Hidden Camera Reveals Dumping of Toxic Coal Ash Into Ohio River

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Time-lapse photography from a camera strapped to a tree has captured a year’s worth of images proving that dangerous coal ash wastewater from a plant owned by the utility company Louisville Gas & Electric (LG&E) is pouring unabated into the Ohio River.

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This photographic evidence, along with Google Earth satellite images from 1993 to present, support the Sierra Club and Earthjustice’s notice of intent to sue LG&E for violating the federal Clean Water Act and the terms of the utility’s own permit allowing only an “occasional” discharge into the river.

“It’s devastating to think that this could have been going on for more than 20 years,” said Sierra Club organizer Thomas Pearce, who helped install the hidden camera last year. “It’s like the North Carolina or West Virginia spills but in slow motion, with no one to stop it.”

A coal ash pond for LG&E’s Mill Creek Generating Station, which sits on the Ohio River, is the source of the pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) previously classified the pond as being “high hazard,” meaning a failure or misoperation of the ash pond dam will likely result in fatalities and environmental damage.  

While the federal Clean Water Act does protect waterways from pollution, there are no federal safeguards specific to coal ash pollution. The Sierra Club is part of a legal agreement with 11 organizations compelling the EPA to finalize safeguards against coal ash pollution by Dec. 19.

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Coal ash is the toxic byproduct left over when coal is burned to generate electricity. It contains dangerous chemicals including mercury, arsenic (a known carcinogen), lead, selenium, cadmium and many other harmful metals and pollutants. These toxic metals build up in ecosystems and most are dangerous even in very small amounts.

According to a 2010 report to Congress on the condition of Kentucky waters submitted by the Kentucky Energy & Environmental Cabinet, the Ohio River is impaired by mercury pollution and is subject to a fish consumption advisory.

“LG&E is breaking the law, contaminating our water and deliberately putting us at risk for their own profit,” said Louisville resident Mark Romines, whose home sits less than a quarter of a mile from the Mill Creek coal plant.

The Mill Creek coal plant and its associated coal ash pond are 500 feet from a large residential development and 1,000 feet from a middle school. Despite this close proximity, Kentucky law does not require LG&E to test its coal ash wastewater for toxic levels of pollution.

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“Coal ash contamination is rampant across the country, and the evidence gathered at Mill Creek is unequivocal,” said Earthjustice attorney Thom Cmar. “Coal ash has already polluted more than 200 lakes, rivers, streams and drinking waters. The problem continues to worsen, but no federal protections exist. Our household garbage is better regulated than this toxic waste.”

Coal-fired power plants are some of America’s biggest water polluters, dumping more toxic pollution into rivers and streams than any other industry in the U.S. Every year, the nation’s coal plants produce 140 million tons of coal ash pollution—and those tons of toxic material are stored in unlined and unmonitored dumps, leaking into groundwater and streams that nearby communities often rely on for drinking water. At Mill Creek, the coal ash pond is also unlined and dumping directly into the Ohio River.

Visit EcoWatch’s COAL page for more related news on this topic.

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Largest Anti-Fracking Rally in California History Draws Thousands

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By Andy Rowell

They came in their thousands from across the Golden State. On Saturday, the largest anti-fracking rally and protest in California’s history took place in the state capital of Sacramento.

The message to California Gov. Jerry Brown was simple: act now to ban fracking.

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The rally, which was organized by Californians Against Fracking and some 80 environmental and health organizations, such as Oil Change International (OCI) and 350.org.

Protestors were young and old, united in their opposition to fracking. One group of grandmothers sang: “We don’t want your fracking turning all our water brown, Take your freakin’ frackin’ drills or we will shut you down! Hydro-FRAC-turing just sucks.”

“Governor Brown has positioned himself as a climate champion, and we want to make it clear that as he decides whether to green light a massive expansion of fracking in California, his legacy is on the line,” said rally organizer Zack Malitz. 

David Turnbull, campaigns director at OCI warned Gov. Brown he would be “foolish to ignore,” the growing movement against fracking in the State. “The Governor can choose to stand with these concerned Californians and stop fracking in our state, or he can continue to stand with Big Oil,” Turnbull said.

