HUEYSVILLE — Every Sunday, Rick Handshoe strolls from his mobile home across a two-lane paved highway, down the hill to Raccoon Creek, which is sometimes orange, sometimes silty, sometimes clear.
He notes whether any frogs or crawdads can be found, dead or alive, and he notes how much water is flowing from the pond built at the head of the Floyd County creek by a coal company about five years ago.
Handshoe has been watching his creek ebb and flow, die and come alive and die again, as the cycle of blasting, mining and reclamation has continued on land surrounding his retirement home. Until a year ago, his observations were just that; he couldn't afford to send periodic water samples to a laboratory to find out what minerals were leeching into his creek.
But for the past year, Handshoe has been armed with a new weapon: a conductivity meter given to him by the Sierra Club.
The small beige instrument, which looks like an oversize digital thermometer, measures the amount of dissolved minerals and ions by sending an electrical current through the water. It is cheap, compared to lab testing, and it can be used over and over.
And Handshoe has been using it every Sunday for a year, measuring the microSiemens of electricity passing through his water at 500, 600, 1,200, 1,600, and marking them on a calendar.
Since April, when the Environmental Protection Agency issued guidance that suggested the target specific conductivity for Appalachian streams like Raccoon Creek should be 200 or less and began objecting to state-issued mine permits, Handshoe's handheld meter has become a symbol of the Kentucky coal industry's biggest environmental headache.
Since the guidance, only two Kentucky mine operators have been issued Army Corps of Engineers water-pollution permits. Both companies rejected the permits and are appealing their conditions. It's taking 18 months or more to receive mine permits when 10 years ago, the worst case was six months, operators say.
A conductivity meter won't tell you what's in the water, just that there's stuff in it.
Coal industry advocates say that's the problem. They perform extensive tests and report monthly averages to the state over the life of their permits. They know how much manganese, iron and other minerals they're discharging. They know how alkaline their water is, and they adjust additives every month to try to keep the water pollution within permitted levels.
But they say the conductivity benchmark of 200 to 500 microSiemens is impossible to meet — by a coal mine or any other industry. Even runoff from building a house or salting a road in winter can raise the conductivity of nearby streams.
"I would like to think that you've got more than a guy rolling around with a hand-held conductivity meter calling that real science," said Paul Jackson of Perry County Coal, a subsidiary of TECO Coal.
Handshoe recognizes the strangeness of the situation.
He says he's not pretending to know anything about water chemistry and biology, but he is learning. He has a GED and retired from the Kentucky State Police as a radio technician because of a back injury. He worked on transmission towers.
Handshoe says his goal is simply to know what's in Raccoon Creek's water, and he hopes to use that information to make sure it is safe and healthy for his neighbors' kids to play in and for fish to swim in.
Environmental scientists consider conductivity measurements "a good first-cut test" to determine where to spend money on more expensive testing, said Rick Clewett, political director for the Cumberland Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Industry representatives say their regulators haven't provided any options — short of shutting down mines — to solve the conductivity problem.
Conductivity is an important measure when it applies to the right kind of shallow, intermittent or headwater stream common in Appalachia, said Kentucky Environmental Protection Commissioner Bruce Scott. But it must be taken in context of other measures.
Jackson, of Perry County Coal, said streams are in better shape than they were years ago.
"I've seen streams clear up. I fish constantly, year-round, and I know there's no significant impact to what we're doing. I defy some of these people to say that streams aren't better than what they were" decades ago before so-called "shoot-and-shove" mining was stopped, Jackson said.
Coal executives have taken to testing city tap water in Hazard (855 microSiemens on a dry November day), bottled drinking water (350 microSiemens), even Budweiser (1,250 microSiemens), to show that conductivity on its own isn't a good measure of the ability of liquids to support life.
They say the EPA, in holding up permits based largely on data from what's called the Pond-Passmore study of mayflies, is choosing one insect over the jobs of hundreds or thousands of Eastern Kentucky mine workers. The study found that conductivity of water in a particular kind of headwater stream in West Virginia correlated with the presence of certain species of mayflies that are low on the food chain and generally considered indicators of overall stream health.
