Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Peculiar Patriot Coal deal raises questions

Thursday, August 20th, 2015 - posted by Tarence Ray
A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

A train leads up to a Patriot Coal site in Kanawha County, W.Va. Photo by Foo Conner | Jekko.

What would a health care executive-turned-environmentalist want with the dying business of mining coal?

That’s the question some are asking after it was announced this week that Tom Clarke, a Virginia businessman, plans to acquire assets, and assume around $400 million in liabilities, from recently-bankrupt Patriot Coal through one of his companies, ERP Compliant Fuels.

The deal is part of an elaborate and untested business model that will allow ERP — an affiliate of the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund — to continue mining Patriot permits in West Virginia, bundling this coal with “carbon offsets” accrued from planting trees, and selling these bundled products to electric utilities.

Because trees absorb atmospheric carbon, Clarke believes credits created through reforestation will help states meet carbon emissions targets set forth by the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. But the plan does not make clear that coal-carbon offsets will count towards states’ emissions targets.

According to The Roanoke Times, Clarke says he’s not in it for the money, but for the earth. But that isn’t clear from the available literature on ERP, which seeks to bring together a coalition of conflicting environmental and capital interests — “coal mining businesses, electric power producers, forestland owners, government, and the scientific community” — in order to reduce global CO2 emissions. In the same literature, Clarke and the ERP/VCLF tout their business partnership with Jim Justice, a notorious scofflaw mine operator who owes nearly $2 million in mine violation fines.

As if these relationships weren’t enough to raise suspicion, ERP/VCLF’s definition of a “carbon offset” is dubious. As The Roanoke Times points out:

It doesn’t matter that Clarke will target coal-fired electrical generating plants in the Ohio River Valley with his pitch, while the designated trees are in Central America and the U.S. South or would be planted in Appalachia. Carbon emissions spread in the atmosphere and the concentration evens out; a party that wants to offset its carbon output can fund tree planting or tree preservation anywhere and benefit the globe, he said.

If there’s no requirement that trees be planted on deforested land in Appalachia, what’s stopping ERP from destroying mountains and externalizing the costs onto Appalachian communities for the social mission of stopping climate change? How does ERP plan to address coal ash and mercury and the many other harmful externalities that are inflicted on communities as coal is mined, processed and burned? How will the company account for the numerous injuries, fatalities, and black lung incidences that result from both underground and surface mining? Coal’s impact goes far beyond CO2 pollution.

These are crucial questions to ask as the coal industry in central Appalachia undergoes massive structural changes. If the history of the coal industry in the region has taught us anything, it’s that we should be highly suspect of outside corporate interests looking to exploit the region’s natural resources.

This is just as true today, in an era in which investors and politicians stand to gain substantial material and social capital off of the region’s diversification.

Predictable politics giving way to popular support for POWER+

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015 - posted by brian
Photo of Wise County, Va., by Flickr user biotour 13 licensed under Creative Commons.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan are less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate economic hardship. Photo of Wise County, Va., by biotour 13.

The recent growth in local support for a plan to boost Appalachia’s economy has been a bright spot in the region during some of the coal industry’s darkest days.

In Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee, cities and counties with long histories of coal mining are advocating for the POWER+ Plan, a federal budget initiative proposed by the White House to build more diverse economies in the communities hardest hit by the regional coal industry’s decline.

Last week, the Board of Supervisors of Wise County, Va., unanimously approved a resolution supporting the plan, citing the “dramatic economic transition” and job losses the county has experienced. According to the resolution, the county “desires to invest resources to adapt to new economic circumstances” facing the region.

On the same night, the City Council of Benham, in Harlan County, Ky., passed a supporting resolution. Before Benham came the City of Whitesburg, Ky., and Virginia’s Cumberland Plateau Planning District Commission.

