All About The Benjamins: Coal, Pollution & Mine Inspectors In Appalachia

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In June 2013, mine operator and Kentucky state representative Keith Hall went to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet with a complaint.

Kelly Shortridge, a mine inspector with the Division of Mine Enforcement and Reclamation in Pikeville, had been soliciting Hall for bribes to ignore violations on Hall’s Pike County surface mines.

Hall told two cabinet officials that he had already paid Shortridge “a small fortune,” and that the mine inspector “liked the Benjamins.” A report was drawn up, forwarded to the cabinet’s investigator general and Secretary Len Peters, and went nowhere.

The FBI began investigating the matter when the Lexington Herald-Leader published Hall’s complaint report through an open records request. In June, Hall was found guilty of bribing Shortridge to ignore Hall’s safety and environmental violations.

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During the trial, the bureau submitted evidence that strongly suggests Keith Hall was not the only operator paying Kelly Shortridge. Shortridge himself has admitted to taking bribes from other Pike County operators.

So how deep does the conspiracy go? That’s the question many are asking in the wake of Hall’s trial. The Herald-Leader published a recent editorial that pointed out the familiar territory here:

This is not the first time questions have arisen about the Pikeville office of the Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement where Shortridge, an inspector for 24 years, worked.

Other Pikeville-based inspectors allowed a surface mine (not owned by Hall) to operate without a permit for 18 months, until July 2010, when rain dislodged the unreclaimed mountain and flooded out about 80 families. One of the inspectors retired a month later.

Remember, too, that the division went years without penalizing coal companies for filing bogus water pollution reports by copying and pasting the same data, month after month.

This falsified water pollution data was only discovered after a coalition of environmental and citizen groups including Appalachian Voices discovered water monitoring reports that the department had neglected to review for over three years. The fact that the FBI had to find out about Hall’s allegations by reading the newspaper – and not through the cabinet itself – reveals a similar pattern of negligence.

How committed is the cabinet to enforcing Kentucky’s environmental and safety regulations around mining? The answer may lie in the phenomenally small salary that the state was paying Shortridge at the time of his 2014 resignation: $45,160 a year.

This may seem like an insignificant detail, but it speaks volumes about how our regulatory systems function, what they prioritize, and what motivates the individuals who operate within them. Shortridge was using his small salary, in addition to the bribes he was taking from Hall and others, to pay for his wife’s medical bills. It’s impossible to speculate about his personal character, but it does seem clear that he was responding to a specific set of material conditions in a way that most individuals on that kind of salary – and in that kind of position – very likely would.

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Without much incentive to enforce existing regulations, and knowing that it pays more to cozy up to the industry than to fight it, we really must ask: how many other Kelly Shortridges are out there? This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable question to ask of a regulatory system that, at best, lacks the political capital and material resources to enforce violations, and, at worst, is overseen by the very mine operators it’s supposed to be regulating. (Before being voted out of office in 2014, Keith Hall was the vice chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.)

Finally, Keith Hall’s remark that Kelly Shortridge “liked the Benjamins” – an incredibly condescending statement from a man who once appropriated his own county’s coal severance tax to the benefit of one of his companies – is revelatory. It hints that there are boundaries to what is and what isn’t acceptable within relationships between the coal industry and the state: Shortridge was getting ambitious; his greed was somehow different than Hall’s. Keep in mind that this was confessed to two cabinet officials, mob-style, as if Shortridge was breaking a set of established rules. Hall needed Shortridge until he didn’t, and then sold him down the river when he became an annoyance.

Now that they’re both paying for breaking the rules, will Governor Steve Beshear’s administration adequately investigate further possible corruption? It unfortunately doesn’t look likely.

As the Herald-Leader editorial notes, “This should be a moment of truth, but history tells us not to expect an aggressive self-examination of the state agency’s love affair with the coal industry.”

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– See more at: http://appvoices.org/2015/07/30/a-moment-of-truth-for-kentuckys-coal-regulators/#sthash.oVZYbSbu.dpuf

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Iowa Governor: Des Moines Water Utility Should ‘Tone Down’ Criticism of Agricultural Pollution

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Iowa Governor Terry Branstad told reporters Tuesday that Des Moines Water Works — a private utility that provides water to some 500,000 residents in the Des Moines area — should “just tone it down” when it comes to monitoring water pollution from agriculture.

“The Des Moines Water Works ought to just tone it down and start cooperating and working with others, like Cedar Rapids is doing, and other communities in the state of Iowa,” Branstad reportedly said when asked if the state government would work to help Des Moines Water Works customers impacted by the utility’s expected 10 percent rate increase.

