Archive for the ‘All Posts’ Category

Coal Ash Rule reaches White House for final review

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014 - posted by brian
After four years of hand wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

After years of hand-wringing, the first-ever rule to regulate coal ash has reached the final stage of review.

On Monday night, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a long-awaited rule to regulate the disposal and storage of coal ash to the White House Office of Management and Budget for final review.

“We are pleased to see the draft rule move into the final phase of review needed for its release in December,” says Amy Adams, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina campaign coordinator.

“Having experienced the consequences of poor enforcement and weak or non-existent state regulations, North Carolina serves as a clear example of why states must have federal baseline standards for coal ash,” Adams says. “We must place our hope in the strength of the EPA rules and the resolve of the federal government to protect citizens from this toxic waste.”

Observers say the administration should have enough time to finalize the rule by the EPA’s court-ordered deadline of Dec. 19, which the agency apparently “fully expects” to meet.

Until then, however, we won’t know much about how far the rule will go to protect communities across the United States from coal ash pollution.

Infographic: The Truth About Coal Ash

At least for the next several weeks, the substance of the rule is still subject to change and there are a few different ways it could go. Environmental groups have for years pressured the EPA to regulate coal ash as the dangerous substance that it is. This option would put the rule under the hazardous waste program of the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act’s Subtitle C. Utilities and other industries hope the rule will regulate coal ash under Subtitle D of RCRA, which emphasizes state oversight and enforcement through citizen lawsuits.

In both scenarios, the EPA says it won’t regulate the use of coal ash in concrete and other construction material, or as fill material — the latter will fall under the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement’s upcoming Mine Fill Rule. Beyond that, the description of the rule on OMB’s website offers little insight, which may be just how the White House wants it.

As Earthjustice’s Lisa Evans points out, the OMB review process is “a black box — opaque, inscrutable and exceedingly dangerous. Rules never come out the way they go in — the offices of OMB are littered with crumpled pages of strong rules gone soft after revision by the White House.”

Evans uses an example from 2009, when former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson sent the White House a plan to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste following the largest coal ash spill in U.S. history.

Timeline: Five years after the TVA coal ash disaster, what do we have to show for it?

The EPA received more than 400,000 comments on the rule, and thousands attended public hearings to support stronger protections. But heavy lobbying by the coal and utility industries ultimately weakened the administration’s resolve.

Since then, the EPA hasn’t exactly been forthcoming about the status of the rule. In fact, had it not been for a lawsuit brought against the EPA by Earthjustice on behalf of Appalachian Voices and other environmental and public health groups last year, the timeline for a final rule might still be murky.

While unavoidable, Evans says the OMB review “introduces uncertainty at the end of a rulemaking process that must, by law, be based on science and transparency and governed by the requirements of the enabling statute.”

The evidence that coal ash poses significant risks to human health is abundant, and the need to do more could hardly be more urgent. The White House should listen to the thousands of citizens demanding strong protections against coal ash pollution.

Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ work to clean up coal ash.

Appalachian Power’s solar customers rise and shine for clean energy

Friday, October 24th, 2014 - posted by hannah
Customers of Appalachian Power gather in Lynchburg to learn about their utility's resistance to expanding energy efficiency and investing in solar.

Customers of Appalachian Power gather in Lynchburg to learn about their utility’s resistance to expanding energy efficiency and investing in solar.

Appalachian Power Company must bring large-scale clean energy to our area; that’s the message this week from hundreds of APCo’s Virginia customers.

The company goes before state utility regulators next Tuesday with its long-term plan to meet electricity demand, which includes only the most modest investments in renewable energy sources despite a new rule from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intended to spur clean energy development and cut carbon emissions.

No one is more vocal about the need for APCo to invest in solar than those who already have: customers with their own solar arrays. Residents concerned by the utility’s recent proposal to levy a new fee on customers with solar are just part of a larger group of APCo customers demanding their utility stop limiting its proposals for energy efficiency programs and take advantage of the same opportunities to expand residential solar that utilities such as Georgia Power have taken advantage of lately.

At a program co-led by Appalachian Voices in Lynchburg on Thursday, APCo customers examined the utility’s proposed efficiency and clean energy investments and saw just how minimal they are. The risks of dirty energy are clear to Lynchburg residents who saw a train carrying crude oil derail and explode in the heart of the downtown district this past summer, polluting the James River and threatening historic properties.

The large, diverse area of Virginia served by Appalachian Power also is home to several thriving solar companies, and many successful community Solarize initiatives have encouraged more homeowners to go solar. So, increasingly, area residents see purchasing solar as a way get reliable, affordable and pollution-free energy. In other words, it’s money well spent.

