Posts Tagged ‘West Virginia’

Toxic Warnings: Recent Spills Underscore Lack of Water Oversight

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Kimber Ray

In the early morning hours of Jan. 9, Kim Thompson was getting ready to leave her South Charleston home in Kanawha Co. — the most populated region in the mountains of West Virginia — and head out to her job as field supervisor for a local telecommunications company. As she twisted the shower faucets off, she had no way to imagine that those final drips of water signaled the last time she would use that shower.

Coal ash from the Dan River; in the month of the spill, the ash pooled up in eddies along the bank near the site of the leaking pipe in Eden, N.C. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

Coal ash from the Dan River; in the month of the spill, the ash pooled up in eddies along the bank near the site of the leaking pipe in Eden, N.C. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

Many people affected by Freedom Industry’s toxic chemical leak into the Elk River — a spill that contaminated the drinking water of more than 300,000 West Virginia residents — still do not feel safe using their water. “That day marked a complete change in how we live,” reflects Thompson.

As reports of the disaster swept across the nation, it began to emerge that much of this news was nothing new. Not only has chronic water pollution long been widespread in West Virginia, but the lurking possibility of serious contamination spills over into every state.

In North Carolina and Virginia, this overflowed into reality on Feb. 2 at Duke Energy’s retired coal plant near Eden N.C. A 50-year-old stormwater pipe precariously situated beneath an unlined coal ash pond burst, allowing 39,000 tons of ash to enter the Dan River. The incident would be classified as the third largest coal ash spill in national history.

The next week, a Patriot Coal plant spilled more than 100,000 gallons of coal slurry into Fields Creek, W.Va. Six miles of water were blackened with a thick mixture of toxic heavy metals and chemicals; the riverbank was plastered with a gray sludge. Although West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman called the spill “significant,” he didn’t consider it significant enough to warrant much beyond an order to stop.

Photo by Foo Conner

Efforts to contain the Fields Creek coal slurry spill with hay bales and gravel proved to be unsuccessful. Photo by Foo Conner

Efforts to contain the spill with hay bales and gravel proved to be unsuccessful. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Following these three spills, publications and television programs including National Geographic, the Washington Post and The Rachel Maddow Show began questioning: “How did these spills happen?” and “How safe is our water?” The U.S. Attorney General’s Office launched criminal investigations of state officials and company executives in both states.

The widening scope of public scrutiny has only dug up deeper concerns. In both West Virginia and North Carolina, mounting evidence suggests that state officials have weakened state and federal environmental rules — despite the known risks — and citizens are paying the price. Regulations on many dangerous chemicals are nonexistent, state officials are known to turn a blind eye to poorly maintained facilities and, even when people are left with poisoned water and a fouled environment, violators are rarely held accountable. All too often, the public has been expected to pick up the tab for the hidden costs of coal — whether it’s waste from mining, or waste from burning coal for electricity.

Such discoveries are unsurprising to Dr. Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University. Although major spills receive the most attention, chronic pollution poses a greater threat to communities because the poison is more subtle.

“You don’t need to wait for a spill to realize there’s a problem. And it’s not just North Carolina — it’s a national issue,” says Vengosh. “Without any monitoring, we don’t even know what’s happening. We should be working to prevent things before they happen rather than dealing with them after they happen.”

In the Wake of the Impact: Dan River

“We still haven’t heard from Duke on their plans for the cleanup,” says Jenny Edwards, program director for the environmental group Dan River Basin Association. “Can they clean it up? What’s the impact of the clean up? We’re concerned about the long-term health of the river.”

Coal ash — the waste produced by burning coal for electricity — contains a lineup of toxic health offenders including arsenic, selenium, mercury and lead. Since the leaking pipe was plugged Feb. 8, the water in the river now runs clear and the slicks of coal ash on the riverbank that Edwards saw spattered with wildlife tracks have washed away. The real damage sits below the surface. In layers sometimes five feet thick, coal ash blankets the bottom of the river for more than 70 miles.

Coal ash from the Dan River power plant is seen along the banks in the month of the spill. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

Coal ash from the Dan River power plant is seen along the banks in the month of the spill. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

“The coal ash is so fine and sticky that it covers and coats everything it touches,” explains Dr. Dennis Lemly, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and an associate professor at Wake Forest University. “One of the first things to be affected are the animals that can’t leave, mussels and clams, benthic insects, crayfish, all those little critters that can’t swim away or get away from it are just covered up and suffocated,” he adds.

At the beginning of March, the Dan River Basin Association was already reporting an abnormal number of dead mussels and clams piling up on the riverbank. Lemly is concerned things will only get worse. For more than 30 years, he has investigated selenium, a chemical in coal ash that causes death and deformity in fish. Selenium poisoning can persist for generations, accumulating as creatures eat one another and even passing along in fish from parent to offspring.