Two days previously environmental groups had released a report warning that oil companies are increasing California’s earthquake risk by fracking, which is especially pertinent given the active fault lines of California.

The report concluded that a boom in fracking in California would worsen the danger of earthquakes, by greatly increasing oil wastewater production and underground injection. Extracting the Monterey Shale’s oil in the state could produce almost 9 trillion gallons of contaminated wastewater, the report estimates. That could expose California to a surge in damaging earthquakes like those seen in other states. (Last week I blogged about how one frack well in Ohio has been suspended due to small quakes.)

“This isn’t rocket science,” said one of the report’s authors, Jhon Arbelaez from EarthWorks. “We’ve known for decades that wastewater injection increases earthquake risk. Since Gov. Brown resolutely refuses to learn from other communities’ experience with fracking across the country, our only option to protect California families is to prevent fracking altogether.”

And that certainly was the message at Saturday’s rally.

“People need to know what fracking looks like,” said Rodrigo Romo, one activist from the heavily fracked region of Shafter, CA. “In the Central Valley there is no buffer between fracking sites and our community; there are wells next-door to schools and agricultural land. It is time for our decision makers to listen to us and stop fracking.”

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING pages for more related news on this topic.

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Robert Redford and Will Ferrell Team Up to Save the Colorado River Delta

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Actors Robert Redford and Will Ferrell, along with professional surfer Kelly Slater, are part of a new project to support Raise the River, an initiative to breathe life back into the Colorado River Delta. Through humorous banter, Redford and Ferrell in a number of short video spots highlight the urgency to recreate lost habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife, as well as reignite communities along the riverbank.

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The campaign hopes to raise $10 million by 2017 to restore a 70-mile stretch of river and wetland habitat, and to benefit the communities of the long-neglected delta.

“The Colorado River is an American treasure, one of our great icons, but we’ve overused it. It hasn’t regularly flowed to its natural end since the ‘60s,” says Redford. “The good news is that there’s a solution within our grasp. Both the U.S. and Mexican governments are involved in the effort and with a collective public commitment, we can implement the restoration plan and win this campaign.”

In these hilarious videos, Redford and Ferrell debate whether it’s best to restore the wetlands and the flows for the populations in the Delta region or move the ocean inland “a few hundred miles” to create more coastline for American surfers.

“As someone who has spent my entire life in and near the ocean, I know how important it is to protect its health and purity,” said Slater. “Part of that is making sure that our rivers and streams are healthy, too. The Colorado River belongs to all of us, and I’m excited to help get the word out about this great cause.”

The campaign hopes to raise $10 million by 2017 to restore a 70-mile stretch of river and wetland habitat, and to benefit the communities of the long-neglected delta. Currently, the Raise the River campaign is 75 percent funded, thanks in part to a generous grant from Keurig Green Mountain to support water rights acquisition and on-the-ground restoration. The six-million-year-old Colorado River is one of the hardest-working rivers on the planet supplying water to 40 million people, irrigating four million acres of farmland and serving as the lifeblood of native tribes, seven National Wildlife Refuges and 11 national parks. It deserves our support.

Visit EcoWatch’s WATER page for more related news on this topic.

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Fracking Industry Tries to Buy Democracy in Rural Illinois

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Johnson County, IL has oil and gas interests panicked about a local effort to stop fracking. They’re spending tens of thousands of dollars in the rural county to defeat a referendum that opposes fracking and defends local rights.

The referendum reads:

“Shall the people’s right to local self-government be asserted by Johnson County to ban corporate fracking as a violation of their rights to health, safety, and a clean environment?”

The industry and their cronies recently realized that voters are siding with local control instead of handing their future over to Kansas-based frackers Woolsey Energy. A front group for the oil industry started professional mailings and robo-calls possibly funded by the Illinois Petroleum Council which complain about “out-of-state” interests. Additionally, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce spent $23,500 to promote fracking. That’s a huge cash dump in a county where less than 3,000 people cast ballots in the last primary election.

