Federal Environmental Protection Agency officials say there’s still work to be done at the Lees Lane Landfill site in southwest Louisville, though they don’t believe the site is currently a danger to nearby residents.The landfill was closed in 1975, but many of those still living in Riverside Gardens remember seeing hazardous waste being trucked in. It was declared a Superfund site in the 1980s and underwent remediation. In 1996, it was taken off the national priority list, but the EPA continues to monitor the site. Twenty-five companies that dumped at the landfill have paid money for the clean-up, and Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District agreed to do maintenance on the site for 29 years, or until it spent $250,000.Representatives from the agency were at a community meeting Thursday evening near the landfill. Donna Seadler is a remedial project manager with the EPA’s regional office. She’s overseeing the work at Lees Lane, and says there are still a few questions to be answered. ”With landfills, they don’t go away,” she said. “So, this one has been in operations and maintenance since it was de-listed from the Superfund list in 1996 and there have been some ongoing issues since the de-listing that have been identified.”Although it’s very likely people who have lived in Riverside Gardens for decades were exposed to toxic chemicals, Seadler says the EPA doesn’t think there’s any current danger from the site, as long as people respect the “no trespassing” signs and stay away.The EPA plans to take a groundwater survey this fall to see if anyone in the neighborhood is still using wells. They also need to determine if there’s still a danger from methane at the site, and if so, replace methane wells. That’s trickier, finance-wise, because methane wells are expensive and the MSD is nearing the cap of the money it agreed to spend on remediation.But people at the meeting were angry. Terri Humphry lives in Riverside Gardens. She says the work the EPA did on the methane wells is appreciated, but:“We have more problems than just methane gas,” she said. “There’s arsenic, there’s all kinds of chemicals back there, and we feel they’re leaching into our neighborhood.”The EPA says there have been no signs of groundwater or soil contamination in years, but residents accused the agency of insufficient monitoring.The Lees Lane site undergoes environmental reviews every five years, and is due for another next year.
According to a new analysis by U.S. House Democrats, an increasing percentage of coal from mountaintop removal mines is being exported overseas. The report was released this morning, as the House Natural Resources committee held a hearing on a proposed stream buffer rule to protect Appalachian streams from coal mine pollution.The report is called “Our Pain, Their Gain,” and was prepared by the committee’s Democratic staff. It’s being promoted by environmental groups as proof that surface mining is a greater benefit to other countries than the United States, where it hurts Appalachian communities.“American families are being subjected to coal mine pollution and damage, just so exports to China and other foreign nations can increase,” said ranking Democrat Edward Markey of Massachusetts in a release that accompanied the report. “The coal may be shipped to foreign markets, but the diseases, the destroyed mountaintops, and the environmental ruin from these destructive practices are staying right here in America.”The data shows that coal exports are on the rise. More surface mines export some coal overseas, and the share of production that’s being exported is increasing, too. Several operations—mostly in Pennsylvania and Virginia—are shipping nearly all of the coal mined to other countries.Most of the coal being shipped overseas is metallurgical coal: coal that’s used to make steel. That’s in demand as countries like China and India are developing. But some thermal coal—which is used for heat—is exported too.Coal exports have doubled since 2009, but it’s important to note that as a whole, exports still only account for 12 percent of all the coal mined in the U.S. And while those fighting surface mining see the report as vindication that Appalachian communities are suffering to help power China and India, the coal industry argues that coal exports are strengthening the industry as American electricity is moving toward natural gas.“The complaint here seems to be that other countries are getting the economic benefit of coal,” Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said. “Well, in that respect, I do agree with Congressman Markey. The United States should get more of the economic benefit from coal, and coal usage does make sense economically.”Bissett says half of the coal in eastern Kentucky is surface mined, but the vast majority of the coal produced in the state stays domestic.Besides environmental effects, recent studies have linked surface mining to health problems like cancer, respiratory diseases and birth defects.
A report released today from the Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee analyzed coal export data and found that mountaintop removal mines are sending an increased percentage of coal produced oversees.The report used data from the Energy Information Administration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration, and data self-reported by the mines. Here's a summary of what they found:The number of mountaintop removal, steep slope and surface mines exporting coal from West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Virginia increased from 73 mines in 2008 to 97 in 2011.Coal exports from these mines in these four states have grown by 91 percent since 2009 to 13.2 million tons in 2011.25 of those mines exported more than half of their production in 2011. One Russian company is exporting nearly 83 percent of the coal from three mines in West Virginia, and five mines are shipping 100 percent of their coal abroad.Overall, these 97 mines exported 27 percent of their production in 2011, more than doubling from 13 percent exported in 2008.I'll be speaking with several people about the study and its methodology later this afternoon, and will update the story.
Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency will be in Louisville tomorrow to discuss a former toxic Superfund site.New environmental issues have arisen at the Lees Lane Landfill in West Louisville.The landfill was closed in 1975. After 400 drums of hazardous materials were found on the site near the Ohio River several years later, Lees Lane was classified as a toxic Superfund site, and cleanup began.The site was removed from the Superfund list in 1996, but problems still plague the area. There are concerns about methane built up in the landfill, groundwater and air contamination...and frequent trespassing.Now, the EPA wants to commission another study on the environmental hazards at Lees Lane. They’ll present background on the site and a plan for going forward at the meeting.The meeting is Thursday at 7:00 p.m. at Farnsley Middle School.
A new report from by the Sierra Club estimates how much sulfur dioxide is emitted from nine Kentucky power plants and it finds that all nine of them—including the Mill Creek and Cane Run power plants in Louisville—are violating the national air quality standards.Sulfur dioxide has been linked to health issues like pulmonary inflammation, asthma, emphysema and other lung conditions.But the data in the Sierra Club’s report is collected differently from how the local Air Pollution Control District measures sulfur dioxide. Here are three things to know when reading the report, or perusing Metro Government’s air monitoring data:The EPA set the 1 hour sulfur dioxide standard at 75 parts per billion in August, 2010. That means since then, air monitoring has to show that there’s less than 75 units of sulfur dioxide in every billion parts of air measured. The standard relies on an hourly average.The Air Pollution Control District uses air monitoring to keep track of the pollution, while the Sierra Club used air modeling. Air monitoring takes a snapshot of the air at any given moment, while modeling relies on lots of different known and estimated factors (like weather, the height of smokestacks, etc.) to make a fairly educated prediction about how much pollution is present at any given moment. Both are accepted methods—the EPA has approved the city’s use of monitoring, and has also endorsed modeling.The Sierra Club’s data shows egregious air pollution violations. At Cane Run, it models sulfur dioxide emissions at 27 times the allowable amount. At Mill Creek, it estimates levels about six times too high. But the actual monitoring data from the city tells a different story. It shows that in 2012, there have been only 13 exceedences for sulfur dioxide, all at the Watson Lane Elementary monitor, which is only about a mile away from Mill Creek. The highest daily maximum recorded there is about three times higher than the air quality standard.So there’s differing data, and whatever you look at, sulfur dioxide is definitely a concern in Jefferson County. But I think the takeaway from this study and the city’s data is that the EPA could revisit the sulfur dioxide air quality standard in 2015 (or even sooner if there's a compelling reason to). If it does, and if it makes it more stringent, Louisville will have to find a way to come into compliance (the area is technically listed as in attainment for sulfur dioxide, despite several exceedences).This should be easier over the next few years. Coal-fired power plants are the main source of sulfur dioxide, and the Cane Run Power Plant is scheduled to be retired by 2016 and replaced by natural gas. And at Mill Creek, Louisville Gas & Electric is in the process of installing new pollution controls which will reduce the amount of sulfur dioxide the plant emits. There’s also the Gallagher plant in southern Indiana, which has been blowing pollution into Louisville for fifty years. Half of the plant was retired earlier this year, which should also help reduce Louisville’s air pollution.
Three new studies have added more scientific evidence to support ill health effects from mountaintop removal coal mining.Over the past few years, several studies have presented evidence supporting links between health problems—like cancer and birth defects—that are more prevalent in communities with mountaintop removal mines. But these new studies attempt to pinpoint specific pollutants that could be causing those health problems.Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette had a nice overview of the studies—which have all been presented at conferences but not yet published in peer reviewed journals.In the latest paper, USGS researchers gathered samples of particular matter deposited in communities near mountaintop removal operations and compared the chemical composition to similar material collected in other Southern West Virginia locations. They found higher levels of certain elements that indicate the dust is coming from the overburden, or the rock removed to get at the coal at nearby mining operations."It's not too surprising, since they blow up rocks to get at the coal," said USGS research geologist Allan Kolker, who delivered a paper on the results at a conference last month in Montreal.Another paper by researchers at West Virginia University finds that air particulate matter from mountaintop removal communities was larger than in other communities, and was a size that was more likely to be deposited in human lungs. And for the other study, WVU scientists exposed lab rats to mountaintop removal dust, and found that the rats’ blood vessels constricted and reduced blood flow.These studies could be significant, and address some of the major criticisms from industry directed at previous studies. On his blog, Ward sums it up like this:While the studies to date are incredibly compelling, and reason for serious public health concerns, these latest (and still unpublished) papers are just beginning to dig into questions that might, with even more research, get to the issue of causation. We’ve discussed here before my own concerns about how activists overplay the findings of these papers. The coal industry, of course, wants to pretend the papers don’t exist, fund research aimed at trying to discredit them (see here, here and here), or raise outlandish claims that if there is any problem, it’s all because we’re a bunk of inbred hicks.