Thirty-two solar homeowners sent a collective comment to the State Corporation Commission this week calling for Appalachian Power to build clean energy at the same scale they have built fossil fuel power plants. Those homeowners and other citizens who are following the EPA’s proposed carbon rule believe that their utility is acting unreasonably by not addressing the new limits in its long-term planning.

Following the hottest September on record worldwide and an historic demonstration in New York City, the need for Virginia utilities to shift to energy efficiency and carbon-free sources is now clear, and APCo customers are telling their utility it can make a start, while lowering bills and creating jobs at the same time.

Upgrade to Save? Sounds like a good idea to us!

Friday, October 24th, 2014 - posted by rory

Roanoke Electric Cooperative receives first federal loan for energy efficiency financing

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“Now we can open access to low cost capital for all cost-effective energy efficiency improvements sought by members with sound bill payment history, regardless of income, credit score, or status as renters or home owners.”

With that simple statement, Curtis Wynn, CEO of Roanoke Electric Cooperative (REC) in eastern North Carolina, perfectly summarized the benefit and accessibility that well-structured on-bill energy efficiency financing programs can offer. Wynn’s statement was part of yesterday’s announcement that REC had been approved for one of the first loans provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program.

The $6 million loan from USDA will fund REC’s new Upgrade to $ave on-bill finance program, which was modeled on the Pay-As-You-Save (PAYS) program developed in 1999 by the Energy Efficiency Institute of Vermont. We have written before about other on-bill finance programs that have also used the PAYS model, most notably the How$martKY program developed by the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development. This is also the model that Appalachian Voices is promoting to rural electric cooperatives in the region through our Energy Savings for Appalachia program.

The most important part of Curtis Wynn’s statement is the reference to the fact that the Upgrade to $ave program is available to all of REC’s members who have a demonstrated history of paying their electric bills. It doesn’t matter if the member owns or rents their home, what their credit score is, or what income bracket they fall under. This is a key aspect of on-bill finance programs because it means that financial support is available for the people who need it the most, but cannot pay for the upgrades themselves and may not be qualified to receive a loan from a traditional bank or credit union. And given that REC serves an area with an average poverty rate of more than 28 percent, there is undoubtedly a substantial number of residents that need such support.

One of the greatest things about on-bill finance programs modeled after the PAYS program is that they offer “debt-free financing” for households to pay for improving the efficiency of their home, which results in significant reductions in their energy bills. If the homeowner or renter moves away, they don’t have to pay off any remaining debt, and it doesn’t follow them around. Instead, the “debt” remains with the electric meter, and the next owner or tenant continues the payments through the monthly fee.

Average annual costs and estimated savings for participants in Roanoke Electric Cooperative's new Upgrade to $ave program.

Average annual costs and estimated savings for participants in Roanoke Electric Cooperative’s new Upgrade to $ave program.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these programs, however, is that the monthly payments made by the member/customer end up being less than the savings achieved as a result of the upgrades! In other words, even though the resident is paying a new fee on their monthly utility bill, their energy costs still go DOWN! That’s the brilliance of REC’s simple title for their program: Upgrade to $ave. And for REC’s part, the way they’ve structured the program allows the cooperative to fully recover their own costs for offering the energy efficiency service, meaning that other customers don’t have to share any of the costs associated with the program. This is a true and elegant example of an “everybody wins” situation.

Based on information provided in REC’s press statement, the cooperative will be able to provide approximately 800 energy efficiency “loans” using the $6 million being guaranteed by USDA. That represents around 6 percent of the cooperative’s total membership, which is pretty outstanding, and this is likely just the first USDA loan that REC will apply for. Further, the savings potential of the Upgrade to $ave program is substantial. With an average savings of 25 percent per home, as much as 4 million kilowatt-hours or more will be saved each year as a result of the program. For an individual households that could amount to around $650 saved each year (of which 75-90 percent would be used to pay the monthly fee).

On-bill finance programs like Upgrade to $ave are a commonsense approach to achieving significant reductions in the amount of energy and natural resources we use; alleviating the impacts of poverty and high energy costs; and, promoting the development of local jobs in communities that need them. The term “commonsense” doesn’t even capture just how much of a no-brainer developing these programs should be for all electric utilities, especially rural electric cooperatives because they serve some of the most disadvantaged and impoverished communities across the United States.

As REC’s press statement notes, “As an electric cooperative, Roanoke EMC is committed to cooperative principles: voluntary and open membership, democratic member control, member economic participation, autonomy and independence, education, training and information, and concern for community.”

The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association describes “concern for community” as “working for the sustainable development of [the cooperatives’] communities through policies accepted by their members.” On-bill finance programs can go a long way toward contributing to the sustainable development of communities served by electric cooperatives such as REC.

