Selenium: Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining's Toxic Legacy

April 16, 2014

Mountaintop-removal-miningMountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. Photo by Vivian Stockman, courtesy of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.

By Peter Morgan, Staff Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

Surface coal mines in Appalachia have a problem. For years, they've been getting away with blowing up mountains and dumping the waste in streams. That mining waste releases toxic pollutants -- such as selenium -- into the streams. Now the companies are being held accountable for their pollution, including at older mines that are no longer active but still discharge selenium.

MTR-pollutionStream polluted with runoff from a mountaintop removal mining site. Photo by Matt Wasson, courtesy of

Across Appalachia, coal companies have tried to cut costs and access more coal by using a highly destructive form of mining called mountaintop removal (sometimes referred to as MTR). These mines use high explosives to blow up the rock and other materials that overlay coal seams in the mountains and ridgelines of Appalachia. The rocks, which were under pressure in their original setting, expand when the mountain is cracked open. This means that there's even more material left after the blasting. The mining companies dispose of this mining waste by dumping it directly into the neighboring streams and valleys. Approximately 2,000 miles of Appalachian streams have been buried with coal mining waste.

MTR-valley-fillA valley fill in southwestern Virginia.

That's where the problem starts: All of that newly exposed and cracked-open rock is now in constant contact with the water in the streams. Over time, pollutants start to leach out of the rock and into the streams. These waste dumps, called valley fills, are left in place even after the mining's done. Some of the pollutants that leach out of the valley fills -- like selenium -- stick around in the environment.

Continue reading "Selenium: Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining's Toxic Legacy" »

A Parent and Faith Leader's Perspective: Why We Need Strong Smog Standards

April 11, 2014

Reverend-Doug-BlandAs the father of an asthmatic child, and as a person of faith, I'm grateful for the Clean Air Act. That might seem like an odd introduction, but let me explain.

Last fall, Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) complained that, in enforcing the standards of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has "overreached" its authority. Overreach - that mental picture might seem scary to some: the hand of big government imposing its way into our lives to tell us what we can and cannot do.

As a Christian, though, the image that comes to my mind when I think of overreach is very different. On the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, against a clear blue sky, God over-reaches space and time. In the touching of two fingers, heaven and earth meet, and Adam "became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7b). According to the second creation story, God took the dust of the earth and gave it human form. But the lump just lays there, inert, lifeless, until God breathed spirit---the Hebrew word is ruach, "breath" - into Adam's lungs.  

That Biblical story takes on real flesh and blood as I'm desperately racing to the emergency room with my son, Aaron, in the seat beside me. It's another bad air quality day where I live, and Aaron is having yet another asthma attack. His face is ashen and his lips are sky blue as he tries to suck in the life giving air that he can't force into his lungs. I reach out my hand across the seat to him---to assure him, to assure myself---but he's too weak to even lift his fingers up to meet mine. There is no breath in him.

I carry him in my arms, limp as a ragdoll, into the emergency room where doctors and nurses who meet us at the door. I watch as their hands reach out to heal. Aaron's breath is restored. Standing next to his bed I can't talk without crying, so I just make an OK sign with my hand, a question in my eyes. He lifts up his hand so his OK meets my OK. Overreach.

It could have been much worse for Aaron. The reason there aren't more bad air quality days like this for Aaron and for millions of others was because, in 1970, Republicans on one side of the aisle and Democrats on the other side of the isle reached their hands across the partisan divide to create the Clean Air Act.

Continue reading "A Parent and Faith Leader's Perspective: Why We Need Strong Smog Standards" »

Crude-by-Rail Dangerous to Communities

April 09, 2014

Lac-Megantic-Crude-TrainJuly 2013 train derailment and explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec. Photo by Paul Chaisson/The Canadian Press.

By Devorah Ancel, Staff Attorney, Sierra Club Environmental Law Program

Imagine five, ten, twenty trains, 100-cars long, moving through your neighborhood each week, bringing constant rattling and diesel fumes into your home. A small obstacle in the tracks might cause a derailment, overturning cars and spilling toxic crude into yards and the local water supply. Those train cars could even explode, which would almost instantaneously decimate your neighborhood.

No community should have to experience these problems, but they are the reality for hundreds of towns across North America, as the oil industry sends ever more fracked oil down outdated and overburdened rail lines. As a result, loss of life and property and environmental devastation from catastrophic rail accidents have become an expected "cost of business" throughout North America.  

