For generations, coal-mining communities in Appalachia have raised questions about local health problems, wondering whether or not they may be linked to pollution from nearby 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. [ More ]
It has been five years since the TVA Coal Ash disaster in Tennessee, which sent 1.1 billion gallons of toxic coal ash into Emory and Clinch rivers. While the nation has watched and petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the agency responsible for issuing federal standards for coal ash disposal, little action has been taken. Perhaps this is similar to the old adage that says “a watched pot never boils.”
This week, a federal court gave the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 60 days to propose a deadline for rules regulating toxic coal ash. Photo from southeastcoalash.org
After years of delays and setbacks, the clock is finally ticking on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to propose a deadline for federal regulations of coal ash.
On Tuesday, a federal judge gave the EPA 60 days to file a written submission setting forth a proposed deadline for its review and revision of regulations concerning coal ash, along with its legal justification for the proposed deadline.
This victory for clean water and healthy communities came almost month after the court sided with Appalachian Voices and our allies, agreeing that the EPA has a duty to stop the delays and issue federally enforceable safeguards for the toxic coal waste. You can read the memorandum issued this week by the court here.
A North Carolina bill includes proposes allowing groundwater contamination up to a landowner’s property line, a plan supported by Duke Energy, which is being sued for coal ash pollution at its Riverbend Plant. Photo by the Catawba Riverkeeper.
In the midst of allegations against Duke Energy for coal ash pollution at multiple coal-fired plants, a bill in the North Carolina House of Representatives could give polluters a free pass and build a buffer against lawsuits.
Already passed by the N.C. Senate, the Regulatory Reform Act of 2013 (S 612) proposes a “boundary loophole” that would allow groundwater to be contaminated by toxic chemicals such as arsenic, selenium and mercury, as long as it remains inside the owner’s property line. That terrifying prospect is hardly assuaged by the sponsors’ claim that their beyond-polluter-friendly bill seeks to “provide regulatory relief to the citizens of North Carolina.”
If you’ve been paying attention to the recent exploits of the N.C. General Assembly, you’d assume that the bill goes beyond creating a boundary loophole. You’d be right. The entirely anti-environmental bill includes provisions to fast-track the permitting process for certain environmental permits and to prevent local environmental rules from being stricter than state or federal statutes or regulations.
The legislature already passed a reform bill forbidding new state rules from being more stringent than federal standards last year. Of course, like most of the ill-conceived crusades being waged in Raleigh, that’s easier said than done.
A new report shows the EPA's rules, especially on air pollution, are saving money and lives.
During their push to abolish, obstruct and stymie the Environmental Protection Agency over the past few years, House Republicans have beleaguered the agency for regulatory measures they consider “job-killing” or “anti-industry,” hoping to revert federal environmental regulation to state control or make protections obsolete altogether.
Those in favor of federal rules have argued that national standards allow for the most effective and consistent protections and, as a result, will lead to reduced costs in health care directly associated with air and water pollution.
A new report from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget makes a clear case for why the country needs the EPA. The report includes an analysis of the costs and benefits of a number of federal regulations over the past decade and shows EPA rules, especially those pertaining to air protection, to be the most costly among all the rules evaluated but also the most beneficial.
The budget office estimates that the EPA’s rules account for 58 to 80 percent of the monetized benefits of all federal rules, but 44 to 54 percent of the total costs. Out of these benefits, close to 99 percent come from rules that seek to improve air quality. The report claims that the large estimated benefits of the EPA rules following the arrival of the Clean Air Act stem mostly from the reduction of a single air pollutant: fine particulate matter.
However complex the causes of the ongoing health crisis in Appalachia, denial accomplishes nothing but the perpetuation of the status quo. Yet every time claims that could negatively impact the coal industry surface, Appalachian legislators throw up a black sheet.
Hendryx has published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles. He’s the director of the West Virginia Rural Health Research Center and after receiving a Ph.D. in psychology, he completed a post-doctoral fellowship in Methodology at the University of Chicago. Little of that seems to matter, however, because much of his research is concentrated on poor health in Appalachian coal-mining communities, especially those where mountaintop removal takes place.
Like other studies Hendryx has conducted, the eastern Kentucky-focused article relies on comparing data gathered in counties with mountaintop removal to data from counties without it. More than 900 residents of Rowan and Elliott counties (no mountaintop removal) and Floyd County (mountaintop removal) were asked similar questions about their family health history and incidents of cancer to those that the U.S. Center for Disease Control uses in gathering data.
