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Appalachian legislators give POWER+ the cold shoulder

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Appalachia’s coal-bearing counties would directly benefit from the adoption of the POWER+ plan, a proposal in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget that would direct more than a billion dollars to Central Appalachia.

But last week, the U.S. Senate appropriations committee passed a budget bill the leaves out any mention of POWER+.

The U.S. House budget leaves Virginia entirely out of the forward-thinking Abandoned Mine Lands funding reforms that were spelled out in the POWER+ Plan. That component of the plan would send $30 million directly to the Virginia coalfields for economic development and put laid-off miners back to work cleaning up the messes left by coal companies.

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.

For more background, we recommend this piece by Naveena Sadasivam for InsideClimate News, which details the curious quiet around POWER+ and how the plan has been pulled into the partisan bickering that’s embroiled the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan and the 2016 budget process as a whole.

Under the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, sites that pose a threat to safety are prioritized over sites that offer a potential economic benefit if cleaned up. While this program has reduced potential hazards in the coal-mining regions of Appalachia and the U.S., it has done little to positively impact local economies.

The POWER+ Plan, however, calls for funds to be used for projects that not only improve the environment and reduce hazards, but also create an economic benefit for local economies.

There’s still time for both House and Senate to include the meaningful funding proposals outlined in POWER+. But in order for that to happen, we need to the Senate to hear a clear message that Appalachia deserves this much-needed funding!

Please contact your senators now to make sure they support a budget that includes a path forward for Appalachian communities.




Outlaw Coal Baron Billionaire Sets His Sights on WV Governor’s Mansion

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

CLICK on the image to sign the petition!

Jim Justice – target of the regional Justice to Justice campaign, recently expressed interest in becoming governor, much to the dismay of the thousands who have been cheated out of wages by Justice bad business practice, or had their communities damaged by outlaw mines he owns.

As Tom Torres, an activist with the Justice to Justice campaign and the group Hands Off Appalachia, says in this Grist article, “He has this public persona as a down-home charitable member of the community, and at the same time he owes millions of dollars to unpaid contractors and all these state and federal agencies for labor violations and environmental violations and safety violations.”

Sign this petition against Jim Justice‘s bad actions here to join the campaigning for him to clean up his mess and pay off his debts.




Appalachian Regional Commission Hosts Listening Sessions in Appalachian Communities

Tuesday, June 16th, 2015

Article by Gabby Gilliespie, Southwest Virginia oganizer with the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign

Last week, citizens from across Appalachia attended a listening session hosted by the Appalachian Regional Commission in Morehead, Kentucky. With the provisions proposed by Obama for the 2016 budget, organizers in Appalachia are attempting to create a groundswell on many levels that will push local leaders to make good decisions for the future of Appalachia. A part of these provisions, known as the POWER+ Plan, include a proposed $25 million in funding to the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). As many know, the ARC has a lot of influence when it comes to economic development in the region. They have been a part of shaping conversations and building partnerships for the past fifty years. As a young citizen of Appalachia, I believe it is important for as many of us as possible to participate when ARC hosts listening sessions and public forums, so that our voices are heard and our ideas are propelling these conversations forward.

Ada Smith, of Appalshop and The STAY Project, speaks

The ARC scheduled five listening sessions across Appalachia to gather public input on their 2016-2020 Strategic Plan. Before hosting these events, the ARC put together a study detailing the impacts of the initiatives put in place by their organization over the past fifty years. These listening sessions are the next step in the process towards creating a strategy that includes the input of citizens, leaders, and representatives from varied sectors that will be impacted by the work of the ARC.

Carol Judy from the Clearfork Valley in Tennessee said, “At the Morehead meeting there was a significant presence of youth who shared and participated, creating an intergenerational sharing of solutions and issues,” and the question she has moving forward is, “where is the youth of ARC?” Coming out of this session, I also heard a lot of questions about how citizen input was meant to be incorporated. How much sway do our ideas truly have on the strategic plan?

The structure of the listening session began with a welcome and briefing about the strategic plan, as well as the findings from the Executive Summary mentioned above and located at this link, entitled “Appalachia Then and Now: Examining Changes to the Appalachian Region Since 1965.” After these presentations, the facilitation team asked participants to get into groups and share their understandings of opportunities to strengthen the economies in their communities. In that same session folks were asked to discuss the specific barriers they see to advancing those opportunities. People were given space to share within their small groups, and also share out to the entire assembly the things that resonated during their conversations. In the next session the questions involved the building blocks and resources people felt they had in their communities and which building blocks were lacking or needed strengthening.

