Appalachia’s Strip-Mined Mountains Face A Growing Climate Risk: Flooding Thursday, Nov 21 2019 

VARNEY, West Virginia — Pigeon Creek flows through a narrow mountain hollow along a string of coal mining communities, its water trickling under the red and yellow of the changing fall foliage.

The tranquil scene belies the devastation the creek delivered one night a decade ago as heavy rain fell on soggy soil and thousands of acres of nearby strip mines. Witnesses spoke of awakening in the dark of May 9, 2009, to the sound of rushing water like they had never heard before, entering their homes from underneath their doors.

“It was coming down out of the mountains bringing rock, trees, water and mud,” recalled Mildred Elkins, who became the lead plaintiff in a successful lawsuit with dozens of her flooded neighbors against several defendants, including Alpha Natural Resources, a coal mining company which has since gone through bankruptcy and merged with Contura Energy.

At one point, as she went to the basement to rescue some valuables, a back door gave way to pressure from the floodwater. “I heard a big old boom. That door had busted down, and water was coming through in full force,” she said. With water nearly up to her neck, she said she grabbed the steps, and pulled herself up. “I could feel my feet floating out behind me. It was scary.”

Logan Banner file photo.

Two men work to clear debris from a bridge in Varney, West Virginia, after Pigeon Creek and others in the area badly flooded homes and businesses in Mingo County in May 2009.

With the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers forecasting more rain and significantly increased streamflows due to climate change in a region that includes the coalfields of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, this kind of life-and-death drama on landscapes heavily strip-mined for coal could happen more frequently in the coming years. Heavier rainfall could also mean more polluted water washing from coal mines, environmental experts say, damaging streams and aquatic life already marred by mining.

A new analysis of satellite imagery conducted for InsideClimate News by two Duke University scientists shows how the risks related to strip mining and climate change are spread broadly across the region. It found that a total of 1,400 square miles of Appalachia within the Ohio River basin has been scarred by strip mining, with the tops and sides of mountains blasted away and steep mountains valleys filled with so-called “waste rock.”

The area with the largest extent of strip-mining damage in the entire Ohio River basin — almost 500 square miles in the Big Sandy watershed, including Pigeon Creek — is also the most threatened by extreme weather related to climate change, according to the new analysis.

Straddling the state line between West Virginia and Kentucky, the Big Sandy watershed could see up to a 25 percent increase in streamflow by 2040 and 35 percent by the end of the century from climate change alone, according to the Army Corps, making hazardous flooding conditions even worse.

The other eight watersheds in the analysis, containing more than 900 square miles of mining-altered landscapes, could see streamflow increases of up to 15 percent by 2040, and one could be as high as 25 percent by then. Six of those watersheds could see increases up to 25 percent by the end of the century, the new analysis shows.

The findings suggest that long after the coal mining stops, its legacy of mining could continue to exact a price on residents who live downstream from the hundreds of mountains that have been leveled in Appalachia to produce electricity.

“We have lost the forest that helps retard the rapid runoff that comes from surface-mined lands,” said Jack Spadaro, a former top federal mine safety engineer who works as a consultant for coalfield residents, workers and their lawyers. “And the coal that is sold from most of these mines goes into coal-fired power plants, further contributing to the negative effects of climate change.

“These things together don’t bode well for this region. It’s going to have an effect for hundreds of years.”

Overlaying Climate Risk On Maps Of Mined Land

To assess the threat posed by climate change in strip-mined Appalachia, InsideClimate News obtained digital mapping files from a 2017 climate change report by the Army Corps on the Ohio River Basin. The document for the first time put 2,400 urban and rural communities across, from southwestern New York to Tennessee, on notice that the 981-mile Ohio River and its many tributaries would face increasing rainfall and flood risks.

Duke graduate students Megan Ossmann and Alexander Yoshizumi overlaid satellite imagery of Appalachia on the Army Corps watershed maps, highlighting areas like Pigeon Creek that had been both heavily strip mined and forecast for significant increases in rainfall and streamflows.

Communities in the mountainous coal-producing areas of Central Appalachia will likely “experience the negative impacts of mountaintop mining even further,” said Ossmann, who now works for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program.

The Army Corps study did not take into account land-use changes, like mining or urban development, which can affect rain runoff, when it made its streamflow forecasts, said Kathleen D. White, who oversaw the report for the Army Corps. She said the new findings from the Duke researchers are “very interesting” and show the potential for “a more detailed study of these areas using more up-to-date climate-impacted hydrology and incorporating observed and projected land use conditions.”

Previously, White had cautioned that Army Corps findings were already out of date because of the pace of climate change. “This isn’t something just in the future,” she warned.

What Studies Warn About Strip Mining And Flood Risk

Across Appalachian coal country, mining companies, flood victims, environmental advocates and academic researchers have debated the extent to which strip mining contributes to flooding, sometimes in court. Flooding damage can come in different forms — collapsed impoundments of coal wastes, for example, or water flowing off denuded landscapes where stormwater management systems failed, or landslides.

The Duke mapping included not only areas where coal was extracted, but also valley fills of waste rock, which can slump or slide with heavy rain.

There is no question in Spadaro’s mind that mining makes flooding worse, based on his decades of investigating flooding disasters. Often, he said, what comes out in court is that mining companies failed to follow the rules designed to minimize flooding risks.

Others looking broadly across the Central Appalachian landscape paint a more nuanced picture, saying the region’s hydrology is extremely complex, and that valley fills can actually store rain water and reduce stream flows.

“There aren’t a huge number of studies, maybe a dozen,” that examine the question of flooding and surface mining, said William C. Haneberg, the Kentucky state geologist and a University of Kentucky research professor. “If you were to pick a really general conclusion, in broad terms, mining results in an increase in peak discharges during storms,” he said.

The Army Corps acknowledged at least as far back as 2000 that strip mining with valley fills could increase runoff. And a major environmental impact study on mountaintop mining published by the EPA in 2011 reported that storms can produce greater stream flows in watersheds with mountaintop mining and valley fills compared to unmined watersheds, especially in heavier rains.

For their part, companies have argued the floods are “acts of God,” or that regulations work to minimize flooding — at least since the 1977 Surface Mining and Reclamation Act was passed, requiring stormwater to be managed at surface mines.

William B. Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Mining Association, declined to answer questions about mining practices, flooding and climate change. His counterpart in Kentucky acknowledged mining could increase runoff but said not unreasonably so.

