Activist groups claims TMDL’s don’t work well in Va Coalfields

Big Stone Gap, VA – US District Court Judge Jones last week sided with Red River Coal Company regarding enforcement of the Clean Water Act. The decision allows the Virginia Division of Mined Land Reclamation (DMLR) to decide if and how to enforce pollutant limits contained within Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) plans. Those plans are intended to help polluted streams recover by setting caps on the amount of pollutants that can be discharged by specific sources. In this case, the pollutant limits assigned to Red River’s mines are decidedly not being enforced and the streams receiving their discharges remain polluted.

In June of last year, citizens and environmental groups filed a lawsuit against Red River Coal Company for discharges of water pollution in violation of the Clean Water Act from several of the company’s mountaintop removal mines in Wise County. The mines in question discharged total dissolved solids and total suspended solids into the South Fork Pound River. Virginia regulators had previously determined that the South Fork Pound does not adequately support aquatic life, due to the high levels of these mining-related pollutants. In response, regulators developed a TMDL, which mandates the maximum amount of specific pollutants the entire stream can receive while still meeting water quality standards and allocates acceptable pollutant loads to individual dischargers in the watershed. Red River, the groups discovered, was single handedly exceeding not just the allocations for its individual mines, but the allocation for all sources in the entire South Fork Pound River .

In reaching yesterday’s decision, the court relied heavily on opinions expressed by Virginia regulators. Unfortunately, those regulators have declined to give effect to the limitations plainly stated in the TMDL and incorporated into the mines’ permits, and have opted instead to allow ongoing pollution into the impaired stream. In addition, during the course of the case, Virginia regulators allowed Red River to deconstruct the wastewater sediment ponds on three of the four permits at issue in the litigation, despite the ongoing exceedances of the TMDLs limits at those mines. Deconstruction of these wastewater treatment ponds allows unlimited ongoing pollution discharges because DMLR does not require Clean Water Act permits for the polluted surface water runoff from the mines once the ponds are removed.

“The purpose of TMDLs is to protect and improve streams,” said Matt Hepler, Water and enforcement organizer for Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “If the pollutant limits within these plans are not enforced, the plans do not work. We believe TMDLs are not being effectively enforced across southwestern Virginia. That is born out by the fact that most of the waters downstream from coal mines continue to have high levels of TDS and TSS pollution”

The state of Virginia interprets its TMDLs as establishing “aggregate” waste load allocations, as a result of a settlement between the mining industry and the VA Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy. In this scenario, all mine permits in a watershed “share” the total waste load allocation for a pollutant, even if, as here, the TMDL assigns individual waste load allocations to specific mines . This strategy allows individual permits — as in this case — to discharge up to 100% of the waste load allocation before enforcement action can be taken. Even then enforcement is completely up to the discretion of the agency. Based on that interpretation, DMLR considers Red River to be in compliance with its permits despite the fact that a single outfall at one of its mines exceeded the dissolved solids limits for the entire watershed.

“The enforcement of pollution limits within the context of TMDLs has become more and more lax in southwest Virginia,” said Erin Savage, Central Appalachian Campaign Coordinator for Appalachian Voices. “If the state does not enforce these plans, then citizens’ groups must step in. Unfortunately, the state agencies interpret the plans to contain loopholes that make citizen enforcement practically impossible.”

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Virginia Makes Final Decision to Deny Dangerous Wise County Strip Mine

Virginia Makes Final Decision to Deny Dangerous Wise County Strip Mine
Local Residents Have Long Opposed the Controversial Project

BIG STONE GAP, VA – Late last week the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME) made a final decision to deny the Ison Rock Ridge Surface Mine permit after an appeal by A&G Coal Corporation, the coal company applying for the permit. DMME made its initial decision to deny the permit in February 2013. Last week’s decision is the final word from the agency, with all administrative appeal processes now exhausted. A&G has until April 13th to challenge DMME’s decision in Virginia state court.

“I was thrilled to hear that the DMME has upheld the decision of Administrative Hearing Officer Costanzo and denied the appeal of A&G once again,” said Judy Needham. “With the administrative appeals exhausted, I hope A&G will not pursue the matter in our courts. Whatever they decide to do, we will keep fighting for Ison Rock Ridge. Each victory gives us strength to keep fighting.”

For years the prospect of a new mountaintop removal mine, with increased blasting, dust, truck traffic and sedimentation of the streams has hung over the town of Appalachia like a black cloud. The four valley fills proposed for the operation threatened to bury headwater streams and increase concentrations of toxic pollutants in streams like Callahan Creek, which is already legally recognized as impaired. Such pollution is especially dangerous for women and young children, and more than 20 peer-reviewed studies since 2010 have shown a connection between proximity to mountaintop removal operations like Ison Rock Ridge and poor health outcomes, including higher cancer, heart, lung, and kidney disease rates.

“We have been fighting against this proposed mountaintop removal mine for eight years because if permitted, it would bring heavy impacts to the town of Appalachia and its surrounding, historical coalcamps. I am very pleased with this decision” said Jane Branham, Vice President of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

“This decision is a major victory for the communities of Appalachia, who have suffered for far too long from the devastating effects of mountaintop removal mining,” said David Muhly, Senior Organizing Manager for the Sierra Club in Southwest Virginia “Mountaintop removal mines like those operated by A&G have already taken too high a toll on our communities, and an ever growing body of scientific literature demonstrates that this practice has serious consequences for human health and local ecosystems. It’s time to start building a sustainable economy that protects Virginia’s natural beauty and the health of Wise County residents.”