Water Works claims that the rate hikes are necessary to cover the increased costs of water treatment due to nitrate pollution, which comes from largely unregulated fertilizer runoff from surrounding farmland. According to the Des Moines Register, Water Works has spent $1.5 million for nitrate removal since December of 2014, and plans to spend up to $183 million more for new nitrate removal equipment built to keep up with high levels of pollution.

The EPA allows up to 10 milligrams of nitrates per liter in public drinking water — anything higher than that is considered a threat to public health. The Des Moines and Raccoon rivers, from which the Des Moines Water Works pulls its water, both have exhibited levels in excess of federal standards, a trend that’s mirrored in major rivers across the state. According to an April report by the Des Moines Register, nitrate levels across Iowa’s major rivers have more than tripled, increasing from about 2 milligrams per liter on average in 1954 to more than 7 milligrams per liter between 1954 and 2010.

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“It’s unmistakable. The long-term trend is decidedly upward,” Keith Schilling, a research scientist at the Iowa Geological Survey at the University of Iowa, told the Des Moines Register. Researchers say that the rise of row-cropping, farm drainage tiles, and the loss of perennial crops have helped make nutrient runoff an issue in Iowa.

In response to high nitrate levels, the Des Moines Water Works announced in January of this year that they would sue three neighboring counties that have failed to properly manage the nutrients applied to their farmland.

“When they build these artificial drainage districts that take water, polluted water, quickly into the Raccoon River, they have a responsibility to us and others as downstream users,” Bill Stowe, general manager of the Des Moines Water Works, told Iowa Public Radio in a January interview.

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But taking aggressive action like this, Branstad said Tuesday, has alienated Des Moines Water Works from state officials and legislatures, many of whom represent districts where agriculture is the primary economic driver. In each of the three counties that the Des Moines Water Works is suing (Buena Vista, Calhoun and Sac counties), farms account for 98 percent of the surface land.

“If they want to cooperate and work with us, they are much more likely to get assistance and support,” Branstad said. “If they are continuing to sue and attack other people, that is not doing to get them the kind of assistance and support they would like to have.”

Branstad contended that the state has taken steps to reduce nitrate pollution through a set of voluntary measures known as the Iowa Nutrient Reduction Strategy. The Des Moines Register survey of nitrate pollution did show a slight decline in nitrate levels in recent decades, perhaps due to farmers employing more conservation practices.

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“I think we in the state of Iowa want clean water and we want to do everything we can,” Branstad told reporters. “We have a nutrient reduction strategy. We are working on a cooperative and collaborative basis.”

But Graham Gillette, chairman of the Des Moines Water Works Board of Trustees, told the Des Moines Register that Branstad’s comments were “hurtful and derogatory.”

“There is no one in a better situation to help with the water situation in the state than the governor, and I am just baffled why he is not interested in even participating in the conversation,” Gillette said.

How to feed nine billion within the planet’s boundaries: the need for an agroecological approach

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Global agriculture is challenged by a combination of climate change, biodiversity loss, and the growing demand for food, feed, fibre and energy. The research and development community has been looking into various ways of making agriculture more sustainable, and agro-ecological approach gives high expectations.

Agro-ecology is a scientific approach to sustainable agriculture which follows ecological principles such as diversity and regeneration. This “nothing wasted, everything transformed” approach preaches for low input, nutrient cycling and carbon sequestration. Agro-ecology is also a system approach, and has a strong social focus, paying attention to public health, cultural values, and community resilience as well as to social and economic justice.

There are Seven steps for an agro-ecological transformation of farming to feed the world within the planet’s limits:

1. Raise awareness among policy-makers and extension agents of the benefits of agro-ecological farming, focusing on its contributions to rural livelihoods, ecological sustainability, climate change adaptation and the resilience of food systems.

2. Provide a new perspective on agriculture – particularly what is a ‘productive’ and ‘efficient’ system – among financial partners, governments and farmers. Instead of a short-term focus on maximising production (and profits), they should consider the benefits of farming practices that support ecosystem services and resilience and use fewer resources.

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3. Provide economic incentives to adopt agro-ecological practices on a landscape level, e.g. subsidies for actions that support ecosystem services, and taxation of actions that reduce them. Other helpful measures include integrating agro-ecological farming in public food procurement schemes (e.g. for schools, hospitals or public catering); supporting agro-ecological extension services; and supporting local business development and markets for agro-ecological products.

4. Sharpen environmental laws and regulations (and their enforcement on a landscape level) to better protect ecosystem services. Revise trade regulations and agreements so that they support markets for environmentally friendly agricultural products. Amend regulations that distort local markets for agricultural products.

5. Build strong farmer-led, bottom-up knowledge and research systems. Farmers should be at the centre of the agricultural innovation system, setting the agenda for research and extension services and shaping policies and investments.

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6. Mainstream agro-ecology in agricultural education at all levels (from pre-schools to universities) and encourage interdisciplinary research on the social, environmental and economic aspects of food production.