“Every use of property contributes to flooding if it increases impervious surface area in any way,” such as parking lots, roads and other development, said Tyler White, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.

He argued that coal mining does not create “a risk of harm,” while conceding that there would be no way to prevent “any contribution to flooding in the steep slope areas of eastern Kentucky” without stopping “all industrial or commercial development, something no one would reasonably contemplate, and something that would be detrimental to the lives of people living in eastern Kentucky.”

Mining Standards Not Keeping Pace With Climate Change

The rules that govern stormwater management from strip mining and the engineering design of those mine and their valley fills and containment ponds are based on historical rain patterns, not future predictions.

Nicolas Zegre, a West Virginia University hydrology professor and director of that state’s Mountain Hydrology Laboratory, said risks are exacerbated because mining standards are not keeping pace with climate change.

“Precipitation is indeed increasing,” Zegre said. “From a conceptual perspective, I would expect to see more peak flows coming off these surface mines.”

Valley fills store water, and “climate change is putting more water on top of water already stored there,” he said, raising risks near headwaters, “where most of our communities live and are vulnerable.”

James Bruggers/InsideClimate News

What remains from a strip mine along the King Coal Highway in southern Virginia, above Pigeon Creek.

Federal authorities that regulate surface mining do not require states to factor precipitation changes from global warming into engineering designs, said Terry Fletcher, spokesman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Still, he said, “since 2004, West Virginia’s mining program has been requiring constructed stormwater management designs to control runoff on surface mines and imposes a no-net increase threshold for runoff during all phases of mining.”

In Kentucky, surface mines are engineered “to the best available standards to minimize increased runoff and stream flooding,” said John Mura, spokesman for the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

But concerns persist about the adequacy of erosion and sediment controls. “With the larger and more intense storms coming, you could have those controls fail,” leading to more flooding, said Joe Pizarchik, a lawyer from Pennsylvania who ran U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation, the agency that oversees enforcement of the 1977 surface mining law, during the Obama administration.

Acidic water runoff that flows from strip-mined areas into valley fills and dissolves rock from the inside, likely weakening them, is also a potential risk that could grow with climate change, increasing the potential for landslides during storms in the future, said Duke University Professor Emily Bernhardt, who studies watershed biogeochemistry.

Haneberg, the Kentucky state geologist, said those concerns are valid. In Kentucky, he’s researching the stability of valley fills and “in some we are seeing evidence of failure.”

Polluted Water Is Coming Through The Valley Fills

Then there is the possibility that climate change could worsen mining-related water pollution in a region where some streams already run traffic-cone orange from acid mine runoff.

Because valley fills can act like sponges, they can keep streams that might otherwise dry up or be reduced to a trickle with a strong flow longer into the year, said Bernhardt, the Duke University professor. While that may sound good, water coming from the mines and through the valley fills is polluted, she said. She has been part of teams that have documented the salt-laden and alkaline pollution from mountaintop removal mines.

“Every mountaintop mine in Appalachia no matter how old it is, is exporting really salty, high alkalinity waters, and it’s not declining,” she said.

Climate experts also expect periods of longer droughts in the future, between heavy rains, and Bernardt said that could be a serious problem, too.

“I worry that with the droughts, which are supposed to be more prolonged and extreme, almost all the water we are going to see (in streams) will be derived from valley fills, and will be laden with mountaintop mine pollution,” resulting in greater harm to aquatic life, she said.

‘One Home Came Floating Down the River’

At least half of the Pigeon Creek watershed has been disturbed by mining. That was Jack Spadaro’s estimate in late October as he stood atop a huge, treeless strip mine above the creek. “All of this was a forested mountain,” he said. “What you need to know is the mountain here was 300 feet higher.”

James Bruggers/InsideClimate News

Jack Spadaro

He’s the former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, which trains mine safety officials. He lost his job after he blew the whistle on what he called a whitewash by the Bush administration of an investigation into another major mining disaster, the Martin County, Kentucky, coal slurry spill in 2000.

Mining companies since 1977 have an obligation to reclaim the land they disturb, and that is intended to reduce flooding risks. But he said when he investigates flooding near mines, he often finds that companies take engineering or construction shortcuts, including miscalculating how a mine’s features will respond to rain, or failing to install adequate water controls on what are large-scale alternations of natural landscapes.

Forests could take hundreds of years to return, he said. “You have these massive areas, in the millions of acres, that are not rejuvenating,” Spadaro said.

In the last 20 years, he said, there have been a series of Pigeon Creek flash floods. Hydrologists who studied the May 2009 flood calculated that mining had caused the creek to carry 51 percent more water then compared to pre-mining conditions. They presented that in Mingo County Circuit Court in a trial where the jury gave awards to 45 plaintiffs ranging from $1,050 to $100,000 each, according to court records. That triggering confidential settlements with dozens more.

The same day that Mildred Elkins was scrambling to get out of her basement alive, one thunderstorm after another dumped six inches of rain in 14 hours on steep hills and narrow hollows of eastern Kentucky, about 60 miles west. Small creeks and streams swelled and overflowed, and Quicksand Creek in Breathitt County, Kentucky, rose to its highest level in memory. Authorities rescued hundreds of people from flash floods.

James Bruggers/InsideClimate News

Pigeon Creek in southern West Virginia in late October 2019.

“It was a scary time when you could see that water coming,” recalled James Holbrook, who still lives on the same farm that was flooded by a raging Quicksand Creek. The water “was on top of the telephone line,” he said. “A lot of people lost their homes. One home came floating down the river.”

Holbrook was among about 70 plaintiffs to settle a lawsuit from that flood. In that case, the expert witness working with Spadaro calculated that a strip mine in its headwaters boosted runoff by nearly 30 percent.

Holbrook’s attorney, Ned Pillersdorf, said he could not disclose the terms. But he said the case was one of four in recent years that he handled, representing about 300 clients, all with similar circumstances — heavy rain falling on open surface mines that caused flash flooding, wiping out communities that were fairly impoverished.

“The game plan was to push these cases as fast and hard as we could,” Pillersdorf said. “These people were basically homeless.”

“After they striped the mountain down, there was nothing left to catch the water,” Holbrook said of the mining. “If it happened once, you are always concerned it can happen again.”

InsideClimate News is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that covers climate, energy and the environment. Click here for the InslideClimate newsletter.

Kentucky Regulators Side With Bernheim In Fight Over Gas Pipeline Monday, Nov 18 2019 

Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet has fired its opening salvo in the fight over a proposed gas pipeline through Bernheim Forest.

