EPA Helps Kentucky Roll Back Water Quality Protections

Friday, November 15th, 2013 | Posted by Erin Savage | 1 Comment

Above are blue gills that were collected below the site of TVA’s 2008 Kingston Coal Ash spill. They all have “pop-eye”, a deformity caused by selenium pollution where their eyes bulge out of their heads. These fish had selenium levels of 2.5-6.5ppm, well below Kentucky’s newly accepted standard of 8.6 ppm for fish tissue.

Just today, after several months of delays, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its decisions on the Kentucky Department of Water’s (DOW) amendments to the Kentucky Water Quality Regulations. Unfortunately, the EPA has approved substantive changes to the selenium freshwater chronic standard that will not adequately protect aquatic life and will be difficult, if not impossible to enforce at mountaintop removal coal mining sites throughout eastern Kentucky.

In theory, states review their water quality standards every three years in an effort to make sure these standards are up-to-date with current science and are protective of aquatic life. In some cases, however, the review becomes an opportunity for special interests to influence state agencies. This year, under pressure from the coal industry, the Kentucky DOW proposed to weaken selenium standards. Standards are used to set permit limits for industries that may discharge pollutants into public waterways. Though some mines in Kentucky are known to discharge selenium into streams, the Kentucky general permit for valley fills does not currently include selenium permit limits.

Selenium is a naturally occurring element that can be released into streams through mountaintop removal coal mining. Once in the water, selenium bioaccumulates in fish and other aquatic life, increasing in concentration up the food chain. Selenium is toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. For these reasons, Appalachian Voices and our allies have been working to challenge Kentucky’s proposed selenium standards.

Kentucky DOW proposed to raise the acute selenium standard from 20 ug/L in the water column to 258 ug/L in the water column. They also proposed changing the chronic standard of 5 ug/L to a more complicated system where a level of 5 ug/L in the water column would not be enforceable, but instead would trigger the need to sample fish tissue. The new chronic standard would be 8.6 ug/g in fish tissue, or 19.2 ug/g in egg/ovary tissue. The 5 ug/L water concentration would only be an enforceable limit if no fish were available for sampling.

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In Defense of the Earth: An Appalachian Poet’s Presence

Wednesday, October 16th, 2013 | Posted by Brian Sewell | 3 Comments

Stream “Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet” below or watch it on Moyers & Company by clicking here.

Widely celebrated as a caretaker of the culture and myth of rural America, Wendell Berry has a distinct drawl and speaks like he writes, eloquently but with simple words and equal parts conviction and compassion. Beyond being a renowned poet and author, Berry is an abiding presence in the environmental movement — especially among those of us who live in or love Appalachia.

A new presentation by Moyers & Company, “Wendell Berry, Poet & Prophet,” provides a portrait of the literary icon’s growth and influence, his relationship with the land and his hopes for humanity.

Among the topics covered — industrialization, wealth inequality, the indifference of elected leaders to environmental degradation — is Berry’s anti-mountaintop removal activism, and his participation in a four-day sit-in at the Kentucky governor’s office to protest mountaintop removal.

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The 5 Worst Political Lies in Support of Mountaintop Removal

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 | Posted by Thom Kay | No Comments

Part 5 in a 5 part series

Lie 5: Energy Security. The United States does not need mountaintop removal for our energy security. In fact, mountaintop removal likely provides no more than 3.5 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Lie 5: Energy Security. The United States does not need mountaintop removal for our energy security. In fact, mountaintop removal likely provides no more than 3.5 percent of the nation’s electricity.

Lie 5: Mountaintop removal mining is necessary for our nation’s energy security.

While coal is in perpetual decline, more than one-third of America’s electricity still comes from the fossil fuel. It is on this premise that supporters of mountaintop removal stand when arguing that the practice is necessary for our nation’s energy security. But in order to go from that first point to their conclusion anyone arguing for mountaintop removal has to ignore quite a few facts along the way.

“Energy security,” in this case, is a somewhat vague term. An unrealistic argument indicates that, without mining coal in the U.S., we’ll be without electricity. A more realistic argument states that if we don’t mine coal in the U.S., we’ll have to buy coal from other countries like Russia or China. In either case, the argument is based on a potent concoction of misinformation and fear tactics.

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Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth Joins Influential Energy and Commerce Committee

Friday, September 20th, 2013 | Posted by Brian Sewell | No Comments

A champion in the fight to end mountaintop removal, Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth is joining the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

A champion in the fight to end mountaintop removal, Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth is joining the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

Kentucky Congressman John Yarmuth joined the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce this week, putting him in the middle of debates concerning environmental and energy policy.

The committee will also oversee the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Yarmuth voted for Obamacare, and has been its lone defender in Kentucky’s federal delegation.

Yarmuth is filling the vacancy on the committee left by former Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts, who was recently elected to the U.S. Senate.

The panel’s ranking Democratic member, California Rep. Henry Waxman, proposed that Yarmuth serve on Energy and Power Subcommittee, the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, and the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee.

For years, Yarmuth has been a leader in the fight to end mountaintop removal coal mining. And as a Democrat from an Appalachian coal-mining state his voice is especially meaningful. Yarmuth has been a primary sponsor of the Clean Water Protection Act in previous sessions of congress and is currently a cosponsor on the bill.

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The 5 Worst Political Lies in Support of Mountaintop Removal

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013 | Posted by Thom Kay | No Comments

Part 4 in a 5 part series

Lie 4: Reclamation. More than a million acres of flattened mountains does not mean economic development after all.

Lie 4: Reclamation. More than a million acres of flattened mountains does not mean economic development after all.

Lie 4: More mountaintop removal coal mining will provide much needed flat, reclaimed land for economic development.

Central Appalachia has been mired in a mono-economy for the greater part of a century. In many counties, coal mining has been the only source of good paying jobs. Mining jobs sustained a livelihood for thousands of families over the years. But when the mining companies leave town, they leave very little behind.

Appalachia needs economic diversification. That, we are meant to believe, is where mountaintop removal comes in.

The mining method has irreversibly turned more than one million acres of Appalachian mountains into flat land, and flat land is more useful for building things like factories or Walmarts. In yesterday’s L.A. Times, West Virginia State Senator Art Kirkendoll called for more mountaintop removal, saying “Once you leave it flat, you have a place where you can diversify the economy with office parks and wind turbines.”

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The 5 Worst Political Lies in Support of Mountaintop Removal

Monday, September 16th, 2013 | Posted by Thom Kay | 1 Comment

Part 3 in a 5 part series

Lie 3 of 5: No candidate opposed to mountaintop removal has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate, or ever will be.

Lie 3 of 5: No candidate opposed to mountaintop removal has ever been elected to the U.S. Senate, or ever will be.


3. A candidate opposed to mountaintop removal cannot win a U.S. Senate race in Kentucky or West Virginia.

Despite what political supporters of the coal industry would have us believe, a candidate opposed to mountaintop removal coal mining can, and likely will, represent Kentucky or West Virginia in the U.S. Senate someday.

While it it has not happened yet, the past does not dictate the future. A woman has never been elected to the Senate in either state, but looking ahead to the 2014 elections, it seems likely that three of the four candidates — Natalie Tennant (D-WV), Shelley Moore-Capito (R-WV), and Alison Lundgren-Grimes (D-KY) — will be women. The primaries won’t happen until next year, but these women are the apparent front runners for their party nominations. It’s a pretty good bet that a woman will represent at least one of the two states in the Senate.

You may be thinking: “It’s about time. After all, more women serve in the Senate now than at any other time in history. But things will really have to change to put someone opposed to mountaintop removal in office.” Not according to a 2011 poll by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research, which found that in both Kentucky and West Virginia, voters had an unfavorable view of the mining practice.

