Archive for the ‘All Posts’ Category

Energy bill acrobatics

Wednesday, August 24th, 2016 - posted by Lou Murrey

Balancing the Family Budget with High Electric Bills

For the Schmidt family of Tazewell, Tennessee, managing their budget is a delicate balancing act, and one they have become very good at. But high electric bills can make that balance tricky to maintain, sometimes leaving very little in the way of emergency funds, much less for the home repairs they need that could actually lower their energy use.

Liana Schmidt says her electric bills can reach up to $300 in the winter, and fluctuate between $100 and $200 the rest of the year. For Liana, a full-time dietary technician at the Claiborne Medical Center, and her husband Carl, having to pay those bills on such a tight budget can be hard.

“I have kids,” she says. “It’s hard to do and get things for them ‘cause I have to worry about my bills first. You know? Like clothes… or you know things that they need or whatnot. That’s the hardest part.”

The tension between getting by and financial emergency became that much tighter last month when the transmission in her car went out and the brand new well pump in their home broke again. “I have four kids; two of them live with me, and he has Down syndrome,” says Liana nodding her head at 8-year-old C.J. who has abandoned a puzzle to play with a plastic fire truck on the floor of their sunlit kitchen. He is the light of her life, she says, adding quickly that she loves all her children, but a hug from C.J. when she walks in the door can turn her entire day around.

C.J. is susceptible to infection, so regulating temperature in their home is a matter of keeping her son healthy. “I have to make sure that he doesn’t get overheated or too cold or whatever the case may be ‘cause he can get sick very quickly and he is allergic to just about everything. So it’s a struggle.” Just in the last year, C.J. has been hospitalized twice for pneumonia.

When every bit of money saved counts, medical expenses, even with insurance, can add up. Liana’s husband Carl served in the Navy for 20 years, and was exposed to asbestos sometime in the 1980s, which has significantly impacted his health and makes it difficult for him to work full-time. All this has been made much more difficult since the Schmidts were informed in July by their insurance that all of their doctors and their hospital are now out-of-network. They will have to drive almost an hour to receive medical care.

The Schmidts could benefit tremendously from having a more energy-efficient home, to save money on their electric bill and to ensure healthy conditions for C.J. But having the time and money to make the initial investment seems impossible. “If I could just save a little more, just replacing my windows would be a huge huge deal… that would be awesome,” says Liana.

Liana and Carl have done some energy efficiency improvements in their 23-year old house, like replacing all the lightbulbs with compact fluorescents and hanging heavy light-blocking curtains in the living room. “We’ve been trying to do little things here and there,” says Liana. “Even our dishwasher is eco-friendly and our refrigerator is, just about everything that we have is energy efficient. I don’t have a dryer because I like to hang my clothes out and in the wintertime I have a rack so I put everything on a rack.”

Still, Liana knows that to really lower their electric bill, they are going to have to do some more significant upgrades. She points to her kitchen windows saying, “I would love to be able to change these windows but they’re a little expensive right now for us.” Moving over to the windows, Liana says “If you look, you actually can see it,” and pushes her hand against the window to reveal a sizeable gap between the pane and the frame.

Liana heads outside. It’s 92 degrees and the midday sun has no mercy, even the plants in her well-tended garden are drooping as if to say “too much!” It’s clear from the landscaping, which includes a small fruit orchard in the backyard, that the Schmidts put a good deal of time and energy into making their house feel like home.

“We own the land and the house. We have four acres,” says Liana. Gesturing to the wide open space and empty road surrounding their property, she laughs, “It’s awesome back here. My neighbors are cows.” Around the side of the house, she points to a spot close to the roof where some of the siding has come off, revealing a hole a little larger than a softball. It looks like an animal might have created it, but it’s hard to tell. Liana is smiling, but there is exasperation and worry behind her smile when she explains how her husband’s health keeps him from fixing it.

Liana continues to the back of the house, where she opens the door to the crawlspace It’s clear why the Schmidts can feel cold air coming through the floor in the wintertime. Insulation is hanging like pink curtains, rather than being packed tightly in between the joists. Homes can lose up to ten percent of their heating and cooling through uninsulated floors.

Back inside the cool respite of her house, Liana looks up from removing her shoes. “The two biggest things right now is my roof and my windows because I got shingles that are coming off my roof from the wind and whatnot.”

Rural Appalachia has a high concentration of aging and manufactured homes — like the Schmidts’ home — which often lack proper insulation, or their structures have settled allowing air to escape. The culmination of all these factors is that Carl and Liana aren’t the only ones facing high electric bills with little to no resources or access to upfront financing that might provide some relief.

Some utilities have a program called “on-bill financing” which offers people like the Schmidts financing to cover the upfront cost of energy efficiency upgrades and pay back the money on their monthly bill, using the savings. When asked what it would mean her family to have access to this kind of program, Liana replies, “What would it mean to me? It’d mean a whole lot! Having a Down’s kid, I could do a whole lot more with him. If I could save more money and with my older son, I’d be able to do stuff with him as well. Right now we can’t do a whole lot. That would save us so much more, our bill would definitely drop, and we would be able to do a whole lot more with our kids. Family means everything to us, at this point in time, family is everything. You just never know when your time is up.”

Visit our Energy Savings web page for information on how to start this conversation with your utility.

Hands Across the Appalachian Trail

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016 - posted by Lara Mack


Atlantic Coast Pipeline backers head to North Carolina

Monday, August 15th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Special to the Front Porch: Our guest today is Lisa Sorg, environmental reporter for N.C. Policy Watch. A seasoned journalist, Lisa was the editor and an investigative reporter for INDY Week, covering the environment, housing and city government. This post originally appeared on the N.C. Policy Watch blog The Progressive Pulse.

Lisa Sorg

Lisa Sorg

While North Carolina is rightfully focused on the coal ash scandal, another environmental tug-of-war is strengthening in some of the state’s poorest areas.

Co-owned by Duke Energy, Dominion, PSNC and AGL Resources, The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would ship natural gas 550 miles, from the fracking hotspot of West Virginia through sensitive, federally owned land in Virginia, and then into eastern North Carolina.

Once it enters in Northampton County, near Pleasant Hill, the pipeline would span nearly 170 miles through eastern North Carolina. The pipeline — 3 feet in diameter, about as big around as a baby pool — would roughly parallel I-95, passing through historic plantation land and Native American communities. It would end just north of Pembroke, in Robeson County.

Backing the a $5 billion project is EnergySure, a coalition of more than 200 special interest groups from several states vying for a piece of the financial pie: chambers of commerce, utilities, construction and “right of way” companies, which pressure adjacent landowners to sell, voluntarily or through eminent domain. In North Carolina, supporters include the Energy Policy Council, appointed by Gov. McCrory and lawmakers, the NC Chamber of Commerce and the Pork Council.

The Pork Council could benefit because of recent state legislation, the NC Farm Act, which prioritizes using swine waste to fuel natural gas plants over renewable energy.

The group’s slogan: “Don’t let opponents hinder new jobs.”

The ACP would increase fracking impacts in W.Va. and harm communities along the 600-mile route through Va. and into N.C.

The ACP would increase fracking impacts in W.Va. and harm communities along the 600-mile route through Va. and into N.C.

The promise of jobs is seductive in eastern North Carolina, where a quarter to a third of people live in poverty. And this is precisely why these types of projects are placed in low-income communities: to reduce the chance of resistance.

Yet, as the opposition points out, the construction jobs are temporary. Clean Water for North Carolina projects that only 18 permanent jobs in North Carolina would be created by the pipeline, none of them guaranteed to go to local residents.

