The Dernogalizer

July 26, 2010

Oil Companies: Pick Your Poison

Filed under: Energy/Climate,National Politics — Matt Dernoga @ 3:17 pm
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I wrote this column in the Diamondback’s summer edition, and it came out last Thursday.  I was motivated to write this after seeing movements for people to boycott BP after the oil spill.  I think this is a poor use of activists energy, which should be focused on bringing about political change to end our oil addiction.

Figuring out where to buy gas these days is more irritating than usual, and it’s already pretty annoying. It began with BP. Back in 2005, BP was talking about investing $8 billion in clean-energy technology over 10 years. Sure, that’s still a smidgeon of their profits, but at least they were tipping, unlike the rest of big oil.

Then, BP considered putting all its renewable energy programs on the auction block, invested $3 billion into the Canadian tar sands, started transferring solar jobs from Maryland to China and had an accident in a small body of water known as the Gulf of Mexico. This begged the question, Beyond Petroleum … to what? Beyond preposterous, I say.

Then, Chevron started coming out with deep, moving commercials about our obligation to future generations. I stopped there once or twice a few years ago — until I found out Chevron had a skirmish in the Ecuadorian Amazon for 26 years. This led to the illegal dumping of 18 billion gallons of toxic wastewater (enough to fill Lebron James’ new swimming pool) and 17 million gallons of crude oil. Needless to say, lots of cancer, gigantic international lawsuits — I can’t get my gas from these guys!

Shell? Tar sands, leading the way on environmentally destructive shale oil — need I say more? Well, I thought I didn’t, until I read they have extracted $600 billion in oil revenue from the Niger Delta and given them back 6,800 oil spills. They have been privy to the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every year for the last 50 years. Good grief.

Exxon Mobil? I suppose the Exxon Valdez accident was a while ago. They’re sharing the Niger Delta with Shell. They keep showing Phil Mickelson in their commercials talking about helping children in school. They’re also pretty famous for funding climate denial — I just read the other day they gave $1.5 million last year to organizations that campaign against controls on greenhouse gas emissions.

Where does that leave me? My environmental policy professor last semester said he goes with Sunoco. They do seem to have the fewest black marks of the bunch; the worst I could find was 192,000 gallons of oil dumped into a wildlife refuge. Sigh…

This is why, last week, when I needed to fill up my Corolla, I threw up my arms and pulled into an Exxon for the first time in several years. I mentioned this to a friend who proclaimed they don’t buy at Exxon because they’re “the worst of the bunch.” I try hard not to judge people based on their personal habits through the eye of environmental stewardship, mainly because we’re all sinners faced with terrible choices. The guy driving a Hummer could go home to a house half the size of yours; the vegetarian could have four kids while the meat-eater has one; I’m moving out of my parents’ house that has solar panels on it to a coal-powered apartment close to the campus and Metro, cutting my driving by a lot. Probably a wash.

Ultimately, there isn’t much of a choice, is there? Not yet, anyways. People should legitimately do the best they can in their personal lives with what they have to work with, but at the end of the day, political action is going to be what changes the playing field.

Now if only I could find a Sunoco.

Matt Dernoga graduated in May with a degree in government and politics. He can be reached at dernoga at umdbk dot com.

April 10, 2010

Environmental Justice Issue, Concrete Recycling Plant in Prince George’s County

Filed under: environment — Matt Dernoga @ 7:45 pm
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I want to bring attention to an article in the Prince George’s County Gazette by Joshua Garner which I think highlights the environmental justice issues that some minority communities such as Temple Hills face with a landfill, and now a concrete recycling facility.  I wrote a column in 2009 about this.  Below are some excerpts from the Gazette article.

“Temple Hills residents whose homes are by a proposed concrete recycling facility took to the Prince George’s County Administration Building on Wednesday to protest the site, saying that it would worsen health quality in the adjacent communities.

The 13.1-acre site near Saint Barnabas Road is owned by Barnabas Road Associates and already contains a landfill. Residents have complained the existing landfill causes too much dust, environmental damage and respiratory problems for senior citizens at the nearby Manor at Victoria Park apartment complex — problems they say would only be exasperated by the recycling facility.”

“Give us a chance to breathe clean air,” said Manor resident Barbara Ann Kelley, 70, to the hearing examiner. “We want to live there in peace and not in bad conditions.”

Kelley said in the last few months, her breathing has worsened to the point where she can’t sleep well at night. Dust and dirt from the site, she said, blackens her windowsill and has increased her trips to the doctor.”

July 27, 2009

Exposing Uranium Contamination on Native American Lands

Filed under: environment — Matt Dernoga @ 2:37 am
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Last April, I had a column out which mentioned how Native Americans have been exploited by the uranium mining that takes place on their lands.  Below is the paragraph from my column

Native American reservations contain large quantities of natural resources, including energy. There is little to no access or control over as to how they are used – 65 percent of North America’s uranium lies on these reservations, as is 80 percent of all the uranium mining and 100 percent of all the uranium processing in the country.