After ruling out factors including tobacco use, income, education and obesity, the study found that residents of Floyd County suffer a 54 percent higher rate of death from cancer, and dramatically higher incidences of pulmonary and respiratory diseases over the past five years than residents of Elliott and Rowan counties.
These results should surprise no one, least of all the families in Floyd County that participated in the study. Yet somehow, supporters of the widespread use of mountaintop removal still refuse to consider that blowing up mountains might impact human health.
The Red, White & Water team hit the streets near Belmont, N.C., to speak with residents who live near Duke Energy's G.G. Allen Steam Station about the threats of coal ash pollution.
Last Saturday, the Red, White and Water team traveled to Belmont, N.C., to the G.G. Allen Steam Station for a day of canvassing. Walking door-to-door, we asked residents of the communities near the coal-fired power plant if they had been impacted by water pollution.
I met Archie Dixon, who was featured in the Gaston Gazette a few months ago. Dixon had complained to Duke Energy, which owns the power plant, about coal ash staining his property and getting into his drinking water. I spoke with him while he and his grandson (also named Archie, or “Lil’ Arch”) waited for a plumber for a broken pipe on their property. In his garage sat a waist-high stack of bottled water. Mr. Dixon said that he still refuses to drink his own home’s water.
The pollution near the plant happens in two ways. One is through coal ash ponds. Coal ash is the waste byproduct from burning coal and it contains contaminants such as arsenic, mercury and chromium. Because the one active coal ash pond at G.G. Allen is an unlined impoundment, these toxics can seep into groundwater. Tests near the plant have revealed exceedances in manganese, iron and nickel in the groundwater.
Effluent is the other form of pollution at G.G. Allen — the plant wastewater that discharges directly into the surface waters of nearby Lake Wylie. Under the Clean Water Act, permits are issued for each of the plant’s discharge points. These permits, however, only set limits for traditional pollutants, including oil and grease, “total suspended solids” and pH. They rarely limit pollutants such as mercury, selenium, and arsenic. And with a lack of federal guidelines, many states don’t set their own permit limits for these toxic chemicals.
Inspecting the Aftermath: Residents of Buffalo creek worried constantly about the stability of the slurry dams upstream. Nothing was done. Photo courtesy of West Virginia State Archives.
I woke up this morning to a frozen world. Fog and ice descended on the hills above Boone, N.C., last night and are still waiting around for the thaw. It was silent other than the periodic crack of a branch and the following echo that bounced around the hills. Stepping outside after reading Ken Ward Jr.’s remembrance of the Buffalo Creek Flood, I wondered if this stillness was similar to what the residents of communities in Logan County, W.Va., felt that morning 41 years ago today.
To contain the refuse of a coal preparation plant operated by Buffalo Mining Co., a series of three dams were built upstream from the communities along Buffalo Creek in the 1950s and 60s, as Logan County continued to grow into one of southern West Virginia’s prolific coal-producing counties. Dam No. 3, the largest, stood 60 feet above the pond and downstream dams below. When it gave way on the cold morning of Feb. 26, 1972, the others collapsed instantly.
The poor construction and regulation of coal waste impoundments that precipitated the Buffalo Creek Flood intensified during boom times when coal preparation plants used more water and produced more slurry just to keep up with coal production. As Jack Spadaro, a former superintendent at MSHA’s Mine Health and Safety Academy, told me for a story last year, “All along, as these dams were being built, they weren’t really constructed using any engineering methods. They were simply dumped, filled across the valley.”
Approved on Wednesday by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the redrawn route prioritizes Alpha Natural Resources' access to coal, not travelers' access to local communities. Click to view the full-size map.
Yesterday, Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a four-lane divided highway that will flatten steep mountain ridges in southwest Virginia along a route proposed by Alpha Natural Resources — the largest coal company operating in Appalachia today.
The proposed 26-mile Coalfields Expressway is only a few miles off of several less destructive routes studied by the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2001 when it conducted a detailed environmental review of the area. The difference is that VDOT looked for a suitable place to build a highway. Alpha and other coal companies such as Rapoca Energy, on the other hand, selected the most profitable route for surface mining, using the highway as justification for the environmental toll they would inflict along the way.
This difference in purpose of the proposed routes is apparent when you look at the estimated impacts. The route VDOT selected in 2001 would have a 750-foot right of way that would disturb about 1,100 acres of land, four miles of streams and 720 acres of forest. Those impacts alone are daunting, but they pale in comparison to the redrawn route. Alpha’s path of destruction, with its 2,200-foot right of way, would flatten more than 2,100 acres, bury 12 miles of streams and clear-cut more than 2,000 acres of forest — not to mention destroy two churches and three cemeteries.
