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Stream-Protection Rule Flows into Legal Battle

Conservationists are fighting back against attempts to gut new regulations that attempt to stop future pollution of streams such as this one that spills into the Kentucky River. (Tarence Ray)
Conservationists are fighting back against attempts to gut new regulations that attempt to stop future pollution of streams such as this one that spills into the Kentucky River. (Tarence Ray)
January 25, 2017

FRANKFORT, Ky. – A coalition of community and conservation groups is fighting back against attempts by state officials in Kentucky and 13 other coal-producing states to stop enforcement of the Stream Protection Rule, which was finalized last month by the Interior Department.

The states want the United States District Court in Washington, D.C., to block enforcement. Kentucky's Energy and Environment Secretary, Charles Snavely, claims the Stream Protection Rule is "not environmentally needed, conflicts with existing protections" and would do "great harm" to the coal industry.

Thom Kay, senior legislative representative for Appalachian Voices, one of the groups seeking to intervene in the case, disagrees.

"I think it is absurd to say that there's no need for more protections from surface-mining pollution, and Kentucky is actually one of the best examples of the water pollution that we've seen from surface mining over the years," he said. "The protections are completely inadequate, and the enforcement is equally inadequate."

The rule is intended to protect clean water and other natural resources through stronger regulations on surface mining. According to Appalachian Voices, mountaintop-removal mining has been responsible for destroying an estimated 2,000 miles of streams in Appalachia and is linked to a variety of health problems.

Letcher County resident Tarence Ray is one of the volunteers who collects water-quality data on rivers and streams for the state's Water Watch program. Ray says he still sees pollution from strip mines.

"Last week, I was at a stream that was completely orange," he said. "You couldn't see the bottom of the stream. It was a lot of iron oxide and stuff, and this was right at the spot where it was flowing into the North Fork of the Kentucky River."

The Stream Protection Rule expands baseline data requirements during the permitting process for a new mining operation, and it also strengthens monitoring during mining and reclamation. While the state has characterized the new regulation as "unreasonable and unjustifiable restrictions," Ray believes otherwise.

"I think that's a very reasonable price to pay to make sure that we're sort of covering all of our bases and that people are staying safe and healthy," Ray added.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY