Poll: Appalachia residents tell EPA to get on our back

Today and tomorrow, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency will be in Eastern Kentucky listening to locals’ concerns about the environmental impact of coal.

While the GOP presidential candidates and pretty much every major candidate running for statewide office in Kentucky is either calling for the EPA to be abolished, or to at least “get off our backs,” a recent poll commissioned by environmental groups shows that the residents of Appalachian states actually want the agency to protect the water they drink and the air they breathe:

Voters across Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia solidly oppose mountaintop removal coal mining, by wide margins and across a host of demographic and political divides. Three-quarters support fully enforcing—and even increasing protections in—the Clean Water Act to safeguard streams, rivers, and lakes in their states from mountaintop removal coal mining. Fully 76% of voters across these four states support this proposal, including a 62% majority who feel that way strongly. Just 8% of voters oppose it. Support for this proposal is far-reaching, encompassing solid majorities of Democrats (86%), independents (76%), Republicans (71%), and Tea Party supporters (67%).

The poll also found that a plurality in all four states have an unfavorable view of mountaintop removal mining — though Kentucky has the most narrow margin, with just 1 percent more having an unfavorable opinion of it.

Of course, these are just straight poll questions. Factor in a multi-million dollar PR campaign by the coal industry and Democrats like Steve Beshear screaming about getting the EPA “off our backs,” and you might see different results.

Regardless of how the people in Kentucky feel, it’s clear that the Beshear administration is fighting the EPA tooth and nail, with Kentucky Energy and Environment secretary Len Peters leading the charge. He aggressively advocates for coal companies’ right to continue mountaintop removal mining, while a report released yesterday shows that Kentucky has one of the nations’ weakest regulations on coal ash, despite their prevalence:

Kentucky is on the most dangerous list because the threat from coal ash is enormous in this leading coal‐burning state, yet state regulations require exceedingly little from owners and operators of coal ash ponds and landfills. Kentucky is fifth in the nation in coal ash generation, and it has 43 operating coal ash ponds—21 of which exceed a height of 25 feet or impound more than 500 acre‐feet of ash. In fact, Kentucky has the third largest coal ash storage capacity (more than 64,000 acre‐feet) in the nation. This is equivalent to covering the Churchill Downs Racetrack, home to the Kentucky Derby, is held each year, under 800 feet of toxic sludge. Kentucky ties Ohio for the most high hazard dams (eight). It should oncern Kentucky residents that professional engineers did not design 20 of the state’s 43 dams nor did they construct 27 of them. Only 15 of Kentucky’s dams have been inspected by the EPA to date, and, by admission of the power plant owners, engineers do not presently monitor 30 of the 43 dams.

State oversight of the coal ash dams is also minimal. There are no regular reporting requirements after construction, except for certificate renewal every five years. Operators are not given an inspection frequency and are not required to post a bond to ensure safe operation and maintenance or even completion of dam construction. Finally, Kentucky does not require emergency action planning or inundation mapping, which is astounding given the presence of eight high hazard dams that are likely to take human lives if they break and six significant hazard dams that would cause substantial economic and/or environmental damage in the event of failure.

Groundwater contamination from coal ash dumping has been documented at four sites in Kentucky. Many more sites are likely contaminated but not detected, because the state does not require composite liners at all ponds and landfills nor does the state prohibit dumping directly into the water table. Yet because Kentucky regulations do not require groundwater monitoring at all coal ash dump sites, the extent of the contamination is largely unknown. We do know, however, that by the EPA’s calculation, 100 percent of the toxic chemical releases to land of arsenic, chromium and mercury in Kentucky come from disposal of coal ash in landfills and ponds.

So people want clean air and clean water, and the EPA would love to make that happen. But state officials don’t want the EPA interfering, and they don’t want to enforce regulations themselves.

Because after all, there’s nothing wrong. Nothing to see here.

Tell ‘em, Steve: