MAC: Mines and Communities

After North Carolina spill, coal ash ponds face extinction

Published by MAC on 2014-03-18
Source: Reuters,

There have been three major coal ash, slurry or coal-related chemical spills in Appalachia over the winter. The water systems of Appalachia are being seriously damaged this winter. See: USA: Spill spews tons of coal ash into North Carolina river

Will this lead to better regulation, and even the end of coal ash ponds?

After North Carolina spill, coal ash ponds face extinction

By Elizabeth Dilts


14 March 2014

Power producers' coal ash disposal ponds like the one that leaked toxic sludge into a North Carolina river in February may soon become a thing of the past.

After six years of deliberation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in May will decide on changes to the Clean Water Act that would direct power companies to remove dangerous impurities, including carcinogens, from coal ash wastewater before releasing it into rivers that supply drinking water.

While the new regulations will not prohibit riverside coal ash disposal sites, the increased cost of wastewater treatment - up to $1 billion for the industry each year - could persuade power producers to move such sites inland, experts and industry groups said.

The ash, a by-product of burning coal to produce electricity, is a major industry in the United States. While much of it is mixed with water and stored in huge shallow ponds, nearly half is recycled and used as a strengthening agent in cement for roads and bridges nationwide.

At least 30,000 tons of arsenic-laced coal ash were released into North Carolina's Dan River in early February when a pipe broke under Duke Energy Corp's 27-acre (11-hectare) ash pond. Officials found a second leak on February 10.

The spills prompted a criminal investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Raleigh. North Carolina Governor Pat McCroy asked Duke to move the pond, at the now-retired Dan River Steam Station in Eden, farther inland from the river. Duke is already mired in a long-running legal battle with the state over the storage of coal ash waste.

"If the Effluent Guidelines had been in place, they might have stopped this disaster," said Frank Holleman, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, which has sued Duke over several of its coal ash ponds.

The guidelines "might have pressured these utilities to move the ash further away from water supplies," Holleman said.

Substantial Costs

The EPA has been considering changes to the Clean Water Act's Effluent Guidelines since 2008, after the worst U.S. coal ash spill in history sent 5 million cubic yards of the substance into a Tennessee river, contaminating hundreds of acres of land.

Since then, the EPA has collected more than 200,000 public comments. The process was delayed at various points as industry groups requested that the new wastewater rules coincide with other new guidelines for coal ash disposal.

Recycled and treated coal ash is present in three-quarters of all concrete used in the U.S. transportation infrastructure and in most highways and bridges in California, according to the American Road & Transportation Builders Association.

Industry groups have opposed the tougher guidelines as they stand, saying the methods of testing and treatment of wastewater are not economically viable.

"EPA has listed a number of technology options, some of which appear reasonable and appropriate, but most of which if adopted would impose substantial costs on the generation fleet without providing corresponding benefits," the Edison Electric Institute trade association said in a letter to the EPA on September 20.

A Duke spokesman declined to comment for this article, but in a letter to the EPA in September, the company said there was no proof that wastewater testing was cost-effective or feasible.

The EPA said it followed established rulemaking procedures. The agency is under a court order to make a decision by May 22 on what rules it will issue.

Hazardous Waste?

Other changes to regulations proposed since 2008 have already affected parts of the coal ash business.

For example, regulators are considering whether to label the material a hazardous waste, which would allow the EPA greater oversight of its disposal.

Just the mention of the hazardous waste label has slowed activity in certain parts of the industry.

John Ward, head of government relations for the American Coal Ash Association, said recycling of the material had declined since regulators began considering the hazardous waste term.

If recycling had continued at pre-2008 levels, Ward's group estimates, there would be 25 million tons less coal ash in ponds today.

A decision on the wastewater regulations not only would clear up the uncertainty that has slowed the recycling business, Ward said, it also might have kept spills into rivers and lakes from happening.

"The facilities that are all causing the problems here are all regulatable under the Clean Water Act," Ward said. "If the EPA had stuck to their schedule on getting their rule finished, maybe that would have prevented this."

(Editing by Edward McAllister and Lisa Von Ahn)

North Carolina coal ash investigation widens as grand jury convenes

Associated Press

18 March 2014

Raleigh - A federal grand jury planned to convene on Tuesday as part of a widening criminal investigation triggered by the massive Duke Energy coal ash spill that coated 70 miles of the Dan river with toxic sludge.

The session at the federal courthouse in Raleigh comes as environmental groups amp up pressure on regulators and lawmakers to force Duke to clean up the leaky, unlined ash pits polluting North Carolina's waterways. Prosecutors have issued at least 23 grand jury subpoenas to Duke executives and state officials.

Thomas Walker, the US attorney for the eastern district of North Carolina, declined to comment, citing the secrecy of grand jury proceedings.

The subpoenas seek records from Duke, the state department of environment and natural resources and the state utilities commission. They include reams of documents, including emails, memos and reports, related to the February 2 spill into the Dan river and the state's oversight of the company's nearly three dozen other coal ash dumps spread out at 14 power plants.

Those called to testify include Tom Reeder, the state's water quality director.

The first batch of subpoenas was issued on 10 February the day after an Associated Press story raised questions about whether North Carolina regulators had helped shield Duke from a coalition of environmental groups that wanted to sue under the US Clean Water Act to force the company to clean up its coal ash pollution.

Their efforts were stymied by the state environmental agency, which used its authority under the federal act to intervene. The state quickly proposed what environmentalists derided as a "sweetheart deal" where the $50bn Charlotte-based company would have paid just $99,111 to settle violations over toxic groundwater leeching from two of its plants with no requirement that it stop the pollution.

That proposed settlement was put on hold indefinitely after last month's spill.

Jamie Kritzer, a spokesman for the state environmental department, declined to comment beyond saying the agency is cooperating with the federal probe.

Environmentalists had long complained about the level of coordination between Duke and North Carolina's regulators and lawmakers.

Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, worked for Duke for more than 28 years before retiring to campaign for the state's highest elected post.

Following the spill, McCrory and state environmental secretary John Skvarla asked Duke for details about company plans to clean up the coal ash dumps.

Duke president Lynn Good responded last week. She said it would take the company at least two years to clean up the Eden dump, which spilled the ash into the Dan River. She said the company will move its remaining ash away from the river to either a lined landfill or a "lined structural fill solution".

Good said the company will be responsible for cleaning up after the disaster, though it is not clear how the miles of contaminated river bottom might be restored or how long that might take. Public health officials have advised people to avoid contact with the water in the Dan and not to eat the fish.

She said the company will also move ash dumps in the Asheville and Charlotte area, and is looking at options for the Sutton pits near Wilmington.

Good said the company will continue to work on long-range plans for 11 other sites where the company has leaky unlined ash pits.

Skvarla called the plan inadequate, saying he wanted more answers from Duke.

He said regulators plan to modify permits at Charlotte and Asheville area ash pits to stop pollution from seeping into public waterways. Skvarla said regulators want to stop all unauthorized discharges from those leaky ash dumps, and possibly move the waste.

But Southern Environmental Law Center senior attorney Frank Holleman said the state is dragging its feet. He said the agency had the power to force Duke to clean up the sites.

Meanwhile, more North Carolina lawmakers are calling on Duke to take action.

State senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham county Republican who lives near the spill site, said he wants the general assembly's environmental review commission to look into the issue to make sure that it "never happens again".

"As a resident of Eden, I have personally experienced the impact and understand the gravity of the recent coal ash spill," he said.

He noted that Senate rules chairman Tom Apodaca announced last month he is drafting a bill to require Duke to clean up the other coal ash ponds.

The co-chair of the commission that would consider the legislation, Republican Representative Mike Hager of Rutherfordton, is a retired Duke Energy engineer who ran the five coal-fired generators at the company's Cliffside Steam Station.

In another development, North Carolina regulators say they are investigating whether Duke Energy broke the law when workers pumped contaminated water from a coal ash dump near the Cape Fear river.

US coal miner to pay largest-ever water pollution penalty

Ana Komnenic

5 March 2014

Coal miner Alpha Natural Resources will have to spend $200 million on installations and upgrades and pay a record-breaking $27 million fine as per a legal settlement reached with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA announced on Wednesday that Alpha Natural Resources - one of the country's largest coal miners - Alpha Appalchian Holdings (formerly Massey Energy), and 66 subsidiaries have agreed to spend about $200 million on wastewater treatment systems and upgrades to reduce pollution from coal mines in Appalachia.