At a recent citizens’ meeting in Fayetteville, Ericka Faircloth of Eco Robeson explained how the loss of property, either outright or in its value, is particularly significant in Native American communities. (However, some members of the Halowi-Saponi tribe belong to EnergySure.)

“It has greater implications,” Faircloth said. “Our identity is linked to our sacred lands. We want to protect land for future generations of indigenous people.”

Natural gas, while touted as a cleaner alternative to coal is not necessarily “clean.” It is a fossil fuel. Over-reliance on natural gas for electricity, reports the Union of Concerned Scientists, carries its own risks to the climate. Fracking, a common form of gas extraction in West Virginia can release methane, a major component of greenhouse gases.

The gas that would run through the pipeline would not necessarily serve North Carolina. Natural gas is a commodity, like oil and corn, and is sold on the open market. And as Nature pointed out in late 2014, energy forecasters could be reading the tea leaves incorrectly, projecting an overly optimistic estimate about the amount of natural gas that is accessible.

Rivers, streams, swamps, wetlands and other environmentally sensitive areas would also be disrupted, some of them permanently, by the pipeline. The routing would place it over several key waterways, including the Little River in Johnston County; Swift Creek in Halifax, which feeds the Tar River; the Neuse River and the Cape Fear.

Other communities in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania have successfully defeated gas pipeline projects. “It’s up to us to say we don’t need it,” said the Rev. Mac Legerton at the Fayetteville meeting. “We can win this.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, known for its leniency toward these projects, must approve the pipeline before it can be built.

Cleaning Up A Mess: Coal Ash Across Appalachia

Friday, August 12th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Hannah Petersen and Elizabeth E. Payne

Little Blue Run in Pennsylvania is the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Little Blue Run in Pennsylvania is the nation’s largest coal ash impoundment. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

Shortly past midnight on the morning of Dec. 22, 2008, a dike at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston Fossil Plant in Roane County, Tenn., ruptured. In the nightmare that followed, more than 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash rushed from a storage impoundment into nearby rivers, covering at least 300 acres with toxic sludge.

This was the nation’s largest coal ash spill, yet in the six years that followed no federal rule was passed to prevent such a disaster from happening again. And then it did.

On Feb. 2, 2014, a pipe running beneath a coal ash impoundment in Eden, N.C., failed. As a result 39,000 tons of coal ash, together with 27 million gallons of contaminated water, spilled into the nearby Dan River.

These two major spills brought national attention to the dangers of coal ash, as advocates and residents dealt with both the damage and lack of state and federal oversight that allowed for the disasters.

The Making of a Mess

Barbara Morales of Belmont, N.C., speaks about coal ash cleanup at a public hearing. Photo by Appalachian Voices

Barbara Morales of Belmont, N.C., speaks about coal ash cleanup at a public hearing. Photo by Appalachian Voices

Coal ash is the byproduct of burning coal to create electricity. Nearly 140 million tons are produced each year in the United States. The ash contains heavy metals and contaminants such as arsenic, mercury, cadmium and selenium that can pollute water sources if not properly managed. These pollutants have been linked to negative health effects including cancer, reproductive problems and lung disease, according to Physicians For Social Responsibility.

The majority of the coal ash across the country is stored near waterways in unlined wet impoundments. Scientists at Duke University have recently proven that this form of storage threatens the quality of water and health of communities nearby, when the toxins can leak out of the pits into ground and surface water.

In 2012, Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for failing to regulate coal ash on behalf of 11 groups including Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this paper, and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. At that time, there was no federal rule surrounding coal ash storage or cleanup, and this toxic waste product was less regulated than household trash.

In December 2014, the EPA released a long-awaited federal rule for coal ash disposal. The rule lays out guidelines for greater monitoring for dust and groundwater contamination, publication of monitoring data, and regular inspections of the containment facilities. The rule also established deadlines for closing ponds, but allows for a practice called “cap-in-place.” This closure method allows the utilities to leave the ash in an unlined pond and to simply cover the impoundment with a liner, which doesn’t prevent the ash from entering the groundwater.

The 2008 Kingston spill was the worst coal ash disaster in United States history. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The 2008 Kingston spill was the worst coal ash disaster in United States history. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

But the rule also classifies coal ash as a solid — not hazardous — waste, the opposite of what the advocacy groups had requested. A hazardous classification would have required all states to adopt the EPA rule as a minimum standard for coal ash disposal, and set stricter national standards.

Given the solid waste classification, it’s mandatory for utilities that produce coal ash to follow the EPA’s rule, but it’s optional for states. This means that utilities must monitor their facility’s actions in accordance with the EPA standards, but the state doesn’t have to enforce compliance. Without the state regulators ensuring that facilities are meeting federal standards, the responsibility falls on citizens. To enforce the regulations, citizens can file lawsuits against the utilities for non-compliance.

“We see in state after state, that the state bends to the will of industry,” says Rhiannon Fionn, an independent journalist and filmmaker who has covered coal ash since 2009. “That’s the biggest thing about the EPA regulation, it’s leaving so much on the shoulders of the people.”

North Carolina resident Amy Brown lives near a Duke Energy coal ash impoundment and lives with elevated levels of heavy metals in her well water. “Unless you have to fight for protection, you have no clue that you even need to fight for protection, because you assume that the government is doing their job to make sure that everything is taken care of in an appropriate way,” says Brown.

The Buck Steam Station coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. Photo © Les Stone / Greenpeace

The Buck Steam Station coal ash impoundment in North Carolina. Photo © Les Stone / Greenpeace

Responding to the Mess

Appalachian states have relied heavily on coal as a source of energy. As a result, they now have a legacy of coal ash that threatens to burst free of aging dams or to leach toxins into surrounding water sources. And in most states, the volume of coal ash continues to grow by millions of tons each year.

The regulations passed by the EPA in 2014 provided guidelines for how states could address this problem. While some states have taken actions toward cleanup, no Appalachian states have adopted the EPA regulations. Instead states have taken varied approaches toward regulating cleanup.

    North Carolina

  • Coal ash generated annually: 5.5 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: If Duke Energy provides water to residents and fixes dam problems, it can follow EPA guidelines instead of previous state requirements.
  • State fact: A new law overturns the state’s previous, stricter coal ash law.

    South Carolina

  • Coal ash generated annually: 2.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: All coal ash near waterways is being excavated and moved to lined storage.
  • State fact: First state in Southeast to commit to full excavation.

The Carolinas

Perhaps nowhere is the contrast between cleanup efforts more stark than in North and South Carolina.

Under pressure from the Southern Environmental Law Center and other advocacy groups, the three main utilities in South Carolina have committed to cleaning up their coal ash. As of 2015, the utilities have pledged to excavate approximately 20 million tons of ash, removing all impoundments located along waterways to dry, lined storage, according to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.

South Carolina is the first state in the Southeast to commit to full excavation of its coal ash impoundments. North Carolina has taken a different path.

“What happened in North Carolina — which did not happen in South Carolina — is the state agency tried to block and obstruct the enforcement of clean water laws by us and local conservation groups,” says Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center who has worked on coal ash issues in both states. Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, is among the groups advocating for stronger coal ash cleanup rules in the state.

Following the Dan River spill in 2014, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Coal Ash Management Act, which established guidelines for cleaning up the state’s coal ash that were more rigorous than regulations passed later that year by the EPA.

The law also created a commission to oversee the process, which was disbanded by Gov. Pat McCrory in March of this year.

In accordance with the 2014 law, the state’s Department of Environmental Quality determined timelines and levels of cleanup for each impoundment across the state by classifying each as either low, intermediate or high priority. But in July of this year, the governor passed legislation that overturned these rankings and reduced Duke’s cleanup responsibility.

