Justice Coal Companies Agree To Settle $5 Million In Delinquent Mine Safety Debts Thursday, Apr 2 2020 

Coal companies owned by the family of West Virginia Governor Jim Justice have agreed to pay more than $5 million in overdue mine health and safety fines and fees.

According to a press release released Wednesday, a total of 24 coal companies owned by the Justice family agreed to settle millions of dollars in unpaid penalties and fines owed to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. 

The fines stemmed from nearly 3,000 citations issued to Justice mine operators between May 2014 and May 2019 under the federal Mine Safety and Health Act. 

The settlement comes nearly one year after the U.S. Department of Justice sued the Justice companies in May 2019, following an Ohio Valley ReSource investigation that showed the Justice companies had the highest delinquent mine safety debt in the U.S. mining industry. 

The civil lawsuit, brought by U.S. Attorney Thomas Cullen of the Western District of Virginia and the Mine Safety and Health Administration, alleged 23 Justice coal companies located in five states — Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky — owed more than $5 million in delinquent debts. 

In the release, Cullen said the Justice-owned companies agreed to pay all outstanding debts and penalties associated with their mine safety violations.

“It is our hope that this landmark collection action and settlement agreement sends a clear message that the Department of Justice will aggressively pursue mine safety violations and hold owners and operators accountable,” Cullen said. 

In total, the Justice companies will pay $4,065,578.29 to satisfy the debts identified in the original lawsuit. In addition, another Justice company, Bluestone Coal Corporation, also agreed to pay $1,064,547.18  for other unpaid fines and fees.

The original 23 companies in the settlement include: Southern Coal Corporation, Justice Coal of Alabama, A&G Coal Corporation, Black River Coal, Chestnut Land Holdings, Double Bonus Coal Company, Dynamic Energy, Four Star Resources, Frontier Coal Company, Infinity Energy, Justice Energy Company, Justice Highwall Mining, Kentucky Fuel Corporation, Keystone Service Industries, M&P Services, Nine Mile Mining, Nufac Mining Company, Pay Car Mining; Premium Coal Company, S and H Mining, Sequoia Energy, Tams Management and Virginia Fuel Corporation.

Former Blackjewel Miners Reflect On Changes In Coal Country Saturday, Mar 28 2020 

67641296_2512779942105859_7105525295284748288_nOn a blistering August afternoon in Cumberland, Kentucky, David Pratt Jr. stood in the middle of a two-lane highway, holding a sign that read “COAL MINERS AND TRUCKERS AGAINST CORPORATE AMERICA.” A few yards away, his father, David Pratt Sr., who is graying but still muscular, leaned back in a lawn chair perched precariously on the crossties of a railroad. His eyes focused on the spot where the tracks disappeared around the bend and more than $1 million worth of coal idled in train cars. 

Since Junior was a boy, the two have job-hopped or taken pay cuts to work side by side underground. Junior tried to make sure his dad didn’t work too hard; Senior often challenged him, saying he was just as capable as the younger men. Now, they were together again, 20 days into a protest of their former employer, Blackjewel — once the nation’s sixth largest coal producer. In July, the company declared bankruptcy, laid off 1,700 coal miners, and clawed paychecks from their bank accounts.

The miners said they wouldn’t leave until they were given the money they were owed. About 400 in Kentucky couldn’t pay their bills. Utilities cut off services. Banks repossessed cars. Families moved to find other work. Junior had to leave often to care for his kids, but Senior and his wife, Wanda, stayed on the tracks until the bitter end — 59 days after the blockade began. 

Soon after they dispersed, the media, the public, and the lawmakers all moved on. A court battle between Blackjewel and the U.S. Department of Labor won the miners their pay, and the train chugged out of Cumberland, another chapter of Appalachia’s long labor rights history closed. I reported on the protest for months, and it felt like an unsatisfying ending: Miners still without work, mine land still degraded and abandoned, coal executives still multimillionaires. 

But the Pratts told me it was a turning point.

I met with them, along with their families, on a rainy February night at the Gordon Volunteer Fire Department in Letcher County, Kentucky. We huddled close on plastic folding chairs. Once in a while, a car came around the steep switchbacks crossing Pine Mountain, its headlights strobing through the windows of the dim and cavernous meeting hall like a coal miner’s headlamp. 

The Pratts’ lives have changed drastically. David Sr. is on the road for weeks at a time, driving for a trucking company, and David Jr. and his wife work at the local community college while getting their nursing degrees, earning $7.25 an hour. With the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary closure of the school, however, their lives have once more been thrown into chaos. Wanda and Wendy are currently staying home, while Junior has taken the navigator’s seat beside his dad. 

Despite the economic hardships, neither man is angry. Senior said the Blackjewel protest “proved to the younger generation that there’s things that can be done,” and he rejects the notion that he lost anything. “All it done was open another door up,” he said. 

As we talked late into the evening, Senior gazed proudly at his son. “People don’t like it, but this is the biggest blessing that ever happened to us, to my family. It stopped him,” he said. “That’s it. He’s the last of the Pratts going into the coal mines. His son will probably never go in. And to me, that’s worth every penny.”

Growing Up Coal

David Pratt Sr. was born in 1962 in a coal camp in Vicco, Kentucky, to a long line of coal miners who spent most of their lives underground. He started mining at age 17, making $11.75 an hour — about $42 an hour today. “Big money,” Senior told me, eyes wide. “And money was hard to come by.” He liked the work: It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop or a rat scamper a mile away. If you turned off your headlamp, it was so dark you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. And he liked the camaraderie. “You’d help your worst enemy in a coal mine,” he said. 

The first time Junior went to work with his dad, he was only eight. “I instantly fell in love with it,” he said. “The environment, the people.” As he rode the rail car like a roller coaster, he decided he’d be a coal miner, just like his dad and his papaw. 

69698629_10157900405537345_2960431471489187840_oSydney Boles

David Pratt. Jr. and Wendy Pratt have transitioned to nursing careers since the Blackjewel bankruptcy.

While Junior was in high school, his father was diagnosed with Stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma and given three months to live. Senior said his itch to get back underground kept him alive. On his trips to chemotherapy, he drove past an exhaust fan where treated air escaped a mine. “It’s just like [when] you go home and you smell your mama’s house,” he said. The same company gave him his job back in 2007, after six years away as he fought the disease. “It felt good that they had enough respect for me to do that for me,” he said. 

Senior wanted his son to get an education, but Junior dropped out of community college and got a job underground for $17 an hour instead. Senior was was hot with anger, but he said deep down, he knew it would happen. “Coal mining is bred into you,” he told me.

From the time the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company laid tracks across eastern Kentucky in 1911, the region’s economy was tied to the fortunes of the black rock and the whims of the coal barons who controlled it. Companies built coal towns, like the one Senior was raised in, and used a scrip economy — money they created that could only be used at their stores — to keep workers beholden to them. Throughout the century, miners unionized to win shorter workdays, higher pay, and safer working conditions, but they faced threats and violence from the government and coal companies.