It is notable that, partially as a result of our own efforts, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, in partnership with many of its member cooperatives and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, is currently in the process of designing its own on-bill finance program and is expected to submit a loan application to USDA in the near future. Appalachian Voices is also promoting on-bill energy efficiency finance programs to electric cooperatives in western North Carolina, and we hope that REC’s example moves some of them toward developing their own program.

Appalachian Voices wholeheartedly applauds Roanoke Electric Cooperative for taking this important step, showing in practice what “concern for community” really means, and for being the first cooperative in the U.S. to receive an EECLP loan for the funding of an on-bill finance program!

A Washington Post editorial on mountaintop removal’s dirty consequences

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014 - posted by thom
The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

The editorial board of The Washington Post understands that mountaintop removal is still happening, and that the consequences are devastating. Photo by Lynn Willis, courtesy of SouthWings.

Today, the editorial board of The Washington Post published a strongly worded condemnation of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. The piece begins with what we all know:

“For decades, coal companies have been removing mountain peaks to haul away coal lying just underneath. More recently, scientists and regulators have been developing a clearer understanding of the environmental consequences. They aren’t pretty.”

As evidence, the editorial highlights two recent studies that we’ve also covered here. First, the U.S. Geological Survey’s findings that pollution from mountaintop removal is devastating fish populations in Appalachian streams. We summed up that research on this blog in July:

Over the summer, a U.S. Geological Survey study compared streams near mountaintop removal operations to streams farther away. In what should be “a global hotspot for fish biodiversity,” according to Nathaniel Hitt, one of the authors, the researchers found decimated fish populations, with untold consequences for downstream river systems. The scientists noted changes in stream chemistry: Salts from the disturbed earth appear to have dissolved in the water, which may well have disrupted the food chain.

The second study the editorial points to is new research out of West Virginia University that found dust pollution from mountaintop removal promotes lung cancer. We wrote last week:

The Charleston Gazette reported on a new study finding that dust from mountaintop removal mining appears to contribute to greater risk of lung cancer. West Virginia University researchers took dust samples from several towns near mountaintop removal sites and tested them on lung cells, which changed for the worse. The findings fit into a larger, hazardous picture: People living near these sites experience higher rates of cancer and birth defects.

We’re glad one of the largest newspapers in the country is paying attention, even when many policymakers are not. The editorial does, however, give a bit too much credit to the Obama administration and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for their actions to reduce the environmental and human toll of mountaintop removal. Actions have been taken, certainly, but mountaintop removal is still happening in Appalachia.

With the mounting scientific evidence that mining pollution is decimating fish populations, causing air and water pollution, wiping out trees and mountains, and promoting a host of human health problems, there is no excuse for the Obama administration to allow mountaintop removal to continue.

Take a moment to let the president know that Appalachian communities are still being put at risk.

North Carolinians speak out against fracking: Are elected officials listening?

Monday, October 20th, 2014 - posted by Sarah Kellogg
Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

Dave Rogers of Environment North Carolina and Hope Taylor of Clean Water for North Carolina lead the procession to the governor’s office.

More than two dozen environmental and social justice groups came together recently to hand deliver 59,500 petition signatures to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, calling on him and other elected officials to reinstate the ban on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling for natural gas in the state.

Groups of the Frack Free N.C. Alliance, which include environmental organizations, environmental justice groups and grassroots organizations, have been working diligently all across the state to educate citizens about the potential impacts of fracking and encourage them to get involved. The nearly 60,000 petition signatures are a testament to the strong opposition to fracking throughout North Carolina.

Despite a forecast of rain, the organizations and supporters gathered at the governor’s office last Tuesday to rally and hold a press conference before hand delivering the petitions to McCrory’s staff (the governor, unsurprisingly, was unavailable to receive the petitions). Supporters held anti-fracking signs, images of North Carolina’s unique landscape, and art created by citizens portraying the dangers of fracking and the value of clean water.

The speakers came from all across the state, and included Kathy Rigsbee from Yadkin-Davie Against Fracking, an every-day citizen and mother turned activist, Hope Taylor, director of Clean Water for N.C., the founding organization of the Frack Free Alliance, and Luke Crawford from EnvironmentaLEE, a grassroots organization in Lee County, home to the largest deposits of natural gas in the state.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices' North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

Sarah Kellogg, Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina field organizer, speaks to the crowd about the amazing contribution of westerners to the petition and the anti-fracking movement.

I was honored to speak on behalf of the numerous grassroots organizations from western North Carolina that contributed significantly to the petition and the anti-fracking movement sweeping across the state. Those organizations include the Coalition Against Fracking in western N.C., Frack Free Madison County, and community groups from Swain and Jackson counties.

As the sun came out, we began carrying boxes of the signed petitions into the governor’s office. As the petitions were passed from person to person and on into the building, elementary students on a field trip joined us in chanting “Frack Free N.C.!”