A persistently poisoned fish population could have a sweeping impact on river life. “There’s a chain effect, that’s why it’s called a food chain,” Lemly says, “and if you cut the bottom length of the food chain then everything above it suffers.” For now, it’s too soon to tell just how powerful this chain effect will be; the answer awaits the arrival of migrating fish this coming spring.

River life affected by the Dan River coal ash spill includes mollusks, pictured here, dead, as well as turtles and two endangered species. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

River life affected by the Dan River coal ash spill includes mollusks, pictured here, dead, as well as turtles and two endangered species. Photo by Brian Williams, courtesy Dan River Basin Association

About 20 miles downstream from the site of the spill, the Dan River flows through the heart of the city of Danville, Va. Joe King, city manager, can even see the river from his window at work. “People are very intimate with the river here,” he comments. “It’s not in a gorge, it’s in the city.” King watched the river turn a murky gray in the days after the spill, but after the first week, visible signs of coal ash were gone.

Danville is an old industrial city where tobacco and textile manufacturing once thrived. In an effort to build a new economy, the city has been working on repurposing old warehouses to serve as businesses and apartments. King is concerned that the spill may create a falsely negative perception of the city, causing residents to leave and businesses to stay away. “That’s the last thing we need,” he adds.

Testing of tap water in the city has consistently shown that the contaminants are being filtered out. In fact, the heavy metals of coal ash are easy to remove from drinking water because the particles are so large. Yet some residents are skeptical; bottled water sales in the area have increased since the spill.

One root of this doubt may be the unusual way that Duke Energy and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources initially handled the spill. Duke first alerted the city of the incident by calling the Danville fire department to say there may have been a coal ash spill and offering no details. Public notification of the spill was deferred for more than 24 hours. Accurate water quality testing, plugging the leaking pipe and work to clean up the Dan River have all suffered delays as well, leaving the public angry and confused.

In the Wake of the Impact: West Virginia

When West Virginia American Water Company first issued “Do Not Use” advisories to 300,000 water customers across nine counties on Jan. 9, it was a confident order. In the weeks to follow, it morphed into a confusing suggestion.

“It’s your decision,” said Governor Earl Ray Tomblin during a Jan. 20 news conference. “I’m not going to say absolutely, 100 percent that everything is safe. But what I can say is if you do not feel comfortable, don’t use [the water].”

In the hours after the cracked storage tank owned by Freedom Industries spilled a 10,000-gallon chemical blend of crude methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, and propylene glycol phenyl ether, or PPH, into West Virginia’s Elk River, nine counties served by West Virginia American Water were affected. The water company had been alerted of the spill by noon, but believed they could filter out the contaminants. It was 5:45 p.m. before customers were warned to stop using their water.

Health officials with the federal Centers for Disease Control initially announced that levels of MCHM below one part per million were safe for consumption. But two days later the agency added that this level may not be safe for pregnant women, leaving residents to wonder just how officials were getting these numbers. Public confidence was further shaken when The Charleston Gazette reported that this threshold was based on a 1990 study of ten rats and a different chemical — pure MCHM, which is not identical to crude MCHM. There are still no studies on how MCHM affects humans.

The government lifted the “Do Not Use” order ten days after the spill. Yet in the days that followed, hospital admissions for symptoms related to MCHM dramatically increased. Hundreds of residents have been treated at local hospitals for chemical burns, rashes and chemical-induced pneumonia even as West Virginia American Water Company continued to assert that their water was safe.

Then, on Jan. 23, Freedom Industries, which had remained mysteriously silent during the crisis, emerged only to report that a second chemical — PPH — was also in the spill, but the ingredients were a trade secret.

“It makes you suspect when you know how many days passed and then they said ‘Oh, by the way, PPH was in there as well,’” says local resident Kim Thompson, “and as far as I know, they never did testing for PPH.” The lack of trust now makes her wonder what else citizens are not being told.

As security looks on, free water is distributed on March 14 in front of the Governor’s Mansion lawn in Charleston, W.Va. Residents and grassroots organization Mountain Justice coordinated the event as part of ongoing efforts to call for increased support of West Virginians still impacted by the chemical spill. Photo by Joe Solomon

As security looks on, free water is distributed on March 14 in front of the Governor’s Mansion lawn in Charleston, W.Va. Residents and grassroots organization Mountain Justice coordinated the event as part of ongoing efforts to call for increased support of West Virginians still impacted by the chemical spill. Photo by Joe Solomon

By early February, the CDC said the water was safe for all residents, even pregnant women. But many residents are still demanding bottled water. Even in March, the distinct, licorice-like odor of MCHM continues to permeate many households across West Virginia. A National Science Foundation-funded study confirmed residents’ fears, finding that the human nose is able to detect significantly lower levels of MCHM than even the most advanced analytical tools.

“I’ve been to many homes where people are still scarred on their hands from this water, and who knows the long-term effects?” comments Thompson. “That’s why so many people aren’t using the water, because they were physically affected, lied to and continuously ignored.”

