Category Archives: Writing

Greens see Chamber support of renewables as ‘window dressing’

Published Tuesday, March 21, 2017 in E&E Daily.

This year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has released statements favoring the repeal of the Interior Department’s coal mining Stream Protection Rule, and praising the Dakota Access and Keystone XL oil pipelines.

When it comes to renewable energy, a recent Chamber blog post about solar energy touts its growth but criticizes state policies that encourage people to install photovoltaic panels by allowing them to sell utilities their excess power.

“While the proponents of rooftop solar may get all the attention, it is really America’s utilities that are leading the way with the proliferation of solar use,” the blog said.

Even though the Chamber — and its Institute for 21st Century Energy — has been talking more about cleaner power sources, critics and even some business leaders say the group appears to be more in sync with the interests of fossil fuels and utilities.

“We have been very disappointed in some of the rhetoric that has gone into some of the blogs,” Dan Whitten, spokesman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said during a recent interview.

Chamber leaders say they don’t believe it’s an “either-or” issue “whether referring to specific sources of energy, or the question of improving the environment versus utilizing energy sources,” said the business group’s spokesman, Matt Letourneau.

But Dan Dudis, head of left-leaning advocacy group Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch, dismisses the group’s talk of resource impartiality.

“They now have some window dressing about renewables,” he said. “But then you actually look at what they are doing, and they have never supported anything that would be helpful to the renewable industry.”

Letourneau rebutted that statement, pointing to Chamber actions over the years that have benefited renewables, including backing the production tax credit. The American Wind Energy Association cheered the move in 2012.

Still, the Chamber is among many groups that sued U.S. EPA over power plant greenhouse gas limits, which would have encouraged the growth of renewables.

Several companies have quit the Chamber because of its stance on climate action, including one of the world’s largest, Apple Inc., in 2009.

Last year, Greenpeace noted that electronic giant Intel Corp. criticized the “negative position on federal climate legislation” from the Chamber and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Also last year, several Democratic senators, including climate hawk Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and liberal firebrand Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, released a report accusing the Chamber of being out of step with its members.

“I guess it must reflect an overwhelming balance in their membership toward traditional fossil fuels,” said Whitten, who used to be a top communications aide for America’s Natural Gas Alliance. The Chamber has been bullish on the growth of gas production.

‘Show me the money’

Chamber of Commerce board members, according to the group’s website, include executives for oil company ConocoPhillips Co., coal company Alliance Resource Partners LP, gas company Sempra Energy and coal company Peabody Energy Corp.

Other board members include executives of nuclear company NuScale Power LLC; utility Southern Co.; Entergy Louisiana LLC; Florida Power and Light Co., which owns solar energy production; and Virginia contractor Bay Electric Co. Inc., which handles large-scale solar projects.

Dudis described the chamber, under current CEO Thomas Donohue, as staking out strategies and political positions that can help the organization’s cash flow.

“Tom Donohue has been very clear that the Chamber goes where the money is,” said Dudis, noting a plaque on Donohue’s desk that, according to a New York Times profile, says, “Show me the money.”

“We have to raise $5 million a week to run this place,” Donohue told the Times in 2013. The article noted the Chamber’s precarious finances before Donohue took over in 1997.

Renewable sources of energy have been growing exponentially. But Dudis said, “The Exxons and Chevrons still have more money to throw around.”

The Chamber, like the fossil fuel industry, has become more reliably Republican, critics argue, turning away from more bipartisan outreach.

The group went from supporting the Clinton administration’s health care reform effort during the early 1990s to now giving its backing mostly to GOP candidates, according to a review of campaign finance records.

The Center for Responsive Politics said the Chamber spent more than $100 million on lobbying in 2016, more than $300,000 in campaign contributions — only roughly $10,000 of which went for Democrats — and more than $29 million in outside political spending.

The Times profile said Donohue was a registered independent. His repeated commitment to free enterprise and fewer regulations, however, puts him closer to the Republican mainstream.

Karen Harbert, CEO of the Chamber’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, worked as Department of Energy assistant secretary for policy and international affairs during the George W. Bush administration.

A rival chamber

When the U.S. Green Chamber of Commerce launched in 2011, founders saw it as a chance to capitalize on what they saw as the other chamber’s reluctance to fully embrace the green agenda.

“At one time, businesses that focused on sustainability and clean energy did not have a voice in traditional/mainstream business organizations and chambers,” CEO Michelle Thatcher wrote in an email.

“And those traditional organizations certainly do not represent the sustainability-focused economy and the companies that are driving it,” she said.

The U.S. Green Chamber, which grew out of the Green Chamber of San Diego County in California, has more than 1,000 members, Thatcher said. They include companies that focus on clean energy and large diversified corporations.

A 2011 article in Fast Company identified firms like Toyota Motor Corp. and the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group Inc. as being involved.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce remains much larger, claiming to represent the interests of more than 3 million businesses, according to the group’s website. Thatcher doesn’t think many of their affiliates overlap.

She said the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s agenda is not sustainable and will cripple the economy, “in addition to the devastating effects they will have on our natural environment and our population’s health and well-being.”

She added: “We are NOT in alignment with their energy and environmental platform and are very grateful to be able to provide a different option for the business community.”

‘Energy agnostic’

The Solar Energy Industries Association, which supports both Republicans and Democrats and benefits from some U.S. Chamber policies but chafes at others, is remaining a member.

“We are a proud member of the business community. We are increasingly becoming a part of the energy mainstream,” Whitten said.

Letourneau said the Chamber’s fight for less regulation and free enterprise benefits all its members, not just fossil fuel developers.

“One of the areas that is particularly relevant today is our focus on the inability to site and permit facilities of all kinds, including renewable projects, which we see as a major impediment to economic growth,” he said.

Letourneau said that the Chamber’s focus on rolling back regulations affecting coal, oil and gas — the latter of which, he points out, has helped reduce carbon emissions — is because of the past administration’s anti-fossil-fuel agenda.