Governor McCrory has yet to acknowledge the concerns of the 59,500 signees on the petition, though it is clear that opposition to fracking across North Carolina has grown as more citizens learn about the risks associated with the practice.

In August and September, 1,800 North Carolinians attended Mining and Energy Commission hearings on the proposed rules to regulate fracking. The overwhelming majority of commenters opposed fracking. The MEC reports that they received between 100,000-200,000 additional written comments addressing the rules and that the majority suggested the rules be strengthened. According to Commissioner Jim Womack, about half the comments were statements opposing fracking. Womack told reporters that those “didn’t really count.” Clearly, thousands of North Carolinians oppose fracking, the question is, are our elected officials listening to us?

The organizations and citizen groups of Frack Free N.C. promise to continue fighting to protect North Carolina’s air, water, communities, property values and way of life from the dangers of fracking.

Mountaintop Removal Promotes Lung Cancer

Friday, October 17th, 2014 - posted by thom

A map from The Human Cost of Coal showing the above-average number of lung cancer deaths per 100,000 people in Central Appalachian Counties.

The body of research linking mountaintop removal mining to lung cancer just got a whole lot stronger.

Using dust samples collected in communities near mountaintop removal mines, a new study conducted by Dr. Sudjit Luanpitpong and other West Virginia University researchers found a direct link between air pollution and tumor growth.

From Ken Ward, Jr. of The Charleston Gazette:

The study results “provide new evidence for the carcinogenic potential” of mountaintop removal dust emissions and “support further risk assessment and implementation of exposure control” for that dust, according to the paper, published online Tuesday by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Six years ago, researchers found a close correlation between living in proximity of mountaintop removal coal mining sites and lung cancer mortality rates, even after adjusting for factors like smoking, poverty, race, etc. That 2008 study is just one of more than 20 studies linking mountaintop removal to health issues in neighboring communities.

While people in Appalachia have been aware of this strong correlation, this new study linking dust from mountaintop removal sites directly to the growth of lung cancer cells is the first of its kind.

“To me, this is one of the most important papers that we’ve done,” said [Dr. Michael Hendryx], a co-author of the new paper. “There hasn’t been a direct link between environmental data and human data until this study.”

Hendryx said, “The larger implication is that we have evidence of environmental conditions in mining communities that promote human lung cancer. Previous studies … have been criticized for being only correlational studies of illness in mining communities, and with this study we have solid evidence that mining dust collected from residential communities causes cancerous human lung cell changes.”

The coal industry and its allies in Congress have always been eager to dismiss claims that air and water pollution caused by mountaintop removal mining have any link to the high rates of lung cancer, cardiovascular disease and birth defects, or the decrease in life expectancy that counties with heavy mining have experienced over the past two decades.

Will this study get them to finally change their tune? It’s almost certain it won’t. It will be up to those of us who care about the health of Appalachian communities to raise our voices and simply drown them out.

Click here to learn more about how mountaintop removal impacts health in Appalachia, or visit The Human Cost of Coal on iLoveMountains.org.

Corporate windfall lets N.C. utilities charge customers under outdated tax rate

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by brian
A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

A recent decision by the N.C. Utilities Commission allows Duke Energy and other public utilities to boost profits by charging customers under a corporate tax rate that the state legislature cut last year. Photo: The Duke Energy Center in Charlotte, N.C.

The North Carolina Utilities Commission is tasked with regulating public utilities operating in the state and the rates they charge for services that millions of North Carolinians use every day.

So it’s no surprise that a decision by a majority (4-3) of the seven-member commission to allow Duke Energy and other utilities to charge customers using an outdated, and inflated, corporate tax rate is rankling their dissenting colleagues, government watchdogs and N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper.

As The Charlotte Observer reports, the commission (somehow) decided that even though the legislature cut North Carolina’s corporate income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5 percent last year, utilities can continue charging customers at 6.9 percent and pocket the difference.

In their dissent, three Democratic commissioners called the decision a corporate windfall that “allows the utilities to charge ratepayers in perpetuity to collect for taxes that the utilities no longer pay.” Yeah, it’s messed up.

The rate individual utilities, including electric, gas and water companies, are able to charge their customers could change the next time they seek rate adjustments. But even then, the dissenting commissioners warned, ratepayers will never be refunded the over-collected funds; the utilities have simply been afforded an unearned gain at the expense of North Carolina ratepayers.”

This is all pretty scary for several reasons. Most importantly, perhaps, is the fundamental disagreement between commissioners on the issue of “single-issue ratemaking,” or when and how adjustments in tax structures should influence the amount utility customers see on their bills.

Although Republican commissioners said they sympathized with the points made by the dissenting commissioners, they claimed that the “doctrine against single-issue ratemaking in full force in this state, designed to prevent changes to utility rates outside general rate cases, should be adhered to except in limited, closely circumscribed situations.”

