Bill To Remake Jefferson County’s Solid Waste Board Moving Through House Tuesday, Feb 21 2017 

A bill that would fundamentally change the way Louisville Metro manages solid waste is set for passage in the Kentucky House of Representatives this week. City officials worry the bill is meant to roll back Louisville’s environmental progress — like banning plastic leaf bags, for example — but the bill’s proponents argue the measure is a much-needed overhaul of the county’s waste management district.

If House Bill 246 becomes law, it would mean Jefferson County’s waste management district wouldn’t have the power to require suburban cities to do anything more than comply with state and federal laws. This would effectively nullify the plastic bag ban in certain areas of Jefferson County.

The bill would get rid of the plastic bag ban — and all other waste department regulations — on August 31, 2017, unless reauthorized by the new board.

It would also abolish Jefferson County’s waste management district, which is commonly referred to as the 109 Board. The board is made up of five representatives, all appointed by the mayor, and oversees waste in the district.

Under the provisions of the bill, the new 109 Board would have seven members, representing various areas of the county. They would still be appointed by the mayor, but Metro Council would have to approve the appointments.

A similar bill was introduced last year, but didn’t pass either legislative body.

At a waste management meeting in Jeffersontown Monday night, attorney Schuyler Olt said the measure isn’t targeting the bag ban. Olt is the city attorney for four small cities: Jeffersontown, Seneca Gardens, Strathmoor Village and Parkway Village.

“I know that in all of my four cities I think that if we tried to get rid of paper bags and try to go back to the old way, we’d probably get lynched,” he said. “Because it’s become a part of what we do.”

Rather, Olt said the bill is about transparency. He said it’s nearly impossible to determine what the 109 Board is doing, and often meetings are cancelled because there’s no quorum.

“I don’t understand why the 109 Board has so long operated in the dark to where you can’t easily find out even who is on that board. And given the amount of power that it has, it’s not a good situation,” he said. “I think for what the 109 Board is charged to do, which is obviously very important to our well-being, our public health, we just have to have a more transparent, more involved, more engaged solid waste management board.”

Louisville Metro Government chief of public services Doug Hamilton spoke against the bill at the meeting. Afterward, he conceded the small cities may have a few valid points.

“I think they have a point on some things that may need improvement with the 109 Board as it currently operates, especially if it’s one that they consistently don’t have a quorum,” he said. “Now whether or not that’s so extreme that we need to come up with the 246 version, I don’t believe so.”

The bill is also supported by waste haulers, who were represented at the meeting.

House Bill 246 is posted for passage in the House of Representatives on Wednesday.

Kentucky OKs Long-Delayed Trimble County Coal Ash Landfill Monday, Feb 20 2017 

Kentucky regulators have approved a coal ash landfill for a power plant in Trimble County, advancing a project that’s been on hold for several years as regulators worked around concerns about the area’s geology and proximity to neighbors.

Louisville Gas & Electric has been seeking a permit for the site for more than five years. An initial permit application was denied in 2013, after a cave with ecological and possible historical significance was discovered onsite.

The Trimble County Power Station burns coal for electricity, and coal ash is a byproduct. So LG&E needs a place to put the ash, and began work on another landfill permit. Some of the ash is stored on site in ponds, but those are scheduled to be closed soon.

Now, the permit granted last week by the Kentucky Division of Waste Management allows the company to build a landfill covering 189 acres of land near the site.

“We’re pleased the Kentucky Division of Waste Management issued our permit and we’ve reached this next step in the permitting process,” said LG&E spokeswoman Liz Pratt in an email. “We believe the location we selected for the Trimble County special waste landfill is the most appropriate location with the least environmental acts while also being the lowest-cost option for our customers.”

Neighbors Opposed

Kelley Leach lives in Trimble County across the street from the proposed landfill. He spoke at a legislative hearing earlier this month against the state’s proposed new coal ash regulations, which would place less state oversight over the permitting of landfills.

At the hearing, Leach also spoke about the prospect of living across the street from the proposed landfill at the Trimble County plant.

“They have shown in that area that the dolomite is so porous that basically, it wouldn’t be if there would be a contamination of my groundwater, it would be when that would happen,” Leach told legislators. “Even with these liners that they’ve proposed to put in those, it’s just a matter of time.”

