Across Appalachia

Tennessee: New Law Allows Citizens to Comment on Water Permits

On June 7, the Tennessee state legislature unanimously passed a bill that will allow citizens to comment on pollution and water quality permits for the first time in 30 years. Prior to the bill’s passage, when a polluter applied for a permit, there was no means for involvement by members of the public, other industries, and even towns that would be affected by the pollution.

The new legislation sets up an appeals process that will allow citizens and other third parties to participate in the same appeals process that is already available to the polluters. Tennesseans now have the right to appeal pollution, aquatic resource alteration permits (used to relocate streams and pave over wetlands), and inter basin water transfers.

A coalition of groups from across the state, led by the Tennessee Clean Water Network and Tennessee Conservation Voters, spearheaded the effort to pass the legislation. For more information, visit

Alabama: Feds and Environmentalists Team Up to Restore the Bankhead

The U.S. Forest Service and a number of Alabama environmentalists have joined efforts to restore the historic Bankhead National Forest.

The Bankhead, severely damaged over the past century from destructive logging practices and over the past few decades from repeated outbreaks of the southern pine beetle, is now managed under the authority of the Bankhead Health and Restoration Project. This project, which could take as much as 60 or more years to complete, is designed to eliminate all pine plantations and restore native forest types to the Bankhead.

Conservationists contend that the success of the Bankhead Health and Restoration Project is proving that pine plantations can be converted back to natural communities while continuing to provide jobs to local communities and supply local industries with raw materials.

South Carolina: State Grand Jury Empowered to Investigate White-Collar Environmental Crimes.

On May 26, 2005, the state grand jury was granted authority to investigate white-collar environmental crimes. These crimes include: improper waste disposal; oil spills; destruction of wetlands; dumping into oceans, streams, lakes, or rivers; improperly handling pesticides or other toxic chemicals; improperly removing and disposing of asbestos; falsifying lab data; smuggling certain chemicals, such as CFC refrigerants, into the U.S.; bribing government officials; and committing fraud related to environmental crime.

The law provides an essential investigative tool because the state police, unlike the state grand jury, cannot subpoena records and compel testimony. This power to compel production of this evidence is essential because these crimes rarely have eyewitnesses or confessions.

Attorney General Henry McMaster, a key supporter of the law, said “this state will not tolerate those who would knowingly and deliberately break the law, seek an improper competitive advantage, intentionally despoil our land and diminish our natural heritage for future generations.”

North Carolina: Duke Powerplants to Reduce Emissions by More than 90%

On On May 20, 2005, Duke Power Co. took a second step forward in meeting its obligations under North Carolina’s bi-partisan Clean Smokestacks Act by breaking ground on $500 million project to reduce air pollution at its Belews Creek Steam Station in Stokes County—the largest coal-fired power plant in the North Carolina and one of the 10 largest in the nation.

In 2001, the Belews Creek plant produced 83,203 tons of sulfur dioxide, which adds small particles to the air and contributes to haze and acid rain. After the project is finished in 2008, Duke estimates that they can cut these emissions by nearly 95% to just 4,160 tons.

The process to remove the sulfur dioxide involves spraying liquefied limestone into the top of an emission-filled container. The limestone liquid neutralizes the sulfur dioxide to form gypsum, which will be used to make sheet rock and wallboard.

Between 600 and 800 people are expected to work on the project, with a peak of about 350 workers on site at one time.

Virginia: Fish Kill in the Shenandoah River Wipes Out Bass and Other Fisheries for Next 3-5 Years

A massive fish kill has left the Shenandoah River and its tributaries, once legendary for their excellent smallmouth bass fishing, almost entirely devoid of numerous species of fish. In an episode this June that one fishing guide described to the Staunton News Leader as “the quietest disaster in the history of Virginia,” almost all the smallmouth bass in the Shenandoah River system were killed. The few that remain are spotted with lesions and sores and are not likely to survive.

Brian Trow, a Harrisonburg-based fishing guide, witnessed the fish kill’s early stages and described the scene to the News Leader. “I was in the water, floating near Grove Hill,” he said. “There were hundreds of dead fish in the water, and the ospreys were feeding like crazy. It was an annihilation.”
Experts suspect one cause of the fish kill can be found in the massive industrial poultry farms that release their waste into the river. A large runoff of waste, fertilizer, and sediment from these operations in April has been linked to the collapse of the fishery. Biologists with the state of Virginia estimate that fishing will be entirely eliminated in the area for the next three to four years, and that it will take a minimum of five years for the fishery to recover. In the meantime, fishing guides and other businesses based on tourism in the area are expected to suffer significant losses.

Kentucky: Boulder from mining operation crashes through Kentucky man’s home.

Late afternoon on Thursday, June 16th, Timmy Thacker of Pike County, Kentucky watched as a boulder as large as a dining-room table crushed a house on his property. The boulder was likely dislodged by blasting from a mountaintop removal mine, operated by Cambrian Coal Corporation, above the Thacker home. The house was unoccupied at the time.

