Clean Power Plan Challengers Have Day In Court Wednesday, Sep 28 2016 

Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia were among the 27 states challenging the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, in oral arguments Tuesday before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.  

The CPP aims to reduce by about a third the power plant emissions of CO2, a greenhouse gas that scientists have identified as a major cause of climate change. The pollution reductions would come in phases over a little more than two decades.

In an unusual move that reflects the importance of the case, all of the court’s 10 judges heard a full day of arguments, rather than the usual panel of three.  

Supporters say the EPA plan would spur investment in clean energy technology. Opponents, including West Virginia Senator Shelley Moore Capito, say it will drive up the price of electricity and hurt an already ailing coal industry.  

“It’s not just the coal worker and coal company,” that would be hurt, Capito said. “It’s the railroads, it’s the truck people.”

In a statement, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called the president’s plan another example of executive overreach.

“I’ve always believed the Administration overstepped its authority by essentially legislating through regulation and that such a plan would likely fail to survive legal scrutiny,” McConnell said.

Several conservation groups joined 19 states that support the plan. David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council said he was struck by the sweeping nature of the challengers’ argument.

“They’re trying to make the argument that if the result of the rule is to require states to have public utilities commissions do their normal work, then this is a terrific invasion of the state’s turf,” Doniger said. “If that were right then every other aspect of the Clean Air Act that has the same effect on power plants would be equally problematic, and i just don’t think that’s the case.”

The case, known as West Virginia v. EPA, has already been before the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted 5-4 in February to stay the implementation of the CPP and send the case back to the appeals court. Most court observers say the suit will likely be back before the Supreme Court next year.   

Under the CPP, each affected state would have to meet a given target for reducing CO2 pollution from power plants by the year 2030. The plan gives states flexibility in how to achieve those reductions.

The graphic below explains the scale and timeline of emissions reductions that Kentucky would have to meet. 

cpp explainerAlexandra Kanik |

LG&E, Sierra Club Settle Mill Creek Dispute Tuesday, Sep 27 2016 

An agreement has been reached between Louisville Gas and Electric Company and the Sierra Club in their dispute over the discharge of wastewater from an LG&E coal ash pond.

If approved by a federal judge, the agreement will resolve a lawsuit filed by the Sierra Club, represented by the group Earthjustice.

The suit alleged that LG&E was illegally discharging wastewater at levels beyond what was allowed under a state permit into the Ohio River. The wastewater came from its Mill Creek Generating Station in southwestern Jefferson County.

Under the agreement, LG&E will, among other things, eliminate the use of the disputed open discharge point, except for emergencies and maintenance, and fund $1 million in watershed restoration in Kentucky, primarily in southwestern Jefferson County.

“We are pleased that we were able to reach an agreement with LG&E that will help protect water quality in the Ohio River and fund an effort to address other water quality issues in the Mill Creek watershed,” said Judy Lyons, chair of the Sierra Club Cumberland Chapter. “Going forward, we will continue to encourage the company to focus on expansion of renewable sources of energy as it reduces its reliance on coal.”

LG&E chairman, CEO and president Victor A. Staffieri issued a statement Tuesday saying the company appreciated the opportunity to work with the Sierra Club “in finding common ground.”

“We had a vigorous disagreement over the meaning of certain permit language in this case but are glad to have reached a resolution that brings this dispute to an end,” he said. “While we may not always agree with the Sierra Club, we take seriously our commitment to being a good environmental steward while providing low-cost, reliable energy to our customers.”

Earthjustice attorney Thomas Cmar represented the Sierra Club in the lawsuit. In a statement, Cmar applauded the settlement, saying it would improve water quality throughout the Mill Creek watershed.

“It’s a good day whenever two opposing sides can see past their differences to reach an agreement that is not only in their best interests but will also provide real benefits to the community,” he said.

The agreement finds no violation of law by LG&E and does not include fines or civil penalties. LG&E plans to close its main coal ash pond at Mill Creek.

Clean Power In Court: What It Means For Kentucky Tuesday, Sep 27 2016 

Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia are among the states challenging the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, or CPP, in oral arguments Tuesday before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.  

The CPP aims to reduce by about a third the power plant emissions of CO2, a greenhouse gas that scientists have identified as a major cause of climate change. The pollution reductions would come in phases over a little more than two decades. 

cpp explainerAlexandra Kanik |

Supporters, including 19 states, several scientific and conservation groups, and some electric utilities, say the CPP is a reasonable way to reduce pollution and help the country meet its international pledge to avoid dangerous levels of warming in the future.  

Opponents, including 27 states, several business groups, and members of the oil and coal industries, say the plan intrudes on state rights and would place undue hardship on regions that depend on coal to generate electricity. Coal produces more CO2 per unit of energy gained, making it the dirtiest of fossil fuels when it comes to climate impacts.