The geology under the landfill is characterized by numerous karst features, like caves, sinkholes and underground springs. In the response to comments submitted on LG&E’s proposed permit, the Kentucky Division of Waste Management said several steps were being taken to ensure the groundwater would be protected, like LG&E filling in any karst features found during excavation.

The permit also doesn’t allow LG&E to place any waste above the base of the Laurel Dolomite, which is the uppermost layer of bedrock. The response notes that groundwater flow isn’t as well understood there, and that LG&E would have to submit a groundwater monitoring plan if the company ultimately wants to put ash in those areas.

Another commenter expressed concerns that the landfill would affect the area’s pristine streams. The state responded that it would affect more than 87,000 linear feet of streams, 2.6 acres of wetlands and half an acre of open pond. All of the waters have been deemed to be high-quality, with high scores on the Macroinvertebrate Bioassessment Index.

But the Kentucky Division of Waste Management notes: “However, KDWM does not regulate impacts to streams; this responsibility lies with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Kentucky Division of Water.”

Leach and his family have lived on their 150-acre farm for three generations, but he said they’re willing to sell the property to LG&E. He told legislators so far, the company hasn’t expressed interest in buying it.

“In their documentation, they’ve listed in many places where this is an industrial waste site, an industrial work zone, the noise levels, the lights,” Leach said at the legislative hearing. “Everything that my family moved to that rural community to avoid, and now I’m faced with living the rest of my life in front of an industrial waste site that my family didn’t choose to live in.”

LG&E’s new permit application doesn’t directly impact Wentworth Cave — the feature that helped doom the initial application.

But if state legislators approve new regulations proposed for coal ash permitting, this permit might be for naught. The new regulations—panned by environmental groups — would allow utilities to bypass the rigorous permitting process and instead receive a single document called a “registered permit-by-rule.” If these rules are finalized, all present permits — including this freshly-issued Trimble County permit — would be null and void.

Scott Pruitt Confirmed To Lead Environmental Protection Agency Friday, Feb 17 2017 

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has been confirmed as the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency Pruitt has long criticized.

The Senate approved Pruitt on a 52-46 vote Friday afternoon, with two Democrats — Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota — voting for his nomination. Republican Susan Collins of Maine voted no.

The vote came after a failed Democratic attempt to delay the confirmation proceedings until after a new batch of documents from Pruitt’s state office are made public under court order. Those emails will be released beginning next week.

Pruitt has come under fire for coordinating closely with energy companies in his attempts to scale back and block federal environmental regulations. The New York Times reported that at times, Pruitt had simply copied and pasted suggested language from an energy company onto state letterhead, and then sent it to the EPA.

Pruitt will almost certainly take the EPA in a drastically new direction.

The agency aggressively drafted and enforced new environmental rules during the Obama administration, tightening federal standards for vehicle emissions, water quality and pollution at power plants. Pruitt is expected to slow or reverse much of that, scaling back regulations and deferring to states on environmental enforcement. That’s a process President Trump and Congress have already begun.

As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt led legal challenge after legal challenge against EPA regulations, even describing himself in his official biography as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda.”

Pruitt argued during his confirmation hearing that he wasn’t against environmental quality standards — he just thinks that they are better enforced on the state level. “The states are not mere vessels of federal will,” Pruitt testified. “They don’t exist simply to carry out federal dictates from Washington, D.C. There are substantive requirements, obligations, authority, jurisdiction granted to the states under our environmental statutes. That needs to be respected.”

That’s a view shared by many Republicans. But former Bush administration EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman told NPR she is worried Pruitt’s skepticism goes too far for him to be an effective head of the agency. “He seems to have a level of distrust that is unusual coming into an agency, because it doesn’t necessarily bode well for good relations with the career staff that are there, with whom you have to work and you need to get things done,” she said.

Whitman also questioned Pruitt’s belief in climate change. While Pruitt did tell senators during his confirmation hearing that “science tells us that the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change,” he said “the extent of that [human] impact is subject to continuing debate and dialogue.”

Regardless of Pruitt’s personal beliefs on climate change, he is expected to dismantle the EPA’s main rule aimed at lowering the United States’ carbon footprint: the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.

The rule would lower carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by about 30 percent over the coming decades and is the linchpin of the United States’ plan to meet its obligations under the Paris climate agreement.

The Clean Power Plan is currently held up in federal court. President Trump campaigned on reversing it, and Pruitt was among the state attorneys general who sued to block the regulation from ever taking effect.