“Over the past eight years, traditional energy sources have been under assault and seen their potential limited through federal regulations and executive orders,” he said.

“The U.S. Chamber is an advocate for market-driven solutions that provide affordable and reliable energy, which is why we’ve pushed back on some of these economically harmful rules.”

Still, Whitten would rather not see the Chamber take such a negative view of policies like net metering, which allows people to make money from installing solar power.

Regarding claims the practice hurts consumers, Whitten said, “We have considerable consumer protection materials that we would happily share with them.”

He said, “There is some sense you can force positive change through engagement. We would just like them to be energy agnostic.”

Dudis doesn’t see it happening — yet. “I do think Donohue leaving is a big piece of that,” he said. “I can’t see it changing while he’s still there.”

As Cold War abuses linger, Navajo Nation faces new mining push

Published Tuesday, December 13, 2011 in Greenwire.

SHIPROCK, N.M. — This Navajo Nation town of 8,000 people — named for the towering rock formation that looms in the distance — is a living monument to uranium mining’s deadly legacy.

At the end of Uranium Boulevard here is a 100-acre waste dump overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy. This former uranium mill — which helped build the atomic bombs that ended World War II and fueled the United States in its arms race against the Soviet Union — has dealt the Navajo homeland, or Dinétah, a particularly hard blow.

Navajo mine workers and others on the reservation have suffered high rates of disease linked to contamination.

“That legacy that we relied on has had a big burden on this nation, the Navajo Nation,” U.S. EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld told a conference last month in Farmington, N.M., that focused on uranium cleanups.

Despite an ongoing five-year plan to coordinate cleanup efforts among federal and tribal agencies, one high-priority site is now clean and more than 500 polluted mine sites remain. In northeast New Mexico, the Navajo tribe must grapple with dirty water, contaminated land and even radioactive homes, some of which were built with uranium mining waste.

“It’s an untold story,” said Blumenfeld, who leads the Region 9 office in San Francisco. “The biggest hurdle is the sheer number of sites. We’re diligently going down our list.”

Miners extracted almost 4 million tons of uranium ore from Navajo lands between 1944 and 1986, EPA says. While military demand for uranium for bomb manufacturing shrank by the 1960s, nuclear power plants quickly picked up the slack. In 1971, the federal government allowed uranium to be sold on the open market for the first time.

“We need to put our heads together and get rid of those holes that are still open,” Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly told the cleanup conference. “We need to do that right away.”

EPA, which has been helping coordinate the five-year plan, is moving forward with cleaning up the largest abandoned uranium mine on the Dinétah. Decontaminating the Northeast Church Rock Mine will require the removal of 1.4 million tons of dirty soil, an effort expected to take several years.

“This is where the milling took place, right here,” said Navajo anti-uranium activist Larry King, as he stood beside an isolated highway in Church Rock, a town of about 1,000 people near Gallup, N.M.

King, a former uranium miner, talks about the 1979 waste spill from the United Nuclear Corp. site that polluted Rio Puerco — the largest release of radioactive waste in U.S. history.

The spill happened just a few minutes’ drive from King’s home. There, in a rugged landscape with stunning rock formations, one can see hills made from mining waste.

“Just to warn you,” King said, “there are high readings in this area.”

‘Polluters should pay’

General Electric Co., United Nuclear’s parent company, has tentatively agreed to pay $44 million for the Northeast Church Rock Mine cleanup.

“There are others that we have not found yet,” EPA’s Blumenfeld said. “The polluters should pay. The polluter pay principle is something that is going to have to come to the fore here.”

In her book “Yellow Dirt,” journalist Judy Pasternak, perhaps the most well-known chronicler of the Navajo fight with uranium mining pollution, describes how companies walked away from mining operations and left liability behind.

With the United States desperate for uranium to build atomic weapons to compete with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, she wrote, executives and government officials — including regulators at the former Atomic Energy Commission — paid little attention to environmental damage and radiation exposure.

Navajo President Shelley said a joke here goes like this: “Don’t turn the light off, we’ll glow in the dark.”

In 1978 Congress passed the Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act to give DOE authority over uranium mill waste sites like the Shiprock facility. The 1980 Superfund law and the Interior Department mine-reclamation program helped address some sites. And in 1990, lawmakers created a program to compensate people affected by radiation at mines and from nuclear weapons tests.

But it wasn’t until 2007 that tribal and federal agencies got together to really tackle the lasting problems of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. Pasternak’s articles in the Los Angeles Times prompted Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), then chairman of the House Oversight Committee, to press for immediate action.

“We’re on track to make all the commitments we made in the five year plan,” Clancy Tenley, EPA’s regional tribal coordinator, told the cleanup conference. Tenley was among several federal and tribal leaders touting the achievements of the last several years.

EPA and tribal authorities say they have inspected more than 600 homes and other buildings for uranium contamination. The agency has already torn down 34 of those structures. Displaced Navajo families are eligible for financial compensation and temporary housing. EPA says it has participated in rebuilding 17 residences.

Federal and tribal leaders admit that evicting people can be traumatic. But they say they try to make up for it by making sure Navajos get construction jobs and following traditions. Homes, for example, must face east.

“They are so happy,” Darryl Jimson, planner with the Navajo Nation Community Housing and Infrastructure Department, said of the people given new homes. “Some of them cry.”

‘Tough sell’

It has taken decades for the Navajo to learn about the risk of living on contaminated land.

In the 1970s, workers were using the Shiprock dump to practice with heavy machinery. And to this day, it is hard to convince tribal residents to not drink contaminated water.

Many elderly Navajo don’t speak English and have grown used to living off their land. “They just don’t understand or they don’t believe it,” said Chris Mike, an officer with the Navajo Department of Water Resources. “It’s a tough sell.”