Bulk water distribution centers around the state have been quietly shutting down despite no one — not even health or government officials — being certain that minute levels of chemicals are not continuing to impact the health of residents.

West Virginia Clean Water Hub — a grassroots organization that formed the same day the spill was announced—is one of the few organizations still distributing free water in the state. Thompson joined as a volunteer in the week when the organization began. “This chemical spill made me helpless, angry and useless,” she states, “and by getting involved, that in turn has led me to at least feel a little bit of power, and I’m trying to give that to communities.”

Thompson has since emerged as the Water Hub’s leading point person in Charleston, guiding and maintaining the group’s water distribution in her city. At her own home, bottled water and water from rain catchments and melted snow is used for everything they do. A camp shower in her basement is used for bathing. “I will never probably drink it ever, ever again,” says Thompson, “or cook with it, or wash, or brush my teeth with it, my animals will never drink with it.”

Jennifer Weidhaas, a civil and environmental engineer at West Virginia University who also received a grant from the National Science Foundation, is studying how crude MCHM travels through the water system. She says given the miles and miles of pipes that need to be cleaned out, low concentrations of the chemical may be in the drinking system for some time to come.

Breaching a History of Disregard

The day following the chemical spill, Gov. Tomblin announced, “This is not a coal company incident; this is a chemical company incident.”

“That’s an absolute lie,” says Jack Spadaro, a former mine inspector who has worked on coal issues in West Virginia for decades, “[MCHM] is a chemical used in coal preparation.” In order to clean and process coal for use at coal-fired power plants and smelting furnaces, chemicals such as MCHM are used to remove impurities. This results in a waste byproduct known as coal slurry, which is what blackened six miles of Fields Creek on Feb. 11 when a valve at Patriot Coal malfunctioned.

Spadaro is not surprised by the Patriot Coal spill. “What happened on Fields Creek is commonplace,” he states. “It happens every few weeks.” He says state officials have “a history of accommodating the coal industry” and he can recall a long list of incidents where this came at the expense of West Virginia communities.

Water samples taken at Fields Creek on the day of the spill by Appalachian Voices revealed levels of contaminants in violation of the Clean Water Act, as well as the presence of MCHM. At press time, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had not released test results from the spill or issued any fines. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Water samples taken at Fields Creek on the day of the spill by Appalachian Voices revealed levels of contaminants in violation of the Clean Water Act, as well as the presence of MCHM. At press time, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had not released test results from the spill or issued any fines. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

One such case in Boone County’s Seth-Prenter area casts a striking reflection on the Elk River chemical spill. For the past decade, people had been reporting painful rashes and burns and, throughout the years, locals experienced an unusually high rate of conditions such as kidney and liver failure and brain tumors. Shortly before these symptoms started to appear, Massey Energy — later acquired by Alpha Natural Resources — began pumping 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry into nearby abandoned mines for permanent storage.

Several studies indicated that the coal slurry had migrated into local well water. But despite the fact that the same chemicals injected deep underground were also found in residents’ taps, WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman denied that coal slurry was the cause. With about 350 individuals affected, the incident received minimal attention. Residents filed a lawsuit and, in the years before their case was settled in 2012, many relied solely on bottled water. Relief came in the form of a public water line connecting them to West Virginia American Water.

The Elk River chemical spill shattered this temporary respite. Maria Lambert, a resident of Prenter, describes the current smell of her tap water as the same “very sweet, stomach-sickening odor we endured eight years ago,” in a recent Business Insider article. Lambert’s experience is not uncommon — Thompson says many people have been connected to American Water pipes after their wells were contaminated by coal-related activities. Documents from the state’s commission governing public utilities support this, with water company executives reporting on extending service to coal impacted communities.

Still, Thompson adds, “Who would have thought you could have these chemicals just above a water plant and no one was regulating them?”

The Myth of Overregulation

The water crises in West Virginia and North Carolina turned the public eye to a long-standing problem: for much of the hazardous waste connected to coal, regulations and inspections are limited, and enforcement is rare.

As far as state or federal environmental laws are concerned, neither MCHM nor other waste from coal is considered “hazardous.” Because of this, West Virginia and North Carolina do not have strict requirements on how these contaminants are stored, and contamination of nearby drinking and groundwater occurs daily.

“What most people don’t realize is, a lot of stuff is less regulated than household waste,” says Amy Adams, a former employee of the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources and current North Carolina Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper. “Our waterways are protected from trash dumps, but not unlined pits of toxic waste.”

Although the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 sets acceptable limits on water pollutants, states are responsible for enforcement. Many waterways have been in violation of the Clean Water Act for decades, but state regulators seldom act — they may not even notice. In states such as North Carolina and West Virginia, inspections have been curbed, in part due to continued budget cuts to state and federal environmental agencies.