By the time Junior got underground, the industry was changing. A glut of cheap natural gas and federal subsidies for renewable energy in the last decade made coal a less desirable source of energy, and mechanization in the mining industry meant companies needed fewer employees. Miners have told me they would regularly go into each shift prepared to be laid off by the end of it.  

New safety regulations and procedures were increasingly at odds with the practices of Senior’s generation — they took care of things themselves. So if his men said there was a problem, Senior fixed it himself, instead of alerting authorities. When bosses started recommending the men wear bulky respirators to protect them from black lung, he declined to do so. He couldn’t spit tobacco through a respirator. 

Wavering Trust

Black lung disease, or coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, takes root when tiny particles of coal and rock dust get lodged in the networks of lung tissue, restricting the flow of oxygen. The disease can be fatal; there is no cure. People who suffer from it have told me it is like drowning on dry land. 

A 2018 investigation by NPR found that rates of the most severe forms of black lung disease are far more prevalent than experts previously believed. Epidemiologists at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report one in five experienced central Appalachian coal miners has some stage of black lung. Miners working as roof bolters — installing supports in the rock that keep mines from caving in — are the most likely to get sick

Both Junior and Senior worked as roof bolters for most of their careers. Senior doesn’t want to say if he has black lung, and Junior is worried that eventually, he may see the effects of his work in the coal mines. He thinks he got out in enough time — unlike the majority of his family. 

“My papaw had it,” he said, looking at his father.

Senior jumped in: “His daddy.”

“My uncles,” Junior said. “I think my papaws on both sides had it.” 

“Yep, we lost James on account of that,” Senior said. 

Junior finished for him. “About every male in our family that worked in the mine had it.”

Senior isn’t angry or sad when he talks about the disease, and doesn’t place blame on the coal companies or regulators, despite the fact that the companies and regulators clearly hold some of the blame. “Nobody held a gun to my head. I understood the consequences.” He told me he had a choice to go into mining: He could have been a logger, or worked in a restaurant “flipping burgers,” or gone to college and moved away. 

His son, who is 30 now, sees things a little differently. Coal mining is the most accessible way to make a living wage, even if the industry is unstable (Junior skittered between nine different companies in the 10 years he worked underground). Unemployment is higher in many eastern Kentucky counties than in the rest of the country. Recently, industrial parks and renewable energy projects have been pitched as solutions, but many have not yet materialized: Funding hasn’t come through, strip-mined land is unsuitable for building, or market dynamics changed. It’s hard for residents to place any faith in sustainable economic development ideas. 

The Pratts’ trust in coal companies has wavered, too. In the winter of 2018-2019, both were working for Blackjewel in a mine near Cumberland. It was -6 degrees outside, but with the airflow, it felt closer to -12. Water leaked in the entryway, and spray that went up liquid clattered to the ground as ice. Junior got wet trying to fix the leak. He remembers coughing, struggling to breathe, and then nothing. His men found him lying face-down in the entryway, and he was taken out in an ambulance. Senior was a mile down the road at an extension of the same mine. “They didn’t even call me,” he said. It felt like a slap in the face. “They didn’t care. They had no respect.”

Courtesy of the Pratt family

David Pratt Sr. walks with a grandchild.

In Our Blood

Junior and Senior spend more time with their families now that they have new careers. Senior makes about half what he did working for Blackjewel, but he’s above ground to see the sun rise for the first time in 40 years. 

Most mornings, at least until the coronavirus hit, Junior and his wife, Wendy, dropped off their children at her parents’ house and headed to Southeast Community and Technical College in Cumberland, less than a mile from the site of the months-long protest. They worked minimum wage jobs scanning documents in the art department while they waited to find out if they got into nursing school. When the school closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the couple found themselves once more out of a job. 

The number of people employed in coal mining in Appalachia has dropped most years since the 1980s. Many families leave in search of other work, and some, like Senior, have become truck drivers. Junior’s decision to go into nursing makes him an outlier, but he is not alone in seeking further education. Many former miners enter job training programs — some of which have questionable results or lead workers to jobs that are likely to vanish due to offshoring or automation. 

Courtesy of the Pratt family

David Pratt, Jr., front right, was a leader in the summer, 2019 coal train blockade.

Blackjewel’s bankruptcy was just one of eight major coal company bankruptcies last year, despite President Donald Trump’s attempts to prop up the struggling industry. Both of the Pratts voted for Trump in the 2016 election, and plan to do so in 2020; they’re still worried about the ripple effects of coal’s decline in Appalachia. “This economy around here is solely based off of mining,” Junior said. “I mean, as bad as I hate to say that, it is.”

Both men repeatedly told me coal mining was in their blood, but they were glad to be leaving it behind. I asked how they could hold both of those things simultaneously.

Senior gestured behind him. His granddaughters, baby Willow and 6-year-old Arieunna, were dozing on their mother’s and grandmother’s laps. 

Cadien, who is 8, practiced his baseball swing with a stick he’d found in the fireplace. Cadien would probably never be a coal miner, Senior said. 

“That right over there justifies everything. That’s what this whole mess has done. There’s going to be something better for him.”

 

 

This story was published in collaboration with Southerly, an independent, nonprofit media organization that covers ecology, justice, and culture in the American South. 

Coronavirus And Slumping Prices Hit Ohio Valley’s Oil & Gas Sector Thursday, Mar 19 2020 

Energy producers, utilities and energy sector workers across the Ohio Valley are adjusting operations and bracing for continued economic impacts as the fast-moving coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold.

Efforts to limit the spread of the virus include shuttering schools and businesses and limiting travel, all of which reduce demand for energy. The federal government is moving to stabilize the economy, including a possible bailout for oil and gas producers.

Oil prices fell to their lowest level in 18 years Wednesday as travel restrictions tighten and air travel plunges. Crude was trading at $20.48 Wednesday afternoon. Natural gas prices were causing Appalachian Basin producers anxiety earlier this year while they were hovering near $2. On Wednesday that price fell to about $1.60.

Although it’s hard to nail down an exact number, the natural gas industry supports thousands of jobs across the region and contributes millions of dollars in taxes to state governments. In West Virginia, for example, drillers paid $146 million in severance taxes to the state in 2019. Projections for 2020 are $98 million, according to the state tax department.

Natural gas production in the Appalachian Basin has grown rapidly since 2012 and is projected to grow exponentially over the next few decades.

While West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky are not major oil-producing regions, drillers in the gas-rich Appalachian Basin do produce oil and are being impacted, said Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia.

“These falling prices present a challenge for lots of small companies who are already with the low natural gas prices striving to remain viable and in existence,” he said.

Anne Blankenship, head of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, agreed lower crude prices tighten the margins for some companies.

“But our members have continually committed to being a big part of West Virginia’s economic present and future,” she said in an email. “They are invested in this state and its communities.”

