Coal Tattoo

More from WVDEP on Dunkard Creek

Just got this statement from WVDEP about the big fish kill on Dunkard Creek in Monongalia County, W.Va.:

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection continues to work with the WV Division of Natural Resources, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency in the investigation of the Dunkard Creek fish kill.

Additional water samples for golden algae taken on September 24 have reconfirmed the presence of golden algae in amounts known to have caused fish kills in other states and countries.

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In Sunday’s big Gazette story about the Dunkard Creek fish kill, I reported that local residents were asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over the investigation and response to this mess.

Ben Adducchio at West Virginia Public Broadcasting picked up on this after the Dunkard Creek Watershed Association issued a new release. Here’s the text of that news release:

The Friends of Dunkard Creek of Pennsylvania, Dunkard Creek Watershed Association of West Virginia, Wheeling Creek Watershed Conservancy and the Greene County Watershed Alliance urge the US Environmental Protection Administration to take the lead role in the investigation of the biological disaster that killed over 130 species of aquatic life in Dunkard Creek.

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Conductivity: A looming problem for coal, WVDEP

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A mine discharge along Dunkard Creek along the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border. Photo from Dunkard Creek Watershed Association.

My lengthy story in your Sunday Gazette-Mail tried to explain some of underlying water pollution problems that may have helped lead to the massive fish kill that has devastated Dunkard Creek up in North-Central West Virginia.

But I’m afraid it only scratched the surface of a huge, looming problem for the coal industry and for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

It’s called conductivity, and it’s a measure of how well a stream or creek conducts an electrical charge. But it is also an indicator of the amount of dissolved solids — chlorides, sulfates and the like — that are in water. These things can kill aquatic life.

And across the coal-mining counties of West Virginia, they are a big problem that WVDEP hasn’t even begun to try to deal with in any comprehensive way.

In Sunday’s story, I mentioned a letter that Derek Teaney, a lawyer with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, had sent to WVDEP to comment on the agency’s plan for cleaning up the pollution problems in Dunkard Creek. Among other things, Derek pointed out that WVDEP knows that Dunkard Creek has a conductivity problem, but did not propose any fix for that problem.

Derek also pointed out that WVDEP has done exactly the same thing when writing stream cleanup plans for  other watersheds: The Upper Kanawha, the Gauley and the Coal.  In each case, WVDEP officials said they lacked enough information to include any fix for conductivity problems in the cleanup plans, called Total Maximum Daily Loads, or TMDLs.

According to Derek’s letter, written on behalf of the Sierra Club and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said:

WVDEP has still neither developed a TMDL for these streams nor created a plan to do so. WVDEP may not continue to delay the development of ionic toxicity TMDLs indefinitely or for unsupported reasons.

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Dunkard Creek probe focused on algae

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Photo courtesy WVDEP

Investigators from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection have narrowed the focus of their probe of that huge fish kill on Dunkard  Creek to a non-native algae — called Golden-Brown Algae.

During interviews this evening, WVDEP officials and the folks at CONSOL Energy Inc. both pointed to this algae as perhaps the central culprit in actually killing thousands of Dunkard Creek fish, mussels, salamanders and other aquatic life. The algae apparently releases some sort of toxin that damages gills, eventually killing aquatic life and making it appear that a lack of dissolved oxygen was to blame, officials told me.

But,  that doesn’t mean that government investigators have ruled out coal-mining discharges in the area as playing a role.

Scott Mandirola, director of the WVDEP Division of Water and Waste Management, told me that outside experts advised his agency that the algae in question would be more likely to occur in water with a higher salt content. And, we know from yesterday’s excellent West Virginia Public Broadcasting story  that CONSOL operations on Dunkard Creek have exceeded state standards for chloride salt discharges for years. Asked about Dunkard Creek’s chloride problems, and any possible relation to the fish kill, Mandirola said:

We know there are some of these issues on Dunkard Creek, and those are probably contributing factors.

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Dead fish on Dunkard Creek … the saga continues

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West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported this morning that the frustration is increasing for residents near Dunkard Creek, along the Pennsylvania border, where an entire stream seems to have been killed by pollution.

It’s understandable … residents want to know what happened. Government investigators initially pointed to a CONSOL Energy mine, then backed off that, and now are saying they haven’t been able to pinpoint an exact cause for the fish kill.

The investigators are frustrated, too.  Scott Mandirola, director of water and waste management for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said in a prepared statement:

We understand the frustration people are feeling, because we feel it, too. That’s why we have large number of people working on this and are working with other agencies to try to determine what could be causing it.

But in trying to report on this incident, I ran into a hurdle yesterday, when the WVDEP said it would not release any of the water sampling data it has gathered from Dunkard Creek.

Tom Aluise, one of WVDEP’s pr folks, told me in an e-mail message that Mike Zeto, the agency’s chief inspector, said the data wasn’t going to be released because it was part of an ongoing investigation.