Adams says cuts to DENR became particularly hard-hitting in 2011. “We have to have people with boots on the ground if we are to be vigilant in protecting our resources,” Adams comments. For North Carolina and West Virginia, those “boots on the ground” often belong to the same companies responsible for polluting the waterways. Both states have a self-reporting system where companies are expected to monitor and report their discharges. Sometimes companies disclose their violations, sometimes they don’t — it doesn’t tend to matter either way because enforcement on the state level has become increasingly weak or non-existent.

Duke Energy initially reported that the ruptured Dan River pipe was constructed from concrete. Investigations have revealed that while the visible ends of the pipe are concrete, cheaper, failure-prone metal was used for the length of the pipe. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

Duke Energy initially reported that the ruptured Dan River pipe was constructed from concrete. Investigations have revealed that while the visible ends of the pipe are concrete, cheaper, failure-prone metal was used for the length of the pipe. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

The day before the West Virginia chemical spill, Gov. Tomblin declared in his state address that he would “never back down from the EPA” even as others were calling for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to step up. Since 2009, widespread criticism of West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection has pushed environmental groups in West Virginia to petition the EPA to take over the state agency. Federal regulators are still investigating their complaints.

A bill to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks was passed in West Virginia this March. No regulations on chemicals were established but, among other things, the bill aims to use a fee on tanks to fund further inspections. Historically, however, West Virginia’s inspectors have not followed a straight path from deficient facilities to mandatory enforcement. Spadaro is particularly pessimistic.

“The bill does not take the strong preventative action required to prevent this from happening again,” he says. “It’s a window dressing legislation weakened by lobbyists for the chemical industry, and in no way deals with what the state should be doing to protect water supplies from similar types of spills.”

“Business Friendly” is Bad for Business

When North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory passed a regulatory reform bill this past August that allowed Duke Energy to pollute groundwater near its coal ash ponds, he claimed his move “cuts government red tape, axes overly burdensome regulations, and puts job creation first.”

This bill built Duke a buffer against mounting lawsuits from citizens and environmental groups — including Appalachian Voices — who were suing Duke for Clean Water Act violations. As the lawsuits continued to move forward, North Carolina’s environmental agency intervened, taking over the litigation and proposing a settlement that would allow Duke to avoid costly cleanup of its leaking coal ash ponds and pay a trivial fine.

More than 9,000 petitions were delivered on Feb. 25 to Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., demanding that the utility take full financial responsibility for the Dan River coal ash spill and also move its 31 other coal ash ponds into lined basins away from waterways. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

More than 9,000 petitions were delivered on Feb. 25 to Duke Energy’s headquarters in Charlotte, N.C., demanding that the utility take full financial responsibility for the Dan River coal ash spill and also move its 31 other coal ash ponds into lined basins away from waterways. Photo courtesy Appalachian Voices

“The fundamental truth is that proper pollution controls cost money,” says Adams and, because of the Dan River coal ash spill, “North Carolina has experienced first-hand the cost of a deregulated environment.”

In fact, contrary to McCrory’s statement, some sources indicate that regulations improve the economy. A 2013 report by the Office of Management and Budget found that while the costs of major environmental regulations have been no more than $40 billion, the estimated benefits range from $112 billion to $637 billion. Benefits include increased labor needed to meet requirements and public savings when community health is protected.

The report also confirmed that people do not want to live in contaminated communities. Both West Virginia and the city of Danville are contending with this issue. While Danville, Va., City Manager Joe King worries that businesses may now avoid his area, West Virginia resident Kim Thompson says people are already leaving Charleston. “If I could, I would sell my house right now, too,” she says.

Gary Zuckett, executive director of the West Virginia Citizens’ Action Group, says the hardship of contaminated water is particularly difficult for low-income residents. “It’s a triple whammy,” Zuckett states. “Restaurants and hotels shut down, so people were out of work, schools shut down so kids were not fed at school, and if parents were working they needed to pay for daycare. Then there’s the extra expense of buying bottled water,” he adds.

According to forest service biologist Lemly, the long-term environmental and economic toll in North Carolina and Virginia could total as much as $700 million. “When we talk about cheap coal, we forget about the environment, we forget about the implications,” says Duke University’s Vengosh. “The environmental and economic implications for coal ash are not cheap.”

In both North Carolina and Virginia, Duke executives have promised to pay for the cleanup of the Dan River. At the urging of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Duke has also agreed to cover any additional costs faced by Virginia as a result of the spill; no such promise has been made in North Carolina. In fact, Duke has indicated that for the cost of moving its other coal ash ponds away from public waterways — and ensuring the safety of local communities in the state — it hopes to pass any expenses on to ratepayers across North Carolina.

The apparent role of state regulators in shielding coal-related facilities from punitive fines has raised skepticism from the public and the federal government. By mid-March, a federal grand jury had begun a criminal investigation of the relationship between Duke and DENR; details about a separate criminal investigation in West Virginia have been much more limited.