The case, known as West Virginia v. EPA, has already been before the U.S. Supreme Court, which voted 5-4 in February to stay the implementation of the CPP and send the case back to the appeals court.

Rather than have a small panel of judges hear the case, as is the norm, the U.S. Circuit Court made the unusual decision to have all the court’s judges hear the hours of arguments in the case. This “en banc” hearing will speed the almost certain appeal, and most court observers say the suit will likely be back before the Supreme Court next year.   

Under the CPP, each affected state would have to meet a given target for reducing CO2 pollution from power plants by the year 2030. The plan gives states flexibility in how to achieve those reductions. This interactive graphic helps explain the scale and timeline of emissions reductions that Kentucky would have to meet if the CPP goes forward. 

kentucky clean power planAlexandra Kanik |

Click the image to launch the interactive map

Banded By Fear: Filmmaker Sheds Light On Toxic Neighborhood In ‘Rubbertown’ Monday, Sep 26 2016 

Over the winter, while leaving an interview with a Rubbertown resident, documentary filmmaker Remington Smith was overcome by an odor that seemed to fill the neighborhood.

“It was this strong, acrid, plastic, burnt cough syrup smell,” Smith says. “I could feel it scratching my throat.”

He tried to call the Air Pollution Control District, but no one picked up, not even voicemail. For most people, a situation like this would probably be cause for concern. According to Smith, this is a frequent experience for many Rubbertown residents.

They call for help, and there’s no one there to answer.

That’s one of the reasons he decided to make a documentary about the unofficial neighborhood; Rubbertown is technically an industrial complex wedged between the Shawnee neighborhood to the north, Cane Run Road to the east, and the Lake Dreamland community to the south.

The area is next to a power plant and a toxic landfill site. And as WFPL reported in 2013, there is ongoing tension between industry and area residents — many of whom have “spent their lives worried about toxic emissions from Rubbertown.”

Smith’s film is fittingly called “Rubbertown.”

The 55-minute documentary follows resident Monika Burkhead as she tries to move her entire house to another county after suffering through years of regular leaks, spills, and occasional explosions at the nearby facilities — all alongside fellow residents reporting higher rates of cancer and respiratory illnesses.

Burkhead has been a resident of Louisville’s Riverside Gardens since 1975.

She became an environmental activist once she learned of the health risks of living in the shadow of LG&E’s smokestacks, the continued threat posed by the Lee’s Lane Landfill (where she has caught children swimming in a pond) and chemical plants nearby regularly having spills. Her daughter Jennifer developed a kidney stone disease, colitis and Crohn’s when she was 13, all of which she attributes to living in Rubbertown.

“How can you stick residential people in there like that,” says Burkehead in the film. “Just because we’re poor don’t make us daggone guinea pigs.”

Watch the “Rubbertown” trailer below. 

Smith wasn’t familiar with the Rubbertown area until he came across a piece in LEO Weekly about a proposal for a coal ash pond in 2010.

“I investigated further and found out about these other industries in the Rubbertown area in the West Side of Louisville,” Smith says. “From there I started on the project that eventually became this feature documentary.”

“Rubbertown” presents the perspectives of residents who vary in race and class, but all have something in common: they fear their own neighborhood.

Smith says he captured this feeling through a series of impromptu conversations, first-person explorations of the industrial sites, and a brush with the police (which he filmed covertly).

“One person has already asked me ahead of the film, ‘Did you get arrested in the police scene in the trailer’ and I’d be a bad pitchman if I gave that away,” Smith says. “But I think the more important aspect of the scene is what it would be like to try and independently monitor or protest some of the chemical companies.”

He continues: “There is a certain intimidation factor that comes out. Even if you aren’t trespassing — you’re just there to protest or collect an air sample — security from these facilities will come out or the police will show up, and there doesn’t seem to be a cause.”

Ultimately, Smith hopes “Rubbertown” will amplify the voices of neighborhood residents and lead to citywide awareness.

“Rubbertown” premieres Friday, Sept. 30 at Baxter Avenue Theater. More information about the documentary is available here.

Fossil Feud: W.Va.’s Attorney General Defends Coal In National Spotlight Monday, Sep 26 2016 

The U.S. Appeals Court in Washington, D.C., hears arguments Tuesday, Sept. 27, in the case West Virginia v. EPA, challenging the federal Clean Power Plan. That’s the centerpiece of the Obama Administration’s attempt to address climate change by limiting CO2 emissions from power plants.

The challengers include 27 state attorneys general, including Kentucky’s. One in particular, West Virginia’s Patrick Morrisey, has positioned himself as the champion of fossil fuel interests fighting government regulation.

“This rule simply devastates coal, coal miners, coal retirees and their families and puts at risk thousands of good paying jobs and affordable energy for our state,” Morrisey wrote in a recent opinion piece.

A New Yorker Moves to West Virginia

West Virginia’s Attorney General is not from the Mountain State, he’s from the Empire State. After a failed Congressional bid in New Jersey, the New York native set his sights on West Virginia.