As prodigious quantities of volatile crude oil comes out of the ground in North Dakota, other parts of the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountains, railroads are rapidly becoming the principal mode of transporting this hazardous substance to coastal refining hubs, including the San Francisco Bay Area. In the past five years, the amount of oil transported by rail has skyrocketed from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013. In 2013 alone, Northern California experienced a 50 percent increase in transport of crude-by-rail.

Unfortunately, improvements to our nation's aging rail infrastructure have not kept pace with this oil boom on the railroads. In 2013 alone, more oil spilled from rail cars than in the past four decades combined. The National Transportation Safety Board has weighed in, warning that our existing rail infrastructure is woefully inadequate to the task of transporting highly volatile fracked crude, and our existing safety regulations do not protect communities along these rail routes. The most tragic example: a July 2013 derailment and train explosion in Lac Megantic, Quebec (pictured above), that took the lives of 47 people and leveled 40 buildings.

Continue reading "Crude-by-Rail Dangerous to Communities" »

Water Scarcity and Reproductive Health

April 02, 2014

image from
Students drilling a well at the Water4 training. Photo courtesy of Christelle Kwizera.

Christelle KwizeraEditor’s note: Christelle Kwizera is a fellow with the Sierra Club’s Global Population and Environment Program. Christelle is also part of Water Access Rwanda and will be drilling wells this summer and next in Rwanda, where some families lack access to clean water. She recently participated in a Water4 training that taught student activists about groundwater pollution and how to avoid contaminating drinking water sources. The students spent four days drilling a water well using tools that combine hand augers and percussion tools. Manually drilling is minimally intrusive and offers protection from water contamination by backfilling with sanitary layers around the well. In this blog post, Christelle reflects on some of the ways water scarcity affects reproductive health.

Water is an essential part of life. It makes up as much as three quarters of our body weight when we’re born, and more than 60 percent in adult life. We cry for it when we’re thirsty. It’s essential to the growth of crops. It's the universal solvent, a cooking necessity, and central to adequate sanitation.

However, in many parts of the world, it is rare to find clean water that is easy to access. Rather, it is often contaminated with harmful substances and bacteria, and pure streams are located below the earth’s surface, protected by layers of stone and clay.

Thus, it is not at all surprising that the average African woman spends six hours each day fetching and cleaning water. Despite the hard work and time spent collecting water, one in nine people still lack access to clean water, and every 20 seconds a child dies from a water-related illness.

In Rwanda and in most of the developing world, the task of gathering and sanitizing water is left to women and children. The scarcity of water promulgates the cycle of poverty and illiteracy, and it exposes women and children to dangerous situations outside of the home. This is unfortunate and heartbreaking when you realize that water scarcity in sub-Saharan Africa is not physical but economic. There is a tremendous amount of water in the valleys, lakes, and rivers, and even more below the surface; however, many women and children lack the knowledge and tools to make that water usable, potable, and accessible.

Continue reading "Water Scarcity and Reproductive Health" »

Sierra & Tierra: The Dirty Energy Industry Looks Green with Envy

March 31, 2014

By Javier Sierra  

We are in the midst of an epidemic of devastating oil and coal spills. In recent weeks, we have witnessed oil spills in the Mississippi River, on the Galveston, TX, coast and in Lake Michigan, among others. We have also seen terrible toxic coal spills in the Dan River, NC, and the Elk River, WV. It will take hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up these disasters.

And they claim dirty energy is cheap!

On the other hand, when we have a sun spill, we call it a nice day. And that is precisely what I want to talk to you about today, the huge economic and environmental benefits that clean energy brings to Latino workers and the whole country.

“Creating all this energy that is much needed at this time, without burning our fossil fuels and without damaging our environment, to me is a win-win situation no matter how you see it,” says Alfonso Carmona-Jiménez, a Calexico electrician working in the installation of solar and wind projects in California’s Imperial Valley. “Finally we have started taking energy from the sun, and I hope we will continue this way after polluting the earth for so long.”

InstallingSolar_600x600Workers installing solar panels in California (Photo Sierra Club)

Alfonso and thousands of other Latino workers are benefitting from a historic clean energy bonanza taking place across the country, but especially in California. The Great Recession punished this part of the state with special harshness, leaving Alfonso and thousands of workers like him jobless.

