Duke to address its leaky ash ponds, it would give Duke 60 days to 90 days after the plan’s passage to submit clean-up plans for ash ponds at the four plants with the most urgent pollution threats – Riverbend, Dan River, Sutton and Asheville.

Pat McCrory

Pat McCrory

But Duke already plans to remove ash from the retired Dan River plant, the site of the massive coal ash spill that reminded the public of the toxic legacy left even after coal plants are shuttered. And the company’s plans to repurpose ash from the Riverbend and Asheville plants as fill material at the Charlotte and Asheville airports are both moving forward.

So what’s the rub? After all, McCrory’s office says it still prefers that the ash be moved away from waterways. But that’s part of the problem. Leaving pond closure timelines and what to do with all that coal ash up to Duke hasn’t worked too well up to this point. The public is demanding clean water be protected, not half measures that leave people to throw their hands in the air and say “well, hopefully Duke Energy will do the right thing.”

Citizens and environmental groups sounding off about the ties between Duke, McCrory and DENR have every reason to be skeptical. DENR’s customer-first (read: industry-first) approach had people scratching their heads long before the Dan River spill in February. And early revelations of the federal criminal investigation that followed the spill only increased the lack of trust.

Perhaps to ease those concerns, Skvarla told the News & Observer that neither McCrory’s staff nor the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources consulted Duke about the proposal.

“This is our legislation, not Duke’s legislation,” said Skvarla. That’s reassuring, I suppose. But the fact that it needs to be clarified does not inspire confidence.

The governor’s proposal could also overshadow other legislation that would do more to get this big dirty ball of coal ash that’s settled in North Carolina rolling. State Sen. Tom Apodaca, a member of McCrory’s party who plans to sponsor a bill strengthening coal ash regulation, says McCrory gave legislators no advance notice of the plan.

“The governor doesn’t do legislation. The legislature does legislation,” Apodaca told the Asheville Citizen-Times. “He should have worked with the folks in the legislature to be on the same page getting legislation drafted.”

Apodaca says the plan he intends to introduce would go further.

“We’re going to mandate actual timeframes to close these (ponds), especially those that are near water sources. We’re determined to get rid of the wet ash pond at Asheville.”

Environmental groups including Appalachian Voices want the state to use its authority to move coal ash to landfills licensed to store hazardous waste. The type of waste that contains arsenic, lead, mercury, you know, coal ash. But the N.C. Environmental Management Commission recently sided with Duke Energy and also appealed the ruling that gave the state the authority to do just that.

Appalachian Voices North Carolina campaign coordinator, Amy Adams, pointed out similarities between the legislation and the controversial settlement DENR asked a judge to throw out after months of intense criticism.

“Sections were essentially copied from the failed settlement between Duke and DENR, and then pasted into McCrory’s plan,” Adams said. “It fails to provide any deadlines, doesn’t require moving of the ash at all locations, and provides no standards for newly generated coal ash. This proposal protects Duke Energy, not North Carolina’s citizens.”

Click here to tell your legislators to reject the governor’s proposal and pass legislation that will move the toxic ash to safe, lined storage away from waterways.

Counteracting Coal’s Dirty Tricks

Friday, April 18th, 2014 - posted by tom
The coal industry is up to its old trick. But with your help, we're working to make sure they backfire.

The coal industry is up to its old trick. But with your help, we’re working to make sure they backfire.

The coal industry is up to its old tricks. But with your help, Appalachian Voices and our allies are working to make sure they backfire.

Just a month after a federal court threw out the Bush administration’s flawed 2008 stream buffer zone rule, the industry’s allies in the U.S. House passed a bill in March to reinstate this egregiously permissive rule that allows coal companies to dump mountaintop removal waste in streams with little regard for water quality impacts.

We acted quickly to undermine what symbolic success that legislation, H.R. 2824, would ultimately have. While we never expected to stop the bill from passing the unabashedly anti-environmental House, our efforts helped to narrow the margin and bridge the partisan divide that pervades Congress.

