Front Porch Blog

From Southwest Virginia, a path for less pollution

{ Editor’s Note }Today’s guest to the Front Porch is Kathy Selvage, a coal miner’s daughter in Southwest Virginia who has been a tireless advocate for environmental and social justice in the region. Kathy serves on the Applachian Voices Board of Directors. This essay originally appeared as an op-ed in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

kathy

The Environmental Protection Agency recently rolled out its Clean Power Plan, seeking to set limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants — an issue that affects us all. The plan will be finalized next year, leaving ample time for the nation to weigh in.

Many of us in Wise County live in the shadows of two coal-fired power plants — Appalachian Power Company’s plant near Carbo, right on the Clinch River, and one in St. Paul, owned by Dominion Virginia Power. Both plants emit pollution that affects the quality of air that our families, our children and our elderly breathe.

We are Appalachians and both our terrain and our people are among the most unique but under-appreciated on earth. We have powered this nation and driven its industrial development, but we have also sacrificed tremendously for the lights, warmth and comfort of this country, including our own shortened lives.

Carbon and other pollution released by burning coal threaten public health. They lead to higher risks of asthma attacks, premature deaths and thousands of hours of missed work, lessening our economic activity. On the other hand, setting carbon pollution standards is essential for keeping our air more pure, thus protecting public health.

With great challenges come great opportunities. What we’ve learned is that we don’t have to give up good public health to have a strong economy. We deserve, and can have, both.

We can increase our economic activity through investments in clean energy — conservation, energy efficiency, solar and wind. Carbon emissions in the U.S. have decreased in the past decade. We should use this momentum to forge ahead in a field ripe with more innovation to be created and applied.

Conservation is not to be disdained. It is an admirable principle that should be at the forefront of energy evolution. Additionally, energy efficiency measures — using less energy but yielding the same level of power — are the most cost-effective way for Virginians to meet a growing demand. Besides sharing the benefits of conservation, these measures offer the added benefit of creating local jobs.

According to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, by 2020 the EPA’s proposed carbon pollution limits could create more than 5,600 new jobs, recirculate money within local communities and add $517 million to the pockets of Virginians through savings.

Solar is another job creator, if only we embrace it. Our closest neighboring states are outdoing us in installing solar projects, but we can seize the opportunity to grow that sector, be more competitive, reduce our carbon load and be healthier.

Offshore wind in Virginia is yet another capacity for energy generation that represents great potential. Both wind and solar are far more abundant than other fuel sources and can provide us with clean energy, pollution-free.

We can meet our energy needs without expanding nuclear or over-expanding the use of natural gas. While gas burns cleaner than coal, its use also contributes to climate change, and its extraction can pose serious risks to our health and our water. Far Southwest Virginia already has 8,000 gas wells, mostly in the coal-producing counties, with grossly inadequate oversight.

As citizens of Virginia, surely we are committed to healthy people and a vibrant economy for all, including the far southwestern corner. In recognition of the many sacrifices made by the region, elected representatives should embrace, endorse and advocate for special economic development considerations for Southwest Virginia. This vision should be geared to preventing the “brain drain” responsible for at least part of the declining population here.

And let any investments in our economic development be overseen by a group with a new and different vision, not one that is no longer viable. In times past, we have diversified with seemingly no transparency. This time we must build accountability, audits and tracking of the long-term viability of jobs with complete transparency to the general public. We must begin to rebuild sorely needed public trust.

We can do this! Our air must be cleaner to safeguard our health. The EPA’s proposed Clean Power Plan is a giant leap forward. I wholeheartedly support it and encourage others to as well. The plan will help motivate us to find alternate ways to produce all the kilowatts we need, being mindful of those in far Southwest who have sacrificed tremendously for our energy needs. The underappreciated deserve a brighter, healthier day.

Kathy Selvage is the daughter of a coal miner with lifelong residency in a coal-mining community. She sits on the board of Appalachian Voices, an environmental organization whose mission is to unite people in the protection of the land, air and water of central and southern Appalachia.

About Cat McCue

Although not native to the region, Cat is deeply connected to the mountains, rivers, backroads and small towns of Appalachia she has come to know over the years. She is Appalachian Voices' Communications Director.


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