MAC: Mines and Communities

US Update

Published by MAC on 2006-05-09

US Update

9th May 2006

Overall, coal dust contamination in the US may be diminishing, but millions continue to suffer its effects. This is especially true of residents close to "mountaintop removal" operations in West Virginia.

U.S. Air Cleaner But Millions Still Inhale Soot, Smog

NEW YORK, New York, (ENS)

27th April 2006

Federal efforts to control air pollution from power plants are paying off, according to the annual American Lung Association's State of the Air: 2006 report released today. But the report finds that nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population still lives in areas with unhealthful levels of both smog and soot.

“Our report shows real improvement in the air quality in much of the nation. We’re seeing the benefits of cleaning up dirty power plants with healthier air and a better quality of life. But that doesn’t mean it’s clean enough, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” said John Kirkwood, president and chief executive officer of the American Lung Association.

The Lung Association is urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to further protect public health by curbing pollution from marine and locomotive sources.

The State of the Air: 2006 finds that more than 150 million Americans still live in counties where they are exposed to unhealthful levels of air pollution. The report ranks the cities and counties with the dirtiest air, and provides county-by-county report cards on the two most pervasive air pollutants: particle pollution, or soot and ground-level ozone, or smog.

The report shows that an estimated 42.5 million Americans – nearly 15 percent of the U.S. population – live in 34 counties with unhealthful levels of both ozone and particle pollution.

Cities ranking among the worst in the nation for both pollutants include five in California - Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Fresno, Hanford and Visalia.

In the Midwest, residents of Cleveland, Ohio and St. Louis, Missouri experience the worst air pollution.

In the Northeast, New York City, Newark, New Jersey and Bridgeport, Connecticut are on the worst air list. And in the Mid-Atlantic region, Washington, DC; Baltimore, Maryland, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are listed as having levels of soot and smog that are too high.

While air pollution is unsafe for everyone, people with asthma, adults over 65, children under 18, people with diabetes, respiratory or cardiovascular disease are at greatest risk.

“In the eastern United States, where dirty power plants have been polluting the air for decades, efforts to control particle pollution are making a difference in the lives of people at risk from exposure to unhealthful air,” said Janice Nolen, director, national policy at the American Lung Association.

The State of the Air: 2006 report takes a closer look at pollution from marine and locomotive sources. State and local air pollution officials estimate that pollution from these sources is responsible for 4,000 premature deaths a year.

The EPA has promised to issue guidelines for limiting air pollution from marine and locomotive sources but has not yet acted. Marine sources include vessels from tug boats and ferries to recreational boats. Emissions from boats foul the air in port cities like Houston, Los Angeles, and New York. Diesel-powered locomotives continue to pollute the air in cities like Chicago and Pittsburgh.

“We have mounting scientific proof that cleaning up the source of air pollution results in cleaner air and less illness and death,” said Nolen.

New research from scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, showed that when particle air pollution declines in a city, the death rates there also drop.

Scientists monitored and analyzed air pollution and health data in six metropolitan areas Watertown, Massachusetts; Kingston and Harriman, Tennessee; St. Louis, Missouri; Steubenville, Ohio; Portage, Wyocena and Pardeeville, Wisconsin; and Topeka, Kansas.

The researchers found that for each one microgram decrease in soot per cubic meter of air, death rates from cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness and lung cancer dropped by three percent – extending the lives of 75,000 people a year in the United States.

The study was published in the March 15 issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. “This study further proves that cleaning up big polluters does help protect public health,” said Nolen.

To see how any particular community ranks in the State of the Air: 2006 report and learn protective techniques that work to combat air pollution, go to:

Dirtier Side Betrays Promise of 'Clean Coal'

by Kari Lydersen

Between the coal-rich Appalachian Mountains and coal-hungry energy consumers like the state of Ohio, critics say the concept of an eco-friendly use for the fossil fuel is far more misnomer than reality.