The result has been high rates of cancer, respiratory ailments, miscarriages and birth defects. The water and soil are loaded with lead, radium, thorium and other toxins. People who work in the mines rarely receive clothing, protection, medical evaluation or compensation. There is almost no wealth to show for this exploitation, and our tax dollars subsidize it daily through our funding of uneconomical nuclear power.”

I’m glad to see the New York Times had an article out yesterday which exposed how contaminated some places became, and how people got hurt from this exploitation.  I’m reposting it below.

Uranium Contamination Haunts Navajo Country


Published: July 26, 2009

TEEC NOS POS, Ariz. — It was one year ago that the environmental scientist showed up at Fred Slowman’s door, deep in the heart of Navajo country, and warned that it was unsafe for him to stay there.

The Slowman home, the same one-level cinderblock structure his family had lived in for nearly a half-century, was contaminated with potentially dangerous levels of uranium from the days of the cold war, when hundreds of uranium mines dotted the vast tribal land known as the Navajo Nation. The scientist advised Mr. Slowman, his wife and their two sons to move out until their home could be rebuilt.

“I was angry,” Mr. Slowman said. “I guess it was here all this time, and we never knew.”

The legacy wrought from decades of uranium mining is long and painful here on the expansive reservation. Over the years, Navajo miners extracted some four million tons of uranium ore from the ground, much of it used by the United States government to make weapons.

Many miners died from radiation-related illnesses; some, unaware of harmful health effects, hauled contaminated rocks and tailings from local mines and mills to build homes for their families.

Now, those homes are being demolished and rebuilt under a new government program that seeks to identify what are very likely dozens of uranium-contaminated structures still standing on Navajo land and to temporarily relocate people living in them until the homes can be torn down and rebuilt.

Stephen B. Etsitty, executive director of the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency, and other tribal officials have been grappling for years with the environmental fallout from uranium mining.

“There were a lot of things people weren’t told about the plight of Navajos and uranium mining,” Mr. Etsitty said. “These legacy issues are impacting generations. At some point people are saying, ‘It’s got to end.’ ”

After a Congressional hearing in 2007, a cross-section of federal agencies committed to addressing the environmental and health impacts of uranium mining on the reservation. As part of that commitment, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation began working together to assess uranium levels in 500 structures through a five-year plan set to end in 2012.

Using old lists of potentially contaminated structures, federal and Navajo scientists have fanned out to rural reaches of the 27,000 square mile reservation — which includes swaths of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — to measure levels of radium, a decay product of uranium that can cause lung cancer. Of 113 structures assessed so far, 27 contained radiation levels that were above normal.

“In these situations, you have contamination in somebody’s yard or in their house,” said Harry Allen, the E.P.A.’s section chief for emergency response in San Francisco who is helping lead the government’s efforts. “To us, that is somewhat urgent.”

Many structures that showed high levels of radiation were vacant; some families had already moved out after hearing stories of contamination in their homes. But eight homes still had people living in them, and the E.P.A. and Navajo officials have worked to convince residents that it would be unsafe to stay.

“People had been told they were living in contaminated structures, but nobody ever did anything about it,” said Will Duncan, an environmental scientist who has been the E.P.A.’s main representative on the reservation. “They would tell us, ‘We don’t believe you are going to follow through.’ ”

But with a budget of nearly $8 million, the E.P.A. has demolished all 27 contaminated structures and has begun building ones to replace those that had been occupied. Typically, the agency pays a Navajo contracting company to construct a log cabin or a traditional hogan in the structure’s stead, depending on the wishes of the occupants. Mr. Allen said the cost, including temporarily relocating residents, ran approximately $260,000 per dwelling and took about eight months.

The agency also offers $50,000 to those who choose not to have an old home rebuilt.

Lillie Lane, a public information officer with the Navajo Nation E.P.A. who has acted as a liaison between the federal government and tribal members, said the program held practical and symbolic importance given the history of uranium mining here.

Ms. Lane described the difficulty of watching families, particularly elders, leaving homes they had lived in for years. She told of coming upon two old miners who died before their contaminated homes could be rebuilt. “In Navajo, a home is considered sacred,” she said. “But if the foundation or the rocks are not safe, we have to do this work.”

Some families, Ms. Lane said, complained that their children were suffering from health problems and had wondered if radiation were to blame.

The E.P.A. has started sifting through records and interviewing family members to figure out whether mining companies that once operated on the reservation are liable for any damages, Mr. Allen said.

On a recent summer day, Fred and Clara Slowman proudly surveyed their new home, a one-level log cabin that sits in the quiet shadows of Black Rock Point, miles away from the bustle of Farmington, N.M., where the family has been living in a hotel.

Mr. Slowman said he suspected that waste materials from a nearby abandoned mine seeped into his house. The family plans on having a traditional Navajo medicine man bless their dwelling before they move in.

“In our traditional way, a house is like your mom,” he said. “It’s where you eat, sleep, where you’re taken care of. And when you come back from the city, you come back to your mom. It makes you feel real good.”