“And now it’s a great relief that I don’t have to ask the government for anything and not having to worry about where the next paycheck will come from,” proudly says Alfonso, who is now working on a solar project for the State University of San Diego at Brawley.

Alfonso is benefitting from the clean energy professional trainings for unemployed workers that unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers are conducting in California and other parts of the country.

“The union is doing a great thing for all of us here,” says Alfonso. “They provide good jobs for us, they train us, they get us benefits and health insurance, they defend us when we have issues with employers.”

California is the nation’s solar energy leader and also a world leader on its own merits, recently beating two generating records in consecutive days. On March 7th, it generated 3.9 gigawatts (GW) of electricity, and on the following day, 4.1 GW, enough to power 3 million homes or 18 percent of the overall power demand.

California already boasts almost 1,700 solar companies that employ more than 47,000 workers, thousands of them Latinos. In 2013, it added 2.7 GW of solar power, and today it has 5.6 GW of installed energy, making it the world’s seventh solar power, if it were an independent country.

Also, this clean bounty does not punish the health of Californians, unlike coal or oil. Just ask Domingo Reyes, another Calexico electrician who works on solar projects and, like his 10-year-old son, suffers from asthma.

“Here in the Imperial Valley we have some of the worst air quality in the nation. Pollution worsens our asthma. But wind and solar power is helping to lower these pollution levels,” he says.

Indeed, this is a win-win situation, as Alfonso puts it. He proudly tells the story about his first job installing a wind turbine almost 300 feet tall: “My six-year-old really got a kick out of the photos of me working on the turbine, looking so small compared to the size of the turbine, and when I told him that was me, he said with his eyes wide open, ‘really?’”

The dirty energy industry would look at the photo green with envy.

Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC

Champion of Change

March 25, 2014


On March 18, Dr. Benjamin Blonder, an ecologist at the University of Arizona and a volunteer leader with the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings (ICO) program in Tucson, was honored at the White House as a Champion of Change, along with 13 other environmental and conservation leaders.

Blonder is cofounder and Education Coordinator at the Sky School, a residential science school located on a campus in the heart of southern Arizona's Coronado National Forest that provides immersive, year-round environmental education programs to K-12 students.

Sky School, which started in 2012, had its genesis when Blonder was studying for his doctoral program in ecology and evolutionary biology, and in his personal experiences working as an environmental educator with AmeriCorps and as a middle-school science teacher at Miles Exploratory Learning Center, a public school in Tucson.

At Sky School, students work in small groups with a graduate student mentor, brainstorming ideas, learning how to do scientific research, and presenting their findings to peers, teachers, and other scientists at the end of the program.

Because of Blonder's efforts, each year hundreds of K-12 students, primarily from Title 1 schools, are able to conduct independent research while exploring the region's "sky island" ecology, biology, and geology. And since Sky School is located at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter, they have access to the University of Arizona's Steward Observatory to study astronomy.

Below, Blonder (back row, fourth from right) with other adult leaders and youth participants on a recent Tucson ICO trip.


Blonder, who grew up in New Jersey twenty miles from Manhattan, says he didn't spend all that much time getting out into nature as a kid. "My experience was primarily sidewalks and strip malls and night skies lit up by airplanes instead of stars," he says. "I never went camping until I left for college. I was fortunate that I took one ecology class as an undergraduate student, just out of curiosity, and a whole new world opened up for me. I think everyone deserves the same life-changing experience I had."

The Planet caught up with Blonder the week after he won his Champion of Change award.

Continue reading "Champion of Change" »

The Environmental Injustice of Keystone XL

March 21, 2014


By Hilton Kelley, Founder and Executive Director, Community In-Power & Development Association

We believe the Keystone XL pipeline is a bad idea for many reasons. One is that in order to clear the path for the pipeline, people's land is being taken away in six states in the name of eminent domain, all the way from Canada to the Gulf Coast. This pipeline will in no way benefit the masses; it's the Big Oil corporations who will benefit.

This pipeline would cross over aquifers that supply drinking water to millions of people, as well as about 30 percent of the ground water used for irrigation in the United States. In Texas, our chief concern is that we will be the ones receiving the tar sands crude, which is heavy in sulfur, benzene -- a known carcinogen -- and heavy metals. Levels of toxic emissions will definitely increase, and the low-income communities of color near the refineries in Port Arthur and Houston will bear the brunt of the pollution. Air pollution from the Port Arthur refineries is already taking a toll on public health in the surrounding community, including high rates of asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory ailments.

