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With Coal Company Polluters, It's Citizens Who Have to Force Clean Up

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The media has been filled with recent accounts of the many misdeeds of the coal mining industry. From the uncontrolled devastation of mountaintop mining to the open disregard for mine worker safety, from the poisoning of our air and waterways to the destruction of our irreplaceable landscapes, this industry has demonstrated time and again that it will use any irresponsible shortcut to avoid accountability and increase profits. To that long list of industry wrongs, we can now add another - the falsification of their own pollution records.

Yesterday, environmentalists filed a sixty-day notice letter that they intend to sue three coal companies - ICG Knott County, ICG Hazard, and Frasure Creek Mining - for violations of the Clean Water Act. The letter -- written by Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance -- alleges that the three companies not only exceeded pollution-discharge limits specified in their permits, but also consistently failed to conduct required monitoring of their discharges and, in many cases, submitted false monitoring data to the state agencies charged with protecting the public. In short, the mining companies have polluted the drinking water of Eastern Kentucky and bordering downstream states, and then brazenly lied about it.

State and federal agencies should be policing this kind of illegal behavior, but they're not. They're not enforcing the laws, like the Clean Water Act - which has been on the books for nearly 40 years - nor do they monitor or even verify information put forward by our largest polluters. Today, it's left to citizens to singlehandedly take on the major polluting industries like the coal companies.

The three coal companies named in the environmentalists' letter operate in eastern Kentucky under state-issued permits that require them to self-monitor and report their discharges to state officials. The monitoring reports become public documents, reviewable by anyone who asks for them. That's a good thing, because obviously the state of Kentucky doesn't bother reviewing them.

Among the allegations enumerated in the letter of notice are countless examples of companies exceeding their pollution limits; failing to complete or file their reports; and, most troubling of all, misreporting discharges of manganese, iron, total suspended solids and pH. In some cases, coal companies submitted the exact same discharge figures in report after report, year after year - or erased dates and filled in new ones.

The sheer number of alleged violations for these three companies is astounding. The notice letter claims the companies either exceeded permit pollution limits, failed to submit legally required monitoring data, or falsified that data more than 20,000 instances in total. Some discharges exceeded the daily maximum limit by more than 40 times. These violations could result in fines totaling more than $740 million.

As bad as the actions of the mine companies are, the records also show a pervasive pattern of neglect on the part of the state of Kentucky. A recent trip to Kentucky's Division of Mine Reclamation and Enforcement regional offices by Appalachian Voices' Waterkeeper found stack after stack of discharge monitoring reports, from more than 60 coal mines and processing facilities, covered in dust on the desks of mine inspectors' secretaries. They did not appear to have been evaluated for compliance by the regulators for more than three years.

This situation paints a vivid picture of mining companies making a mockery of their legal responsibility under the Clean Water Act and, more troubling, their ethical and moral obligation to the people of the state of Kentucky. It also shows a state government closing its eyes to the problems posed by toxic waste in local waters. And Kentucky's situation isn't unique: it's business-as-usual for big coal and the government agencies across the country charged with regulating the industry, which too frequently are now run by former coal executives or consultants.

And so, with industry unwilling to obey the law, and government unwilling to uphold it, it's left to individuals and groups to bring suit; ordinary citizens driven to extraordinary lengths. That isn't an easy thing to do for private individuals, but they have seen their lives and livelihoods damaged and destroyed by the dumping of mining waste into Kentucky's waterways.

The Waterkeeper movement was founded more than forty years by commercial and recreational fishermen on the Hudson River because the river that was so much a part of their lives was being stolen from them by corporate polluters. They knew that if we allow pollution to continue unchecked, we are doing what the government is now doing with these coal companies: allowing theft to not only go unpunished, but also unchallenged.

Those fishermen decided to enforce the laws that the government was failing to enforce, and to reclaim the bedrock American belief in "government for the people, of the people, and by the people." They demonstrated that it is not only our right, but our obligation to protect the natural treasures of this earth that we share in common - not only for ourselves but for the generations to come.

It's time again to demonstrate that lesson to the coal companies that are looting Appalachia in the name of profit: that through citizen action, corporate thievery can once again be stopped and industry made to pay the legal price for their actions.

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