Environment

Bill Hughes

This piece was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news organization.

The energy that lights up, turns on, cools and heats our lives leaves a trail of waste. Natural gas is no exception. The waste from the gas drilling known as “fracking” is often radioactive. The gas industry produces thousands of tons of this “hot” waste and companies and state regulators throughout the Ohio River valley and Marcellus Shale gas region struggle to find safe ways to get rid of it.

Last August a convoy of trucks carrying a concentrated form of this waste traveled from northern West Virginia to Irvine, Kentucky. The small town in Estill County lies near the Kentucky River, where Appalachian hills give way to rolling farm country.

The trucks were headed for a municipal waste facility called Blue Ridge Landfill. Just across Highway 89 from the landfill is the home where Denny and Vivian Smith live on property where their ancestors have lived since the 1800s.

“This is our home place,” Vivian Smith said from her sun porch. “This is roots for us.”

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It’s going to be a hot next few weeks in Louisville, with temperatures projected to reach the upper 80s or 90s almost every day.

Flavio Lehner says to get used to it.

Lehner, a post-doctoral researcher at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, is the author of a study on summer temperature projections. Using climate forecasting data, he and his colleagues found that if carbon dioxide emissions continue on their current pace, it’ll translate to hotter summers for most of the globe.

“Towards the end of this century, under a scenario where we continue emitting greenhouse gas unabated, you will see a very large chance that basically every summer in most parts of the world will be as hot or hotter than the hottest we’ve seen up to date,” Lehner said.

J. Tyler Franklin

A survey has found some interesting takeaways about Kentuckians’ attitudes toward climate change, including that the biggest influence on beliefs may be political affiliation rather than scientific knowledge.

There have been numerous studies about attitudes toward climate change around the country, but very few have looked at Kentucky specifically. For her master’s thesis at Kentucky State University, Jennifer Hubbard-Sanchez surveyed 229 Kentuckians about their climate change beliefs and knowledge.

Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that the earth’s climate is changing, and humans are contributing to that change. And Hubbard-Sanchez found that the majority of Kentuckians (about 70 percent) agree. But she also found some unexpected relationships between climate change beliefs and climate science knowledge.

J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

A Kentucky non-profit is the state’s only recipient in the latest round of federal environmental education grant funding.

The Kentucky Association for Environmental Education will get $91,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency to implement programs to increase climate literacy around the state.

“So by climate literacy, we mean people’s understanding of climate science in order to make educated decisions about it,” said KAEE Executive Director Ashley Hoffman.

Hoffman said the grant money will let the organization provide professional development for Kentucky educators through the state’s universities. Participants can then apply for additional money to put toward climate change-related community projects.

Ford Motor Company

There’s about 30 lbs. of polyurethane foam in the average vehicle. It’s in everything from headrests to seats and instrument panels. And usually, a key ingredient in that foam is petroleum.

But Ford Motor Company is experimenting with swapping out the petroleum for something that’s abundant in today’s environment: carbon dioxide.

“We conserve petroleum, we better the atmosphere and we make a very suitable material to use out of carbon dioxide,” saidDebbie Mielewski, Ford’s senior technical leader of sustainability.

Carbon dioxide is, of course, naturally in the atmosphere. But it’s also emitted from burning fossil fuels, and climate scientists have linked the earth’s quickly rising CO2 levels with climate change.

Ford’s new foam relies on a partnership with a company called Novomer that harvests waste carbon dioxide from sources like fossil fuel plants. Carbon capture technology hasn’t been proven to be economical on a large scale thus far.

J. Tyler Franklin, WFPL

A Louisville Catholic school will be the site of a new air pollution experiment, as researchers at the University of Louisville study whether trees and greenery can reduce pollution from a nearby roadway.

St. Margaret Mary School is located on Shelbyville Road, right across from Oxmoor Mall. It’s a busy road, and during peak times, cars often back up and idle at traffic lights.

It’s known that trees and greenery help reduce some types of air pollution — and that reducing such pollution has some health benefits. But this summer, University of Louisville researchers will begin testing whether adding a vegetative buffer at St. Margaret Mary will have a measurable effect on the pollution on school grounds.

“People appreciate trees and they’re good and they’re aesthetically pleasing, but whether they actually have specific quantifiable health-promoting effects by removing pollutants from air has never been rigorously tested,” said Aruni Bhatnagar, the director of U of L’s Diabetes and Obesity Center.

Erica Peterson, WFPL

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin says the commonwealth has a lot in its favor when it comes to attracting manufacturers.

But in a speech and question-and-answer session at the Kentucky Association of Manufacturers’ annual energy conference Wednesday, Bevin also spoke about the importance of planning for the future of workforce development.

Sometimes, he stressed, that includes making sure there are alternatives to four-year degrees available for high school graduates.

“As a kid who grew up poor in the country, I was blessed by opportunities that came my way to go to and graduate from college. But this idea that every kid needs to get on a fast track to some college degree, no matter what it’s in, is nonsense, it really is,” Bevin said.

“There are certain degrees that are frankly not applicable in your world, or frankly, in a lot of other worlds, either,” he said, jokingly using French Literature and Interdisciplinary Studies as examples.

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.

Wesselman Nature Society

A nature center in the middle of Evansville, Indiana is experiencing a rebirth.

The Wesselman Woods Nature Center opened in 1972, but was empty for the last few years.

After a $600,000 renovation, the center has opened new exhibits with a fresh perspective on a nature preserve with deep roots. 

The spotlight is on the importance of the nature center in a 200 acre virgin forest. That forest is now bounded by a mall, a highway and suburban developments.

John Scott Foster is executive director of the Wesselman Nature Society that operates the city-owned preserve.

“The preserve here is basically what most of Indiana looked like for 11,000 years," said Foster. "It’s the largest old growth forest inside a city boundary in the country. So it’s a very significant natural feature that most people didn’t realize.”

Some of the new exhibits highlight two species with big populations in both Indiana and Kentucky.

Art Smith, EPA

The Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection will join the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the cleanup of a significant arsenic site in Ohio County.

The Messenger-Inquirer reports the contamination was discovered in 2014 about six miles south of Daviess County. Since then, the EPA has been handling the investigation and planning the cleanup.

Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet spokesman John Mura says the state was called after arsenic was found on nearby properties.

EPA investigators believe the arsenic had been stored in containers inside a barn that burned down, releasing the arsenic into the ground. The EPA says exposure to arsenic can cause cancer, and high levels can be deadly.

Ohio County Judge-Executive David Johnson says he heard from a KDEP official that the reclamation process will begin in the summer. The cost of the project is unknown.

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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.

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