Thirty percent of Navajo residents do not have treated water, and numerous water sources have been deemed too dangerous to drink. One alternative is to truck water to thousands of people around the reservation. Residents meet the trucks at designated locations because many homes are too remote.

“We are 60, almost 70 years into this legacy,” Chris Shuey, uranium program director at the Albuquerque-based Southwest Research and Information Center, said in an interview. “And we have left it to the children and the grandchildren of the original miners. And we are going to end up leaving it to our children and our grandchildren.”

Not only does Shuey lament the time it has taken the federal government to realize the severity of the problem, he is also upset that officials do not yet know the full scope of the health problems the Navajo people face. Researchers next year will begin a federally funded study to determine the impact uranium waste has on pregnancy.

“We’ve essentially just started the human health studies in the last 10 years,” Shuey said. “We’re 30 years behind.”

And there is a long way to go. Cleaning up all the contaminated sites will likely take decades. Federal and tribal agency leaders have already began talking about another five-year plan.

“A lot of community people get exhausted and deflated,” Shuey said. At the same time, they want to fight until the Navajo Nation is clean: “They’re hoping that it’s the next 10- to 20-year plan.”

The current cleanup framework has turned decades of haphazard response into a coordinated effort. Still, it is not hard to spot fissures. Many Navajo, for example, say DOE should be playing a larger role — and spending more money — in the cleanup effort.

“There’s a major gap in the response because they don’t have the authority to deal with mines,” Shuey said. “And they’re right now the biggest problem.”


Stephen Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation EPA, which has dozens of workers participating in the cleanup, has called on DOE to close the Shiprock site and move waste off the reservation. Tribal leaders say waste is seeping off the dump.

But that proposal is expensive and complicated. It is being resisted by the government.

“People would be swearing,” a Navajo Nation EPA official said at a cleanup-conference session, referring to how non-American Indians would react if the government handled a cleanup in their community as they have here. “You treat tribes and other communities off the Nation differently. For me that’s unacceptable.”

The Shiprock disposal cell is bordered by 77 acres of a large-rock barrier called riprap. The site is on a terrace overlooking the floodplain of the San Juan River, a major tributary of the Colorado River.

Water from the site seeps into Many Devils Wash nearby. Experts cannot say whether the puddle of reddish-brown water is contaminated, but DOE officials concede they worry about pollutants like manganese, selenium and, of course, uranium.

“We are trying to trace back the sources of those seeps,” said David Schafer, team leader and manager at DOE’s Office of Legacy Management. “The groundwater at Shiprock is a very, very important issue for us.”

Federal and tribal officials say they take pains to consult with the Navajo people, but that is not a simple task. The Navajo Nation sprawls over more than 24,000 square miles, an area larger than some states.

“We have concerns and we should be the ones to have an input. We are the ones living there,” Bess Tsosie of Mariano Lake, N.M., said in an interview. “It’s our land that’s impacted. It’s our health, our animals, our plants.”

Tsosie leads a community group in her area, one of several that have sprung up to give residents a voice. “It’s not for us,” she said. “It’s for our children and our grandchildren.”

Amid anger and a host of unresolved issues, companies are moving forward with plans to mine for uranium again near the reservation. Navajo President Shelly said executives are reaching out to him with what has become a taboo subject — new mining inside the Navajo Nation.

Shelly stressed the tribe’s uranium mining ban, “The Navajo Nation set a mandate, a no-uranium mandate.”

But, he acknowledged, the pressure won’t easily go away. “The Navajo Nation,” he said, “is sitting on the finest uranium there is.”

Old mining states get creative as cleanup funds grow scarce

Published Monday, May 7, 2012 in Greenwire.

CAMBRIA COUNTY, Pa. — A pipe is spewing toxic water into Topper Run from the old Maryland No. 1 coal mine here.Take a deep breath, and gag on the stench of rotten eggs.

The mine has been belching acid water since it was abandoned in the 1960s. No fish swim where this water flows, and iron in discharges has stained the streambed orange, while aluminum has tinted rocks white.

Several dirty discharges are contributing to the degradation of the Little Conemaugh River Watershed, one of the most polluted in Pennsylvania. The contamination is evident where the discolored Little Conemaugh joins clear-running Stonycreek in Johnstown.

The Topper Run discharge pipe is not the only source of mine pollution here. Another dumps into Sulfur Creek, surrounded by a mound of bright orange.

“We’re standing on probably 3 or 4 feet of iron,” said Robb Piper, manager of the Cambria County Conservation District, a government agency. Two geese are swimming in an adjacent pond.

Acid mine drainage is highly acidic and loaded with heavy metals. The acid forms as surface water and shallow groundwater come in contact with sulfur-bearing minerals, creating sulfuric acid. Heavy metals then leach from rocks that come in contact with the acid, creating what can be toxic to people, animals and plants.

From a bird’s-eye view, one can see miles of orange streams polluted with acid mine drainage flowing from abandoned mine shafts. In all, mine wastes have fouled more than 5,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams, many of which drain into the Chesapeake Bay.

“I question whether they should be allowed to pollute waters of the commonwealth,” said John Dawes, head of the environmental group Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds.

His group, which has ties to the Heinz Endowments, distributes more than $1 million in grants every year to fund cleanup efforts statewide. Dozens of the projects have involved remediation of streams polluted by mine dumps.

But efforts to stem acid mine discharges remain in legal limbo.

Many of those pollution sources belong to mines that pre-date the 1972 Clean Water Act and the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

And government funding for reclaiming abandoned mines has fallen far short of what’s needed.

Moreover, political fights in Washington, D.C., have ensnared cleanup cash as lawmakers from the West and their counterparts from the East squabble over where money should be directed.

Dangerous and ugly

Acid water dumps are not the only problem polluting land and streams in Pennsylvania’s coal-mining areas.