Louisville Gas and Electric is asking the case against the company for its role in a residential gas explosion in December be dismissed. In documents filed with the Kentucky Public Service Commission yesterday, the company disagrees with many of the state's conclusions as to the cause of the explosion.In the very early morning of December 6, LG&E responded to reports of a strong gas odor in a neighborhood near Preston Highway. The house exploded shortly after 7:00 that morning. The family was able to get outside before the explosion, but a dog was killed.In an investigation made public last month, the PSC alleges LG&E committed several violations that contributed to the explosion, including allowing a plastic gas pipeline to exceed its maximum allowable operating pressure, and not taking the necessary steps to avoid an explosion.LG&E disagrees with those conclusions, and is asking the PSC to delay the hearing scheduled for November 27. If the company and the state come to an agreement on a settlement, a hearing could be avoided. But if there's no settlement, the Public Service Commissioners could decide to proceed with a formal hearing.LG&E faces fines of up to $25,000 a day for each violation.
Representatives from power companies around the world are in Louisville today for HydroVision International's annual conference. The event draws people who are already invested in hydroelectric power, or are looking for ways to begin the process. Participants also had a chance to tour two local hydropower facilities: the new Cannelton Locks and Dam project (which is still a work in progress) and LG&E's Ohio Falls Generating Station.The conference's keynote speakers are:Colonel Luke Leonard, the commander of the Army Corps of Engineers' Louisville District;Pierre Gauthier, the president and CEO of Alstom, a major hydropower equipment supplier;Marc Gerken, president and CEO of American Municipal Power, which has developed several hydroelectric projects along the Ohio River;Paul Thompson, senior vice president of energy services at Louisville Gas and Electric and Kentucky Utilities.
Hundreds of small fish have been found dead after thousands of gallons of raw sewage was accidentally released into a waterway in the far eastern part of Jefferson County.Brush Run is a small stream—less than a foot deep in most areas—that feeds into Floyds Fork. The sewage release affected half of a mile of it, and killed about a thousand one to two-inch fish.Metropolitan Sewer District Regulatory Services Director Brian Bingham says a grease buildup caused a sewage pumping station to malfunction.“We had just done preventive maintenance on that pump station the week before,” he said. “It’s something that was noted as a problem that needed some additional attention. However something happened in between there that it got much worse than it had been, so we are further investigating and we will come up with a solution to keep this from happening again.”Bingham says MSD still isn’t sure how much sewage was released.“We actually reported that it was about 10,000 gallons,” he said. “Since then, we’ve done some more detailed calculations, we really think it was between 4,000 and 5,000 gallons. But it was a very small stream so even that amount could have a substantial impact.”The sewage overflow happened at a time when streams all over the area are already dry-and therefore stressed—because of a lack of rain. There have been at least six fish kills over the past two weeks, and the previous five were caused by the weather.The sewage spill was reported to the Kentucky Division of Water, and regulators are considering whether to levy fines for the incident.
GOP members on the U.S. House Appropriations committee have inserted language into a bill to block a new Mine Safety and Health Department initiative to reduce occurrences of black lung disease--or coal workers' pneumoconiosis.NPR's Howard Berkes reported on the new language this morning on NPR's news blog The Two Way:The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) proposes cutting in half the limits on coal miners' exposure to coal dust. The agency's proposed rulemaking also establishes the use of Personal Dust Monitors which measure dust exposure in real time.The 2013 fiscal year begins Oct. 1. A rider for FY 2012 blocked the rulemaking until the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issues a report on the validity of research that shows black lung disease has doubled in the last decade. The data from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also shows that diagnoses of the worst stages of the disease have quadrupled since the 1980's in eastern Kentucky, southwestern Virginia and southern West Virginia.The GAO report is expected to be released sometime in the next month.NIOSH studies also show that the disease is striking younger miners and progressing more quickly to the most serious stages of black lung.And Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette summed it up this way on Coal Tattoo:That’s right. The MSHA budget being proposed by the House GOP leaders would continue to block — for at least the 2013 budget year — the agency from finalizing landmark rules aimed at trying to end black lung, a deadly disease that’s on the rise again and has reached what experts call epidemic proportions among coal miners in parts of Central Appalachia.Here's the new language, inserted into appropriations for Fiscal Year 2013 for the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services:"SEC. 118. None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to continue the development of or to promulgate, administer, enforce, or otherwise implement the Lowering Miners' Exposure to Coal Mine Dust, Including 20 Continuous Personal Dust Monitors regulation (Regulatory Identification Number 1219-AB64) being developed by the Mine Safety and Health Administration of the Department of Labor."A investigation just last week by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity revealed that cases of black lung are on the rise in Appalachia. NPR is seeking comments from lawmakers on the new language, and we'll repost those stories as soon as they're available.