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Asian Carp Are Still A Problem In Kentucky, And Boaters Might Pay To Help Tuesday, Feb 14 2017 

A state Fish and Wildlife committee is recommending the full commission approve a plan to raise boat registration fees to combat the spread of invasive Asian carp in the commonwealth.

Asian carp are an invasive species, and they’ve been in the Mississippi and Ohio River basins for several years. They’re also in Kentucky and Barkley lakes in Western Kentucky. And once they make it into a body of water, they’re almost impossible to get out.

“They spawn so rapidly that their numbers are what the problem is,” said Kentucky Division of Fish and Wildlife spokesman Mark Marraccini. “The silver carp can get 20, 30, 40 pounds apiece each, and bighead carp can get up to 100 pounds, although we see a lot of them in the 50, 60, 70 pound range.”

Besides posing serious problems for river and lake ecosystems, carp are becoming a public safety issue for boaters.

“[The carp are] startled at the approach of a boat motor — and they’re in schools of just hundreds and hundreds of them — and they begin leaping out of the water,” Marraccini said. “They’ll leap 4, 5, 6, 8, 10 feet sometimes. If you have a boat going down the river or down the lake, traveling at a speed of say 25, 30 mile an hour or faster and you collide with one of these leaping fish, it breaks windshields, it injures passengers. It’s becoming a real issue.”

Erica Peterson |

Byron Hopkins holds a bighead carp the crew caught in its nets as part of a fishing event called Carp Madness in Western Kentucky in 2013.

Marraccini said this is why it makes sense to pay for Asian carp research and eradication efforts out of boat registration fees. The fees haven’t been changed since 2002; if the committee’s proposal is ultimately approved, it would raise boat registration fees for all sizes of boats.

From the Division of Fish and Wildlife:

  • The fee for boats under 16 feet in length would increase from $19 to $24 (neighboring state average is $22.50);
    Fees for boats 16-26 feet would increase from $23 to $38 (neighbor average is $40);
    Fees for boats 26-40 feet would increase from $29 to $50 (neighbor average is $72);
    Fees for boats longer than 40 feet would increase from $33 to $60 (neighbor average is $96).
    Inboard registration fees would increase from $34 to $47 and boats powered only by trolling motors would increase from $9 to $14.

Paddled boats like canoes and kayaks wouldn’t be affected.

Now that the members of the Administration, Education and Policy Committee have recommended the change, it will go before the full Kentucky Fish and Wildlife Commission at its meeting on March 17. If the commission votes to increase the fees, the change will have to be approved by two legislative committees and the governor before going into effect.

DuPont Offers $670M Settlement For ‘Teflon’ Chemical Contamination Of Water Monday, Feb 13 2017 

The chemical giant DuPont made an offer Monday to pay more than half-a-billion dollars to settle water contamination lawsuits pending in federal court.

3,550 plaintiffs from the mid-Ohio Valley filed suit claiming contaminated drinking water led to diseases linked to chemical exposure. The chemical they were exposed to is known as C-8, or PFOA, and is used in Teflon and other products. More than a decade ago residents near the company’s Washington works plant in Wood County, West Virginia, learned that their water was contaminated with C-8, and had been for years.

Juries hearing the first three cases found for the plaintiffs, awarding a total of more than $18 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Now DuPont and a spin-off company, Chemours, have agreed to pay a total of $670.7 million to settle all the suits, with each company paying half the amount.

Rob Bilott, one of the lead lawyers for the plaintiffs, is pleased with the settlement offer.

“This is a tremendous positive step toward resolving the litigation in a way that provides compensation for our injured clients without the need for additional, lengthy, and expensive trials,” Bilott said. “We look forward to working with DuPont to finalize this settlement and get these injured class members paid as quickly as possible.”

chemoursGlynis Board | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Chemours facility, formerly the Dupont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia.

The companies also have agreed to pay up to an additional $50 million a year for the next five years for any additional claims that might arise.

“This agreement provides a sound resolution for area residents, Chemours, and the public,” said David Shelton, Senior Vice-President, General Counsel & Corporate Secretary for Chemours. “It settles all indemnification obligations between Chemours and DuPont for all of the approximately 3,500 claims in the Ohio multi-district litigation and allows us to move forward with a renewed focus on our customers, product innovation and application development.”

Both companies continue to deny any wrongdoing.