In the weeks leading up to the vote, a coalition including Appalachian Voices had Capitol Hill covered. We attended dozens of meetings to educate House members and ensure the truth about mountaintop removal was the message of the day. Sure enough, when the bill was debated on the House floor, opponents of mountaintop removal stood and spoke for the health and well-being of Appalachian communities.

We’re not going to let the coal industry take us backward by making an end-run around the court’s decision. And if this bill goes to the Senate, we’re confident that—with your help—we can defeat it. The White House even issued a veto threat, rightfully questioning why industry-backed representatives would want to “waste significant taxpayer dollars adopting a rule that has been vacated by a federal court” noting that the Office of Surface Mining is developing an updated Stream Protection Rule that it says will address the threats mining waste poses to water quality, wildlife habitat and communities downstream.

But here’s the kicker: by showing how far it’s willing to go to make mountaintop removal easy, the coal industry did its part in stoking stronger public and congressional support for clean water. Now it’s up to us to build on this support and pressure on the Obama administration to develop a Stream Protection Rule that protects Appalachian streams from mining waste.

Read Thom Kay’s blog post for a snapshot of floor speeches, both the good and bad, on H.R. 2824.

North Carolina sides with Duke Energy by appealing coal ash ruling

Wednesday, April 16th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
A coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Buck Power Plant. Photo by Les Stone / Greenpeace

A coal ash pond at Duke Energy’s Buck Power Plant. Photo by Les Stone / Greenpeace

Why would the state ask a judge to take away its legal authority to stop groundwater pollution?

For years, North Carolina has known that Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds are illegally contaminating groundwater. Yet the state has not taken any action to force Duke to correct the violations.

In fact, the N.C. Environmental Management Commission, the body that oversees the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and determines what DENR can enforce, determined two years ago that the state did not have the authority to make Duke clean up the source of its illegal pollution — coal ash ponds.

Last month, to the relief of concerned citizens and environmental groups, a superior court judge reversed the EMC’s prior decision, ruling that the state actually does have the legal authority to force Duke Energy to immediately clean up its coal ash ponds.

As expected, Duke Energy appealed the judge’s decision. Last week, however, in a move that surprised many, the EMC also appealed the judge’s decision. Why would the state ask a judge to take away it’s legal authority to stop groundwater pollution?

The answer likely has to do with who makes up the EMC and how they were appointed. A local Raleigh news station, WNCN, did some digging and found that at least eight of the fifteen EMC members have ties to Duke Energy or other major power companies. For example, the chairman, Benne Hutson, works for a law firm that has represented Duke Energy in court.

Given that the EMC is appointed by the Senate president pro tempore, the House speaker, and the governor — who worked for Duke Energy for 28 years — it’s not surprising that the commission has chosen to pander to corporate interests rather than adequately protect North Carolina’s water and its citizens health.

A Moral Call to End Dangerous Coal Ash Storage

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Concerned citizens filled a church in Eden, N.C., last week to learn more about coal ash and the threats it poses to the environment and human health.

Concerned citizens filled a church in Eden, N.C., last week to learn more about coal ash and the threats it poses to the environment and human health.

Last Monday, concerned citizens packed the pews of a local church in Eden, N.C. The crowd, which was a diverse mixture of age, race and background, assembled for a town hall meeting on coal ash organized by the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP as a part of the Moral Monday movement.

Duke Energy’s Dan River coal-fired power plant is located in Eden, and it was there that a stormwater pipe below the massive coal ash pond failed in February, spewing thousands of tons of toxic laden coal ash into the Dan River.

Citizens are still seeing the effects of the spill. Mollusks and turtles are washing up dead on the banks of the Dan and local farmers are concerned that they may not be able to rely on water from the river this season or in the future.

The NAACP organized the meeting to raise awareness about the spill and its aftermath, but also to shed light on the coal ash problem that exists across North Carolina. The group is drawing attention to how most coal ash ponds are located in low-income communities and communities of color. Across the country, communities of color and poor families face environmental injustices that burden them with the economic and health impacts of pollution.