The Campbell County Commission became the first locality in Tennessee to support POWER+, unanimously passing a resolution yesterday. Also on Monday, members of the Letcher County Fiscal Court voted unanimously in favor of the plan.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

The City Council of Whitesburg, Ky., is among the growing number of localities in central Appalachia that have passed resolutions supporting the POWER+ Plan. Photo by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

It was only a few weeks ago that Norton, Va., became the first locality in the nation to pass a resolution in favor of the plan. More endorsements are expected in the days and weeks ahead.

Appalachian Voices and our allies have been promoting the POWER+ Plan, too. We’re heartened, but not surprised, to hear local perspectives that don’t reflect the tone legislators from Appalachian states often take in D.C.

After listening to residents speak at the Wise County Board of Supervisors meeting about how the plan could benefit their families and share their hopes for Southwest Virginia’s economy, board member Ron Shortt told the audience, “We’re behind you 100 percent on this. We realize how important it is to Southwest Virginia and Wise County.”

The implication could be that, so far, Congress doesn’t realize how important it is for the region.

Since it holds the federal purse strings, Congress must approve funding for elements of the POWER+ Plan. But after months of opportunity to consider the proposal, and some shirking by Appalachian politicians, lawmakers in the House and Senate weakened key provisions of the plan or left them out of the budget altogether.

We recently covered Congress’s muted response in The Appalachian Voice and pointed to how lawmakers are sticking to their political sides:

… rather than receiving the POWER+ Plan with enthusiasm, many Appalachian lawmakers’ comments echoed past criticisms of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and claims of a war on coal.

“The administration has instituted sweeping regulations that have destroyed our economy’s very foundation without considering the real-world impacts, and funding alone won’t fix that,” a spokesperson for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Earlier this year, Capito introduced legislation to prevent the EPA from regulating carbon pollution.

When asked about the plan, a spokesperson for first-term Rep. Alex Mooney responded to the Gazette-Mail with a simple “No, Representative Mooney does not support the [POWER+] Plan.”

Mooney has introduced a bill to prevent the U.S. Department of the Interior from finalizing the Stream Protection Rule to reduce the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining. He has called stopping the rule his “top priority.”

Rather than investing in workforce training and reemployment programs or reforming the Abandoned Mine Lands Fund to focus more on economic development, as the POWER+ Plan would, congressional opponents of the president remain primarily concerned with undermining protections for Appalachian streams and fighting limits on carbon emissions — policy goals, sure, but nothing close to an economic development plan for the region.

The counties that stand to benefit most from the plan are some of the poorest in the United States and continue to face layoffs, the impacts of ongoing mining, and pollution from decades-old and poorly reclaimed mine sites.

Lawmakers representing those counties in Congress, including Rep. Hal Rogers, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are positioned to rally other influential legislators around the plan, but they aren’t.

Some lawmakers have made statements expressing tacit support. But the resolutions make clear that these localities expect their representatives to do more; some call on members of Congress by name to support funding for economic development in the region.

The politics surrounding the POWER+ Plan, and attempts to fit it into a “war on coal” framework, are understandably less important to Appalachian communities than advancing initiatives that will create jobs and alleviate the economic hardships they face.

Many of the communities now urging members of Congress to back the plan have been underrepresented over the years in their demands for a more diverse economy. They deserved to be heard then like they deserve to be heard now.

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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.”

Water Privatization

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015 - posted by molly

A Utility Company’s Troubles Raise Questions About Drinking Water Ownership

By Molly Moore

Residents from the greater Charleston area gather for a panel discussion regarding public water safety facilitated by Advocates for a Safe Water System in November 2014. Photo by Joe Solomon.

Residents from the greater Charleston area gather for a panel discussion regarding public water safety facilitated by Advocates for a Safe Water System in November 2014. Photo by Joe Solomon.

When two water main accidents within the space of a week interrupted water service for up to 25,000 customers this summer, West Virginia American Water took out a full-page ad in the Sunday edition of the Charleston Gazette-Mail to say “sorry” to the ratepayers who were required to either fill tubs and jugs with water, buy bottled water or do without.