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Mountaintop Removal in a Nutshell: Tremendous Environmental Capital Spent for Modest Energy Gains

Thursday, September 12th, 2013 | Posted by Brian Sewell | No Comments

To meet current U.S. coal demand through surface mining, an area the size of Washington, D.C. — about 68 square miles — would need to be mined every 81 days, according to a new study.

To meet current U.S. coal demand through surface mining, an area the size of Washington, D.C. — about 68 square miles — would need to be mined every 81 days, according to a new study.

We talk a lot about the external costs of mountaintop removal. And by understanding the true costs that coal puts off on the landscapes, water and communities of Central Appalachia, it’s abundantly clear that the costs far outweigh the benefits to all but a few.

But still we hear arguments about the need for a balance between the environment and the economy.

As elected leaders and industry representatives delude themselves and others, yet another study has concluded that mountaintop removal is simply not worth it. Here’s the simple takeaway from the conclusion of “The Environmental Price Tag on a Ton of Mountaintop Removal Coal”: Tremendous environmental capital is being spent to achieve what are only modest energy gains.

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The 5 Worst Political Lies in Support of Mountaintop Removal

Thursday, September 12th, 2013 | Posted by Thom Kay | 3 Comments

Part 2 in a 5 part series

LIE 2: ECONOMY

Lie 2 of 5: Economy. Calling mountaintop removal an economic driver couldn't be further from the truth.

Lie 2 of 5: Economy. Calling mountaintop removal an economic driver couldn’t be further from the truth.

Proponents of mountaintop removal mining use a very simple and straightforward logic to justify the practice: jobs are good for the economy, and mountaintop removal mining provides jobs, therefore mountaintop removal mining is good for the economy.

The argument is logical, but only if you ignore the actual, well-established and thoroughly understood impacts that mountaintop removal has had throughout the region.

Mountaintop removal equals job removal. Coal companies are always looking for ways to cut costs and make their workers more efficient. In other words, they want to get more coal while using fewer miners. That’s where surface mining comes in. Underground mining in Appalachia requires approximately 50 percent more miners than surface mining to acquire the same amount of coal.

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The 5 Worst Political Lies in Support of Mountaintop Removal

Monday, September 9th, 2013 | Posted by Thom Kay | 6 Comments

Part 1 in a 5 part series

LIE 1: BALANCE

According to some in Congress, supporting mountaintop removal is the same as advocating for a balance between the environment and economy.

Lie 1 of 5: Balance. According to some in Congress, supporting mountaintop removal is the same as advocating for a balance between the environment and the economy.

After spending a month back in their home states, Congress is back in session. Between the budget, the debt ceiling, Syria, energy efficiency bills, and the farm bill, they have plenty of work to do in a short period of time but rest assured the dialogue on Capitol Hill will contain the same old mix of logic and utter nonsense.

There are ethical and committed people working in Congress, both members and staff, but their work is often stifled by clever politicians catering to special interests and major donors. On every environmental issue under the sun, polluters and their allies are prone to misleading the public. Over the next two weeks, we’ll refute the five biggest, baddest lies about mountaintop removal coal mining.

1. When it comes to mountaintop removal, we need to strike a “balance” between the economy and the environment

Since arriving in Washington, D.C., six years ago and watching more Congressional hearings than I can count, one of the cliches that gets under my skin the most are the constant cries that we need a balance between the economy and the environment.

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House Republicans fight for mountaintop removal mining

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013 | Posted by Thom Kay | 4 Comments

Rep. Bill Johnson really likes coal, and he's willing to put the health of Appalachia's streams and communities at risk to prove it.

Rep. Bill Johnson really likes coal, and he’s willing to put the health of Appalachia’s streams and communities at risk to prove it.

A lopsided legislative hearing held by the House Natural Resources committee last Friday is further proof that fans of mountaintop removal mining aren’t giving up without a fight. The hearing focused on legislation recently introduced by Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH), a proud coal industry advocate, and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), a pro-coal congressman in his own right.

With the catchy title “Preventing Government Waste and Protecting Coal Jobs in America,” or “PGWPCJA,” H.R. 2824 would stop the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) from writing a rule to protect streams from excessive coal mining pollution. Instead, the bill would require OSM to implement the flawed 2008 Stream Buffer Zone rule and prevent the agency from improving that rule for a minimum of seven years.

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Concerns Grow Over the EPA’s Stance on Selenium Pollution

Thursday, July 25th, 2013 | Posted by Erin Savage | 3 Comments

Protect Appalachia's Waterways from Toxic Selenium Pollution

In February, we wrote about the new selenium water quality standards being proposed by the Kentucky Division of Water and urged concerned citizens to express their concern to the state. Now, Kentucky has gone ahead with its proposal, submitting the new standards to the EPA for review. While the EPA may deny Kentucky’s proposed standards, concerns are growing that the EPA, influenced by states beholden to their mining industries, may release its own inadequate standard. That is why we are urging people to tell EPA to stop Kentucky, and to require strong, enforceable standards in every state.

Kentucky High Selenium Coal Seems

Selenium is of particular concern in Kentucky and other Central Appalachian states because it is often released into streams through mountaintop removal coal mining and is toxic to aquatic life at very low levels. Even though many high-selenium coal seams are mined in Kentucky, companies typically claim there will be no selenium discharge when first applying for a permit, so that the pollutant is not included on the permit. Selenium has rarely been included on mining permits in Central Appalachia, effectively allowing companies to avoid monitoring or treating it, unless citizens force them to with lawsuits. A recent victory in a lawsuits over illegal selenium discharges from a Virginia surface mining operation indicates that selenium pollution is a widespread problem at mountaintop removal mines across Central Appalachia.

Kentucky has faced increased pressure from citizens and the EPA to include selenium standards on pollution discharge permits, so that water quality is adequately protected. Unfortunately for the coal companies, selenium is expensive to treat and difficult to keep out of streams impacted by surface mining in high-selenium coal seams. Adding selenium to permits would mean that many coal companies have to start paying for a much larger portion of the damage they create. It appears that the state is helping coal companies find a way to avoid responsibility for selenium discharges. By increasing the legal limit of selenium allowed in streams and including fish tissue-based standards that are difficult, if not impossible to enforce, the state will allow many companies to continue to skirt their responsibility to the land and the people of Kentucky.

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Court Victory for Clean Water in Kentucky: The Battle Continues

Friday, July 19th, 2013 | Posted by Eric Chance | No Comments

Acidic mine water being discharged from one of Frasure Creek’s Kentucky coal mines

Last week, an attempt by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet to toss concerned citizens out of court failed.

Judge Phillip Shepherd denied a motion to dismiss our challenge of a settlement between Frasure Creek Mining and the cabinet. Appalachian Voices and our partners KFTC, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance, will now be allowed to proceed with our argument that the settlement should be vacated.

In October of 2010, we filed a Notice of Intent to Sue Frasure Creek for submitting false water monitoring data. Frasure Creek and the cabinet reached a settlement for those violations, but it has not been approved by the court. Before that, the data Frasure Creek submitted to the state never showed any violations. After our legal action, they switched labs and began showing hundreds of water quality violations every month.

We attempted to sue Frasure Creek for these subsequent violations, but the cabinet filed a complaint in state administrative court for the same violations. We intervened and became full parties to that case, but then a slap on the wrist settlement was entered between Frasure Creek and the cabinet completely without our consent. Our current challenge to this settlement is based on the fact that we are full parties in the case yet we had no say in the settlement’s creation.

The cabinet attempted to get our challenge thrown out because they claimed that we did not follow proper procedures when we filed it, but the judge dismissed their arguments. Now, the cabinet must respond to the substance of our challenge.

>> Click here to read the ruling
>> Click here to read more about this challenge
>> Click here for more information on our Kentucky Litigation

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