The companies will also pay a fine of $27.5 million for more than 6,000 permit violations.

"By requiring reforms and a robust compliance program, we are helping to ensure coal mining in Appalachia follows environmental laws that protect public health," an EPA representative said in a statement.

An Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division said the civil penalty of "unprecedented size" will send a "strong deterrent message to others in this industry that such egregious violations of the nation's Clean Water Act will not be tolerated."

The EPA estimates that the upgrades required by the settlement will "educe discharges of total dissolved solids by over 36 million pounds each year, and will cut metals and other pollutants by approximately nine million pounds per year."

West Virginians Raise Alarm as Research Links Coal Mining to Cancer, Birth Defects

By Erin L. McCoy, Yes! Magazine

1 March 2014

In the middle of a sentence, Gary Bone has to stop and gasp.

"I lose my breath," he tells me through the phone.

Bone is 56 and suffers from asbestosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and black lung. These aren't the only remnants of nearly 20 years working in the coal mines of West Virginia. A scar on his back marks the spot where three discs were removed from his spine after a rock fell on him.

"Any kind of injuries you can imagine, a coal mine's going to have it," Bone says. "I've seen people that's got their eye put out, fingers mashed up, whole lot of cuts, whole lot of back injuries. Back injuries are one of the most visible things."

Bone isn't the only miner with stories like these. Junior Walk, an outreach coordinator with the anti-mining nonprofit organization Coal River Mountain Watch (CRMW), says his grandfather survived several injuries in the mines.

"He broke his back twice in two different rock falls underground, where the ceiling just collapsed in on him. Broke his legs once-both of his legs-getting run over by a man trip, which is how they transport you in and out of the coal mine," Walk says. "He made me swear to him when I was a kid that I would never set foot in an underground mine."

Today, Walk's grandfather has black lung, and Bone's mobility is severely limited. The biggest disasters of coal mining certainly make the news-like the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in 2010, which killed 29 men and shook the ground beneath the house where Walk grew up. But a growing body of research suggests that the invisible threats that cause many miners to retire early-the respiratory problems, the cancer, the chronic disease-also debilitate and kill an untold number of West Virginians each year.

In recent years, research has drawn new links between coal mining and health problems in the areas where that mining takes place. In response, local groups are working to support further research and boost awareness of these problems. The chemical leak that left 300,000 West Virginians without water for more than a week in January, the 108,000-gallon slurry spill on Feb. 11, and another slurry spill just days ago have brought national attention to the issue. Local advocates hope that this attention, in combination with new research, will translate into a more open dialogue on the health dangers of coal mining.

Janet Keating, executive director at the nonprofit organization Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, says that the spills should draw attention to the more chronic problems at hand.

"The day-to-day air and water pollution and associated health impacts from living with mountain removal and large-scale surface mining has been largely ignored by lawmakers and people in West Virginia living outside of the southern coal regions," she wrote in an email.

Health impacts have been an everyday worry for Bone, whose wife has been by his side through all the doctor's appointments and the difficult days. While we're on phone, he stops to call out to her: "Peggy, put something on, it's cold out!"

It's one of the coldest Januaries in decades. Into the receiver, he says, "I should be doing that. I should be starting my wife's vehicle."

Chronic Disease, Birth Defects, and Coal

Mortality rates attributed to kidney, respiratory, and heart disease are significantly higher in Appalachian counties with high levels of coal mining, compared to non-mining areas, according to a 2009 study.

Cancer is a particular culprit. A study that compared two rural West Virginia communities, one with mining and one without, found that self-reported cancer rates were twice as high in the mining areas. In areas with mountaintop removal (or surface mining), rates of lung, bladder, kidney, and colon cancer, along with leukemia, are all higher than in non-mining areas. These findings control for other risk factors, like smoking and socioeconomic status.

COPD, which affects Gary Bone, has also been linked to coal mining. The odds of COPD hospitalization increase 1 percent for every additional 1,462 tons of coal mined in an area during one particular year, according to a study published in 2007. Odds of hospitalization for high blood pressure increase, too-1 percent for every 1,873 tons mined that year.