Louisville Gas & Electric filed an eminent domain lawsuit against the state in September to overturn a conservation easement and acquire land to build the pipeline.

On Friday, the state filed a motion to dismiss the condemnation suit, arguing LG&E didn’t make an offer to buy the state’s conservation easement prior to filing the lawsuit, as required under state law.

The motion amounts to a procedural delay tactic, but signifies the state’s willingness to defend its interests in the Bernheim property against the desires of LG&E, which plans to build a 12-mile-long natural gas pipeline through the conservation lands.

LG&E spokeswoman Chris Whelan said in an emailed statement the state’s argument is “baseless” and “contrary to existing law.”

“We will be responding in due course,” she said.

The state declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

The lawsuit has statewide ramifications. Kentucky environmentalists say it is the first time a utility has attempted to overturn a conservation easement held by the state, and it could result in weakening protections for natural areas throughout the Commonwealth.

LG&E has filed lawsuits against Bernheim, farmers and most recently, a Kentucky state board, in an attempt to acquire the remaining pieces of land necessary to build the pipeline.

The state became involved in September when LG&E sued the Kentucky Heritage Land Conservation Fund Board to break the conservation easement on the Bernheim property. The easement restricts development, like pipelines, and also requires Bernheim to manage the habitat for imperiled species.

“The idea that we’ve got for-profit corporations like LG&E that are able to use condemnation to break those conservation easements, I think should be alarming,” said Andrew Berry, Bernheim conservation director.

The Kentucky Eminent Domain Act requires LG&E to make an agreement with every owner who had interests in the property. The state paid about half the cost for the wildlife corridor — $706,500 — in exchange for the conservation easement. But according to the motion, LG&E made an offer to Bernheim, but didn’t do the same for the state.

Bernheim’s own attorneys filed a similar motion to dismiss and additionally argued LG&E never made an offer to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which also helped to pay for the property with funds from the Imperiled Bat Conservation Fund.

The fight over the proposed pipeline isn’t likely to end anytime soon. In addition to the lawsuits, there are ongoing complaints with Kentucky utility regulators and the Division of Water.

Pipeline Background

Bernheim Forest purchased nearly 500-acre Cedar Grove property in 2018 for about $1.4 million to serve as a wildlife corridor and protect natural habitat for endangered species, including Indiana and northern long-eared bats. The land is north of the publicly accessible park and is not open to the general public.

The pipeline would cut about three-quarters of a mile through the Bernheim wildlife corridor along an existing easement for electric transmission lines.

Louisville Gas and Electric says it’s run out of capacity on the current gas pipeline and needs to build another to keep up with growth in the areas around Mt. Washington, Shepherdsville, Clermont and Lebanon Junction in Northern Bullitt County.

 

‘That’s Vinegar’: The Ohio River’s History Of Contamination And Progress Friday, Nov 15 2019 

In 1958, researchers from the University of Louisville and the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission gathered at a lock on the Monongahela River for routine collecting, counting and comparing of fish species.

At the time, the best way to accomplish this was what’s called lock chamber sampling, or filling a 350-by-56-foot lock with river water, injecting it with cyanide and waiting for the dead fish to float to the top. Archaic, but effective.

On this particular day, researchers opened the chamber to find one fish inside.

One fish.

It shouldn’t have been surprising, said Jerry Schulte, a biologist who managed the source water protection and emergency response team for the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission (ORSANCO) for more than two decades. After all, the steel companies that dotted the region’s riverbanks were dumping their contaminated water right into the rivers. The waterways were so acidic that the steel-hulled boats meant to last 20 years rusted out in three and the pH routinely measured less than 4.

“That’s vinegar,” Schulte said. “It was so polluted, you could see it, smell it and taste it.”

By the time Schulte began monitoring fish species in the 1990s, thanks to environmental and industrial regulations like the Clean Water Act, the Ohio River and its major tributaries, including the Mon, had changed. They no longer looked or smelled like open sewers. Mayflies hatched on their surfaces; many pollution-intolerant aquatic species returned; and lock chamber sampling — done without cyanide — could yield hundreds, even thousands, of fish.

“It’s a functioning ecosystem now,” Schulte said.

Functioning doesn’t mean perfect, however. As recently as 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the Ohio River one of the country’s most polluted. Industrial contaminants, including the “forever chemical” perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), have been detected on long stretches of the river and toxic algal blooms erupt when conditions are just right. Still, most of the time, the majority of the river’s 981 miles are ripe for recreation and fit for drinking after proper treatment.

The same can’t always be said for the greater Ohio River watershed.

The Ohio River drainage basin is an interconnected web of small rivers and creeks covering 205,000 square miles of largely rural, Appalachian landscape and is home to 25 million people, many of whom are among the country’s poorest.

In parts of the basin, acid mine drainage turns creeks the color of Orange Crush, agricultural runoff chokes streams with nutrients, and combined sewage and stormwater pipe overflows fill waterways with dangerous bacteria.

Watershed pollution in Appalachia, much of which has been caused by coal mining, is an ongoing environmental hazard that mimics the threat steel once posed to big cities on the Ohio. It threatens aquatic life, endangers people taking part in river recreation and — perhaps most critically — creates water unfit for human consumption.

It Started With A Slurry

BarbiAnn Maynard stands on the porch of her home in Huntleyville, Kentucky, (population 188) and points across the two-lane road, where three houses perch on a tree-speckled mountainside.

“That one — dementia. This one — dementia. That one over there — dementia. My dad — dementia,” she said. “You can’t tell me that’s not because of the water.”

On Oct. 11, 2000, 300 million gallons of coal slurry broke through a reservoir in Martin County, Kentucky, flooding the abandoned mine shafts below and rushing out into the waters of Wolf Creek and Coldwater Fork.

Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

BarbiAnn Maynard drives 45 minutes from her home in Martin County, Kentucky, to a spring at the Mingo-Logan county line in West Virginia to fill containers with fresh water. Like most of her neighbors, Maynard doesn’t trust the water in Martin County, which routinely exceeds maximum levels of contaminants, including the carcinogen trihalomethane.

The black custard coated and killed everything in its path as it slithered for hundreds of miles and shifted into adjoining waterways, including the Tug Fork, Big Sandy and Ohio rivers. In Martin County, sludge crept into yards and across roads, creating pools five feet deep.

“It was like mud pie,” Maynard said, “only instead of mud and water, it was mud and oil.”

