Kentucky has reached a settlement with a coal company accused of thousands of violations of the Clean Water Act.The Kentucky Energy Environment Cabinet, International Coal Group and environmental interveners all agreed to the settlement, which was finalized today. ICG was charged with inaccurately reporting pollution discharge data from several of its mines in eastern Kentucky. The intervening groups—which include Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Riverkeeper Alliance—found identical data in months of reports, and suggested the company had copied and pasted the numbers rather than conducted the required monitoring.The provisions of the settlement are the same as what WFPL reported last month, based on a status report submitted by the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection. ICG will pay $575,000 in civil penalties, which it can choose to have directed toward supplemental environmental programs that benefit water quality in eastern Kentucky.The company also has to implement a corrective action plan, to ensure that similar violations don’t happen again. ICG’s mine discharges will also be subjected to third party monitoring, to ensure the company is submitting accurate data to the state. All the terms still have to be approved by the judge.Originally, the case was just between the coal companies and the commonwealth. But after the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet fined both ICG and Frasure Creek (which isn't included in this settlement) $660,000 collectively, the environmental groups petitioned to intervene in the case. The state resisted, but Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepard ruled the groups could intervene. This current settlement only involves ICG. Last month, DEP Commissioner Bruce Scott said a settlement with Frasure Creek is further off, because the company is having financial problems and Scott says the first priority is making sure the company meets its obligations to reclaim former mine sites in Kentucky.
Cities around the country are participating in the National Solar Tour tomorrow, which highlights solar and other energy efficient building ideas. In Louisville, there are 30 sites lined up to demonstrate how home and business owners can get at least some of their energy from the sun.The tour is bigger this year than it was last year, and includes single-family homes, libraries and apartment buildings, among others. Many of the sites are in the Highlands, but there are some outliers at the University of Louisville, in Shively and in the East End.The tour is sponsored by the Louisville Climate Action Network, Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light and the Kentucky Solar Energy Society. Free self-guided and bicycle tours are available; there’s also a bus tour for $15. For more information, click here.
Groups in Kentucky and around the country are calling for the winner of next month’s presidential election to hold a summit on climate change during his term’s first 100 days.The National Climate Summit 2013 Coalition has unveiled a petition signed by more than 1,600 people calling for the summit. The coalition cites recent examples of climate fluctuations, like hotter average temperatures and heavier-than-usual rainfall, and says it’s necessary that the presidential candidates commit to finding solutions.Both President Obama and Mitt Romney avoided talking about climate change during last night’s debate. Analyst have suggested that both have more to lose than win by addressing the subject, as they could alienate key swing state voters they’re both vying for.
Coal and renewable energy weren't absent from the presidential debate last night, but environmental groups are bemoaning the fact that climate change wasn't brought up.The Hill's E2 Wire notes that a petition was delivered to debate moderator Jim Lehrer with more than 160,000 signatures, asking the PBS host to ask the candidates about climate change.But he didn’t. And while Obama and Romney traded punches on energy policy, neither mentioned climate change or carbon emissions.“Millions of Americans felt the impacts from climate change this year, so it's disappointing it wasn't discussed. Sadly, warming is a global issue too, so hopefully it will come up in the next debate focused on international policy,” said Jamie Henn, co-founder of the climate advocacy group 350.org.Both candidates voluntarily waded into a discussion about renewable energy and fossil fuels during discussions about increasing American energy independence and reducing the federal deficit. But while President Obama and Mitt Romney have both proclaimed their love of coal (the direct quote from Romney last night was "I like coal."), analysts have noted that both have good reasons to stay away from climate change.David Baker of the San Francisco Chronicle looked at the issue this morning. He notes that Romney is worried about alienating the GOP's base, which has increasingly rejected climate change over the past few years.A poll conducted last month by Bloomberg found that only 26 percent of Republicans believe human activity is warming the planet. Contrast that with 78 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents."The GOP is as stony a ground for that issue as you can find today," said Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute libertarian think tank and a frequent critic of federal environmental policy.Obama, on the other hand, is worried about alienating independents. And he's hoping to win coal mining battleground states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where Cato fellow Jerry Taylor adds: "Amongst those voters, swing voters in swing states, there's very little appetite for doing anything on climate change."
A new nationwide ranking of energy efficiency places Kentucky and Indiana in the bottom half of the nation.The annual scorecard is produced by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy. It looks at factors such as whether utility companies offer demand-side management, which allows consumers to move electricity usage to off-peak hours, and whether state have renewable portfolio standards or statewide efficiency efforts.On a scale of one to 50, with 50 being the lowest ranking, Indiana finished 33rd and Kentucky ranked 36th.Massachusetts topped the rankings for the second year in a row. To view the full rankings, click here.
