Archive for the ‘All Posts’ Category

Defending our vision for Appalachia

Friday, January 20th, 2017 - posted by tom

Photo by Kent Mason

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region. Photo by Kent Mason

Donald Trump has taken the oath of office and assumed the awesome responsibility of serving as our nation’s 45th president.

His administration promises to pursue an energy and environmental policy vision in stark contrast to the scientific consensus on climate change, and to the American public’s desire for renewable energy, clean air and water, and healthier, more sustainable communities.

In our view, the new administration’s approach to environmental protection and national energy policy is dangerously shortsighted and could lead to long-lasting harm to communities and our natural heritage — perhaps in Appalachia most of all. We are determined to defend against regulatory rollbacks that compromise Appalachia’s future and to continue building on the progress we’ve made in recent years.

By every indication, Trump is entering the White House motivated to undo President Obama’s environmental legacy without considering the consequences. Appalachian Voices is prepared to take on the serious threats to the safeguards that protect human health, our region’s landscapes, air and water, and the global climate.

We watched closely as Trump’s picks to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, Department of Energy and Department of State were peppered during their confirmation hearings with pointed questions about their records and qualifications. Few of their answers passed muster or even came close to counterbalancing the pro-fossil fuel, anti-environmental and unscientific rhetoric that was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign.

Our federal agencies play an essential role in enforcing broadly supported environmental laws. How they prioritize things like investments in clean energy or measure the climate impacts of infrastructure projects such as oil and gas pipelines will be more important than ever in the coming years.

What does this new political reality mean for Appalachian Voices’ work? It compels us to continue building and deploying power from the ground up through local initiatives, constituent pressure and citizen lawsuits, and to continue serving as a technical and policy resource to a broad range of allies in Congress and in Appalachian communities.

We will do everything we can to see that the laws protecting our natural heritage are enforced. And we’ll be a key part of the massive resistance that the administration will face when it attempts to roll back these protections.

At the same time, we must not be distracted from promoting our vision for Appalachia’s energy and economic future. Our commitment to this region is the wellspring of our resistance. Lessons from the past and the promise of a better future will continue to give our movement power.

We know you’ll stand with us during this uncertain time as we work to ensure that communities in Appalachia and the Southeast can reap the benefits of the burgeoning clean energy economy and live unburdened by pollution and environmental threats.

Duke Energy neighbors say “goodwill” package is meant to buy silence

Friday, January 20th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices

Editors’ Note: The following was released by the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash in response to Duke Energy’s plan to provide alternate drinking water sources to resident with contaminated well water living near coal ash sites. The plan includes a $5,000 “goodwill payment” for families with contaminated wells, but only for those who sign a waiver saying they won’t sue Duke Energy in the future.

Citizens rally in N.C. to call for clean-up of toxic coal ash pits across the state.

Citizens rally in N.C. to call for clean-up of toxic coal ash pits across the state.

On Friday the 13th, Duke Energy released a “goodwill” offer to residents on wells near the company’s coal ash sites. To many residents, however, the ominously timed release is more hush money than it is an act of goodwill.

According to what residents have read in the media, Duke’s offer comes with conditions: in exchange for the money, residents must forgo their right to sue Duke over groundwater contamination in the future.

“A goodwill offer doesn’t come with strings attached; this is a contract, a contract to silence residents” says Debbie Baker of Belmont, near the G.G. Allen power plant. “Duke is trying to keep people from challenging them before they even put clean water lines in place. Also, I worry about my son’s future health issues if he were to start getting sick.”

Duke has said for years now that a “one-size-fits-all” approach to cleanup is not appropriate, yet it is offering a one-size-fits-all approach to this goodwill offer, says Deborah Graham, a resident in Dukeville near the Buck Steam Station. “The $5,000 goodwill offer is the same whether the property is rented, vacant, or has multiple units on it. Each family and household is different, and some will bear more of the transition to water lines than others.”

“I am glad that Duke Energy is acknowledging goodwill and property devaluation with compensation. However, $5,000 is not a fair amount to neighbors of coal ash basins across the state and does not begin to address any of the issues families have been dealing with over the past two years,” says Amy Brown of Belmont. “I still have young children living in the home, why would I jeopardize future generations by signing away my rights to challenge Duke on future groundwater contamination concerns? Duke Energy is trying to place a $5,000 price tag on my past, present, and future groundwater contamination concerns. This is an attempt to limit our ability to protect our families.”

Duke wants to cap the remaining coal ash pits in place, a method that is less expensive but does not prevent continued damage to nearby groundwater and health. The company is doing everything it can to lock that option into place. Capping in place the remaining sites would leave nearly 70 percent of the ash where it is — in some places, that means leaving it sitting in the groundwater table. Residents are concerned that the coal ash left in the ground will continue to leak and present a serious health risk to the general public, leading to more expenses down the line that Duke Energy’s offer doesn’t begin to cover.

Meanwhile, coal ash is in demand from the North Carolina concrete industry. Reprocessing coal ash into concrete is a promising technology. But without cooperation from Duke Energy to reprocess ash from the state’s largest coal ash dumps, the industry is forced to import ash from India and China.