The incident wasn’t the investor-owned, private utility’s first apology to its ratepayers, nor their customers’ first experience going without potable water.
In January 2014, a chemical storage tank upstream of West Virginia American Water’s intake — the only drinking water source for 300,000 residents — leaked approximately 7,500 gallons of the coal-washing chemical MCHM and 400 gallons of the chemical mixture PPH.

The licorice-scented chemical mix infiltrated the company’s water system undetected, and the resulting contamination led to “do not use” orders lasting a week or more, a state of emergency that lasted a month, and resident reports of water use leading to rashes, headaches, dizziness and other ailments for months to follow.

This June, soon after the faulty water mains were repaired, citizens filed a brief in a lawsuit regarding damages from the 2014 chemical spill. The brief stated that while Freedom Industries, the now-bankrupt owner of the leaky chemical tank, was responsible for the spill itself, “the resulting tap water loss would not have occurred but for a decades-long string of negligent acts and misfeasance by [West Virginia American Water Company] and Eastman Chemical Company [the manufacturer of MCHM].”

Adding to the public scrutiny, West Virginia American Water — a subsidiary of the national company American Water — is currently seeking state approval for a general 28 percent rate increase, including a nearly 30 percent increase for residential customers. The request, filed April 30, has attracted media and public attention toward the company’s business model and plans for infrastructure improvements. The Public Services Commission must decide whether to approve the request by February 2016.

At the end of June, Advocates for a Safe Water System, a volunteer-run citizens group that formed in the wake of the chemical spill, was granted permission to intervene in the rate case.
“We originally came together as people who were upset about being billed for contaminated water during the crisis,” says Steering Committee Member Cathy Kunkel.

The citizens group is scrutinizing the company’s plans for the more than $35 million in potential additional annual revenue from the rate increase, and is raising questions about whether the company’s long-term plans fit with the region’s water needs, or whether West Virginia residents would be better served by a public utility.

“We kept meeting, learned more, and realized the water company had been really not doing what it should to protect people from this kind of event, and we didn’t have a safe water system, which means we were still vulnerable to having something like this happen again,” Kunkel says.

Moving Toward Municipalization

Nationally, water ownership is moving toward more municipal control, according to Mary Grant, water privatization researcher for the advocacy organization Food & Water Watch. She cites data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency showing that, from 2007 to 2013, the number of U.S. residents served by water systems owned by local governments grew by 17 million, while those with privately owned water systems fell by 7 million.

Grant attributes this in part to the fact that privately owned water costs more for the consumer, because governments have access to cheaper financing and public utilities do not need to pay for investor profits and corporate income taxes. A Food & Water Watch analysis reveals that customers of private utilities usually pay 33 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than residents who rely on local government services.

In the Tarheel State, the environmental justice organization Clean Water for North Carolina has expressed concern that state policies encourage large private water companies to establish uniform prices for residents across wide geographic areas. The group adds that this can lead to low-income communities paying for repairs that don’t affect their neighborhoods.

According to Grant, the trend of transferring private utilities to public hands is also driven by the growth of cities and the fact that contracts with investor-owned water companies are often bad deals for cash-strapped governments.

The southwest Virginia town of Coeburn, Va., is one such example. Coeburn entered into a contract with Veolia Water North America, a subsidiary of a French multinational corporation, in 2009. But after financial difficulties following the Great Recession, the town council voted in 2013 not to renew the contract. At that point, the contract cost the town $1.41 million of its $1.47 million annual budget.

Coeburn had run its own public works department before the 2009 deal. “When we ran the numbers ourselves, it was about $400,000 cheaper [for the town to run the water utility],” then-mayor Jess Powers told the Bristol Herald Courier.

But regaining public control is not always so straightforward. In the early 2000s, dissatisfied residents in Lexington, Ky., attempted to replace Kentucky American Water with local, public ownership.

Citizens in favor of public purchase gathered 26,000 signatures during the summer of 2005 to put the issue on the November ballot. The water company sued to block the vote, but dropped its legal challenge the following year. During the 2006 election, the public voted to remain with the company by a 20-point margin. Kentucky American Water spent $2.71 million on the campaign, according to Food & Water Watch.