Falling oil prices are being driven both by shrinking demand due to the coronavirus and the price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, which flooded the market with cheap crude, said Mark Agerton, an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis who studies energy and resource economics.

He said while drillers in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations will undoubtedly see an impact from lower prices, he believes as big oil-producing regions like the Permian Basin slow oil production, associated gas production there will fall too, which could benefit drillers in the Appalachian Basin.

“That’s going to maybe potentially mean that the Marcellus doesn’t have to ramp down production quite as much,” Agerton said. “The other thing is that with reduced drilling for oil, all of the oilfield services and rigs are going to become available, and those costs for services should come down, which would help cushion someplace like the Marcellus.”

In a press call Wednesday morning, Suzanne Lemieux, manager of operations security and emergency response policy for the national trade group the American Petroleum Institute said the group doesn’t see threats to the broader oil supply chain from the coronavirus outbreak. She added many producers have developed pandemic plans, especially after the 2016 Ebola outbreak.

“A lot of conditions we’re operating under or see in the future are similar to operating under a hurricane or another type of natural disaster,” she said.

Agerton said with the situation changing so rapidly it’s unlikely we yet know the full extent of how the virus will affect both the economy and energy sectors.

On Wednesday, Shell said it will temporarily suspend construction of its ethane cracker in Beaver County, Pennsylvania to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Smaller producers, which account for many in the Ohio Valley, may be at risk, Agerton said.

It’s unclear if and what type of measures the federal government could take to help the oil and gas industry. In a letter, the head of the trade group the American Exploration & Production Council encouraged lawmakers to ease requirements under the Jones Act, a federal maritime law that requires goods shipped between U.S. ports to be transported on ships that are American-made, owned, and operated. The administration is also considering purchasing oil for the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

Agerton said direct aid to the industry would be purely a political move.

“As far as bailing out the energy sector, I mean, I’m not sure why other than the political advantage,” he said.

Burd, with IOGA WV, said some companies may also benefit from low-interest loans offered by the Small Business Administration, but he’s largely optimistic, at this time, that the industry will be OK.

“We are a resilient industry and we believe everyone will try to maintain all the production wells and I don’t think that’s going to be an issue,” he added.

Utilities Suspend Shutoffs

Across the Ohio Valley, companies that generate and distribute electricity to homes and businesses are also adjusting. Many utilities have announced they will not disconnect customers who cannot pay their bills during the coronavirus crisis.

The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio last week ordered all electric, natural gas, water, wastewater and landline telephone companies to suspend disconnection policies. The Kentucky Public Service Commission issued a similar order Monday, which includes an order to suspend late payment fees for at least 30 days. Regulators in West Virginia are urging utilities to temporarily suspend shutoffs.

Utilities are also taking steps to protect workers.  Aaron Ruegg, a spokesman for FirstEnergy Corp. said some travel is being reconsidered including for workers who were set to help during a planned outage at the Harrison Power Station, located in Haywood, West Virginia.

He said that lineworkers and service technicians have been instructed on measures such as social distancing.

At this time, Ruegg said no measures are being considered to sequester workers at power stations to maintain operations.

That is something Appalachian Power is looking at, said Communications Director Jeri Matheney. She said decisions are being made on a plant-by-plant basis, but no final decisions have been made.

 

Metro Committee Approves Tree Preservation Requirements Tuesday, Mar 10 2020 

A Louisville Metro Committee has approved new regulations to preserve more of the city’s tree canopy.

A healthy tree canopy could help combat several problems facing the city including urban heat, flash flooding and air quality issues. A 2015 study found the city is losing about 54,000 trees every year and one city expert has said the city is likely losing even more trees now.

To help improve the canopy, the Louisville Metro Planning and Zoning Committee unanimously approved changes to the land development code during a meeting on Tuesday. The ordinance now moves to a vote before the full Metro Council.

Metro Councilman Bill Hollander said the ordinance is a significant improvement that includes the city’s first tree preservation requirement.

“I’ll say that not everyone got everything they wanted here. I know that,” Hollander said. “And that I think is true on the side of the developers. It’s certainly true on the sides of the environmentalists and tree advocates.”

In most cases, new subdivisions and commercial developments that have lots with more than 50% tree canopy would need to preserve at least 20% of those trees. In certain cases, developers would be allowed to pay a fee in lieu of planting or preserving trees.

Street trees would be required for all land uses along public rights of way.

The ordinance also has stipulations for re-zoning properties and permit applications to close possible loopholes. In those cases, sites are ineligible if 20% or more of the site has been clear-cut in the last 24 months.

 

Glidepath To Recovery: Flying Squirrels And Spruce Forests Share Common Fate Monday, Mar 9 2020 

squirrel close up

U.S. Forest Service district biologist Shane Jones stands on an overlook high up on West Virginia’s Cheat Mountain. Behind him lush, red spruce trees stand like sentinels on this frozen landscape. As he looks out, small patches of green dot what is largely a view of the barren, brown trunks of leafless hardwoods. 

More than a century ago, this high-elevation ecosystem, now located inside the Monongahela National Forest, would have been dominated by the evergreen spruce. After being logged and suffering from fires in the 1880s through early 1900s, today an estimated 90 percent of this ice age-relic of an ecosystem has been removed from West Virginia. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A rare stand of old red spruce trees in WV.

And that has been a challenge for another iconic species: the West Virginia northern flying squirrel. 

“We always say as the spruce goes the squirrel goes,” Jones said. As he hikes through a rare virgin patch of red spruce forest, he explains the interconnected relationship the northern flying squirrel and red spruce forest share. 

Over the last decade, efforts to help both the squirrel and spruce recover are showing some promising signs, but that there is dispute about whether those efforts are enough. 

Tight Relationship

A mature high-elevation red spruce forest will have a mixture of trees of different ages. There will be big trees, as well as fallen trees that create a hole in the canopy that allows smaller trees to grow. The diversity makes the forest resilient. The cool, moist climate of red spruce forests, coupled with the dead needles — or leaf litter — the trees shed, allow rich soils to build up on the forest floor. 

“It’s completely different than the soil that develops under hardwood forests or other forests,” Jones said. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

Cavities in older trees provide shelter for the squirrels.

And it’s important fodder for mycorrhizal fungi, which develops on the root tips of red spruce trees in the deep organic soils created in these high-elevation forests. The layman’s term for these mycorrhizal fungi: truffles. And that is the meal of choice for the northern flying squirrel. 

“They have this really tight relationship with spruce forest,” said Cordie Diggins, a research scientist at Virginia Tech who studies flying squirrels. 

The small, nocturnal rodents are notoriously hard to catch. And they don’t actually fly, they glide, she said. The northern flying squirrel spent almost three decades under federal protection. In 2013, it became one of the few species to have its protections removed under the Endangered Species Act, a process known as delisting.   

Recently, federal biologists released a status report for the West Virginia northern flying squirrel. It was largely optimistic. It found in the five years since delisting, the squirrels are still found across much of their range and in some new areas. 