“Why should North Carolina import toxic coal ash when we have nearly 150 million tons right here?” asks Caroline Armijo of Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup. “It seems shortsighted to lock away all of the toxic ash from recycling if it can be done safely. We know there is a lot of research on better ways to store or reuse coal ash safely, so why doesn’t Duke Energy pursue those options? Or at least allow other industries to do so.”

Duke’s goodwill package also provides for Duke making up the difference in fair market value if homeowners are forced to sell below value to due the stigma of contamination. “Who would want to buy here now anyway, what will they do if we simply cannot sell? Will they buy our homes? What happens then?” asks Kenya Morgan of Dukeville, near the Buck Steam station.

Morgan adds that Duke Energy is putting the costs of dealing with its coal ash on consumers. “Consumers like us — the neighbors of the coal ash pits — will be the ones paying because Duke Energy stated they plan to raise rates to cover costs. We pay, we lose!”

Neighbors also feel many more questions about Duke’s offer have been raised than answered. “What they released in the press is misleading, incomplete and written with too many loopholes,” says Roger Hollis, who lives near Duke’s Cliffside plant in Cleveland County. “It is written so that all the consumer sees are dollar signs, with no mention of all underlying costs and future costs such as taxes, fees, installation and permit fees and health care issues. This is typical Duke Energy — deceiving and misleading the public.”

Standing up for the Stream Protection Rule

Thursday, January 19th, 2017 - posted by cat

Screen Shot 2017-01-19 at 1.55.55 PM

Over the past decade, Chuck Nelson traveled from his West Virginia home to Washington, D.C., some 25 times to make sure lawmakers and regulators were aware of the health and environmental damage from coal mining in the region. A fourth-generation miner who dug coal underground for 30 years, he and his family experienced these problems first-hand, and he wanted something done about it.

A priority for Chuck was the Stream Protection Rule, which regulators started drafting in 2010. After 15 public hearings, more than 150,000 public comments, intense vetting by states, and by industry and environmental stakeholders, the final rule was issued December 20.

It goes into effect today. If it were to stand, it would signal states to start planning to incorporate the rule into their oversight and enforcement of the mining industry. But the rule has become a centerpiece of the political upheaval occurring in D.C. It may be axed by Congress under the rarely used Congressional Review Act, if the new president doesn’t kill it first by executive order as soon as tomorrow.

In either case, as Chuck told NPR radio program Planet Money today: “All this work we’ve done for years … all that work that’s going to be wiped away with stroke of a pen.”

Appalachian Voices, in alliance with many other organizations, has worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Chuck and countless other citizens in Appalachia to get the rule finalized. While we had pushed for something significantly stronger, the final version is an improvement on the completely inadequate protections currently on the books. We will not stand by as the new administration or Congress play politics with Appalachia’s health, environment and economic future.

Yesterday, we filed a motion in federal court to intervene in two lawsuits against the Stream Protection Rule by a coal company and numerous states.

Also yesterday, five representatives on the House Natural Resources Committee issued an open letter calling on the committee’s majority to preserve the rule:

“As Donald Trump and the House Republicans prepare to begin their assault on health, safety, and environmental regulations, we believe you need to know more about their likely first target, the Office of Surface Mining’s Stream Protection Rule, and the biggest problem the rule addresses: the destruction caused by mountaintop removal mining.

Like the name indicates, mountaintop removal mining involves literally blasting the tops off mountains, digging out the coal, and dumping the waste rock into nearby valleys. The environmental consequences of this are severe and obvious to the naked eye. Less visible, however, is the human cost, and that cost is far more severe. Studies have found that mountaintop removal coal mining dust has led to increased rates of lung cancer, birth defects, and chronic heart, lung, and kidney diseases. People living near mountaintop removal mining sites often experience extraordinary suffering and need strong regulations to protect their health and their homes. …

The Stream Protection Rule is not just about protecting streams, it’s about protecting people’s health. It’s about protecting people’s homes. It’s about protecting people’s lives. Congressional Republicans plan to block the rule and deregulate mountaintop removal mining.”

We can’t win this fight unless members of Congress are hearing from their constituents. Call your representatives and senators and ask them to protect Appalachian streams from mountaintop removal by standing up for the Stream Protection Rule.

>> Capitol switchboard: (202) 224-3121

Congress takes aim at stream protections

Friday, January 13th, 2017 - posted by brian
Mountaintop removal coal mines like this one in W.Va. have polluted streams for years. Photo by Kent Mason.

Mountaintop removal coal mines like this one in W.Va. have polluted streams for years. Photo by Kent Mason.

Long before it was finalized, the Stream Protection Rule was in the crosshairs.

Opponents of environmental protections in Congress have criticized the rule-making process since it began back in 2009, holding regular hearings to condemn the Obama administration for its attempts to improve regulations on mountaintop removal coal mining — but often ignoring the ongoing impacts to Appalachian communities, public health and the environment.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement released the final Stream Protection Rule in December with the knowledge that it would be a top target for the incoming Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. The president-elect has pledged to kill the rule, among other environmental policies enacted or initiated under the Obama administration. And Republicans in the House and Senate vowed to block it from ever taking effect; West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito described the rule’s release as an “exercise in futility.”