Kendall Bilbrey, a young citizen from Southwest Virginia felt that, “Folks seemed to be comfortable with solutions-based conversations without getting caught up in political arguments,” and believes that these conversations are vital to moving our region forward to work together toward just transition.

We have seen a lot of progress on this front in Central Appalachia over the past five years. It seems that more and more citizens every day are willing to let the “coal is our future” rhetoric fall to the wayside and are far more open to talk about new economic opportunities in the region. Many folks in the groups I engaged in at the event wanted to see more spaces for sharing intergenerational knowledge and skills, as well as seeing much more youth engagement.

Overall, I believe events like the ARC listening sessions are a good opportunity for communities across the region to come together and share ideas for the future as well as discuss issues concerning the roles organizations have and should play in shaping the economic landscape of Appalachia.

To learn more about these listening sessions, visit the ARC website.




Another Challenge Facing Coal: Cleaning Up

Monday, June 15th, 2015

Cross-posted from AppVoices.org
As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about post-mine reclamation liabilities to state officials.

As even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal surface mine bonding program are voicing urgent concerns about companies’ ability to pay for post-mine reclamation.

After bankruptcieslegal feesfines, plummeting share prices and years without a profit in sight, another aspect of the financial perils U.S. coal companies face is coming into full view.

Recently, regulators worried about the ability of coal companies to pay for post-mine reclamation have begun scrutinizing a practice known as “self-bonding,” which allows a company to insure the cost of restoring the land after mining without putting up collateral, provided it meets certain financial criteria.

Reuters reported last week that Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, is under the microscope and may be violating federal bonding regulations under the 1977 Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act.

Peabody, which reported a $787 million loss in 2014, had roughly $1.38 billion in clean-up liabilities insured by self-bonding at the end of March, according to the report. In fact, as its finances deteriorate, analysts say Peabody is warping the language of the law and pointing to the relative strength of its subsidiaries’ balance sheets to continue meeting self-bonding requirements.

Peabody is not alone. Arch Coal, which Reuters found has also failed the financial test to meet self-bonding requirements, is restructuring its multibillion-dollar debt. The company ended 2014 with $418 million in cleanup liabilities and hasn’t turned a profit since 2011.

On May 29, Alpha Natural Resources received word from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality that it is no longer eligible to self-bond in the state. The company now has less than 90 days to put up $411 million in anticipated mine cleanup costs. The nation’s second-largest producer by sales, Alpha told investors earlier this year that it had $640.5 million in reclamation liabilities at its mines in Appalachia and Wyoming’s Powder River Basin.

Watching as even some of the largest U.S. coal producers run the risk of caving under their debts, officials that oversee the federal bonding program are voicing urgent concerns to state officials.

In April, the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement sent a letter to West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection urging that the state conduct a fuller analysis of future risks — not just rely on historic data — to calculate reclamation costs.

“Given the precarious financial situation” of companies operating in West Virginia, the letter states, regulators should closely examine the risk of failure for sites with markedly more expensive liabilities such as pollution treatment facilities.

From where we’re standing, it’s tough to see how the situation could improve. Taken together, the country’s four largest coal companies — Peabody, Alpha, Arch Coal and Cloud Peak Energy — have about $2.7 billion in anticipated reclamation costs covered by self bonding. Bloomberg News reported in March that nearly three quarters of Central Appalachian coal is mined at a loss.

As the problem grows, regulators and advocates for reform face their own predicament. Stricter self-bonding standards and enforcement push cash-strapped companies closer to bankruptcy. But inaction could leave taxpayers to pick up the bill if companies with unreclaimed mines eventually crumble.




Testifying in Congress

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Last week, our friend Dustin White traveled back to Washington, DC to speak up for the mountains. The House Committee on Natural Resources was having an Oversight Hearing on “State Perspectives on the Status of Cooperating Agencies for the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule.” At issue in this hearing is the cooperation between the state and federal government on the protection of Appalachian streams and the development of the anticipated Stream Protection Rule that the Office of Surface Mining has been developing since 2009.