The slurry was an unprecedented disaster — 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill more than a decade earlier. It wiped out aquatic life in the creeks and cut off drinking water to nearly 30,000 people.

When water service resumed later that year, bills came stamped with a warning: If you have a severely compromised immune system, have an infant, are pregnant, or are elderly, you may be at increased risk and should seek advice from your health care providers about drinking this water.

The first time Maynard received that warning, she was 24 years old and pregnant with her daughter. Nineteen years later, the water in Martin County still comes with warnings.

But the roots of the county’s water issues and the fixes are complicated.

The water issues start at the treatment plant, where water pulled from the Tug Fork River is disinfected. Multiple municipal tests over the years show water in Martin County exceeds the maximum contaminant level for trihalomethane and haloacetic acid, both byproducts of the water’s treatment and both carcinogenic. Maynard believes her late mother’s multiple bouts with cancer are a direct result. But without such treatment to the water, customers could be exposed to harmful bacteria and whatever residual effects of the coal slurry are still present in the waterway.

It’s not a good choice, said Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute at West Virginia University. Water authorities need to use limited amounts of chemicals to avoid bacteria-causing illness, but too much of those chemicals could put their residents at risk for cancer.

The other problem occurs when water leaves the plant and heads toward homes. Like much of eastern Kentucky and southern West Virginia, Martin County has an aging infrastructure problem and little money to fix it. In West Virginia, underfunded treatment plants and straight-line pipes that combine sewage and stormwater have allowed raw sewage to collect in creeks, creating a public health crisis by serving as a breeding ground for bacteria.

In Martin County, the problem is broken pipes. Experts estimate nearly 70 percent of drinking water is lost while contaminants in the soil and groundwater are allowed to leach into the system. In coal country, Maynard said, who knows what gets in.

Representatives from the Martin County Water District did not return a phone call seeking comment but have said in the past that they are changing the chlorination process to avoid contamination issues and are looking for funds to fix broken water lines.

For residents in Martin County, turning on the tap is always a surprise. Some days, it’s cloudy and smells so strongly of chlorine that it burns the eyes. Other days, water is the color of weak tea and sediment settles in toilet bowls and shower drains.

The result, Maynard claims, is that no one in Martin County trusts or drinks the water. Maynard drives 45 minutes to a spring at the Mingo-Logan county line in West Virginia to fill containers with fresh water to drink. She uses antibacterial hand soap as body wash in the shower and cleans her hands with disinfectant wipes rather than running them under the tap.

She’d like nothing more than to follow her now-grown daughters out of the county and leave the water issues behind, but her land along the Tug Fork in Huntleyville has been in the family for five generations and she is her ill father’s caretaker. So she came up with another option.

“I figured I could lay down and die or I could fight,” Maynard said. “And I’m a fighter.”

She’s become the face of the Martin County water crisis, both locally and in media outlets as far away as France and Japan. She has a vast and growing collection of water-related public documents, religiously attends municipal meetings and writes letters to the public service commission. Every few months, she drives across the state line to a Tennessee grocery store to pick up pallets of bottled water, which she then distributes to county residents.

But no amount of anger or advocacy can fix the underlying issue plaguing Martin County and others like it: inadequate funds. According to Martin County officials, it will take at least $10 million to address the water issues there.

As of Sept. 5, the county had received two grants — one from an abandoned mine fund and another from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — to improve water supply infrastructure and service. Together, the grants totaled $4 million.

Even with the money, Maynard doesn’t trust that the most pressing problems will be addressed. In 2018, several members of the county’s water board quit after the state attorney general opened an investigation into mismanagement. After an 11-month investigation, the grand jury returned no charges.

“There’s a lot of greed and corruption,” Maynard maintained. “And they haven’t used common sense.”

But even in areas of the river basin where sensible solutions to water pollution have been developed and instituted, the results are still subject to imminent financial threat.

The Great Irony

Just off Township Road 1 in the unincorporated community of Carbondale, Ohio, a constant stream of acidic water seeps and sputters out of the abandoned AS-14 mine complex.

Before 2004, that water washed across a field and the road before dumping into Hewett Fork, turning it tangerine. It was so laden with acidity that snow plows had to be called in to scrape the resulting iron off the asphalt, and fish kills became a regular occurrence where Hewett Fork flows into Raccoon Creek.

Today, the water from AS-14 instead flows into a tall green structure — known as the Carbondale doser — and turns a wheel, releasing pinches of powdery calcium oxide from the cylindrical tower above. The calcium oxide neutralizes the acid in the water as it makes its way through a concrete channel and into Hewett Fork.

Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

A creek (left) contaminated with acid mine drainage flows past a local rural road while the Carbondale doser (right) works to neutralize some of the acidity before it reaches local streams.

The upshot of the doser is a rehabilitated waterway. Hewett Fork no longer causes fish kills, and 90 miles of Raccoon Creek, which flows through southeastern Ohio, are now safe for recreation.

This process for remediating acid mine drainage in creeks isn’t a perfect one, said Jen Bowman, the director of environmental programs for Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, which worked with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources [ODNR] on the doser project. It takes time for the calcium oxide to dissolve, so a section of Hewett Fork near the doser still runs rusty and lifeless before giving way to clean water.

And the doser is expensive. It cost ODNR nearly $400,000 to install, and the tower must be refilled with calcium oxide every six to eight weeks at a rate of about $40,000 per year, according to Bowman. The money comes from the Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation program.

There are other, cheaper ways to prevent abandoned coal mines from harming waterways, and in southeastern Ohio — where a loose loop of 11 villages and unincorporated communities is collectively known as the “Little Cities of Black Diamonds” — they’ve tried many of them.

A mine near Lake Hope State Park, fewer than 20 miles west of Athens, was sealed off nearly 20 years ago. Doing so prevents pollution from entering the water and creates a prime area for camping and water recreation. Closer to Athens, Bowman and her team at Ohio University have created a steel slag leach bed system, which uses an alkaline byproduct of steel production to neutralize acidic water.

Curren Sheldon/100 Days in Appalachia

Jen Bowman, the director of environmental programs for Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, has been working on acid mine drainage abatement since her days as a graduate student.

However, the funding for all of these projects could be in jeopardy.

Since 1977, the federal Abandoned Mine Land Reclamation Program has doled out money to states in order to soothe the scars of coal mining. But the money for that program is collected from a fee on coal companies that is set to expire in 2021.

This is the great irony of coal: the restoration of abandoned mines hinges on the perpetuation of coal mining.