July 21, 2009

Navajo Nation Passes Historic Green Jobs Bill

Filed under: Energy/Climate — Matt Dernoga @ 8:09 pm
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I had a column out in April about how Native Americans are exploited by the fossil fuel economy, and how they could be the biggest winners of a clean energy economy.  So it’s great when I get a press release about how great progress has just been made on that front.  Also, Campus Progress has a post on this as well.  So does Grist.


Nikke Alex (505) 879-7461
Chelsea Chee (928) 637-5592
Fax Number: (928) 213-5905


*High Res photos available at:

Window Rock, AZ – On July 21, 2009, the 21st Navajo Nation Council voted “green” and passed the enactment of the Navajo Green Economy Commission. Navajo Nation Speaker Lawrence T. Morgan and the Navajo Green Economy Coalition developed these legislation to support the creation of hundreds of Green Jobs on the Navajo Nation.

In the morning, over fifty supporters from across the reservation gathered in front of the Navajo Nation Education Building and peacefully marched a quarter of a mile in green “Green Jobs” shirts to the Navajo Nation Council Chambers in Window Rock, AZ.  Supporters greeted Council Delegates while filling up the front row seats of the council chambers.  Multi-generational supporters sat in to encourage and ensure that their community representatives pass the legislation.

“This is the just the beginning for Indian Country.  We hope our efforts pave the way for other tribal nations to bring local sustainable green jobs to their communities,” said Wahleah Johns, Co-Director of the Black Mesa Water Coalition.

“A green economy is not a new concept to Navajo.  There are many green business opportunities that fit perfectly with our culture.  We must once again hearken to such processes to truly build our own economy that puts high value on our tradition – old and modern economic pursuits.  In this way, we will build a vibrant economy for the future generations while honoring our great ancestors.  Today’s decision is a critical first step towards making this dream a reality,” said Tony Skrelunas, the former Executive Director of the Navajo Nation’s Division of Economic Development and a member of the Coalition.

“The passing of this legislation is monumental because it is a catalyst for economic development on the Navajo Nation with Navajo traditional values & community at it’s core,” says David Johns of the Dine’ Haatali Association Vice-President (Navajo Medicine Men Association).

The enactment of the Navajo Nation Green Economy Commission was introduced and tabled during the Navajo Nation Spring Council Session in April 2009.  After three months of additional work, the legislation was brought up as Old Business on the council floor and quickly went to a vote.  The 14-month effort ended victoriously with a vote of 62 to 1.

The Navajo Green Jobs Coalition congratulates the Navajo Nation Council in taking this first, important step in securing green jobs for the Navajo people.  This legislation will set up the infrastructure needed to capture federal money already earmarked for green job development.  What’s more this legislation will focus on small-scale, community development—a form of economic development that empowers local communities and allows folks to work near their homes and communities.  This moves the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people one step closer to a green economy. We look forward to the president’s signature on the legislation in the coming weeks.


July 17, 2009

NAACP Supports Climate Legislation

There’s been a lot of noise made about the fact that Senator Barbara Boxer got into a feud with the head of the Black Chamber of Commerce Harry Alford in a hearing Thursday over the merits of climate legislation.  When Boxer cited other African American groups that had contrasting opinions to Alford, Alford blew up over it calling her remarks “racial”.  I myself have written a two-part column about why minorities should care about passing environmental legislation, which can be found here, and here.  Brad Johnson of Wonk Room has a video of the Boxer-Alford fued, which can be found here.  I myself would like to show an article by E&E found on the CCAN website which talks about the NAACP supporting climate and energy legislation.  I might not speak for black Americans, but I think Alford is being disingenuous when he claims  to represent the entire black community on this issue.


Jessica Leber, E&E reporter

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, approved a resolution to support climate and energy legislation at its annual convention yesterday.

“The NAACP will call on our nation’s elected leaders to ensure that the response to climate change can take a higher ground than business as usual — one that ensures that we capture real public benefits from the new energy economy,” the document says.

The action marks the 100-year-old civil rights organization’s deepening engagement in the climate debate. In April, it joined the new Climate Equity Alliance to advocate for a climate bill that both “maximizes the gain” and “minimizes the pain” for low- and moderate-income families.

The new resolution cites the disproportionate effects that climate change will have on African Americans, many of whom live in cities with some of the worst air pollution problems already. It also notes that new policies would create “green” jobs where they are most needed and may relieve the burden of high energy bills for less affluent populations.

Those views reflect one set of arguments in a battle over the African American community’s positioning on climate issues.

David Bositis, an electoral politics expert who works with the Commission to Engage African Americans on Climate Change, said that his recent polling shows blacks are increasingly willing to pay more for electricity in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

African Americans, he said, have over the last three years, and especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, been willing to support climate action. And the aging NAACP, he said, has been working lately to recruit younger African Americans, for whom the climate issue may resonate.

But another poll, by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank, found that half of African Americans were not willing to pay any more for gasoline or electricity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The economic recovery was overwhelmingly African Americans’ top priority, that poll found.

In its resolution, NAACP also pledged to work with the National Wildlife Federation in its climate campaigning. Aileo Weinmann, a spokesman for the wildlife group, pointed out that the NAACP’s support for legislation shows unity that will be important as negotiators go to Copenhagen in December for international climate talks.