But the Stream Protection Rule itself, and the purpose it is intended to serve, remain critical to improving the health and wellbeing of Appalachian residents who suffer the long-term consequences of coal mining pollution. The scientific evidence linking mountaintop removal to poor health has been described as “strong and irrefutable” and a growing body of research is drawing the connection between the destructive mining method and significantly higher rates of birth defects, cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases among individuals living in the region where it occurs.

>> Read comments from Appalachian citizens to the agency on the draft rule in late 2015. <<

The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements for the protection of Appalachian communities and waterways threatened by coal mining pollution. It requires improved water monitoring and reclamation practices, but it falls short of preventing mining through streams or ending mountaintop removal. Implementing the rule would not adequately safeguard human or environmental health from the impacts of mountaintop removal, nor would undoing it reverse the Appalachian coal industry’s decades-long decline.

Rather than rescinding the rule through administrative avenues, which could take years, legislators plan to utilize the Congressional Review Act, a rarely invoked 1996 law that allows Congress to block federal rules within 60 legislative days of their publication in the Federal Register. The Stream Protection Rule is by no means the only regulation that Congress intends to attack using the Congressional Review Act — because of the legislative calendar, it’s estimated that any agency rule finalized since mid-June could be at risk — but Trump’s implausible promise to “save the coal industry” makes it a top candidate.

There are few impediments preventing Congress from erasing the rule by sending President Trump a “joint resolution of disapproval” under the Congressional Review Act, and preventing the Interior Department from ever issuing a “substantially similar” rule in the future. Perhaps only other items on Republicans’ agenda will force them to put off targeting the Stream Protection Rule. In the meantime, we hope members of Congress will realize that they’re gambling with Appalachia’s health and economic future, all for a risky bet on coal’s unlikely comeback.

Statement from Appalachian Voices’ Senior Legislative Representative Thom Kay (864) 580-1843

“Republicans are against the very idea of this rule, despite the fact that it replaces a 33-year-old regulation with a thoroughly vetted and scientifically based rule that attempts to balance the needs of the industry and local impacts. Using the Congressional Review Act to simply erase this rule and block critical protections from ever being updated is shortsighted and an insult to the tens of thousands of citizens who spoke up for strong stream protections.

“We’re disappointed that the final rule does not go nearly as far as it should to curtail mountaintop removal. Allowing coal companies to continue polluting waterways may benefit the industry in the short term, but not without causing lasting harm to Appalachia’s people, environment and economy. The Trump administration should focus on ways to diversify and strengthen Central Appalachia’s economy, rather than taking on a political fight against a moderate and reasonable rule.”

Statement from Chad Cordell with the Kanawha Forest Coalition.

“As a West Virginia native, I’ve been concerned about the impacts of mountaintop removal since first learning that the beautiful valleys and streams of my home state were being buried under hundreds of feet of rubble by coal companies. Though the state sets permit standards for mining, there are still major problems. I’ve seen this first hand though my work with a group that has monitored water quality at a mine near my home over the past 3 years. Our inspections have found repeated violations, widespread erosion, water contamination, and persistent acid mine drainage.

“We need strong science-based protections for the creeks, streams, and rivers that are the lifeblood of our state. And we need our representatives in government to have enough wisdom to know that weakening protections for our streams and rivers by attacking the Stream Protection Rule isn’t the way to build strong, healthy, resilient communities or a strong, stable economy.”

Gov. Cooper nominates new environmental secretary

Wednesday, January 4th, 2017 - posted by brian
Michael Regan, who was appointed this week as secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, pledged to increase transparency at the agency.

Michael Regan, who was appointed this week as secretary of the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, pledged to increase transparency at the agency.

After a month-long battle over his election and a last-minute special legislative session to curb his powers, North Carolina’s new governor is getting to work.

On Tuesday, Roy Cooper announced multiple senior staff hires and cabinet appointments, including his choice to lead the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. In a statement, Cooper said his pick for the agency, Michael Regan, understands that “protecting state resources is vital to our state’s health and economic climate.”

Regan, an air quality expert and North Carolina native, brings decades of experience to the position, serving at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clinton and Bush administrations. From 2008 to 2016, he was the senior southeastern director for the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

During a press conference, Regan identified the need to develop greater transparency at DEQ and work with all stakeholders so they are “operating with pretty much similar information,” and said his first priority is meeting with veteran agency staff to gather feedback.

That alone could signal a shift from the prior DEQ leadership’s approach to public engagement on environmental issues, especially as it relates to coal ash management and drinking water quality. Environmental advocacy groups welcomed Regan’s appointment after years of calling for a return to science-based decision-making at the department.

Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina Campaign Coordinator Amy Adams, a former DEQ regional supervisor, penned an op-ed for the News & Observer that was published a few days after the election’s outcome was finally clear.