With the abandoned mine land fund and its resulting projects in peril, university research institutes like Bowman’s have been joining environmental nonprofits in entrepreneurial efforts to ensure that remediation continues.

In Ohio, researchers at OU’s Russ College Department of Civil Engineering and experts at the nonprofit Rural Action have launched a pilot program that uses acid mine drainage pollution to create paint pigments.

In West Virginia, Ziemkiewicz and his team at the West Virginia Water Research Institute are extracting rare earth elements from acid mine drainage. These elements, which until now have largely been imported from China, are used in dozens of technological products, including cell phones, computers and televisions.

The hope is that these initiatives will eventually generate enough money to cover the remediation and abatement projects that have restored waterways.

“Maybe it gets us out of that vicious cycle of mining coal to fix the legacy of coal mining,” Bowman said.

But even if that cycle can be broken, even if paint pigments and rare earth elements turn a profit and remediation projects are funded in perpetuity, that doesn’t fix the Ohio River drainage basin.

Because while coal is a dire problem, it is just one of many problems.

Common Sense And Willingness

Every September since 2007, open-water swimmers have leapt off the Serpentine Wall at Cincinnati’s Sawyer Point and into the Ohio River. Their goal is to swim the 450 meters to the Kentucky shore and back again.

This year, it didn’t happen. Days before the race was to commence, ORSANCO received reports of algae in the water, and the Kentucky Department for Public Health issued a harmful algae bloom advisory, effectively shutting down river recreation.

It was the second bloom in the month of September. The first erupted near Huntington, West Virginia, and grew 50 miles long before dissipating, according to Greg Youngstrom, an environmental scientist and harmful algae bloom expert at ORSANCO.

The blooms are a result of rains that wash fertilizer off farmland and into nearby creeks. Those nutrients eventually make their way to the Ohio River, where algae feed on them. That, by itself, wouldn’t be such a problem. But long periods without rain cause river flow to slow, allowing sediment to drop out of the water and sunlight to come in, creating the perfect conditions for rapid algae growth.

“Prior to 2015, everyone thought algae blooms were a lake problem,” Youngstrom said.

Alexandra Kanik | wfpl.org

Algae on the Ohio River near California, Kentucky, on Oct. 7. It was later identified as Microcystis, the genus of cyanobacteria that causes harmful algal blooms.

That summer, more than 700 square miles of toxic algae grew on the Ohio River in West Virginia and Ohio. River recreation ceased and, as blooms made their way into drinking water intakes, several companies had to switch to alternate water sources.

According to Youngstrom, the increasing frequency of algae blooms is related to the extreme weather conditions brought about by climate change. More intense rainfall followed by long, drought-like stretches are just what algae need to thrive.

There are simple ways to help curb the problem. In Ohio, Bowman is on a mission to create a 50-foot buffer at the edge of area waterways — basically a barrier of untamed grasses, shrubs and trees that would prevent erosion and provide shade from sunlight.

It’s a slow process. In rural areas, farmers aren’t particularly interested in giving 50 feet of land that could be used for planting. Around Athens, residents have become accustomed to neatly manicured riverfront property and aren’t keen to let it go uncut.

“A lot of it is just behavioral change,” Bowman said.

Ziemkiewicz found that behavioral change was also the solution to a 2008 crisis in the Morgantown, West Virginia, area. That fall, salinity in the Monongahela River spiked, causing problems for public water supplies and eventually leading to a fish kill on Dunkard Creek.

Government and industry argued over responsibility — “Pennsylvania blamed West Virginia, West Virginia blamed Pennsylvania; coal companies blamed oil and gas, oil and gas blamed coal companies,” Ziemkiewicz said. He and West Virginia Water Research Institute Assistant Director Melissa O’Neal developed a network of watershed groups willing to monitor the total dissolved solids that were causing the rising salinity.

Their findings showed that while the source of total dissolved solids was mine water, the salinity wasn’t actually the mine’s fault. The weather was especially dry that season, resulting in low flows. They developed a model that showed coal companies how many total dissolved solids could be safely released based on river flow.

“With Melissa’s data, a spreadsheet model, some common sense and the willingness of industry to do the right thing, we solved it,” Ziemkiewicz said.

It’s a lesson he tries to impress upon fellow researchers and scientists because he believes if true progress is to be made in the fight for clean water, it will require an abundance of data and a lack of political agenda, especially as burgeoning industries bring about new water challenges.

“We need to be fair arbiters,” Ziemkiewicz said. “If we just sit in our ivory towers and write journal articles and discuss whether the world is moving in the direction we think it should, we aren’t fixing the problem.”

April Johnston, a freelance writer for 100 Days in Appalachia, authored this story. She can be reached at aljohnston14@gmail.com.

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy, and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

Paddling 300 Miles To Protect The Waters Of Ohi:yo’, The ‘Good River’ Thursday, Nov 14 2019 

For degawëno:da’s, paddling the length of the Allegheny River over the course of four months this year was to be a “witness to the raw element of the natural world.”

The roughly 300-mile trip began on May 18 at the river’s headwaters near Coudersport, Pa., and ended on Sept. 21 by the Point State Park fountain in downtown Pittsburgh.

The 49-year-old New York resident is a member of Defend Ohi:yo’, a grassroots organization committed to protecting the Allegheny River and all waterways. “Ohi:yo’” translates to “good river” in the Seneca language.

The Allegheny and Monongahela rivers form the beginning of the Ohio River in Pittsburgh, and much of the Allegheny River flows within the Ohio River watershed.

Sometimes alone on legs of the journey, other times accompanied by fellow paddlers, degawëno:da’s said the trip was to call attention to the need for vigilance in protecting the region’s waters and to “give people an opportunity to acknowledge their natural surroundings.”

Along the river, degawëno:da’s saw not only beauty but also industrialization and, on many portions of the trip, he said he felt his ancestors traveling along as well. “I had a few instances where they revealed themselves in different ways.”

He hopes to follow up with many of the people he met along the journey, continuing to impress upon them the importance of protecting the waterway and advocating that it have the same rights to safety and well-being that humans have.

The video was produced by Ryan Loew, with additional footage from Nick Childers, for PublicSource. Loew can be reached at ryan@publicsource.org

Good River: Stories of the Ohio is a series about the environment, economy, and culture of the Ohio River watershed, produced by seven nonprofit newsrooms. To see more, please visit ohiowatershed.org.

Our Reporters Want To Hear Your Ohio River Questions Thursday, Nov 14 2019 

Text “OHIO” to 859-208-2408 to share with our seven-newsroom collaborative.