“Although everyone feels its effects, the impacts of global warming are disproportionately severe among communities of color,” said Marc Littlejohn, manager of diversity partnerships at the National Wildlife Federation. “We need to protect low-income Americans, who spend a much larger share of income on energy-related expenses. We need to help Americans working in carbon-intensive industries transition to clean energy jobs

July 8, 2009

“This isn’t Normal”

Filed under: environment — Matt Dernoga @ 1:02 am
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A couple weeks ago, I read an incredible farewell article by Sue Sturgis on Grist, where she paid tribute to her friend John Soley, who recently died.  In doing so, she exposed in painstaking detail the toxic environment he lived in, and how it ultimately took his life.  I’m going to re-post the article below.

After a long struggle with cancer, my friend Mr. John Soley died at his home in Carbon County, Pa. on Saturday, June 20. He was only 62, which is too young to die of natural causes. But then, neither John nor I believe he got sick from natural causes. We believe he and many of his neighbors were poisoned by pollution, and that the perpetrators should be held to account.

Outspoken in the local grassroots struggle against environmental injustice, Mr. Soley was a resident of Quakake Road north of Hometown, the rural Appalachian village where I grew up and where my mom still lives. Located where Carbon, Schuylkill and Luzerne counties converge in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining region, Quakake Road is a continuation of Ben Titus Road, where residents have reported an unusual number of cases of the rare blood malignancy polycythemia vera as well as other cancers and chronic illnesses. Last year, researchers with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry confirmed a cluster of polycythemia vera in that area and believe it is caused by something in the environment.

Indeed, the valley where Mr. Soley lived lies below what may be the most toxic mountaintop in America. Broad Mountain is home to McAdoo Associates, a former Reading Co. coal mine that in the 1970s became an illegal chemical waste incinerator and dump used by some of the most prominent corporations in America, including BASF, Johnson & Johnson and a company that today is part of petroleum giant BP. The property is now a Superfund toxic waste site that was once considered one of the country’s most dangerous. The first federal investigators on the scene reported finding massive sheets of cancer-causing benzene on the property and dead animals and birds scattered around chemical drums. The smell from the place was so sickening that we used to roll up the car windows and hold our breath when driving past.

Today that Superfund site sits next to the heavily polluting Northeastern Power cogeneration facility, one of seven such power plants in the tri-county area that burn waste coal and waste fuel. Adjacent to the cogeneration plant is what’s known as the Big Gorilla—an old strip mine that since 1997 has served as a dump for the toxic combustion waste created at the power plant. Click here for a photo I took of the cogeneration facility through the gates of the Superfund site.

To give you a sense of how close Mr. Soley lived to this toxic mess, click here for a Google Earth image, where his property is marked with the square in the upper right. The large water body in the center is the Still Creek Reservoir, which provides drinking water for Hometown and the nearby borough of Tamaqua; the black area in the upper left is the old mine site; the lighter-colored area to its right is the Big Gorilla; the white triangle between the black ash pit and the road is the Superfund site; and the industrial facility on the lower edge of the ash pit is the cogeneration plant. The road running along the left edge of the image is Pa. Route 309. The highway roughly follows the Little Schuylkill, the Schuylkill River’s northernmost headwaters, which originate on the mountaintop.

The community also lies a a couple of miles northeast—that is, downwind—of the Air Products plant, a manufacturer of electronics specialty gases and one of the few domestic producers of toxic fluorine gases. According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, the facility reported emitting to the air in 2007 alone more than 3,400 pounds of toxic hydrogen fluoride as well as more than 2,300 pounds of dichloromethane or methylene chloride.

Methylene chloride is a solvent known to cause cancer in humans, and it has a characteristically sweet odor. Coincidentally, during my last visit with Mr. Soley at his home this past October, he noted a weird smell coming from Air Products that he likened to bubble gum.

Welcome to Cancer Valley

I first met John Soley several years ago at a borough council meeting we attended in Tamaqua. It turned out that he knew my father, Dan Sturgis, as they worked together at the former Atlas Powder Co., where Mr. Soley was an electrician. My dad, a draftsman by training and an explosives expert, was first diagnosed with kidney cancer in the mid-1980s and died from it in 1998. The experience of helping care for him in his final months and seeing how many of our neighbors were also sick inspired me to undertake a research project that eventually led me to start a blog called Hometown Hazards.

When I visited him last fall, Mr. Soley had been on kidney dialysis after years of suffering from multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood plasma cells that are formed in bone marrow and that play an important role in immunity. He wanted to walk with me along the Still Creek Reservoir to show me the areas along the shore where the vegetation was dead. Those areas reportedly coincide with springs coming off the mountain, one of several pieces of evidence that suggest the toxic chemicals dumped into the mine on the top of the hill are seeping into the wider ecosystem. But he was too sick to go walking on that day, so instead we sat at his kitchen table and talked.

“We need our story to be told,” he said. “Welcome to Cancer Valley.”