Here’s a tip for the fracking forces: when you’re doing a mailing that gripes about out-of state-agitators, mail it from in-state. They should fire the consultant who had the bright idea of mailing it from Iowa.

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The irony would be funny if the fracking industry weren’t pushing a community-killing agenda. It’s locals (not Kansas-based Woolsey Energy) who will have to suffer the consequences of fracking. Woolsey’s mansion won’t suffer when Johnson county property values fall. Woolsey will be counting his profits when local residents are dealing with poisoned water. His workers will be on their way to another state when Johnson county is left picking up the pieces after their roads, community infrastructure and environment are wrecked.

The oil industry’s inflammatory attacks are dividing the community. Since their campaign began, a local newspaper publisher now refuses to run ads or letters to the editor that oppose fracking. Pro-fracking politicians threaten that the county will be sued if the referendum passes. Locals who had permission to sit at an informational table at a local business for weeks suddenly had the police called to eject them without warning or provocation.

Johnson county resident Tony Gerard recorded a video to break through the newspaper blackout and defend locals who have been organizing to defend their property rights and community.

Post by Tony Gerard.

The oil industry is trying to buy democracy in Johnson county. Residents have the chance in Tuesday’s election to decide they want control over their own future without more division and destruction by outside oil interests.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING pages for more related news on this topic.

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15 Endangered Species You Can Spot in U.S. National Wildlife Refuges

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On March 14, 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt established what is considered the first national wildlife refuge. Now, hundreds of refuges later, these protected areas are among the very best places to see rare wildlife.

President Roosevelt’s creation of the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida enjoys a prominent place in conservation lore, both for the public lands precedent it set and the rather forthright way he did it. But beyond this, it paved the way for a popular movement that valued wildlife in its own right, encouraged curiosity about how different flora and fauna lived and sought to check the effects of habitat loss.

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Today, under the authority of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Wildlife Refuge System has more than 560 units, protecting (and in some cases restoring) about 150 million acres as habitat for thousands of species, many threatened or endangered. National wildlife refuges can be found in every state, comprising a multi-billion dollar economic engine that draws tens of millions of visitors each year. More than 20 million acres of these incredible landscapes are also part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Recent hardships—exemplified by the cancellation of National Wildlife Refuge Week in 2013 due to the government shutdown, as well as chronic budget shortfalls—have only underscored the importance of these places for conservation and education. Here are 15 extraordinary animals from the USFWS database, iconic and obscure alike, and some of the refuges where you might be able to spot them (if you’re lucky).

American crocodile

Status: Threatened in Florida, Endangered in other states.

Where to see it: J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge (Florida).

Bigger and less-common than its cousin, the American alligator, the American crocodile is primarily found in South Florida, where a small population resides in swamps, coastal lagoons and estuaries. Some good news: though seldom seen and once very close to extinction, the prehistoric-looking giants have made a comeback in recent years. Despite their fearsome appearance, these reptiles, which grow up to 13 feet in length in the U.S., rarely attack humans (in fact, they tend to avoid us altogether). For fellow wildlife, it’s a different story: their muscular jaws are suited for preying on most fish, turtles, birds and small mammals. 

Red wolf

Status: Endangered

Where to see it: Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (North Carolina), Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge (North Carolina), Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge (South Carolina).

The red wolf, like many other threatened and endangered species, was once common in the U.S., but habitat loss and other factors during the early twentieth century took their toll, leaving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a last-ditch breeding program and bring the predators back from the brink of  dying out entirely The agency did this using a few red wolves recovered from Texas and Louisiana, eventually reintroducing the offspring to a national wildlife refuge in North Carolina. Now, more than 30 years after they were officially declared extinct, that state, part of the  historical range, contains more than 100 animals.

Hawaiian monk seal

Status: Endangered

Where to see it: Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge (Hawaii), Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge (Hawaii).

The beloved, besieged Hawaiian monk seal can grow to 450 pounds and has jaws suited to cracking crab shells with ease. However, it remains utterly at the whim of habitat loss and indiscriminate fishing operations, which have helped make it one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. Found only in U.S. waters, the big predator is referred to as “Ilio holo I ka uaua,” or “the dog that runs in the rough water,” by native Hawaiians. Without a doubt, that vaguely canine appearance has helped buoy its public standing as a loveable beach-dweller. 

