Erica Peterson

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

For the first time in about a century, no union coal miners are working in Kentucky. The state’s few remaining union miners were laid off New Year’s Eve when Patriot Coal’s Highland Mine in Western Kentucky shut down, the United Mine Workers of America confirmed.

“Appalachia was always a really tough nut for the union to crack, and I think maybe Kentucky was the toughest nut of all,” said labor historian James Green, author of a new book about West Virginia’s mine wars.

In retrospect, the fight to unionize Harlan County’s Brookside mine in 1973 was one of the last stands for the union in the commonwealth, Green said. The struggle was immortalized in the Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County, USA.”

The decline of unions is a nationwide trend that applies to organized labor of all types. In 1983, 20 percent of American workers belonged to some sort of labor union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes. By 2014, that number had fallen to 11 percent.

But Green said the decline of the coal workers’ union is one of the starkest in the country.

“The steel and auto industries have managed to regroup and regain some hold,” he said. “Still, most General Motors workers are [members of the United Auto Workers union]. You can’t say that about most coal miners.”

Lawmakers in Kentucky and Indiana want to add “farming” to the list of pursuits their citizens have a right to enjoy.  However, environmental advocates say the measures impede the ability of state regulators to protect the states from environmental damage from farms.

Both Kentucky and Indiana already have “Right to Farm” statutes. Among other things, these laws prevent farmers from being sued by neighbors for nuisance odors. The new legislation would take things a step further.

“What this constitutional provision would do would enshrine it and elevate that right to a protected right that’s on par with our right to vote, freedom of religion," argues Kim Ferraro, an attorney with the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Ferraro says by giving farming those protections, it’ll make it very difficult to impose any regulations on agriculture in the future.

If the legislation passes in either Indiana or Kentucky, it will be on the ballot for voter approval in 2016.

Congressman John Yarmuth of Louisville has reintroduced a bill that would order a comprehensive federal study of the health effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. The bill would also place a moratorium on all new permits until the study is completed.

The measure is called the Appalachian Community Health Emergency Act—or ACHE. It was first introduced in 2012, and at the time, Yarmuth told WFPL he wanted to raise awareness of the effects of mountaintop removal.

“Part of the reason I wanted to support the bill and the sponsors did, was to call attention to this," said Yarmuth.  "I mean, this is not a benign practice. It’s not benign in any respect, environmentally or in terms of its health impact.”

Several peer-reviewed studies in recent years have linked mountaintop removal mining to birth defects and lung, heart and kidney disease. The practice is efficient for coal operators who want to mine thinner seams of coal, and often requires fewer workers than underground mines.

Flickr/Creative Commons

A new public-private partnership in Kentucky will help the state’s livestock producers control their animals’ excrement.

The project will direct more than $4 million toward planning resources and on-the-ground solutions designed to help keep excess nutrients out of the commonwealth’s waterways. This is an issue in Kentucky—and in many watersheds. Nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus are used heavily in agriculture, but the runoff can cause problems in rivers and streams.

“In crop production, we utilize those nutrients to grow the crops we need,” said Amanda Gumbert of the University of Kentucky’s Agriculture Extension program.

“In livestock production, our animals are given nutrients through their feed, but then also we produce nutrients with manure. So, we have to balance that production of manure with the crops we want to grow without losing excessive nutrients into the environment.”

Erica Peterson, WFPL

A new analysis of products purchased at dollar stores around the country show that most included significant amounts of at least one hazardous chemical. The Campaign for Healthier Solutions tested 164 dollar store products—including several from stores in Louisville—and found high levels of chemicals like polyvinyl chloride, phthalates, lead and tin in 81 percent of them.

The products tested ran the gamut, from children’s toys to home décor to school and office supplies. Many were found to contain phthalates, which are endocrine disrupters that have been linked to birth defects, cancer, reproductive issues and asthma. Some had bromine, which is a component of fire retardants and is a possible human carcinogen. There’s no safe level of lead exposure for children; the heavy metal can cause brain and kidney damage.

In statements, the companies said they comply with all federal and state regulations:

Kentucky’s coal production and employment dropped only slightly in 2014, but sharper declines are likely in the future.

The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet released its quarterly coal report for the fourth quarter of 2014 today. Preliminary data suggest the state produced 3.7 percent less coal in 2014 than in 2013. Coal employment declined by 2.8 percent over the same time period.

The declines are less stark than they were a year ago. In 2013, the Energy and Environment Cabinet estimated that the state had lost 2,300 coal jobs. In 2014, 317 jobs were lost. But these losses add to the troubles the coal industry has faced recently. The fourth quarter of 2014 is the 14th consecutive quarter where coal employment has declined in the state, and Eastern Kentucky’s coal production in 2014 was only about 41 percent of what it produced as recently as 2008.

A new study suggests that toxic algae blooms found in lakes around the country—including in Kentucky-- may play an active role in creating their own favorable conditions.

Cyanobacteria are toxic blue-green algae, and can cause illness and irritation in humans and animals. They thrive in warmer waters with ample amounts of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

Last summer, regulators issued advisories for 15 lakes in the commonwealth that were known to have harmful algae blooms.

Dartmouth College biology professor Kathryn Cottingham co-authored the study, which suggests that algae can also create its own nutrients.

“They are capable of creating new nitrogen in the system by accessing nitrogen that’s currently in the atmosphere in forms that other organisms can’t use," explained Cottingham.  "They bring it into their bodies and they turn it into a form of nitrogen that can grow more of them, or more of somebody else.”

A lot of the excess nutrients in watersheds come from sources like fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants. Cottingham says the best solution is making sure that the pollution never gets into the water in the first place.

Four-and-a-half years after they were first announced, the Environmental Protection Agency plans to finalize the nation’s first federal rules on the handling of coal ash this month.

A new study conducted by researchers from West Virginia University and Indiana University links mountaintop removal coal mining with health problems in nearby residents.

The study took dust samples from homes near a mountaintop removal site in West Virginia, as well as a control site far from mining in the eastern part of the state.

IU professor and study co-author Michael Hendryx says researchers exposed both human lung cells and mice with tumors to the dust. They concluded that the mountaintop removal dust promotes lung cancer development and helps the disease progress quickly.

There have been other studies on health problems related to mountaintop removal mining, but Hendryx says this is the first one with direct environmental data linking the process directly with lung cancer.

“I think if you look at the body of research from this study and from others that we’ve done, the types of changes that we see and the types of chemicals that we see in the dust, if you put it all together, then I think that we’re at a point where we can say dust from mountaintop removal activity increases lung cancer among the people that live there," said Hendryx.

The results of the study were published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Office of Sec. Grimes

Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes isn’t being honest with voters about her support of Kentucky’s coal industry, according to a video released today by the conservative Project Veritas.

The video by James O’Keefe—who was widely criticized for deceptively editing a video about ACORN in 2009—relies on hidden camera interviews with Kentucky Democratic officials about Grimes and coal, but ultimately doesn't prove much about where she truly stands on coal.

The video was disseminated with a headline stating that it's Grimes' staff members who are talking.

But O’Keefe fails to get either Alison Lundergan Grimes or any of her paid campaign staffers on video. What he gets instead are county Democratic Party officials—from Fayette and Warren counties—and a field organizer. All say something similar to what Juanita Rodriguez of Warren County says when asked if Grimes is lying about her support of coal:

“Well, I don’t really think her heart is 100 percent in backing coal, but she has to say she is because she will not get a huge number of votes in this state if she doesn’t,” Rodriguez said.

Pages