Rising natural gas prices could mean good news for the country's coal industry...but there are still likely cuts to come in Central Appalachia. That's the gist of an article from SNL Finanacial.Earlier this year, gas was at less than $3 per MMBtu, which some call the "sweet spot" for coal to gas switching. Any higher than $3, and it's not as cut and dry a decision to switch to natural gas. But now, gas futures for November are trading at slightly higher than that: at $3.459 per MMBtu.Another factor in coal's favor: a hotter-than-usual summer (where everyone cranked the AC and burned lots of coal). The stockpiles of coal at power plants are getting back down to normal levels, which means some companies could start ordering more production.But the article quotes an analyst who says, unfortunately for Central Appalachian coal producers (which includes eastern Kentucky), those factors aren't enough to jumpstart production immediately.FBR Capital Markets analyst Mitesh Thakkar estimated that coal producers still need to cut about 40 million tons of annualized production to help balance the market and keep coal stockpiles at utilities from getting too high heading into the winter. "We could see another 10 million tons of production taken out of the market by the end of the year," he said, adding that he expected more cuts to come from Central Appalachia and that about half of those cuts would be to production of metallurgical coal, used in steel production.But once those cuts happen, Thakkar thinks Appalachian metallurgical coal producers especially could be in a stronger position by the end of next year.
Residents of Louisville’s Newburg and Buechel neighborhoods are protesting a planned sewage overflow basin in their area. They held a protest at City Hall today.The Metropolitan Sewer District began constructing the basin on a 40 acre site near Poplar Level Road, Jennings Lane and Produce Road six months ago. It’s designed to hold 100 million gallons of water, but will only be put to use when rain causes the city’s sanitary sewer system to overflow. Without a catch basin, the water flows untreated into area streams and the Ohio River.Residents are worried about odors and they want MSD to redesign the basin with a lid.But MSD officials say it’s not economical to cover it. Further, they say most of what ends up in the basin will be rainwater, but everything will be filtered, and MSD hasn’t had any odor complaints with similar basins.MSD has a meeting scheduled with an attorney representing the residents tomorrow. By the terms of MSD's federal consent decree, some of the basin will have to be finished by Fall 2013. The whole project is expected to be completed by the end of 2014.
A federal judge has ruled against environmental groups who wanted a mountain in West Virginia to be returned to the National Register of Historic Places.Blair Mountain, in southern West Virginia, was the site of a significant battle in the fight to unionize the coalfields. But it's also a mountain in southern West Virginia, which means it has significant coal reserves, and a coal company interested in mining them. There was a march for the mountain last year, and some Louisville residents and Kentuckians attended.Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette has a brief post about the ruling on his blog, Coal Tattoo.I’ve posted a copy of the ruling by U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton here, but in short, the judge ruled that the citizen groups could not meet one of the requirements to show “standing” to bring the case, that of “redressability,” or that a favorable ruling from the court would redress their injury. The judge explained:It is likely, therefore, that surface mining would be permitted on the Blair Mountain Battlefield as a result of permits that were acquired prior to the historic district’s inclusion on the National Register. An order from this Court restoring the Blair Mountain Battlefield to the National Register, therefore, will not prevent mining from occurring should the coal mining companies who own existing permits choose to exercise their rights afforded by the permits. The Court having only a limited ability to redress the plaintiffs’ asserted injuries, the plaintiffs have failed to meet their burden under the final prong of the standing inquiry.
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the recipients of their 'Genius Grants' yesterday, and one of them is a scientist dedicated to studying the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Nancy Rabalais is a marine ecologist and the executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium.A 'dead zone' is an area of a body of water that has extremely low oxygen, which makes it difficult for the area to support any type of aquatic life. The Gulf of Mexico's dead zone is the U.S.'s most notorious; in 2010, it was the size of New Jersey.This dead zone is something that's come up in the Ohio River Valley before, because states like Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio and Indiana are contributing to the dead zone by letting pollution from wastewater treatment plants and farms discharge into the Ohio River, which eventually makes its way down to the Gulf. In August, 2011, in an effort to stop contributing to the dead zone, environmental groups petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to set standards for pollutants like phosphorus and nitrogen (which right now, are regulated by the states). The petition was denied.As a MacArthur Fellow, Rabalais gets $500,000 with no strings attached. She has said the money will come in handy for her research, at a time when federal support is harder to get, and plans to spend at least some of the funds on new equipment.
The Kentucky Public Service Commission will begin a study of smart grid technology, and whether the devices will help electric consumers.The term “smart grid” is used to refer to technology like smart meters, and other equipment that helps utilities monitor electricity and detect outages. PSC spokesman Andrew Melnykovych says the tools can be useful for consumers, too.“Smart grid technology enables the use of dynamic pricing, which ties the cost of power to the time of day that it is used and to the overall demand on the system,” he said. “Customers can use the technology to monitor pricing and alter their usage accordingly.”This order marks the third time since 2006 the PSC has studied smart grids. The commissioners plan to look at all the issues related to implementing the technology, including implementation cost and whether the devices would encourage energy efficiency.Opinions on smart meters nationwide are mixed. Many environmental groups have embraced them, as a way to improve energy efficiency, and they’re supported by lobbyists and special interest groups. But some say there are concerns about privacy and health effects. Consumers Digest concluded in 2011 that the devices may not deliver on the cost savings they've promised.A few experts suggest that smart-meter conversion represents little more than a boondoggle that is being foisted on consumers by the politically influential companies that make the hardware and software that are required for the smart-meter conversion. And based on our investigation, it’s difficult to disagree.NPR’s Planet Money team also looked at the issue in 2010, and spoke with a behavioral economist who argued smart meters may cause people to use more electricity. “Electricity is really amazingly cheap. It's amazingly cheap to air-condition your whole house for a few hours,” said George Lowenstein of Carnegie Mellon. “And if the smart meter is giving you objective information about how much it's costing you, you might be surprised at how cheap it is rather than surprised at how expensive it is.”There’s no timeline yet for the Kentucky Public Service Commission’s study of the issue. All the major electric utilities in Kentucky—including Louisville Gas and Electric—are automatically parties to the case, and will be required to provide information to the PSC.