The state Energy and Environment Cabinet is in court this morning, along with lawyers representing two coal companies and environmental groups. The parties disagree about the amount of money the coal companies should pay for water pollution.The Energy and Environment Cabinet took the coal companies to court after environmental groups uncovered evidence that coal companies were falsely reporting the pollution they release in waterways. But the environmental groups—which include Appalachian Voices and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth—thought Kentucky’s penalties were too low, and were granted permission to intervene.Now, Judge Phillip Shepherd has ordered the parties back to court for a pretrial conference. They’ve been in mediation for the past few months, and if they haven’t reached an agreement, the decision is up to the judge.Shepherd wants the state to demonstrate it has the necessary staff and budget to make companies comply with the Clean Water Act. A year and a half ago, Secretary Len Peters admitted the department didn’t have the resources to fully enforce all of the laws, as regulations increase.The Energy and Environment Cabinet declined to comment, but sent this statement:We will file the document sought by the court and it will speak for itself on the cabinet’s resources. As to what will occur at the hearing – we’re not certain what will transpire. We’ve been actively participating in the mediation and negotiation sessions and will address any questions the court has in that regard. Because those sessions have been confidential to this point, we are not at liberty to talk about what has or has not been discussed or accomplished.
Friday on WFPL's Byline, our environment reporter Erica Peterson spent some time with NPR reporter Howard Berkes and Chris Hamby with the Center for Public Integrity. They’ve been investigating a serious resurgence in black lung disease in Appalachia in a series of reports and features made public last week.The joint investigation by NPR and the Center for Public Integrity found that federal regulators and the mining industry are failing to protect miners from the excessive toxic coal mine dust that causes black lung, and the disease is now being found in younger miners and evolving to complicated stages more quickly than in the past.There is a wealth of information about the disease and the series at NPR's site. Berkes and Hamby discuss some of the issues and findings with Erica Peterson in this excerpt from Byline.
The leading Democrat on the U.S. House Committee on Education and Workforce says the federal government doesn’t have enough tools to keep coal miners safe.California Congressman George Miller sent a letter to three Kentucky coal mine operators last month, asking them to set up a plan to pay the more than $1.5 million in fines all three owe for mine safety violations. An attorney for the men responded, telling Congress the mine operators wouldn’t be able to pay the fines anytime soon—or ever.And there’s not much the federal government can do about that. Miller says that’s a problem. If the government can’t make companies pay their fines, there’s no incentive for mine operators to follow the law and protect coal miners’ health.He says it’s especially disturbing that operators who already have spotty records and owe money can open up new operations.“Well the first thing is, I don’t know why you would let a person that’s been heavily fined, owes a huge amount of money for the operation of an unsafe mine, why you’d let them open up another mining operation,” Miller said. “Where in the world do you get to do that? You don’t get to open up one restaurant where you’re under penalties for operating an unsafe restaurant or an unhealthy restaurant or an unclean restaurant. Where do you get to do this in business?”Passing new mine safety laws is necessary, he says, but unless the government can collect mine safety fines, there’s no incentive for operators to follow the law.“I think it’s clear that the federal government needs additional tools to get the money that’s owed and to impose the penalties that should be imposed for the lack of safe operation.”Two of the mine operators Miller wrote to still owe money for the fatal 2006 accident at the Kentucky Darby Mine in Harlan County.Miller says the federal government needs to act, but the Republican majority in the House has ignored efforts to tighten regulations on coal mine operators.
State government inspectors have been using aerial surveillance to watch coal operators in central Appalachia.Helicopter flights have cost The Kentucky Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement more than $477,000 over the past four years, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.News of the flyovers surprised mining industry leaders, including Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett, who protested the covert nature of the inspections and questioned their effectiveness.Kentucky Department of Aviation documents released to the AP under an open records request show that state police and wildlife officers are also using planes and helicopters for aerial surveillance.