“The insubstantial and immaterial changes at issue in this docket do not fit within the exception,” Republican commissioners wrote. “The limitations should be preserved to prevent single-issue ratemaking in the future when tax rates increase in insubstantial and immaterial ways.” No word on who decides what constitutes substantial and material changes, or why this shouldn’t be considered a limited, closely circumscribed situation.

But maybe they’re right. After all, Duke spokeswoman Lisa Parrish told The Charlotte Observer that, if Duke decides to stop sharing the tax savings with its ratepayers, its customers would only see a 17 cent increase on their monthly bill. Progress customers would pay 9 cents more each month.

Overall, the charges could help Duke Energy, Duke-Progress, Dominion North Carolina and PSNC Energy bring in around $21 million more a year.

That’s not so bad, right? Just ignore that you’re paying extra for a corporate tax rate that no longer exists. Parrish of Duke Energy also said that a little bump in North Carolinians’ electric bills wouldn’t really hurt them because it would go toward operating expenses or it could be spent on programs with broad community benefits. Hopefully they remember that when a real discussion about how to address the state’s coal ash problem comes up.

Another thing: You also may remember that HB 998, the bill that lowered corporate taxes in North Carolina, did much more than cut taxes for big corporations. It also more than doubled sales taxes on electricity from 3 percent to 7 percent. The commission approved a rate increase related to that change back in May, and over the summer, monthly bills of Duke customers increased by around 50 cents. Last I heard, the company isn’t sharing that burden with its customers.

Meanwhile, for three consecutive quarters, Duke has received a larger rate of return and rate of equity, the profit a company generates with shareholders’ money, than authorized by state regulators, in this case, the utilities commission. The Charlotte Business Journal reported that it is the first time since 2003 that the utility has significantly exceeded the returns set by the commission.

Finally, it’s understandable that the vast majority of the commission’s activities are not scrutinized the way major decisions, such as the 5.1 percent rate increase it granted Duke Energy last year or the merger between Duke and Progress Energy that the commission approved the year before, have been. But in this case, the commission used its discretion to not include Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat expected to run for governor in 2016, or the Public Staff, which represents the interest of consumers on issues before the commission.

Now Cooper says he plans to appeal the decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, and the Public Staff are weighing an appeal.

Oh, and the eventual decision of whether Duke will be allowed to saddle its ratepayers with the cost of cleaning up its leaky, polluting coal ash ponds across the state — that quagmire will land in the commission’s lap too.

This isn’t just about about the pennies added to our monthly electric bills — even though those pennies are piling up and becoming dollars — and, as the dissenting commissioners wrote, for families struggling to pay their utility bills, “every cent counts.”

It’s bigger than that. It’s about the commission adhering to the first tenet of its mission statement: to provide just and reasonable rates and charges for public utility services.

Community Members Gather for Blue Ridge Energy Efficiency Kick-off

Thursday, October 16th, 2014 - posted by Eliza Laubach
Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil speaks about the Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign.

Did you miss the party? Last Thursday, Energy Savings for Appalachia hosted a launch party for our new campaign focusing on Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp.

Energy efficiency advocates and residents facing high energy costs gathered in our downtown Boone office to hear about the campaign and how they can get involved in our outreach efforts. Local business owners, students, farmers and families spilled out of the conference room as we brainstormed different ways to educate the community about our exciting High Country Home Energy Makeover contest and to gather signatures for our petition calling on Blue Ridge Electric to provide more energy efficiency programs.

What are we asking for? Blue Ridge Electric provides electricity to Ashe, Alleghany, Caldwell and Watauga counties, and some of Wilkes and Avery counties, excluding the town of Boone. Last winter, thousands of people served by Blue Ridge Electric could not afford to pay their bills and their electricity service was shut off. This is of particular concern given that 23 percent of Blue Ridge Electric members live at or below the poverty line, and we want to help families find solutions to their high electric bills.

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

Group brainstorming yields many great ideas!

That is where on-bill energy efficiency financing comes in. As Sam Zimmerman, owner of Sunny Day Homes, said at the party, most people do not have the disposable income to make large-scale home energy upgrades but would greatly benefit from them. With on-bill financing, the cooperative utility provides a loan for members to pay for home energy retrofits, and the loan is repaid on the member’s electric bill. Because so much energy is saved through the efficiency upgrades, the member’s electric bill is always lower than it was, even while they pay back the loan! By providing on-bill financing, utilities can help a wider range of homeowners and even renters make improvements to their home that would lower their energy use and electric bill.

