Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Coal ash rules, industrial hemp, & teacher strikes

When a dike ruptured at the Kingston coal plant in Roane County, Tennessee a decade ago, it released more than a billion gallons of wet, gray coal ash, a byproduct of burning coal laced with arsenic and lead, into nearby waterways and neighborhoods. During the cleanup process, 4 million tons of it was sent by rail from Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston plant—located near a predominantly white, middle class neighborhood—to the Arrowhead landfill, which covers more than 1,300 acres in Perry County, Alabama. Today, the landfill, operated by Green Group Holdings, acceptsindustrial and solid waste from 33 states. 

Perry County, one of Alabama’s poorest counties, is predominantly black. In Uniontown, the small town where the landfill was built, the community is nearly 90 percent black, and nearly half of people live below the poverty line. For years, Uniontown residents have said the coal ash, which contains toxic chemicals like mercury, cadmium, and arsenic, has been affecting their air and water quality and causing cancer and asthma. They were also concerned that it sits just yards from many homes and right next to a historically black cemetery. Starting in 2013, several dozen residents filed complaints against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management under title VI of the Civil Rights Act, kicking off a long legal battle with the EPA. Green Group Holdings also sued Uniontown residents, though it was later settled in the residents’ favor. 

This month, the EPA just dismissed Uniontown’s case in a 29-page letter, citing “insufficient evidence” that Alabama regulators had breached the Civil Rights Act by allowing the company to operate the massive landfill in an overwhelmingly black community.

A coal ash spill in the Neuse River in North Carolina in 2016. Credit: Pete Harrison, Waterkeeper Alliance/Flickr

Within the same week, the EPA also announced it will move forward with more than a dozen changes to the the Obama-era Coal Combustion Residuals rule, which finalized regulations for disposal of coal ash. The agency claims this will save the utility sector “up to $100 million per year in compliance costs.” The changes would give states and utilitiesmore flexibility in deciding how and where to store coal ash, as well as how and when to clean up spills and leaks.

Coal plants produce around 100 million tons annually of ash and other waste. Most of it ends up in unlined ponds, which are more susceptible to leaking into groundwater than holdings lined with clay or plastic. In early March, utility plant owners from around the country released data—which was gathered as part of requirements from the 2015 rule—showing evidence of groundwater contamination at coal-fired power plants where ponds and landfills have been used as coal ash dumping grounds. North Carolina-based Duke Energy found contamination at 48 ash basins and landfills; Virginia-based Dominion Energy and Tennessee Valley Authority also reported finding contamination. Alabama Power was recently fined $1.25 million over coal ash ponds that were contaminating groundwater.

Some of these utilities, including Duke Energy, have started to excavate coal ash disposal sites so they can be moved to lined facilities less likely to leak. The Southern Environmental Law Center is engaged in multiple lawsuits around the region to force utilities to follow through with coal ash cleanup, as well. At the same time, Duke is also reporting that the research on contamination is being distorted, according to Utility Dive. Other utilities say they’re complying with federal standards, but they’re still fighting cleanup efforts: Tennessee Valley Authority recently appealed a federal judge’s decision to have coal ash removed from its Gallatin plant because of groundwater pollution, arguing that there’s little evidence of harm and the Clean Water Act shouldn’t have been applied in the case.

It is no small feat for utilities to move millions of gallons of coal ash to safer locations. But for decades, these companies were left unaccountable for their waste, until major spills occurred and communities like Uniontown attempted to hold them responsible. As public awareness has grown about the dangers of coal ash sites flooding, leaking, or spilling, so too has the movement to enforce maintenance and cleanup.

This is a similar plotline as surface mining companies dumping waste in Appalachian streams, or railroad companies polluting California’s air. In all these instances, it’s been shown that offering industry more leeway slows down efforts to address community concerns. To change the coal ash rule is to change—and potentially bury—the story of the data and evidence behind it. When the numbers are stripped away, these disenfranchised people are left with only their word. 

Stories worth your time

Congress could soon pass a bill that could legalize the cultivation of industrial hemp. Civil Eats spoke to farmers in Kentucky and other states who are experimenting through a federal grant to grow the crop and want to continue producing it before big agriculture companies get in the game.

The Miami Herald talked to Roy Wright, who oversees the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program, about how outdated FEMA’s flood maps are and how indebted the flood insurance program is. So far, flood claims for Irma in the state have amounted to $850 million. “If it says Florida, you need flood insurance. It may be more helpful than trying to find the right map,” Wright said.

West Virginia teachers ended their strike this week after lawmakers finally reached a deal to raise state employee pay by 5 percent, Gov. Jim Justice announced. But as the New Republic reports, it didn’t create a solution for funding the Public Employee Insurance Agency, which is supposed to provide public employees with affordable health insurance but has effectively been cutting funding every year. Some teachers are saying the fossil fuel industry should chip in: raising state severance taxes on coal and natural gas from 5 percent to 7.5 percent would generate an extra $93 million in revenue in 2019, according to the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. Justice is in support of raising the taxes, but Republican lawmakers are reluctant to adopt it.

Five census tracks around a neoprene plant in southern Louisiana have the highest risk of cancer in the country—in one tract, it’s more than 700 times the national average. NPR looks at how one community in St. John the Baptist Parish is fighting back after decades of dealing with pollution, illness, and false promises.

News flying under the radar

The West Virginia Senate has advanced a bill that would allow natural gas and oil companies to drill on land with the consent of at least 75 percent of the owners. It’s the farthest any bill like this has gotten in the legislature.

A federal judge granted Mountain Valley Pipeline developers immediate possession of land in Virginia that nearly 300 landowners refused to sell to the company.

Last week, Southerly was all about flooding in Louisville, and how the city is unprepared. Vox dissects a new study that shows how official estimates by FEMA have vastly underestimated the risks of flooding. FEMA estimates about 13 million people are at risk, and the research shows that 40.8 million people, or 13 percent of the population, are actually at risk—especially in Louisiana, Florida and West Virginia.

At least 2 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into marshes near Charleston, South Carolina after a pipe burst. Officials said the leak could have lasted anywhere from a week to two months before it was repaired.

South Carolina lawmakers are fighting over the expansion of the state’s solar industry: one legislative committee approved a bill that could make it more expensive for homeowners to install rooftop solar panels by eliminating subsidies; another approved a bill to lift a cap on solar.