The Kentucky Public Service Commission has accepted a settlement in a rate case involving Big Rivers Electric Corp., which provides power to several electric co-ops in western Kentucky.When Big Rivers proposed environmental upgrades earlier this year, the improvements were estimated to cost ratepayers more than $283 million. The company planned to install more stringent pollution controls at four of its power plants, and convert the coal-fired Reid Plant in Sebree to natural gas.But the day before the case was scheduled for a hearing before the commissioners, a federal court overturned the Environmental Protection Agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule. The rule would have limited sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-fired power plants in several states, including Kentucky.With those regulations no longer on the horizon—but with the knowledge that different re-written rules could come in the future—the company and the intervening parties worked out an agreement. Under the settlement, Big Rivers won’t undertake its two most expensive pollution control projects: a $139 million scrubber at the Wilson Power Plant in Centertown and an $81 million nitrogen oxide control system at the Green Power Plant in Sebree. The Reid plant will still be converted to natural gas, and some smaller pollution controls will be updated.The Office of the Attorney General, the Kentucky Industrial Utility Customers, Inc. and the Sierra Club all intervened in the case. Sierra Club Attorney Kristin Henry says it didn’t make sense to require Big Rivers to comply with the recently-vacated Cross State Air Pollution Rule.She says the company did agree to conduct full-scale testing suggested by Big Rivers’ engineer, to ensure that the new technology used to reduce nitrogen oxide doesn’t cause more than the allowable amount of particulate emissions.But Henry says the Sierra Club’s stance is still that coal-fired power plants aren’t the least-cost option.“Whenever they have to do their next big pollution control equipment upgrade—maybe a baghouse for particulate matter, maybe a scrubber for pollution controls—we hope the commission will recognize that these plants are not economical to retrofit and it’s more economical to retire them.”The settlement agreement will cost ratepayers $58.5 million, an 80 percent reduction from the original proposal.
Louisville Gas and Electric has withdrawn its permit application for an additional coal ash landfill at its Cane Run plant.Coal ash, its storage and its tendency to blow onto neighboring properties have all been headaches for LG&E at Cane Run and the company is planning on phasing it out to build a natural gas facility.The landfill application, which has been pending since January 2010, was dropped due to the slated natural gas facility and to the building of an earthen wall that allows the existing landfill to hold more coal ash.“If we had not gone forward with the natural gas plant, we would have also had to build the extra landfill. But, being as that the natural gas plant will be online in 2015, we will have enough space there in the existing landfill if we add this wall,” Whelan said.LG&E announced in May that they would be trying to maximize landfill capacity by building the earthen wall."It’s kind of like a retaining wall that you see along the highways. That will not change the size or footprint of the existing landfill, but it will help us use the space better," Whelan said.The wall will be added to incrementally and as needed.LG&E expects to save $54 million by withdrawing the permit for the new landfill, which would have been built at Cane Run near the proposed plot for the natural gas facility.
In increasing numbers, scientists are in agreement that the earth’s climate is changing, and human carbon dioxide emissions are contributing to those changes. A NASA climate scientist was in Louisville this weekend to talk about the growing evidence.Gavin Schmidt is a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies. He says scientists have exhaustively studied the numerous signs of climate change—like warming oceans, melting glaciers—and then compared them to the fingerprints of different things. Like, are all these events being caused by sun brightness? Or volcanoes? He says they’ve narrowed it down, and the only culprit left is increases in carbon dioxide emissions.“It’s like we’re CSI Planet Earth, and we’ve looked at all the different suspects and matched their DNA, and there’s only one suspect that’s still in the picture,” he said.Schmidt says it’s disturbing that scientific results—even ones that could affect policy—are being attacked in political arenas.“The scientists here are really just messengers,” he said. “If your only response to the science is to shoot the messenger, then nature is going to give you a very clear wake up call.”Schmidt says science is already in unknown territory, because the climate and carbon dioxide levels have never been quite what they are now. He says the damage is likely irreversible, but with careful policy decisions, over the next few generations people will be able to slow the warming.The way climate change will affect coastal towns like New York and Miami is obvious—there will be flooding. In the Ohio River Valley, Schmidt says the future will likely be a continuation of the past year: hot, dry summers and short but very intense rainfalls, which will increase flooding.