“Under Gov. Pat McCrory, the agency scandalously cast doubt on science and made pariahs out of scientists and career public servants,” Adams wrote. “Leadership second-guessed its own professional staff’s reports, interfered with the recommendations of experts in other departments and knowingly spoke half-truths to the public about the safety of their well water results.

“We need men and women of science at the DEQ who are fact-minded, heart-guided and human-centered. We need people who are up to the task of rebuilding the department and regaining the public’s trust.”

A few days after her’s op-ed was published, Cooper spokesperson Ken Eudy said that restoring the credibility of DEQ was a top priority for the incoming administration. According to Brian Buzby, the executive director of the N.C. Conservation Network, Regan fits the bill.

“This choice is a clear signal from Gov. Cooper that his administration intends to restore a philosophy of transparency, integrity and sound science,” Buzby said in a statement.

Because of a new state law hastily passed by the legislature and signed by former Gov. Pat McCrory in the final days of his administration, Regan and other cabinet-level appointees are now subject to confirmation by the state Senate. A judge recently blocked a law passed during the special session that restructures county and state boards of elections, and Cooper has indicated more legal challenges to new laws could be coming.

The new governor brushed off questions about whether Regan’s background would be an obstacle to his confirmation by an oppositional and often anti-environmental legislature, saying it was important “to appoint the very best people to serve in each of these positions.”

Mountaintop removal limited — not stopped — in Tennessee

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne
A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

Residents of East Tennessee got some very good news earlier this month: The U.S. Department of the Interior approved the state’s 2010 petition to designate nearly 75,000 acres along ridgelines in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and the Emory River Tact Conservation Easement off limits for surface coal mining.

>> Some mountains are still threatened with mountaintop removal: Take action today!

Tennessee’s petition and the DOI’s decision recognize the economic value of tourism in the Cumberland Plateau.

“Today’s action honors Tennessee’s request to protect the Cumberland Plateau’s majestic forests, mountains and streams for future generations,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell when the news was announced.

“Secretary Jewell’s decision to approve the State of Tennessee’s petition to protect over 550 miles of ridgetops in Anderson, Campbell, Morgan and Scott counties as unsuitable for mining will help safeguard our state’s mountains without affecting mining operations in other parts of these counties or elsewhere in Tennessee,” said U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. “This means these ridgetop landscapes – and the rivers, streams and forests that surround them – can continue to bring millions of tourists and thousands of jobs to Tennessee.”

DJ Coker, a resident of Campbell County who lives near the protected land agrees. “It will provide tremendous economic value for tourism and recreation for future generations,” he says.

Under then-governor Phil Bredesen, the state made its petition in accordance with the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, which governs coal mining and the cleanup in its aftermath. Following years of review, the designation earlier this month protects a 1,200-foot-wide corridor in four counties, with a 600-foot buffer on either side of 569 miles of ridgeline.

This means that these areas are off-limits for mountaintop removal mining, in which coal companies blow the tops off mountains to access seams of coal and dump the debris into nearby valleys and streams.

It’s a huge victory for the state and for the conservation advocacy groups that have fought for years to see the petition granted. It is also a victory for the residents of these counties whose water will be protected from the pollution caused by surface mining and for the wildlife in this area, including many endangered and threatened species whose habitat is now protected.

The decision makes limited exceptions for environmentally beneficial re-mining, such as removing dangerous features from abandoned mine sites, and it does not extend to existing permits nor prohibit underground mining in this area. Still, it is without a doubt a big win!

But the fight isn’t over. Many mountain ridges, including in East Tennessee, are still vulnerable to the destructive practice of mountaintop coal removal mining.

Tonight — Tuesday, Dec. 20 — in Knoxville, Tenn., there will be a public hearing about a 1,500-acre proposed mountaintop removal surface mine in Claiborne County. The proposed Cooper Ridge mine (which is not inside the newly protected area) would negatively impact Valley Creek, Hurricane Creek and other mountain streans.

Coker, who is a member of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM) and has been involved in citizen water monitoring efforts for more than a year, plans to attend the hearing.

“The land needs someone to protect it, and I feel like it is the citizen’s right to do that. Because if we don’t protect the land, we’re not going to have any sustainability available for future generations, or for ourselves in the future for that matter,” he said.

If you want to attend the hearing in Knoxville, click here for details and directions.

If you are unable to attend the hearing but would like to submit comments, please send them to:

Mining Section, Knoxville EFO
3711 Middlebrook Pike
Knoxville, TN 37921-6538
or email comments to:

When making written comments please reference the mine name and permit numbers:
Cooper Ridge Surface Mine Phase I NPDES Permit TN0069736 (Draft) SMCRA Permit No. 3270 (Pending)

The comment period ends on December 31.

Final Stream Protection Rule released

Tuesday, December 20th, 2016 - posted by Erin
The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

The final Stream Protection Rule offers only modest improvements to protections for public waterways, but it is well worth defending from congressional attack. Congress should focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward.

In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of the Interior on Monday released the final Stream Protection Rule, which aims to protect streams from the impacts of surface and longwall mining.