Not sure what the Clean Power Plan is? Find out more here >>

He campaigned throughout the state for the office of attorney general promising to be an agent of change by creating “a more predictable, certain, reason-based legal and business environment in West Virginia.”

In 2012, Morrisey loaned his campaign $1.5 million and vastly outspent his Democratic opponent, Darrell McGraw, who had been attorney general for two decades. Morrisey became the first Republican to take the office in West Virginia since 1933.

Since then, Morrisey’s made good on his promises to change the role of attorney general. He’s focused his office’s attention on joining a series of conservative causes such as fighting against transgender protections, defending Second Amendment rights, and most notably, pushing back against environmental regulations. His proudest accomplishment is leading the charge against President Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

“We have to protect every single job we can,” Morrisey said in an interview, “and that’s an important role for the attorney general.”

morriseyJanet Kunicki/WVPB

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey says he wants to reverse the “regulatory carnage” inflicted on the coal industry.

Changing Roles of Attorneys General

The National Association of Attorneys General says the chief legal officer’s role in states is to be the “People’s Lawyer.” Many of Morrisey’s actions indicate that he interprets that role as a responsibility to help citizens by helping the businesses that employ them, particularly businesses in the coal, oil and gas sectors affected by regulation.

“[Obama’s] vision of energy production in our country is radically different than many others who depend upon fossil fuels. President Obama doesn’t support the same use of fossil fuels,” Morrisey said.

Morrisey is hardly alone in that view. He is among a chorus of elected officials throughout the Ohio River Valley region who oppose the president’s Clean Power Plan and view it as part of a “war on coal.”

“It shouldn’t have to depend on a state attorney general to take down unlawful regulations, but we’re using all of our authority to protect our state’s jobs,” he said.

A Red Tide in AG Offices

Of the 27 states challenging the Clean Power Plan, 22 have Republican attorneys general. That, according to University College London Professor of Public Policy Colin Provost, is the result of a remarkable recent shift in state-level politics, a shift that helped bring Patrick Morrisey to power in West Virginia.

Provost explained that through the 1960s and ’70s, the majority of state attorneys general were Democrats but largely politically neutral in their application of the law.

That began to change, Provost said, when attorneys general began to collaborate to take more powerful legal stances, most famously when a coalition of Democratic-led attorneys general took on big tobacco in the 1990s and won.

“In the last 15 years,” Provost said, “the Republicans have gotten on board.”

Soon after the tobacco settlement, the Republican Attorney General Association was born with a mission of recruiting and electing Republicans to the office. In 2014, the tide officially shifted with more Republicans than Democrats holding AG offices for the first time in American history.

Provost said the days of the politically neutral AG are over. “It has become a very partisan office for both parties,” he said.

While many Democratic attorneys aligned with trial lawyers and unions for political support, Provost said the Republican movement to win the office has come with the deep pockets of big business. In Patrick Morrisey’s case, some of those big business interests are in the energy sector.

“Morrisey is very close with some of the fossil fuel companies that would benefit from a ruling against the Clean Power Plan,” Provost said.

Big Money, Close Scrutiny

Morrisey’s affinity for high-profile cases and big campaign budgets has kept him in the public eye. He’s come under a lot of scrutiny, for example, because of his background in lobbying for big pharmaceutical companies.

West Virginia is ground zero for the opioid addiction crisis, with the country’s highest overdose rate. Morrisey’s predecessor as attorney general filed suit against several drug makers over their aggressive marketing of opioid painkillers, and Morrisey inherited those suits.

The E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington D.C., where U.S. Circuit Court judges will hear arguments in West Virginia v. EPA.Jorfer, Wikimedia Commons

The E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse in Washington D.C., where U.S. Circuit Court judges will hear arguments in West Virginia v. EPA.

In June, CBS broadcast an investigative story that looked at Morrisey’s ties to the very companies his office was taking to task. Prior to his election as attorney general, Morrisey was registered as a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical trade group that includes some of the companies the state is suing.

Morrisey is quick to point out other actions his office has taken to combat opioid abuse in the state. And, he said, the West Virginia State Bar investigated his conduct and connections and determined there was no problem.

“Every person who has objectively looked at this issue knows that we’ve handled things the absolute correct way,” Morrisey said.

The state bar’s review did note that Morrisey’s wife’s continued lobbying work for pharmaceutical companies “created the appearance of impropriety.”

Morrisey’s connections to energy companies have also come under scrutiny. In 2014 The New York Times reported on Morrisey’s alleged role in helping energy interests introduce legislation designed to make it easier to sue federal regulators over power plant regulations — the very sort of lawsuit now unfolding in federal court.

This month, Bloomberg reported that coal company Murray Energy gave $250,000 to the Republican Attorneys General Association in exchange for a lengthy private meeting last year at an event Morrisey attended along with other attorneys general challenging the Clean Power Plan.