While the new law requires provision of water to residents near impoundments who have not been drinking their water for over a year because of elevated levels of heavy metals, it also delays the deadlines for cleanup and requires the DEQ to classify intermediate-risk ponds as low risk if Duke Energy takes measures to fix leaking dams and provides water.

The bill also allows low-risk sites to be closed according to the EPA’s federal coal ash rule, which is less stringent than North Carolina’s original requirements.


  • Coal ash generated annually: 3.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State fact: The 2008 Kingston spill is the largest coal ash disaster in U.S. history.


  • Coal ash generated annually: 3.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State Fact: Residents are being sued for libel for speaking out against nearby coal ash.


  • Coal ash generated annually: 6.1 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State Fact: Only 7 percent of Georgia’s coal ash dams have been inspected by the state in the past five years.

Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia

In Tennessee, cleanup of the 2008 Kingston spill has progressed, but the Tennessee Valley Authority has made no plan to remove impoundments statewide.

Instead, TVA released a report in December 2015 outlining its intention to cap-in-place. Citizen and environmental groups have challenged this decision. According to the Southern Environmental Law Center, the drinking water of three million people is downstream of TVA’s unlined, leaking coal ash impoundments in both Tennessee and Alabama.

“TVA should do the right thing, as other utilities are doing, clean up these polluting ash ponds and remove the toxic contents to secure, lined, dry storage facilities away from our waterways,” Charles Rose, president of the Alabama-based Shoal Environmental Alliance, told the TimesDaily in June.

Alabama Power and Georgia Power, subsidiaries of Southern Company serving their respective states, have both announced that they will close their coal ash ponds. Alabama Power hasn’t released a timetable for closure or details on how the ash will be handled, but Georgia Power has released a plan to excavate 19 sites and cap 13 in place over the next 14 years, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

As part of the cleanup of the 2008 disaster in Kingston, Tenn., four million tons of coal ash were shipped to the Arrowhead Landfill in Uniontown, Ala.

Dozens of workers who cleaned up the spill have filed lawsuits against the contractor claiming that they were told the ash was safe, were not given proper protection and are now suffering health consequences, according to the Center For Public Integrity.

In April of this year, owners of the Uniontown landfill brought a $30 million suit for libel against four local residents, and also sued two of the four for defamation. The residents, members of grassroots group Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice, had spoken out about environmental and health risks associated with the landfill’s coal ash.


  • Coal ash generated annually: 2.4 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place.
  • State fact: Home to the only unlined impoundment along the southeastern coast without a plan for excavation.

    West Virginia

  • Coal ash generated annually: 7.2 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: The state’s solid waste rule applies only to coal ash impoundments built after May 1, 1990.
  • State fact: Many of the state’s coal ash ponds were built before May 1, 1990.


  • Coal ash generated annually: 9 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities favor cap-in-place, and legislation mirroring the EPA’s is being drafted.
  • State Fact: Doesn’t require groundwater monitoring or emergency action planning at all sites.

Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky

Coal ash disposal in Virginia is making national news this summer, as the commonwealth hosts the first federal-level court case to address one utility’s violation of the Clean Water Act. Testimony ended in June in the Sierra Club and Southern Environmental Law Center’s suit alleging that arsenic leaching from impoundments at Dominion Virginia Power’s retired Chesapeake Energy Center had contaminated surrounding water.

ABC News reports that the ruling “could have far-reaching effects on how energy companies dispose of coal ash waste left over from decades of burning coal.”

Dominion’s plan for cleaning up the coal ash in Virginia relies heavily on discharging the water into surrounding waterways and then capping the impoundments in place.

West Virginia has not adopted the EPA standards and regulates coal ash disposal based on the state’s Solid Waste Management Rule. This rule exempts coal ash impoundments built before May 1, 1990, from following all requirements except for groundwater monitoring. According to Earthjustice, at least 12 of the impoundments in the were built before 1990.

In Kentucky, utilities are increasingly using dry storage for newly produced coal ash, but opting to cap-in-place many existing impoundments. Seven dams across the state are rated high hazard according to Earthjustice, meaning failure could result in the loss of human life. The state is drafting legislation that enforces the EPA rule, but doesn’t require emergency response plans.

Pennsylvania and Ohio


  • Coal ash generated annually: 15.4 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Unknown.
  • State fact: Home to the largest coal ash impoundment in the U.S


  • Coal ash generated annually: 10 million tons
  • Cleanup plans: Utilities haven’t announced plans.
  • State fact: In 2002, a utility bought a town near their coal plant for $20 million to gain future amnesty.

The nation’s largest coal ash containment pond is primarily in Pennsylvania and also encroaches into Ohio and West Virginia. The forty-year-old impoundment at Little Blue Run stores ash produced by FirstEnergy Corp.’s Bruce Mansfield Power Plant. The 1,700-acre site has been used to dispose of more than 20 billion gallons of coal ash waste.

Three years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection ordered the site to be closed and stop receiving new coal ash by the end of 2016.

The closure of Little Blue Run will require cleanup of that site and a new plan for disposal of coal ash produced in the future. One plan being considered is to ship the coal ash to LaBelle, Penn., and use it to fill an abandoned coal mine.

The EPA considers this form of disposal a “beneficial use” and does not regulate it. The U.S. Department of the Interior has the authority to set standards but has yet to compile regulations.

Residents of LaBelle are fighting to prevent the coal ash from coming to their community.

In July, FirstEnergy announced plans to close five of its Ohio coal-fired plants by 2020. The state has retired more coal-fired capacity since 2010 than any other state, according to Earthjustice.

But the pace of coal ash cleanup is lagging behind. “Ohio is one of the largest coal ash producers in the country, and they have some of the worst state regulations,” Lisa Evans, senior administrative counsel at EarthJustice, told WCPO News in June.

People Impacted by the Mess

Annette and William Gibbs

Annette and William Gibbs live in Perry County, Ala., near a landfill that now contains four million tons of coal ash from the 2008 Kingston spill. Photo by Chris Jordan-Bloch / Earthjustice

As states delay cleanup efforts and lawsuits are challenged in court, coal ash continues to disproportionately affect low income and minority communities. Almost 70 percent of coal ash ponds are in areas with household incomes below the national median, Evans testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment in 2013.

“Self-implementing rules rely on citizen enforcement,” Evans says. “Citizen enforcement relies on resources. So the communities that are worst off when there’s a self-implementing rule are those communities that cannot afford to monitor compliance and cannot afford legal representation when non-compliance is discovered.”

“These citizens who already feel so isolated because they are poor, feel even more isolated when they are following the protocol, making the complaints and not seeing any relief,” says filmmaker Rhiannon Fionn.

Communities throughout Appalachia experience coal ash and its toxic effects in different ways. For some, like the citizens in Uniontown, Ala., their problems began when ash and its putrid smell was relocated to their area, despite residents’ objections.

For others, like Kentucky residents whose drinking water comes from the Ohio River, contaminants have been seeping into their communities’ water supplies for decades through Louisville Gas and Electric’s permitted but unmonitored discharge pipe. Still others, like prisoners at the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institute, saw elevated numbers of cancer cases and deaths linked to coal ash blowing onto prison grounds from a nearby impoundment, according to Scientific American.

Coal ash is impacting communities across the southeast in different ways. But from state to state, residents bear the responsibility of leading the fight for cleanup.

“I’m just like any other mother, I drive my kids to practice and have sports equipment in my minivan. The only difference is that I have to fight to protect my children from our water,” says Amy Brown. “Sitting down on the couch and relying on the state, expecting they will do the right thing, isn’t an option anymore. No one will fight for my children the way I will.”