Thacker’s family and neighbors were evacuated because other loose boulders were at risk of tumbling down the mountain. Cambrian Coal was issued three citations by the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources. As of July 6th, fines and penalties against the company had not yet been assessed.

Damage from “fly rock”, the term for boulders loosed by mining blasts, are not uncommon in the coalfields where MTR strip mining occurs. In July of 2004, tragedy struck in a similar incident when a boulder crushed a three-year old toddler in his bed in Appalachia, Virginia.

Georgia: Controvery Over Proposed Interstate “I-3”

An emerging controversy over a proposed federal interstate highway through the mountains of northern Georgia is becoming more intense as Congress begins considering the next transportation bill.

This year’s proposed federal transportation bill includes the funding of a feasibility study for a new interstate “3” that would stretch across northern Georgia, running through such cities as Augusta and Savannah. Proponents of the I-3 plans claim the building of such a highway would greatly benefit the region, helping to alleviate Atlanta traffic, as well as spreading economic growth throughout less developed rural areas of northern Georgia. However, many conservationists and area residents oppose the construction of such a highway because of its destructive capability to northern Georgia mountains.

Construction of I-3 could happen within the next five years if Congress approves the plan and appropriates the funds.

West Virginia: Efforts are growing in the coalfields of Central Appalachia to end mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. Pushed by the continuing devastation and
human rights abuses caused by this form of mining, and strengthened by an influx of energy from Mountain Justice Summer volunteers, coalfield residents are raising their voices louder than ever.

From from the coal counties of Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee and Virginia to the capital cities of these states, local citizens and supporters are calling public attention to the suffering caused by mountaintop removal. Although protests catch the most media attention, volunteers with local groups and Mountain Justice Summer are taking a broader approach, doing water-quality monitoring downstream from mines, support work for coalfield activist groups, and door-to-door “listening projects” gathering feedback from the people who live in the shadow of MTR mines.

In Eastern Kentucky, TECO Coal is the focus of protests due to their disregard for neighboring communities. Mining operations cause flooding, mud and rock slides, damage to roads, dust pollution from blasting and coal processing, and other harms. In Tennessee, National Coal Company’s use of MTR mining, which is new to the Tennesse mountains, is causing citizen outrage and anti-MTR organizing.

In West Virginia, the epicenter of this summer’s concern and protest is the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia. The school is 400 yards downslope from a Massey Energy MTR mine that includes an impoundment of 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge behind a 385-foot-high dam.

Coal sludge is created when coal is washed – a process required to remove soil and rock from the coal prior to being shipped. According to the Sludge Safety Project, “sludge contains carcinogenic chemicals used to process coal. It also contains toxic heavy metals that are present in coal, such as arsenic, mercury, chromium, cadmium, boron, selenium, and nickel.”

Earthen dams holding back sludge impoundments are widely-known to be unstable. One of the builders of the dam at Marsh Fork has said that the dam is improperly constructed. A Massey Energy dam failed in 2000 in Martin County, KY dumping 300 million gallons of sludge in streams. A more tragic example is the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster in which earthen dams holding back sludge impoundments failed during heavy rains. According to the West Virginia Division of Culture & History, “in a matter of minutes, 118 were dead and over 4,000 people were left homeless. Seven were never found.”

Imagine one of these impoundments up-slope from your child’s elementary school. Herb Elkins of the Coal River Valley lives with that nightmare. His 8-year-old son attends Marsh Fork Elementary. On June 29th, Mr. Elkins refused to leave Massey Energy headquarters in Richmond, Virginia until Massey responded to his concerns for his son’s safety and was arrested for trespassing. Coal River Mountain Watch and other local activists are demanding that Massey shut down and clean up the site or build a new school at another location. They also want the company to withdraw a permit to construct a second coal-loading silo about 250 feet behind the school. Coal dust from the existing coal prep plant only 150 feet from the school enters through air intake vents, causing asthma and other respiratory problems, and coating everything with a toxic black powder.

Mr. Elkins stated, “I promised my son that I would not send him back to that school. His health and peace of mind are too important. No child should have to attend class in a climate of fear.”

A total of 20 people, many of them parents and grandparents of students at the school, have been arrested to date protesting Massey’s threat to Marsh Fork Elementary. Ed Wiley, whose 12-year-old granddaughter attends Marsh Fork, began a sit-in and hunger strike on the steps of the WV state capitol building on July 5th. His protest is in response to a June 30th announcement that the state Division of Environmental Protection will grant permits to Massey Energy to allow the sludge impoundment at Marsh Fork to remain, and to permit the construction of the second coal silo. Gov. Manchin responded to Mr. Wiley’s protest with assurances that he will review the permits and consider relocating the school. These are encouraging words, but the governor has said them before.


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