“We run the office the right way,” Morrisey responded to these criticisms. “We have the highest ethical standards, and people know we treat everyone the same regardless of political affiliation or economic status.”

When asked about the role money plays in politics today, Morrisey said it was critical.

“Candidates need to be able to raise money to communicate, get out their message to voters. The alternative is pretty frightening,” he said. “Otherwise it’s left to your opponents or the media – that’s not acceptable.”

Clean Power Pursuits

Opponents from the energy industry and energy-producing and manufacturing states have had some success in their legal challenge. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a rare stay, blocking implementation of the Clean Power Plan and setting up the arguments before the D.C. Court of Appeals. Morrisey hopes to demonstrate that the plan is an illegal federal overreach.

“West Virginia has bled jobs in part due to these regulations that are coming out of Washington,” Morrisey said. “If we could reverse that, tens of thousands of people will benefit.”

Legal observers say the challenge to the Clean Power Plan is likely heading back to the U.S. Supreme Court.Phil Roeder, Wikimedia Commons

Legal observers say the challenge to the Clean Power Plan is likely heading back to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Morrisey predicts the coal industry in Appalachia could regain more than a third of its losses if the new regulations are struck down. But some experts and industry leaders say coal’s decline has more to do with market forces than regulations, and that the outcome of this case is not likely to bring coal back.

As the ReSource reported last month, even some executives in the region’s major coal-burning utilities say Morrisey’s challenge to the Clean Power Plan won’t significantly affect coal’s fortunes.

“There is a shift going on for reasons beyond the Clean Power Plan,” said Charles Patton, chief operating officer for one of the largest electric utilities in the region, Appalachian Power.

Patton says the abundance of cheap natural gas is a major reason that Appalachian Power plans to reduce dependence on coal from 74 percent in 2012, to 53 percent by 2024.

Rather than having a panel of a few judges decide the case, as is the norm, the Circuit Court opted to have the entire court hear the arguments in West Virginia v. EPA. That move will likely speed the anticipated appeal, which court observers say is almost certainly headed back to the U.S. Supreme Court next year.

Elevated Levels Of Chromium Found In Kentucky Drinking Water, Report Says Tuesday, Sep 20 2016 

A new report says some Kentuckians could be drinking a cancer-causing chemical called chromium-6.

The Environmental Working Group, a public health advocacy group, analyzed data collected from samples of drinking water from all 50 states by the Environmental Protection Agency. Of the 85 Kentucky counties tested, the highest levels of chromium-6 were found in the samples from Daviess County.

The average level of chromium-6 found in Daviess County was 1.12 parts per billion, which according to Bill Walker, EWG managing editor, equates to a drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

The EPA has imposed a limit for chromium of 100 parts per billion. But that includes both chromium-6 and chromium-3. The latter is an essential element for human function. However, too much can cause skin rashes.

Walker said the EPA bases its limit on the toxicity of chromium-3, not the more dangerous chromium-6.

“It’s two things mixed together and dumped into drinking water, and EPA says we have a standard to cover the combination of these things,” Walker said. “But don’t have a standard for the individual one, which happens to be more dangerous.

Chromium-6 is the carcinogen that was mentioned in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” It is found in coal-burning power plants, used in leather tanning and in the production of materials like chrome plating. Animal and limited human studies have shown that the chemical causes tumors to grow in the stomach and intestines.

“The population is drinking a lower concentration, so these are affects that might accumulate over a lifetime,” said Walker. “There are elevated levels of stomach cancer in communities that have bigger exposures.”

Chromium-6 when inhaled is also known to cause asthma, pneumonia, decreased respiratory functioning, and long-term exposure can produce effects on the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal and immune systems.

Lanny Brannock, spokesman for the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, said because chromium-6 is an unregulated contaminant, the state does not monitor for it.

“We’re following the guidelines the EPA puts forth and we monitor for total chromium, which is what is required,” Brannock said.

In 2011, the EPA was moving forward to impose restrictions on how much chromium-6 could be present in drinking water. But industry groups like the American Chemistry Council, which represents chemical companies, appealed seeking to delay the rules. Now, the EPA is studying the health effects of chromium-6 in drinking water. The agency cannot take action on imposing restrictions until the studies are finished, sometime this year or in 2017.

Owensboro Municipal Utilities is the main supplier of drinkable water in Daviess County. Other water suppliers, including SE Daviess Co. Water District, West Daviess Co. Water District and East Daviess Co. Water Association, Inc., buy their water from OMU.

Public Relations Manager Sonya Dixon said if acceptable levels of chromium-6 were adjusted by the EPA, the company would work to meet the new requirements.

“When you look at it relative to current acceptable levels — 100 parts per billion compared to 1.2 parts per billion — we have to keep it in perspective,” she said.