Towering black-gray waste coal piles in the Cambria County borough of Nanty Glo drain into Blacklick Creek and have for decades been a part of the landscape along with old mining equipment.

The name Nanty Glo, which translates to “coal ravine” in Welsh, is the sister village of Nantyglo in Wales.

The waste piles “and water are the worst thing, the worst thing we got,” Piper said. “There’s complacency. People feel that’s the way it is.”

Said Dawes of another waste pile: “This is an eyesore. This has got to be [cleaned up]. And those people seeing this from the town!”

The waste piles also catch fire and are a magnet for all-terrain vehicle daredevils whose machines ride up and down the mountainous piles’ steep faces.

Pennsylvania has about 29,000 acres of abandoned mine sites, including 30 or so underground mine fires.

“Those are very expensive to deal with. And we have been monitoring a number for several years,” said Eric Cavazza, acting director of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation.

And new problems continue to emerge — from fires to cave-ins.

“In essence, probably at the end of the [abandoned-mine program], Pennsylvania will have some hazard features that will not be addressed,” Cavazza said.

The federal Office of Surface Mining’s Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program taxes the coal industry to fund cleanup efforts nationwide, with some money set aside for restoring water quality.

OSM handed out almost $500 million in fiscal 2012, including $67.2 million for Pennsylvania.

Yet some of the money goes to so-called certified states and tribes like Wyoming and the Navajo Nation that have already finished cleaning up their abandoned coal mines. And noncertified states like New Mexico are lobbying to use the coal money to clean up abandoned gold and uranium mine sites.

The issue came to a head with recent reports that Wyoming — which got more than $150 million from AML this fiscal year — has used its reclamation money for road construction and medical facilities. Wyoming has also reclaimed more than 1,051 mine sites.

At a recent congressional hearing on AML, Thomas Baker, board chairman for the Appalachian Wildlife Foundation, said the program’s cash “should be directed to where the greatest needs are for the cleanup and restoration of habitat on pre-law coal mines, and not be tied so heavily to where coal is mined currently.”

But efforts to distribute money based on need, including proposals by President Obama, have been trashed. Even states like Pennsylvania are skeptical of disturbing a landmark AML agreement crafted in 2006 when the program came up for reauthorization.

Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, an association of mining states, chafes at proposals to eliminate funding to certified states and tribes. “It’s pretty much a half-baked argument,” he said. “That’s pretty much the way the amendments were structured.”

Complicated compromise

The 2006 amendments to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act passed just a few days before Christmas.

Environmentalists considered it a gift to industry and coal in their stockings.

Dawes of Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds recalled cringing at a provision that reduced how much the coal industry paid in reclamation fees.

The National Mining Association says the industry has paid more than $7 billion into the AML fund. Federal and state laws require new mines to limit pollution releases, clean up after they’re done and post bonds in case they go bust.

But much of the debate was not about cleaning up old mines.

“The 2006 amendments were about shoring up the combined benefits fund for the United Mine Workers,” Conrad said.

By Congress’ continuing to collect taxes on the coal industry for reclamation of old abandoned mines, the UMW could continue using interest from the AML to fund health and pension benefits.

Regional disputes also dominated the debate.

Certified Western states like Montana and Wyoming, which is now the nation’s top coal producer, chafed at having companies in their backyards pay for problems east of the Mississippi River. They are still not willing to give up money they say belongs to them.

The grand bargain gave states whatever money was left in the AML fund, but from the U.S. Treasury in a series of payments ending in 2014.

Lawmakers couldn’t deplete the fund without jeopardizing miner benefits. The fund’s balance stands at about $2.4 billion.

The amendments established a complex scheme for distributing funds based on need and past and present coal production. States follow guidelines for using the money, with health and safety hazards taking priority. They can set aside up to 30 percent of their grants for acid mine drainage.

“It was all of those interests across the board that were a part of grand compromise that was reached in those amendments,” Conrad said. “There are webs within webs and loops within loops here that are fairly complex. This was not a simple compromise.”

Cavazza of the state DEP said state leaders decided to invest the maximum on water improvements. “The consensus from all those stakeholder meetings favored us setting aside our full 30 percent every year to deal with mine drainage,” he said.

‘This money belongs to my state’

Madeline Roanhorse, AML manager for the Navajo Nation and president of the National Association of Abandoned Mine Land Programs, defends certified jurisdictions like hers getting AML dollars despite the large number of problem mine sites in Eastern states.

“Again, these are funds that are collected from states and tribes,” she said. “And it should go back to the states and tribes.”

Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) in a hearing last year was more blunt: “That money belongs to my state, not the federal government.”

Without a similar funding stream for hardrock cleanups, certified states and tribes often use that money to close old hardrock mine shafts or get rid of up radioactive pollution from long-abandoned uranium mines, a pervasive problem in the Navajo homeland.

Plus, she said, many mining problems linger. “We do find new sites,” she said. “We do get reports from the communities, and some are coal sites, and we do go back and do out assessment.”

Despite the delicate politics around the 2006 amendments, a new compromise is moving through Congress.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman’s bill (S. 987) has passed in the Senate and has bipartisan support in the House.

The New Mexico Democrat’s bill gives noncertified states like New Mexico more leeway in using coal AML funds for cleaning up non-coal sites.

“It’s so awful,” Pennsylvania environmentalist Dawes said about the bill, worried about the thousands of coal AML sites pending in his state. At least, advocates say, the bill lets states deposit more money into their accounts for acid mine drainage.

The White House has said it would rather enact a new fee on hardrock mining to pay for cleanups of those mines and create a competitive grant program to distribute AML coal dollars to priority sites. It has proposed the idea in recent budget blueprints.

“If you’re diverting money to non-coal reclamation and we already are going to have a shortfall of funds to clean up the problems that exist, we’re just going to leave a larger inventory of unreclaimed [coal sites],” said Al Whitehouse, a federal mine reclamation specialist.