Jack Wallace, Courtesy WV DNR

A flying squirrel in flight.

But not everyone is convinced the northern flying squirrel is thriving since its delisting. Noah Greenwald directs the endangered species program for the Center for Biological Diversity. The conservation group sued and won protections for the northern flying squirrel in the mid-2000s. He’s concerned wildlife managers don’t really know how many squirrels are out there. 

“They just have some, you know, sort of somewhat sporadically collected information showing squirrels to be present or absent in different areas,” he said. 

And he has concerns about the forest restoration work itself. 

“They’re taking out these big hardwood trees that are part of the squirrels’ habitat and they’re planting young red spruce which aren’t currently habitat and won’t be for a while,” Greenwald said. 

The small gliding rodent is notoriously challenging to trap, which is the traditional way biologists estimate population, said Diggins at Virginia Tech. 

“In a perfect world, we would be able to catch a ton of squirrels and get an idea of population, but that’s not always possible for rare species,” she said. 

Ugly Restoration 

Back in the truck, Jones, the USFS biologist, begins driving to the Mower Tract, a 40,000-acre parcel of land owned for decades by the Mower Land and Lumber Company that was logged and mined for decades. In the 1980s, the land was purchased by the Forest Service and for the last decade, this has been where much of the red spruce restoration has been happening in the Monongahela National Forest. 

At first glance, he concedes, it’s not the most pleasing picture. 

“We call it ugly restoration,” he said with a laugh. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

A young red spruce grows in the Mower Tract in WV.

Under its reclamation obligations, the company restored much of the Mower Tract. It bulldozed the land back into roughly its original shape and planted trees on the surface. To an outsider it looks like, well, forest. 

But Jones points to signs the ecosystem here is not thriving. Trees have stopped growing and big, open patches of land show little sign of life besides some grasses. Soil testing in the region has confirmed a few centuries ago this land was red spruce forest. That is what Jones hopes it will be again. 

To get there, the restoration staff tries to recreate conditions conducive to a healthy red spruce forest. Dozers are used to tear through the earth and break up the ground so tree roots can penetrate through the soil. Some of the existing hardwood trees are ripped out of the earth and left on the landscape to decay. These “snags” as biologists call them provide crucial animal habitat. Contractors also build wetlands. 

About a year after this work is done, volunteers come in and plant a variety of species including red spruce. At one area of the Mower Tract, a few years old, knee high green baby spruce trees dot the brown landscape growing up among the twisted, decaying limbs of downed hardwoods. 

Brittany Patterson | Ohio Valley ReSource

U.S. Forest Service district biologist Shane Jones.

“What we’re doing is we’re taking an area that was like a biological desert, stuck in arrested succession, the ground was compacted, and we’re putting it back into a forest that eventually, like a long time for now, will be a functional red spruce ecosystem,” Jones said. 

Restoration work on the Mower Tract is a partnership between USFS, Green Forest Works and the Appalachian Regional Reforestation initiative. Since 2011, more than 760 acres have been restored and more than 350,000 plants planted in the Mower Tract. More than 150,000 red spruce have been planted, according to a project report released in 2019. 

Jones said red spruce planted here have about a 90 percent survival rate. 

Barb Sargent, Courtesy WV DNR

Biologists tag and release a northern flying squirrel.

While re-establishing a red spruce ecosystem is the primary objective of the project, the work also creates early successional habitat, which supports hunting. The creation of wetlands helps with water quality and in the long term will boost the sequestration of carbon, Jones said.

The spruce restoration effort is also important in the face of climate change. Warming threatens the endangered ecosystem. Because of their status as high-elevation forests, they have little room on the landscape to shift northward as temperatures climb. Red spruce forests are also possible climate refugia for species that may flee lower elevation climates as they warm. The central Appalachian mountains are an important wildlife migration corridor, Jones said.

The work also increases the odds that one day the West Virginia northern flying squirrel will thrive here too. “I think 50 years [for] squirrels is not unrealistic,” he said.

 

Timeline: Jim Beam Wanted More Natural Gas, But Didn’t Want To Pay For Bullitt Co. Pipeline Thursday, Mar 5 2020 

The makers of Jim Beam bourbon asked Louisville Gas and Electric to supply additional natural gas to expand operations at its flagship site in Clermont, but didn’t want to pay for a new gas pipeline, according to subpoenaed records from the bourbon maker.

A year later Louisville Gas and Electric went before utility regulators to ask for ratepayers to shoulder an estimated $27.6 million for the 12-mile-long natural gas pipeline. Jim Beam was not mentioned in that request.

The distillery’s role in the pipeline saga appeared in an eminent domain case Tuesday as LG&E attempts to acquire the remaining land necessary to build the underground pipeline through Bernheim Forest and local farms.

Attorney John Cox, who represents a landowner in the path of the pipeline, said the new details undermine LG&E’s claim that there is a public need for the new pipeline. As a result, Cox asked Bullitt County Circuit Court to dismiss the condemnation suit that would allow LG&E to seize a portion of his client’s property.

“When you have a singular customer who has the idea for the project, the question becomes is this for a public purpose or is this for a private purpose?” said Cox.

Jim Beam Expansion

Just last month, the James B. Beam Distilling Co. filled its 16 millionth barrel of bourbon since prohibition at the flagship site in Clermont, Kentucky. Beam Suntory, the company behind Jim Beam, produces bourbon for a number of brands in Bullitt County including Jim Beam, Basil Hayden’s and Knob Creek.

When the company began working on an expansion in 2015, Beam Suntory approached LG&E about an increased need for natural gas, according to a timeline assembled last June by Kevin Smith, vice president of public affairs for Beam Suntory.

According to the timeline, LG&E responded there wasn’t enough gas available on the current line. The utility then asked Beam Suntory to pay for a new pipeline at an estimated cost of $20 to $25 million, records show.

Beam rejected that proposal, according to the timeline.

The bourbon maker declined to comment on this story citing ongoing litigation, but it sent a prepared statement, originally received by WDRB, saying it was increasing its use of natural gas to reduce its carbon footprint.

“Jim Beam, along with thousands of other Bullitt County residents and businesses, is a customer of LG&E. As part of ongoing efforts to reduce our carbon footprint, and help to protect local water and the environment, and respond to increasing global demand for bourbon, we informed our natural gas provider of an anticipated increased need several years ago. We have not directed the planning or route of the proposed pipeline,” wrote Emily York, a spokeswoman for Beam Suntory.

Smith’s timeline goes on to say further meetings “determined that future growth in the Bullitt County area would require more gas than just our need and it made sense for LG&E to install a pipeline at their expense to support the need in Bullitt County.”

On July 2, 2019, LG&E announced the company’s existing natural gas distribution line in Northern Bullitt County was nearing full capacity. The utility warned it would soon be unable to accommodate new requests for residential and business customers.