One of the most stunning findings of recent years: the risk for birth defects in areas where mountaintop-removal coal mining is prevalent is significantly higher than in non-mining areas, according to a study published in 2011. The study looked at two periods of time: 1996 to 1999, during which risk was 13 percent higher in areas with this type of mining; and 2000 to 2003, during which risk was 42 percent higher. Six of seven types of birth defects-including circulatory/respiratory, central nervous system, and gastrointestinal-were "significantly higher" in areas with mountaintop removal. This, again, is after controlling for other factors.

Dr. Michael Hendryx, a professor of applied health science at Indiana University, who co-authored the study, has been researching health issues in the coal mining areas of Appalachia since 2006. He says the research left him with little doubt about the impact of the mining industry.

"I can definitively say that there are higher levels of health problems in mining communities, especially mountaintop removal communities, than others," he says. "To try to pretend that we don't have enough information to try to act, that we don't know what is happening, is unethical. It's immoral."

Not everyone agrees that the evidence is definitive. Nancy Gravatt, senior vice president of communications at the National Mining Association, points to several responses that she says refute the results of studies like Hendryx's. One study by Dr. Jonathan Borak, et al., concludes that coal mining isn't an independent risk factor for increased mortality in the Appalachian region and points to other factors such as obesity and poverty. Borak's paper was reportedly funded by the National Mining Association, though Borak has maintained his opinions are not for hire.

Representatives of coal company Alpha Natural Resources did not respond to interview requests for this article.

An Environment Built by Coal

Another way that scientists have tried to assess the effect of coal on public health is to measure the air and water quality near both surface and underground mines.

Several recent studies indicate that when it comes to environmental pollutants, mining areas are often much worse off than areas where no mining is taking place. One study collected particulate matter from the air within one mile of an active mountaintop removal site in southern West Virginia, and found it to be 38 percent sulfur and 24 percent silica. According to Hendryx, the silica (in this case, crystalline silica) is a particular cause for concern.

"Crystalline silica is toxic. It's highly carcinogenic, and I think it's the silica in particular that's driving the health problems we've seen," he says.

Another paper, authored by Dr. Laura Kurth of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and slated for release soon, has documented for the first time that there is more ultrafine particulate matter in areas with surface mining. Ultrafine particles are smaller than a tenth of a micron in size, and can penetrate through the lungs into the blood system, Hendryx explains.

Water quality has also been affected by mining. A study published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 notes that waste rock from mountaintop removal mines is often disposed of in nearby valleys, where it comes into contact with streams. The study found that the amount of sulfate, magnesium, and selenium in the water increased in proportion to the amount of mining upstream, and in some areas, there was a "very high incidence" of selenium-linked developmental deformities in the larvae of two types of fish.

Large amounts of selenium can be toxic, though it's unclear whether there's enough selenium in West Virginia waterways to harm humans. Still, selenium levels in West Virginia waters have been a topic of debate between community groups and politicians for years. In 2013, a bill to weaken current maximum selenium standards and conduct more research about whether selenium is actually impacting West Virginia streams passed almost unanimously.

One possible source of water pollution is the slurry that remains after the coal frothing process in coal prep plants, in which coal dust is separated from other materials so that the dust can be used. This slurry, and the chemicals in it, is pumped into huge reservoirs, called slurry impoundments, or into underground mines.

Gravatt confirmed in an email that, "On occasion, [slurry] can be disposed of in abandoned underground mines. To do so, operators need to get a permit from the state water authority (at least in the case of WV). It should be noted that disposing of such materials in abandoned, underground mines avoids placing the same materials on the surface in impoundments."

Walk grew up with well water, and remembers that it would sometimes run red from the faucet.

"Anybody with half a brain wouldn't drink it. But you still have to shower in it, you've got to wash your clothes, wash your dishes. Sometimes my parents would even cook with it because they boiled it and when you boiled it, it looked fine, smelled fine," Walk said. He learned later that boiling the water doesn't make the chemicals go away.

Science and Community

Local groups have generally advocated for greater awareness about coal mining's health impacts in three ways: community education, policy work, and direct action.