But Obama’s proposal, supported by many Democrats, has failed to get traction amid opposition to increasing industry taxes and with states wary of losing control of reclamation funding.

Proposal could clean up Maryland No. 1 mine

With the AML funding shortfall, Cambria County relies on a mix of federal, state and private cash for its programs. It has cleanup partnerships with businesses and environmental groups.

Environmentalists have pressed Pennsylvania power plants to use the coal-waste heaps for fuel. Piper said three plants around Ebensburg, the Cambria County seat, have helped wipe out 25 million tons of waste coal and reclaim more than 500 acres of abandoned mine land.

Piper of the Cambria County Conservation District laments efforts by anti-coal environmentalists and the Obama administration that could force the plants to close.

“To people who don’t understand much about this,” he said, “that’s another [coal plant] off the grid.”

Piper also hopes U.S. EPA allows Rosebud Mining Inc. to expand its Cambria County mine, which would include a water treatment facility for the old Maryland No. 1 and potentially others in the county. It would be a dream come true for Piper with the company agreeing to foot the bill.

But state regulators and the company are in talks with EPA about what level of treatment to require. Piper worries that EPA’s asking the company to treat the dump to drinking water standards would kill the entire effort.

“The goal is to actually restore waters to some usable level, aquatic life fishable-type level,” Cavazza said. He added that money designated for acid-mine drainage efforts often go to high-priority cleanups, with others having to wait.

Using $35,000 in federal funds from OSM and grants from the state’s Growing Greener program, the conservation district is building a “passive treatment” facility. A series of limestone ponds would help cleanse tainted water and lower its acidity before flowing back into Trout Run.

“There’s a tremendous need in Pennsylvania for restoration of streams impacted by mine drainage,” said Cavazza. “I’m sure the commonwealth would welcome more money to deal with the problems.”

Battle lines form as sprawling dump leaks into W.Va. neighborhood

Published Monday, January 14, 2013, in Greenwire.

CHESTER, W.Va. — The ground here is leaking.

Several neighbors have moved away to escape seeps coming out of the hillside. They say the leaks have dampened their backyards and infested their homes with mold.

Curt and Debbie Havens, who put a trailer on their Pyramus Road lot in the mid-1970s and built their current home in 1979, are ready to pack up, too.

“It’s equivalent to seven fire hoses,” Curt Havens said, describing one outflow. “If you lay seven fire hoses side by side, that’s how much water is coming through there.”

Reports of property damage mount as Pa. longwall mines proliferate

Published Thursday, September 29, 2011 in

WAYNESBURG, Pa. — A surge in mining damage to waterways, houses and roads has sparked a fierce debate in southwestern Pennsylvania’s coal region about whether regulations are strong enough to protect property and natural resources.

At issue is a modern, mechanized take on a centuries-old mining technique that shears coal away from underground seams in massive panels that are generally hundreds of feet thick and a mile or so long.

That technique, known as longwall mining, now produces some 40 percent of all coal from U.S. underground mines, up from 5 percent in 1980, according to federal statistics. In Pennsylvania, longwall produced 38 million tons of the 48 million tons produced by underground mining in 2009, the latest full year for which statistics are available.

But while mechanized longwall mining has been a boon to coal producers, it has been a headache in recent years for many residents of Greene and Washington counties, near the West Virginia line. They say mining being done by rumbling, behemoth machines in recent years has damaged buildings, sucked water from ponds and streams and cracked roads.

“Longwall is worse than an earthquake,” said Leigh Shields, owner of Shields Herb and Flower Farm, which is patrolled by peacocks and a pet emu in rural Greene County. A Consol Energy Inc. longwall project a decade ago, he said, led to a subsidence that lowered parts of his property as much as 4 feet, moved trees and cracked his home’s basement floor.

Longwall mining, many residents say, caused the rupture of a dam at Greene County’s Ryerson Station State Park, whose lake — once a popular spot for boating and fishing — remains dry. Whether Consol operations damaged the park is currently being weighed by a state court.

“A lot of locals came down and started grabbing fish and taking them to local ponds,” activist Terri Davin said in an interview, discussing what happened when state workers drained the lake after the 2005 breach. “They had garbage cans and they were just throwing dead fish there.”

Aimee Erickson, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens Coal Council, said the rumbling of longwall mining under a house jangles nerves as well as cracks foundations. “You could actually put an egg on the counter and watch it just roll off,” she said.

A University of Pittsburgh study this year found that from 2003 to 2008 reported land damage from longwall operations increased 86 percent and building damage increased 31 percent over damage reported the previous five-year period.

It took coal companies an average of 207 days to resolve reported structural problems and 246 days for land damage, the report says. Companies took 321 days, on average, to address problems with wells, springs and ponds.

The report was prepared under a 1994 state law, Act 54, which was aimed at addressing problems caused by longwall mining and making sure companies help prevent problems, repair damage or compensate residents. Mining critics here say the law is not strong enough.

“It has been a catastrophic failure,” said attorney Michael Nixon, a Citizens Coal Council board member.

State officials and mining industry representatives disagree. They do not deny that longwall mining is causing damage, but they maintain the system is working to ensure repairs or proper compensation.

“Most landowners should be thankful for Act 54,” George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, an industry group, said in an interview. “If we damage it, we take care of it.”

As he rebutted claims about longwall mining and Act 54, Ellis raised his voice. The law, he said, represents a compromise between activists and industry.

“There is a lot of misinformation,” he said. “The fear mongers are wrong. The sky is not falling.”

‘If you get a settlement, leave’

Critics of longwall mining say Act 54 is inferior to the 1960s-vintage law that emphasized damage prevention.

Act 54 and its restoration mandate, critics say, gives companies more leeway to extract more coal and discourages another traditional undergound mining method, room-and-pillar mining, which keeps more coal underground and provides more support to properties above.