7. Provide incentives for more sustainable diets and consumption patterns. Rising meat and dairy products consumption, as well as food waste, are increasing pressures on the land; these trends need to be reversed as part of an agro-ecological transformation of our food systems.

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Courtesy of Ecosystem Based Adaptation conference in Kenya, July 2015.

 

These Beautiful, Translucent Barriers Quiet Traffic—And Generate Power At The Same Time

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Where could this be? The Netherlands of course, where it seems like all such clever plans start (solar bike path, anyone?).

And this has to be one of the best Dutch ideas yet—roadside noise barriers that also generate solar power. Not only that, they work on cloudy days, and one kilometer (0.62 miles) provides enough electricity to power 50 homes.

The plan seems so obvious, you wonder why it hasn’t been done before. But the key is a new kind of solar panel. They’re cheap, they’re transparent, and they use a different light-gathering tech that works under the gray skies of Northern Europe. They’re called luminescent solar concentrators (LSC), and they’re translucent sheets which bounce light internally to the edges of the panels, where it is beamed onto regular solar panels “in concentrated form.”

The LSC panels can be made in different colors, so the result is something like an oversized stained-glass window. Because light can shine through them, they could be used in urban areas, shielding noise without making either pedestrians or motorists feel cut off.

The test, which launched on June 18, along the A2 highway near Den Bosch, includes regular solar panels as a control, and also to see how both kinds of barrier fare in the outside world, when subjected to real life and real vandalism.

The project is being run by researcher Michael Debije, at the Eindhoven University of Technology. Debije’s breakthrough is this new kind of LSC panel. Regular LSC panels reabsorb light as they channel it to the solar arrays at their edges. Debije’s panels fix this. Added bonus: they also look good.

Seven remaining residents: The town of Centralia the real inspiration for Silent Hill….

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The Centralia area has grown to be a tourist attraction. Visitors come to see the smoke on Centralia’s empty streets and the abandoned portion of PA Route 61 where it detours around the former site of Byrnesville. But this was not always the case, once upon a time Centralia was a functioning town with a population of 2,761 nowadays it’s population numbers seven. The rest of the town was compulsorily purchased by the state as a means of obliging people to move out of a town that had become subject to dangerously high levels of Carbon Monoxide.

Well, you may say, what type of disaster could possibly have forced all the residents of Centralia to pack up their bags and leave? The answer to that appears to be incredibly simple and yet incredibly complex. Joan Quigley argues in her 2007 book The Day the Earth Caved In that the fire had in fact started the previous day, when a trash hauler dumped hot ash discarded from coal burners into the open trash pit.

She noted that borough council minutes from June 4, 1962, referred to two fires at the dump, and that five firefighters had submitted bills for “fighting the fire at the landfill area”. The borough, by law, was responsible for installing a fire-resistant clay barrier between each layer,but fell behind schedule, leaving the barrier incomplete.

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This allowed the hot coals to penetrate the vein of coal underneath the pit and light the subsequent subterranean fire. In addition to the council minutes, Quigley cites “interviews with volunteer firemen, the former fire chief, borough officials, and several eyewitnesses” as her sources.

In short, negligence in fireproofing two landfill sites led to hot coal ash being tipped onto a coal seam, and this triggered off a subterranean coal-mine fire that has continued to burn from 27 May 1962 until the present day.

One would have thought that the residents could have sued Centralia Borough for its negligence. But the minute disaster hit, it became apparent that the borough had covered its own ass, minutes were produced proving that the council had voted to close down the landfill site, although the minutes did not describe the proposed procedure. Nonetheless, the Centralia council had set a date and hired five members of the volunteer firefighter company to clean up the landfill, according to the minutes.

Subsequent action that was taken to put out the mine fire was insufficient because to all intents & purposes officials were far too concerned with covering up the extent of the problem.

Until that is 1984, when, with the help of congress, families still residing in this carbon-monoxide-bound hell where able to accept a buyout offer and move to the nearby communities of Mount Carmel and Ashland. 

So there the town of Centralia, with its seven residents, abides, along with the town of Byrnesville, a few miles to the south, which has also had to be abandoned and levelled due to the spread of the subterranean mine fire.

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Two whole towns have lain deserted for decades, just because of gaping holes in the sides and base of a landfill site that could easily have been filled in and safely lined at very little cost. When you have examples like this to hand, you have to wonder why mountain- top removals have been permitted, and why Shale Oil Fracking has been given pride of place in Pennsylvania.

Pollution isn’t colorblind: environmental hazards kill more black americans

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The call for racial and economic justice is getting louder and stronger. But while we are out on the streets fighting for equality, African American kids are being poisoned by the air they breathe. Environmental injustices are taking black lives – that’s why our fight for equality has to include climate and environmental justice too.

