One of the nation's largest coal producers will pay more than $27 million in fines and spend another $200 million in a settlement with the federal government. Alpha Natural Resources was fined for violating water pollution limits in Kentucky and four other Appalachian states.

The settlement is for more than 6,000 violations between 2006 and last year. Some of the violations were at mines owned by other companies—like Massey Energy—that Alpha purchased. The EPA says the company’s Appalachian mines discharged large amounts of heavy metals directly into streams.

Alpha Senior Vice President Gene Kitts says the company has implemented advanced technology to control pollution at some of its coal mines.

"We feel the settlement is fair. We have systems already going into place," he said.

Kitts says the settlement payout won’t affect ongoing operations, or cause the company to close any mines or lay off any workers.

This is the largest penalty the EPA has ever levied under Section 402 of the Clean Water Act. After the settlement was announced, environmental groups sent out a statement criticizing the agency for letting the pollution happen in the first place.

Kentucky LRC

A legislative committee has advanced a bill to clarify Kentucky’s eminent domain laws.

If the bill becomes law it would amend Kentucky law to clarify that natural gas liquids pipelines—including the proposed Bluegrass Pipeline—aren’t eligible for eminent domain in the commonwealth.

Legal experts have disagreed as to whether the Bluegrass Pipeline could use eminent domain to obtain easements to carry the byproducts of gas drilling through Central Kentucky. The Judiciary Committee heard rushed testimony from several landowners, but none of the representatives from the laborers’ international union in attendance spoke. The group has previously voiced support for the pipeline.  

Representative Johnny Bell of Glasgow spoke directly to those union members when casting his vote.

"Those of you who are up here today to protect your jobs, we all appreciate that," the Barren County Democrat said. "Your job is important to you and it’s important to us, but I feel that a person’s property rights is one of the highest rights that we have in this country, so I vote yes on that and thank you all for being here today."

Now that the bill has cleared committee, it will be up for a vote on the House floor before it goes to the Senate.

Bluegrass Pipeline Project Delayed a Year

Feb 20, 2014
Kentucky LRC

One of the companies wanting to build a controversial pipeline to transport natural gas liquids across Kentucky says the project has been delayed up to a year.

In year-end 2013 financial results, Williams Co. President and CEO Alan Armstrong said the in-service target of the Bluegrass Pipeline project was being shifted to mid to late 2016 "to better align with the needs of producers."

The 500-mile pipeline, being built by Williams Co. of Tulsa, OK and Boardwalk Pipeline Partners of Houston, would carry liquids through northern and central Kentucky.

A group of Catholic nuns successfully redirected the route of the pipeline off their land last year and other religious leaders joined them to oppose the project, delivering thousands of signatures to Governor Beshear's office in November.

On Wednesday, Beshear endorsed legislation that would protect landowners from having their land seized for the project. That bill received its first committee hearing in Frankfort Wednesday. It would require private non-utility companies like those responsible for the Bluegrass Pipeline to obtain consent from a landowner before building.

A Western Kentucky coal miner is alleging several counts of workplace discrimination, after he reported safety problems at his job and was fired.

Four cases against Ken American Resources were filed last week.

Patrick Shemwell worked at a coal plant operated by Ken American in Muhlenberg County. He initially filed six discrimination complaints against his employer, saying he was retaliated against and ultimately fired for reporting safety problems at the prep plant.

The company settled, and Shemwell got his job back.

But according to the lawsuits filed last week, almost immediately, more problems arose. He reported unsafe conditions, was reassigned to equipment on which he had no training, received a death threat, and ultimately was fired again.

Since 1977, the federal Mine Safety and Health Act has protected miners from discrimination for reporting safety issues.

“My guess is that Patrick has filed more discrimination cases under that law than any other miner in the country during that time period," says Shemwell's lawyer, Tony Oppegard.

President Obama said Tuesday that he has told the Environmental Protection Agency to work with the Department of Transportation on a second round of regulations to improve the fuel efficiency of medium- and heavy-duty trucks. The goal: reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they contribute to the environment.

Clean-up is continuing nearly two weeks after a tanker truck spilled thousands of gallons of fuel in Pulaski County, Kentucky.  

The fuel has also gotten into a local cave system.

An 8,000 gallon fuel spill would cause problems no matter the location. But the accident on January 30 was in the midst of the Sloans Valley cave system near Somerset, and early tests showed that at least some of the fuel entered the cave.

Kevin Strohmeier is an emergency response coordinator with the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection. He says since Friday, air tests for volatile organic compounds at cave entrances have been negative. This could mean that all of the fuel that got into the cave has volatilized and evaporated, but Strohmeier says there are still environmental concerns at the spill site.

"I think probably just making sure that we try to maintain control of the source and if we can remove it, we do that," he said. "If we can’t remove it, we monitor it and recover as much of it as possible.

Strohmeier says he doesn’t yet know if there was any permanent damage done to the cave system by the spill.

Caves are very sensitive environments, and wildlife officials have also been monitoring the local bat population.

"Agenda 21" Bill Headed to Full Kentucky Senate

Feb 7, 2014
Kentucky LRC

A bill aimed at preventing a proposal by the United Nations to regulate environmental issues has cleared a Kentucky Senate committee.

Senate Bill 31, filed by Northern Kentucky Sen. John Schikel, seeks to prevent the state from adopting any environmental provisions set forth by a U.N. emissions-reduction plan known as “Agenda 21.”

The plan is renowned in conspiracy circles as a scheme by the world governing body to usurp private property, but Schickel says his bill is far from conspiracy theory.

“I don’t look at it as a threat, but, we believe, and I believe, and many of my constituents believe that United States officials, Kentucky officials and local officials should be making our environmental laws and making those decisions and not international organizations," Schikel said.

The bill now heads to the Senate Rules Committee.

Kentucky’s coal industry shed more than 2,300 jobs last year, according to the latest numbers from the state Energy and Environment Cabinet.

Most of those losses were in eastern Kentucky .

The final quarterly coal report from the Energy and Environment cabinet wraps up a dismal year for the industry. And for Eastern Kentucky, this marks the 10th straight quarter of declining coal employment.

Since 2007, Eastern Kentucky has lost more than 6,000 coal jobs, just under half. Coal production has dropped even more drastically. At the same time, production and employment have grown modestly in the western portion of the commonwealth.

A number of factors are behind the decline, including pollution controls that allow plants to burn higher sulfur coal, like that mined in western Kentucky and Illinois.

The State Department says that production of Canadian tar-sand crude, which has a bigger greenhouse gas footprint than other types of oil, is unlikely to be increased if the Keystone XL pipeline goes ahead — and therefore would do little to contribute to climate change.

Kentucky’s third annual sandhill crane hunting season wrapped up Sunday, and Fish and Wildlife officials are calling it a success.

The most recent numbers show 87 birds were killed in this year’s sandhill crane hunting season, mostly in Barren County. That’s slightly lower than last year, when 92 birds were killed. But both years, the actual hunt fell far below the quota of 400 birds the Department of Fish and Wildlife set.

Wildlife Biologist John Brunjes says nearly 400 people got permits to hunt sandhill cranes this year, but many weren’t successful.

"They’re an extremely difficult bird to hunt, they’re extremely wary," Brujes said. "It’s a challenge. The biggest limiting factor is there are only a few places where they occur in the state."

When Kentucky first began allowing sandhill crane hunting in 2011, it was controversial. Opponents argued the birds aren’t overpopulated or damaging the environment, and should be protected.

This year, Brunjes says there were about 68,000 birds in the sandhill crane’s eastern population. If that number ever fell below 30,000, that would trigger an automatic halt to the hunting season.