So far, Blue Ridge Electric has rejected the idea of offering an on-bill financing program, citing lack of substantial member support as one of their primary reasons. This came as a surprise to Blue Ridge Electric members at the launch party. We are working to demonstrate that there actually is significant member support by circulating a petition, presenting to community groups and going door-to-door in local neighborhoods. Additionally, the Home Energy Makeover contest will not only help a few families whose homes could use efficiency upgrades now, it will also highlight a need for an on-bill finance program.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Kent Walker (left), a home energy contractor, and John Kidda, a builder, discuss all things energy efficiency over pizza and beer.

Chatter filled the room as large sheets of paper were filled with names of local businesses, community organizations, churches and other places where we can reach community members. Volunteers came up with innovative methods of outreach, such as utilizing technology or using church signboards, and signed up to help us with our ongoing canvassing project.

It was exciting to see folks be so enthused about our campaign, to hear a homeowner’s personal story detailing how much energy efficiency programs could help, and to strive for inclusion in the process of organizing a community around an issue.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings team has followed viable pathways of outreach, but the power of people coming together to focus their hands and hearts on helping us, which in turn helps them, enhances the benefit of our outreach, as involvement sparks meaning within concerned community members.

October is National Energy Action Month and National Cooperative Month, and there is no better time than now to focus on our local electric cooperative to provide services that will help members lower their energy use. Sign our Blue Ridge Electric petition or send a letter to your utility. Send us an email at energysavings@appvoices.org for volunteer opportunities, and, if you are a member of Blue Ridge Electric and are in need of support for reducing your energy costs, apply for the contest!

The reclamation myth, it’s still happening too

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 - posted by thom

{ Editor’s Note } A 2014 study on post-mining reclamation efforts found that “There is no evidence that mitigation is meeting the objectives of the [Clean Water Act] and looking forward there is no reason to believe this will change unless new mitigation requirements and scientifically rigorous assessments are put into place.”

It seems that whenever a picture of an active mountaintop removal mine site is posted online or shared on social media, someone steps in to comment that coal companies “put it back” or that, a few years after they reclaim the land “you won’t be able to tell the difference.”

For years, Appalachian Voices has been combating misleading claims about reclamation used by the industry and pro-coal politicians — especially the myth that mountaintop removal is necessary because it creates flat land for economic development. In a 2010 survey of mountaintop removal sites, we found that, of the 1.2 million acres of leveled Appalachian mountains, around 90 percent of reclaimed mine sites are not being used for economic development. In fact, most are just rocky grasslands not being used for anything at all.

LEARN MORE: Post-Mountaintop Removal Reclamation of Mountain Summits for Economic Development in Appalachia

Industry pic

The industry argues that it does a good job of reclaiming the land, and will use a handful of good examples of reclamation with a few nice pictures, and pretend that this is the norm. I particularly like this tweet from the West Virginia Coal Association a few weeks back.

As you can see it’s basically a pretty picture of the sun coming through the clouds with a caption that reads “100 Years of Coal Mining and West Virginia Remains Wild and Wonderful. This proves mining is a temporary land use.”

I can’t figure out how this picture “proves mining is a temporary land use.” I suppose the picture shows that companies have not blown up those particular mountains. Or the sky.

The reality of reclamation usually looks more like this…

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Or this…

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Or this…

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The failure to recapture the beauty that was once a 300-million-year-old mountain covered in old-growth, biodiverse forest is tragic, but it’s not the only problem with reclamation. Attempts to mitigate water pollution have repeatedly failed.

A 2014 University of Maryland study shows that mitigation and reclamation have totally failed to protect stream health.

According to the study:

Loss of aquatic biodiversity below [mountaintop removal] mining operations is well documented and there is no evidence that these downstream impacts decline over time–mine sites reclaimed over 20 years ago still contribute to significant degradation of water quality.

Overall the reports provide no evidence that stream mitigations being implemented for coal mining in the southern Appalachian states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia are meeting the objectives of the Clean Water Act to replace lost or degraded natural resource values and functions.

LEARN MORE: Mountaintop Mine Reclamation Not Adequately Restoring Affected Streams, Study Finds – Bloomberg BNA

The coal industry is blowing up mountains in Appalachia. They are not putting them back together again. The industry is polluting and burying streams, and they are not finding a way to fix them.

In 2009, the Obama administration promised to overhaul regulations meant to protect Appalachian communities and their waterways from mountaintop removal.

Yet, five years later, mountaintop removal coal mining is still happening. Until the Obama administration and Congress take serious actions, no amount of reclamation is going to fix the problems the mining is leaving behind.

A Family’s Troubled Water

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014 - posted by Barbara Musumarra
Ginger Halbert, photo by Molly Moore

In her dining room, Ginger Halbert discusses the state reports on the investigation into her property damage and water contamination. Photo by Molly Moore.

After mountaintop removal coal mining began near their eastern Kentucky home, the Halberts saw their water quality and quality of life plummet. Three years later, they continue to seek answers.