KyCIR is teaming up with six other news organizations to cover what might be the most under-appreciated water asset in the country: the Ohio River. The Ohio River provides drinking water for 5 million people, and it’s a thoroughfare of business, supporting jobs and communities. But it’s also among the most polluted rivers in the country.

The project “Good River: Stories of the Ohio” will delve into the past, present and future of this river and its region. We aim to inform and surprise you at the same time. Our journalism will share with you the beauty of the Ohio River and its watershed as well as the threats to water quality and wildlife.

You can help our coalition of seven newsrooms tell stories that envision a better future for the Ohio.

The project will launch Nov. 14, but you can start participating now!

Introducing, Good River texts. Here’s how it works:

  1. Text “OHIO” to 859-208-2408. (Note that standard message rates apply and you can opt out anytime by texting STOP.)
  2. Follow the prompts to introduce yourself to us.
  3. Share your story, tip, concern, question or photo with us.
  4. We’ll text you with questions and information in return. (You can opt out easily if you find you’re flooded with info.)
  5. Thanks!

The post Our Reporters Want To Hear Your Ohio River Questions appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Is Louisville’s Plan To Reduce Carbon Emissions Ambitious Enough? Thursday, Nov 14 2019 

The Trump administration formally announced last week that the United States is withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, thrusting the burden to act against climate change upon cities like Louisville.

Already, Louisville is one of more than 150 U.S. cities committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the same amount countries agreed on in the Paris Accords — 80 percent by 2050.

It is fitting, then, that just days before the U.S. notified the United Nations of its plan to exit the agreement, Louisville released a long-awaited plan to cut its own carbon emissions.

The report fulfills a promise Mayor Greg Fischer made in 2016 as part of the Global Covenant of Mayors, and builds on his September declaration that Louisville is facing a “climate emergency.”

A Louisville sustainability staffer said the plan is a roadmap that’s going to require  cooperation from local businesses and residents.

“This is a community-wide plan. We will take the lead as Louisville Metro in doing everything we can,” said Allison Smith, Brownfields program manager at Louisville’s Office of Advanced Planning and Sustainability. “But this is not something we can do on our own.”

The roughly $71,000 report from Stantec Consulting comes in the wake of budget cuts that downsized Louisville’s Office of Sustainability, eliminating the standalone agency, cutting the director position and folding the two remaining employees into the Office of Advanced Planning.

Advanced Planning is now responsible for enacting city-wide change to reduce emissions, much of it outside the city’s control and, at times, working with partners whose interests don’t always align.

Louisville Climate Action Network Executive Director Sarah Lynn Cunningham said November’s report looks a lot like a plan she helped the city write in 2009. That report has spent the past decade gathering dust. 

Either way, the city’s 80 percent goal still falls short of the emissions reductions the United Nations says are necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. 

Still, peer cities are overcoming similar challenges and seeing results. Cincinnati for example, is already using 100 percent renewable energy to power city operations.

“The momentum and the burden has shifted to cities, and cities are small enough to be agile and large enough to be impactful on climate issues,” said Oliver Kroner, Cincinnati’s sustainability coordinator. “So all of a sudden cities are really leading the conversation on how cities are decarbonizing our economy.”

The Bulk Of Emissions

Greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. These emissions are now higher than at any time in human history and climate scientists say it’s imperative for the global economy to drastically reduce them as much and as fast as possible. 

Louisville completed a greenhouse gas inventory in 2016 that found the city’s per capita emissions were higher than the national average by about five tons per person.

Overall, the city emitted about 21 million tons of carbon equivalent in 2016 — that’s the same as burning 278,000 tanker trucks worth of gasoline.

The report breaks down emissions further, finding that Louisville Metro has the greatest influence over about 16 million tons of emissions. And about 81 percent of those emissions come from the energy used to heat, cool and power buildings.  

Let’s focus on those emissions.

This is a two-fold problem: Louisville, like many other cities in the region, has a bunch of older, draftier buildings that are not very energy efficient. On top of that, the power used in these buildings comes largely from fossil fuels like coal and natural gas.

So Louisville needs to use less power overall while transitioning away from the fossil-fuel power plants that create those emissions. 

Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency is generally seen as the low-hanging fruit of emissions reductions. It’s everything from purchasing energy-saving light bulbs and washing machines, to weatherizing and retrofitting buildings to use less energy overall.

There are upfront costs, but these upgrades can save money long-term.

One of the most effective strategies could involve updating building codes to make new buildings more efficient, but that’s not something the city has control over. Cities in Kentucky can’t enforce regulations that are stricter than the state’s building codes, so any changes would have to be approved by the state legislature.

Louisville’s plan calls for lobbying the legislature to update building codes, but so did the emissions reduction plan the city produced back in 2009. In fact, that report made several of the same recommendations as this year’s report, but little came of them. 

“It took four months just to get the thank you letter [from the city for the 2009 plan] and the thank you letter talked about how we didn’t have any money four times, and the urgency once,” said Sarah Lynn Cunningham, executive director of the Louisville Climate Action Network.

Similar building code restrictions exist for cities in Ohio, but Cincinnati has found ways around it. City officials have had luck incentivizing local developers to build energy efficient buildings; they offer up to 15 years of property tax abatement in return for receiving efficiency certifications.

Louisville’s plan calls for similar financial incentives for residents and businesses. It also includes several other strategies, including free building inspections, building permit fee rebates and new zoning requirements that promote high-density development.

“I think some of the biggest things are our energy efficiency efforts, reducing energy consumption where we can, deep energy retrofits and investing in renewables is a big one as well,” said Natalie Vezina, Louisville sustainability coordinator.

Reducing Reliance On Fossil-Fuels

Today, about 99 percent of Louisville’s power comes from Louisville Gas & Electric burning fossil fuels. About two-thirds of LG&E’s generating capacity comes from coal, and another third comes from natural gas.

Retiring coal power plants, in particular, can dramatically reduce carbon emissions. Looking back at recent history, Louisville emissions dropped 10 percent from 2010 to 2016, in large part because LG&E closed the coal-fired power plant at Cane Run in 2015 and switched to natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal.

The long-term problem is that most of LG&E’s coal-fired power plants have a remaining lifespan of 30 years — meaning if they do retire by the 2050 deadline, it will be just in time to meet the city’s goals, but will still fall short of those laid out by climate scientists.

“We are continually analyzing the lifespan of those facilities, the viable lifespans, and as part of our ongoing generation planning, we are able to make modifications for future plans as needed,” said Natasha Collins with LG&E.