DuPont phased out U.S. production of C-8 several years ago. Now it’s made in China. Although it’s still a widely used compound found in non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and food wrappers here in the U.S.

A Chemical Legacy

For more than half a century along the Ohio River, DuPont provided jobs for thousands of people. One chemical they produced is PFOA, commonly known as C-8. It was a remarkably useful compound, used in “Teflon” non-stick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, and even in some food wrappers.

Over time, researchers have found that C-8 is also toxic. DuPont and other companies phased out U.S. production a few years ago. Now it’s made in China.

The contamination in this region eventually lead to a class action lawsuit that resulted in a broad medical study of affected residents beginning in 2005. Over 30,000 community members were involved. The study linked C-8 to multiple health problems from cancer to reduced immune function. A series of additional health studies followed, and further proved that chemical compounds like C-8 are dangerous, even in small doses.

The medical testing of residents paved the way for lawsuits and the settlement agreement announced this week. But the studies also raised questions about what the chemical might do to people who are ingesting the chemical in very tiny amounts in drinking water.

Far-Reaching Concerns

Because the chemical can persist in water, communities along the Ohio River — and around the U.S. — are still grappling with the environmental fallout of contamination from C-8 and similar chemicals. The ReSource generated a map using water testing data available from the U.S. EPA. It shows 12 water systems in 10 counties in Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia where these chemicals were detected in the water.

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a health advisory in 2016 for C-8 levels in drinking water, and many of the water systems that detected C-8 and related chemicals found them at levels lower than the EPA advisory. EPA officials say the C-8 advisory levels were calculated to protect fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed infants, and was based on “the best available peer-reviewed studies.”

However, a growing body of science indicates that the EPA advisory level is not sufficiently protective of human health, and many researchers recommend far more restrictive thresholds for exposure.  

546px-happy_pan_posterWikimedia Commons

C8, or PFOA, was used in many consumer products, including Teflon pan coating.

Dr. Philippe Grandjean of Harvard’s School of Public Health, an expert on health effects of perfluorinated chemicals like C-8, says the EPA’s advisory doesn’t go far enough. One of his latest studies looks at long term effects of these chemicals on the immune systems of exposed children.

Last year a coalition of scientists from around the world called for limits on C-8 production altogether. Health officials in New Jersey are suggesting that C-8 levels should be five times lower than what EPA advises (at about 14 parts per trillion). Grandjean’s work and other scientific studies have recommended an acceptable level of 1 part per trillion, which is what the European Union recommends for surface water.  

Many of the water systems that detected PFOA or similar chemicals found levels that fall somewhere in a range below EPA’s health advisory but well above what scientists such as Grandjean have recommended. These communities include: Louisville and part of Pendleton County, in Kentucky; Gallia County, Ohio; and Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Legislative Committee Defers Decision On Controversial Coal Ash Regs Friday, Feb 10 2017 

A legislative committee voted Friday to defer a decision on new rules that would change the way coal ash landfills are permitted in Kentucky.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet’s new rules have attracted lots of attention in recent months. The rules would fundamentally change the way coal ash landfills are permitted.

Rather than applying for a permit with the state — a lengthy and complicated process — utilities would instead apply for a registered permit-by-rule. After filing a document, construction could commence on major engineering projects without prior review or approval by regulators. The utilities could be fined by regulators or sued by individuals after the fact for any violations.

Last month, details also emerged about the process that generated the new version of the rules. Documents obtained by WFPL showed Kentucky regulators spent more than a year — under the administrations of both previous Gov. Steve Beshear and Gov. Matt Bevin — collaborating with representatives of the utility industry before the rules were released for public comment.

Energy and Environment Cabinet Deputy Secretary Bruce Scott told the Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee that the regulations will give the state more control over coal ash in Kentucky

“Our intention with this rule, particularly with the ash ponds, and the ash ponds are the primary genesis of why the rule came to be into fruition, is this gives us technical requirements, technical abilities, and frankly it gives us a permitting mechanism that we don’t currently have to deal with ash ponds in Kentucky,” he said. “So, it beefs that up significantly.”

That characterization was strongly disputed by Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council, who told the committee these regulations are the most dangerous he’s seen in his more than three decades of practicing law in the state.

