Kentucky Groups Sue for Clean Water Act Enforcement

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A coalition of environmental and citizen groups is filing suit against three mining companies in Kentucky for violations of the Clean Water Act, after an investigation into state records found the companies willfully, and regularly, ignoring pollution limits at or near mining sites.

After digging through records at the state’s Division of Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement, the groups say they found more than 20,000 violations for just these three firms—ICG Knott County, ICG Hazard, and Frasure Creek Mining, a subsidiary of Trinity Coal. The companies regularly noted that they had exceeded pollution limits in their self-reported quarterly filings, but they also often failed to submit reports or falsified monitoring data. In one case the groups cite, the data on manganese levels at one test site was 40 times the legal limit. Overexposure to the element has toxic effects and can impair motor skills and cognitive function.

The groups say they are filing suit because the state office has not enforced the law. Donna Lisenby, who works for the environmental group Appalachian Voices, described literally blowing the dust off stacks of reports from the companies that did not appear to have been actually reviewed by anyone in the state office. Or at least, they were not reviewed thoroughly; she also described reports that appeared to have the same data copied and pasted from previous months, and reports that were dated before the testing was actually conducted. “Unless coal companies have invented a time machine, it’s just not possible to submit test results for August and September that were taken in July,” she said.

The records were obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request. Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians For the Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, and Waterkeeper Alliance jointly filed the notice of intent to sue on Thursday, though they must wait 60 days before moving forward with the actual suit. The goal, the groups said, is to push the companies to comply with the law, and for state officials to actually enforce that law. The groups estimate that the companies would have been subject to $740 million in fines had the law been enforced.

“Our state officials have closed their eyes to an obviously serious problem,” said Ted Withrow, a member of Kentuckians For the Commonwealth. “These are not small exceedances—some are over 40 times the daily maximum. This should have been a red flag.”

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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