Now, LG&E and parent company PPL Corporation say they are committed to reducing emissions to 70 percent of 2010 levels by 2050. This year, they also refurbished the Ohio Falls hydroelectric generating station and began looking at proposals to expand solar generation up to 200 megawatts. 

In Louisville, the Office of Advanced Planning and Sustainability is taking LG&E’s timeline into account.

“The 80 by (2050) target was largely modeled off of the fact that LG&E won’t retire the majority of its coal plants until 2040,” Vezina said.

Even then, the utility’s plans fall well short of the deadlines set by scientists in the United Nations report on climate change.

In Cincinnati, officials got around the state’s continued reliance on coal power by purchasing an equivalent amount of renewable power on the open market. Now city government operations are 100 percent renewable and the city is offering a program to power more than 80,000 businesses and homes with renewable energy credits, said Kroner with Cincinnati.

Louisville too, is considering purchasing renewable energy credits, though that won’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions locally.

The new greenhouse gas report also advocates for a resolution the Louisville Metro Council is currently considering that would transition the city to 100 percent renewable energy for city operations by 2030, and the entire community by 2040. However, even if it passes, that resolution is non-binding and could be ignored by city officials. 

Meeting Climate Deadlines

Last year’s U.N. report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the world needs to reduce carbon emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels no later than 2030 and reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with any remaining emissions offset by reforestation or carbon capture technology.

Environmental advocate and former mayoral candidate Jackie Green said the city’s entire plan is based on a timeline that won’t realistically address the changes needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

“That document and the city are not dealing with reality,” Green said in an email. “Here is the reality. Our economy will crash as a result of climate change. It is better to make the needed changes now rather than wait until they are forced upon us.”

Cunningham, a longtime Louisville environmentalist, said the city’s latest proposal has fewer recommendations and less detail than the one she helped produce a decade ago. Some of the suggestions in the latest report don’t seem to take the current landscape into account, like references to programs that no longer exist, she said.

For example, the city recommends LG&E offer demand side management programs (another term for energy efficiency) for residential customers. LG&E did have those programs for several years, but ended them at the start of this year saying it wasn’t worth it for the utility to incentivize energy efficiency if customers were going to make improvements anyway.

Smith, with the Office of Advanced Planning and Sustainability, said Louisville recognizes the urgency laid out in last year’s IPCC report, but is sticking with the original deadline because it’s what the city’s emissions reductions models are based on.

“It is going to be hard for all of us to keep up so we felt it was better to go ahead and finish the plan, have a sound set of strategies then work to move that time-frame up as quickly as possible,” Smith said.

What is clear from the report is that whatever happens, it’s going to have to be a community effort. The Office of Advanced Planning and Sustainability is encouraging residents to read through the entire study and offer comments at this website ahead of the Nov. 30 deadline.

“We lay out the high-level strategies and then we work with communities to make those happen,” Smith said “Everyone has a role to play in this.”

Kentuckians Debate How Net Metering Impacts Low-Income Families Wednesday, Nov 13 2019 

Kentucky utility regulators held their first public meeting over the future of solar power in the state on Tuesday.

Thanks to a new state law, the Kentucky Public Service Commission is reviewing the state’s net-metering rules, which set the value rooftop solar customers receive from utilities for the excess power they put back on the energy grid.

Right now, if you have solar panels on your home you receive a credit for the retail value of the power you put back on the grid.

Utilities would like to pay less for that solar power and advocates would like the rules to stay as they are now. Both sides say they’re fighting to protect low-income communities.

State regulators heard from utilities and more than 40 solar advocates who came to Frankfort to provide testimony as part of the review on Tuesday.

Ryan Van Velzer | wfpl.org

Utilities said that the more people who put solar panels on their homes, fewer are left to pay for utility investments. They said those costs are insignificant now, but will add up as more people buy their own solar panels.

And because low-income families are less likely to be able to afford solar panels, they end up taking on more of the cost burden from utilities. Louisville Gas and Electric Spokeswoman Chris Whelan said it’s always been about treating customers fairly.

“It could actually impact our low-income customers because they are paying or subsidizing for the folks who can afford, or who want solar,” she said.

Kentucky’s smaller electric cooperatives also say the reforms are necessary.

“Let’s define what the costs are from the very beginning and not say ‘let’s wait and kick the can down the road until it’s a problem,'” said Kentucky Electric Cooperatives Spokesman Joe Arnold, who represents co-ops in nearly every county.

But several of the solar advocates who turned out at the public meeting say solar panels are actually helping them lower costs for low-income customers.

Carrie Ray with the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development said that with the right programs in place, solar panels are a solution to offset soaring electricity costs for low-income families.

Ray said MACED has helped facilitate 10 solar installations for low-income customers over the last two years, and the organization has already planned 17 more projects.

“The chamber and the utilities have provided no evidence that net-metering has made any impact on rates, but Kentucky Power small commercial customers have faced a 214 percent increase in their demand charge in the past two years,” she said.

Representatives from Appalshop, a renowned arts nonprofit in Letcher County, said installing solar has meant the organization has seen a 70 to 90 percent reduction in its electric bills and they hope to get a return on their investment in the next 12 to 14 years. Community Development Worker Marley Green said he wants others to have the same opportunities Appalshop has had.

“We and our partners went with solar because we wanted to support a new and growing regional economy, we wanted to decrease our environmental impact, but by far the biggest reasons was the growing cost of our electricity bills,” Green said.

Dr. Edwards Roberts is a physician in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, who runs a nonprofit clinic that cares for uninsured and under-insured residents. He said current net-metering laws helped the clinic save $1,300 on electricity bills over the last year.

“This money was used to purchase medical and dental supplies. We have a very limited budget. The physicians who work on the clinic are all volunteers,” Roberts said.

The Kentucky Public Service Commission will ultimately decide rates that reflect the “costs necessary to serve” net-metering customers. This will likely include the costs of transmitting and distributing electricity, a cost not reflected in the current rate.

Disclosure: Louisville Public Media partners with WMMT, the community radio station run by Appalshop, for initiatives including the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Armed Helicopters To Combat Feral Hogs At Land Between The Lakes This Winter Friday, Nov 8 2019 

Federal and state wildlife officials announced Thursday that shotgun-armed people in helicopters will now be used this winter to combat invasive feral hogs in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.