Nearly three weeks later, Beam Suntory broke ground on a new distillery as part of a $60 million investment to “re-establish the James B. Beam Distilling Co. in Clermont.”

LG&E’s pipeline

LG&E’s vice president of gas distribution testified before utility regulators in 2016 that a new gas pipeline would accommodate growth in the areas of Mt. Washington, Shepherdsville, Clermont, Boston and Lebanon Junction. He told regulators it would cost an estimated $27.6 million — more than $2 million higher than the estimate given to Beam Suntory.

Utility Spokeswoman Natasha Collins has said LG&E had ongoing talks to supply at least one unnamed large existing customer, but she declined to say who, citing customer privacy.

Kentucky regulators approved LG&E’s pipeline in 2017 as part of a utility rate case, but the path wasn’t made clear until last year. That’s because LG&E asked utility regulators to shield the proposed route from public scrutiny because it would create a “competitive disadvantage,” according to a filing with utility regulators.

LG&E declined comment for this story, except to say:

“This issue is pending before the Bullitt Circuit Court, and we cannot comment on the specifics of that litigation.  However, we can say that whether this pipeline were needed for one or for many customers, which is the case, there is absolutely a public need,” wrote Spokeswoman Natasha Collins in an emailed statement.

Eminent Domain Lawsuits

LG&E has already purchased most of the land necessary to build the pipeline and is now using eminent domain to seize the remaining land from holdout landowners, which include private residences and Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest.

Vanessa Allen and her husband said LG&E offered them about $16,000 to purchase an easement on their 125-acre farm in Northern Bullitt County. Allen told WFPL News last year,  “We don’t want to sell our land, period.”

Kimberly and David Brown own 340 acres of karst farmland matted with green pastures, trees and sinkholes. Cox, their attorney, said the eminent domain action against the Browns’  should be dismissed because the pipeline does not serve a public use — a necessary requirement under the Kentucky Eminent Domain Act.

The true purpose of the pipeline was not to serve the customers of Bullitt County, but to serve Beam Suntory, he said.

“This was a project that they asked Jim Beam to pay for, and Jim Beam said no so they went back to the drawing table and said how can we get the ratepayers of this state to have to pay for it?” Cox said.

What’s Happened To Ky.’s Snowy Winters? Blame, Or Credit, Our Warming Climate Tuesday, Mar 3 2020 

Snow is melting faster in Kentucky as warmer average winters bring about fewer days of snow cover, according to State Climatologist Stuart Foster.

Foster, with the Kentucky Climate Center at Western Kentucky University, analyzed decades of winter weather data across the Commonwealth looking at how long snow sticks around.

In three of four cities, he found a defined downward trend in the number of days when snow covered the ground. And across the state, he’s seen fewer winters where cold temperatures maintained the snow cover for weeks on end.

Kentucky hasn’t experienced a severe bout of winter weather since the late 1970’s. Foster’s data is consistent with a warming climate.

“The thing that really stands out is not so much a year-to-year fluctuation in temperature or snowfall, but it’s been more than 40 years since we’ve had what we would call a harsh winter,” Foster said.

The state’s last winter with unrelenting snow, wind and cold occurred in January 1978 when Louisville recorded more than 15.7 inches of snow, according to the National Weather Service.

Kenton County Public Library

The 1978 blizzard in Covington, KY.

Snow accumulated after several small storms in the first half of the month, only to be met with a blizzard toward January’s end. Some residents were trapped in their homes while Kentucky issued a state of emergency across most of the Commonwealth.

“You used to see those types of winters with greater frequency,” Foster said.

But that doesn’t mean the state hasn’t seen its share of cold snaps and winter weather. In 1994, Shelbyville set the record low temperature for the state at -37 degrees. In 2009, a wintry mix brought freezing rain that knocked out power for more than 600,000 homes.

Rather, Kentucky wintertime temperatures are highly variable from one year to the next, Foster said. Some winters it snows quite a bit, others not at all, he said. That’s in part driven by the state’s wintertime proximity to the polar jet stream – the swiftly-moving band of wind caused by the earth’s rotation.

But overall, the winters are getting warmer, and as a result, the snow melts more quickly. During the last 30 years, Louisville, Lexington and Paducah have seen the average number of days with snow cover decline by about 10 percent, Foster said.

“With the warming conditions and the lack of any really prolonged harsh winters, we’ve seen a reduction of days with snow cover,” Foster said.

This year’s winter weather has been wet and warm with not a lot of snowfall, but a whole lot of rain, according to the National Weather Service. Far from a white Christmas, temperatures rose into the 60s on Christmas day, and hit the 70s in early January. That was followed by a third straight year of Ohio River flooding in February.

Temperatures in Kentucky have risen an average of about 1.41 degrees over the last three decades, according to the Associated Press.

The warmer climate increases the odds of extreme weather events fueling storms as well as droughts. And for the last four decades, it’s meant Kentucky winters with less snow cover.

Clean Water Wanted: Contaminated Wells And The Legacy Of Fossil Fuel Extraction Monday, Mar 2 2020 

faucet-drawnon

“You seen that one with the tombstone up there?” seven-year-old Timothy Easterling asks, looking toward the grass just uphill from his home. “That’s my papaw.” 

Timothy’s grandfather Chet Blankenship died in 2016, at age 69. Blankenship lived on land he and his family have long owned at the end of a road atop Bradshaw Mountain in McDowell County, West Virginia. His hand-painted tombstone sits in the grassy patch above the family homes.

Blankenship’s daughter Melissa Easterling now lives in the house next door with her husband, Chauncy Easterling, who grew up on a nearby ridge. They live together with their son Timothy, and usually one or two foster children.

Chet Blankenship died from kidney failure soon after his family started noticing odd colors and smells in their well water. After he died, they got their water tested, and learned that arsenic was among the contaminants that had seeped into their well. The National Institutes of Health links high arsenic exposure to a range of kidney diseases.   

The family can’t prove that the arsenic in the water caused Blankenship’s death, and they can’t get firm answers about the contamination in their well and the mining and drilling activity that surrounds their property. But Timothy’s memories of his grandfather reflect the family’s anxiety about the water they depend on.

“One time Chet used it and then he got so sick he just gave up and died, didn’t he?” he asked his mother.

Melissa gently corrected him. “Honey, he didn’t give up. It just — he had to go.”

Timothy thought for a moment, then quietly chimed back in, “He used to be my papaw.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Easterling family, Chauncy, Melissa and Timothy, in their living room.

The Easterlings live in the central Appalachian coalfields and much of the land has been mined for miles in every direction. Water runs through the collapsed network of former mines, which may house industrial waste, as well as byproducts from the gas wells that tapped into the methane associated with coal seams. 

There are many possible sources of contamination but the family doesn’t know which company might be to blame, or how to hold one accountable to fix the problem, or at least pay for them to get connected to a clean water system. State environmental officials deny there is any evidence connecting the bad water to the mining or drilling nearby. Adding to the family’s frustration, they’ve been asking for a connection to the nearby public water system for years, only to hear that there’s not enough money.