The Green River District Health Department covers seven counties including Hancock, Henderson and Daviess counties. Environmental Director Clayton Horton said chromium-6 hasn’t been on their radar. He said they take action when agencies like the EPA or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issue guidance to public health departments on how to educate public.

“We want to make sure our actions are based on stuff that can be backed up,” Horton said.

If the EPA were to eventually impose a legal limit for chromium-6 specifically, changes to levels in drinking water wouldn’t happen overnight. The agency usually gives states and companies time to develop processes to remove a chemical once it’s deemed unsafe at a certain level.

Clay Kelly, an engineer with Strand Associates, a civil engineering firm that works with local governments on waste water, said it would still be up to Kentucky to implement the standard. He said that could go beyond a mandate that water companies filter out the chemical. He said coal burning power plants and other producers of chromium-6 could be directed to pre-treat their water before it’s discharged back into streams and lakes.

“Instead of those facilities being able to discharge whatever out of their process, they have to have a pre-treatment to remove something particularly difficult before it enters the public wastewater system,” Kelly said. “They [the government] could at least monitor it before it’s diluted with everything else.”

Elevated levels of chromium were also found in Jefferson, Shelby, Spencer, Bullitt and Hardin counties. The counties with the lowest levels were Henry, Washington, Jessamine, Carter and Calloway.

The EWP recommends buying a reverse osmosis water filter. Online, they cost approximately $170.

You can search for your county on an interactive map here.

Air Quality Alert Issued For Tuesday In Louisville, Southern Indiana Tuesday, Sep 20 2016 

The Louisville Metro Air Pollution Control District has issued an Air Quality Alert for ozone in Louisville and Southern Indiana on Tuesday. Air quality alert

The air pollution could affect sensitive groups including young children, the elderly and people with respiratory ailments like asthma and COPD.

Officials say the general public is not likely to be affected.

APCD recommends that on air quality alert days, people take steps to avoid pumping excess pollution into the air.

Regulators suggest taking public transportation, not using gas-powered lawn mowers and combining your errands into one trip.

More information can be found here.

Alpha Natural Resources To Close Last Kentucky Mine  Monday, Sep 12 2016 

An Alpha Natural Resources spokesman says the company plans to lay off 117 people when it shuts down a Kentucky coal mine in November.

Spokesman Steve Hawkins tells the Lexington Herald-Leader that the company has issued a required 60-day layoff notice at the Process Energy Mine in Pike County, which is set to be closed on Nov. 7.

Hawkins says dismal market conditions are the reason for the layoffs.

He says the Process Energy mine is Alpha’s last active mine in Kentucky. The Bristol, Virginia-based company has 18 mines in West Virginia.

Alpha’s departure doesn’t necessarily show a trend in Kentucky, however. As WFPL News reported earlier this summer, despite widespread losses in the coal industry, mining permits have remained strong in the state:

Despite Industry Losses, Coal Permits Still Strong In Kentucky

Mountains Of Evidence: Questions About Coal’s Most Controversial Practice May Finally Be Answered Monday, Sep 5 2016 

The prestigious National Academy of Sciences recently announced a comprehensive study on the health effects of the controversial coal mining practice known as mountaintop removal. For coalfield residents who have long questioned what impact the dust, blasting, chemicals and water contamination was having, the announcement comes as welcome news, if somewhat overdue.  

A decade of efforts to research the health effects of living near mountaintop removal mining have often run into industry opposition, political roadblocks, and bureaucratic delays. After decades of questions and concerns there is now reason to believe that answers are on the way.

(Click here to view the timeline on another page.)

Long-Standing Concerns

Concerns about how surface mining affects the people of Appalachia are nearly as old as the practice itself. West Virginia first regulated surface mining in 1939, and statements of concern and protest have long been a part of the culture in the central Appalachian coalfields.

Eastern Kentucky author Harry Caudill opened his seminal 1963 book “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” with an indictment of his region’s chief industry. “Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies…it leaves a legacy of foul streams, hideous slag heaps and polluted air,” he wrote. And that was written well before strip mining really took off.

As technological and market changes brought more surface mining to Appalachian coal in the 1970’s, the health concerns increased. You can hear many of those concerns in the 1979 Appalshop documentary film “Stripmining: Energy, Environment, Ethics.”

“All you have to do is look on the mountain to know that it’s not best for the people,” Bruce Hatfield of Mingo County, West Virginia, said in the film. But simply looking at a mountain is not the same as studying the effects of the mountain’s removal.

“Leveling Our Mountains”

Starting in the mid-90’s, surface mining scaled up into mountaintop removal. Instead of cutting into the slopes, this technique uses blasting and heavy equipment to remove the entire top of a mountain to get at the coal seams below. The waste rock and dirt are dumped into the adjacent valley and frequently waste lagoons are constructed to contain the black sludge left from processing coal.  

Ed Wiley of Boone County, West Virginia, saw the boom of mountaintop removal mining firsthand. “They’re just leveling our mountains in here,” he told PRI’s Living on Earth in 2007.