The oil industry is also likely to have more many more shutdown incidents if Keystone XL is built because of the nature of tar sands crude -- it's so heavy and viscous. Two companies in Texas, Valero and Motiva, are already receiving some tar sands crude by rail. But if the pipeline is built it will be pumped in constantly -- 300,000 barrels per day -- to Port Arthur and Houston.

In Port Arthur we already have a disproportionate amount of toxics in the environment, and the KXL pipeline will only add insult to injury. Too many of our residents here suffer from cancer. Too many of our kids are dealing with respiratory problems. One out of every five households has a child or someone in the household who needs to use a nebulizer or take breathing treatments before they go to bed at night or before they go to school. That's not right.

We represent the area of least resistance to the oil companies because we're a low-income community of color. It's the same deal in the Houston area -- that branch of the pipeline would bring tar sands crude to refineries in a low-income community in Deer Park, just east of Houston. Environmental justice organizer Juan Paras has been doing the same kind of work in Deer Park that I'm doing in Port Arthur, working with T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services).


We've partnered with Earthjustice, working closely with them in Washington, D.C., and advocating on a national level about why Keystone XL is not good for our community -- or any community. Last year I marched with Bill McKibben, the co-founder of, and Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director, in the Forward on Climate march, the biggest mass march in the history of the environmental justice movement. Nearly 50,000 people from around the country converged on the national mall in Washington to tell President Obama that this is a national movement, and we don't need Keystone XL.

On MSNBC recently, I spoke about the devastating health impacts on communities near refineries, and the fact that Keystone XL will not create a significant number of new jobs. Construction companies say building the pipeline will create jobs, but only about 300, and they'd all be temporary. Then there's the fact that the refined oil from tar sands crude is designed to be shipped overseas, not consumed domestically, so it won't help us become more energy independent. But our community in Port Arthur, and the people living near the Deer Park refineries in Houston, will have to bear the brunt of the health consequences.

For the damage it will cause to human health alone, it's just not worth it to build this pipeline -- and that's just one of the many reasons President Obama should deny the permit to build Keystone XL.  Tar sands crude is the dirtiest form of oil there is. We need to create clean-energy jobs, not jobs that will tie us to a fossil fuel economy.

There's so much opportunity if we put ourselves on a path to clean energy. The race is on to develop renewable energy, build solar panels and solar arrays, build wind turbines and wind farms. Why can't we focus on renewables instead of scraping the bottom of the barrel to get a dirty, polluting form of crude oil that destroys the land and harms public health? It's time that we did more to help heal and clean up overburdened communities instead of bringing more toxic materials to those areas. Enough is enough.


Hilton Kelly is the North American recipient of the 2011 Goldman Environmental Prize. Read more about his work in this Sierra magazine article by Bruce Selcraig, a native of the Texas Gulf Coast.

Natural Gas Expansion: Bad for Us, Bad for Future Generations

March 14, 2014


By Yassamin Kavezade, My Generation Campaign volunteer activist.

Typical days in the Inland Empire, just east of Los Angeles in Riverside and San Bernadino Counties, are plagued by smoggy skies that block views of the nearby mountain peaks, which soar to over 11,500 feet. This hazy soup is often coupled with the thick, acrid smell of fuel exhaust and industrial emissions, as if we lived in a time before catalytic converters were required equipment on vehicle exhaust pipes.

As one born and raised in Southern California, I was always aware of the region's smog problem. And because Southern California has enacted the strongest air-pollution regulations in the nation, I knew that the environment needed to be taken care of. But as I grew older -- I'm now in my early 20s -- I became aware of the connection between pollution and poor health, and the fact that low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately affected. It is this environmental injustice that has prompted me to declare that enough is enough.


The Inland Empire, where I live and attend school at the University of California, Riverside, is afflicted with the worst air quality in the country. It is also primarily comprised of communities of color -- mainly people of Latino and African American descent -- where many residents are battling poverty.