In response to the swell of public pressure and scrutiny, North Carolina officials have been scrambling to issue long-overdue enforcements. Duke Energy plants have been cited for failing to maintain facilities, lacking stormwater permits and, even when they do have permits, dumping illegal volumes of pollutants. At the end of March, DENR announced that they would allow the citizen lawsuit against Duke Energy to continue.

Public Response

In West Virginia citizens anticipate significant changes but are not hanging all their hopes on a strong government response. “Who’s to say this won’t happen again?” asks Thompson.

On Feb. 8, citizens and community organizations marched to West Virginia American Water to demand compensation for the expenses they incurred as a result of the chemical spill. They say the private utility contributed to the problem. Among other things, the water company billed customers based on estimated historical usage in January even though many were unable to use their water during this time. Photo by Vivian Stockman

On Feb. 8, citizens and community organizations marched to West Virginia American Water to demand compensation for the expenses they incurred as a result of the chemical spill. They say the private utility contributed to the problem. Among other things, the water company billed customers based on estimated historical usage in January even though many were unable to use their water during this time. Photo by Vivian Stockman

To address long-term concerns, the West Virginia Clean Water Hub is starting a program to empower citizens to obtain their own water. Online fundraising will pay for trucks to carry in tanks of water, training on rain filtration, and the purchase of 250-gallon containers for rainwater. Reimbursement efforts for water expenses also may be successful. My Clean H2O Matters, a march organized by West Virginia community groups, presented WVAW with invoices for personal costs incurred by the spill, and the utility has offered to review the claims.

In North Carolina, citizens and environmental organizations continue pressing DENR to implement enforcement action against Duke. Independent groups including Appalachian Voices, the Dan River Basin Association and the city of Danville, Va., are monitoring the quality of the Dan. Rallies protesting Duke Energy and events in support of the river have been widespread across the state.

This renewed attention on water rights has coincided with action around the country to reign in corporate pollution. In March, the EPA announced the largest enforcement fine ever: a $27.5 million penalty against Alpha Natural Resources for more than 6,000 water pollution permit violations in five Appalachian states. In Kentucky, the Sierra Club has used the momentum to highlight contamination from a Louisville Gas & Electric facility, where the company has been discharging coal ash into the Ohio River daily for five years. But Thompson warns that change won’t happen overnight. “Unless we take a sense of ownership in this, the problem’s not going to change,” says Thompson. “And I haven’t met a person yet who can live without water.”

CORRECTION: The original article incorrectly states that the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources would allow the citizen lawsuit against Duke Energy to move forward. Although citizen groups including those represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center are now co-plaintiffs in the case, this development was the result of motions filed in court rather than a decision of the state.

Appalachian States Debate Hemp Legalization

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Nolen Nychay

The legal hemp farming debate has come to Appalachia. The much-debated Farm Bill President Obama signed into law in February included a “hemp amendment,” which permitted the regulated cultivation of industrial hemp in states that have legalized hemp farming. Hemp is a cash crop in the cannabis family that, despite lacking most of the hallucinogenic THC found in marijuana, has been illegal to grow in the United States since the 1970 Controlled-Substances Act. U.S. imports of hemp and many of its 25,000-plus products, including building materials and biodiesel fuel, have an annual retail value of more than $500 million, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

Kentucky and West Virginia are currently the only Appalachian states with legal hemp farming, the latter restricting it to purely research purposes. Kentucky’s terrain and climate are well-suited for hemp, which contributed to the state being the country’s chief hemp producer during WWII. Kentucky plans to capitalize on the new law and initiate five hemp research programs that will identify medicinal uses, seeds best-suited for the region, prospective costs and logistics of a new hemp market, and whether hemp could effectively be used to remove ground contaminants from industrial sites. “We’re ahead at something that relates to economic development for once, so let’s pursue it,” said Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer in a USA Today article.

Other Appalachian states are close behind. The South Carolina State Senate unanimously passed a bill in March proposing to legalize industrial hemp — a State House vote is expected later this spring. Legislation is also under review in Tennessee, and as of press time had passed subcommittees in both the State House and State Senate and is awaiting committee approval. “Our motivation for doing this comes from the desire to bring jobs back from other countries right back to Tennessee,” said Tenn. State Representative Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) to news media company The Examiner.

W.Va. Bill to Support Veterans in Agriculture

By Kelsey Boyajian

In March, the West Virginia House and Senate passed a bill to create the Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture program. According to State Senator Ronald Miller (D-Greenbrier), many returned veterans from active duty struggle to find employment.

Once signed into law by the governor, the program will provide veterans with opportunities for agricultural training in hopes of job creation, and up to 15 acres of land from the West Virginia Department of Agriculture for instruction.

