Coal and Water – Do They Mix?

September 16, 2009

Last Sunday the New York Times gave a significant gift to journalists around the US who cover water quality but are short on time or resources to track down local stories. And if you cover coal mining and/or Appalachia, a Sept. 11 announcement from EPA combines with the NYT coverage to create irresistible fodder for local water pollution coverage.

 The NYT series "Toxic Waters," by Charles Duhigg, covers "worsening pollution in American waters and regulators' response." The latest installment focused on water pollution in a suburb of Charleston, WV — where devastating health effects apparently are being caused by drinking water contaminated with toxic waste pumped into the ground by nearby coal mining operations.

NYT analysis indicates that in recent years Clean Water Act enforcement has been lax in many states. Info graphic. Tab 3 on that graphic shows enforcement actions taken against CWA violations, by state — measured in terms of enforcements per 100 violations. Generally, enforcement was found to be lax.

Just before the NYT series was published, EPA announced that it will require extended NPDES permit review for 79 proposed surface coal-mining properties in Appalachian states. 49 of the sites are in KY, 23 are in WV, six are in OH, and one is in TN. The watersheds involved span additional states.

EPA says the next steps in the coal-mining NPDES extended permit review are: "In the next 15 days, EPA will be further evaluating the preliminary list of projects slated for further review and transmit a final list to the Army Corps of Engineers. After that, issues of concern regarding particular permit applications will be addressed during a 60-day review process triggered when the Corps informs EPA that a particular permit is ready for discussion."

TOXIC WATERS

The cornerstone of the NYT series is a geo-searchable database of more than 200,000 water pollution permits from EPA and the CA Water Resources Control Board. Searching this database by city or zip code yields local maps listing known violations and their status. There also is a database of responses from regulators in 39 states regarding permit compliance.

The NYT databases and their slick, user-friendly map-based interface represent a simple and useful starting point for news organizations seeking to put local water pollution and polluters in context. While it's not rocket science to gather this data, doing so takes time and effort — and thus is more difficult in resource-stressed newsrooms. NYT has compiled this in a useful way so that local news organizations can easily expand upon it by further investigation with federal, state, and local regulators. Each cited violation (indicated by orange dots on the NYT map) includes "view detailed information" links that go directly to the violations reports on regulators' sites, providing direct leads for followup with just a few clicks.

There's also a consumer-oriented sidebar with tips on researching local water quality that could be emulated with information specific to your region.

Behind the NYT database is a network of EPA and state databases that were used as sources. These contain a wealth of further information for reporters willing to sift through them. Much of the NYT story is based on EPA's ECHO database. You can access several other databases related to both drinking water and pollution discharges through EPA's Envirofacts Warehouse. Search EPA database of NPDES permits. And be sure to contact your state water pollution agency.

Charleston Gazette environment reporter Ken Ward, who has been covering coal mining extensively for his paper and his blog Coal Tattoo, offered high praise for the NYT coverage, as well as links to earlier coverage by himself and AP reporter Vicki Smith. Ward also noted that the print edition of the NYT story "included a chart [which] showed that WV ranked 10th in the nation in terms of enforcement actions issued per 100 facilities out of compliance, with 28."

MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL PERMITS

Louisville Courier-Journal environment reporter James Bruggers noted that the delayed coal-mining projects involve "what the industry calls 'valley fills' or 'hollow fills,' when waste rock blasted from sides and tops of mountains is shoved into the upper reaches of streams. Industry officials generally say the streams are of little ecological worth, but many biologists say they are essential to aquatic life and help maintain water quality."

The National Mining Association called the EPA decision a "moratorium on Eastern coal mining that jeopardizes the livelihoods of tens of thousands of American workers and their communities."

For any water pollution story, the affected area includes not only the immediate site of pollution, but also the downstream watershed. Check out the USGS find-your-watershed tool, with links to detailed data. Also try EPA's Surf Your Watershed page.

Check with your local water utility about local drinking water sources that might be affected by known water polluters. The web sites of many water utilities and their recent Consumer Confidence Reports can be found via EPA's Safewater site. Water pollution also can travel via stormwater runoff, or contaminate wells.