For decades, public water systems in the US have been consistently underfunded, affecting both water access and water quality. EPA records show that in Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia alone, there have been more than 130,000 violations reported in the last twenty years. At least 2,000 systems have tested positive for contaminants since 2012. Those statistics only cover people connected to public water systems. 

Nationwide, another thirteen million people draw from private wells, and two million people don’t have a reliable source of running water. In areas affected by extraction industry, such as McDowell County, many wells and springs that rural residents are used to relying on are now running dry or showing unsafe levels of contaminants like arsenic and lead. 

Struggling for Water 

When their water issues started, Chauncy and Melissa contacted the county health department to get their water tested. On seeing the family’s dark brown water, the department referred the family to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection for more advanced testing. The family also had testing done by Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group that has been drawing attention to people living with contaminated water. Those tests revealed unsafe levels of arsenic and lead, among other contaminants. 

Chauncy and Melissa, together with Willie Dodson of Appalachian Voices, also tested water sources within a few miles of their house. They say they’re yet to find a water source that they trust. The most alarming reading came at a gas well that was drilled into a shallow section of a giant underground mine. It sits right beside the creek that’s below the Easterlings’ home. 

Animation by Ariana Martinez

Residents tried to cap an abandoned well with stones.

That sample showed levels of lead and arsenic even higher than what had shown up in the Easterlings’ well water, along with other contaminants. 

Just downstream from that sample site, water from the mine had broken out of the hillside and was flowing into the creek with an oily sheen that left the creek a dingy shade of orange. 

More rounds of testing followed, including by scientists from Virginia Tech. The Easterlings say one official told them he suspected coal slurry, a toxic waste product from coal preparation, was the main contaminant, but never gave them any formal documents or test results. 

Animation by Ariana Martinez

The Easterlings knew there were problems when the water ran brown.

Official comment and documents from the DEP say that there was “no indication that the well was impacted … by mining activity,” because both of the neighboring mines on record were deeper than the bottom of the well. The Easterlings believe that mines and gas wells exist far beyond what’s shown on the records. 

The family can sometimes gather enough water from rainfall, using a system Chauncy put together to collect runoff from their roof into a cistern. When there’s a dry spell, Chauncy hauls water, towing a 250 gallon tank behind his pickup truck. Filling and hauling the tank costs the family around $200, and the water is only good for washing and flushing toilets, not for drinking.  Since Chauncy works full time, they’ll sometimes have to wait for a weekend before he can fetch water. In the meantime, they have to make do without bathing and doing laundry. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The Easterlings with the water collection system they built.

Some of their neighbors, particularly those who are elderly and on fixed incomes, aren’t able to install a rain collection system or haul water. That leaves many of those already in the hardest situations with no alternative to using contaminated water from their wells and springs. 

Linda McKinney runs the main food pantry that serves McDowell County. She says that all of the families served are drinking water from unsafe sources. She also sees kidney and liver issues far too often among those families. 

The pantry provides bottled drinking water along with food, but they’re not able to fully meet the families’ needs. The food pantry recently received a donation of hydro-panels, which use solar energy to condense water moisture from the air. McKinney hopes that will help narrow the gap between what her team is able to provide and the need for clean water among the families they serve. 

Widespread Issue

I’ve reported on water issues since 2016, mainly in the central Appalachian coalfields. The most glaring water problem I covered was in Martin County, Kentucky, where residents complained about possible exposure to health risks due to extremely leaky pipes and a lack of communication around water outages. 

Martin County’s many-layered water problems started to get national attention and significant outside funding. But the $5 million now heading for Martin County is a drop in the bucket compared to the more than $600 million in water infrastructure needs that exist just in Appalachian Kentucky, according to a study from the Kentucky Infrastructure Authority. That includes $28 million for Letcher County, where I live, and where a third of the residents have no option for connecting to a public water system, according to the same study. 

The federal government estimates that $472 billion in water investments are needed across the country in the next twenty years. If you break that down to one year, it’s a bit over $23 billion. 

In recent history, the most the federal government has allocated toward water system infrastructure was $7.7 billion in 2009, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Every other year since at least 1995, the amount has been less than $3 billion, even though the government’s own assessments have always shown an average annual need of at least $12 billion.

In reporting on Martin County I spoke repeatedly with Nina McCoy, a retired science teacher who, together with her husband Mickey, has played a prominent role in water testing and advocating for local water protection since at least 2000. That’s when a coal slurry impoundment broke through an underground mine shaft and sent a flood of sludge roaring down multiple creeks in Martin County, poisoning miles of streams.

McCoy says that in recent years, she’s seen a shift in local thinking and national awareness. She recalls that when neighbors without water in Martin County first saw TV coverage of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, “It was like, oh my gosh, there are other people who have water problems.” 

McCoy now believes that any real solution will have to come from solidarity among communities whose water has been impacted. “We all need to get together on this, because this is a problem nationwide.”

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Nina and Mickey McCoy outside their restaurant in Inez, KY.

The kinds and causes of America’s drinking water crises are widely varied, but extractive industry is a common thread. On a reporting trip to a coal mining region of the Navajo Nation, near Black Mesa, Arizona, I learned that while rain has long been scarce in the area, there used to be reliable sources of groundwater. Windmill-powered water wells dot the landscape, but many of them have run dry. Since coal mines opened on Black Mesa and started using large amounts of water to pump coal to a power plant, many wells and springs have run dry. 

The mines and power plant recently closed, but it will still take years for the groundwater to recharge. In the meantime, rural residents have to pay to haul water from a well in town that taps into a deeper layer of groundwater. That water can be used for crops and livestock but not for human consumption. Drinking water has to be bought or brought in from elsewhere. 

Nicole Horseherder is a resident of Black Mesa and founder of the community organization Tó Nizhóní Ání, which translates roughly to “clean water speaks.” She has seen the springs on her land dry up, making it harder and more expensive to keep livestock. Her fears though are mainly for the future.  

“What’s going to be here in 20 years?” she asked. “If it’s not going to be here and it’s a life-giving element, there’s going to be no life here.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Residents of Black Mesa, AZ, wait to fill water tanks.

Watershed Moments

Many residents in affected communities feel there’s a special injustice to situations like these, where clean water hadn’t been a problem until extractive industries took a toll. 

Melissa Easterling said that growing up in McDowell County, good water was plentiful. High tables of clear groundwater flowed from abundant springs and streams. Her family and neighbors didn’t need to worry about water infrastructure. She suspects that as the used-up mines were allowed to flood, the water table sank. And now, she fears, the residue of coal and gas extraction seems to have left the water contaminated. 

The Easterlings live at the end of Emerald Ridge. Looking south, the next ridgeline marks the state line with Virginia. To the north, down below, is a wooded valley carved by Panther Creek. The creek flows on into Tug Fork of the Big Sandy River, which marks the state line with Kentucky.