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SAMS Election 2015

Reminder. The annual election for the SAMS board of directors will be March 17th. Nominations for the SAMS board are now open, and will close at the SAMS February membership meeting (Feb 17).

If you would like to make a nomination of a SAMS board member, Please contact Kendall Bilberay at, Kendall will be checking to see if your membership dues are current as you nominate. SAMS will be accepting nominations for President, Vice President, Treasurer, Secretary, and two board member positions.

Please note: People who pay their dues after March the 8th, will be inelegible to vote in the upcoming election.

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Grassroots Progress Report Evaluates Obama’s Legacy in Appalachia

Grassroots Progress Report Evaluates Obama’s Legacy in Appalachia

The report discusses the Obama Administration’s successes and shortfalls in addressing the impacts of mountaintop removal and investing in a just and sustainable economy in Appalachia.
Read the report here : (Grassroots Progress Report)


Following a tumultuous year for the coal industry, including the disastrous coal-chemical spill that left 300,000 without access to clean water in West Virginia, and increasing layoffs as coal mining continues to decline, a coalition of Appalachian citizen groups are demanding increased action from the Obama Administration.


The Alliance for Appalachia is releasing a Grassroots Progress Report that assesses the work the Obama administration has done in the region and provides recommendations for the final two years of Obama’s tenure. The coalition feels it is a critical time for the administration to seriously engage in the extensive health and environmental costs of coal in the region, as well as address the urgent need for economic transition.


In addition to presenting suggested actions for the administration, the report outlines repeated failures by state agencies to enforce the law. This report comes on the heels of accusations from local groups that a Kentucky mining company has violated the Clean Water Act nearly 28,000 times, likely the largest non-compliance of the law in its 42-year history, while state regulators continue to give only slaps on the wrists.  The lack of accountability for rampant violations of the Clean Water Act and other laws are one reason that citizen groups are calling for urgent federal attention to the issue.


The quiet cut-off of funding for a USGS Study on the health impacts of mountaintop removal and continued delayed in rule-making processes, indicate that the administration is ignoring the issue, despite new studies linking mountaintop removal to increased rates of cancer and growing national concerns over climate change and water shortages.  Groups want the administration to address serious lapses in regulation, enforcement, and oversight of mountaintop removal mining operations, and to engage in collaborative dialogue around solutions and mitigation for adverse impacts caused by mountaintop removal mining operations, as well as to discuss what’s next for the region.


“The coal industry is never going to be like it was in the 30s. The jobs have been on a decline since the beginning.  We need to realistically think of the future of Appalachia, and fix this mess,” said Teri Blanton, a volunteer with The Alliance for Appalachia and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.  “We could employ ten times the number of workers just fixing the toxic pollution mountaintop removal has left behind. We need reinvestment in Appalachia – not just clean energy, but cleaning up the messes left behind by dirty energy.”


In addition to planning for an Appalachian future with fewer and fewer coal jobs, the coalition is seeking more permanent protections and concrete commitments for what the agencies can accomplish by the end of 2016.  In September, leaders from mountain communities attended an interagency meeting with representatives of the Obama administration.  The goal of this meeting was to address this progress of the administration towards promises made in a 2009 memorandum. In June, 2009, the Obama administration created a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) among federal agencies responsible for protecting Appalachian communities from the extreme damage of mountaintop removal coal mining.  Groups were disappointed with the lack of initiative shown by agency representatives in the five years since the memo was created.


“The meeting we thought we were going to have wasn’t what happened at all. The administration representatives said they wanted to ‘start a dialogue,’ but we thought the dialogue had started years ago in 2009.  This meeting should have been the culmination of years of work, not the beginning,” said Davie Ransdell, a former coal reclamation technician who now volunteers with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Alliance for Appalachia.


The grassroots report is one way community groups are following up with meeting attendees. Suggested administrative changes include a Conductivity Rule and strong Selenium Standard from the US Environmental Protection Agency and a strong Stream Protection Rule and Mine Fill Rule from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation Enforcement.


“Now is the time to get these policies on the books so future administrations can have something to work with,” said Ann League of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment.


Mountaintop removal and other coal industry abuses have long compromised the waters of Central Appalachia. Over 2,000 miles of stream have been buried by mountaintop removal alone and mountaintop removal has destroyed 10% of the land in central Appalachia – more than 500 mountains. The severe impacts of mountaintop removal show the urgent need to end this practice as well as to begin building towards reclaiming the land and water for a healthier future.
The Alliance for Appalachia is a coalition of groups across the Central Appalachian region working to end mountaintop removal and other destructive coal technologies, as well as to create a just and sustainable future for Appalachia. Members include Appalachian Voices, Coal River Mountain Watch, Gainesville Loves Mountains, Hands Off Appalachia, Heartwood, Highlander Research and Education Center, Keepers of the Mountains Foundation, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, Sierra Club Environmental Justice, The Stay Together Appalachian Youth Project, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, SouthWings and the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy.

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