Trailbuilding: Forging New Paths

Friday, August 12th, 2016 - posted by interns

Communities see opportunity in new trails

By Lorelei Goff

Besides solitude, exercise, adventure and a connection to nature, hiking trails offer opportunities for ecotourism. Like the networks of people who help maintain them and provide logistical support for long-distance hikers, it takes a network of private and public partnerships to create them. Here’s a look at a few efforts to bring more trails — and dollars — to rural Appalachian communities.

C&O Railroad Trail

The former railroad right of way provides a level path for future hikers along the C&O Railroad Trail. Photo by Debbi Hale

The former railroad right of way provides a level path for future hikers along the C&O Railroad Trail. Photo by Debbi Hale

When Debbi Hale steps onto the remnants of the C&O railroad bed at the base of Pine Mountain in Pound, Va., the first thing she sees is the old tunnel the company blasted through the mountain to Jenkins, Ky., in 1947. She walks up to its yawning mouth where timbers buttress the fault-riddled rock and listens to its curious groans as the fog drifts in and out.

Hale turns away to the east, following the old railroad bed through a gash in the mountain. She walks on, passing wetlands, some old growth forest and vestiges of fields, stopping just shy of the North Fork of Pound Lake at the old Wright cemetery, the resting place of infamous Pound resident Devil John Wright. Wright was alleged to have killed as many as 27 men, including the namesake of the nearby Red Fox Trail.

For the last four years, Hale, a teacher and native of Pound, has worked to make this 3-mile section of the old railroad into a Forest Service trail connecting the 1.15-mile historic Red Fox Trail to the 110-mile Pine Mountain Trail in Kentucky, which is part of the long-distance, multi-state Great Eastern Trail.

Red Fox Trail
What: A historic trail open to hiking, biking and horses that would connect to the C&O Railroad Trail
Where: Near Pound, Va. From Pound, take Hwy. 23 North for 3.6 miles, turn left on SR 667 for .6 miles, park in graveled area on the right side of SR 667. Cross road on foot, pass through Forest Service gate, and follow road bed to the left for .17 miles before trailhead.
Distance: 1.15 miles
Difficulty: Moderate
Contact: Clinch Ranger District at

Since most of the treadway is already in place — the railroad company removed the tracks when the right of way reverted back to the Forest Service and private landowners — her biggest challenge was identifying the current landowners. All the parties must sign a land use agreement detailing how and by whom the trail will be maintained. The agreement also relieves landowners of liability for the trail under Virginia state law. So far, all but two landowners have signed.

She began the project as a way to stimulate the faltering local economy, and she hopes the town will become an officially designated Trail Town. The Cloudsplitter 100, a 100-mile trail race on Pine Mountain that incorporates part of the proposed trail, brought more than 100 visitors to the town of roughly 1,000 last year. The number could more than double this year since the event will be a qualifier for a prestigious European trail race. Meanwhile, Hale continues to advocate for the trail and for reopening the tunnel that connects it with Jenkins, Ky.

Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail

Autumn had just begun to steal the summer green from the slopes of Southern Appalachia on Sept. 24, 1780, when militiamen — farmers, blacksmiths, coopers and the like — marched southeast from the Muster Grounds in Abingdon, Va., to meet the British Army at the Battle of Kings Mountain in South Carolina. Their 13-day, 330-mile march and subsequent victory marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War.

Each year, the Overmountain Trail Association hosts a reenactment of the 330-mile march that led to a victory in the Revolutionary War. Photo courtesy of Sycamore Shoals State Park

Each year, the Overmountain Trail Association hosts a reenactment of the 330-mile march that led to a victory in the Revolutionary War. Photo courtesy of Sycamore Shoals State Park

The Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail commemorates that victory. There are currently 78 miles of publicly accessible trail, and a 30-mile section from the Muster Grounds in Abingdon to Sycamore Shoals State Park in Elizabethton, Tenn., is currently in progress. Two miles of the trail overlap the Elizabethton Linear Path and and another 1.5 miles is in use in the state park. The section passes through the Rocky Mount State Historic Site in Piney Flats, Tenn., home of William Cobb, who made the march to Kings Mountain with his four sons.

Jon Hartman, planning and development director for the city of Elizabethton, says the National Park Service, which maintains the trail, saw that communities along the route were already making use of Overmountain historic sites and portions of the trail. The park service approached the various local governments last summer with a proposal to tackle this section. Hartman anticipates the land will be acquired through a combination of easements, purchases and donations.

Elizabethton Linear Path
What: City park trail designated as part of Overmountain Victory Trail that will connect to the planned addition between Elizabethton and Abingdon
Where: Main parking at Riverside Park, Elizabethton, Tenn.
Distance: 6 miles
Difficulty: Easy, bike-friendly paved path
Contact: City of Elizabethton Parks and Recreation at 423-547-6441

“You’ll literally be able to walk and see and explore the same sights and sounds that many of the Overmountain men experienced as they were marching to Kings Mountain,” he says.

“This system spans two states, three different counties, three different municipal jurisdictions and involves four different senators and two different congressional house representatives, so there’s a lot of potential here for this collaborative effort to really approach national level funding,” he says. He expects local government, state and federal money will be used to complete the trail.

The Overmountain Victory Trail consists of publicly accessible sections in four states, including the Riverside Park in Elizabethton, Tenn. Photo courtesy of Jon Hartman

The Overmountain Victory Trail consists of publicly accessible sections in four states, including the Riverside Park in Elizabethton, Tenn. Photo courtesy of Jon Hartman

He says the project will reap economic benefits from retiring baby boomers and upwardly mobile millennials who share a love of trails and pedestrian-friendly communities.

“We want to be that place that has a unique component that those generations will want to come to,” he explains. “The big thing is to understand what people are looking for and figure out how you can maneuver yourself as a community to capitalize on the unique assets that you have.”

Learn more at

The Great Eastern Trail

Bart “Hillbilly Bart” Houke takes in the view from Mingo County during the first thru-hike of the Great Eastern Trail. The hikers traveled on roadsides in much of southern West Virginia, where the trail is incomplete. Photo by Joanna Swanson

Bart “Hillbilly Bart” Houke takes in the view from Mingo County during the first thru-hike of the Great Eastern Trail. The hikers traveled on roadsides in much of southern West Virginia, where the trail is incomplete. Photo by Joanna Swanson

“It’s wild,” says Joanna Swanson exuberantly, referring to her trek on the Great Eastern Trail. “It felt like the age of discovery and exploration wasn’t over yet.”

Swanson, the West Virginia representative for the Great Eastern Trail board, made the 1,600 mile hike from Alabama to New York with Bart Houke in 2013. It was the first “thru-hike” of the trail and required using roadways in many sections where the footpath wasn’t yet built. Since then, about 20 more miles of the trail have been routed off roads. Swanson says that’s fast progress for a project like this.

Although the multi-state trail is 75 to 80 percent done, some sections remain incomplete. In parts of southern West Virginia progress is at a standstill until land use agreements are signed with the companies who own the properties the trail will pass through.

Most of the treadway is already in place along old logging roads, and local communities are excited about the potential for economic development.

Birch Knob Section
What: Part of a 110-mile trail in Kentucky that is a key connector trail of the Great Eastern Trail and will connect with the C&O Railroad Trail.
Where: Between Breaks Interstate Park and US 23 at Pound, Va. Parking is at Carson Island Rd., Elkhorn City, Ky., and Apostolic Dr., Pound, Va.
Distance: 26.5 miles
Difficulty: Strenuous
Contact: Breaks Interstate Park at 606-589-2479

Tim McGraw, a 67-year-old retiree and native of Wyoming County, W.Va., worked in the mines for over a decade before becoming a school teacher. He watched the local economy wither with the decreased demand for coal and realized the trail could revitalize the town.