Volunteering in West Virginia

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by meredith

Big Laurel Learning Center

Along the beautiful Tug Fork River near Kermit, W.Va., this rural community center offers environmental service opportunities to educate and assist communities affected by mountaintop removal mining. “The coal mines are right next door and people suffer from this fall-out of the coal society,” says Gretchen Shaffer, Big Laurel’s volunteer program shepherd. Volunteers participate in organic gardening, mentoring children in outdoor and academic activities and preparing meals. Short-term and long-term opportunities available, including an AmeriCorps position. 18 and older. Get involved! Call 304-393-4103 or visit biglaurel.orgK. Boyajian

Coal River Mountain Watch

On-site volunteers work and live with seven housemates on 178 acres in Rock Creek, W.Va., and participate in environmental justice endeavors. The goals of CRMW range from ending mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia to helping restore clean water to Coal River Valley. CRMW also works with Energy Efficient West Virginia to create and promote sustainable economic development in the region. Short-term and long-term programs available. Get involved! Call 304-854-2182 or visit crmw.netK. Boyajian

Direct Action Welfare Group

Started as a grassroots group in Charleston, W.Va., in 2002, DAWG is comprised of current and former public assistance recipients statewide who work together towards ending poverty. “My Life Project,” volunteers can contribute online through posts, articles or videos to share their stories. DAWG volunteers help with community dinners, school supply drives and information sessions as well. Teens can also get involved in DAWG’s Youth Empowerment Program which helps to improve leadership skills and promotes community organizing. All ages. Get involved! Call 304-590-8050 or visit wvdawg.orgK. Boyajian

Supreme Court Rejects Spruce Mine Mountaintop Removal Case

Monday, March 24th, 2014 - posted by brian
The U.S. Supreme Court won't consider a case alleging the EPA overstepped its authority by retroactively vetoing mountaintop removal permits it deemed unacceptably harmful to water quality.

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t consider a case alleging the EPA overstepped its authority by retroactively vetoing mountaintop removal permits it deemed unacceptably harmful to water quality.

The U.S. Supreme Court says it won’t consider the case of Mingo Logan Coal v. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s authority to veto mountaintop removal permits that would cause unacceptable harm to water quality and wildlife.

In this case, the permits in question are for Arch Coal’s Spruce Mine No. 1., which would span more than 2,000 acres and is the largest mountaintop removal mine ever proposed in West Virginia.

The court’s decisions comes almost a year after an appeals court sided with the EPA in the case, which dates back to the agency vetoed permits approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2011.

Appalachian Voices applauds this decision and urges the EPA and the Obama administration to hold strong in their ongoing efforts to protect clean water and Appalachia from mountaintop removal coal mining. As it becomes more difficult for large-scale mountaintop removal projects like the Spruce Mine to move forward, the coal industry will likely become more aggressive and desperate in their attacks.

“The EPA acted in accordance with the law when they vetoed this permit,” says Kate Rooth, Appalachian Voices’ campaign director. “Preserving its ability to do so in the future is critical for protecting vital watersheds and downstream communities threatened by mountaintop removal throughout Appalachia.”

Today’s news is also another indication that the effectiveness of the coal industry’s “war on coal” narrative is waning. Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward Jr. shared this statement on his Coal Tattoo post earlier from Jim Hecker of Public Justice — one of the lawyers who worked on the case that initially blocked the Spruce Mine:

“The coal industry has falsely painted the Spruce mine veto as an example of EPA overreach and a ‘war on coal,’ when in fact EPA’s authority to veto this permit is obvious from the face of the statute and EPA’s decision is based on clear scientific evidence of serious environmental harm from mining.”

The yearslong case will now continue in lower courts that have yet to rule on parts of the lawsuit.

Study Confirms Air Pollution from Mountaintop Removal

Monday, March 3rd, 2014 - posted by meredith
A recent study connects air pollution from mountaintop removal mines with health problems in nearby communities.

A recent study connects air pollution from mountaintop removal mines with health problems in nearby communities.

For generations, Appalachian mining communities have raised questions about local health problems, wondering whether or not they may be linked to air pollution from surrounding coal mines.

A recent study conducted by a group of West Virginia University researchers has confirmed that suspicion, reporting that potentially dangerous air pollution levels are more likely in areas surrounding mountaintop removal coal mines than in mine-free communities. This suggests a significant correlation between coal mining areas and rates of cardiovascular disease, birth defects and cancer.

Published last week in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, the paper is the latest of more than 20 peer-reviewed studies dating back to 1991 examining the health impacts of mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

Explosives used during the mountaintop removal mining process are one of the suggested causes of increased particulate matter, a type of air pollution made up of very tiny particles that can easily be inhaled and become lodged in the lungs. With large blasts of rock and vegetation, mountaintop removal sends these particles into the air, where they are carried far beyond the site of the explosion and into surrounding communities. Previous studies have proven that contact with excess particulate matter is associated with breathing and heart complications, hospital admissions and even death.