African-Americans are more likely to live near environmental hazards like power plants and be exposed to hazardous air pollution, including higher levels of nitrogen oxides, ozone, particulate matter and carbon dioxide than their white counterparts. The presence of these pollutants increases rates of asthma, respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease. It puts newborn babies at risk. It causes missed days of work and school. We can’t afford this. Black kids already have the highest rate of asthma in the nation, and our infant mortality rate is nearly double the national rate.

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Increased health problems hit people financially. African-Americans typically spend a higher share of their income on health care than their white counterparts (16.5% v 12.2%), and roughly one in five African-Americans don’t have health insurance.

President Obama’s Clean Power Plan is a desperately needed response to this problem. The Clean Power Plan would cut carbon pollution from power plants and put our country on a path towards cleaner energy solutions. It could stop up to 6,600 premature deaths and prevent up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children over the next 15 years – especially in African-American communities.

The total climate and health benefits from the Clean Power Plan could add up to as much as $93bn. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), every dollar we spend on the Clean Power Plan will translate into $7 in health benefits for American families. That’s a good return on investment.

But some utility and fossil fuel companies are spending a lot of money to scare black people into believing this plan will hurt them. They’re afraid that tackling climate change and cleaning up pollution will cut into their enormous profits – and they want us to think it will hurt us, too. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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Pollution from power plants is America’s single largest contributor to climate change. But you won’t hear these industry executives talk about the toxic air their companies spew into communities of color or the disproportionate health costs we shoulder. They won’t spend time explaining that carbon emissions from power plants amplify the devastating effects of ozone and other pollutants, or that their pollution leads to a direct worsening of asthma symptoms. Nor will they admit that economic projections show that the Clean Power Plan will reduce utility costs for American families. The EPA estimates that electricity bills will go down by roughly 8%, saving customers almost $100 dollars annually – and that’s on top of the savings in health costs.

According to the NRDC, the Clean Power Plan would create good, well-paying jobs in green technology and renewable energy. There are already more solar industry jobs than coal jobs in the United States. This energy revolution is an opportunity to increase African-American employment in a booming sector.

Centuries of racial discrimination as well as bad trade deals and economic policies that favor the wealthiest have led to black Americans being almost three times more likely to live in poverty than white Americans. We can’t fight this trend by believing the lies that rich fossil fuel and utility executives tell us. Black lives matter more than corporate profits –now is a chance to make sure our laws reflect that.

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India’s annual solar investments to surpass those in coal by 2020-Deutsche Bank report

 solar-panels_2597461bIndia, which has raised its solar power capacity target five-fold, could see annual investments in solar surpassing those in coal by 2019-20 with commitments worth about $35 billion from global companies already in hand, a Deutsche Bank report said.
With its increased focus on solar power, India could become one of the largest renewable energy producers in the world, matching China’s target of 100GW (gigawatt) or 100,000MW (megawatts) capacity by 2020, the report released on Sunday said.
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 India has raised its 2022 solar energy target to 100GW from 20GW as part of Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s efforts to lower dependence on coal-fuelled electricity. The country needs to invest about $200 billion to meet this target and to set up around 60,000MW of wind power capacity by 2022.
Global companies, including the US renewable energy firm SunEdison Inc, Japanese telecommunications company SoftBank Corp, Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology, and China’s photovoltaic module maker Trina Solar Ltd, have announced multi-billion dollar investments in Indian companies to set up solar power projects.
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 Russia’s OAO Rosneft, the world’s largest publicly-traded oil company, is exploring a huge investment in India’s solar energy sector with capacity ranging between 10,000MW to 20,000MW, Mint reported last week.
Indian power companies such as Adani Power Ltd, Reliance Power Ltd and State-run NTPC Ltd have already made inroads with their solar energy projects. Aditya Birla Nuvo Ltd has also announced plans to bid for solar power projects.
“Private sector interest is decisively moving towards solar from coal power, and we foresee numerous opportunities of fund-raising, yieldco structuring and M&A activity,” Deutsche Bank analyst Abhishek Puri wrote in his report.
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 Falling tariffs would also help in aiding growth of solar power adoption. Tariffs have dropped about 60% over last four years, from Rs.14.90 per kWh (kilowatt-hour) in 2010 to almost Rs.5.75 per kWh in 2015, rivaling with prices of conventional power sources.
India’s per capita electricity consumption reached 1010 kilowatt-hour (kWh) in 2014-15, compared with 957 kWh in 2013-14, according to the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), but continues to among the lowest in the world with several households in the interiors of the country having little or no access to electricity.
India plans to award solar contracts for the supply of 15,000MW this year. In 2014-15, the cumulative solar power capacity in India was about 3,744 MW, accounting for about 10.5% of the total renewable energy generated in the country.
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