“This trail will bring people from out of state, from out of the country and from everywhere. They’re gonna be walking through the woods here with money in their pockets and coming out looking for pizza and beer and a place to stay,” says McGraw, who is also president of the TuGuNu Hiking Club.

According to McGraw, land companies that “own 80 percent of Wyoming County and most of the others” are jittery about taking on the liability that would come with allowing the trail on their property.

“Southern West Virginia is the home of the Hatfield and McCoy [ATV] trail system,” he explains. “That’s a state-mandated entity and they’ve got millions of dollars worth of insurance and that’s what those land companies like. So the only thing we know to do is to get the state to take the ownership and liability.”

“It’s really been at the state level that we’ve struggled,” Swanson says. “It has felt like this is not a big enough priority for them to bother with.” She adds, “All we need is to have permission and a couple gallons of paint to mark the trails.”

Swanson points out that other states have gotten around the liability issue by creating linear state parks, including the Pine Mountain Trail in Kentucky and the Cumberland Trail in Tennessee.

“This is a thing that they should all agree on in [the state capitol of] Charleston,” McGraw says with obvious frustration. “The Democrats and Republicans and independents and communists and everybody else can agree that … it’s a great opportunity to have this national trail coming through.”

Though frustrated by the state government’s lack of support for the project, McGraw is committed to spending his golden years trying to carve an economic lifeline through his state.

“I’m an old man,” he says with calm resolve. “My time is short, and I’ve got to do what I can do.”

Learn more at

Growing Up Appalachian

Friday, August 12th, 2016 - posted by interns

The next generation is overcoming barriers to achieve their goals

By Molly Moore

Hannah Cox experiments with a video camera with guidance from Rachel Berkot, a RAMPS member. Photo by Willie Dodson

Hannah Cox experiments with a video camera with guidance from Rachel Berkot, a RAMPS member. Photo by Willie Dodson

Answers to broad questions about Appalachia’s future — such as how coal-bearing counties will transform as the region’s chief industry declines — are invariably traced back to the next generation. The region’s future will be shaped one child, one teen and one young adult at a time.

The story of what young people in the region are experiencing — what their hopes and dreams are and what obstacles are in their way — are as varied as the teens and young adults themselves. Many Appalachian youth express concern about poverty and unemployment, the effectiveness of the educational system, and the national opioid and prescription drug abuse epidemic that has disrupted families and young lives.

In rural Appalachia, there’s long been a perception that to be successful, young people must leave the mountains. But today, there is a growing movement among local residents to undo that narrative and create opportunities for youth of all backgrounds, identities and aspirations to thrive.

Numerous regional organizations and programs — both youth- and adult-led — are working to support young people. We spoke with individuals from several such organizations to provide a window into their stories.

Clintwood Learning Co-op

Elijah Kiser adjusts the robotic car at the Clintwood Learning Co-op.

Elijah Kiser adjusts the robotic car during the Clintwood Learning Co-op’s robotics and coding program. Photo by Willie Dodson

In a one-room building overlooking the rolling mountains of Dickenson County, Va., three young teens are focused on a small robotic car. The car has four standard wheels, but its body is a flat platform with two exposed circuit boards, a nest of wires, a battery pack and a small PVC pipe mounted at the front.

Using coding and mechanics they’ve built through trial and error and an improvised light detector inside the PVC pipe, the boys send the car toward a lamp on the floor. If all works as intended, the car will detect the light and stop before the vehicle impacts it. According to their teacher, Vincent Fanelli, these teens are experimenting with a version of the same technology that underlies advanced research into self-driving cars.

The free after-school program in robotics is offered by the Clintwood Learning Co-op, a project of Fourth World/USA, which is a branch of a global organization dedicated to eradicating poverty. Vincent and Fanchette Fanelli have run the center for more than twenty years, hosting workshops in traditional skills such as weaving as well as newer fields like computers. The robotics program is their first youth-focused venture.

The teens all have rave reviews. “It gives a new perspective to electronics, and how we can start commanding our own to do what we want,” says workshop participant Elijah Kiser. The students have taken their experiments home to tinker with coding, circuit boards and solar lights. For one 10th-grader, this interest in mechanics led to an engineering class at the vocational school, where he helped set up a 45-foot wind turbine to power the heating and lights in a storage building.

These young teens have clear ideas of what they would like to do in the future — go to college, work with military robots and drones or do computer animation. Asked if they want to stay in Dickenson County, they respond with a chorus of “yes,” citing family, the landscape and the hunting and fishing opportunities.

But for now, as much as the teens enjoy their twice-weekly foray into robotics and coding, the program’s reach is small. Situated just a five-minute drive from the county’s new consolidated high school, it’s nonetheless difficult to attend for students under 16 or without access to a vehicle. Dorothy Kiser, Elijah’s mother, drives 45 minutes to bring the three boys to the co-op; she visits and crafts with several other local women at the co-op’s main building while the program is in session.

Vincent Fanelli hopes to make transportation arrangements with the school to make the robotics program more accessible.

The future for young people in the areas comes down to having viable opportunities, notes Dorothy Kiser, citing the growing solar and wind industries as examples of what could be. She says it would be difficult for her son to pursue a computer programming career locally right now. But that could change.

“We just started our community center and I noticed that a lot of the places in Dickenson County have started to get people more involved in their communities to try to pull in some job opportunities and companies,” she says. “Like with this program, this was a blessing for me.”


Western Youth Network

Campers with the Western Youth Network in Boone, N.C., pose with the organization’s new vehicle, nicknamed the Spaceship. Photo courtesy Western Youth Network

Campers with the Western Youth Network in Boone, N.C., pose with the organization’s new vehicle, nicknamed the Spaceship. Photo courtesy Western Youth Network

In northwestern North Carolina’s High Country, many of the campers at the Western Youth Network summer program had never been to the overlooks along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic drive maintained by the National Park Service that runs through these campers’ home counties. When they journeyed to parkway overlooks in July, the campers were overcome by emotion and one told camp staff it was the best day of his life.

The Western Youth Network primarily serves middle-school-aged youth, but also provides mentoring for ages six to 17 and runs a substance abuse prevention effort.

The nonprofit’s Executive Director Jennifer Warren says that one of the greatest challenges is a phenomenon called toxic stress, which can occur when youth experience traumatic events without the support of a stable caregiver — common especially with the “exceptionally high amount of children in foster care” in the region. According to Warren, toxic stress can lead to “poor impulse control, inability to make good social bonds or resolve conflict peacefully.”

“One of the ways we’re really trying to work to repair this is to match kids with a stable, nurturing caregiver, through our after school or summer programming, because that’s the one thing that the research shows actually pulls a kid out and helps them rewire their brain,” she says.

In rural areas, Warren notes, the problems kids face can go unnoticed. Youth without transportation who live farther from towns have limited access to opportunities and social services. To address transportation, Western Youth Network has a fleet of vehicles and is able to take kids home following after-school programs and provide pick-up and drop-off services for summer programs.

But the mountains can also offer advantages. “I also think about how easy it is for people to access land for playing, being physically active, running around, gardens that allow them fresh food at a reasonably low rate,” Warren says.

Perhaps that’s why, when the kids reached the top of one of the parkway overlooks, they shouted: “I love this place!”


RAMPS Youth Engagement Project

youth art

Hannah Cox, Nathanael Green, Jeremiah Cox and Emily Cox transform salvaged squash into art in the parking lot of the former RAMPS building. Photo by Willie Dodson

The members of Radical Action for Mountains’ and People’s Survival didn’t set out to run a youth program. But part of the environmental collective’s philosophy of direct action is to directly serve and empower communities. So when kids and teens started showing up at the rundown building in Whitesville, W.Va., that served as their office and home, they went with it.