“This is a complete abdication of regulatory responsibility and I am appalled that the agency would, with a straight face, suggest that this is an improvement over the current situation, which requires individual permitting, individual review by the regulatory authority and individual involvement by the public,” FitzGerald said. “And frankly, if I were a civil engineer working for a utility I would not want to be the only person certifying that these things are properly cited, designed, constructed and operated.”

The committee also heard from Kelley Leach, who lives across the street from LG&E’s proposed Trimble County landfill.

After several minutes of testimony, Sen. Perry Clark told FitzGerald and Scott because their testimonies gave conflicting information, he wasn’t sure how to vote and wanted more time.

“I believe you’re both trying to do this on goodwill and I don’t know, you’re telling me we have these new regulations, I’m reading this, and I see this as a weakening of a regulation by taking away,” Clark said. “I’m concerned about the cadmium, I’m concerned about the mercury, I’m concerned about the arsenic, I’m concerned about the water and it seems like we’re depleting our protection for this thing. And I don’t know which way to go. And I would like to give us at least another month, to sit down and let us think about this during this month.”

Other members of the committee agreed, and the rules were deferred for a month.

Before they go into effect, the new regulations will have to clear this committee and another committee of jurisdiction, as well as be approved by the governor.

Kentucky Regulators Raise Concerns About Electric Co-op’s Employee Benefits Tuesday, Feb 7 2017 

The Kentucky Public Service Commission has granted a Southeast Kentucky electric cooperative a small rate increase, but in doing so, ripped the utility for excessive employee pay and nepotism.

Cumberland Valley Electric had proposed a rate increase that — like the recent proposal by Louisville Gas and Electric — would significantly raise the monthly service charge. In this case, Cumberland Valley wanted to raise the charge from $8.73 to $14.10.

In its order, the PSC granted Cumberland Valley part of that increase, raising the monthly charge to $12. But the commissioners said they wanted to see significant changes in the way the utility hires and compensates employees.

Co-op salaried employees received an across-the-board 3.5 percent pay increase, as well as receiving both a defined benefit pension plan and company contributions into 401k plans. Cumberland Valley also pays all health insurance premiums for employees and their families, and the company sought to recoup portions of these generous benefits from ratepayers.

Besides its generous employee salaries and benefits, the PSC raised concerns about the fact that a lot of the Cumberland Valley employees enjoying these perks are related. Four current employees are related to the utility’s CEO, and another 12 employees and a board member are related to other employees. These are violations of Cumberland Valley’s nepotism policy, which was frequently circumvented.

In its order, the PSC determined the exceptions to the company’s nepotism policy should end, and asked for the company to provide proof of that within 30 days. The commissioners also directed the utility to conduct a financial study examining how Cumberland Valley can cut expenses and explore the possibility of merger with another utility.

Cumberland Valley’s troubled financial condition is a result of the coal industry’s decline, the PSC noted in a news release. The utility has half as many large commercial and industrial customers as it did in 2011, which has resulted in a loss of revenue.

Cumberland Valley Electric serves about 23,600 customers in Bell, Clay, Harlan, Knox, Laurel, Leslie, Letcher, McCreary, and Whitley counties in southeast Kentucky. A spokesman for the company didn’t return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.

This New Partnership Makes It Easier For Louisvillians To Get Air Quality Info Monday, Feb 6 2017 

Louisville’s “Smart City” data initiative now includes a new collaboration with IFTTT, a web and mobile platform. The initial offering will let users sign up to receive alerts when the city’s air quality changes.

Louisville’s air quality data is already available in real-time online. But using IFTTT’s system, users can sign up to have that data sent in a variety of ways. You can get an alert through email, text, or the team messaging system Slack. You can also integrate Louisville’s air data with other “smart home” products — like smart light bulbs — and tell your lights to change color when the air quality becomes unhealthy, for example.

“There’s a lot of value that we see in this partnership with IFTTT. It allows people to be flexible and platform-agnostic with city data,” said Louisville Metro Government designer Matthew Gotth-olsen.

And when people are given information about city data in real time, without having to seek it out, they can make choices based on that information. On days when ozone levels are high, people with asthma might want to skip their morning jog. Others might put off mowing the lawn to avoid contributing to the high pollution levels.

So far, Louisville is the first city to make its data available through IFTTT.

“IFTTT is thrilled to have the city of Louisville join the platform,” founder and CEO Linden Tibbets said in a statement. “We believe that cities harnessing their own data can create countless possibilities for their residents. Louisville is leading the way in this regard. We look forward to partnering over the next months as they add more and more to their service.”

Gotth-olsen said Louisville’s new partnership is only an exploratory step in the process of figuring out how to get more data to the public.

“We’re trying to evolve what it means to be a good government, how we can serve people in a more equitable fashion with technology, and really empowering our citizens,” he said. “So we’re looking for feedback, partnerships; we’re trying to grow this and really understand how we can serve our citizens even better than we have in the past.”

To check out the new ways to access Louisville’s air data, visit, sign up for an account and search for “Louisville.”

Uncertainty Over EPA Grants That Sent $3.6B To Ohio Valley Thursday, Feb 2 2017 

One of the Trump administration’s first moves once in office was to freeze all grants issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That move raised a lot of questions and a further directive limiting public statements from the EPA added to the confusion.

The freeze has since been lifted but the move brought attention to an overlooked part of the EPA’s work: a grants program that has pumped more than $3.6 billion into projects in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia over the past 20 years.

Meeting Requirements

Of the $3.6 billion in EPA grants awarded to projects in the Ohio Valley region, almost half went to water infrastructure improvement projects. Those include Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency, which offers low interest loans to public water utilities to fund improvements.

Gail Brion, a professor and researcher at the University of Kentucky, once worked for the EPA. She explained that many states apply for grants so that they can make water infrastructure improvements and stay in compliance with state and federal water quality requirements.

Industrial Cleanup 

EPA grants have also played a major role in dealing with the toxic legacy of the Ohio Valley’s long industrial history.

Patrick Ford is the executive director of the Brooke-Hancock Business Development Corporation in West Virginia’s northern panhandle. One of the major challenges his organization faces is securing the flat land that lines the Ohio River Valley. Ford says it’s mostly abandoned, contaminated mills – called brownfields – all along the Ohio River.

The Taylor factory in Chester, West Virginia, was one example. It sat empty and decaying for decades before BDC acquired it in 2012.

Ford says it took coordinating public, private, local, state and federal partners to navigate a path that led to demolition, remediation, and today, construction of the beginning of a new industrial park at the site along the Ohio River.

Courtesy Patrick Ford

Patrick Ford (in red) and Assistant Director Marvin Six of the Brooke-Hancock Business Development Corporation at the abandoned and contaminated pottery plant in 2012.

To get to this point, BDC first had to demolish and remove the dilapidated remnants of the 80,000 square foot factory – which was laced with asbestos and lead. Then the soil, also contaminated with toxic chemicals, had to be trucked away. Finally, the river had to be dredged for pottery shards since, for decades, factory employees threw all the broken, lead-leaching pottery over the bank into the river.

Only then could phase one of construction of the Rocksprings Business Park begin.

It took five years and $3 million from 14 different funding sources. All told, $600,000 came from EPA grants.

Ford says similar funds have come from EPA through remediation programs to clean up industrial legacy pollution all through the Ohio Valley, funds that are used to leverage other investments. He says his region has seen $32 of private investment for every grant dollar received.

The Trump administration reported that cleanup funds would not be affected going forward.

Research Investments

The EPA also funds a lot of research and many scientists who apply for federal grants are worried. Including Gail Brion, a professor of civil engineering and environmental health at the University of Kentucky.

“It’s not a big amount of money, but it’s very closely targeted to things that I think are important –  the right to clean water, the right to a clean environment,” Brion said of her lab’s EPA-supported programs. “If that money doesn’t exist the data we have to make decisions on will be old data.”

Brion’s EPA-funded research in the past uncovered new ways to monitor dangerous fecal matter in drinking water sources, allowing for more efficient, smarter water management. She’s applying for another grant now to continue her work studying water in Kentucky.

Gail Brion 20160930_172954Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Gail Brion directs the Environmental Research and Training Laboratories at the University of Kentucky.

History Repeats?

Brion was on staff when Ronald Reagan signed an executive order in 1981 that initiated the now-required cost-benefit analysis that comes with issuing environmental regulations. She refers to this time as the beginning of the “great dismantling” of the EPA.

“The great dismantling happened when we started mixing money with ethics,” Brion said in an interview with WMMT.

Brion remembers watching Reagan install administrators who thought federal regulations amounted to government overreach, and, as in Trump’s administration, the White House attempted to control the agency’s communications with the public. She said the result was that many “highly trained and regarded scientists” left the EPA.