By Molly Moore

Ginger and Mark Halbert have a knack for fermentation, and their flavorful pickled corn is so popular among friends and family that the couple crafted a plan in 2011 to bring their recipe to local and regional stores. They certified the recipe, and started the process of transforming Mark’s mechanical shop, which is attached to their home, into a commercial kitchen that could produce nourishing, locally grown goods prepared on-site with their mountain spring water.

The Halberts dreamed that their business might expand to nearby states and include items such as pickled green tomatoes and sauerkraut, and Mark started plans for a vineyard on the slope beside their home. In the fall of 2011 they arranged for a plumber to finish preparing for the commercial kitchen, but had to stop the project before it was complete. Everything was put on hold when the water and land that the Halberts’ vision relied on began to fall apart.

A Life Disrupted

Perched on a flat bench along an otherwise steep slope, the west side of the house faces toward the forested ridge and the second-story entrance and deck are parallel to the steep mountainside. That fall, the ground around the home began to shift, sometimes in sudden, violent movements that shook and cracked the walls.

After one intense shake, Ginger ran downstairs to check on Mark in the shop below and found the door jammed shut. She frantically tried to open it, praying that no heavy equipment had fallen on her husband. Thankfully, he was unharmed.

Following heavy rains, the shop began to flood. Standing water filled the floor, which signaled the start of a mold problem that worsened when the pipes corroded that spring and water seeped beneath the rugs.

Putting their plans on hold because of the property damage was “a bitter pill to swallow,” Ginger says, but as time progressed the family faced more pressing concerns. In the spring of 2012, their water developed a strange taste. At first Ginger thought the change might be due to snowmelt and would pass along with the winter’s built-up grime, but by May the taste worsened and the plants that she watered began to wither.

That spring, Mark and their children began experiencing a nagging pain in their legs, a sensation that Ginger felt in her arms and elbows. Over the next year, the pain escalated — her children said it felt as if their legs were pulling away from their bodies. Ginger started washing the dishes in the sink because the water had destroyed the dishwasher, but her arms broke out in rashes afterward.

Mark’s leg began to hurt so intensely that the former Marine had trouble walking. At the V.A. Hospital, the doctors looked for a blood clot and other indications of trouble but couldn’t find anything wrong, though one healthcare worker said it sounded like the cause could be metals in his muscles. Mark then went to a chiropractor who came to the same conclusion. The family already knew that their water quality was in decline when their health symptoms began in 2012. At that time, they used their tap water for showering and cleaning but hauled bottled water to the upstairs residence for drinking. When the Halberts discovered the extent of the water contamination in the spring of 2014, they installed a 300-gallon rainwater cistern to supply water for washing dishes and bathing — and their symptoms disappeared.

“I took it for granted that water was going to be there forever, and I think by nature it should have been,” Ginger says.

The onset of their troubles coincided with the opening of a new mountaintop removal coal mine near their home, and Ginger believes the surface mining operation is responsible for the ruined water. But proving a connection between a new mining operation and contaminated water in a region riddled with decades of mining infrastructure is a task for only the most dogged and determined. Ginger Halbert is both.

Practicing Perseverance

The Halbert property has always been intimate with coal — two coal seams crop out of the mountainside behind their home, and one runs beneath. Their spring discharges from one of the abandoned coal seams. The last underground mining on these seams ended in 1959, and in the 1990s the owners of the legacy mines met the legal requirements for reclamation and had their bonds returned, freeing them from legal or financial responsibility for any future troubles. In the ‘90s and the early 2000s, the Halberts called the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement asking for assistance with rockslides and gushing water, but until 2012, their drinking water always tasted good.

In 2011, When the Halberts received notice that FCDC Coal, Inc. was opening a surface mine on the adjacent hollow, they were offered a pre-blasting survey that measured existing water quality. The survey showed a pH level of 6.8, which is within the healthy drinking water parameters of 6.5 to 8.5. In November 2012 — after blasting began — staff from the Kentucky Department for Natural Resources and the Division of Mine Reclamation & Enforcement inspected the spring in response to a water quality complaint from the Halberts. Their test results showed a pH of 4.

While the Halberts waited for more information from the state agency, they spoke with an employee of FCDC Coal who said the company could assess the water and discuss possible solutions if it was indeed impaired. After the company also found dangerously low pH, Ginger called to ask whether the company would either connect them to city water or provide filters. This time her contact denied that FCDC Coal could be responsible. “‘You take what we give you or we’ll make sure you have no water,’ thats the way he put it,” Ginger recalls, bristling at the memory.

Mark picked up the phone next, this time dialing the state DMRE. The original inspector was unavailable, so Mark began describing the coal company’s response to her supervisor, Eric Allen. He told Mark that the state inspector had concluded the new surface mine was too far away and could not have impacted the water, so DMRE had stopped the investigation.