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More on Dunkard Creek fish kill

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An ecosystem has been destroyed.

Betty Wiley, Dunkard Creek Watershed Association.

This weekend, my friend Don Hopey, the great environmental reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had the best story I’ve seen so far about the massive fish kill in Dunkard Creek along the West Virginia-Pennsylvania line north of Morgantown.

Read it here.

I’ve blogged about this previously, as has John McCoy, the Gazette outdoors writer, in his Woods and Water blog.

But Hopey does a far more complete job of pointing out the significance of this particular stream, the size and severity of the fish kill, and the various potential sources being examined by water quality and wildlife investigators.

I mean, just read his lead:

Just 20 days ago, Dunkard Creek, which meanders lazily back and forth across the border of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, was one of the most ecologically diverse streams in both states, containing freshwater mussels, mudpuppy salamanders and a host of fish species from minnows to 3-foot-long muskies.

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Mon County fish kill: Could coal be the culprit?

Last week, my buddy John McCoy wrote on his Gazette Woods and Waters blog about the big fish kill on Dunkard Creek in Monongalia County, W.Va.. At the time, WVDEP officials didn’t mention coal-mining as a potential culprit … and John commented:

The area around Dunkard Creek is honeycombed with coal mines, and all of those mines are in high-sulfur coal seams. Eyewitnesses to the Dunkard fish kill report seeing bright orange deposits on the stream bottom. That’s consistent with “yellowboy,” an iron sulfate deposited during mine-acid discharges.

Now, the Dominion Post in Morgantown (Subscription required)  is quoting WVDEP officials as saying the problem could be coming from CONSOL Energy’s Blacksville No. 2 Mine, a longwall operation that recently resumed production.

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EPA to crack down on toxic water from power plants

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Wow — talk about quick responses … just yesterday, the Defenders of Wildlife, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Integrity Project said they were filing a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. EPA to try to force the agency to set limits on toxic water discharges from coal-fired power plants.

And boom, a day later, EPA announced this morning that it’s going to do just that.

EPA data shows that coal plants discharge millions of pounds of toxic pollutants like arsenic, mercury, selenium, and lead each year. Yet existing federal rules, which have not been revised since 1982, fail to set any limits on these metals discharges, which can leach into local water supplies and contaminate streams.

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NY Times: Blockbuster on coal and dirty water

There’s quite a buzz going around West Virginia — and rightly so — about the front-page New York Times story, “Clean Water Laws Neglected, at a Cost.”

The edition of the Times featured a four-column-wide photo at the top of 1A showing a seven-year-old West Virginia boy’s damaged teeth, linked by his dentists on the polluted drinking water his family  blames on the underground injection of coal slurry. The photo is here in the online edition of the story.

I was glad to see the Times make note of this fact about Ryan Massey, his mother Jennifer Hall-Massey and the family in question:

She and her husband, Charles, do not live in some remote corner of Appalachia. Charleston, the state capital, is less than 17 miles from her home.

Far too often, these kinds of coal-related stories paint the problems as something that’s happening in a far-away land, someplace none of us really needs to think about or be concerned with.

The Times story is part of a multi-part series the paper is doing about water quality issues. The previous story, Debating how much weed killer is safe in your water glass, was also written by reporter Charles Duhigg, and is worth giving a read.

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More selenium problems: Violations found at Ky. mines

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Here in West Virginia, a leading scientist has warned state regulators that selenium pollution from mountaintop removal mining has pushed the Mud River watershed to “the brink of a major toxic event.”

West Virginia regulators have generally bent over backwards to help the coal industry avoid having to reduce this pollution and eliminate selenium violations. But earlier this year, when lawmakers passed a bill giving coal operators three more years to comply, even the state Department of Environmental Protection thought it was going too far.

Now, evidence has surfaced that there are growing selenium problems in the coalfields over in Kentucky — and allegations that regulators there sat on the information until they got a new, industry-wide general permit approved without selenium limits or comprehensive selenium monitoring.

Environmental groups today are releasing the results of the  water monitoring and fish tissue sampling that shows violations of the state’s water quality standard for selenium and of the level of selenium experts consider safe in fish.

Some of the sampling was done in September 2007, but was not made public until recently — and not until after July, when Kentucky re-issued its “general permit” that covers water pollution discharges from coal mining operations.

Margaret Janes, a researcher with the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, had been trying for two years to get the information — and could not get it in time to submit comments about it during the review permit for that general permit:

The state of Kentucky inappropriately withheld information requested through the Freedom of Information Act. No one should have to wait nearly two years to find out what dangerous toxins are in their fish and their water.

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WVDEP loses another coal mine pollution case

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A second federal judge has ordered the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to clean up the way it cleans up abandoned coal mine pollution.

