First Day Wrap-up of Kentucky Coal Trials

Cross-posted from Appalachian Voices

The first day of the hearing against the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and ICG and Frasure mining companies concluded Wednesday evening. Appalachian Voices, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and Waterkeeper Alliance intend to show that the penalties assessed by the Cabinet for the two coal companies are not sufficient to address the severity of the Clean Water Act violations committed by the two companies. If the judge rules in our favor, we will be able to pursue further legal action against both ICG and Frasure Creek for their violations.

Over the course of the day, our attorneys built a case that demonstrated the violations found were not merely administrative violations, but substantive pollution violations that indicated clear disregard for the law. Patrick Garrity, of the Kentucky Department for Environmental Protection, testified to the poor condition of the lab used for many of the coal companies’ discharge monitoring reports, as well as the large discrepancies between testing results from the lab and the state during split sampling. The Cabinet was reluctant to disclose details of the means by which the number of violations and fine amounts were determined. Judge Shepard acknowledged the need for “protection of the Cabinet’s deliberative process,” but explained that understanding this detail would allow the court to determine the appropriateness of the Cabinet’s actions against the coal companies. Throughout the proceedings, objections came quickly from the opposing counsel. For the most part, these objections were overruled or noted, rather than sustained. We were not allowed to call the Energy and Environment Cabinet Secretary, Len Peters, as a witness, as he was not directly involved with investigation of the companies. We were allowed to ask questions about his op-ed article addressing reasons for the Cabinet’s enforcement failures. You can read more on this in Ronnie Ellis’s story here.

Several interesting facts were revealed during the hearing. The Cabinet admitted to not knowing the total number of NPDES pollution discharges held between the two companies. Given that wastewater discharge pipes from sediment and slurry ponds on surface coal mines are required to be permitted under the Clean Water Act, it is reasonable to believe that an accurate count of such discharges would be known to the regulators. Additionally, the Cabinet acknowledged new, on-going violations by both companies in 2011. Unlike many earlier violations that consisted of repeating “cut and paste” data, the 2011 violations are often permit limit violations of heavy metals and pH levels. This confirms our suspicion that the earlier inaccurate data likely covered up excessive, illegal pollution discharges. The Cabinet has brought new enforcement actions against both companies for the new violations. Additional coverage of the trial can be found in James Bruggers’s article.

Appalachian Voices just received copies of the Notice of Violation (NOV) documents submitted by the Cabinet to both ICG and Frasure for their most recent violations. The violations, listed below, are clearly much more serious than mere administrative violations.

The violations cited for ICG are:

• 75 instances of permit limit violations for manganese, iron, total suspended solids and pH
• 17 instances of failing to report twice a month as required
• failure to submit any DMRs for the Left Fork Processing Waste Impoundment for January, February, and March 2011
• failure to submit iron, manganese and flow results for three outfalls

The violations cited for Frasure Creek are:

• failure to submit any DMRs for 260 outfalls at 32 facilities for January, February and March 2011
• 165 instances of monthly average and daily max permit limit violations for manganese, iron, total suspended solids and pH
• failure to get permit coverage for 9 outfalls (discharging without a valid permit)
• 4 instances of failing to sample twice a month as required

To put these violations in perspective, it would require all wastewater outfalls* from sewage and storm water treatment facilities between Pike, Letcher, Harlan, Martin, Floyd, Knott and Perry counties in eastern Kentucky discharging illegally for 7 months in order to equal the violations from 260 outfalls for which Frasure Creek submitted no DMRs in any one of three total months.

The Cabinet seems to be more stringent in its requirements of Frasure Creek, as compared to ICG. The Cabinet required Frasure to submit 21 corrective action plans to prevent additional pollution discharges above allowable levels; however, even though ICG had 75 pollution exceedences at 18 facilities, they were not required to submit any corrective action plans.

While we are pleased that the Cabinet has continued to investigate both companies for on-going violations, we realize we must not consider our job done. These violations would likely not have been identified had we not put pressure on both the coal companies and the Cabinet through the original notices of intent (NOI) to sue. This most recent set of NOVs came only after we filed our second set of NOIs against Frasure and ICG — the the NOVs were filed just inside the 60 day notice period. Furthermore, the Cabinet has only brought complaints against the companies we have identified. While we certainly hope this fact indicates that all other surface coal mines are operating within the law, we find this possibility unlikely. The fact remains that mountaintop removal mining and valley filling result in tremendous negative impact to water quality, making it both difficult and costly for mining companies to properly control their pollution discharge.

*as calculated from 35 total outfalls mapped by the state of Kentucky for the above mentioned counties.

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First Day Wrap-up of Kentucky Coal Trials

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