Mar. 15 - On the West Virginia-Ohio border, the tread of the county's coal-burning power industry is expanding, digging into the Appalachian Mountains and kicking up clouds of pollution. While small towns choked by power plants hear the promise of new "clean coal" technologies, mining communities know there is no technological remedy for the destruction the industry is wreaking in their communities.

Though most people probably associate coal with the bygone Industrial Age, the Bush administration considers it an essential part of the nation's energy mix. At least 114 new coal-burning power plants are currently in the building or permitting stages around the country. According to a 2006 report from the US Energy Information Administration, US power consumption from coal is expected to rise 1.9 percent per year through 2030, significantly more than the expected rise in energy consumption from petroleum (1.1 percent) and natural gas (0.7 percent).

Elisa Young, an aspiring organic farmer in Racine Ohio, finds herself surrounded by this growing industry. Up to four new coal-burning plants are proposed for her area, even though her bucolic land is already ringed by smokestacks. Three major coal-burning power plants are visible from her farm, which has been in the Young family for seven generations. Within a short span of 20 miles, American Electric Power Corp. (AEP) operates three power plants, and Ohio Valley Electric Corporation owns another.

Young would like to stay to farm her land, but she is up against an industry that would rather buy out the area than acquiesce to the health and environmental concerns of residents.

A Dirty Reputation

About 15 miles away from the Young farm is the nearly abandoned Cheshire, Ohio, a stark reminder of the economic power of the coal-burning industry. In 2001, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reviewed environmental data provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency around AEP's General John M. Gavin plant and concluded that "sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid levels in and around Cheshire pose a public health hazard to some residents, particularly residents with asthma."

Under threat of a lawsuit, AEP bought nearly all the private property in the village for about $20 million in 2002 - a price that gave most residents a deal well above property values.

Despite this record, AEP is proposing a new coal-burning plant in Meigs County and another across the river in New Haven, West Virginia where it already runs the Mountaineer and Philip Sporn plants. American Municipal Power-Ohio has also proposed a new plant in Meigs County, and a consortium of coal and energy companies called FutureGen, which includes AEP and coal giants Massey and Peabody, is considering the area to locate an experimental new facility.

Clean Coal?

The plants proposed by AEP would use a new technology known as Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) that boasts drastically reduced sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxide (NOx) and mercury emissions. The companies advertise the FutureGen plant as a zero emissions project, which would eliminate the SO2, NOx and mercury emissions and also sequester the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2).

In addition to citing the need to build new plants to meet increased demand, AEP also says the state of the art IGCC plants will create hundreds of jobs; for the Ohio plant alone, the company projects more than 1,000 temporary positions to open during construction followed by 125 permanent slots once the facility is running.

Local politicians and many residents welcome the plants.

"The economy's so bad, without the plants there's not much else," Karen Werry, a local historian and friend of Young's, told The NewStandard. "I hate the pollution, but we need the jobs."

But Young isn't buying in.

While she is skeptical of the relatively untested clean coal technology and worried about the solid waste the plants will produce, Young's main concerns center on coal's dirty legacy. The plans for the new plants do not include any promises to reduce emissions at the existing plants. And nothing about zero-emissions technology can help her friends Larry Gibson and Maria Gunnoe across the river in West Virginia, where strip mining is permanently removing vast swaths of the mountain range to feed the nation's power plants.

In fact, clean air standards have accelerated environmental destruction in West Virginia where low-sulfur coal is found beneath the Earth's surface. With coal prices up and coal-fired power plants pegged by the Bush administration as the energy source of the future, strip mining in Appalachia is increasing at a fast pace.

Gibson's land in the once-lush Appalachian forest outside Charleston now looks more like New Mexico; an especially brutal form of strip mining known as "mountaintop removal" has turned it into a swath of bare mesas and plateaus dotted by oily sludge ponds.

His neighbor Gunnoe has seen the water in her well become totally undrinkable, contaminated with selenium, lime, arsenic and other toxins. The poison is delivered in run-off from two nearby containing ponds storing chemical waste produced by the cleaning of coal.

