Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Understanding the Stream Protection Rule

Friday, October 23rd, 2015 - posted by Erin

SPR Meme 1

In July, the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement issued a long-awaited draft Stream Protection Rule. While it’s far from perfect, the proposed rule is a long-overdue update to protections for both surface and groundwater from mountaintop removal coal mining. It also provides much-needed clarification regarding a host of other issues, including reclamation standards and bonding requirements.

Not surprisingly, the industry is fighting the Stream Protection Rule tooth and nail. Instead of focusing on the substance of the rule though, opponents’ rely on tired “war on coal” talking points. The industry also argues these regulations are unnecessary and will undermine an otherwise viable industry — even though several large coal companies have declared bankruptcy. Let’s examine those claims.

First, this new rule was developed to update the rule currently in use — the 1983 Stream Buffer Zone rule — based on new science and realities on the ground. The past 32 years have provided ample time for additional research to prove what many Central Appalachian residents already know: that burying streams with mining waste permanently damages waterways and that mountaintop removal is linked to a host of other environmental and health problems. The Stream Protection Rule aims to address a number of current problems.

The Stream Protection Rule aims to improve methods for monitoring for and preventing damage to surface and groundwater. It’s important to note that the rule still allows for mining activities, including waste disposal, in streams. The new rule is actually weaker than the 1983 rule in this regard. The ‘83 rule prohibited mining disturbances within 100 feet of streams and prohibited damage to streams by mountaintop removal mining. In practice, however, states routinely grant variances to the ‘83 Stream Buffer Zone rule, allowing valley fill construction and other mining impacts to streams on a regular basis. This is often done by allowing companies to remediate other areas of streams that have already been degraded as a substitution for the stream miles they will bury or otherwise damage.

While it does not include a stream buffer zone requirement, the Stream Protection Rule does provide a number of added benefits for aquatic resources. New requirements include enhanced baseline monitoring data for both surface and groundwater. The availability of such data will make it easier to identify damage caused by mining. Under existing regulations, coal companies too often escape liability for damage to waterways because there is no baseline data to prove pollutants were not present before mining began. The draft rule also includes a definition of “material damage to the hydrologic balance”, which was never previously defined. Clarifying language like this is an important part of making sure that rules are enforceable on the ground.

An important question to ask is whether this type of regulation is necessary. In this case, the additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed. Research over the past decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. A recent study examined coal companies’ success in restoring or recreating streams as a form of “trade” for other streams damaged or buried during mining. The study found that 97 percent of these projects failed optimal habitat scores for aquatic life. This is strong indication that rebuilding a stream’s form will not necessarily restore its function. Additionally, the study found that a majority of these restoration projects were completed in perennial streams, while mining damage was mostly occurring in intermittent and ephemeral streams. This is important because intermittent and ephemeral streams often provide unique habitat and food resources critical to the survival of many species.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

Surface mining contributes to global warming through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, Central Appalachian forests will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by 2035.

The science clearly indicates the need for more protection of streams and other environmental resources, but would the cost of these protections be justifiable? Do the benefits to streams — and people, and tourism, and recreation, and … — outweigh the impact that the rule may have on the industry? The industry would like you to believe that this new rule will be so costly that it will create an unwarranted burden on an otherwise beneficial Central Appalachian industry. The OSMRE attempted to answer this debate through an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which includes cost-benefit analyses. In most scenarios, the OSMRE expects minimal job loss due to the new rule, in part due to jobs created through the need to comply with the rule.

What the EIS doesn’t adequately do is take into consideration the larger context of surface mining in Appalachia and the impacts it has on local communities. First, the coal industry already has a net negative impact on the economies of the states where it occurs. Several different studies in West Virginia, Virginia and Kentucky indicate this. In 2006, the coal industry cost the state of Kentucky $115 million. In 2009, the coal industry was estimated to cost the state of West Virginia $97.5 million and the state of Virginia $21.9 million.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

Research over the last decade has identified and quantified a number of critical issues with surface mining in Appalachia. Additional safeguards for streams are clearly needed.

The EIS also does not consider surface mining’s global impact. The burning of coal in power plants releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change. Surface mining in Central Appalachia also exacerbates climate change through deforestation. If mining continues at recent rates, forests in the region will switch from being a net carbon sink to a carbon source by the year 2035. This is due both to deforestation during the mining process and grassland reclamation. The Stream Protection Rule improves reclamation requirements so that more mined lands are returned to native forests, instead of the now-prevalent grasslands.