One mine was right beside his granddaughter’s elementary school. She started getting sick, and one day as he drove her home from school early, she started to cry, and then told him she was getting sick because of the coal mines.

“That hurt me,” Wiley said, “It took her tears to wake me up, and it was like a sledge hammer.”

West Virginia resident Ed Wiley walked to Washington to raise awareness about about mining and health impacts on students. Vivian Stockman

West Virginia resident Ed Wiley walked to Washington to raise awareness about about mining and health impacts on students.

Wiley decided to take action — he decided to protest by walking all the way to Washington, D.C. This was back in 2006, and at that point, very little research had been done, so Wiley didn’t have much other than anecdotes to back up his arguments. But that same year, health researcher Dr. Michael Hendryx arrived at West Virginia University as a professor of public health.

First Findings

Hendryx described the focus of his research as “health disparities for disadvantaged populations.” When he arrived in West Virginia he soon started to hear worries about the health impacts of mountaintop removal and the dust it puts into the air. Hendryx tried to read up on the science behind the matter but there was not much to read.

“I looked at the literature and found nothing that was done in the United States on public health problems related to mining,” he said. So he decided to study it himself.

Dr. Michael Hendryx published several studies linking mountaintop removal to health effects such as cancers and birth defects.Indiana University

Dr. Michael Hendryx published several studies linking mountaintop removal to health effects such as cancers and birth defects.

Many of his colleagues were skeptical. He was told that health problems would be due to other issues common in coalfield communities. But Hendryx used statistical analyses to control for issues like poverty and smoking, and found that there was still something more that was causing poor health outcomes.

“I can literally remember the very first study, hitting the run button on my computer, and seeing that yes there was something there,” he said. “I was surprised!”

Hendryx kept on studying the issue, and over the course of a few years he and colleagues published peer-reviewed work that linked mining to a variety of health issues for those living nearby, including increased rates of cancer, lung disease, and birth defects.

A 2009 study found that the economic costs for the region from premature deaths due to exposures to mountaintop removal meant that the coal industry’s costs to public health were greater than its economic contributions. Other scientists began to pick up on the issue and in a 2010 edition of the journal Science, several prominent researchers called for a moratorium on mountaintop removal.

But the response from government wasn’t what Hendryx expected.

“I was naive and thought that maybe the evidence would speak for itself,” Hendryx said with a wry laugh. “But I’ve learned that’s not how things work in the coalfields of West Virginia.”

Coal Responds

Bill Raney is the President of the West Virginia Coal Association. When asked about Hendryx, he described him as “anti-mining.” Raney said he doesn’t trust Hendryx’s research, and also thinks it ignores a bigger health concern: the loss of mining jobs, which has fed into a wide-range of health issues across the region’s coalfields. “When they don’t have a job, then health suffers,” Raney said.

Aerial view of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. The "lake" in center is a coal sludge waste impoundment.Vivian Stockman and Southwings

Aerial view of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. The “lake” in center is a coal sludge waste impoundment.

The mining industry sponsored its own studies to scrutinize Hendryx’s research. Much of the criticism argued that influences of smoking, obesity, and poverty were really behind the region’s health problems. One critic went so far as to argue that Hendryx’s findings weren’t reliable because they didn’t account for “consanguinity. ” That’s the scientific term for inbreeding, and an apparent reference to a baseless stereotype about Appalachians.

One coal company filed a request for every single document, email, and scrap of paper connected to years of Hendryx’s research. Hendryx said he thinks it was “a fishing expedition… to make me waste time.”

In 2015 Hendryx was called to testify before a Congressional committee, where he didn’t exactly get a warm reception from Louisiana Congressman John Fleming. Fleming described Hendryx’s research as less scientific than a 5th grade science project. “You should be embarrassed to be here with a study like this,” Fleming said.

A SOAR Point

Hendryx isn’t the only person who’s found that politics can become challenging when you start advocating for research on the health risks of mountaintop removal.

In 2013 state, local, and federal officials in eastern Kentucky formed an organization called “Shaping Our Appalachian Region,” or SOAR. The idea was to explore how the region can adapt to a changing economy and fewer coal jobs.

SOAR started off by setting up working groups to identify community needs. Dr. Nikki Stone was appointed to lead the group focused on health issues. Stone grew up in the coalfield town of Blackey, Kentucky, and now works in the nearby town of Hazard, where she leads a mobile dentistry program that brings care to kids in their schools.

Dr. Nikki Stone addressed a health working group in eastern Kentucky, where mountaintop removal was a top concern.Mimi Pickering

Dr. Nikki Stone addressed a health working group in eastern Kentucky, where mountaintop removal was a top concern.

Stone and the rest of the SOAR working group did a regional tour, holding sixteen listening sessions around eastern Kentucky. At every single meeting, she said, at least one person brought up environmental health and worries based on Hendryx’s research.