“The fact that the kids were kind of jammed in here, for many, many hours, a lot — that was telling me that what they needed were activities for young people,” says David Baghdadi of RAMPS.

In the fall, members of the collective, often accompanied by neighbors and friends, took youth out into the nearby woods to gather timber, teaching interested kids how to split firewood. Youth whose families rely on wood heat took firewood back to their families. Participating youth also received a $2 hourly wage, and a portion of the profits from any wood that was sold to others in the community.

The group took youth out to the woods to gather ginseng and offered art activities, the opportunity to experiment with video cameras, and perhaps most importantly, a central gathering spot.

“In my opinion, the kids kind of run a little bit wild here,” Baghdadi says, hypothesizing that it might be because some of the negative examples they see in the community. “If they see the adults and the authorities divesting, not having much interest in the community, they take that in.” He says that overall, the group is trying to be a positive presence and “show to young people that there are people who want to invest in this place, that want to invest in them.”


Isaac Barker, right, watches as Kayla Cox learns to split wood at the former RAMPS office. The two teens are entering high school in 2016. Barker enjoys spending time in the woods, hunting and gathering ginseng, and would like to eventually work for the W.V. Division of Natural Resources, preferably in his home area. He says he is looking forward to animal dissections in science class and continued involvement in the school robotics program. Photo by Molly Moore

In the spring, RAMPS purchased an old boarding house in town and set aside a youth room, replete with books, toys and arts supplies. “That space is really increasing our capacity to do things and increasing our capacity to deepen connections with community here,” says Rachel Berkrot, a member of RAMPS focused on the youth project. Neighbors and youth of all ages hang out on the porch and share meals, and one of the RAMPS members has been teaching kids how to make donuts in kitchen.

The group has also acquired a nearby gardening space. Along with others in the community, they intend to build raised beds and eventually cultivate fruit trees and medicinal herbs — and give the youth an opportunity to get involved. Another large project on the horizon is building a cabin with the youth in the hills above Whitesville. Berkrot notes that the endeavor would give kids another activity as a chance to practice construction skills.

“[Members of RAMPS] are setting a good example for the kids, they really are,” says Tom Bowe, father of Coy, one of the regular youth attendees. “The [kids] are learning to make your way in life.”


Haywood Community Learning Center

In Haywood County in western North Carolina, Kyle Ledford operates an alternative learning program that provides students who have dropped out of high school with a chance to recover credits, earn a GED or return to their home school.

“We certainly don’t have enough housing, enough public transportation,” Ledford says. “Generational poverty of course in [Appalachia] is very, very hard to break. This is a societal problem, it’s going to take a societal solution.”

The current Haywood Community Learning Center serves between 175 to 200 students at any given time, and graduates between 35 and 50 per year.

Each student has a customized plan that includes providing transportation and food assistance to students who need it. More than a dozen local faith organizations also serve hot lunches and breakfasts at the center year-round. And the academic component is flexible and allows students to take as much or little time as they need to master a subject.

The dropout rate at Haywood County Public Schools has fallen from 8 percent in 2007 to 0.93 percent in 2014. Despite this success, Ledford isn’t satisfied with the post-diploma options for young people.

“The kids that we have in the building, the majority are interested in the trade aspect,” he says. “The the greatest barrier to them is generational — [the feeling that] they can’t be the first person to do that. And the lack of opportunity in this area to get that type of training.”

Ledford observes that many students who go on to community college for vocational training get stymied by prerequisite and remedial classes. “If school didn’t work for you for whatever reason, more of the same isn’t going to work for you again,” he says. “I think the economic vitality of the region is more important than adhering to a bunch of rules.”

“You have to work outside the box, kids aren’t one-size-fits-all,” he says.


Rural Appalachian Improvement League

Mullens Opportunity Center

Shane Bishop of Wyoming County, W.Va., discusses ways to improve the community with other team members at the Mullens Opportunity Center. Photo by Willie Dodson.

Many residents of the Wyoming County, W.Va., town of Mullens are familiar with both hardship and rebuilding, whether it’s economic struggle related to the coal industry’s latest bust or devastation from the landmark 2001 flood that inundated the town.

The Mullens Opportunity Center, formerly a public school, is a testament to community service. Local volunteers help maintain the center’s gardens, college spring breakers built the high tunnel to extend the growing season, and a visiting team of AmeriCorps service members constructed the center’s outdoor community stage.

On an unseasonably warm morning in December 2015, roughly a dozen local residents gathered at the center to share their thoughts on reinvigorating the area. The people in the room were serving with the nonprofit Rural Appalachian Improvement League through a variety of agencies, including a workforce development program called ROSS IES, the national service program AmeriCorps, and the Experience Works program for seniors.

There was no shortage of ideas — establishing a shop to repair all terrain vehicles, fixing up old buildings, cleaning up the local river for fishing tournaments and building hiking trails, to name a few.

Though the ROSS IES and AmeriCorps members were young themselves — generally in their late teens and early 20s — many expressed concern about the generation younger than them.

Shane Bishop, a local resident participating in the program through ROSS IES, said it might be up to his generation to help kids growing up now become involved in the community instead of falling into a habit of disengagement.

“They don’t see where their actions are taking them,” he said, noting the state’s high rates of obesity and prescription drug abuse. “It’s just time for people to open up their eyes.”

The group discussed the combined factors that some young people in the area face: troubled home lives, addiction to social media and video games, and the drug abuse epidemic. Soon, the topic changed to what the RAIL team could do about it — ideas such as hosting movie screenings of popular films to bring youth to the center.

“If we can get the ball rolling on half of this stuff and get more youth members, I say we could probably get it done,” Alexandra Church, as ROSS IES member, said of the group’s ambitions. “It’s just that [younger people] need an example, they need someone to start it.”

Many of the team’s plans were centered around summer. But because of the state’s spring budget delay, the ROSS IES workforce program’s funding didn’t come through in time and the six youth funded by the program lost their positions.

This summer, RAIL has four AmeriCorps members. With the help of local volunteers, the team is focused on gardening, hosting a farmers market and preparing a community play based on local history.

Ruby Ingram serves with the AmeriCorps Farm-to-School program teaching gardening and helping build raised beds at area schools. According to Charlene Cook at the Mullens Opportunity Center, one of the kids was so inspired by his experience with raised beds at school last year that he decided to start gardening at home. Local volunteers and some of the RAIL youth plowed him a garden space, and now he sells his own produce at the center’s farmers market.


The STAY Project

“STAY is about building youth power across the region to improve the experience of youth who live here,” says Izzy Broomfield, a steering committee member of The STAY Project. Short for Stay Together Appalachian Youth, the group aims to support central Appalachian young people — generally ages 14 to 30.

Broomfield, a Berea, Ky., native who also currently serves as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Hazard, Ky., would like to see more intergenerational collaboration and more opportunity for youth to be involved in decision-making that affects them. At times Broomfield has felt like the “token millennial” at the table — given a seat, but not always listened to or respected.

Kendall Bilbrey, coordinator of STAY, notes two recent examples of young people in eastern Kentucky speaking out — and sometimes being heard — about civic issues.

In May, the Letcher County Fiscal Court proposed an ordinance stating that the county would not comply with any regulations that opened public restrooms to transgendered people. A group that identified themselves as “young leaders, most of us in high school, who have lived and grown up in this county” wrote the magistrate a public letter opposing the proposal. The ordinance failed in a vote of 5 to 1. Bilbrey notes that while the dissenting magistrates cited fear of legal trouble, there was “a lot of pressure created from the ground up, which I think tipped the scale.”

