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Kentucky's Coal Challenges - Public Health, Clean Water, and Clean Air

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Guest column by Heather Moyer, Sierra Club

This week's column focuses on some big coal-related news items out of the Bluegrass State, where some inspiring Beyond Coal activists are making waves.

First, some good news: In a victory for clean water and public health, late yesterday a Kentucky circuit court overruled a lax permit that allowed Louisville Gas and Electric (LG&E) to dump large amounts of mercury, arsenic and other pollutants into the Ohio River from its Trimble County Generating Station coal-fired plant.

That good decision news comes along with a bad one: A Kentucky judge just ruled that a mountaintop removal coal mine in Knott County does "not significantly affect the quality of the human environment."

We're hoping that doesn't continue a trend of pro-coal decisions on mountaintop removal coal mining: Right now a major pending decision is whether the Environmental Protection Agency rejects Kentucky's revision of clean water protections in the state.

Kentucky has proposed revisions to its water quality standards for the toxic pollutant selenium - revisions that benefit the coal industry. The standards the Kentucky Division of Water has proposed are even worse than the ones that EPA rejected in 2004 as too weak to protect aquatic life.

Already more than 40,000 Kentuckians have sent a message to the EPA telling them to protect their waterways. (You can send a message too, take action here!)

Currently, water testing for selenium is done by directly sampling the water immediately downstream from mountaintop removal coal mining valley fills. These fills are created when mountaintop removal mine operators blow the tops off of mountains and then dump the waste into nearby valleys, destroying and polluting waterways and hurting wildlife.

The proposed revisions would drastically weaken the selenium water testing protocol downstream from mountaintop removal coal mining sites. Instead of trying to protect Kentuckians from harmful pollution and preserve the state's beautiful waterways and wildlife, officials are working to ensure that the interests of King Coal take precedence over the needs of the residents, and natural heritage, of the state.

What's worse, this decision would act as a starting gun for West Virginia and Virginia to do the same thing by setting a poor precedent on water quality protections and reversing current standards.

We are hoping EPA makes the right decision to reject Kentucky's proposed changes. Kentuckians - and all Americans - deserve clean water and pollution safeguards that will protect their health. Even famed Kentucky author Wendell Berry weighed in on making sure EPA does the right thing.

Finally, we switch to the Kentucky coal industry's air pollution. Check out this photo / ad (PDF).

The Elmer Smith coal plant in Owensboro, Kentucky, sits right next to a new hospital (not to mention the Ohio River). With at least 13 percent of Daviess County residents suffering from asthma, and many more suffering from other respiratory and heart problem associated with burning coal, local activists want Elmer Smith to leave the neighborhood.

According to the Clean Air Task Force, Elmer Smith contributes to 170 asthma attacks annually, as well as 10 deaths and 16 heart attacks.

The ad ran linked above in the local newspaper and has gotten some serious attention. The campaign behind it has even prompted a city official to join the local Sierra Club and offer help in this fight against the Elmer Smith coal plant.

What's more, the Owensboro Municipal Utility, which owns the plant, is also contracting to buy coal from a proposed strip mine site in Daviess County. Strip mines, like the one slated for Daviess County destroy the community's air quality and contribute to sickness in local residents. The strip mine would sit next to a Girls Scout camp, which for two years has mobilized organizers and local residents to fight the proposal.

"The community needs to kick coal out of the neighborhood," says Rick Fowler, an Owensboro resident and chair of the Pennyrile Group of Sierra Club's Cumberland Chapter.

"It's time for Owensboro to join the 21st century and protect Daviess County from the harmful effects of strip mining and coal burning. We should learn from our Ohio and Indiana neighbors that are enjoying a boom of employment in renewable energy."

Sounds like a good message and mission for the entire country.

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