Erica Peterson

Erica reports on environment and energy issues for WFPL, which run the gamut from stories about the regionââââ

Erica Peterson, WFPL

Kentucky’s coal industry continued its freefall in the first quarter of this year, according to data released Monday by the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Coal production fell nearly 13 percent across the state in the first three months of 2016. Only about 11 million tons of coal was mined, making this the lowest statewide rate since 1939.

As has been the trend, Eastern Kentucky’s coalfields took a larger hit than Western Kentucky. Eastern Kentucky coal production declined more than 21 percent in the first three months of this year alone. The last time coal production was lower in the region was 1917. The bulk of the job losses came in Eastern Kentucky too, with more than a thousand jobs lost this quarter. Statewide, about 6,900 coal miners are employed: the lowest level recorded since 1898.

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet Assistant Director Aron Patrick said it’s likely that Kentucky coal production and employment will continue to drop—at least for the next two years or so.

Gabe Bullard

An environmental nonprofit has named an Eastern Kentucky river as one of the nation’s 10 most endangered.

American Rivers released its annual list Tuesday, and it includes the Russell Fork River.

The Russell Fork is on the border between Kentucky and Virginia, and flows through the Breaks Interstate Park. It’s used for whitewater rafting and fishing, but it’s coal mining that landed it on the annual list.

For the past few years, the Russell Fork has been threatened by a mountaintop removal mine proposed by Paramount Coal, a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources. The Doe Branch mine was proposed several years ago but hasn’t moved forward. The Environmental Protection Agency has issued objections to the project, citing existing pollution problems in the watershed.

Tarence Ray of nonprofit Appalachian Voices said the juxtaposition of the Doe Branch permit and the Russell Fork River is emblematic of the choice many coalfields communities are facing.

Erica Peterson

Despite the fact that federal carbon reduction rules have been put on hold, a Kentucky group is moving ahead with discussions about how the state should reduce its emissions.

The Clean Power Plan was stayed by the Supreme Court earlier this year, while multiple states — including Kentucky — challenge the rule in court. The regulation sets out carbon dioxide reduction goals for each state, and gives states the option of crafting their own plans to meet those goals.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth announced last year that it would build a state plan for Kentucky by crowdsourcing ideas. At the time, there was a question of whether Kentucky would even submit a state plan, and the answer to that still isn’t clear.

WFPL News

A push for Congress to extend tax credits for carbon capture and sequestration has a diverse group of advocates, including some who make unlikely bedfellows.

Organizations ranging from think tanks to coal companies to environmental groups sent a letter this week to U.S. Senate Committee on Finance chairman Orrin Hatch and Ranking Member Ron Wyden, asking the senators to extend a tax credit for companies that capture and sequester the carbon dioxide from fossil fuel plants.

The groups are asking Hatch and Wyden to extend the tax credit in a bill that funds the Federal Aviation Administration. There’s already a tax credit for carbon capture, but it includes a cap of 75 million tons of carbon. The extension would eliminate the cap.

It’s not surprising that coal and energy companies support tax breaks for advanced coal technology — coal’s share of the nation’s energy mix is falling, and many think perfecting the technology to sequester greenhouse gases is the best hope for the industry.

Anything is possible, but it seems unlikely that a Senate bill to abolish state mine safety inspections will pass the General Assembly this year. Legislators are scheduled to return to Frankfort next week for one day before concluding this year’s regular session.

Senate Bill 297 would repeal parts of Kentucky law that require state mine inspectors to examine underground coal mines at least six times a year, and other coal mines at least once every six months. Instead of mine inspectors, the state would employ mine safety analysts who would focus on compliance assistance rather than enforcement. Under the provisions of a last-minute amendment by bill sponsor Sen. Chris Girdler, the analysts would be appointed by the governor.

The bill is supported by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet — which is currently responsible for mine inspections — and the Kentucky Coal Association, who say the state and federal government duplicate each other’s efforts. It’s opposed by mine safety advocates, who say state inspections play an essential role in keeping coal mines safe.

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A new workgroup will begin meeting next week to assess Kentucky’s handling of lead in its drinking water systems and develop recommendations for best practices.