“It was something that people were afraid to talk about,” Stone said. “But it came up over and over, and it ended up at the top of our list.”

In its final report, the working group advised that SOAR should ask a federal agency for help studying the issue. Dee Davis, director of the Center for Rural Strategies, was also a member of the health working group. Davis said the director of the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was present at the public meeting when the working group presented its report, and said that if they made a request the CDC would investigate.

No Response

Time passed with no response. As Davis recalled, a CDC spokesperson told the health working group that she was not aware of any request but would look into it. Davis said that as far as he knows, that was the last time anybody from the CDC acknowledged the request. The CDC recently confirmed that the agency is not engaged in any such research.

It’s not clear where exactly things got stalled, but SOAR’s executive director Jared Arnett said there’s a reason why the group tends to steer clear of environmental issues.

“It’s about uniting,” Arnett said, “and a lot of things that may not be a part of SOAR that people want to be a part of SOAR are very divisive.”

Dee Davis offered a different perspective, emphasizing two ways that good health is critical for achieving SOAR’s mission of reinvigorating the region’s economy.

“If we want our talent to be part of what turns our region around, then it’s not really going to help us to sweep big questions about cancer and birth defects under the rug,” he said.

Davis argued that if the region wants to develop a thriving economy, it needs to build confidence in the idea that eastern Kentucky is safe.

“It’s about building an economy in a place,” Davis said, “and part of that is making sure that our communities are places people want to live.”  

Overdue Answers

There’s still no sign that the CDC is going to look into this issue. But research is moving forward elsewhere. In addition to the work by the National Academy of Sciences, another study, from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) was announced last year, and has already produced a draft. NIEHS director Linda Birnbaum recently visited eastern Kentucky and said she expects that study will be released within the year.

The National Academy of Sciences will conduct a comprehensive study of mining health effects. Wikimedia Commons, Another Believer

The National Academy of Sciences will conduct a comprehensive study of mining health effects.

Birnbaum said she doesn’t want to prejudge her agency’s work, but her reading is that mountaintop removal mining “is not good for people’s health.” Given what’s known about the air pollution and ecological impact that mining causes, Birnbaum asked, “Why would we be surprised?”

As for Michael Hendryx, he said the new work underway is “a positive step that… they are at least recognizing that there’s an issue.” But given his experience with coalfield politics, he’s not ready to call it a success.

“I’m going to wait and see what happens,” he said. 

Grazing In The Grass: An Old-Fashioned Idea Holds New Promise For Sustainable Farming Monday, Aug 22 2016 

On 120 acres in Marion, Kentucky, small-scale farmer Joseph Mast is taking an innovative approach to provide for his growing family of nine.

Mast belongs to an Amish community and is reluctant when it comes to media. He makes a concession, however, when the conversation involves sustainable farming.

“I’ll talk grass any day,” said Mast.

Mast is a grass farmer using something called high intensity grazing, also known as rotational grazing. Herds of animals are left to graze on a small area of pasture, but moved several times a day to new forage, mimicking the way grasslands and grazers naturally interacted long ago.

Rotational grazing conflicts with conventional thinking on livestock and overgrazing. The theory has always been that too many animals on a plot will trample and destroy fertile grounds. But Mast sees evidence that the practice is working and he believes that his small farm is becoming a part of much larger solution for sustainable agriculture.

It’s a lot of work. Intensive grazing requires him to move his 20 cattle up to 6 times a day. But before Mast began this more intensive management style he was working even harder. Much of his energy was spent growing grain to feed his animals and earning additional income for medicine to treat livestock diseases such as foot rot, pink eye and worms. Since he began relying on his farm’s grasses, he says his cattle and land are more resilient to disease and drought.

“That drought we had in 2012, a lot of people were feeding hay, I never ran out of grass,” Mast said.

marionAlexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

Livestock And Living Soil

The concept seems fairly simple.

After the animals have eaten about half of the grasses in one area, they are moved to another. The grasses provide natural feed for the animals and their manure fertilizes the soil. The “hoof action” of the animals gently tramples the ground, increasing the soil’s ability to hold water.

As the livestock move along, the grasses begin to grow again and their root systems do as well, locking into the ground and reducing erosion. The larger plants create a cover, sheltering the micro-organisms that feed off the manure.

rotational-grazing-flowchart-v3Alexandra Kanik | Ohio Valley ReSource

What was just dirt becomes healthy organic matter, soil that invites other beneficial organisms. Mast has found that this reduces his dependence on expensive medicine to treat livestock for things such as parasitic worms.

“I don’t worm period,” Mast said. “No wormers, that’s harmful to the dung beetles.”

The dung beetle is just one part of a process in fly and parasite control. Dung beetles dry up manure patties that would otherwise be breeding grounds for fly larvae, which spread disease. Dry up the dung, you dry up the larvae.