A map shows the expansion of West Virginia American Water since 1969. Created by Alicia Willett for wvwaterhistory.com

A map shows the expansion of West Virginia American Water since 1969. Click to enlarge. Created by Alicia Willett for wvwaterhistory.com

Company Policy

“Remunicipalization” may be the general national trend, but there are still exceptions. American Water is the largest investor-owned utility in the country. In western Pennsylvania, it has expanded service lines to reach gas companies engaging in the water-intensive process of natural gas fracking.

“As they expand to serve these gas companies, they’re also connecting households along the way who have their groundwater contaminated, possibly because of those gas drilling operations,” Grant says.

The company’s expansion in Pennsylvania due to the loss of private wells to polluted water has also occurred in West Virginia.

“One interesting thing about West Virginia is that American Water received subsidies to expand in Putnam County, but then after [the company] was denied a rate increase, it wanted to renege on those promises to expand service to areas where household wells had been contaminated … by the coal industry,” Grant says. Ultimately, the state ruled that the company had to expand services to the affected areas.

Between 2004 and 2009, local groundwater and household wells were contaminated in Boone County, W.Va., when coal slurry — a toxic sludge that remains after washing coal — was injected into abandoned underground mines. In 2009, a state moratorium on underground injections took effect. Also that year, a partnership between Boone County and West Virginia American Water used $1.5 million from a federal grant, combined with smaller contributions from the county and company, to expand the company’s service to residents of the town of Prenter, 35 miles south of Charleston.

“So we got city water up here, and it took them two or three years to get it up here,” Prenter resident D.J. Estep told Gabe Schwartzman, a fellow at University of California – Berkeley who researched and wrote the website wvwaterhistory.com. “And then a year later the MCHM spill happened. And we were stuck. Now it’s like you’ve got to choose between two evils. The one you’re used to and the one you’ve got.”

Expansion to serve remote communities with polluted water explains just one part of the growing number of customers served from the Elk River intake. On his website, Schwartzman, also a member of Advocates For A Safe Water System, describes how West Virginia Water Company, the predecessor to West Virginia American Water, built its large Elk River intake in 1976 with the intention of serving industrial customers. Those customers didn’t materialize, he writes, so in the ‘80s the company “launched an aggressive expansion strategy, pushing to take over small municipal systems and public rural systems.”

In 1994, the Charleston Gazette reported on the company’s effort to expand to the town of Clendenin. At a meeting, then-president of WVAM Chris Jarrett told town council members, “It is simply more efficient and more economical, the more customers you can serve from one large production facility.”

Water Costs

A single intake might be cost-efficient, but the Elk River chemical spill in January 2014 displayed the pitfalls of reliance on one facility. And it turned out that, to save money, West Virginia American Water Company had sold its chemical monitoring equipment upstream of the Elk River intake in 2004. A new chemical monitoring system wasn’t installed until after the 2014 spill. The new equipment falls short of being able to detect MCHM and a host of other chemicals — technology that is in use at major water plants around the region — according to a chemist and a chemical engineer who are also members of Advocates for a Safe Water System.

A state investigation into West Virginia American Water’s response to the spill is currently stalled until Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appoints another member to the three-person commission.

According to a utility press release, the company’s request for a 28 percent rate increase is driven by “the approximately $105 million of system improvements the company has made since 2012 as well as an additional $98 million that the company plans to expend on recurring and investment projects through February 2017.” The rate hike would also increase the West Virginia subsidiary’s profit margin from 4-5 percent to 10.75 percent.

Cathy Kunkel of the citizens’ group claims this is at odds with customers’ experiences. “You say you’re raising rates due to major capital expenditures you’ve made, but it doesn’t seem like we’re benefiting from them,” she says.

In the Frequently Asked Questions section of its website, the company acknowledges that it is replacing infrastructure at the rate of once every 400 years, but notes that rate is faster than it had been, and that the the cost of reducing that replacement cycle to 100 years — the target rate — would place heavy costs on ratepayers.