Karner blue butterfly

Status: Endangered

Where to see it: Necedah National Wildlife Refuge (Wisconsin)

These butterflies’ larvae feed only on the leaves of the wild lupine plant, greatly restricting their range. As a result, habitat loss has wreaked havoc on the species, its numbers dwindling nearly to extinction in the past 15 years. To compound that, the tiny, delicately-patterned adults are a coveted catch for butterfly collectors–and the collection of even a few can significantly impact the broader population. Recently, conservation measures in national wildlife refuges and zoos have helped reintroduce the Karner blue butterfly to its historic home range.

California Condor

Status: Endangered

Where to see it: Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge (California), Blue Ridge National Wildlife Refuge (California), Hopper Mountain National Wildlife Refuge (California).

A huge, regal bird whose name is almost synonymous with back-from-the-brink conservation success stories, the California condor is nonetheless perpetually on the brink of extinction, with only a few hundred birds left in the wild. National wildlife refuges and other protected public lands like Pinnacles National Park are especially important for their survival, as condors tend to do better in areas with controlled human intrusion and less development. Bald-headed and jowly, these scavengers are not conventionally beautiful, but their presence bespeaks a dinosaur-like mystique, and any birdwatcher would be extremely fortunate to see one in the flesh.

Humpback whale

Status: Endangered

Where to see it: Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska), Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska).

Despite their massive bulk, humpback whales are closely associated with a penchant for moving—specifically, the annual migrations that take them thousands of miles from tropical or subtropical waters (their wintertime calving grounds) back north to feed. Though they can be found in every major ocean, the 25-to-40-ton filter-feeders face threats including whaling, accidental boat collision and entanglement in commercial fishing equipment. Fortunately, their numbers are increasing in much of their range, and with continuing conservation efforts, their eerie “songs,” meant to attract mates or challenge rivals, will hopefully not be silenced any time soon.

Jaguarundi (Texas)

Status: Endangered (possibly extinct)

Where to see it: Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas), Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (Texas), Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (Texas).

You might catch a glimpse of the sinuous, dusky Jaguarundi somewhere in Florida, but any population there is thought to have originated from pets released in the 1940s. Jaguarundis found in the south of Texas are the real article, though even they are extremely rare, having dwindled over the course of several decades due to farming and other development in the mixed-brush landscapes of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Some say the species is effectively extinct in America, with only unconfirmed sightings attesting to their presence since 1986. Recently, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published a plan to formally reintroduce a population of the wild cats to Texas.

California red-legged frog

Status: Threatened

Where to see it: Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes National Wildlife Refuge (California), San Diego National Wildlife Refuge (California)

Historically, these richly-colored frogs, the largest native to California, were found throughout the state, from Mendocino County in the north to Baja in the south, as well as in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada. However, this range has been considerably reduced, and they remain at-risk due to invasive species and habitat loss from development and farming. The California red-legged frogs that remain can be found in slow or standing bodies of freshwater with plant cover. They have voracious appetites, and have been observed preying on fish, mice and fellow frogs in addition to the usual array of small invertebrates.

Gulf sturgeon

Status: Threatened

Where to see it: Bogue Chitto National Wildlife Refuge (Louisiana/Mississippi)

This subspecies of Atlantic sturgeon breeds in freshwater only after migrating upriver from marine and estuary habitat and is limited to a small area of the Gulf of Mexico from Tampa Bay, FL, to Lake Ponchartrain, LA. The gulf sturgeon is a fascinating example of a living fossil—an armored, torpedo-shaped fish that has been slow to evolve and doesn’t look much different than when dinosaurs roamed the earth. These partly cartilaginous giants are known for leaping from the water without warning. Sadly, they are at-risk due to overfishing—widespread for nearly a century until fisheries were closed in the mid-1980s—water pollution, habitat destruction, dredging and dams. 

Leatherback sea turtle

Status: Endangered

Where to see it: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Texas), Breton National Wildlife Refuge (Louisiana), Fisherman Island National Wildlife Refuge (Virginia) and others.