U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr.  yesterday ruled that WVDEP must obtain permits for the abandoned mine sites it maintains under the agency’s Special Reclamation program.

Essentially — and very importantly — this means that WVDEP is going to have to set pollution limits for these sites, and improve the treatment being used so that discharges from abandoned mine sites meet the state’s water pollution limits.

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Irene M. Keeley issued a similar ruling in West Virginia’s northern district. Copenhaver’s decision covers the state’s southern coalfields, and specifically addresses three sites at issue in the case brought by the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and the West Virginia Rivers Coalition.

This ruling is also the second time in a week that Judge Copenhaver has ruled against WVDEP in a significant Clean Water Act case. Last week — in a matter that WVDEP wasn’t even a party to — the judge concluded that the agency’s secret deals with coal operators do not prohibit citizens from bringing their own pollution enforcement lawsuits.

Jim Hecker, environmental enforcement director at Public Justice and lead counsel for the citizen groups, said this morning:

The State was running these three sites ‘off the books’ to try to escape accountability for necessary water treatment. Two district courts have now ordered the State to obtain the required discharge permits for 21 bond forfeiture sites. Once it does, the State will have to comply with the water quality standards it is now violating.

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This undated handout photo U.S. Geological Survey shows USGS scientists, Lia Chasar and Erica Rau, analyzing fish for mercury in the St. Marys River in northern Florida. (AP Photo/USGS, Mark Brigham)

Dina Cappiello at The Associated Press nailed it with the lead of her story on this new U.S. Geological Survey study on the contamination of fish nationwide with toxic mercury pollution:

No fish can escape mercury pollution.

The study, available online here,  reports that USGS scientists found mercury in every fish they tested in nearly 300 streams — 291 to be exact — all across the country.  According to a USGS news release:

About a quarter of these fish were found to contain mercury at levels exceeding the criterion for the protection of people who consume average amounts of fish, established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. More than two-thirds of the fish exceeded the U.S. EPA level of concern for fish-eating mammals.

And, as the USGS also reported:

Atmospheric mercury is the main source to most of these streams coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United Statesbut 59 of the streams also were potentially affected by gold and mercury mining.

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If it seems strange that a federal judge wrote a 53-page order on a motion to dismiss in a civil case, then take a look at what could be a blockbuster decision from U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr.

Judge Copenhaver, in this ruling issued today, concluded that private deals between coal companies and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection do not block citizens from filing their own enforcement lawsuits under the Clean Water Act.

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This just in from The Associated Press:

PRENTER, W.Va. — Clean water is on its way to the Boone County town of Prenter.
Gov. Joe Manchin will be on hand Tuesday as West Virginia American Water breaks ground for a new line that is expected to supply 155 households by March.
The $2.2 million project is funded by a federal Small Cities Block Grant, the Boone County Commission and the water company.
Residents of Prenter and Seth are suing eight coal companies they believe poisoned their wells by pumping coal slurry into old underground mines. They claim cracks in the earth allowed the slurry to migrate and pollute the aquifer.
For months, many residents have been hauling clean water home from a pay station at a church. Others rely on free fill-ups of the 50-gallon barrels at their homes.

And there’s this commentary on the development from the Appalachian Voices’ Front Porch blog.

Does WVDEP have enough mining inspectors?

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The number of positions for strip-mining regulators at the WVDEP has dropped by nearly 6 percent over the last decade. The chart is based on U.S. OSMRE figures, and shows total number of positions, including vacancies.

I admit it. I’m a sucker for West Virginia’s Blue‘s periodic questions about West Virginia’s coal industry. I can’t help but jump in and try to answer them.

Take yesterday’s question, for example:

How many unfilled positions are there at the W.Va. DEP? What is the history of unfilled positions in the department?

I’m not going to take on the whole of WVDEP here. This is Coal Tattoo after all … But I’ll take a shot at answers this as it applies to the WVDEP Division of Mining and Reclamation, which is charged with policing the environmental impacts of our state’s coal-mining industry.

The short answer? The DEP and its predecessor agencies have never had as many inspectors, permit reviewed and other mining staff as  federal regulators suggested.

Today, the DEP mining division lists 13 vacancies. But that number is misleading, because the agency over the last year or so has eliminated at least 9 long-vacant positions.  WVDEP lists 270 positions, but has the equivalent of 257 full-time employees in its mining office.

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Coal slurry: Rawl Sales trial set for October

Vicki Smith over at The Associated Press passes on word this morning that trial in the big coal slurry trial against Massey Energy’s Rawl Sales and Processing has been rescheduled to start Oct. 20.

Recall that Mingo Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury had postponed the trial (which had been set for mid-May) after using an assembly line approach to try to force residents into settling their claims. Of course, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection recently outlined major flaws in its own regulation of coal-slurry injection, and issued a temporary moratorium on new permits.