At the town hall meeting, Annie Brown gave testament to environmental injustices of coal ash. Brown has spent her entire life living near the Belews Creek Coal Plant, which has a coal ash pond with a capacity of more than four billion gallons — the largest in North Carolina. She has raised children and grandchildren in the area and has watched her family and neighbors become ill with unusual diseases and cancer. Brown bravely spoke to the packed church about her own health issues and the scores of her neighbors she has seen die prematurely over the years. Watch her entire speech here.

Annie Brown was one of seven panelists at the meeting. Others included representatives from Appalachian Voices, the Southern Environmental Law Center, NC WARN, and Dawn Witter, a resident of Danville, Va., who spoke eloquently about the economic effects the spill has had on the city and the potential health risks associated with water pollution. Witter explained that Danville was once a center for industry, and the community, economy and river have borne the burden of pollution for decades. For her, the Dan River spill was a painful continuation of that trend.

North Carolina NAACP President Rev. William Barber gave a rousing speech about the sinful nature of the issue. He pointed out that the same government that cut healthcare for the poor, also cut back environmental regulations that protect human health, especially for those North Carolinians’ who live in communities that are the most impacted by pollution.

The information presented at the town hall meeting left little doubt in participants’ minds that Duke Energy is not a trustworthy company. Time and time again, Duke has chosen to ignore the voices of the communities in which it stores its toxic waste dumps rather than acting as responsible neighbors and protecting communities from pollution in ways that would save lives.

Last week, Duke requested that citizen groups who have intervened in the state’s coal ash lawsuits be barred from participation. The judge has yet to make a decision, but based on Duke’s previous dismissal of community concerns, it is imperative that communities be given a voice in the lawsuit. Without anyone to advocate for their health, it is likely that Duke will continue to allow life-threatening pollution to contaminate communities.

To watch more of the town hall meeting, check out the live stream here.

Appalachian Coal Companies Face Major Water Pollution Fines

Friday, April 4th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell

In March, two federal enforcement actions against Appalachian coal companies called attention to the pervasive threat of water pollution from mountaintop removal coal mining.

First, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached a $27.5 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources — the largest mountaintop removal mining operator in the U.S. — for violations of the Clean Water Act. It is the largest-ever civil penalty under the water pollution permitting section of the law.

The government complaint alleged that between 2006 and 2013, Bristol, Va.-based Alpha and its subsidiaries routinely violated limits in more than 300 of its state-issued Clean Water Act permits, discharging excess amounts of pollutants into hundreds of rivers and streams in five Appalachian states. In some cases, the company discharged pollutants without a permit.

In addition to the record-setting fine, Alpha said it will spend approximately $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and reduce pollution discharges at its coal mines in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.

Just two days after Alpha’s announcement, Nally & Hamilton Enterprises, one of the largest coal companies in Kentucky, announced it would pay $666,000 for Clean Water Act violations.

Prosecutors allege that Nally & Hamilton dumped mining waste in streams 1,000 feet beyond permit boundaries at a site in Harlan County, Ky. Like Alpha, the company is also accused of dumping waste into streams without a permit.

The settlements send “a strong deterrent that such egregious violations of the nation’s Clean Water Act will not be tolerated,” says Robert G. Dreher, an attorney with the U.S. Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Groups that oppose mountaintop removal, such as nonprofit law group Appalachian Mountain Advocates, agree that the actions are a positive step, but say that consent agreements and higher fines do not go far enough to provide peace of mind for coal-impacted communities.

Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, told The New York Times that to solve the fundamental problem of pollution inherent in mountaintop removal, the EPA must “stop issuing permits that it knows coal companies can’t comply with.”

Appalachian Coal Companies Face Major Fines for Clean Water Act Violations

Wednesday, March 12th, 2014 - posted by brian
Two recent federal enforcement actions against major Appalachian coal companies, Alpha Natural Resources and Nally & Hamilton, are a positive sign. But they do not solve the fundamental problem of water pollution that stems from mountaintop removal. Above, pollution water at Nally & Hamilton's Fugitt Creek mine in Harlan County, Ky.