"The argument was very broad" initially, said Gene Kitts, vice president of operations for ICG, Kentucky's largest surface-mine coal producer. "They finally narrowed it down to an argument that they apparently thought had a chance of sticking, which was conductivity and its alleged effects on stream quality.
"They seemed to emphasize that any change to the stream itself is impairment."
West Virginia and Kentucky, along with the National Mining Association, the Kentucky Coal Association and others, have sued the EPA over permits that it allowed one day and objected to the next, after the conductivity benchmark was issued.
If the conductivity benchmark continues to hold up mining permits, TECO Coal, a Florida power company subsidiary, will have to start laying off workers within a year, said Bob Zik, TECO's vice president of operations.
"It's not going to go boom," he said. "As people run out of permits, it's going to slowly start decreasing."
Because of uncertainty of regulations, companies aren't investing the capital in machines and equipment to maintain production and hiring levels that they've had during the past few years, Zik said.
Black Mountain Resources, purchased this year by Massey Energy of Virginia, is waiting for a revision to a permit governing its Harlan County processing plant, which serves the company's underground coal mines.
If it is required to stop working because it can't meet conductivity benchmarks, said vice president of operations Ross Kegan, stoppages could affect the entire company in five to six years.
ICG has withdrawn two Eastern Kentucky permit applications that the EPA commented on, Kitts said. A third, in southern West Virginia, has been resubmitted in an attempt to comply with EPA directives, and a fourth, a modification of an existing fill in Knott County, is still in process, he said.
"We have had situations where we have cut back on production, laid people off and idled equipment due to delays" in getting Army Corps of Engineers pollution permits that have been delayed by the EPA, Kitts said. "We have changed mining plans, scaled back plans to a certain extent, to work around the permitting situation."
Mines can sometimes use existing permitted fills to accept spoil from newly mined areas, he said.
Two Kentucky companies have been offered Army Corps of Engineers water impact permits since the April conductivity guidelines, but the companies have not accepted them.
The companies, Czar Coal Corp. and Sapphire Mining, a subsidiary of United Coal, did not return phone calls seeking comment, but Army Corps of Engineers regulator Lee Ann Devine said the companies are appealing the permit requirements partly based on issues surrounding conductivity. It's not that the permit requirements can't be met, Devine said, but that the companies think that achieving the requirements isn't economically feasible.
Research by the University of Kentucky and others shows promising results in reducing the conductivity of runoff from rebuilt surface mines. Using "weeping berms" that allow water to seep through loose soil instead of spilling out of a sediment holding pond, for example, shows promise, said Scott, the state environmental protection commissioner. The problem is that permits must be approved before such methods can be tested in the real world, he said.
Many permits last for a given number of years and then must be renewed. The EPA has objected to 21 that the state approved in the past year, Scott said. Last month, the state sent the EPA a revised permit for Laurel Mountain Resources, formerly Miller Brothers Coal, which wants to add a sediment pond and several other ponds to its land around Handshoe's Raccoon Creek. Last month, the state was revising 11 more permits to accommodate the conductivity benchmark, among other EPA objections, Scott said.
The Sierra Club provided Handshoe's conductivity meter a year ago, before EPA benchmarks were handed down in April, and the club itself has tested water in Eastern Kentucky.
The club's tests of Raccoon Creek in November, done as a favor to Handshoe, found high levels of aluminum, manganese and zinc; high alkalinity; and the presence of caustic soda, or lye, added to the water by the coal company to lower the acidity of the water.
Sierra Club Water Sentinels head Tim Guilfoile said he was glad not to find high levels of mercury or selenium, which can cause deformities and reproductive problems in aquatic life.
Clewett said the legal realm of conductivity isn't a sure thing yet, so it's unclear whether benchmarks set in April will stick.
"Things haven't really shaken out there yet," he said.
If they do stick, then environmentalists might have a cheaper tool in their box, but time will tell.