A major driver of air pollution -- in Southern California, statewide, nationwide, and globally -- is the combustion of fossil fuels. The thing that motivates me to keep volunteering with the Sierra Club's My Generation Campaign is that too little is being done in California to incentivize and create local affordable renewable-energy options for residents, business, and infrastructure in order to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. As one who would like to have a family someday, I would like my children to live in a safe and healthy world, not one plagued by pollution that damages the health of my family and friends -- and ultimately the health of the only planet we have.

Continue reading "Natural Gas Expansion: Bad for Us, Bad for Future Generations" »

Colorado Air Quality Rules a Step in the Right Direction

March 12, 2014

CO-air-quality-hearingPhoto by Sarah White, courtesy of Conservation Colorado.

By Catherine Collentine, Sierra Club Beyond Natural Gas Campaign Colorado Representative

On February 23, Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) finalized a set of air quality regulations that make Colorado the first state in the nation to regulate methane emissions statewide. The rules were finalized following five days of public comment and stakeholder testimony that included many concerned citizens.

Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter members joined other community members, industry representatives, and elected officials to voice their concerns to the AQCC. One RMC member, Tara Meixsell, traveled across the state to make her voice heard. That's Tara, below at right, with Catherine Collentine and Matt Sura, an attorney representing a group of affected and concerned citizens at the rulemaking.


Tara had testified before the AQCC six years earlier in a similar rulemaking process, but the resulting rule had been limited to the Front Range, and she saw the need for strong, statewide rules to come out of this process. In her three-minute testimony, Tara spoke on behalf of her neighbors who are "dead, ill, or slowly dying and watching their country homes being turned into industrial sites as property values plummeted." She spoke of those close to her, saying "these people are not environmental activists; they are everyday people" and imploring the AQCC to this time pass rigorous statewide air quality standards with no exemptions.

Tara's heartfelt testimony on behalf of affected landowners in Colorado was heard along with testimony from more than 100 other community members, the majority supporting strong, statewide rules. Public comments were followed by testimony from industry, environmental groups including the Sierra Club, students, craft brewers (they made a special beer for the occasion), health professionals, faith leaders, and local governments.

Below, representatives of Brewery Rickoli from Wheat Ridge, Colorado, just west of Denver, hand out beer brewed for the occasion to the commissioners at the rulemaking.


Continue reading "Colorado Air Quality Rules a Step in the Right Direction" »

MLK Commemorative March Calls for Expanded Voting Rights in Kentucky

March 11, 2014


Last week in Frankfort, Kentucky, Sierra Club volunteers were among the 5,000 Kentuckians who marched on the State Capitol to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1964 Civil Rights March on Frankfort.

Marchers held signs demanding expanded voting rights in Kentucky, and many held signs protesting mountaintop removal coal mining or calling for comprehensive immigration reform.


The Sierra Club's Cumberland Chapter and Beyond Coal Campaign began working with the NAACP in Kentucky last fall to plan the march. Speeches were delivered by Governor Steve Beshear and Kentucky NAACP President Raul Cunningham, among others.


The Sierra Club contingent was led by Cumberland Chapter Chair Judy Lyons, Louisville Group Chair Wallace McMullen, and Louisville Group Vice-Chair Drew Foley. Many volunteers rode to Frankfort on a bus provided by the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression, which works closely with the Beyond Coal Campaign in the state. Joan Lindop of the Louisville Group represented the Sierra Club at all coalition meetings of Allied Organizations for Civil Rights.

"There were folks from all walks of life who listened to the speeches and then lobbied the State Senate on a range of issues, including expanded voting rights for all Kentuckians and the restoration of felons' voting rights," says Louisville-based Sierra Club organizer Thom Pearce. "It was an empowering day and a good day of alliance-building."

UPDATE: On March 17, the Sierra Club and EarthJustice announced that they will file a lawsuit against Louisville Gas & Electric for "continuous, unabated" dumping of coal ash waste directly into the Ohio River. "We're calling on the EPA to put forward more stringent guidelines for coal ash because states aren't policing it," Pearce says.

The lawsuit against LG&E is based on time-lapse photography from a camera the Sierra Club and EarthJustice strapped to a tree, which captured a year's worth of images showing coal ash wastewater being dumped continuously into the river.

TAKE ACTION: Citizens are the frontline of defense for clean water and a healthy environment. If you encounter contaminated water on private property or in public waterways, or a problem with a mining operation, report it -- don't assume someone else is taking care of the problem.

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