Based on updated science and technology, the rule offers modest improvements for the protection of public waterways. But despite the fact that the rule could have been much stronger, it still faces immense opposition from the coal industry’s supporters in Congress.

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement began work on the rule in 2009. At that time, George W. Bush’s 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule was in effect after having replaced the original Stream Buffer Zone Rule, written in 1983. The Bush-era rule weakened stream protections and virtually eliminated prohibitions on mining through streams. When it was struck down by a federal court in 2014, the 1983 rule was reinstated.

The new Stream Protection Rule includes several improvements including increased requirements for water monitoring and forest reclamation. But it falls short of preventing mining through streams or stopping mountaintop removal. The rule also includes ample leeway for state interpretation of the requirements, which could easily lead to lax enforcement.

Donald Trump’s pick for Interior Secretary, Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, is a proponent of coal and could effectively undo the rule through an administrative route. But that could take years. Instead, it is likely that the rule will be thrown out via the Congressional Review Act. The act allows Congress to overturn rules within 60 legislative days of their enactment. The president could veto such a move, but given the change in administration, this seems unlikely. This law not only allows Congress to toss out a rule, it prevents another “substantially similar” rule from being written in the future. The act has only been used successfully once, so it’s unclear what the courts would consider “substantially similar” in regard to a future mining rule from OSMRE or another agency.

Even as coal company executives call on Trump to temper his promises to coal mining communities so as not to falsely elevate expectations, other politicians are also returning to the old “war on coal” rhetoric. Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) called the Stream Protection Rule “the Obama Administration’s last attempt to kill the coal industry,” and Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) vowed to file a Congressional Review Act resolution himself.

While we wish the final rule were stronger, it is well worth defending from congressional attack. We will urge the White House and Congress to focus on ways to move Central Appalachia forward, rather than waste time on counterproductive political fights. A better use of time would be to pass the RECLAIM Act, which would ensure that mine sites are reclaimed and repurposed to provide economic benefit to the region.

Building a healthy economic future in Central Appalachia requires attracting new industries and encouraging community members to stay in the region. Protecting the remaining assets of the region, like clean water and healthy communities, is an integral part of building that new future.

Why is Dominion’s IRP important for Virginia’s future?

Friday, December 16th, 2016 - posted by Peter Anderson
Peter outside his landlords' home in Charlottesville.

Peter outside his landlords’ home in Charlottesville.

I recently moved into a basement apartment in Charlottesville, Va. The house has solar panels on the roof, and I must admit that knowing my electricity comes almost entirely from a renewable source feels pretty good.

My landlords are not wealthy, so getting solar on their roof was going to involve some sacrifice. They had to think strategically about their retirement funds, energy bills, and fees for staying connected to the grid. Fortunately, they made the numbers work. Now they’re living comfortably and sustainably, and they no longer have an electric bill (except for a modest draw from the grid in the dead of winter). This decision balanced their interest in financial stability with their desire for reliable electric power from a sustainable source.

I couldn’t help thinking about this decision as I began studying the long-term planning process used by Virginia’s electric utilities. Utilities providing public services are regulated to ensure that they — like my landlords — balance reliability, sustainability, and affordability. In return, utilities are guaranteed a profit. In Virginia, this balancing process is embodied by an annual integrated resource plan (IRP).

What’s an IRP and What’s at stake?

Simply put, an IRP is a long-term plan created to ensure that our utilities keep the lights on and avoid sticking customers with a bill for big investments that don’t pan out. This is sometimes referred to as “least-cost planning,” but that doesn’t mean the cheapest option is automatically selected. It means that by studying different alternatives, companies attempt to meet reliability and sustainability goals at the lowest possible cost.

It’s no simple task. With rapidly changing technologies, fuel prices, regulations, and customer-use trends, projecting how much electricity we’ll need and how much it will cost to provide can be quite complex. But an IRP shapes the energy mix and customer bills for several decades, so the stakes are high.

In April, Dominion Virginia Power, the largest electric utility in the commonwealth, submitted its proposed 2016 IRP to the Virginia State Corporation Commission (SCC) for approval. (See an update at the end of this blog.)

What’s in Dominion’s IRP?

Dominion published five alternatives, including four plans that would comply with the federal Clean Power Plan (CPP). Although the fate of the CPP now lies with the courts and the incoming administration, the company believes carbon emissions from power plants ultimately will be regulated.

Under the CPP, states are given an option to comply using either “rate-based” or “mass-based” approaches. Rate-based means a limit on the amount of carbon emissions per unit of electricity produced. In theory, carbon emissions can actually increase if electricity production increases. By contrast, mass-based compliance means a total cap on carbon emissions from the electric sector in the state. Many experts agree that such a cap would reduce climate pollution more effectively.

All five of Dominion’s options share some common elements. For example, each would add 500 megawatts (MW) of solar power produced in Virginia and 1,585 MW of gas-fired electricity at Dominion’s new Greensville power plant. They also would renew 20-year licenses for all four of Dominion’s existing nuclear units, and retire two coal-fired units at its Yorktown plant.

The main differences among the plans are summarized below. New capacity across these plans differs because each would retire different amounts of coal-fired capacity—the greater the coal retirements, the more new capacity.