In 2013, OVEC partnered with the Southern Appalachian Labor School to host a series of public meetings in Fayette County, W.V., to educate people about the impacts of coal mining.

These meetings inspired a group of citizens to organize a study in their area with Hendryx's help. About 45 people were surveyed for self-reported illnesses. Although the sample size was small, Keating said the most important result was empowering people to defend themselves.

"People in the state have been 'done to' and 'done for' long enough," she said. "It's time that people realize that they do have power."

Many of OVEC's efforts have centered around raising awareness in small communities. The organization provides water testing around the state upon request, and in the last two years, has hosted a conference to open up a dialogue between people affected by fracking and others affected by mountaintop removal. At least one faith group plans to help Hendryx conduct a survey this year, Keating said.

"There are a lot of people of faith here, and it's more difficult for politicians or industry to marginalize us when we have solid backing from the faith community," she said.

On the policy front, Coal Mountain River Watch in collaboration with OVEC and other groups won a legal settlement in 2011 that required Alpha Natural Resources, a coal company, to construct selenium treatment facilities at a cost of more than $50 million.

Today, CRMW is helping to spearhead the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act in the U.S. Congress. The act, introduced in February 2013 by Rep. John Yarmuth, a Democrat from Kentucky, would require comprehensive studies on mountaintop removal's impact on human health. It has 45 co-sponsors in the House.

Walk is a member of at least three local advocacy groups, and is a founding member of RAMPS (Radical Action for Mountain People's Survival), which focuses on nonviolent direct action. He recalls one of those campaigns as we walk up a muddy path through Roberts Cemetery, a small island of public land at the center of the Hobet Mountain surface mining complex. Fallen leaves coat the hillside, but when we reach the top, the scene opens up: The mountains are mostly bare of trees. Ahead of us, a thin layer of grass sprouts from a huge pile of rubble that resembles a mountain, and in the distance, a few large machines groan dully. It's a Saturday; the site is quieter than usual.

Walk describes an event that RAMPS put together called the Mountain Mobilization, which happened here at Hobet in July 2012. "It was pretty awesome," he says. "We just had about 50 of our good friends go with us, climb up all over their equipment, and lock ourselves to things, and generally raise havoc that day on that mine site, and shut them down."

The site was shut down for a day, and 20 people were arrested. Their total bail amounted to $500,000. But Walk's goals were to raise awareness and cost the coal companies money, and RAMPS achieved those goals.

Home in the Mountains

Walk and I stop the car off the side of Route 3, which runs for miles along the base of Coal River Mountain. We're trying to get a good look at a valley fill, where rock and debris from a nearby mine piles up between the ridges to the south. It's hard to see through the trees, but the sun is coming out on an otherwise gray December day, and flickering off the Big Coal River below. The branches sway in a gust of wind left over from the rainfall.

"I would never live anywhere else," says Walk. He grew up just down the road, and as a kid, spent his free time riding four-wheelers in the mountains.

"My grandpa used to collect arrowheads a lot, ... and there was this one place he used to take me on Coal River Mountain called Bear Wallow, and that place doesn't exist any more," he says. "It was on top of a ridge. They blew it up."

After high school, Walk worked in a coal preparation plant for six months. Walk quit working there, but then took a job as a security guard at another plant.

"I felt like I had blood on my hands when I worked that job, and I just couldn't do it," he says. "I knew that the people who lived below that mine site I was making money off of were going through the same things I went through when I was a little kid, and I felt miserable about it. And that's when I started coming around the local organizations around here and seeing what I could do to help out."

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission or license from the source.

US investigates NC environment agency

By Mitch Weiss and Michael Biesecker

Associated Press

13 February 2014

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Federal authorities have launched a criminal investigation into North Carolina's environmental agency following a massive coal ash spill on the Dan River. The U.S. Attorney's Office issued a grand jury subpoena requesting records from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. They include emails, memos and reports from 2010 through the Feb. 2 spill. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the subpoena on Thursday. The spill at a Duke Energy plant in Eden spewed enough toxic ash into the river to fill 72 Olympic-sized pools. It was the third-largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. The order commands the state environmental agency's chief lawyer to appear next month before the grand jury in Raleigh. Agency spokesman Drew Elliot says the state will cooperate with the federal investigators.

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