Nevertheless, VDOT sees this “coal-synergy” project as beneficial because it will cost taxpayers $2.8 billion to build, as opposed to the projected $5.1 billion without collaboration from the coal industry. The savings are disputable, however, and do not factor in the environmental cost of the road’s relocation. VDOT’s rush to make this project a reality has led them to disregard recommendations from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — all of which are asking for a full environmental review of the new route.
On Feb. 8, Appalachian Voices Tennessee Director, JW Randolph, spoke to members of the state legislature, the media and the environmental community. Below is a video and the transcript of his speech in support of the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill to protect the state’s virgin ridgelines from mountaintop removal coal mining.
Hello, my name is JW Randolph, and I’m proud to serve as the Tennessee Director for Appalachian Voices. I’m here to speak with you for a few minutes about efforts to protect Tennessee’s mountains, but first I want to thank the members that have joined us here this morning. Chairman Southerland and Representative Gilmore have both supported the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, and we’re happy you’re here. We’re thankful to you both and look forward to continuing to work with you to pass this important legislation. I would also like to thank those in attendance for engaging in the democratic process, and finally I’d like to thank the Tennessee Environmental Council, Gretchen Hagle, John McFadden and your team. You guys are great leaders in this movement here in Tennessee and for us here on Capitol Hill, we all appreciate you and the work you do.
I’m here because I love mountains. I grew up in a log cabin my father built in the woods, on the banks of the Tennessee River. And like many of you, I got to know my family, my place, and our history through walking the beautiful woods and waters of middle Tennessee, fishing, hiking, and 4-wheeling. The time spent in these mountains taught me about freedom, responsibility and self-reliance. This was where I learned the best of home, the best of our state, and the best of what our country has to offer. As I got older, I learned that not too far away, near our ancestral land, coal companies were blasting apart the mountains, and poisoning the streams that we ran through.
My daughter will turn two years old this month. When I was her age, there were 500 mountains across Appalachia that are no longer there. Since then there have been 2000 miles of streams buried by mining waste, and 125-square miles of The Cumberland Plateau that has been altered irrevocably. That is why its important that Tennesseans join the effort to pass the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act.
Over the past few weeks there has been a spurt of environmental and energy news in North Carolina and its capital, Raleigh. The developing issues include departing Charlotte-based Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers being considered for the President’s cabinet, a new bill looking to end state environmental and health rules, and the governor’s endorsement of offshore wind power.
Jim Rogers in Energy Spotlight, Mixed Record and All
With Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu officially resigned, who will become the DOE’s new chief? The business world has speculated that Jim Rogers, the outgoing CEO of Duke Energy, is a likely candidate.
Duke Energy, the company Rogers is leaving, opened three new N.C. plants in December.
While Rogers has repeatedly stated his disinterest in joining the president’s cabinet, John Downey at the Charlotte Business Journal has pointed to Rogers’ recent Bloomberg Television interview as a sign that the out-the-door CEO has considered what he would do in such a position. When asked what he would bring to the DOE job, writes Downey, Rogers cited his years of experience in the energy sector and being able to get “the balance right between cheap, affordable energy and meeting our environmental goals.”
Under Rogers, however, Duke Energy has had a mixed reputation in supporting renewable energy in North Carolina. The company is still a paying member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which creates model state laws that frequently roll back health and environmental protections in favor of promoting industry.
Duke Energy announced it would retire the Riverbend Power Plant in April, two years ahead of schedule. A good headline, but water is still being put at risk.
Don’t like what people are saying about you? Change the conversation!
Duke Energy has gotten a ton of mileage for their decision to retire or convert some of their older, more inefficient power plants in the Tarheel State. It’s environmentally-friendly after all – recycling news stories!
And you can create a whole new news story by moving your timeline. Duke Energy announced today they will be retiring their octogenarian coal plants, Riverbend in Gaston County and Buck in Rowan County this April, nearly two years ahead of schedule.
And while we are happy that Mountain Island Lake and the Yadkin River will be suffering from less pollution from toxic heavy metals like arsenic, selenium, chromium and so on, could it be that Duke Energy is trying to distract from the PR crisis they are currently facing around their leaking coal ash impoundments?
On top of that, Duke University scientists publishing reports that seem to back up many of these claims. So while Duke’s announcement is indeed good news for water, we need to continue to hold Duke and Progress accountable. There is more to be done.