  • Plan A: No CO2 Limit – A least-cost plan for the unlikely scenario in which there are no carbon regulations. All new generation would be gas-fired.
  • Plan B: Rate-based dual rate – Would add 1,100 MW of solar, plus an additional 3,641 MW of gas-fired capacity.
  • Plan C: Rate-based state average – Would add 3,400 MW of solar, plus an additional 2,049 MW of gas-fired capacity.
  • Plan D: Mass-based emissions cap – existing units only – Would add 2,400 MW of solar, plus 3,641 MW of gas-fired capacity.
  • Plan E: Mass-based emissions cap – existing and new units – Would add 7,000 MW of solar, plus 2,435 MW of gas-fired capacity, plus 1,452 MW of capacity at a new nuclear unit at North Anna

Without making an official recommendation, Dominion stated a preference for Plan B. Plan B would add the least amount of new solar generation, but according to Dominion’s analysis, it would also be the cheapest of the CPP-compliant options.

Why are These Plans Flawed?

The SCC scrutinized Dominion’s IRP at a hearing in early October. In a “battle of the experts,” Dominion’s senior energy planning employees were cross-examined, followed by expert witnesses from other participants in the case, including Appalachian Voices.

Three major flaws in the IRP stood out:

1) Inflated Future Demand and Becoming an “Island”

Electricity demand in Virginia has been pretty flat for the past several years, and with ongoing efficiency improvements, many predict it to remain so, even as our population and economy grow.

However, Dominion’s model shows steady demand growth. One expert explained how the regional transmission organization, PJM, changed its forecasting model in 2014 because it observed in recent years that electricity demand no longer closely tracks economic consumption. PJM’s new modeling accounts for this decoupling of economic growth and energy demand. By contrast, Dominion’s model still uses the old assumptions, tending to produce an inflated picture of demand.

Testimony also revealed that Dominion fails to properly account for how quickly its customers adopt energy-efficient technologies. For example, Dominion’s model includes data from 30 years ago, meaning that 30-year-old lightbulb technology is still part of the calculation. How many 30-year-old lightbulbs are still burning? Dominion admitted that it needs to pay closer attention to the market penetration of LEDs and other technologies.

Dominion pairs this inflated demand forecast with another dubious assumption: the company states that it cannot rely on carbon credit trading or purchasing power on the wholesale market to meet customer demand and comply with carbon regulations. Instead, Dominion intends to generate most of the power needed itself. The company claims that this “island” approach to compliance is the prudent, conservative decision in a time of uncertainty.

SCC judges were sympathetic to Dominion’s view on credit trading, but not on purchases. Historically, Virginia has been anything but an island — buying and selling electricity in the PJM wholesale market, which includes parts or all of 13 states plus Washington, D.C. In fact, Virginia is usually a net importer, relying on power generated in other states to satisfy 10-15% of demand. Switching from being a net importer to purchasing virtually zero power from other states represents a major shift for the commonwealth, and the SCC judges were clearly sceptical.

Dominion’s assumptions that (1) demand will steadily increase and (2) that Virginia must be an “island” simply serve to justify the company’s preference for building new generation, most of it gas-fired.

Even if the company’s assumptions are accurate, why not meet all of this new demand with a greater reliance on utility-scale wind, solar, and other renewables? At the hearing, Dominion expressed concerns about the effect that adding large amounts of renewable generation could have on grid reliability. However, a 2014 study commissioned by PJM found that the regional grid “would not have any significant reliability issues operating with up to 30% of its energy (as distinct from capacity) provided by wind and solar generation.”

As a point of reference, solar and wind currently provide less than 1% of the energy for electric generation in Virginia. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the fuel mix for electric generation in Virginia is comprised of approximately 40% gas, 33% nuclear, 20% coal, 5% biomass, and less than 2% hydroelectric. In other words, there is room to bring a significant amount of renewable generation online before starting a discussion about reliability.

2) Inflated Cost of Solar Energy

The main reason that Dominion did not include more solar in its IRP is that it assigned solar a hefty price tag from the start. The plan adds an “integration charge” of $390.43 per kilowatt for all new solar generation. Several witnesses said this surcharge is higher than it should be — up to 35 times higher — creating an inherent bias against solar when it comes to least-cost planning and comparing alternatives.

Dominion witnesses were unable to support their number, essentially conceding that the company will need to do a new analysis. The effect of the inflated surcharge in the IRP is that adding solar to a plan immediately makes that alternative much more expensive than it should be. Therefore the plan is less likely to be selected.

3) Unwillingness to Make Big Shifts to Renewables

Dominion’s stated reliability concerns and its unsupported price tag for solar are in line with the company’s business-as-usual preference for fossil fuels. In fact, the company decided not to publish one of the plans it modeled because it relied too heavily on solar.

Through legal discovery and public testimony, Dominion revealed that an early version of Plan E contained an additional 15,000 MW of solar power and did not include a new nuclear unit. This was referred to as Plan S, and it cost over $1 billion less than the published Plan E. Experts testified that if Dominion had used a reasonable solar surcharge in its modeling, Plan S may have been up to $4 billion cheaper. When pressed, Dominion witnesses again cited their fear that deploying large amounts of solar all at once could present reliability issues.