Mr. Soley told me harrowing stories about his own long battle with cancer as well as the health problems of others in his community. One of his neighbors was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer at age of 18. In another nearby home, two people were both suffering from brain tumors. Another neighbor had stomach cancer. And Mr. Soley knew of at least one child in the area who had leukemia, and whose uncle lived nearby and died of leukemia as a teenager.

Mr. Soley first moved to Quakake Road in 1978 from Tamaqua’s Dutch Hill neighborhood. An outdoorsman and hunter with a deep love for Brittany spaniels, he got a good deal on the land, where he soon opened a kennel. It was only a few years after Mr. Soley moved in that his young neighbor was diagnosed with the rare liver tumor. About a year after that, Mr. Soley’s own health problems began.

Suffering from chronic fatigue that began soon after the move, Mr. Soley was being treated by his doctor forEpstein-Barr syndrome but wasn’t getting any better.

He eventually saw an Epstein-Barr specialist who did additional testing and discovered problems with his T cells, key parts of the immune system. The tests also turned up serious problems with Mr. Soley’s blood cells, which he described as looking like “tapeworms … all stuck together.”

It was in 1997 that Mr. Soley was diagnosed with multiple myeloma.

After his diagnosis, he went through a four-month round of chemotherapy and later received a bone marrow transplant from his sister, Joan Yacobenas of Hometown. He was in the hospital at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for a couple of months and then lived for a few more months in nearby lodgings for cancer patients so he could be close to his doctors.

Three days after he finally got home, he started bleeding from his bladder—a reaction from one of his cancer drugs. This required operations to clear up blood clots.

When Mr. Soley returned home from that ordeal, he found he couldn’t eat and started losing weight, dropping from 205 pounds to 145.

“I got so skinny when I looked in the mirror I cringed,” he recalled. “I wanted to cry. I could only manage to eat one cookie a day.”

As if that weren’t awful enough, he then started bleeding from his rectum and had to be flown from the Lehigh Valley Medical Center to Johns Hopkins, where doctors diagnosed him with an infected bowel. They wanted to cut out a section but were afraid the operation would kill him. With no other options, they treated him with antibiotics but were not particularly hopeful about his chances.

He recalled how one morning three doctors came into his room and announced—incredulously—that somehow his bowel infection had cleared up.

“They told me I must have had a lot of people praying for me,” Mr. Soley said. “They called it divine intervention.”

After that ordeal, Mr. Soley was able to eat again, and his health gradually improved. But then in June of 1998, tests revealed there was still cancer in his body. He underwent an experimental therapy at Johns Hopkins that involved taking lymphocyte cells from his sister’s body and infusing them into his own intravenously. When that treatment ended in January 1999, he finally felt good again for the first time in a long time.

“I was a completely different person,” he said. “I felt 150 percent.”

His relatively good health lasted until October 2006, when he woke up one morning with a strange feeling in his chest. A neighbor drove him to the hospital in Hazleton, where they found blockages necessitating heart surgery.

While Mr. Soley was undergoing rehab for the surgery, blood tests showed he had abnormally high creatine levels, indicating his kidneys were shutting down. In May 2007, he went on dialysis.

‘This isn’t normal’

When he first got sick, Mr. Soley told me, he figured it was just bad luck on his part. It was only later that he started noticing the patterns, with many neighbors all around him also sick—with cancers of the liver, brain, prostate and blood, as well as thyroid disorders and other chronic illnesses. He lived not far fromBetty and Lester Kester, a husband and wife who both died of polycythemia vera within the past two years.

“I said to myself, ‘What in the hell is going on?’ This isn’t normal.”

He soon began noticing strange things in the environment. The reddish-brown dust from the power plant that gathered on people’s cars overnight. The strange chemical odors on the wind. The smell of sulfuric acid emanating from the hill leading up to the Superfund site. The thick white slime that coated the pump on his drinking water well.

A couple of years earlier, on the hillside close to his house, Mr. Soley also discovered what looked like spider webs of some sort of oily substance oozing out of the earth. He called his neighbor and friend, Ricky Johnson, who took photographs. They had a sample of the stuff analyzed at Wilkes University and found they were indeed petroleum products of some sort. The Pa. Department of Environmental Protection eventually sent out someone to take a look at the situation, but the person didn’t even bring digging tools. Mr. Soley provided him with a spade to take samples, which according to DEP showed nothing unusual.

During our conversation, Mr. Soley expressed some bitterness toward local elected officials, who he felt failed to take adequate action to help area residents deal with the various environmental threats they’re facing. For example, there’s never been thorough independent testing of the water and sediment in the Still Creek Reservoir despite the obvious toxic threats. Nor has there been any widespread testing of people living along the reservoir for chemical exposures.

“It’s been a joke,” he said of official efforts to address the problems. “A farce.”

Since Mr. Soley and I met, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) announced that he secured a $5.5 million federal grant to explore the cause of high rate of polycythemia vera in the area. But like me, Mr. Soley was already growing uneasy about officials’ focus on polycythemia vera to the exclusion of all the other health problems suffered by local residents.

What about the people with multiple myeloma? Leukemia? Brain cancer? Prostate cancer? Thyroid disease? Would they be forgotten?

I know I won’t forget my friend and what he went through. Perhaps the best way to honor yet another life lost too soon after great suffering would be to keep a question in mind as we continue our work seeking environmental truth and justice for the people of the Hometown area: What difference would our actions have made to John Soley?

(A version of this story originally appeared on the blog Hometown Hazards.)

July 3, 2009

Appalachian Apocalypse

Filed under: environment — Matt Dernoga @ 1:27 pm
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I’ve written quite a bit about mountaintop removal.  Today in the Washington Post Robert F. Kennedy has another fantastic column about the issue, and how the Obama administration needs to step up and stop the practice.  I’m going to paste the column below.

A President Breaks Hearts in Appalachia

By Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Mountaintop removal coal mining is the worst environmental tragedy in American history. When will the Obama administration finally stop this Appalachian apocalypse?

If ever an issue deserved President Obama’s promise of change, this is it. Mining syndicates are detonating 2,500 tons of explosives each day — the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb weekly — to blow up Appalachia’s mountains and extract sub-surface coal seams. They have demolished 500 mountains — encompassing about a million acres — buried hundreds of valley streams under tons of rubble, poisoned and uprooted countless communities, and caused widespread contamination to the region’s air and water. On this continent, only Appalachia’s rich woodlands survived the Pleistocene ice ages that turned the rest of North America into a treeless tundra. King Coal is now accomplishing what the glaciers could not — obliterating the hemisphere’s oldest, most biologically dense and diverse forests. Highly mechanized processes allow giant machines to flatten in months mountains older than the Himalayas — while employing fewer workers for far less time than other types of mining. The coal industry’s promise to restore the desolate wastelands is a cruel joke, and the industry’s fallback position, that the flattened landscapes will provide space for economic development, is the weak punchline. America adores its Adirondacks and reveres the Rockies, while the Appalachian Mountains — with their impoverished and alienated population — are dismantled by coal moguls who dominate state politics and have little to prevent them from blasting the physical landscape to smithereens.

Obama promised science-based policies that would save what remains of Appalachia, but last month senior administration officials finally weighed in with a mixture of strong words and weak action that broke hearts across the region. The modest measures federal bureaucrats promised amount to little more than a tepid pledge of better enforcement of existing laws.

And government claims of doing everything possible to halt the holocaust are simply not true. George Bush gutted Clean Water Act protections. Obama must restore them.

First, the White House should fix the “fill” rule the Bush administration adopted in 2002 to allow coal companies to use streams as waste dumps. Under this perverse interpretation of the Clean Water Act, 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been interred under mining waste. Obama could reverse the “fill” rule to reflect its original meaning, which forbids waste matter from being dumped into waterways.

Second, the Interior Department should strictly enforce the widely ignored “buffer zone” rule that forbids dumping waste within 100 feet of intermittent or perennial streams.

Third, our laws require companies to restore mined areas to their original condition. The administration should end the absurd fiction that extraction pits filled with unconsolidated rocks and rubble where trees will never grow and streams will never flow are “reclaimed.”

Fourth, current law forbids the issuance of “fill” permits that will cause “significant degradation” to waterways. It is absurd for the Army Corps of Engineers to endorse the canard that filling miles of streams is not causing significant degradation. The president should require the Corps to deny and rescind permits where operations will cause downstream damage.

Fifth, the Clean Water Act requires mining operators to prove that they can restore the “function and structure” of affected streams. Operators have never been compelled to make the functional or structural analyses of the aquatic ecosystem required by the act. Obama should order his officials to stop ignoring this requirement.

Sixth, the administration should enforce the law requiring an environmental impact study for each permit when a mine “may have significant environmental impacts,” individually or cumulatively. The Corps of Engineers routinely allows coal operators to escape this mandate — an illegal practice that should stop.

Instead of acting to enforce these laws, administration officials indicated last month that they will allow more than 100 permits to go forward while they carefully review their regulatory options. If they act accordingly, the ruined landscapes of Appalachia will be Obama’s legacy.

President Obama should go to Appalachia and see mountaintop removal. My father visited Appalachia in 1966 and was so horrified by strip mining — then in its infancy — that he made it a key priority of his political agenda. He complained that Appalachia, with our nation’s richest natural resources, was home to America’s poorest populations, its worst education system, and its highest illiteracy and unemployment rates. These statistics are even grimmer today as mining saps state wealth. In 1966, 46,000 West Virginia miners were collecting salaries and pensions and reinvesting in their communities. Mechanization has shrunk that number to fewer than 11,000. They extract more coal annually, but virtually all the profits leave the state for Wall Street.

The coal industry provides only 2 percent of the jobs in Central Appalachia. Wal-Mart employs more people than the coal companies in West Virginia. Last week a major study documented how coal imposes a net cost to Kentucky of more than $100 million per year. Coal is not an economic engine in the coalfields. It is an extraction engine.

Obama has the authority to end mountaintop removal, without further action from Congress and without formal rulemaking. He just needs to make the coal barons obey the law.

The writer is senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

June 26, 2009

Subcommittee Hearing on Mountaintop Removal

Filed under: environment — Matt Dernoga @ 1:05 am
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I’ve written a couple of columns on the atrocities of mountaintop removal, which can be found here and here.  Of recent, media and actions surrounding mountaintop removal have  escalated from climbing a dragline to a massive protest just a couple days ago.  How fitting then, there we have the first Senate subcommittee hearing ever on the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal mining.  Even better than the Senator holding this hearing is Ben Cardin of Maryland(I live in Maryland).  With this being too good to miss, and with me conveniently being in DC anyways because of climate bill-related activities, why not sit in on this firsthand?  It turned out to be quite interesting, I want to highlight a few details from my attendance below.

The hearing was slated to begin at 3:30, so I thought I’d show up at 2:30 to get a good spot in line.  It turns out it would’ve been better to arrive at 10:30!  When I showed up there was a line of 50-75 people already, so I had to go all the way to the back, which made my chances of getting into the hearing room seem pretty poor.  Most of the people in the line were mountaintop removal activists, however in front of me were 3 men that worked for the coal industry.  Soon thereafter, a large group of pro-coal supporters with shirts reading “friends of coal” showed up.  I would say the line grew by 30 or so people.  These people appeared to be guided/led by coal industry lobbyists in suits.

Then at about 3:20 a staffer came out and declared that there was no way everyone was going to fit into the room, and people near the back of the line should go to the overflow room.  Although some people around me left, I stayed in line a little longer just to see how discouraged the people in front of me got.  When they let people in, I wasn’t anywheres near the front when the room filled up.  However, when everyone in front of me asked if waiting would be a good idea, the staffer told them “very little chance any of you will get in”, and this caused everyone in front of me(a good 30-40 people) to leave.  Suddenly I was at the front of the line, where I was told I stood no chance.  About 15 minutes later someone left the hearing room, and I was in.  Slick I know.

I missed the first panelist who must’ve gone pretty fast, but he next panel had 4 speakers on it.  It included organizer Maria Gunnoe, who famously won the  Goldman Environmental Award, and has a very great story.  Others on the panel were Dr. Margaret Palmer who worked in the Chesapeake Environmental Laboratory University Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences, the Deputy Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, and the cabinet secretary for West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection(DEP) Randy Hauffman.

The first speaker I heard was Randy Hauffman of  DEP.  Now, DEP basically works as hard to undermine environmental protection and laws in West Virginia as the Bush EPA did to undermine those nationwide.  Hauffman was pretty vague and contradictory, saying on one hand people had the right to clean water and that government had an obligation to provide that right, and then talking about the need for mountaintop removal for mining jobs and economic growth.  He also indicated he’d like the EPA to back off of West Virginia with the Clean Water Act since when it was passed it was delegated to the states to decide how to implement(or in DEP’s case, dodge).

Next was organizer Maria Gunnoe, who was by far the best speaker who really put a face to the issue, and made Hauffman’s arguments look like a joke(yeah I’m biased).  Really though you could tell why Gunnoe was worthy of an award and was an environmental leader in her community.  She spoke very boldly and didn’t hold anything back, talking about mountaintop removal mining as providing “temporary jobs and temporary energy”, and how people quite frankly can’t live around this kind of practice because of the blasting, the chokingly poor air quality, and the terrible floods.  Also, since the soil is so messed up, there’s no filtration of stormwater runoff into the watersheds, which along with all the coal pollution and sludge makes the water pollution terrible.  Gunnoe’s closing statement was the highlight, declaring that “the coal will run out, we’ll be left with no water, no air, no jobs, and no energy”.  I looked over at the DEP guy and he looked like someone had just handed him a pink slip.  Gunnoe got a standing ovation, and I felt compelled to join in the clapping.

After a short recess, Dr. Palmer was next and she discussed in further detail the impact on the water quality, and lent a very credible voice to the science around the issue.  Palmer said what we all know except in greater detail than I can recall here.  She said the environmental impacts are substantial and permanent, a very strong “I would certainly not let my children play in the streams”.  When asked by Senator Cardin what could be done to restore the watersheds after mountaintop removal mining, Palmer said there was no scientific evidence the impacts on water quality could be reversed, except for geologic time passing(ouch).

I suppose I must’ve missed the testimony of the Tennessee Deputy Commissioner, since Cardin started questioning the panelists.  A couple of noteworthy questions was Cardin asking the West Virginia regulator what could be done to preserve the headwaters and streams.  Hauffman didn’t have much of an answer, and it pretty much summed up to ‘we’ve been doing better in managing this issue, we’re for science being the driver, solutions are sought, and more money for research is needed’.  Basically, cutting through the bs the answer was “we can’t”.  The ranking Republican member Lamar Alexander who was the only other Senator there asked the Tennessee Commissioner whether or not coal mining practices in Tennessee involved mountaintop removal.  I’m not sure how true this is(perhaps I misheard), but the response was that this had not been done for the last 10-15 years.  He was also asked whether or not Tennessee companies could dump mining waste into the valley fills, and he answered no.  The implied message was that a coal producing state of Tennessee could manage just fine without mountaintop removal, while West Virginia was saying it needed to continue doing it.  When the Commissioner was asked whether or not the Federal law should be changed and applied to all the states, the Tennessee Commissioner said yes.  The last noteworthy question was Cardin asking Hauffman from DEP what kind of economic development he was referring to when defending mountaintop removal.  Hauffman was once again very dodgy and unconvincing, saying that they’ve been slow at redeveloping the areas they’ve mined, but are getting better, and will be working harder on both redevelopment and on restoring the land by planting trees.  It wasn’t very confidence inspiring.