This map captures the correlation between deaths from respiratory disease in Appalachia and mountaintop removal coal mining.

This map captures the correlation between deaths from respiratory disease in Appalachia and mountaintop removal coal mining.

Over the course of a year the researchers studied three West Virginia communities, two of which were near mountaintop removal mines, while the third was a non-mining site. By evaluating hospital records and the presence of airborne contaminants in the air, the WVU researchers calculated that there were significantly higher concentrations of dangerous particulate matter in the coal mining communities than in the mine-free zone.

Given the clouds of dust rising up around mountaintop removal explosions, it is no surprise that residents held suspicions about the toll this type of coal mining may take on their health. This study adds to the growing evidence that mountaintop removal coal mining is a harmful practice not only to mountains, but to people.

Click here to learn more about the human cost of mountaintop removal.

West Virginia Patriot Slurry Spill MCHM Test Results

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014 - posted by Erin

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

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

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

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

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

Google Earth image of the Patriot slurry ponds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Preventable Spills Yield Predictable Apologies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Coal-related Spill Reported in West Virginia

Tuesday, February 11th, 2014 - posted by Jamie Goodman

Field Update from Erin, 10 a.m., February 12, 2014
We tested Fields Creek where the slurry spill entered the creek and upstream for electrical conductivity, which indicates the level of charged particles like salts, heavy metals and other pollutants associated with coal. The conductivity upstream was 391 μS/cm (microsiemens per centimeter) while the value below the spill was 1016 μS/cm. For reference, Central Appalachian streams should measure roughly between 300 and 500 μS/cm.

There is clearly a high level of pollutants from the spill in the immediate vicinity of the spill. Test results here.

So how are West Virginia officials responding to the spill? Check out this video that my colleague Matt Wasson put together:

Field Update from Erin, 11 p.m., February 11, 2014
Several staff responded to the spill this afternoon to collect samples and documentation. We were able to collect samples at the entrance of the coal prep plant, which is 1/4 to 3/4 of a mile downstream of the broken pipe causing the spill. We also collected samples at the end of the Fields Creek, just before it reaches the Kanawha River. We plan to analyze samples for heavy metals, total suspended solids, and organic compounds and will make those results available as soon as possible.

The water in the creek was extremely turbid and was a dark grey, almost black color. Significant sediment had already built up on the banks. We also noticed the same sweet smell we encountered during the crude MCHM spill. There have been several different reports regarding what coal processing chemicals might be in the slurry. Secretary Randy Huffman of the state Department of Environmental Protection said that the plant had used MCHM in the past, but had switched to polyethylene glycol or polypropylene glycol. We hope that as this situation continues to develop, accurate facts are released more quickly than in the recent crude MCHM/PHP spill.

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Update 7:03 p.m., February 11, 2014
Current reports put the spill at 108,000 gallons of slurry, affecting 6 miles of Fields Creek and, despite plant workers’ efforts to stem the spill, discharging some slurry into the Kanawha River. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has acknowledged the gravity of the incident, with acting director of the Division of Mining and Reclamation, Harold Ward, stating in Ken Ward’s latest update, “There has been a significant environmental impact.”

A previous incident apparently occurred at the same plant in November 2013, with the plant “discharging black water into south hollow stream and leading to a discoloration of Field’s creek.”

Our folks on the scene worked until nearly dark to gather samples and document the incident; more info to come as news filters in.

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According to several news reports, a coal slurry spill of “significant” size has taken place in Kanawha County, W.Va. As reported by Ken Ward, Jr., in The Charleston Gazette, the spill of slurry — a toxic byproduct of washing toxins off of coal after mining — happened between midnight and 5:30 a.m. this morning when a pipe ruptured between a processing plant on Fields Creek and an impoundment where the slurry is stored. According to a spokesperson for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, there are no drinking water intakes “in the immediate vicinity of the spill.”

Members of the Appalachian Voices Water Watch team are in West Virginia and heading to the scene nowstay tuned for updates and an on-site report as we learn more about this developing story.

First photos from a slurry spill in Kanawha County, W.Va.

First photos from a slurry spill in Kanawha County, W.Va. — visit Flickr for more images and high-resolution versions

The handling of slurry in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia has a long and contentious history that was revealed to the world by the Buffalo Creek disaster in 1972 that killed 125 West Virginians and left more than 4,000 homeless. Beyond the threat of massive surface impoundment failures, slurry injected in abandoned underground mines has permanently poisoned the wells of thousands in Appalachia. Check out our story in the August/September 2012 issue of The Appalachian Voice, “Buried Blackwater: Revealing Coal’s Dirty Secret” to learn more.


Who Has Priority Over Water?

Monday, February 10th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Matt Wasson, Ph.D.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — What do January’s Kanawha Valley chemical spill, the Exxon Valdez spill and the Deepwater Horizon incident have in common? All were man-made environmental disasters, disrupting the lives of thousands of people, and all cracked open for public view astonishing examples of corporate and regulatory dereliction.