Forecasting a Sunny Future

Despite all this, I remain hopeful that the SCC will hold Dominion to a higher standard. As an investor-owned utility, Dominion has an obligation to its shareholders. But it’s also a regulated utility, so the company must consider sustainability when balancing reliability and cost concerns. However, the company will only do that if the SCC holds it accountable.

The good news is we have a great recent example of how that’s done. Shortly after Dominion’s SCC hearing, Minnesota gave the country a glimpse of what a successful balancing effort looks like. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved an Xcel Energy IRP that would double the state’s wind and solar capacity while retiring two coal-fired plants by 2030. According to the Sierra Club, the plan will add “no new gas without a deeper analysis into other options,” and the plan stands to reduce Minnesota’s carbon emissions by up to 60 percent.

Perhaps the key to getting more companies to take sustainability seriously in their IRPs is to show them why doing so makes financial sense. Groups working on the Minnesota plan used data to make “a persuasive case that renewable energy was the most affordable, economic path forward for the utility — not propping up aging coal plants or adding new gas.”

Just like my landlords installing solar on their roof — once the numbers made sense, choosing sustainability was obvious.

Update: On December 14, the State Corporation Commission approved the Dominion IRP, including all of the scenarios, as a long-term planning guide. Under state law, however, Dominion still will need SCC approval to implement any of the individual projects in the IRP, for example, building a particular power plant or adjusting rates. The good news is that next year the SCC is requiring Dominion to model plans without placing caps on the amount of power that can be bought or sold on the wholesale market. The order also says that Dominion must model “regional” as well as “island” approaches to CPP compliance next year for comparison. Unfortunately, the order does not address Dominion’s method of modeling future demand, nor does it address the company’s approach to pricing solar resources.

Trouble is afoot in NC special session

Thursday, December 15th, 2016 - posted by brian

At the 11th hour, a vengeful display of power in Raleigh

North Carolina lawmakers have set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.

North Carolina lawmakers have set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.

You probably heard that last week North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, conceded to his Democratic challenger, Roy Cooper. It was a close race that dragged on for nearly a month after election day.

Upon conceding, Gov. McCrory told North Carolinians with a grin that “we now should do everything we can to support the 75th governor of North Carolina, Roy Cooper.”

But it was widely rumored and is now abundantly clear that members of McCrory’s party in the state legislature had something else in mind. Last night, lawmakers set about a brazen scheme to strip powers that McCrory enjoyed from the incoming Cooper administration.

As has become traditional in North Carolina politics, lawmakers wove a deliberately tangled web. Over the weekend, Gov. McCrory called a special session ostensibly for the purpose of passing a recovery bill for communities impacted by Hurricane Matthew. But the agenda wasn’t restricted only to funding recovery efforts and it left room for “any other matters” legislators wanted to consider.

After days of deflecting questions and refusing to explain their priorities for the “emergency session,” Republicans introduced a slew of bills that would make sweeping changes and dramatically shift the balance of power away from the governor.

For instance, a House bill would alter Governor-elect Cooper’s ability to appoint the heads of departments such as the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality by requiring the state Senate to confirm cabinet members. A bill in the Senate would give more power to the Republican-majority state Court of Appeals and make it less likely for legal challenges on environmental and any number of other issues to reach the more Democratic-friendly state Supreme Court.

Other legislation relates more directly to environmental protections. A 43-page regulatory reform bill would change rules governing riparian buffers, vehicle emissions inspections and stormwater control measures.

Reminiscent of the legislature’s fast-tracked passage of House Bill 2, known as the “bathroom bill,” the power grab is receiving national attention (see here and here). It’s also causing backlash from North Carolinians and hundreds have crowded the state capitol in Raleigh to protest, among them residents that suffered the impacts of Hurricane Matthew.

“The politicians in Raleigh are treating flood victims like political pawns,” Michelle Herring of Kinston told Progress NC Action. “If this special session was supposed to be about disaster relief, and relief funding has already been agreed to, then why are we still here?”

In an editorial this morning, the Charlotte Observer editorial board described the state leaders’ actions as both “breathtaking and hardly surprising” and defined by an “all-too-familiar disrespect for democracy.”

Legislators plan to start voting on bills at 2:30 p.m. today. There’s still time to call your representatives. Let them know you’re watching and that North Carolinians are tired of their shady, undemocratic dealmaking.

Find the contact information for your House Representative and your state Senator.

Fall Creek Falls State Park

Wednesday, December 14th, 2016 - posted by Elizabeth E. Payne

A treasure of the Cumberland Plateau

By Molly Moore


During the “polar vortex” in February 2015, Fall Creek Falls, on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, became blanketed in ice and a rare ice cone formed at the waterfall’s base. Photographer Cara Alexander is also a ranger at Fall Creek Falls State Park. “I adore the relative peace of the park in the winter and the beauty that most people don’t get to see,” she says. “Summer is always hectic and full of people, and the wintertime is rejuvenating.” To see more of her work, visit

From Rocky Point Overlook during an unseasonably warm fall afternoon, the air is still, and the Upper Cane Creek Gorge stretches to the blue horizon, though the bottom, some 300 feet below, is out of sight. Even during a busy weekend on a popular loop trail, this point offers solitude and an expansive, humbling view.