The Letcher Governance Project, of which Bilbrey is also a member, is another example of recent youth activism. The group, comprised of local residents who are opposed to a new federal prison proposed for the county, protested at a regional economic development conference in June. “[Local and regional authorities] keep saying that young people aren’t coming to participate in their economy or in their community, but when they do and it’s something [the authorities] disagree with, we’re shut out,” says Bilbrey.

The anti-prison organization has been bringing attention to the proposed jail’s $444 million price tag by asking people on social media to share alternative ideas about how that money could be spent in eastern Kentucky. According to Bilbrey, many respondents suggested state-of-the art mental health and drug rehabilitation services.

“Why don’t we take problems that are often criminalized in our community turn them into opportunities for healing and support?” they ask. “The more we can shift that the better it will be for young people, for all ages.”

Looking forward, Broomfield says it’s important that central Appalachian residents “be intentional about creating opportunities for young people.” Broomfield notes that while there’s widespread need for employment, younger adults without families or other commitments are more likely to leave if they can’t find viable work.

STAY member Brandon Jent grew up in Whitesburg, Ky., and earned a college degree at the University of Kentucky in Lexington. Upon returning to his hometown, he interned with the Appalachian Media Institute and became involved with the youth organization. Jent says his experiences with the Appalachian Media Institute and STAY have helped him see central Appalachia as “a place where people can live their dream.”

“There’s always been this pressure to leave and not really an option to stay,” he says. “Both are on the table; home is where you want it.”


Mistaken Identity: Recognizing the northern water snake

Friday, August 12th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Savannah Clemmons

Summer in Appalachia is the perfect time for hikes, swims and camping trips. But outdoor adventures can create tense encounters with species that are traditionally labeled as dangerous, such as snakes. Some snakes, like the venomous copperhead, should always be avoided. But most Appalachian snakes, like the northern water snake, are harmless to humans.

The northern water snake, or Nerodia sepidon, is one of the most common snakes in the eastern United States. Their habitat ranges from Maine to Georgia, and from the Great Plains to the East Coast.

The northern water snake is a non-venomous snake found across Appalachia. Photo © John White / Virginia Herpetological Society

The northern water snake is a non-venomous snake found across Appalachia. Photo © John White / Virginia Herpetological Society

According to Michael Salotti, president of the Virginia Herpetological Society, northern water snakes never stray more than two or three hundred yards from water. This means that they can be frequently spotted at recreational water sources like swimming holes or waterfalls.

Throughout the warmer months, this non-venomous snake will bask on rocks or hang on branches near the water. “I often notice them hanging in tree branches about six feet above the water’s surface,” Salotti says.

The northern water snake emerges from hibernation between March and April. They mate in late April and give birth between August and September. The average female can give birth to around 20 live snakes at a time. The snake is most active in summer, just as people are flocking to water to cool off.

Unfortunately, people sometimes kill these harmless snakes after mistaking them for a more dangerous species, such as a copperhead or water moccasin. Water moccasins are not found in the cooler, higher elevations of Appalachia. But copperheads, like northern water snakes, swim and can be found near water across the region. So, if a snake is not easily identifiable as a non-venomous water snake, it is best to beware.

Northern water snakes can grow up to three feet long, and females are larger than males. The snakes have darker skin that ranges from brown to grey. According to Salotti, northern water snakes are more easily misidentified as they grow older, their patterns fade, and their skin becomes darker.

Although this snake sometimes falls victim to death by mistaken identity, Salotti says the overall population is healthy. Despite loss of habitat due to human population growth, it is not an endangered or threatened species. Northern water snakes are also protected throughout Georgia, where it is illegal to kill or keep non-venomous snakes.

Northern water snakes are relatively harmless creatures. Salotti says that if confronted by a human or larger animal on land, this snake will “try to flee into the water” to make an escape.

But if a northern water snake feels threatened or backed into a corner, it just might defend itself. Water snakes have strong bites, which can leave deep cuts. They can also release a powerful-smelling musk from their tail, or eject fecal matter in self defense.

According to the Virginia Herpetological Society, northern water snakes can also mimic venomous rattlesnakes by vibrating their tail to ward off predators.

If encountered with a northern water snake, Salotti advises simply leaving the snake alone, as confrontation is unlikely. However, in the event of a snakebite, wash the wound with soap and water and apply antiseptic.

Like other species of snakes, the northern water snake plays an important role in natural areas. The snake, which eats primarily amphibians and fish, acts as a major predator in forests and rivers and maintains balance in the food chain.

“Everything plays a role” in ecosystems, says Salotti. “You remove one of the predators, and it has a trickle-down effect.”

Venomous Or Non-Venomous

The southern and central Appalachian region is home to more non-venomous snakes than venomous ones. The two important exceptions are the copperhead and timber rattlesnake.

Typically, non-venomous snakes have rounded heads. But many harmless species can flatten their heads into a triangular shape to imitate a venomous snake. Most venomous snakes have slot-like pupils, unlike species like the northern water snake, which has rounded pupils.

An easier way to identify a snake is by looking at its pattern. Northern water snakes have a bulb-shaped pattern that widens in the center, whereas the venomous copperhead has an hourglass-like pattern. Michael Salotti says that becoming familiar with the patterns of different species native to a specific area is the most reliable way to identify a snake.

snake patterns

The harmless northern water snake (left) and venomous copperhead (right) are often confused, but their patterns are distinct. Photos © John White / Virginia Herpetological Society

Appalachian Media Institute: Envisioning Our Future

Friday, August 12th, 2016 - posted by molly

For 28 years, the Appalachian Media Institute has given young people from Central Appalachia a platform to explore their voice, document issues in their communities and elevate rural stories.

Photo courtesy Appalachian Media Institute

Photo courtesy Appalachian Media Institute

A program of Appalshop, a multimedia arts and cultural organization in Whitesburg, Ky., AMI interns gain hands-on experience with media production and learn about topics such as digital filmmaking, podcasting and web-based storytelling.

This year, the eight-week program’s theme was Envisioning Our Future, and AMI participants centered their storytelling around youth-led hopes for the region. The program also partnered with the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Penn., to allow rural and urban Appalachian youth to exchange skills and experiences. Youth also collaborated with leading regional artists on a media piece for a national outlet.

The AMI team visits the Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo courtesy Appalachian Media Institute

The AMI team visits the Carnegie Museum of Art. Photo courtesy Appalachian Media Institute

The 2016 Appalachian Media Institute produced four films, which premiered at Appalshop on July 29. One explores avenues for economic growth in Central Appalachia and chronicles four artisans working to build a future in community theater, agriculture, ceramics and music. Another examines the impacts of discrimination on a small rural community in Eastern Kentucky and the community’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement and to discriminatory measures against LGBTQ individuals. Not A Daughter, the only film titled at press time, tells the story of one teen’s struggle with LGBTQ discrimination in the hills of Appalachia. The fourth documentary film investigates the impact that outsider interest and performance of old-time and bluegrass music has had on the style, instrumentation and dialect of mountain music.

The Appalachian Voice asked this summer’s AMI interns to share their vision for young people in Central Appalachia. We solicited their thoughts about what obstacles might be in the way and what would help turn their aspirations for the region into reality.

Below are longer versions of their answers, which were excerpted in our print edition. View the films online at

Jade Slone

19 — Knott County, Ky.

Jade Slone

Jade Slone

My vision for Appalachian youth is that they have the opportunity to grow in a welcoming society. I want to see them discover who they are and want to be in a safe environment with a supportive community — I know that it exists here, they just need to find it. The only obstacles are the few people who are unwilling to accept change. It’s fully possible if everyone works together to build an accepting society

To help make this vision a reality we all need to take the time to see things in a new way and to truly try to understand them. If everyone works to educate one another without judgment and to consider each other with a new perspective I believe that our communities could function more openly, freely and happily.