To be clear, they’re not responding to an existing problem.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet formed the workgroup in response to the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan. After that city switched its drinking water source, thousands of children began showing signs of lead poisoning. The new water source was corrosive and wasn’t being treated with anti-corrosion chemicals. Because of the unbalanced chemistry, when the water ran through the pipes, heavy metals leached into it.

Lead is extremely dangerous for children; it builds up in bodies, and lead poisoning has been linked to numerous health problems, including developmental delays.

Tarence Ray/Appalachian Voices

State regulators have told an Eastern Kentucky coal mine to immediately cease operations after a pond overflow released iron-laced water into a stream last week and killed hundreds of fish.

The spill at the mine — operated by Hardshell Tipples in Letcher County — sent reddish, acidic water into nearly a mile-and-a-half of Pine Creek, as well as a tributary. More than 700 fish were found dead in the vicinity, and Department for Natural Resources inspectors linked the fish kill with the iron-saturated and acidic water released from the pond in violations they issued to the company.

In addition to the Imminent Danger Cessation Order, the DNR issued three violations to the company earlier this week. Another violation from the Department for Environmental Protection is pending, and cabinet spokesman John Mura said regulators issued an additional Hydrologic Resources (HR) violation today.

“The HR violation directs the company to immediately stop the discharge, obtain a stream restoration plan from the Division of Water, and obtain a fish restocking plan from the Division of Fish and Wildlife or a letter from the Division of Fish and Wildlife stating natural restocking of the stream is sufficient,” Mura said in an email.

Tarence Ray/Appalachian Voices

State regulators are continuing to monitor an Eastern Kentucky creek that ran red due to mine discharge over the weekend, though they say it wasn’t responsible for dead fish and turtles reported in the area.

Kentucky Energy and Environment spokesman John Mura said mine activity at Hardshell Tipples in Letcher County overflowed a retention pond on Friday, sending the iron-laced water into Pine Creek. The state Division of Natural Resources issued three violations to the company, Mura said, and is continuing to monitor the site to see if the company is in compliance with state regulations that prohibit discharging mine waste into water supplies.

Tarence Ray with nonprofit Appalachian Voices said he alerted authorities when he heard about the spill. He said a reddish stain was visible flowing out of Pine Creek into the North Fork of the Kentucky River, and he took pictures and video documenting dead fish and turtles on the riverbanks. He also measured pH and conductivity, and found the creek was relatively acidic.

But Mura said the state doesn’t believe the spill caused any damage to aquatic life in Pine Creek. The company is treating the spill by putting soda ash into the retention pond.

Flickr/Creative Commons/John Karwoski

A bill under consideration in the Kentucky General Assembly that would end state coal mine safety inspections isn’t being pursued for financial reasons, according to the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Senate Bill 297 would change Kentucky law to eliminate the provision that requires state coal mine inspections, in addition to federal inspections. Although the bill’s sponsor — Sen. Chris Girdler — didn’t return requests for comment, WFPL reported Monday that Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Bissett said one of the motivations for the bill was financial in the face of stiff state budget cuts.

But on Tuesday, Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman John Mura said the bill is, in fact, cost-neutral for the state. It would take current mine inspectors — there are 62 of them — and turn them into “mine safety analysts.”

Erica Peterson

A bill under consideration in Kentucky’s General Assembly would eliminate state mine inspections, a move that a safety advocate said would have adverse effects on mine safety in Kentucky.

Senate Bill 297 was introduced last week by Sen. Chris Girdler, a Republican from Somerset. It would repeal parts of Kentucky law that require state mine inspectors to examine underground coal mines at least six times a year, and other coal mines at least every six months.

The bill’s text reads:

“Whereas the coal industry has been regulated by both the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) and the Energy and Environment Cabinet, Division of Mine Safety during a time of economic downturn in the coal industry, which places an undue burden on the regulated community, an emergency is declared to exist, and this Act takes effect upon its passage and approval by the Governor or upon its otherwise becoming law.”

Both state and federal regulatory agencies inspect Kentucky coal mines, but mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard said the inspections complement, rather than duplicate, each other. And he added that while the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration attaches a monetary penalty for every citation it issues, it’s rare for state inspectors to levy civil fines.