Recent federal enforcement actions against Appalachian coal companies are a positive sign, but even record fines do not solve the fundamental problem of water pollution that stems from mountaintop removal. Above, polluted water at Nally & Hamilton’s Fugitt Creek site in Harlan County, Ky.

The Associated Press reported this morning that Nally & Hamilton, one of the largest coal companies in Kentucky, will pay $660,000 in fines for illegally dumping mining debris into Appalachian streams.

According to AP, prosecutors allege Nally & Hamilton Enterprises violated the federal Clean Water Act by dumping mining waste in streams 1,000 feet beyond the permit’s boundary at its Fugitt Creek site in Harlan County, and by dumping waste in Knott County streams surrounding its Doty Creek site before a permit was even issued.

The fine is the result of a proposed consent order in a federal district court. The order must still be signed by a judge. Declining to comment, an attorney for Nally & Hamilton simply said “the consent decree speaks for itself.”

The news comes just a few days after a settlement was reached between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Alpha Natural Resources — the largest mountaintop removal mining operator in the U.S. — stipulating that the company must pay a $27.5 million fine for violations of the Clean Water Act at mines and coal preparation plants in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. It is the largest ever civil penalty under the water pollution permitting section of law.

In addition to the record-setting fine, Alpha said it will spend approximately $200 million to install and operate wastewater treatment systems and reduce pollution discharges at its coal mines in those five states.

These types of violations are nothing new, nor are they isolated incidents. Indeed, the enforcement action against Alpha alleges more than 6,000 discharge permit violations between 2006 and last year.

The eventual settlements we’re seeing for violations stretching back years only adds to the evidence of poor enforcement at the state level, especially in those states with close ties to the coal industry.

After exposing thousands of Clean Water Act violations and fraudulent reporting by coal companies in Kentucky, Appalachian Voices and our partners sued and overcame resistance from the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet in order to hold negligent mine operators accountable. Those lawsuits resulted in record-setting fines against the three largest mountaintop removal companies in Kentucky: International Coal Group, Frasure Creek Mining and Nally & Hamilton.

The media coverage of those cases in Appalachia and beyond also helped to pull back the curtain on the epidemic of lax enforcement that continues to damage mining communities throughout Central Appalachia.

While the recent pickup in federal enforcement is an extremely positive sign, as long as mountaintop removal permits are approved water quality will be at risk. Appalachian Voices’ water quality specialist, Eric Chance told the Bristol, Va., station WCYB that while coal companies can treat for some of these [pollutants], “they cannot treat for all of them, not all the time.”

Similarly, the executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, Joe Lovett, told The New York Times that such deals do not solve the fundamental problem of pollution inherent in practices like mountaintop removal.

“What E.P.A. should do is stop issuing permits that it knows coal companies can’t comply with.”

Click here to learn more about Appalachian Voices’ Appalachian Water Watch program and our work to ensuring compliance with laws that protect clean water.

Aftermath of NC Coal Ash Spill Still Unfolding

Friday, March 7th, 2014 - posted by brian
A month after the Dan River coal ash spill, questions remain unanswered and public pressure on Duke Energy and the state continues to grow.

A month after the Dan River coal ash spill, questions remain unanswered and public pressure on Duke Energy and the state continues to grow.

It has been a month since Duke Energy and state officials plugged the failed stormwater pipe at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station that spilled between 30,000 and 50,000 tons of toxic coal ash and millions of gallons of contaminated water into the Dan River over six days.

Regardless of the political environment in North Carolina, and the state legislature’s recent treatment of environmental rules, the Dan River spill was a major event and a reminder of the dangers of coal ash and poor enforcement. But with the anti-regulatory renown of North Carolina’s lawmakers and state agencies, it has understandably created a firestorm in Raleigh and around the state of people demanding action that many believe is long overdue.