Young, Gibson and Gunnoe live at the intersection of environmental devastation from both ends of the coal-fired power industry: Mountaintop-removal miners have devastated more than 300,000 acres of West Virginia's rolling mountains by blasting it away or pushing it into adjacent valleys. Meanwhile, Ohio's array of coal-fired power plants is among the most concentrated in the country.

A 2005 report by the anti-pollution group Clear the Air found that the state ranked first in the country for sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions in 2005 and second in the country for carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2003.

"We're definitely opposed to building more power plants in Ohio," said Erin Bowser, director of Ohio Public Interest Research Group. She told TNS that although the new proposals may be for facilities producing low or zero emissions, "they don't include anything about taking these older, dirtier coal plants off line. We need to invest our resources in wind, solar and clean biomass energy instead. Ohio has tremendous wind potential that we're not taking advantage of."

Young herself is afraid that if nothing is done about the power plants, and if the new ones are built, the environment will become too unhealthy for her to stay at the farm no matter how much she loves it.

In the family cemetery on a hillside on the farm, she rubs the corroded surface of one gravestone. "This was here since the 1700s, and when I was a kid you could still read it," she said. "Not now, because of the contamination in the air. They're erasing our family history, literally. Kids call the plants 'cloud factories.' Clouds that can kill you."

Though mining and coal-fired power plants are inextricably linked, Young notes that many people don't acknowledge that connection. Even prominent clean-air and environmental groups, including the American Lung Association and the Natural Resources Defense Council, often speak out in favor of "clean coal" technology like IGCC. But critics insist clean coal as a red herring that might improve air quality but still creates a host of serious health and environmental problems.

"It's like a Pandora's box," Young says of her growing awareness of the coal industry's harmful effects. "Now when I see these piles of coal I just think of mountains and cry."

West Virginia Town Fights Blanket of Coal Dust

Series Part Two

by Kari Lydersen

Residents in a small West Virginia first against a coal crushing plant that has blanketed their town with dust and ruined their quality of life.

Sylvester, West Virginia; May 9 - Nestled in the Coal River Valley, Sylvester, West Virginia was once a place where people came to get away from the coal mines - a comfortable village inhabited largely by retired miners.

"It wasn't a coal camp," said Mary Miller, 75, who has lived most of her life in the area.

An underground mine and several strip mines operated near Sylvester. "But they didn't bother us and we didn't bother them," said Miller.

Then in 1998 the Elk Run Coal Company significantly expanded its coal processing and loading facilities right next to Sylvester. Elk Run had operated a coal washing and preparation facility not far from Sylvester since the 1980s, but a thin ridge of land created a barrier between the plant and the town. In the early 1990s, however, the company strip mined the ridge, turning it into a flat plateau on which it built a coal crushing facility - called a stoker plant - and an adjacent coal loading facility.

Residents recount the town was suddenly covered in fine black coal dust from the stoker plant and loading area. The company also built long conveyor beltlines that snake through the hills bringing coal from nearby mines to a preparation plant. Hundreds of railroad cars per day are filled with processed, pulverized coal for transport to coal-burning power plants, and coal trucks come hurtling in and out along the narrow winding roads. The accompanying noise, bright lights and black dust ruined the quality of life for many residents.

Now, almost a decade later, even after a lawsuit led to limitations on the amount of dust Elk Run can expel, some residents still feel like they are hostages to the coal processing plant.

"We knew it would destroy the town," said resident Pauline Canterberry, 76, noting that the wind normally blows west to east, and the plant is on the west side of the town. Along with dust from the newer facility, the flattening of the ridge meant dust from the previous preparation plant could blow more easily onto the town.

"Within a month we were covered in coal dust," Canterberry said. "It looked like the sun was even covered. It would be in your hair, everything. It would come through your windows like they weren't even there."

The residents, most of them senior citizens, also worry how the dust affects their health. With miners who work both underground and in open air strip mines, coal dust is known to cause black lung disease, or pneumoconiosis, a term referring to a number of obstructive respiratory diseases that often leads to severe illness or death. Agency for Research on Cancer says studies on its carcinogenic properties have not been comprehensive.