What don’t they have in common? The Exxon Valdez oil spill was 11 million gallons. The Deepwater spill was 210 million gallons. The Freedom Industries spill was something on the order of 10,000 gallons — less than 1/10th of a percent of the Valdez. How could a relatively small chemical spill in one river cut off drinking water access to 300,000 people — 16 percent of the state’s entire population — scattered across nine counties?

The first step to understanding this riddle is understanding what many Appalachians know first-hand already: Coal industry activities have been polluting their water supply for a long, long time.

Take, for example, the residents of Prenter in Boone County, W.Va. A few years ago, elevated levels of lead, nickel, arsenic and other chemicals in the tap water was causing skin rashes and dental decay, which could portend kidney and nerve damage and cancer. Residents and scientists believed the pollution came from coal slurry — the waste by-product of removing impurities from coal — being dumped into abandoned mine shafts, where was free to flow through cracks in the earth into groundwater and ultimately the wells of local residents.

Enter the West Virginia American Water Company, which operates the water treatment plant and distribution network that was shut down Jan. 9. In 2010, Boone County partnered with West Virginia American Water on a multi-million dollar project to run fresh water lines out to Prenter and other communities. The project was mostly paid for by a federal grant, with Boone County and the water company making up the difference. Not a penny was paid by the coal companies that polluted the water in the first place.

A paper trail of Public Service Commission filings reveals similar stories happening again and again, as West Virginia American Water gobbled up one municipal utility after another. In one instance in 2004, the state gave approval for the water company to develop the Sharples Water Line Extension in Logan County because a coal company’s mining plans were likely to destroy the well water of nearby residents, which had provided a reliable supply of clean water for generations.

According to the PSC documents: “Arch Coal’s proposed Mountain Laurel Mine … will potentially de-water the aquifer that is the source for [Logan County’s] Sharples system.”

While the documents sought to justify the expense on the grounds that the extension would “eliminate the use of local groundwater and provide a more than adequate supply of drinking water that will sustain the expected growth in the project area,” nobody seriously expects growth near a massive mining complex in Logan County, where population has been declining for decades. The real motivation for the project is found in the expected economic development benefits section, which reads: “The extension Project will help satisfy mine permitting requirements for Arch Coal’s proposed Mountain Laurel mine.”

Similar evidence of how public money has been used to benefit the coal industry while expanding the customer base of a private water company runs throughout PSC documents. And so it came to be that West Virginia American Water, consolidating its infrastructure as any profit-driven entity would, wound up with a single water intake on the Elk River — a mere mile and a half downstream from a coal-chemical storage facility — to serve 300,000 people in nine counties.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has been quick to absolve the coal industry of culpability, instead blaming the chemical industry and a particularly bad company. But any attempt to decouple the coal industry from this disaster will surely fail the laugh test, given that the spilled chemical was not only used by mining companies to wash coal, but also had already been leaking into West Virginians’ water supply long before Jan. 9, as residents of Prenter and other communities near coal preparation plants can attest.

The fact that so many people are dependent on one facility that is run by West Virginia American Water, a huge multinational corporation focused on increasing its own bottom line, is a central factor in the scale of this disaster that simply cannot be ignored. And, as many West Virginians know and the PSC paper trail demonstrates, the coal industry plays a major role in that as well.

Matt Wasson is program director with Appalachian Voices and holds a Ph.D. in ecology from Cornell University. This op-ed was first published in The Charleston Gazette on Jan. 18, and his commentary regarding the spill has appeared on NPR, MSNBC and The Huffington Post.

Wary and Waiting

Monday, February 10th, 2014 - posted by meredith

By Karen Smith Zornes

I didn’t have a problem with the spill at first; I thought, “Accidents happen.” But when it came time for us to flush, I had an asthma attack from the smell. I went outside for fresh air and tried to flush again later — and had another asthma attack. After our flush, our water still looked blue and still had the smell. So I waited for three days after the flush to shower, and got a skin rash from the water.

After that I called the water company. The man at West Virginia American Water told me the strong smell meant the water was safe to use. I told him about my blisters, and he said it was probably my shampoo, though I’ve used the same shampoo for years. I asked him about the water discoloration, and he said I must have spilled something in it. He made me feel like an idiot. He told me to keep flushing my lines and that someone would be out to test my water. Four days have passed, and we haven’t heard anything.

We’ve spent hundreds of dollars on new filters for the fridge and the home, bottled water, and gas to drive to get water and supplies. We’re spending money we don’t have. The money we’ve spent on water was supposed to pay my electric bill.

Being a three-time cancer survivor makes me wary about the long-term effects of this. I don’t think the customers should be the ones to pick up the bill for this disaster.

Karen Smith Zornes is a concerned citizen living in Boone County, W.Va.