Yet Kunkel is concerned that replacing water mains will not be a priority, despite this summer’s repeated breaks. Advocates For a Safe Water System has also proposed construction of a reservoir to serve as an alternate water source for Charleston and the surrounding area, a plan that the water company has not publicly considered.
When asked what an ideal water system would look like, Kunkel is clear.

“Fundamentally, it needs to be transparent — people need to have a clear idea of how the water system is making decisions with our money,” she says. “[It needs to be] responsive to citizen concerns, and it needs to be fair. People should get the service that they’re paying for.”

Website Explores History of WV Water Company

Discover maps and more information about the history of West Virginia American Water, and hear audio clips from West Virginians regarding the impact of the 2014 chemical spill at wvwaterhistory.com. The multimedia website, authored by Gabe Schwartzman with web and graphics by Alicia Willett, was created with support from the Judith Lee Stronach Baccalaureate Prize at the University of California-Berkeley.

Rev. Michael Watts

Pastor Michael Watts

“You can just see how being poor affects you when there is a crisis. The initial places for the water distribution were such that if you didn’t have transportation it would be hard for you to get water because you could only carry it so many blocks. We believe that many people in this community probably did use the water when they were advised not to use it, because they just could not get enough water.” — Pastor Michael J. Watts, Grace Bible Church of Charleston, W.Va.

Fred Stottlemyer

Fred Stottlemyer

“It was during the early 1980s when … [West Virginia American Water] did take over many systems were near the brink of failure. Many of those systems were not economically viable, with the changing in water economy over the years. The Putnam System was economically viable, and one of the few areas where it would have been profitable for them to take over the system. So they were very aggressive and approached us in a very hostile manner.” – Fred Stottlemyer, former director of the Putnam Public Service District, which is still community owned and operated

U.S. coal giant Alpha Natural Resources files for bankruptcy

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by jamie
Alpha Natural Resources Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, West Virginia - Photo by Ami Vitale

Alpha Natural Resources’ Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, W.Va. Photo by Ami Vitale, www.amivitale.com.

Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States and a big player in the Appalachian coal market, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday of this week, coincidentally on the day President Obama announced his administration’s final Clean Power Plan.

In the announcement, Alpha blamed “an unprecedented period of distress with increased competition from natural gas, an oversupply in the global coal market, historically low prices due to weaker international and domestic economies, and increasing government regulation that has pushed electric utilities to transition away from coal-fired power plants.”

According to the release, the company does not anticipate closing the business down, but will “seek the necessary immediate relief from the Bankruptcy Court that will allow normal business operations to continue uninterrupted while in Chapter 11, with coal being mined, customer commitments honored, and wages and benefits for Alpha’s affiliated employees paid.”

A Bloomberg Business article notes that Alpha, which employs nearly 8,000 workers at more than 50 underground and surface mines and more than 20 coal preparation facilities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, has accumulated $3.3 billion in debt over the past several years.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Alpha has assets of $10.1 billion, liabilities of $7.1 billion, and is “seeking up to $692 million in bankruptcy financing from senior lenders and secured bondholders to fund its operations.”

United Mine Workers of America responded to the news:

“Today’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Alpha Natural Resources appears to follow the same script as others we’ve seen this year: pay off the big banks and other Wall Street investors at the expense of workers, retirees and their communities … Alpha needs to understand that while we are willing to discuss ways forward that will be of mutual benefit for the company and for our members, we are also prepared to do whatever we need to do to maintain decent jobs with the pension and health care benefits our retirees were promised and have earned.”

Alpha launched a new website to detail the Chapter 11 process, including contact information and FAQs for employees, customers, retirees and other stakeholders.

Is there an echo in here?

The move brings to mind the financial roller coaster of Patriot Coal, the West Virginia-based company that emerged from its first bankruptcy in 2012 only to file again a scant 3 years later in May of this year. Patriot’s initial 2012 “restructuring” plan was extremely controversial as it involved slashing the healthcare benefits of 1,800 union miners and retirees. Patriot initially won court approval for the cut, but, after significant public scrutiny and outrage, settled with the United Mine Workers of America in 2013 for $400 million to cover the benefits.