After the dust inundation started, residents first tried going to the state Division of Environmental Protection (DEP) with their complaints. Canterberry said DEP officials told them to collect dust samples around town.

"We took samples every seven to eight days from ten different places around town for two and a half years, and the DEP never even came to pick them up," she said. "They were just trying to keep us busy."

In June 2000, the state DEP finally investigated the situation in Sylvester and gave Elk Run a three-day suspension as punishment for environmental violations regarding its coal dust. The company appealed to the state Surface Mining Board and lost.

In 2001, more than half of the town's approximately 200 residents filed a lawsuit against Elk Run and its parent company Massey Energy, one of the country's largest coal companies and the one that dominates this region. The suit charged the companies with violations including negligence, creating a nuisance, trespassing and violating the West Virginia Surface Coal Mining and Reclamation Act.

Massey officials did not return a call for this story.

"Since the facility was expanded, residents of Sylvester have helplessly witnessed the deliberate destruction of their community," said the lawsuit, filed on residents' behalf by attorney Brian Glasser. "Dust, noise and other pollution from the facility caused by the defendants' activities.have made life in the community unbearable and have left the property in the community nearly, if not entirely, valueless."

With the 1998 expansion, Elk Run came to within hundreds of feet of some people's homes, which the lawsuit said has dramatically decreased property values.

"I can't sell my house for enough to afford another one, and at my age who's going to hire me to work to earn money to move?" asked Canterberry.

Meanwhile, Elk Run does not have to pay taxes to the town because the plant is just outside Sylvester's limits. Glasser said he pushed the mayor of Sylvester to initiate annexation proceedings, but the mayor refused. Staff at the mayor's office did not answer the phone when The NewStandard tried several times to reach it.

The lawsuit noted that the dust prevented residents from socializing outdoors or even keeping their windows open, driving up electric bills from air conditioning and making residents feel "like prisoners in their own homes."

In 2002, the DEP ordered Elk Run to install a large nylon dome, about the size of a football field, over its coal piles. In 2003, as the lawsuit was going to trial, the dome was torn because of coal piled improperly next to it.

In February 2003 a judge dropped Massey from the lawsuit and made Elk Run the sole defendant. In April 2003, a jury found the company guilty of most of the charges, and six months later a judge ordered the company to pay $473,000 in damages and hundreds of thousands in attorneys' and expert witnesses' fees. The judge also ordered Elk Run to repair the torn dome over the coal piles, build baghouses over parts of the stoker plant and loading facility, buy a street sweeping machine for the town, limit the number of coal trucks traveling through Sylvester and continually monitor dust expulsion levels.

It is not clear how much the coal dust containment measures are costing the company. During the trial, the company's expert witness placed costs at $10 million to $29 million over the facility's expected 30 to 40 year life span; the defendant's expert witness said it would cost less than $2 million. Elk Run did not return calls for comment on this story.

Attorney Brian Glasser said the lawsuit was a real victory for the town, establishing "the right of people to sue for dust coming off a [company] property."

Residents are glad for the injunction, and think the requirements have made some difference. But they say their woes are far from over. They still collect samples of dust coating their town, and noise and other aggravations from the operations remain constant.

These worries are compounded by structural problems with the dome, which was again punctured in early March 2006. Weeks later the operation still appeared to be partitioned only by a haphazardly hung mesh wind screen. Meanwhile several other lawsuits by individual residents have been filed against Elk Run and are pending.

Most of the residents, including Canterberry and Miller, don't oppose mining altogether. Noting the economic dependence on mining in the region, they say they do not mind the underground and strip mines in the area or even the original coal prep plant across the ridge; they just want to see the stoker plant and loading facility closed or drastically scaled back and better-contained in order to reduce the noise and dust.

"These people came in and destroyed us," Canterberry said. "Why should we have to leave? They should leave."

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