Jacob Ryan, WFPL

Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration has filed a lawsuit against a second Kentucky abortion provider, alleging the facility provided abortions without a license.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday against Eubanks & Marshall of Lexington, PSC, which does business as EMW Women’s Clinic. It alleges the clinic wasn’t properly licensed, and didn’t have proper transfer agreements in place with a hospital and ambulance service. The Cabinet for Health and Family Services filed the lawsuit.

“Last month it was brought to our attention that EMW in Lexington is operating without a license,” said CHFS Secretary Vickie Yates Glisson in a press release. “Our inspectors visited the location and confirmed that EMW is unlicensed and does not have the required ambulance transfer agreement in place to protect women in the case of emergency. Furthermore, the inspector found the facility in an unsanitary condition. Regrettably, the location had not been inspected since 2006. There are laws in place to protect our citizens, and we will ensure the laws are upheld.”

Jake Ryan, WFPL News

Under changes that go into effect next month, Kentucky and every other state will have to assess the risks posed by climate change in its hazard mitigation plan.

Every state is required to submit such a plan to the Federal Emergency Management Agency every five years. And now, for the first time, FEMA has changed its guidelines to require that states don’t just examine and plan for the risks they have faced in the past, but analyze how climate change could affect the severity and frequency of events like flooding, droughts and heat waves.

The agency says preparing for these risks is necessary, as these weather events become more common. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last month that 2015 was the hottest year on record globally, and extreme heat is affecting more Americans every year. The agency also says flooding is posing an increased risk to human health and the nation’s economy.

Erica Peterson

Nearly all of Kentucky’s federal representatives have formally filed a document in support of a lawsuit challenging the Environmental Protection Agency’s carbon dioxide regulations.

The EPA finalized the Clean Power Plan last summer. It sets carbon reduction goals for each state, and is part of President Obama’s overall goal of addressing climate change. Almost immediately, a coalition of states — including Kentucky — and industry groups sued to overturn the rule.

The lawsuit is set to be heard in June by the D.C. Court of Appeals. Earlier this month, the Supreme Court issued a stay, blocking the regulations from going into effect until all legal challenges are settled.

The amicus brief filed today by more than 200 U.S. senators and representatives supports the challenges against the EPA’s rule. All of Kentucky’s Republican senators and congressmen — which is all of the state’s federal delegation except for Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville — signed on to the brief.

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The future of Kentucky’s controversial changes to a water quality standard is up in the air, after a settlement last year sent the changes back for federal review.

Selenium is a naturally occurring substance that’s released into waterways during strip mining. In large amounts, it’s toxic to both aquatic life and humans. The substance also bioaccumulates up the food chain, so as fish eat other fish, levels of selenium rise.

In November 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency approved changes to Kentucky’s water quality standard that changed the way selenium was measured. The state had requested permission to do away with the chronic — or long-term — standard, and instead institute a two-part process: If water testing reveals levels above a certain benchmark, it triggers fish tissue testing.

The EPA signed off on the changes, but environmental groups sued. In October, all the parties reached an agreement that sent Kentucky’s selenium standard back to the EPA for reconsideration. Part of that involves consulting the Endangered Species Act, which the agency was required to do and hadn’t completed the first time around.

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A bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul would allow Fort Knox to continue producing natural gas to power the Army base.

Almost a year ago, Fort Knox became the first U.S. base to generate all of its own electricity. The move was spurred by the region’s 2009 ice storm; parts of Fort Knox lost power for nearly a week and highlighted the national security need for the base to become self-sufficient.

“It was pretty devastating, and Fort Knox was without power for upwards of seven days in some places,” Fort Knox Energy Manager R.J Dyrdek said in March.

The transition was helped by the discovery of natural gas reserves under the property. Now, Fort Knox is powered by a mixture of solar power, on-site natural gas and geothermal. In 2013, the post unveiled the largest solar panel array on a military installation east of the Mississippi River.

Developing natural gas resources on federal lands usually falls to the Department of the Interior. The bill introduced last week by Paul, a Republican, would make Fort Knox an exception and allow the Department of Defense to keep producing natural gas to power the site.

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