As much as the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and Governor Pat McCrory would like to wash their hands of this preventable spill, it continues to dominate state politics, and prominent coverage in national news outlets. And the aftermath of the spill is still unfolding.

Yesterday, a Wake County Judge ruled that Duke Energy must immediately take action to prevent further groundwater pollution at its 14 coal-fired power plants in North Carolina. The ruling negates previous claims by DENR that it lacks the legal authority to require cleanup of ash ponds around the state.

Duke spokesperson Erin Culbert said that the company is “considering this ruling as we take another look at our management of coal ash basins.” Duke officials have not said whether the company will appeal the decision.

The day before the ruling, DENR officials stated that failure-prone corrugated metal pipes similar to the one that ruptured under the coal ash pond along the Dan River are in use at eight other Duke plants in North Carolina, including the Belews Creek plant in Stokes County, where Appalachian Voices has worked to help community members speak out against coal ash pollution.

DENR Secretary John Skvarla speaks to reporters about the agency's response to the Dan River spill.

DENR Secretary John Skvarla speaks to reporters about the agency’s response to the Dan River spill.

Duke Energy and state regulators previously claimed the Dan River coal ash site was the only place the metal pipes had been used.

Unsurprisingly, the ecological impacts of the spill are beginning to rise to the surface. Local news outlets began reporting this week on the appearance of dead clams and mussels that are dotting the Dan River Bank for at least 20 miles downstream from the spill site. The news comes a few weeks after Tom Reeder, director of the N.C. Division of Water Resources coldly claimed “If you’re a mollusk and covered with ash then, yeah, you’re gonna die.”

Other sources have highlighted activism and public backlash in Raleigh and Charlotte, where Duke Energy is headquartered. On Feb. 25, citizens gathered at Duke’s headquarters to deliver a petition signed by more than 9,000 demanding the company take full financial responsibility for its spill and agree to move the rest of its coal ash to safer lined storage facilities away from rivers and lakes.

Then, last Wednesday — especially symbolic, as Christians around the world observed Ash Wednesday — Progress NC with partner organizations, including Appalachian Voices and the North Carolina NAACP, held a protest and press conference across from Gov. McCrory’s home to call on the governor to force Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash. There, the Rev. William Barber announced the NAACP will open a federal civil rights investigation into whether Duke intentionally placed toxic waste dumps in predominantly minority communities.

Major news outlets including The New York Times and Al Jazeera America have done their own investigating, digging up dirt on how DENR’s regulatory power was crippled by anti-environmental legislation and executive directives, and how the public’s trust eroded more with each new revelation that has come after the spill.

Citizens Deliver Coal Ash Petition to Duke Energy

Friday, February 28th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices smiles as the crowd echoes her call for “No More Coal Ash!”

Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices smiles as the crowd echoes her call for “No More Coal Ash!”

Tuesday afternoon, more than 150 concerned citizens gathered at Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., to demand that the company take action to clean up its toxic coal ash. Coal ash, which is the byproduct of burning coal for electricity, is currently stored by Duke Energy in unlined, dangerous dams, next to vital waterways across the state.

The diverse crowd came together to deliver more than 9,000 petition signatures to Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good. The petition asks that Duke take full financial responsibility for cleaning up the devastating coal ash spill into the Dan River, and that the company agree to move the rest of its coal ash, stored in 31 ponds at 14 sites across the state, to dry,lined storage facilities away from rivers and lakes.

The event was the result of an amazing collaboration between a variety of environmental and social justice groups from the states affected by the Dan River spill — North Carolina and Virginia — as well as national interest groups. Appalachian Voices, Greenpeace, and Sierra Club collected petition signatures and planned the event along with Charlotte Environmental Action, Keeper of the Mountains, and NC Conservation Network. The official sponsors of the event also included We Love Mountain Island Lake, Democracy NC, Action NC, and NC WARN.

Chants about the importance of clean water and the dangers of coal ash opened the event. Citizens held signs with images of the massive coal ash ponds that plague North Carolina, some wore t-shirts describing the health effects of the different heavy metals found in coal ash, others carried banners and pickets, and a few drummers backed the chants.