“What I saw was a shift from the EPA being predominantly run by scientists to being run by policy analysts.”

Brion believes the EPA’s effectiveness ever since has been significantly curtailed and points to Flint, Michigan, and its water woes as evidence of a less effective agency.

What’s Ahead

A spokesperson from the EPA reports that the new administration’s review of the nearly $4 billion in grants the agency annually hands out is mostly complete, and that nothing has been delayed or cut. But this comes amid reports that the agency could face draconian funding cuts if the Trump transition team’s recommendations are implemented.

Congress Set To Overturn Obama-Era Surface Mining Regulations Wednesday, Feb 1 2017 

Congress is enacting a little-used provision this week to turn back Obama-era regulations on coal mining near streams. The House of Representatives is expected to vote Wednesday on legislation that would block the Stream Protection Rule, and the Senate is expected to do the same Wednesday evening or Thursday.

House and Senate Republicans are targeting the Stream Protection Rule using the Congressional Review Act, which allows lawmakers to block new rules that aren’t passed by Congress within 60 days of them going into effect. The Obama Administration spent eight years writing the rule, which is an updated version of a Bush-era regulation, but it wasn’t finalized until late December.

The Stream Protection Rule tightens regulations on surface coal mining. It requires coal companies to prove their mines won’t cause damage to the hydrologic balance outside the permit area — like problems with groundwater and surface water. It requires more biological monitoring, and expands a 100 foot buffer zone around streams to include ephemeral streams.

When regulators finalized the rule, a statement from the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement said it would better “improve the balance between environmental protection and providing for the Nation’s need for coal as a source of energy.” But Republicans in Congress and representatives from the mining industry disagreed, calling it unnecessary, burdensome and regulatory overreach.

For Bob Logan, formerly an aquatic biologist who served as Kentucky’s Department for Environmental Protection deputy commissioner and commissioner for about a decade in the 1990s, more biological monitoring about how streams are affected by surface mining is a good thing.

“To a lot of surface mining folks, the only stream that matters is something you can put a boat on with a motor on it,” he said. “If you can’t ski in it, swim in it or fish in it out of a boat, it’s not really a stream, it’s just a drainageway.”

But in fact, he said, the intermittent and ephemeral streams which may seem insignificant are a big part of the ecosystem. Logan compared it to cutting the fingers off a hand.

“And when you look over a period of time how many we’ve lost in this state, it adds up considerably,” he said. “If that stream was there and you put 400 feet of rock on it, or 150 feet of rock on it…what that does, the fauna that’s lived there, they’re gone. Now, they may reinvade from downstream or the upper reaches of the habitat, but it takes a long time. And when you’re constantly doing it day in and day out, it has a significant effect on the functionality of that stream system. Just like taking those fingers and taking a joint off at a time, how does that change your hand and the way it functions? Same thing with streams, in a basic way.”

Back to 1983 Rules?

Earlier this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blasted the regulation on the Senate floor.

“We’ve heard individual voices against this regulation, we’ve heard union voices in opposition like the United Mine Workers of America, and we’ve heard from groups like the Kentucky Coal Association who recently wrote to me about its negative impact: ‘The undeniable truth,’ their letter read, ‘is that… [this rule] will have a real impact on the real world. It will cause real harm to real people, who support real families in real communities,’” he said. “This regulation is an attack on coal families. It jeopardizes jobs and transfers power away from states and local governments.”

But even without this rule in effect, coal jobs have plummeted in Appalachia. Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet released its latest quarterly coal report earlier this week; the state’s coal production saw a 30 percent drop from 2015 to 2016, and hit the lowest amount since 1939. Declines were seen in both the Western and Eastern parts of the state, and in both surface and underground mining. And none of this could be attributed to the Stream Protection Rule, which wasn’t yet in effect.

Rather, the job losses of the past decade happened under previous iterations of the rule: one that was passed in 1983, and another in 2008. The 2008 Buffer Zone Rule explicitly allowed operators to place excess spoil from mining operations in streams, which environmental groups argued was prohibited in the 1983 rule. They challenged the rule in court and won, and the 2008 rule was vacated in 2014.

Now, after the House and Senate invoke the Congressional Review Act to overturn the Stream Protection Rule, surface mining will be operating under the 1983 rules. And as outlined in the terms of the CRA, any rule substantially similar to the Stream Protection Rule can’t ever be promulgated without an act of Congress.

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