Lastly, the EIS does not consider the negative health outcomes associated with mountaintop removal. The prevalence of health problems the region is well documented. Most recently, a study showed that dust from surface mines can promote the growth of lung tumors. The negative impacts to the health of communities near mines alone should be enough to justify an end to mountaintop removal.

It is true that the coal industry in Central Appalachia is facing a particularly difficult time. Unlike previous boom and bust cycles, this downturn looks to be permanent. This is exactly why additional safeguards are necessary to protect public water. Companies desperate to turn a profit in a more competitive energy market may be more inclined to bend rules or ignore regulations all together. This time marks a critical and exciting opportunity to address economic diversification throughout the region. Protecting the communities and the natural assets of the region will be integral to a successful transition.

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White House POWER Initiative grants awarded

Thursday, October 15th, 2015 - posted by brian
The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

The Whitesburg, Ky.-based Appalshop received a POWER Initiative grant to develop an IT workforce certificate program targeted to communities affected by the reduction in coal employment.

Dozens of groups working to increase employment and diversify the economies of historically coal-reliant communities got some good news today.

The White House has announced $14.5 million in grant awards for organizations and local governments across 12 states that are building a better economic future for their communities. A majority of the 36 awards, and most of the grant dollars, are going to plan or implement projects in Central Appalachia.

Appalachian Voices congratulates all the grant recipients, especially our friends and allies among them, on receiving funding for their incredibly deserving and meaningful efforts.

You may have seen news about the Obama administration’s POWER+ Plan on this blog, in The Appalachian Voice, or in other regional or national media. The White House describes today’s round of grants as a “down payment” on that plan — a swifter move that recognizes the “immediacy of the economic need in coal country.” Here’s some helpful background from the White House’s announcement:

In the spring of 2015, four federal agencies announced coordinated funding solicitations for grant awards on two parallel tracks to partnerships anchored in communities impacted by the downturn in the coal economy.

The POWER Planning Grants solicitation was released in April by the Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to assist community-based partnerships develop comprehensive economic development strategic plans for their regions.

The POWER Implementation Grants Federal Funding Opportunity was released in May with available funding from the Economic Development Administration, the Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration, the Small Business Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission. The Federal Funding Opportunity made funding available to partnerships in impacted communities to help them: (1) diversify their economies; (2) create jobs in new or existing industries; (3) attract new sources of job-creating investment; and (4) provide a range of workforce services and skills training for high-quality, in-demand jobs.

Based on those goals it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the funding will support projects in Kentucky and West Virginia, the two states most severely impacted by coal’s economic decline. A handful of the awards will help groups in rural areas of East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia that have also seen significant job losses.

We’ll be following some of these projects and look forward to sharing the successes to come. But for now, take a look at the list of POWER grant recipients and you’ll get a sense of the range of exciting projects taking place in Central Appalachia.

Oh, and we’d be remiss not to mention that the POWER Initiative and POWER+ Plan have broad and growing bipartisan support. More than two dozen Central Appalachian localities have passed resolutions that support the POWER+ Plan specifically and call for economic development funding to soften the acute effects of the regional coal industry’s collapse and spur sustainable economic growth.

There are critics, of course, but most of them are either paid by the coal industry or so ideologically driven and wedded to “war on coal” rhetoric that, well, they say things like National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich. “These are tantamount to war reparations paid by a government guilty of indiscriminate destruction,” Popovich told E&E News shortly before comparing President Obama to a 15th-century Mongol conquerer.

We’re cautiously optimistic that that kind of astronomical hyperbole is on its way out. Even some of coal’s greatest champions in Congress seem like they’re are coming down to earth. According to U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY):

“We know there isn’t a silver bullet to overcome the many challenges we face in the Appalachian region, but with continued collaboration of resources and ingenuity, the future is much brighter for the people who want to live and work here at home.”

Rogers’ words are a reminder that siding with coal should never come before stepping up and doing what’s right for Appalachia’s future.

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Natural Gas Pipelines Encroach on Appalachia

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

In August, a West Virginia circuit court judge ruled in favor of Bryan and Doris McCurdy of Greenville, W. Va., denying the Mountain Valley Pipeline project access to their private property to conduct a survey. This proposed natural gas pipeline would stretch 300 miles from northwest West Virginia to southern Virginia, but the judge ruled that the pipeline operators “failed to establish that the project would provide sufficient public use to justify entering private property without an owner’s permission,” according to an article by the Associated Press.