The Green Grannies, a group of concerned women from Asheville, sang a few songs about coal ash and water, and the Reverend Nancy Hardy, from North Carolina Interfaith Power and Light said a prayer about peace and hope for change.

Amy Adams, the N.C. Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, gave a rousing speech emphasizing that the spill into the Dan River was completely preventable, and that Duke must be held accountable for the damage they have caused. Adams’ speech was received with cheers from the crowd, who eagerly echoed her call for “No More! No more coal ash in unlined ponds! No more leaks and seeps into our drinking water! No more stalling and no more excuses!”

Over 9,000 petition signatures collected by Appalachian Voices, Greenpeace, and Sierra Club asking Duke to clean up its coal ash.

Over 9,000 petition signatures collected by Appalachian Voices, Greenpeace, and Sierra Club asking Duke to clean up its coal ash.

Sara Behnke, a mother, cancer survivor, and founder of We Love Mountain Island Lake, followed Adams with a wonderful speech about her family’s experience living next to Duke’s coal ash ponds at the Riverbend Steam Station. Behnke expressed outrage that Duke’s coal ash ponds are leaking arsenic-laden water into Mountain Island Lake which supplies the drinking water for 860,000 people. Behnke drew connections between the recent chemical spill in West Virginia and the similar threat that coal ash poses to drinking water.

Following Behnke’s speech, Elise Keaton from the West Virginia Keeper of the Mountains expressed solidarity for the need for clean water in both states. Luis Rodriguez from Action NC followed by calling on Duke to pay for the Dan River cleanup without raising customers rates. Rodriguez was joined by Cora Little, a senior member of Action NC who has spoken out against Duke’s recent rate hikes.

The final event speaker was Mary Anne Hitt, the director of Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. Hitt reiterated the need to protect North Carolina’s waterways from further coal ash pollution. She was joined by Amy and Cora to present two thick binders full of thousands of petition signatures to Duke security guards.

Although a Duke Energy representative had previously given the group permission to send three representatives into the building, a few minutes before Hitt’s speech concluded, security notified the crowd that Duke would not accept the petitions and that no one was allowed inside the company’s office.

In response, the crowd began circling in front of Duke Energy’s headquarters, chanting “Hear the voice of the people, accept the petitions now!” After about twenty minutes, as the group was beginning to disband, Hitt was about to leave the petition notebooks on the public side of the sidewalk in front of the company building, when a Duke Energy representative ran out and took the petitions inside.

While Duke Energy may have accepted the complaints of more than 9,000 people, concerned citizens, environmental groups, and social justice groups promise to be back with the same message: Duke Energy — clean up your toxic coal ash!

West Virginia Patriot Slurry Spill MCHM Test Results

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 - posted by Erin

Coal slurry turns Fields Creek dark gray. The lighter brown sediment just barely visible shows a more normal sediment color.

Appalachian Water Watch has received the first set of results from our sampling at the site of the Patriot Coal slurry spill, which occurred sometime in the early morning of Feb. 11 on Fields Creek in Kanawha County, W.Va.

We responded to the scene that afternoon and were able to collect grab samples from multiple locations along the creek, from an upstream site just outside the entrance to the coal preparation plant where the spill originated, to a downstream location just before Fields Creek enters the Kanawha River.

As with most coal-related spills, there are some obvious contaminants associated with coal that should be measured. Many heavy metals, such as manganese and iron, are commonly found in rock layers around coal seams. Other nonmetal elements, such as selenium, are also common in some coal seams. We typically test for a set of heavy metals and other elements, including manganese, iron and selenium, as well as other serious toxins like arsenic.

At a coal prep plant, coal is shipped in from surrounding mines and “washed” to separate it from other materials before it is shipped to buyers. Chemical frothers, like 4-methycyclohexane methanol (MCHM), which spilled into the Kanawha River earlier this year, are used in the separation process. Multiple types of chemicals may be used in different activities around a prep plant. Once the chemicals are no longer needed, they are often disposed of in giant slurry ponds near the prep plant facility. This makes it difficult to know which compounds to test for when slurry spills into a creek.

Google Earth image of the Patriot slurry ponds.

In the case of the Patriot spill, it was difficult to obtain information about what chemicals might have been used at the facility. Initial reports indicated that MCHM might be involved in this spill. Later reports indicated that Patriot had stopped using MCHM in January and was instead using polypropylene glycol.

We decided to test for MCHM in Fields Creek for two reasons: First, if MCHM had been used at the Patriot facility at some point, it seems highly likely that discarded MCHM would be present in the coal slurry, even if it were no longer being used for processing. Second, we smelled the distinct sweet smell of the chemical at several points along Fields Creek.

We have received test results confirming that MCHM was present in Fields Creek on Feb. 11. The results indicated 4-MCHM at 46 parts per billion. This amount is a relatively small quantity, but given how little is know about the impacts of the chemical on humans or aquatic life, it is not currently possible to say whether this amount would have any negative impacts. Thankfully, the nearest groundwater intake is 75 miles downstream and the nearest surface water intake is 115 miles downstream of the spill site, so it is highly unlikely that MCHM from this spill would impact drinking water. We did not find propylene glycol present in our grab samples.

We have also received results for total suspended solids, which indicate the amount of sediment and other undissolved materials in the water column. The first two results were 94 mg/L near the prep plant entrance and 260 mg/L downstream near the Kanawha River. These samples were taken on the evening of Feb. 11, after the spill had been stopped at the prep plant. The upstream level was likely lower than the downstream sample since the spill material had already been washed further downstream.

To put these numbers in perspective, the Clean Water Act National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit for this facility allows Patriot to discharge a maximum of 70 mg/L for total suspended solids on any given day, and an average of not more than 35 mg/L over the course of a month. Clearly this spill was in violation of the these standards, at the very least. We are still waiting on results from heavy metal testing and will make them available as soon as possible.

Nobody needed the results of laboratory testing to know that the slurry spill was detrimental to Fields Creek. The dark gray water was indication enough that toxins were present in the water and that aquatic life would likely be suffocated by fine sediments. As the nearby houses with cheerful yards and children’s toys reminded us, the potential exists for long-term impacts on nearby residents. No one is drinking directly from Fields Creek, but how many other ways might the residents come in contact with those contaminants?

Though the amount of MCHM found in Fields Creek was small and unlikely to impact drinking water, it is still a very important finding. What it shows is that companies responsible for these spills are allowed to withhold information and avoid responsibility for knowing the details of the risks they pose to surrounding residents and the environment. After the MCHM spill from a chemical storage facility on the Elk River, Freedom Industries waited two weeks before disclosing that a second chemical, PPH, had been present in the tank that had leaked.

During the Patriot slurry spill, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) believed MCHM might be involved. Presumably Patriot told the DEP this. Later, the DEP stated the smell of MCHM was from a tanker truck removing MCHM from the prep plant. Given our test results, the MCHM smell was clearly not from a tanker truck. Regardless of who was feeding misinformation to whom, it seems ludicrous that a state regulatory agency seems to have so little power to make a coal company operating in West Virginia provide accurate and timely information about a spill that occurs from their facility.

But maybe given the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato’s statement that the spill “turned out to be much of nothing,” we shouldn’t be so surprised at state agency ineffectiveness in West Virginia. Apparently 100,000 gallons of coal slurry spilling directly into a tributary of the Kanawha River is just not a big deal in West Virginia these days. Something tells me the citizens of West Virginia feel otherwise.

Preventable Spills Yield Predictable Apologies

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014 - posted by brian
Freedom Industries President Gary Southern faces reporters and the public for the first time after the Jan. 9 chemical spill on the Elk River.

Freedom Industries President Gary Southern faces reporters and the public for the first time after the Jan. 9 chemical spill on the Elk River.