Leatherback sea turtles can easily be distinguished from their flippered kin by the parallel ridges running down their stiff, rubber-like carapaces and their tremendous size and weight (sometimes exceeding one ton). But like other sea turtles, they are threatened by habitat loss, hunting, marine pollution and boat strikes. In U.S. waters, leatherbacks in the Atlantic Ocean have fared better than those in the Pacific. When unencumbered, these powerful swimmers thrive in the open sea, and, despite their sparse numbers, enjoy wider global distribution than any other reptile. 

Spectacled eider

Status: Threatened

Where to see it: Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska), Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska), Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska), Togiak National Wildlife Refuge (Alaska)

In winter and spring, the male spectacled eider in full breeding plumage resembles a sea duck from Mars, with its bright orange bill, bold white goggles and wig-like green feathers. Unfortunately, this exotic-looking bird has become extremely rare since the 1970s, prompting its “threatened” listing in 1993. Reasons for this decline are not well-understood, but pollution and lead poisoning from birdshot have been contributing factors. While they spend most of their time at sea feeding on mollusks and crustaceans, the ducks also depend on Alaska’s Arctic coastal plain as breeding ground.

Audubon’s crested caracara

Status: Threatened

Where to see it: Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge (Florida)

Audubon’s crested caracara, a large, striking member of the falcon family, can be found in wet prairies and some wooded areas in Florida and the Gulf Coast region, but habitat loss and human interference (especially in the form of motor vehicle traffic) have made it a rarer sight than it used to be. It eats carrion and small animals, part of a diet that is unusually varied for a bird of prey. The way they get that food is pretty unique, too; caracaras have been reported stealing carrion from vultures and other birds, sometimes even in mid-flight.

Ozark big-eared bat

Status: Endangered

Where to see it: Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge (Oklahoma).

Befitting its name, the Ozark big-eared bat’s hearing organs can reach one-third the animal’s total body length. Fewer than 2,000 of these tiny insectivores are thought to remain in the wild, and while conservationists have worked to restore the species since it was added to the federal endangered species list more than 30 years ago, cave vandalism and assorted human disturbance have made it an ongoing challenge. Oklahoma’s Ozark Plateau National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1986 in large part to aid recovery of this and other cave-dwelling creatures.

West Indian manatee

Status: Endangered

Where to see it: J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Pine Island National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge (Florida), Savannah National Wildlife Refuge (Georgia/South Carolina) and others.

Whether or not this placid coastal river- and estuary-dweller is truly the inspiration for mermaid tales of yore, the West Indian manatee is uniquely beloved, a flagship species for conservationists and Floridians at-large. Like some human inhabitants, the “sea cow” typically spends winters in and around the state, straying west and north when it warms up (in one famous case, the same manatee was spotted in the Chesapeake Bay twice, 17 years apart). Resembling what could be loosely called a sport utility seal, the gentle, bulky creature has benefited greatly from conservation efforts since the 1970s, but is still vulnerable to human-caused habitat loss, boat collisions, entanglement in fishing gear and entrapment in flood gates and canal locks. 

Higgins eye pearly mussel

Status: Endangered

Where to see it: Great River National Wildlife Refuge (Iowa/Illinois/Missouri), Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge (Iowa/Illinois/Minnesota/Wisconsin).

The Higgins eye is a freshwater mussel that likes deep, relatively gentle water. Though little-noticed, beds of these mussels serve many important roles, including as a food source for raccoons, otters and muskrats; filtering water to improve quality; and providing river-bottom microhabitats for other aquatic life. Populations on the Mississippi River and elsewhere are imperiled by invasive zebra mussels, pollution, dredging, boat traffic and other dangers. Let this serve as a reminder: national wildlife refuges don’t only protect habitat for big or cuddly animals.

While our national wildlife refuges offer great opportunities to see rare plants and animals, preservation of these species for future generations requires that we take precautions not to interfere with them. This means keeping a respectful distance and maintaining healthy habitat by following “leave no trace” rules: never take anything out of a wildlife refuge or leave anything behind. 

Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.

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