Another proposed natural gas project, Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC, officially applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in September for permission to begin construction on a 564-mile pipeline that would extend from north-central West Virginia, across Virginia and into North Carolina. The project is expected to cost $5.1 billion.
— By Elizabeth E. Payne

Appalachian Millennials and social media in Wyoming County

Wednesday, October 14th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Donald Welch is a writer and educator currently living in Brooklyn, N.Y., who recently interviewed AmeriCorps members working with the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in West Virginia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Day Hikes Near Denver, Grow Anywhere, and elsewhere. He writes about the intersection of environmentalism and technology at The Frontier Blog.

Photographer Brady Darragh and activist Chuck Nelson stand outside the abandoned union hall in Lindytown, W.Va. Lindytown's population, like that of Coalville, was displaced by the mining industry.

Photographer Brady Darragh and activist Chuck Nelson stand outside the abandoned union hall in Lindytown, W.Va. Lindytown’s population, like that of Coalville, was displaced by the mining industry. Photo by Brandon Lavoie.

In Mullens, W.Va., there’s a model town made from Popsicle sticks. While these sorts of projects are a fairly common hobby, this particular display is a replica of Coalville, a town that no longer exists.

The artist who made the model, once a resident of Coalville, constructed it from his memory and old photographs. The display sits in the Mullens Opportunity Center, home to the Rural Appalachian Improvement League, or RAIL, an organization focused on sustainability and creating social change in southern West Virginia. Like so many other towns in the Mountain State, the residents of Coalville left in search of new jobs when the area mine closed.

“Wyoming County and Mullens has a lot of people leaving,” says Nathan Tauger, a 23-year-old AmeriCorps alumni who served with RAIL, later adding that Wyoming County mainly has “older folks left so you get a lot of memories.” Tauger is a West Virginian himself, he hails the Morgantown area and elected to stay and volunteer in his home state. While memories were the motivating force behind the Coalville display, millennials like Tauger are volunteering throughout Appalachia and as they enter the region they bring an enthusiasm for technology and social media.

The millennial disposition — or “technology intuition” as Tauger describes it — helps small non-profits build a media presence in the community and beyond. Tauger says Twitter has helped RAIL “engage with outside stakeholders.”

“We were retweeted by a couple of government organizations, regional media outlets, bigger nonprofits, and universities over this past year,” says Tauger. “That helps us because visiting spring break groups see those tweets when they google us, grant makers see the tweets, potential volunteers and visitors see them. Earl Gohl, co-chair of the [Appalachian Regional Commission], follows us on Twitter.”

One of Tauger’s videos that is regularly tweeted from the RAIL account is of a community health initiative started by Patty Scott, a local pharmacist who donates her time at the Mullens Opportunity Center to run a free line dancing class. This class is an hour-long, once a week and encourages people to think positively about their bodies, have fun and bust a move.

“The Internet community in Wyoming County was probably not very big, but it felt very dense. Information can move quite quickly in Wyoming County,” Tauger recalls of the success of sharing local news and promoting events over social media. But he acknowledges the shortcomings of social networking as well. “It brought something of a false sense of belonging too. Hundreds of Facebook followers do not equal the kind of relationships built in person.” In a region where home broadband is only now becoming readily accessible, interpersonal relationships are still incredibly important for spreading information.

While RAIL’s outreach encourages plenty of groups to visit the Mullens area for volunteering, Tauger worked to engage youth in the community to create opportunities for Wyoming County residents. To that end, Tauger “interviewed leaders of successful mentoring programs, as well as lots of young folks who felt strongly about staying in or leaving Wyoming County.” Tauger went to work scheduling meetings with Volunteer West Virginia, Citizens Conservation Corps WV, WorkForce West Virginia, and Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College in order to coordinate youth initiatives.

RAIL is still building upon the groundwork Tauger laid during his AmeriCorps service and local volunteers continue to be integral to the organization’s community outreach and service projects. However, Tauger says, “Folks blame some of the region’s problems on character flaws, things like a lack of initiative among young people.” But the work of Tauger and other millennials all over Appalachia demands a change in the country’s perception of Appalachian youth.

“The character of young people reflects society’s investment in them,” says Tauger. “A sense of worth comes from how we’re treated and what we see in our communities, on the Internet and in media. To complain about the absence of personal responsibility in today’s youth is to conceal civic responsibility.”

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Citizen stories counter coal industry deception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

UPDATE: As of November 3, a total of 23 Appalachian government entities have passed resolutions to support POWER+.

* * * * *

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

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

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 “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.”

UPDATE: In September 2015, after this article was published, Advocates for a Safe Water System launched a campaign for a public water system to replace West Virginia American Water. Learn more at

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 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,

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.