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

The wooded hills along Panther Creek.

The area surrounding Panther Creek was long known as Panther State Forest and is now a wildlife management area meant for hunting and fishing. Chauncy says it was once an extremely popular fishing spot, but he and other locals have long stopped going there because of contamination fears.

Staff at Panther WMA say that water wells in the park are tested regularly, and haven’t shown any excessive levels of contaminants. They still stock the creek for fishing, and grow gardens to attract deer for hunters. The park still feels wild and healthy, though you’re likely to come across more gas wells and pipelines than other visitors.

Looking downstream from where dirty mine water flows into the creek, Chauncy lamented what’s been lost. “We used to drink the water out of that creek. Now you can’t do it. It’s contaminated.”

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chauncy Easterling watches murky water seep into a stream feeding into Panther Creek.

He worries for the future. “God knows our children’s children won’t be able to swim in that creek or play in that creek or fish in that creek.” 

Water System Woes

The McDowell County water system has a line that runs up Bradshaw Mountain, and it reaches some of the families whose wells have dried up or been contaminated, but it stops a mile short of the Easterlings’ home. The family has been trying to get connected for eight years, but there’s still no money for the project, which would take years more to complete even once funding is found. 

Much of the water infrastructure in McDowell County was installed by coal companies for their workers when the industry was booming. But coal production has been declining in McDowell County since the 1940’s. Many water systems were abandoned as the mines closed, and were then neglected for decades. 

A county-wide public service district was created to take over the systems with the intention to maintain, update, and expand them. The problem is, there hasn’t been enough money. Federal funding, once provided through grants, was largely converted to loans. The McDowell PSD now has $34,000 in monthly debt payments and can’t afford to take more loans, according to General Manager Mavis Brewster. 

“You don’t want to keep raising rates,” Brewster said. “A lot of the residents in McDowell County are elderly, they’re on fixed incomes, and water’s a basic need. You have to have that.” 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Mavis Brewster, General Manager of the McDowell County Public Service District.

Brewster said the PSD has some momentum toward expanding water services in the county. They’ve cobbled together what they can from state and federal agencies, but there’s nowhere near enough funding to meet their needs.  

Top priorities for construction this spring are for the towns of Keystone and Coalwood.

In Keystone, the risk of bacterial contamination is high enough that since 2012 residents have been under a continual advisory to boil their water for safety. Coalwood, where the PSD is located, is slated to be the first area covered by a new sewage treatment system. Three towns in McDowell County — Welch, War, and Bradshaw — have their own sewage treatment systems, but none of the 3,300 customers served by McDowell PSD have sewer service. 

Brewster says some of the communities have pipes that collect sewage but then send it straight into the nearest river or creek. That’s been the situation in Coalwood, but even that system has deteriorated further since the coal company that built it pulled out and stopped maintaining it. The collection network has issues with clogging and backing up, flooding homes with sewage. 

Neighbors in Need

Chauncy and Melissa have been asking questions of old timers among their neighbors, with special interest in ones who’d worked in the mine below their water table. Among them, Chauncy recounted, were at least a couple who have since died, and who said they never would have worked in that mine if they’d known it could poison their own water. 

One neighbor whose water contains high levels of lead and arsenic is suing a coal company, and also fighting to get any damages covered by her homeowners insurance. She’s shared photos of severe rashes and chemical burns that she claims came from exposure to the water. 

Chauncy and Melissa say they wish they knew who they could sue, but there are too many companies involved in the mines and gas wells around them to know who to hold accountable, especially since many of the operations have complicated corporate histories. 

Outside Owners

Chauncy Easterling says it’s his understanding that most of the people who own the local coal and gas operations live in distant cities. “Chicago, New York, places like that,” he explains. “I’d like to see them come in here and clean it up. I’d say they ain’t even rich enough to fix what damage has already been done.”

He said those same companies often own the land that many many of his neighbors rent, which is one reason that many are afraid to speak out. People are worried that they’ll get evicted or have their property condemned. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Gas infrastructure is common in Panther Wildlife Management Area.

These concerns about absentee land ownership are woven into the roots of many of the region’s problems.

In 1979, teams of academics, community organizations, and local individuals across Appalachia worked together to conduct a land ownership study. Large landowners were assessed in eighty counties across six states. The study revealed high proportions of absentee corporate owners, often paying low tax rates on their holdings.

In McDowell County, for example, more than three-quarters of the land and more than 90% of the mineral rights were held by absentee owners at the time. The five largest owners included a range of timber and mining companies, all based in other states. 

A new land study is currently in development, and organizers are seeking funding to do an updated survey of land and mineral ownership in Appalachia. 

Based on what records are available, it seems the overall picture has stayed the same. Outside companies own large amounts of Appalachia’s land and resources. The business model is extractive not just in taking fossil fuels out of the ground, but also in taking wealth away from the region. 

With little local control over the land, widely depleted sources of natural wealth, a range of work and environment related health issues, it’s no wonder that so many Appalachian communities are struggling to build new economies and keep themselves afloat.

Funding Prospects

President Donald J. Trump campaigned with promises of major infrastructure spending, and the White House has frequently touted “Infrastructure Week” initiatives. But so far those have not resulted in major new projects or funding. The topic has since faded from prominence among the president’s talking points. 

Prominent Democrats have called for a “Green New Deal” to include massive infrastructure spending, including on water systems. The Green New Deal bill introduced by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year would “guarantee universal access to clean water,” but some fellow Democrats question the bill’s costs and the legislation faces stiff Republican opposition.

More immediately, coalfield communities have been focused on getting funding from the federal Abandoned Mine Land Fund, which is supported by a fee on coal companies and used to fix damages caused before enactment of the Surface Mining Control and Regulation Act. 

A bipartisan proposal known as the RECLAIM Act would speed the rate of spending that AML money and expand the scope of funding to include projects like water infrastructure that can help communities and their economies. A few pilot projects following a similar model have been included in recent federal budgets. 

What’s Underground

The Easterlings say they’ve never sold their mineral rights, so no mining company should have had the right to mine beneath their home. But core samples drilled deep from the earth show that the coal had been mined underneath them anyway. The family somewhat expected this, having seen dishes fall out of the cabinet from shakes and jolts when, they presume, pillars were being pulled in a mineshaft below them, allowing the cavity to collapse. Chauncy says this kind of “robbing coal” is commonplace. “It’s underground. It’s out of sight, out of mind.”

The collapsed coal seams have been punctured by gas wells. No one knows what’s still in the old mine voids. From scouting around the mine entrances and talking to friends who used to work in the mines, Chauncy and Melissa have come to believe it’s likely that heavy equipment, batteries, and other industrial trash was left behind in the mine. They’re also concerned that refuse from a coal washing plant — a dark toxic sludge known as slurry — might have been pumped into the abandoned mine, which is a common practice for disposing of the waste. There’s no official record of slurry being injected in the area, but the Easterlings have heard that the mine below them was used for dumping by a nearby coal washing plant. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chet Blankenship was buried in the lawn beside his home.