And now history seems to be repeating itself. According to an AP story that is quoted on Coal Tattoo (yet mysteriously disappeared from national news outlets, including the Washington Post), just a few weeks ago Patriot asked a judge’s permission to “reject the company’s collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees’ health care benefits …” The United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to the proposed plan, which includes $6.4 million in bonuses paid to management employees.

Just this week, the beleaguered company announced the layoff of 1,081 coal miners, most in West Virginia’s Kanawha County.

Patriot Coal is also the first coal company in Appalachia to announce it would phase out the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.

“Big Coal’s war on itself”

When examining the financial tribulations of big coal mining companies, industry officials are quick to point the finger at what they have dubbed the “war on coal,” claiming that environmental regulations are the primary culprits causing their fiscal misfortunes. But according to a recent article co-authored by independent financial analyst Andrew Stevenson and NRDC’s Dave Hawkins, coal mining’s economic downturn has more to do with bad investment decisions than anything else.

“The biggest cause of Big Coal’s loss of value is that Big 3 management bet big on a global coal boom and lost big when it went bust,” Stevenson and Hawkins write. Their article goes on to detail the five specific reasons Alpha and other coal companies are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“In sum, bad bets at the top of the market, weak met coal prices, cheap natural gas, and lower power demand due to energy efficiency reduced cumulative forecasted coal revenues for the Big 3 by approximately $21 billion over the past four years. This is a big hit for companies as highly leveraged as Alpha Natural, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy and the reason why these companies are struggling to stay afloat today.”

As industry officials and coal-friendly politicians — including an outspoken Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who notedly said, “I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy” — themselves take aim at the Clean Power Plan, they have yet to acknowledge the most important question on the table: what will happen to residents in Appalachia’s coal country who, because of company bankruptcies, layoffs, revocation of pensions and lack of other job opportunities, remain among the poorest in the nation?

So far, the only offer of assistance to these folks has come from President Obama himself, in the form of the POWER+ Plan to revitalize the region.

“They’ll claim [the Clean Power Plan] is a “war on coal,” to scare up votes — even as they ignore my plan to actually invest in revitalizing coal country, and supporting health care and retirement for coal miners and their families, and retraining those workers for better-paying jobs and healthier jobs,” Obama said on Monday, taking aim at McConnell and his other critics. Communities across America have been losing coal jobs for decades. I want to work with Congress to help them, not to use them as a political football.

Mounting Threats Imperil Two Appalachian Crayfish

Thursday, August 6th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

The Big Sandy crayfish, which is currently considered endangered by Virginia officials, may also be listed as federally endangered. Photo by Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University

The Big Sandy crayfish, which is currently considered endangered by Virginia officials, may also be listed as federally endangered. Photo by Zachary Loughman, West Liberty University

By Dac Collins

There are more than 300 different species of crayfish in the southeastern United States alone. The adaptable freshwater crustaceans look like small lobsters, and they live in all sorts of environments, from low-lying swamps to high mountain streams.

Those who never grew up catching crayfish in mountain streams are probably most familiar with the abundant Red Swamp and White River varieties, which are sold commercially. They can be found burrowed in the mud in the brackish marshes of Louisiana and along murky waterways throughout the deep South.

The crayfish that live in coldwater creeks are generally smaller than their Cajun cousins, and hide from predators in the crevices of the creek bottom. Crawdads, as they are also known, spend a majority of their lives wedged into these nooks and crannies, which also serve as places to lie dormant during the winter months. But when these rocky creek beds are smothered in sediment, the habitat that these creatures depend on to survive is lost.

The effects of sedimentation on Appalachian crayfish populations is evident in the Big Sandy and Guyandotte River drainages of West Virginia. A recent report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends that the two crayfish species native to these watersheds be added to the federal list of endangered species.