Shields, the nursery owner, said settlements provided to landowners by coal companies are mere Band-Aids for problems that mining causes. Money he got from Consol in a settlement is gone.

“It was a mistake. It bit us in the ass,” he said of the settlement. “That’s exactly what the coal companies wanted.”

And 10 years after damage was done to his property, Shields said he is still waiting for Consol to honor a pre-mining agreement that requires the company to restore a gas connection that he said he needs to keep his greenhouse plants warm.

“If you get a settlement, just leave,” he said. “It will all be broken again.”

Schmid & Co., a Wayne, Pa.-based environmental consulting firm hired by the Citizens Coal Council, found agreements between a mining company and property owners often fail to solve problems on water supply issues.

The effect of longwall mining on streams is of particular concern to environmentalists, who say the practice can forever — and they say illegally — hurt waterways, turning streams into ponds or dry trenches.

Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University of Wheeling, W.Va., said his studies of streams in this area show waterways suffering lasting and sometimes irreparable damage. He collects data on organisms living in regional creeks and streams.

“It’s a data-rich environment,” he said in a recent interview. “I like a lot of data.”

Streams that have been longwalled, he said, have fewer or different organisms living in them. He points at a stream he said has never recovered from mining underneath.

“We study them as indicators of the quality of the stream. They’re what make the streams function,” Stout said. “These are also indicators of permanence and also sensitivity. Especially the mayflies are sensitive to pollution and changes in the environment.”

Drinking water wells are being affected. It is common in southwestern Pennsylvania to see next to houses water tanks provided by coal companies as temporary water supplies.

Also vulnerable are historic properties, such as a house built in 1815 that Margie Manchester is trying to protect at her organic farm in Avella. Relatives sold the coal rights under the stately brick manse in 1917, a common story in southwestern Pennsylvania.

“They never expected longwall mining,” Manchester said of those early 20th century landowners.

Such threats to property and the environment are driving away coal-region natives, said Darvin, the anti-mining activist. “We’re losing population left and right here,” she said.

But retreat is not an option for Erickson, the Coal Council’s executive director.

“You know what,” she said, “I refuse to leave.”

Defending Act 54

Thomas Callaghan, director of the state’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, maintains that properties and natural resources get more protection under Act 54 than they did under the old mining law.

The old law, he said, provided no protection or restoration for structures built after 1966, instead allowing owners to buy coal for support.

“What Act 54 does is it allows undermining, and replacement and repair versus the limited prevention standard of the old law,” he said. “Our experience so far with Act 54 has been substantially positive.”

And Ellis of the coal association said the industry is capable of protecting historic houses. The industry, he said, was able to prevent damage on a house built in the mid-1800s and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“We were able to work with [the owners],” Ellis said. “The house is still in one piece. There were no stories afterwards because nothing happened.”

Workers with the mining company Alpha Natural Resources like to boast about their relationship with property owners with whom they have worked.

Alpha’s Jeremy Rafferty, who serves as a liaison between the company and landowners who are expected to see property damage, said property owners have a host of options, including reporting problems to state regulators.

Rafferty said he has shared strong handshakes with people he’s worked with. While they are not happy to endure longwall mining near their properties, he said, they were satisfied with his treatment of them.

Alpha employees also boast about the streams they have helped rebuild.

“Alpha goes above and beyond,” Rafferty said.

Rafferty said he and other Alpha representatives work to develop relationships with landowners. The process involves advanced notification, a pre-mining survey of properties, numerous meetings and constant communication.

Richard Belding, 70, a property owner who endured an Alpha longwall project in 2006, said he tried to set ground rules up front in his dealings with the company.

“There is going to be no screaming and yelling, and when it’s done, we’re going to have a picnic,” he recalled.

Belding said he enjoys the new house he bought with settlement money from Alpha. He enjoys watering his flowers and spending time on his front porch, waving at neighbors as they drive by.

“Oh, I love it. I don’t miss the old house at all,” he said, explaining how it took some convincing with his wife, who has since died. “It’s not untraumatic. You have decisions to make.”

Another property owner, Richard Barcheise and his wife, a former Alpha employee, decided to have the company try to prevent damage — through techniques like digging ditches — and do repairs. The company had to fix the driveway, cracks on the wall and floor, and re-do part of the roof.

“I’m hard to satisfy,” he said. “I’m very well satisfied.”

‘Cheap electricity’

Current state permits allow Alpha at its Cumberland and Emerald mines to extract coal from roughly 50,000 acres under highways, houses and waterways.

The longwall mining star is the continuous miner, a whirring wheel that cuts the coal from the wall and sprays water to prevent explosions. A conveyor belt moves coal out of the mine, which is about 1,000 feet underground.

“This is cheap electricity,” said one worker as he watched pieces of coal rolling away from the continuous miner.

The continuous mining wheel moves back and forth, scrubbing the wall as it cuts the coal. Meanwhile, the machine surrounding it — which includes roof supports and is large enough for miners to walk inside — moves forward electronically to push the wheel closer to the seam and cut even more coal.

Roof supports that are part of the machinery make the process safer, industry boosters say. Roof falls are a major cause of death in mining. And the process extracts so much more coal, in such an efficient way that for coal companies it is worth using the method even if they are liable for damage above.

“In any extraction industry, you are going to have damage. The issue is to fix it,” the Pennsylvania Coal Association’s Ellis said.

“Subsidence from room and pillar occurs 40, 50 years down the road. This was one of the benefits of longwall mining.”

But people like Erickson say the longall benefits are all for the mining companies — and, most recently, for gas drilling companies that have moved in to tap Marcellus Shale. Drilling trucks and equipment have become fixtures here.

Erickson, who said she has already been approached by a gas “land man” for access to her property, described the situation in harsh terms.

“It’s like being raped by one person,” she said, “and then raped again.”

Democrats, like mining, may never fully recover in Appalachia

Published Friday, October 17, 2014, in Greenwire.