Dustin captured the issue well,

Most of the Appalachian states with mountaintop removal have their own regulatory agencies that are supposed to be the first line of defense for communities when coal companies violate the law.  These agencies exist in KY, VA, and in WV we know them as the DEP or Department of Environmental Protection.  But many in WV say DEP stands for something else… “Don’t Expect Protection” as citizens often find themselves doing the job of the DEP to monitor the impacts of mining.  We have found that the state regulatory agencies often issue mining permits against objection of citizens and sometimes without the proper environmental surveys required by law.  They often allow coal companies that are habitual violators of the law to operate with little to no interruption.  Fines issued for violations are little more than pocket change for coal companies.

In at least WV and KY the regulatory agencies and state legislatures worked lower water quality standards that go against federal guidances, allowing companies to discharge higher levels toxic selenium and aluminum into streams.  Agencies like the DEP seem to be working against the best interest of the people and because of this citizens often turn to legal action to reign in coal companies.  We have even filed a 733 petition under SMCRA in WV asking OSMRE to intervene in DEP’s mining division for failing to do their job.

The lack of protection many communities face when mountaintop removal threatens their water has been blamed, in part, on lack of oversight by state agencies. Therefore many have looked to the federal government and to Congress to protect their land and water from this devastating practice.

Thanks to Dustin for taking time out of his busy work organizing with people who’ve seen the worst impacts of the coal industry and sharing his experience with those in DC! Let’s hope that those in charge of enforcing the law in West Virginia were listening in.




Crayfish Against Mountaintop Removal

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

Healthy critters in our streams are an important sign that the water is safe for all life. So it’s key that we keep an eye on the crawdads!

Big Sandy crayfish photo by Guenter Schuster.

Our friends at Center for Biological Diversity have created a petition and lawsuit that forced the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to propose to protect two species of crayfish from Appalachia under the Endangered Species Act. The crayfishes have been lost from more than half of their ranges because of water pollution, primarily from coal mining. The Big Sandy crayfish is known only from the Big Sandy River basin in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia; the Guyandotte River crayfish is known only from the Guyandotte River basin in southern West Virginia.

This listing proposal means that federal agencies will now have to confer with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before funding or permitting any activity that could harm the animals. When the listing is finalized in 12 months, it will be illegal for any person or corporation, including coal companies, to harm the crayfishes or their habitat. The Service will propose critical habitat to protect the crayfishes in the near future.




Appalachian communities at growing risk from mountaintop removal

Tuesday, April 28th, 2015

Announcing a new tool to end the destruction of Appalachian mountains and streams

Coal is in the news a lot these days. The market forces and much-needed environmental and health protections cornering the dirty fuel are topics of endless interest as America’s energy landscape shifts toward cleaner sources. And yes, all signs point to coal’s continued decline.

In many ways though, the forces chipping away at coal’s historic dominance are overshadowing another big story — one that Appalachian citizens still need the public and policymakers to hear — about just how much the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal coal mining persist in Central Appalachia.

That mountaintop removal is an extremely dirty and dangerous way to mine coal has never been better understood. The overwhelming body of evidence is built on a foundation of the countless personal stories found in communities near mines and bolstered by dozens of studies investigating disproportionate health problems in coal-producing counties compared to elsewhere in Appalachia. More recently, advocates have employed technological tools to visualize complex data and add another dimension to arguments against the practice.

Appalachian Voices is committed to both creating a forum for those personal stories and sharing the most up-to-date data available about the ongoing risks mountaintop removal poses to our region’s communities and environment. Today, we’re excited to share a web tool we developed to reveal how mining continues to close in on nearby communities and send a resounding message to President Obama that ending mountaintop removal is a must if we hope to foster economic and environmental health in Appalachia.

Explore Appalachian Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal on iLoveMountains.org

The centerpiece of “Communities at Risk from Mountaintop Removal” is an interactive mapping tool on iLoveMountains.org that allows anyone to explore mountaintop removal’s expansion over the past 30 years.

Created using Google Earth Engine, U.S. Geological Survey data, publicly available satellite imagery, and mapping data and consultation from the nonprofit SkyTruth, the tool gives users greater perspective into the decades-long scourge surface mining has had on the Appalachian landscape and generations of families that live in the region.