The Scoop on Crawdads

  • Once considered one and the same, the Big Sandy crayfish was recognized as a distinct species from the Guyandotte crayfish this past December
  • Both measure three to four inches in length
  • Only four isolated populations of the Big Sandy crayfish remain, located in southwest Virginia, southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky
  • There is just one known population of the Guyandotte crayfish, in West Virginia’s Pinnacle Creek in Wyoming County
  • Unlike the Big Sandy and Guyandotte crayfish, which live five to ten years and mate during their third or fourth year of life, the Hell Creek Cave crayfish is suspected to live up to 40 years, laying eggs every five years

“The Big Sandy crayfish and Guyandotte River crayfish are in danger of extinction, primarily due to the threats of land-disturbing activities that increase erosion and sedimentation, which degrades the stream habitat required by both species,” the Fish and Wildlife Service determined in the report. “An immediate threat to the continued existence of the Guyandotte River crayfish is several active and inactive surface coal mines, including [mountaintop removal] mines, in the mid and upper reaches of the Pinnacle Creek watershed.”

Along with coal mining, the report attributed the high sediment levels in the two rivers to logging, road construction and off-road vehicle use, and called attention to the impaired water quality and hazardous concentrations of sulfate and aluminum even after mine reclamation efforts.

Crayfish are especially susceptible to poor water quality because they rely on delicate, feather-like gills that act as ultra-fine filters. High levels of silt or pollutants can clog these gills and inhibit their ability to breathe.

The Fish and Wildlife Service released its report on the Guyandotte and Big Sandy crayfish in April. Despite petitions from groups such as the National Mining Association and the West Virginia Coal Association, the public comment period regarding the proposed endangered species listing ended in June. A timeline for a final decision has not been announced.

Deep in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas lives another unique and isolated species, one that has been on the endangered species list since 1987. Hell Creek Cave crayfish are rarely seen by researchers because they inhabit underground caves and channels filled with groundwater. This subterranean maze is all but inaccessible to humans, but occasionally one of the blind, albino crayfish is spotted on the surface near an emerging spring of groundwater.

According to a Fish and Wildlife Service report from 2012, this cave-dwelling crawdad’s habitat is jeopardized by poor water quality. Despite ongoing conservation efforts, water quality specialists are finding it difficult to effectively protect groundwater from nearby human influences such as stormwater runoff and sewage plant pollution.

Although some species of crayfish live in muddy swamps and others inhabit rocky creeks or dark caves, all of them need clean water to survive. And as good housekeepers, the tiny scavengers contribute to their watery environment by feeding on decaying matter. They do such a good job at this that some private landowners and farmers introduce them into their ponds in order to clean them up.

If a crayfish population were to disappear completely, the ecology of both the associated water body and the surrounding environment could drastically change. Crayfish are a primary food source for native fish species such as the brook trout, and are also preyed upon by a variety of creatures such as the hellbender salamander, river otters and birds of prey.
Crayfish are nature’s form of underwater custodians. The cleanliness of the region’s streams, ponds and other drinking water sources is contingent upon their survival.

Fracking Investigations Stir Questions, Fines

Thursday, July 30th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Eliza Laubach

A test well drilled in North Carolina by state scientists this spring has suggested there may be natural gas beneath the Walnut Tree community, a majority African-American neighborhood that shares groundwater with the largest coal ash pond in the state. Laboratory analysis, yet to be funded, will determine the nature of the deposit and guide speculation for hydraulic fracturing in the region.

Oil and gas test wells in eastern Kentucky have increased speculation into whether the Rogersville shale is profitable to frack. Considering the link between fracking and earthquakes, scientists with the Kentucky Geological Survey are establishing baseline data by burying sensitive seismic activity monitoring devices this summer.

In Morgantown, W. Va., atop the Marcellus shale, a university fracking site will provide a long-term study of the light, noise, air and water pollution these sites emit. One of the drilling sites is dangerously close to the city’s water intake on the Monongahela River, environmental groups say.