LBL Spokesperson Christopher Joyner said feral hogs can destroy farm fields, spread disease and damage historical cemeteries inside the recreation area. Feral hogs across the country cost the federal government $1.5 billion each year. He said 70 hogs were killed in 2018, and 124 hogs were killed so far this year, primarily from trapping. But the method hasn’t been enough.

“We knew we were having problems. We thought up to that point that trapping was going to be able to get us the eradication we needed, because this is not a problem we’ve dealt with here in this kind of scale,” Joyner said. “The aerial part has to be done when there’s no leaves on the trees…so we had to wait until this winter. But that gave us time to do deliberate planning.”

The operation is being led by the U.S Department of Agriculture, with support from state wildlife agencies in Kentucky and Tennessee. Joyner said officials plan to begin using the helicopters after deer hunting season ends to lower the chance of people being on the ground during an operation, with safety measures in place in helicopters do run into individuals.

“They’re gonna be flying very low, right over the treetops,” said Terri Brunjes, a biologist specializing in wild hogs at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife. “We’re going to close small areas off, and we’re going to have a ground crew in constant contact via radio with the helicopter…if the helicopter sees somebody, they’ll call it in with the ground crew going to them and saying ‘hey, we’re doing this operation in this area.’”

Brunjes said feral hogs are very intelligent and are wary of standard traps. They’re also often scared away by human activity at LBL, and helicopters allow officials to reach remote parts of the recreation area where hogs could be. She said the operations are federally funded, with the helicopters being rented out between several states.

“In Kentucky, I think we have the opportunity to fully eradicate wild pigs, because our numbers are so small and our populations are scattered….it’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be overnight. It’s going to be a lot of hard work,” Brunjes said.

She said state wildlife officials have successfully cut down feral hog populations in central Kentucky, with other populations present in southern and east Kentucky. She also said wildlife officials general kill 300-400 feral hogs a year. But she said the number of hogs killed is dropping because the populations are shrinking.

Recent Toxic Algal Blooms Gone From Ohio River Thursday, Nov 7 2019 

The Ohio River is free from harmful levels of toxic algae after more than a month of recreational public health advisories, according to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.

The cabinet lifted recreation public health advisories along the Ohio River on Thursday after recent water samples showed a decline in toxic algae.

The algae first formed in late September when drought conditions paired with hot temperatures produced blooms along a 300-mile stretch of the Ohio River. The blooms resulted in the cancellation of the Great Ohio River Swim in Cincinnati and the swimming portion of Louisville’s Iron Man Competition.

“We’ve been testing for more than a month and after the Iron Man competition we’ve continued to test to make sure that we could tell people, recreational users of the river, when they could safely return,” Mura said. “And the algal blooms have finally cleared up.”

Blue-green algae can produce a toxin known as microcystin that’s harmful to people, and especially to pets. When touched or consumed, the toxin can cause stomach pain, nausea, vomiting and other health effects.

The algal blooms were growing throughout the river, often appearing as green, paint-like scum on the surface. The highest sample seen this year was greater than 5,000 micrograms per liter on October 9 in Madison, Indiana. That was 625 times higher than the recreational advisory threshold in Kentucky and Indiana.

But recent wet weather has helped return the river to normal, Mura said.

“We’ve had more flow because of the rains and we’re not getting the intense sunlight and heat we were getting that caused these blooms,” he said.

Kentucky officials said that although samples are below the hazardous concentrations, people should still avoid waters with visible algal blooms.

EPA Proposes Changes To Federal Coal Ash, Wastewater Rules Tuesday, Nov 5 2019 

Federal environmental regulators have released proposed changes to two rules related to the disposal of coal ash and wastewater from coal-fired power plants.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Monday announced its third round of changes to its 2015 rule regulating coal ash. Coal ash is one of the largest waste streams in the country and often contains toxic compounds like arsenic, lead, and radium. Dozens of the waste sites dot the Ohio Valley, often along rivers.

The Obama-era regulation requires utilities to conduct groundwater monitoring at ponds and landfills, close leaking ash ponds and clean up polluted groundwater.

Last year, the Trump administration extended the closure deadline through October 2020. Now, it’s proposing to move the deadline two months sooner, in part to address legal challenges surrounding the rule.

The rule also lays out a series of provisions that would allow coal ash sites to remain open longer, including if the nearby coal-fired power plant is scheduled to close. Sites can also request a closure extension if the plant needs time to figure out how to dispose of other waste being placed into coal ash sites.

“At first glance they’re like, ‘oh, it used to be October. Now it’s August — that’s better,’” said Larissa Liebmann, an attorney with Waterkeeper Alliance, an environmental watchdog group. “But then they’ve created all these alternatives, which give them this extra time based on various issues.”

The toxic residue from burning coal is a major concern in the Ohio Valley. An analysis by the ReSource and partner station WFPL found nearly every power plant covered under the EPA rules had coal ash waste sites with evidence of contaminated groundwater. At several sites, hazardous compounds are found in groundwater at levels that far exceed federal drinking water standards.

That mirrors data collected on a national level. An analysis of data collected under the 2015 coal ash rule, released this year by environmental groups, found more than 90 percent of the nation’s regulated coal ash repositories are leaking unsafe levels of toxic chemicals into nearby groundwater, including ash sites at more than 30 coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley.

Effluent Rule

The EPA is also proposing changes to another 2015 rule that regulates water discharged from power plants, also known as effluent.

The Steam Electric Power Plant Effluent Guidelines Rule set federal limits on the levels of toxic metals in wastewater that can be discharged from power plants. The rule required affected plants to install technology to reduce discharge.

Similar to the coal ash regulation, the wastewater rule was also embroiled in legal challenges.

In its proposed updates, the EPA is relaxing some pollution limits and extending the compliance deadline by two years. In exchange, the agency is promoting its voluntary incentives program.

In a press release, EPA said the new effluent rule would achieve greater pollution reductions than the 2015 rule, at a lower cost.

Environmental groups disagree and argue the rule change will instead expose millions of people to toxic pollution.

“Not only does [EPA Administrator Andrew] Wheeler’s proposal eliminate some of the strongest pollution limits required by the 2015 rule, it carves out new polluter loopholes for the industry,” Jennifer Peters, with Clean Water Action, said in a statement. “Wheeler’s proposal also claims that power plants will voluntarily adopt new, stricter standards, despite the fact that a similar program existed in the 2015 rule, and virtually no coal plants adopted it.”

Edison Electric Institute, which represents investor-owned utilities, praised EPA’s efforts to rewrite the effluent rule.

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