Here’s Vicki’s report on the trial being rescheduled:

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — After being delayed by southern West Virginia flooding, a pollution lawsuit against a Massey Energy subsidiary is now set for trial Oct. 20.
Hundreds of current and former residents of several Mingo County towns are suing Rawl Sales & Processing for injecting coal slurry into old underground mines between 1978 and 1987.
They say slurry seeped into the aquifer, poisoning wells and causing health problems.
Virginia-based Massey has denied the allegations and said the disposal was legal.
West Virginia regulators allowed underground injection for decades but said last month they can’t answer many questions about safety and will stop permitting new sites.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Kevin Thompson says it’s unclear how that might affect the case.

 

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Kenny Stroud and his son ponder their contaminated water in their Rawl, Mingo County, W.Va. home.  Photo by Vivian Stockman.

Since WVDEP’s drop of its long-awaited coal-slurry injection study after the close of business on Thursday, I’ve had time to read the entire report. And this is what I’ve come up with so far:

secretary-randy-huffman-portrait_small.jpgDEP  Secretary Randy Huffman says his agency doesn’t have enough information on what water quality was like before companies started pumping this coal waste underground to say for sure if the slurry impacted that water quality.

Here are a few of the quotes:

— …There are insufficient surface and groundwater monitoring sample sites to determine effects from slurry injection on surface and groundwater.

Most of the assessment sites lacked detailed information on mine pool conditions and adequate monitoring of the quantity and quality of the mine pool associated with the injection activities.

— Due to insufficient groundwater characterization and monitoring by the operators, definitive conclusions could not be drawn on the extent of the effects of slurry injection on the surrounding groundwater regime.

— (And my favorite) Operators did not conclusively demonstrate that, when slurry is injected into abandoned underground mines, it remains contained and the surrounding hydrologic regime is not adversely affected.

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Massey settles another water pollution suit

A federal judge has approved a deal that requires Massey Energy to clean up some of the pollution problems affecting a trout stream in Nicholas County, W.Va.

U.S. Judge John T. Copenhaver Jr. approved the settlement between Massey and the Hominy Creek Preservation Association on Friday, ending a two-year-old lawsuit that is part of a larger and longer battle over Massey’s Green Valley Coal Co. operations along Hominy Creek.

Charlottesville, Va., Attorney Walt Morris, along with Derek Teaney and Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment,  filed suit against Green Valley back in May 2007.  The original complaint alleged that the company was violating Clean Water Act pollution limits at a coal-refuse dump built in the original streambed of Coal Branch, a Hominy Creek tributary.

Under the settlement,  Massey will excavate part of the area, and is required to pump and treat the water so that its discharge complies with pollution limits. Also, Massey must pay the citizen group’s $165,000 in legal fees and costs. The deal did not include any civil penalties.

Judge approves EPA-Patriot deal

Federal regulators at Patriot Coal Corp. have gotten a judge’s approval for their $6.5 million water pollution settlement.

I’ve posted U.S. District Judge John T. Copenhaver’s order approving the settlement here. Copenhaver entered the order late last week.

The deal covers nearly 1,500 water pollution permit violations between January 2003 and December 2007.  See this Gazette story for more.

Remember that the company is settling separately with the state Department of Environmental Protection over water pollution violations at Patriot operations that were not part of the company’s acquisition of Magnum Coal. Those deals involved fines of nearly $338,000.

WVDEP makes another deal

State regulators here in West Virginia have made public another in their series of Clean Water Act settlements with the coal industry.

This one involves CONSOL of Kentucky operation in Mingo County, W.Va., and includes a nearly $215,000 fine.

(Recall that the state Department of  Environmental Protection issues cryptic public notices about these settlements, and does not post the documents on its Web site. So Coal Tattoo will post this one here).

This deal is part of a movement by DEP and the coal industry to resolve water pollution violations never previously cited by DEP, and avoid federal government enforcement actions or citizen group lawsuits.  Industry officials began approaching DEP to work out these deals after Massey Energy paid a record $20 million to settle a water pollution lawsuit brought against it by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. EPA sued Massey over thousands of water pollution violations that DEP never cited because state officials for roughly five years did not review water pollution monitoring reports that coal companies file every month.

Folks who followed these deals may recall a previous one with various subsidiaries of CONSOL Energy that involved $400,000 in fines. But this new one involves permits that CONSOL acquired as of Jan. 1, 2009, when it assumed ownership of Southern West Virginia Resources LLC, according to DEP’s chief inspector, Mike Zeto.

This settlement involves 111 minor, 44 moderate and 3 major violations of permit limits at operations in Mingo County.

DEP is accepting public comments on the deal through June 4. Comments can be submitted to Chief Inspector/WVDEP/Environmental Enforcement, 601 57th Street, S.E., Charleston, W.Va., 25304. Their phone number is (304) 926-0470.