“We never received a letter, never received nothing from them, and they stopped investigating,” Ginger says in disbelief.

After Mark countered that the family wouldn’t have been asked to participate in a pre-blast survey if their home was too far away to be impacted, Allen agreed to reopen the investigation.

Over the next year, DMRE hydrologists visited the property and surrounding area, sampling water at the home, on the mine permit, and at nearby drainages. When the agency issued its report in February 2014, some facts were clear: water quality at the Halbert home had declined substantially and was impacted by mining, and the change coincided with the start of the new FCDC Coal surface mine.

But when it came to assigning responsibility for the damage the report concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence to assign blame to a particular mine. “The volume of water in the underground mine works that supply the Halbert’s spring is far too large to be directly affected [by] the FCDC disturbance,” the report stated. “It is far more likely that conditions within the underground mines changed in some way, causing more acidic water to be produced.”

Ginger was dismayed with the state’s inconclusive findings and pored over the report, putting together a list of questions: Could the blasting at the FCDC site have impacted the fragile underground mines, causing a cave-in or other problem that ruined their water? Why didn’t a blasting inspector accompany the hydrologist or respond to their concerns in a timely manner? In March, she and Mark compiled more than a dozen such questions in a formal request for an administrative review of the February 2014 report.

“You would not believe what I went through just to find out what I could do,” she says of the process. “I did so much research I felt like I took three years of college in a week.”

Driven by her and her family’s escalating pain, she also called the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Atlanta regional office. The representative she spoke with said he would ensure that someone from the state Division of Water assessed her water, and in March 2014 the inspector arrived. The test results were sobering.

Before the Halberts learned that their water contained 14 ug/l of total beryllium compared to an EPA drinking water standard of 4 ug/l, they were unfamiliar with the metal. Now they know that it is a cancer-causing agent also linked to respiratory ailments, skin rashes and a chronic disease called berylliosis, which damages the heart and lungs. People are typically exposed to airborne beryllium through industrial work, not drinking water, but the agency theorized that the water’s high acidity might be allowing the metal to leach from the coal-bearing rocks.

The agency report also showed a pH reading of 3.33, a level considered unsafe for human use, and a conductivity reading of 2200 that indicated a high presence of minerals. Among the minerals violating drinking water standards were iron, manganese, aluminum and sulfate.

“It’s stopped all of our lives,” Ginger says. “We can’t enjoy the little things people always take for granted.” The family no longer accepts overnight visitors. Their oldest son is serving with the Air Force in South Korea, and to Ginger’s great delight he used to bring fellow servicemembers home for visits. But Ginger no longer welcomes these visitors to the house — she doesn’t want to put him and his friends at risk.

Pausing to look out of her second-story hillside window at the small houses scattered throughout the hollow, Ginger’s eyes well up with tears. She gestures to the homes, telling the stories of eight neighbors who have battled cancer in the past five years, and describing going to the small town grocery store and seeing multiple shoppers with cancer. Ginger jokes that she will go down fighting, but she is still concerned, and provides her family with detoxifying foods and supplements.

Worth Fighting For

In August 2014, Ginger received a report from a DMRE geologist who responded to the Halberts’ list of questions by reviewing the other inspectors’ work. The geologist reached the same conclusion as her colleagues, reporting that there was insufficient evidence to link the recent FCDC mining to the family’s ruined spring and expressing the opinion that the Halbert troubles stemmed from the older mines nearby.

Ginger says she isn’t satisfied with the answers, and still wonders whether the blasting impacted the abandoned mines nearby, setting off changes that contaminated their formerly reliable spring. Now represented by Jeffrey R. Morgan and Associates in Hazard, Ky., the Halberts are continuing to appeal the state’s findings in the hopes that a court might decide a more thorough investigation into the Halbert’s problems is warranted.

The Halberts are also in the discovery phase of a lawsuit against FCDC Coal to receive compensation for the damage done to their property — compensation that might allow the family to find a new home and return to their dream of processing fresh, fermented vegetables with healthy mountain water.

For now, the weeds are tall in the Halbert backyard, where a triangular stretch of flat land is flanked by the family’s spring, the home and a shifting, quickly eroding drop-off. There are no longer any deck chairs out here to take advantage of the rural valley views — ironweed and other plants grow unchecked to help catch any beryllium-laced water or dust that might blow towards the home.

It upsets Ginger that her eleven-year-old son must stay away from the yard his older siblings used to play in, and that a few miles downstream children might be playing in a creek fed by her toxic spring. She reflects that her oldest son, who is overseas in the military, might be safer than her two at home.

“We’re never promised of getting any help if we sit back and do nothing,” she says. “I was raised that you have a duty to be an American, and it does take work when you are an American to keep your rights and your laws going. And if you stop, and everybody stops, then who gets control?”


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