The Communities at Risk tool also concentrates on impacts at the community level, where the powerful personal stories that first brought mountaintop removal to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness and agenda for environmental change are found.

Fifty communities spread across Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia are identified by the tool as being the most at risk. By clicking on a community icon on the map, you can see the number of acres classified as active mining within a 1-mile radius of a particular place over time. In some communities, the number has fallen. In others, it has grown dramatically in recent years even as regional coal production has plummeted.

In the coming months, we’ll take a closer look at a handful of these communities, sharing local perspectives on how the proximity of mountaintop removal has affected local livelihoods. Our first “featured community” is Inman, Va., a small town in Wise County, where residents have successfully battled back a proposed massive mountaintop removal mine while experiencing the devastating impacts of another. You’ll also see stories about featured communities on AppalachianVoices.org and in upcoming issues of The Appalachian Voice newspaper.

Learn about Inman, Va., from local residents Matt Hepler and Ben Hooper

If you want a fuller picture of the data we used to create the mapping tool, check out the companion white paper, which describes the background, methods, results and implications of our initial research.

Over time, we’ll work with impacted citizens in communities near active and proposed mines to expand the use of the tool and update our maps with current, high-resolution satellite imagery we’ll obtain through a partnership with Google’s Skybox for Good project. We’ll use those images to improve interactions between citizens and regulators, share information with our allies and

Read our white paper for an in-depth look at the ways mountaintop removal continues to put Appalachian communities at risk.

The constant flow of news describing something close to the death of the Appalachian coal industry could leave outside observers with the impression that the problems of mountaintop removal have been resolved by the industry’s collapse. That impression, however, is at odds with the personal experience of many Appalachian citizens, the visible impacts of mining in communities across the region and the data that comprises Communities at Risk.

Visit communitiesatrisk.org to explore the mapping tool, learn more about the 50 most at-risk communities and tell President Obama that more must be done to protect Appalachian communities.




Appalachian Love Stories Shows Appalachian Pride

Monday, March 30th, 2015

Art by Katie Hanna

The STAY Project (Stay Together Appalachian Youth) is a diverse regional network of young people throughout Central Appalachia who are working together to advocate for and actively participate in their home mountain communities. The group has created the #AppalachianLoveStory  Radio Stories to showcase the complicated relationship and Appalachian Pride youth have with Appalachia.

This article highlights one of the programs created for Appalachian Love Story, and more stories can be found in this episode of  Inside Appalachia below.




West Virginia Groups Sue the OSMRE

Friday, March 27th, 2015

From the press release:

On March 17th, seven local, regional and national groups filed a formal notice of intent to sue the U.S. Office of Surface Mining for failing to intervene on West Virginia’s lax oversight of mountaintop-removal and other destructive surface coal mining — a state program that has, for decades, allowed the coal industry to ravage the environment, putting people at risk and destroying local communities.

The state’s chronically poor oversight has included a persistent failure to conduct inspections meant to protect people and the environment from coal companies that operate outside the law. Out-of-control mountaintop-removal coal mining is linked to epidemics of cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects in affected communities. West Virginia has also failed to undertake required assessments to ensure lakes, rivers and drinking-water wells aren’t harmed by mountaintop-removal mining and other destructive surface coal-mining practices.

Learn more about this important case at Coal River Mountain Watch’s website.




WV Groups Protest Health Impacts of MTR; State Responds

Monday, March 23rd, 2015


Putting Their Foot Down: Hundreds Rally at WVDEP

Several hundred people gathered in Charleston, WV on Monday, March 16th for the People’s Foot rally at the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The event was hosted by a coalition of West Virginia groups demanding an end to mountaintop removal and working to highlight the devastating effects of mountaintop removal on the health of local residents. MTR and health issues.

In an exciting update, the day after the People’s Foot rally, state officials agreed to examine the science on the links between MTR and health issues. According to this Charleston Gazette article, Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta said, “The analysis is something that is needed going forward. The bottom line here is to let science speak for itself. It’s time that we attempt to do that.”

Another powerful example of People Power in Appalachia!





Appalachian Voices  •  Coal River Mountain Watch  •   Heartwood  •  Keeper of the MountainsKentuckians for the Commonwealth 

Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition  •   Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowermentSierra Club Environmental Justice

Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards  •   SouthWings  •  Stay Project  •   West Virginia Highlands Conservancy

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