WHITESBURG, Ky. — Sitting at his desk in the Letcher County Courthouse in this Appalachian community of about 2,000 people, Judge Executive Jim Ward frets over the county’s finances.

The sharp downturn in eastern Kentucky coal mining has kicked thousands of workers off the job and slashed severance tax revenues by $3 million during the county’s last spending cycle out of an $11 million budget.

“It has devastated our region, our county,” Ward said during a recent interview. “We are in survival mode,” he said of a county with an unemployment rate above 11 percent, and asked, “What do you do? How do you survive, without making drastic cuts, without having to shut down basic services?”

“We’ve been looking at other avenues and diversifying somewhat, but still the jobs that are coming here now are not going to be the high-paying jobs like the mining jobs.”

The coal downturn, which has been particularly painful in central Appalachia, has become a key talking point in several highly contested political races. And President Obama’s mining and climate change policies have given Republicans ammunition and angered many area Democrats — enough for the party to forever lose parts of its base in this part of the world.

“I feel like the national party has run off and left me. And that’s being honest,” said Ward, a Democrat elected to his post as the county’s top leader. “I just feel like they have forgotten the grass-roots Democrats that put them where they are.”

For more than a decade, Appalachia has been trending Republican because of national Democratic views on things like guns and social issues. For many residents, coal is another strike against a party they’ve been relying on — and voting for — since the New Deal.

“Our county is probably 3-1 Democrat but probably not going to vote that way,” Ward said. “That’s just an opinion from what I hear people say.”

Indeed, there are 11,954 registered Democrats in Letcher County, compared with 3,870 Republicans. Democrats also have a significant registration advantage in the nearby coal field counties of Harlan and Pike.

Democrats top Republicans in voter registration statewide, too. But a new Gallup Inc. poll released today showed more Kentuckians identified as Republicans or leaned toward the GOP, a change from previous years.

If Democrats decide to stay home or vote Republican, it could make a difference for Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrats’ nominee to take on Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.

Al Cross, a University of Kentucky journalism professor and longtime political observer, said Democrats are indeed risking Appalachian votes to protect the environment and stop climate change. “They are risking them for a worthy cause,” Cross said during an interview.

The problem, Cross said, is that many people feel the rules are coming down like a “sledgehammer.” The Obama administration touts dialogue and flexibility for states, but Cross said it is “sadly mistaken” if it thinks that will change the political repercussions.

Administration officials also point to market issues for coal’s woes. Politicians often blame the White House for all of Appalachia’s problems, but even climate skeptics and GOP sympathizers here understand the problem is not that simple.

Still, they see the administration as having turned a deaf ear to their concerns. And even though Obama talked about giving “special care to people and communities” affected by the clean energy transition during his Georgetown University climate speech last year, Appalachians feel forgotten.

“We really haven’t seen any direct evidence of that,” Cross said. “It does not seem like the administration has delivered on that explicit promise.”

The long-standing Appalachian Regional Commission has since 2010 been working with other federal agencies to coordinate efforts at boosting the area’s economy. In Congress, Reps. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) and Peter Welch (D-Vt.) are pushing legislation to aid displaced miners.

In Kentucky last year, a bipartisan group of politicians launched the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative. And in West Virginia, lawmakers are touting the Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy (SCORE) effort.

But regulations, not diversifying the economy, have been the main focus on the campaign trail, particularly among Republican candidates.

Speaking to a roomful of community and business leaders at the posh Griffin Gate Marriott Hotel in Lexington last week, McConnell said, “We have a depression here in eastern Kentucky.” The Senate’s GOP leader said turning back Obama administration regulations was at the “top of my list.”

And speaking at a packed rally in rural Estill County, about an hour’s drive away from Lexington, Grimes stressed a point she’s had to repeat numerous times: “Barack Obama is not on the ballot, it’s Alison Lundergan Grimes.”

Fifth District Rep. Hal Rogers (R) has long represented Kentucky’s eastern coal field counties — and his district gave Obama a stunningly low 23 percent of the vote in 2012. The neighboring 6th District, which includes Lexington and Estill, was in Democratic hands between 2004 and 2013, and Obama took 42 percent there two years ago.

But even though the area is far from most of the eastern mines, the coal debate helped new GOP Rep. Andy Barr grab the district last cycle. Estill, which has more registered Democrats than Republicans, favored Barr by a significant margin.

GOP close to taking W.Va. House

Kentucky is a divided state. Most of its congressional delegation is Republican. So is the state Senate. But the House and the governor’s mansion are in Democratic hands.

In neighboring West Virginia, the GOP rise is a more recent trend. During the 1990s the state’s entire congressional delegation was Democratic.

Unless current momentum shifts, Republicans are likely to see Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), and former Maryland state Sen. Alex Mooney (R) replace Capito in the 2nd District.

But Republican hopes don’t stop there. In Oak Hill, a small city north of Beckley, several GOP candidates gathered in a tight white-and-beige room in a community center last week to discuss what could be.

Evan Jenkins, the Republican state senator campaigning to unseat 19-term Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, scoffed at the national Democratic agenda.

“There’s nothing about that agenda that sits well with the people of West Virginia,” he said confidently. “It’s time for a change.”

Jenkins switched from Republican to Democrat early in his political career in the early 1990s. It was probably a good choice. Back then, Democrats were more than 65 percent of the electorate, according to registration statistics.

“When I turned 18, my dad was a Democrat and his dad was a Democrat,” Jenkins said during an interview. “My father obviously lived through the Great Depression, and there’s a lot of legacy from the ’30s and the ’40s.”

But while Democrats still dominate, especially in the southern coal fields, more voters are switching to the Republican column or declaring themselves members of no party. There were roughly 687,000 Democrats statewide in November 2008. Late last year the number was closer to 638,000. It’s now around 607,000.