All in all, this was a good hearing with good questions, some insightful testimony, and I liked the fact that the activists got into the hearing room, and all the coal supporters got stuck in the overflow room where no one could see them.  I’m also very appreciative of the fact that my Senator Ben Cardin is leading on this issue.  He is very good on environmental and energy issues, and very smart.  He’s also found a way to get bi-partisan support from Republican Lamar Alexander on his legislation to amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act to prevent the dumping of “fill material”, otherwards known as mountain mining waste, into the streams and valleys below.  This would be a big deal.  I wish him the best, and I’m proud he’s a Maryland Senator.

June 23, 2009

Massive Mountaintop Removal Protest

I’ve written multiple times on the atrocity that is mountaintop removal.  Here is my most recent article.  Today there were massive protests and arrests at Marsh Fork Elementary in Sundial, West Virginia, where children there face the threat of air pollution and toxic contaminants from mountaintop removal operations.  There were some notorious names in the crowd including top NASA climate scientist James Hansen, 94 year old former Congressman Ken Hechler, and actress Darryl Hannah. Jeff Biggers is an excellent writer in West Virginia in depicting the urgency and seriousness that surrounds the situation, and he covered the entire event in real time here.  James Hansen explained his rationale for participating in the protest and in ending mountaintop removal with this letter to President Obama.  Below is a video from today.

June 4, 2009

Column on Mountaintop Removal

I have a column out today in the paper about the Obama Administration’s shameful approval of 42 mountaintop removal permits.  I want to be sure to post it for you.

Mountaintop removal: No science, no ethics


The Environmental Protection Agency recently approved 42 of the 48 permit applications for mountaintop removal operations in West Virginia, deeming them environmentally responsible. A review of mountaintop removal would serve the EPA well. 

Mountaintop removal is a way for the coal companies to avoid having to mine the mountain the traditional way. Instead, they use millions of tons of dynamite to blow up the mountain so they can easily extract the coal underneath. Dynamite is cheaper than coal miners; no jobs created here. The toxic waste from this process is then dumped into the nearby valleys and riverbeds below, which can ruin the entire ecosystem. 

More disturbing is the effect on the communities that live in the area. Coal slurry is a toxic byproduct of the mining waste, with billions of gallons stored in dams around the mining sites. At mountaintop removal sites like those in the Appalachia in West Virginia, this can shatter the community in two ways.

There was an incident last December in Tennessee where a coal slurry dam between Nashville and Knoxville burst, causing 500 million gallons of sludge to flow into the tributaries of the Tennessee River, which is also the water supply for millions living in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. It was estimated to be 40 times larger than the infamous Exxon Valdez spill. 

Living near a mountaintop removal operation and living near a coal slurry dam is like living in a war zone. Explosions are going off all the time. Ash and rock is raining down around communities. Machinery is clanging all day and night. The air and water is contaminated with toxic metals and chemicals, including arsenic, lead, selenium, boron, cadmium and cobalt. A friend of mine recently traveled to a West Virginia community to see the devastation and said residents have numbness in their extremities because what they are ingesting is so toxic.

In desperation, coalfield residents of West Virginia wrote a letter to the EPA and Department of Interior begging them to stop the madness. “You are our last hope for justice at this point,” they wrote.

The EPA responded to a different letter instead. They wrote back to a West Virginia Congressman who was determined to ensure the permits went through. The EPA letter said, “I understand the importance of coal mining in Appalachia for jobs, the economy and meeting the nation’s energy needs.” You know the rest.

The health hazards mentioned came to light as a result of the EPA’s own analysis and report on the impacts of living near coal ash and slurry ponds. Both President Barack Obama and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson have pledged to base decisions on science. Science has returned to the White House, we’re told. Exactly what kind of “science” are we talking about? This reminds me of my sixth grade “science” fair project that involved lots of burnt bread and no numbers. 

Jackson, the EPA and Obama have made a mockery of science. They placed the coal industry above human decency. They let the people of Appalachia’s hopes slip right through their fingers. In so doing, they’ve undermined (no pun intended) the moral integrity of America and failed West Virginia, as well as the rest of the country.

Matt Dernoga is a senior government and politics major. He can be reached at


On the 42/48 approved…

The EPA’s response to the Congressman

Link for the coal slurry disaster  (article link is in the first paragraph, butthere’s a lot of background info in the entire post).

The following two highlight the dangers of being near coalslurry ponds.

Source for the letter..
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