At the gates of Freedom Industries, just a few hundred feet from the shoddy chemical storage tank on the banks of the Elk River that started it all, Gary Southern approached a cluster of microphones. As Freedom Industries’ president, he was about to become the face of a catastrophic chemical spill that threatened the health and well-being of hundreds of thousands West Virginians.

“This incident is extremely unfortunate and unanticipated,” Southern said. “We are very sorry for the disruption.”

But it was too late. For what could be weeks or longer — it was anyone’s guess — 300,000 people would be without safe tap water. Businesses and schools closed. Families waited for reassuring news, but practically every piece of expert advice came with a disclaimer and was of little consolation.

Less than a month later, on Feb. 2, a corroded storm water pipe running under a coal ash pond near Eden, N.C., gave way, spilling an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River. Inspectors from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources were sent to the investigate the spill, and Paul Newton, president of Duke Energy’s North Carolina operations, was dispatched to downstream communities with his hat in hand.

“We apologize and will use all available resources to take care of the river,” Newton told impacted residents. “We are accountable.”

Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good called the mayor of Danville, Va., just downstream from the site of the spill, to apologize. And the Associated Press signified how trivial it all can seem with the headline “Polluting N.C. utility says it’s sorry.”

As the cornerstone of crisis P.R., the short-order apology is to be expected. But without action, apologies aren’t meaningful. They aren’t effective cover-ups or remedies, they’re a reflex, a stalling tactic, and a reminder of past offenses.

Before the Dan River spill, for example, Duke Energy had for years accused environmental groups and citizens of crying wolf on the problem of coal ash pollution. So when the Charlotte Business Journal asked readers what grade Duke Energy deserves for its handling of the Dan River coal ash spill, it’s not surprising that 60 percent thought an “F” only fair.

“Apologies can and should be hugely important actions and mechanisms, blessed with enormous power and lasting impact,” Dov Seidman, a consultant focused on corporate values and culture, recently wrote. “But they must be two-way exchanges of trust and healing that are open and transparent.”

According to Seidman, no matter the scale or situation, a few essential criteria must be met for an apology to be authentic: It must be painful. It cannot serve as an excuse or a means to an end. It must force offenders to conduct a “moral audit” of personal and organizational values. And it must embrace ideas as to how to improve.

But perhaps most importantly, to achieve positive change in the wake of environmental disasters that cannot be reversed, an authentic apology must turn true regret into a behavioral shift followed by a continuous investment to avoid repeating past mistakes.

“Bad apologies drive out good,” claims Seidman, “so that those who take their apologies seriously, and work tirelessly to live up to them, are dismissed along with the drivel.”

Not only had Freedom Industries failed to report the spill when it was discovered, it was later revealed the company kept its knowledge of a second chemical a secret. More recently, the disgraced company’s bankruptcy has given new meaning to “conflict of interest,” and Gary Southern stood up the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure committee, which invited him to testify on the spill.

So, at least thus far, every indication is that Southern’s apology was one of the bad ones. But it should also be noted that Freedom Industries’ ability to deal with crises was dwarfed by the crisis it created — the company had no emergency response plan, and its initial effort to stop the leak consisted of a cinder block and a 50-pound bag of safety absorbent powder. Now facing dozens of lawsuits, Freedom Industries is momentarily shielded as it goes through bankruptcy.

In North Carolina, Duke Energy has to own up to the reality that it has deserved an “F” on its coal ash report card all along — despite former CEO Jim Rogers’ statement that his company would “ultimately end up cleaning up all that.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office has opened a federal criminal investigation into Duke Energy and officials in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Meanwhile, Duke has begun dredging the Dan River. Some residents that live around Charleston have returned to using their water — others may never trust it. But in the weeks and months ahead, as these spills begin to fade from the media and from the daily conversations in communities surrounding the spills, we should remember all the acceptances of accountability, the promises to do better.

Will the coal industry and companies like Freedom Industries that support it stop pushing for reduced oversight? Will Duke Energy take the necessary steps to protect human and environmental health by moving its coal ash away from North Carolina’s waterways? Only then should we decide whether their apologies are authentic or worth accepting.