Range Resources faces an $8.9 million fine for contaminating groundwater with methane near a fracking rig in Pennsylvania. This record fine, being challenged by the company, comes after a two-year dispute over this well with the state.

Interior Department Issues Draft Stream Protection Rule

Thursday, July 16th, 2015 - posted by brian

Contact: Cat McCue, Communications Director, 434-293-6373, cat@appvoices.org

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.

EIA: Mountaintop removal coal production down

Tuesday, July 7th, 2015 - posted by brian
A combination of market and regulatory forces has contributed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. Graphic from eia.gov

A combination of market and regulatory forces has contributed to a steep decline in coal produced by mountaintop removal mining. Graphic from eia.gov

The U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) published a blog post this week showing that coal produced by mountaintop removal mining in Central Appalachia decreased by 62 percent between 2008 and 2014.

According to the agency, a combination of factors including abundant and cheap natural gas, growing use of renewables, flat electricity demand, and environmental regulations has contributed to the sharp decline.

It’s important to note that what the EIA defines as mountaintop removal is not the same as what folks in Appalachia call mountaintop removal.

Because the EIA doesn’t count a lot of large strip mines in the region, the total numbers here likely underestimate the number of mines threatening human health and the environment. For the same reason, production declines for mountaintop removal specifically may not be as steeps as the EIA states.

What is clear, though, is that both production and the total number of mountaintop removal mines is way down in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.

Our work is paying off, but we still have a long way to go. Mountaintop removal is still putting communities at risk. In fact, in many places, active mining operations are getting closer to communities.

Demand for Central Appalachian coal will continue to decline, making further progress inevitable. But we won’t end mountaintop removal by relying on the market alone. The Obama administration must take further action to protect Appalachia by issuing a strong Stream Protection Rule, which is due out this month.

The following is a statement from Appalachian Voices Legislative Associate Thom Kay:

It is incredibly important not to look at these numbers and conclude the problem is just going away. Production numbers don’t convey the extent of human health impacts. Mine location, blasting extent, and impacts to the environment are much more important indicators of damage done to communities.

Fewer mines is good news. But don’t expect us to celebrate. The EIA reports that last year there were over 30 mountaintop removal mines operating in Central Appalachia, producing more than 20 million tons of coal. Those numbers should be zero.

Allowing mountaintop removal mining to continue as residents demand new investments and support for economic alternatives will only burden communities searching for a better path forward.

Let the President know we need a strong rule that helps move Appalachia forward.

Appalachian legislators give POWER+ the cold shoulder

Friday, June 26th, 2015 - posted by Adam
Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

TAKE ACTION: Tell your Senators to support a positive future for Appalachian communities.

Virginia’s coal-bearing counties would directly benefit from the adoption of the POWER+ plan, a proposal in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget that would direct more than a billion dollars to Central Appalachia.

But the U.S. House budget cuts Virginia entirely out of the forward-thinking Abandoned Mined Lands funding reforms that were spelled out in the POWER+ Plan. That component of the plan would send $30 million directly to the Virginia coalfields for economic development and put laid-off miners back to work cleaning up the messes left by coal companies.

Last week, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee passed a budget bill the leaves out any mention of POWER+.

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

For more background, we recommend this piece by Naveena Sadasivam for InsideClimate News, which details the curious quiet around POWER+ and how the plan has been pulled into the partisan bickering that’s embroiled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and the 2016 budget process as a whole.

Under the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, sites that pose a threat to safety are prioritized over sites that offer a potential economic benefit if cleaned up. While this program has reduced potential hazards in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia and the U.S., it has done little to positively impact local economies.

The POWER+ Plan, however, calls for funds to be used for projects that not only improve the environment and reduce hazards, but also create an economic benefit for local economies.

There’s still time for both House and Senate to include the meaningful funding proposals outlined in POWER+. But in order for that to happen we need to make sure that Virginia’s U.S. Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, hear the clear message from you to make sure Appalachia gets this much needed funding!

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.