There have also been dozens of gas wells drilled near this web of mines. Some older gas wells don’t show up on official maps because they were not properly permitted or have no identifiable owner. 

Some of the wells in the area are from conventional drilling but records show others used fracking, which pumps water and chemicals into the ground, opening up cracks from which gas can be drawn. 

Once a well stops producing it is supposed to be sealed. But at least some of the older wells around the Easterlings were left unplugged, with just an abandoned pipe sticking out of the ground. 

Benny Becker | Ohio Valley ReSource

Chauncy Easterling looks into an abandoned gas well.

The Easterlings say that their water started to change soon after nearby gas wells were shut down. At first the water started to smell, then little bits of dark rock dust appeared, and then before long it was running dark brown.

Chauncy worked for years as a miner and then as a boss in underground coal mines. He says it wasn’t unusual for the mine to run into an area that had already been mined even though it was outside any other mine’s permit boundary. 

Once, he said, a crew working under him cut into a gas well which hadn’t been on any of their maps. He and Melissa both remember that as a terrifying time. But shades of fear color much of Chauncy’s memories of working underground. Coal miners get paid not just to produce coal, but to regularly put themselves in danger. 

Given today’s record rates of severe black lung disease, it’s no exaggeration to say Chauncy and other miners have been getting paid to accept that their lungs will likely get scarred by coal and rock dust. 

Chauncy took a buyout offer in 2013, partly because his health and breathing had started to noticeably decline. The buyout came with six months of severance pay, which he used to get certified as a commercial truck driver. He’s applied for black lung compensation, but was told it may be five years before he’d start receiving any benefits. 

Chauncy got out of the mines, but he and his family still fear for their health. Their home is surrounded by remnants of fossil fuel extraction and the lasting legacy of environmental degradation.  

This story was made possible with funding from the Abrams Foundation, the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, and the Solutions Journalism Network.

Let’s Talk about Recycling (Plastic Bags!) In Louisville Friday, Feb 28 2020 

Knowing what to recycle can get a touch overwhelming, but here’s a happy fact: that recycled junk mail may get a second life as a pizza box.

WFPL News is back with some clarifications on what can and cannot be recycled in Louisville, and what happens once that recycling leaves your curb.

Most everyone in the city has access to recycling. One exception is people who live in apartment buildings with more than eight units. In that case, the city requires the building to contract its own recycling.

Most of the recycling in the city is called “single stream” recycling, meaning the people who pick it up from your curb toss it all together and sort it out at the recycling center.

That may give the appearance that recycling ends up in the city dump, but Louisville recycling guru and public education supervisor Karen Maynard would like to assure people that is not the case.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Recycling sorting line at WestRock.

Maynard takes exception to some media circulating on the Internet suggesting that recycling doesn’t serve any purpose.

“There’s a lot of documentaries, I’ve seen them, they can be kind of negative,” Maynard said. “They can scare people into thinking there is no point.”

Most of the city’s recycling ends up at WestRock Recycling center near the Louisville International Airport. Workers literally sort through the city’s recycling on a conveyor belt looking for prohibited items. On average, they move about 700 tons per day.

WestRock sorts commodities like cardboard, plastics, mixed-paper, glass and metal then compacts them into large cubes known as “bales.” The commodities are then sent to mills that process them into new materials, like pizza boxes, bottles and cardboard.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE PLASTIC BAGS???

Right. Plastic bags. That’s a tricky one, but think back to the worker on the conveyor belt. Single plastic bags, dry cleaning film, Ziploc baggies etc. are discouraged because they gum up the machinery and it’s up to workers to pull them out.

But but but, you can actually recycle these thin plastic films if you bundle them together.

“We ask that they combine that into bigger clumps, bags within bags,” Maynard said.

Alternatively, Kroger accepts a wide variety of plastic packing. To keep things simple, Maynard recommends just bringing those things with you on your next shopping trip.

Broadly speaking you can recycle paper, plastic, glass and metal. But no tissue; no paint cans; and no ceramics. Don’t toss your used Styrofoam items in the recycling because WestRock doesn’t recycle them.

“Styrofoam is just one of those things we don’t have regional recycling for available at all because it’s mostly air,” Maynard said.

Certain household items like batteries, light bulbs and paint have special rules. Furniture, mattresses and other bulk items are collected three times a year. Alternatively, they  can be dropped off free of charge at the city’s Waste Reduction center.

If you’ve got a question, check out the city’s website or its Recycle Coach app.

Recycling’s Impact in Louisville.

Residential recycling in Louisville does have an impact.  According to a 2018 solid waste study, Louisville residents diverted about 66,000 tons of waste from a landfill. That sounds pretty good until you consider that 82 percent of all of residential waste did end up in a landfill.

Still, any extra garbage kept from the Outer Loop Landfill is a good thing. Not only does it prevent waste, but it saves space. Because when that’s full, the city is going to have find somewhere else to put it, which isn’t cheap.

So, what’s the bottom line? It’s possible to geek out on recycling, but don’t let the considerations overwhelm you to inaction.

“The good news is our plastic is not literally being thrown in the ocean like some documentaries might lead you to believe,” Maynard said.

JCPS Presents Designs For New School Near Floyds Fork Tuesday, Feb 25 2020 

At a Tuesday night work session for the Jefferson County Public Schools Board, architects presented their vision for a proposed middle school located on a plateau above the Floyds Fork Watershed — habitat critical to the least spoiled waterway left in Jefferson County.

JCPS is in the process of finalizing details on the purchase of 40 acres of land to build a middle school beside Parklands of Floyds Fork.

Officials say schools in the area are already overcrowded and a new middle school is necessary to accommodate growth.

Environmentalists say the proposed site is too close to a confluence of two streams, jeopardizing the health of the local ecosystem and the integrity of the Floyd’s Fork, which runs through nearly 4,000 acres of the Parklands.

At Tuesday’s night’s meeting, Architect Colin Drake said his firm’s design would minimize disturbance in the area to preserve the landscape.

“And so the first responsibility we have is to do no harm to this site,” Drake said. “I mean, this is a very precious piece of land sitting right across from the Parklands park.”

The 1,000 student school would feature three, two-story pavilions built on a plateau above the streams. Drake said they designed a more compact footprint, and would attempt to preserve as much tree canopy as possible.

“So we’re basically going to be able to nestle this building into those existing trees at the head of these streams that will descend into the valley,” he said.

Engineer David Mindel said they would build the necessary fences and basins to prevent sediment and pollutants from running off into the watershed.

“We have to follow the [Metropolitan Sewer Department] criteria. We’ve done it many times and we’ll do it on this one too,” Mindel said.

JCPS Acting COO Glenn Baete said both the board of education and the Kentucky Department of Education would have to sign off on the contract, before going to Louisville Metro Planning and Zoning for approval.

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