Located on the western edge of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, Fall Creek Falls State Park encompasses 26,000 acres. The area is largely comprised of limestone, shale and sandstone, where thousands of years of erosion have carved steep gorges, rocky bluffs, caves and underground rivers into the plateau’s rolling contours.

The five creeks that pass through the area give rise to six waterfalls within park boundaries, but that’s only part of the draw. Hikers can choose from 34 miles of trails, with options that range from wheelchair-accessible overlooks to two overnight backpacking loops at 13.2 and 14 miles long each. Another hike descends to the base of Cane Creek Falls with the aid of a cable — not recommended during wintry conditions. In addition to hiking, the park hosts activities such as biking, birding, horseback riding, fishing and boating; amenities even include golf and zipline courses.

To experience a slice of the park in just a few hours, Park Ranger Cara Alexander recommends a 2.9-mile loop that begins on the north side of the Betty Dunn Nature Center at the head of the gorge. From here, visitors look down into a wide pool formed by Rockhouse Falls and Cane Creek Falls, both of which are more visible later along the trail.

Cane Creek Cascades

Cane Creek Cascades flows past snowy banks on a cool winter’s day. Photo by Cara Alexander.

Following the paved path to the other side of the nature center, hikers arrive at the loop’s dramatic entrance — a classic wood-and-cable swinging bridge that spans the width of Cane Creek and bears a “Load limit, 6 people” warning sign. It’s worth pausing on the bridge to watch the creek pour over Cane Creek Cascades on its way to the larger waterfall and pool. A grist mill once stood above the cascades, but it was washed away during a massive flood in 1929.

After a flight of stairs, the trail climbs upward to intersect with Woodland Trail to the left and the Gorge Trail to the right. Either direction provides access to the loop, but hikers who opt for the right soon reach the brief side trail leading to Cane Creek Overlook.

This viewpoint looks across to the overlook near the nature center, but from this perspective the vista is even more impressive: Cane Creek Falls gushes 85 feet over a wide ledge, and, from another creek, narrow Rockhouse Falls plunges 125 feet. Both spill into a single deep, reflective pool.

Fall Creek Falls Loop
Length: 2.9 total miles (1.2 Gorge Trail, .4 each way on Fall Creek Falls Trail, .9 Woodland Trail)
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Location: 10821 Park Rd, Spencer, Tennessee
Contact: Call 423-881-5298, visit

Beyond the first viewpoint, the path continues along the plateau through a mix of pine, oak and hickory. Two short overlook trails to the right provide additional glimpses of Cane Creek Gorge. According to Alexander, the gorge is home to an old-growth forest that includes hemlock and yellow poplar.

As Cane Creek flows roughly 10 miles from the waterfall to the Caney Fork, it also drops underground in places where the limestone bedrock is dissolved by the water’s natural acids. The waterway flows in underground channels year-round, with an aboveground stream rising during periods of heavy rain. During its underground journey, Cane Creek cools to 56 degrees before reemerging at Crusher Hole — a bright blue spring that is also 56 degrees year-round.

Further along the path, a fourth side trail leads to Rocky Point Overlook. Accessing the signature outcropping requires careful footing, but the broad panorama and bands of rocky bluffs on the opposite side are worth the scramble.

Fall Creek Falls

The day after Thanksgiving, hiker Debbie Blankenship visited Fall Creek Falls, the larger of the falls at left, and Coon Creek Falls instead of Black Friday shopping. Photo by Debbie Blankenship, Flickr/deblam1005(BLESSED)

Returning to the main path, the trail comes to a fork: the Woodland Trail, to the left, leads back to the nature center, and an out-and-back trail to the right heads to Fall Creek Falls.

The overlook here offers majestic views of Fall Creek Falls and the nearly adjacent Coon Creek Falls as they both plunge sharply into the same pool. Fall Creek Falls, which boasts a larger volume of water, drops a stunning 256 feet, while Coon Creek spills 250 feet.

To reach the base 300 feet below, follow the orange-blazed downhill trail for .4 miles, past large boulders and rugged, overhanging cliffs. Floods tore through this channel in the distant and not-so-distant past, before a dam on Fall Creek began to regulate the waterway — it’s now the only managed stream in the park.

The path ends with the dramatic sights and sounds of two tumbling streams of water thundering — or splashing, depending on the water level — into a plunge pool, misting fellow trekkers.

Check with park staff before embarking on this section during winter. Even if the rest of the trail is in good condition, this area may be icy due to mist from the falls.
Return by walking uphill and back to the last intersection. Follow the easy Woodland Trail through the open forest and back to the swinging bridge and nature center. From here, enjoy a picnic at the lake’s edge, a meal or brew at the park lodge, or another adventure entirely.