Jenkins switched back to Republican last year. “The issue of Second Amendment, the issue of health care, the issue of immigration, the issue of the coal industry,” he said. “This agenda has been so devastating to the values and beliefs and the jobs of who we are in West Virginia.”

West Virginia’s new Republican attorney general, Patrick Morrisey, joined Jenkins in Oak Hill and spoke about pushing the state’s Democratic leaders to embrace more litigation against Obama administration rulemaking.

A number of local GOP candidates joined the pair, hoping to ride their coattails. House of Delegates candidate William Hughes spoke about his community of Pax having lost much of its population and now dealing with coal layoffs. Another candidate, Tom Fast, called for a fundamental change in the way things are done in the Democratic-controlled state capital of Charleston.

“I’ve had countless people say they are registered Democrat but are not going to vote Democrat,” said Jenkins. “We are five [candidates] away from having the House of Delegates change parties for the first time in 83 years.”

Race factor

The last time both Kentucky and West Virginia voted for a Democrat for president was during the Clinton years in the 1990s. Still, Democrats had an edge in Appalachian coal field counties. In 2000 and 2004, several of them went for Democratic candidates.

But when Obama was first on the ballot in 2008, coal field counties in Kentucky and most in West Virginia voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). And in 2012, Obama lost every single West Virginia county.

Analysts and area residents will say race has at least something to do with Obama’s deep unpopularity in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia.

“There’s enough people around here who are prejudiced and don’t like him because he’s black,” said longtime Democratic activist Dolores Rozzi, who has lived around the country but settled in Huntington, W.Va., about a decade ago.

Cross said Appalachians would have been upset with any politician who hurt coal. “There would have been upset, concern and people would have been dismayed and they would have felt let down,” he said. “But with Obama, they already didn’t like the guy. I don’t think this is primarily about race, but I think race is an element.”

Rozzi was manning the information desk the other day at the area’s Democratic headquarters downtown, a large room full of signs for candidates like Rahall. There was also a picture of Obama on the wall, one Rozzi put up herself.

“I think the Republicans were sick and tired of losing elections. I think they’ve geared up. They think they’re going to win this one,” said Rozzi. Asked whether she was feeling pessimistic, the fiercely loyal Democrat said, “We’re not feeling bad about anything right now.”

In Kentucky, Shayne Puckett, Estill County Democratic chairman, was also optimistic about his party’s chances. “In the political world right now, there is so much momentum behind the Democrat Party,” he said during the Grimes rally. “The Republican Party, all they have done for the last six, eight, 10 years is say no, no, no.”

What about Obama’s impact on local races? “I think that horse has been beaten enough,” Puckett said. “And American voters are waking up and realizing that may not be the wagon they want to jump on.”

Democrats say they may regain momentum in Appalachia after Obama leaves office. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, both Kentucky and West Virginia picked Hillary Clinton over Obama by significant margins. If she runs for president again in 2016, Clinton will try to woo those voters back into the fold.

Rozzi thinks Clinton can make inroads in her community. “I think it will be a new air to have a woman president,” she said. “Women do things so well.”

But both pro-coal advocates and environmentalists see the Clintons with skepticism. Former President Clinton has spoken in favor of Obama’s climate agenda but has campaigned with pro-coal Grimes. Hillary Clinton, who campaigned with Grimes on Wednesday, made pro-coal statements during her failed presidential run.

“I think the Clintons believe they can carry Kentucky and West Virginia. But it’s going to take some work,” Cross said. “And they may not be willing to work that hard for that small number of electoral votes.”

Even though pro-coal votes may still matter in local races, they didn’t make enough of a difference in the past presidential election, where the industry was counting on an Obama defeat.

Phil Smith, government affairs chief for the United Mine Workers of America, which is supporting a variety of pro-coal Democrats but has distanced itself from Obama, said the importance of pro-coal voters to Appalachian races doesn’t seem to be part of the administration’s political calculation.

“People who live in rural areas are like people everywhere else. They want a secure job, a decent standard of living for their families, safe and robust communities, and the ability to live in peace,” Smith said.

“To the extent that a future Democratic Party can project the message that it stands for those things, it can be competitive. But as things stand right now in rural America, and especially in Appalachia, this administration and the national Democratic Party is not sending that message. And that leaves state and local candidates vulnerable.”

Appalachia starts long, scary slog beyond mining

Published Tuesday, March 17, 2015 in Greenwire.

Chuck Fluharty parachutes into busted rural economies and tries to figure out how to get them out of the ditch.

His latest challenge: Appalachia.

Fluharty’s Rural Policy Research Institute is focused on eastern Kentucky, whose coal fields have bled thousands of jobs since 2012 and unemployment rates reached double digits in the hardest-hit counties.

The institute got involved at the request of Kentucky politicians in 2013, putting the region on what’s likely to be a long, difficult journey to diversify its economy and address what Fluharty deems the “resource curse” — when a region’s mineral wealth becomes more economic burden than buoy.

But before he took on the challenge, Fluharty said, he had a heart-to-heart with two of the Bluegrass State’s most powerful politicians — Gov. Steve Beshear (D) and House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R).

“When they came to me, they were asking for a quick fix,” Fluharty said in a recent interview. “There is no quick fix.”

Fluharty explained: “This is the result of what occurs in this sector over time everywhere, and you will not fix that quickly.” The politicians, he said, “didn’t want to hear that, particularly.”

But there were few clear choices for battered eastern Kentucky. So the Shaping Our Appalachian Region (SOAR) initiative was born to coordinate community involvement and come up with ideas.

The nascent revitalization push has some infrastructure-boosting components along with efforts to diversify the economy with, say, tourism and more entrepreneurship. There’s even an effort to do sustainable timber harvesting.

Fluharty, 67, is the founder, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, which focuses on assessing the impacts of public policy on rural areas. He’s also been a research professor in the Harry S. Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri, Columbia, and an adjunct faculty member in the university’s Department of Rural Sociology.