“There are different kinds, there’s one called a roller,” Mast explained. He’s become a close observer of the tiniest parts of his farm’s ecosystem.“ They will take the fresh dung and roll up their egg and put it down that hole and that’s for their young to feed off. And if it rots down there, its fertilizer for the grass underneath,” he said.

Outstanding In His Field

When Mast looks out at his farm, he says the land speaks to him. It has always, but he hasn’t always understood.

“That’s the biggest issue, I mean it’s not easy. It’s a learning curve in this,” Mast said. “Years ago I wouldn’t see any of that [grass diversity] or I might not have been looking for them either. But, try to work with nature and she will work with you.”

Introducing other animals to the pasture helps too, because many harmful organisms only affect specific animals.

“If a cow eats a parasite from the sheep that’s the end to that thing, you see it doesn’t pass on through, it can’t multiply,” Mast said.

As Mast explores his farm, doing what he calls a “pasture walk,” he moves from plot to plot pointing out the growth in grass diversity.

Mast says the variety of grasses on his farm has increased with rotational grazing, benefiting his animals.Nicole Erwin | Ohio Valley ReSource

Mast says the variety of grasses on his farm has increased with rotational grazing, benefiting his animals.

“Last week I was out in my field and come up with 15 different species of grasses without even trying to look,” he said.

This diversity in grasses allows him to graze longer into the winter without feeding them hay.

Mast’s acreage isn’t limited to grasslands. Walk to the back of the farm and you will find four wooded acres, subdivided into 16 paddocks. He has sectioned off the forest to the hickory trees to work feeding his hogs.

“Something the hogs relish is the hickory nuts. They will crunch them down just like candy,” Mast said.

The hickory nuts and the grasses are all free. Like many small-scale farmers, Mast finds it tough to compete with the larger farms. Rotational grazing proponents argue that this approach can help level the playing field.

Mast's hogs feed on hickory nuts in the wood lot.Nicole Erwin | Ohio Valley ReSource

Mast’s hogs feed on hickory nuts in the wood lot.

Farm To Classroom

Murray State University Animal Equine Science Chair O.L. Robertson became a “stockman” because he had grown up mostly raising tobacco on his family farm in west Tennessee. Pretty much anything is better than working in a tobacco patch, according to Robertson. That was around 60 years ago. Robertson said he didn’t become a real stockman until the last 15 years when he began paying attention to the interactions between the livestock and the plants they forage upon.

“Sometimes you have to look backward to be able to see forward, and the further back you can go the further forward you can see,” Robertson said in his gentle Kentucky drawl. “How we do things today, those animals aren’t capable of the migrations that they were in those days.”

Robertson is talking about prehistoric herds, like bison, that used to roam freely on prairies before the animals were hunted to near extinction and the land was divided by ownership. He believes it was those interactions among animals, plants, and soil that formed the deep, rich soils that we have available to us today. He is doing what he can to mimic those interactions via high intensity grazing with the hope of passing on the information to the next generation.

Robertson has been heavily influenced by another ecosystem grassland pioneer, Allan Savory. The South African born biologist has won wide acclaim for his idea that high intensity grazing is more than just sustainable farming, that it is actually a solution to climate change.

Robertson shows a video of a Savory TED Talk to his students each semester, in which Savory takes the grazing message to a much larger scale – fighting desertification, or the drying up of Earth’s soil. The United Nations says that the world is losing 57 acres of arable land to desertification every minute.

Savory believes that by replenishing the plant life with high intensity grazing, we are also able to trap carbon dioxide in the grassland roots, counteracting the climate-harming methane production associated with herds of livestock. In essence, using cows to combat climate change.

Pastures For Profit

All of this raises a question: If this simple grazing practice is so beneficial at so many levels, why aren’t more people implementing the system?

“Rotational grazing is not something that grabs the attention of university researchers,” Robertson answered. He said part of the reason that there is not yet a robust body of science behind the idea is because academic study often follows available funding.

“There is not a company that is really pushing this that is willing to put research dollars into a university to obtain the data,” he said.

Rotational grazing doesn’t require herbicides and pesticides that can be offered by a company looking for product support. That’s because the only thing needed to structure a rotational grazing pattern is some good polywire.

“We can take a 100 acres and split it up into 10 paddocks and we may even need to subdivide those paddocks, but we do that with one single strand of polywire,” Robertson said.

Farmers have enough to worry about competing in an already saturated market, explains Robertson, and eliminating costs by relying on resources that are readily available just makes sense.

“The easiest dollar you will ever make is the one you don’t spend,” said Robertson.

High intensity grazing isn’t high in spending. While it is viewed as labor intensive, Robertson and Mast say it’s really intensive management, respecting the animals and the earth by working smarter, not harder. It might even be saving the planet.

“Man has thought he was so smart, and that we don’t need all this, but actually we hurt ourselves if we try to work against nature,” Mast said.

Next Page »