As a 19 year old who grew up in a small town in Eastern Kentucky, I know that we can grow as a society and welcome change and personal growth. I, Jade Slone, endorse this message with my cat print of approval.

Jaydon Tolliver

17 — Whitesburg, Ky.

Jaydon Tolliver

Jaydon Tolliver

My vision for the youth of Appalachia is that they will showcase their talents and make this region a sanctuary for artists, musicians and innovators from all around the nation, and the world. I believe that we have a lot to offer.

The obstacles blocking this vision are that the vast majority of people in the area feel a sense of hopelessness since our central source of income has been fading away. People aren’t sure of what they can do here. If the youth were to broaden their views and come together to make something happen, this would change.


Josh Collier

16 — Waco, Ky.

Joshua Collier

Joshua Collier

My vision for young people in Appalachia is for them to find new ways, or even rediscover old ways, of living in the region. Obviously we have just lost a large piece of this region with the removal of the coal industry. Many people are left not knowing where to turn or what to do to survive. What many fail to see is that even in a mass devastation, we are still surrounded by great opportunity. I, like most residents of the region, have family ties that run deep into the crevices of this land. For many years, my ancestors worked tirelessly in harmony with the land. With the influx of industrialization little more than a century ago, they began to be controlled by the same fostered dependence that has governed our people ever since. Now that we have a clean slate, a new chance to start over, I want to see our people become a successful, thriving culture once again; a culture no longer dictated by a higher entity, a culture reminiscent of that of our ancestors 200 years ago.

The most blatant obstacle, quite frankly, is a lack of self-confidence and feeling of ability. For so long, people in this region have struggled to survive and have depended on a larger authority as a source for what little sustenance they had. Throughout these long difficulties many residents have continually lost hope of gaining a new or better life. Now that the economy has really hit rock bottom, this sense of hopelessness has only been extenuated. Though it may seem impossible to start anew, it obviously has happened to many others of the past in some form. If only we had more people try, if only we had a better combined effort, we might succeed in creating a fresh lifestyle.

In order for this vision to be a reality, we must work harder to function together. We need to better utilize current youth development programs, as well as create new ones. Most of all, we need to believe we can be successful again.

Aaron Combs

21 — Vicco, Ky.

Aaron Combs

Aaron Combs

My vision for Appalachia is a modern economy based around art and to break away from the companies and corrupt politicians that keep us held back. The main obstacles to progress in the region are both political corruption and the crushing poverty that so many are forced to live with. This vision could easily he made real by political activism and being engaged where you live, and not letting mass corporations and corrupt career politicians rule the Commonwealth.




Ally Baker

18 — Whitesburg, Ky.

Ally Baker

Ally Baker

My vision for the young people in Central Appalachia is for them to just find themselves. Without all the stereotypes and factors we face today taking away their spirit. My vision is for them to find creativity and to become more and more open minded and accepting than previous generations. I want the young people in central Appalachia to realize that they do matter. They can do amazing and incredible things if they put their minds to it. I want them to change this world for the better. That is my vision for young people in central Appalachia. My vision is that the young people here develop new ways to live and thrive here without the coal industry. I hope that the young people rebuild and revive the poverty stricken counties, and restore the culture mixed in with their own beliefs. Most of all my vision is that people can be themselves in a thriving and kind community.

Some obstacles in the way that young people in Central Appalachia face is that many people are stuck in old beliefs. Racism and homophobia is sadly a very common thing people face, in order for us to grow people need to become informed and more understanding. Also, many people believe the coal company will somehow make a comeback when honestly it probably won’t. Many people are left without jobs and it’s a very tragic situation. We need to help and assist people who have been left in very difficult situations. We need to find alternate solutions to the coal company in a way that helps the families and locals. Choosing to accept new ideas and ways of thinking is also a very challenging obstacle. In order for our communities to survive we need to chose new ideas in order to keep us growing and thriving.

Things that would help make this vision a reality is just for some people to become informed and to really think differently. To step outside their comfort zones and to take risks. To not be afraid of change. In order for Appalachia to survive we must come together. We can’t be afraid of change anymore. You can do anything if you set your mind to it.

Elyssia M. Lowe

22 — Grayson, Ky.

Elyssia M. Lowe

Elyssia M. Lowe

My vision for myself has changed over the years. Being focused on earning a degree and landing a job with any animation studio has changed. The goals still remain, only now I find that I’m able to enjoy anything I do as long as I find a way to make the art I love and make a difference. I hope the same for my community and the young people in it. I want everyone to find themselves and the guidance needed to create their own happiness.

In anything you do there will be obstacles. Without them victory wouldn’t be as sweet. To quote the amazing movie Ratatouille, “You must not let anyone define your limits, because of where you come from your only limit is your soul.”

For a vision to come true there has to be a leader and a visionary. Someone to present ideas and encourage others. Behind every great movement there needs to be a support system. We need more great leaders and more people who are willing to stay and work as that support system.

Elijah Bedel

22 — Adams County, Ohio

Elijah Bedel

Elijah Bedel

I believe that young people in Appalachia sincerely aim to lead positive and impactful lives. I’ve met many young people here who dare to question the negative elements within their communities and even think differently than members of their own families. This takes an incredible amount of courage and willpower which many Americans have never had to experience. I am both stunned and inspired by the resolve of these young folks in the face of such challenges. With such personal perseverance, I truly hope that these young folks will find or, more importantly, create the opportunities that they need to bring their creative and unique passions to a region where so many feel lost or disconnected. I also hope that with their open-mindedness and positivity they will be able to help end the harmful ways of thinking which still dictate the actions of many in central Appalachia.

The most glaring obstacles in the face of positive change in central Appalachia, especially to youth, are the tendencies towards stubbornness and close-mindedness in many people. No matter how hard certain gifted young folks may try to bring positive change and help others to see it, there will always be a chorus of negative backlash ready to paint the wrong picture.

I believe that greater support for open-mindedness and sustainable economic practices would truly help young central Appalachians to make a real impact in their communities. Unsustainable practices like strip mining and mountaintop removal as well as economies which hurt the health and future of the community like fast food and prisons should not be promoted. Encouraging young people and investing in their future should be first and foremost. Better education is a must. Instilling mindsets which support cultural diversity as well as local business would sincerely help Appalachian youth.

Oakley Fugate

22 — Letcher County, Ky.

Oakley Fugate

Oakley Fugate

We have had so many chances for providing a future our children but our officials have their head in the clouds. I feel that if we focused, we could be one of the best examples of a state standing together instead of the national punchline we are currently.

Our officials don’t care about us, only our votes. We sit in poverty, our rivers poisoned with iron water that is bright orange and we are battling with one of the worst drug epidemics I have seen. I can name at least 10 people I knew in high school that have died yet nobody mentions it. …

When you are one of the poorest states with the richest heritage and a literal gold mine under the ground. And you are in the top three lowest educations. You need to prioritize. I don’t want to listen to officials telling my family member they don’t need their disability when they broke their back on the job. Yet [the authorities] spend like a rich teen in a shopping mall. …

PRIORITIZE! Let’s help our people and help their communities. We have fought for years for a rehab [center] here yet our local courts only needed five minutes to vote themselves and their staff a raise.

Work on building a better future. Work on educating and inspiring our youth. We were one of the richest states 200 years ago. “I would like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” — Abraham Lincoln. We went from that to a laughingstock. We had billions in coal here and were used like a dishrag. Let’s stop and focus on what makes the area great. Not the land, not the past, not a prison, not a [Noah’s ark replica park], but our people.

Editor’s note: Oakley Fugate’s statement is abridged for clarity

Rebukes, a resignation and more reasons to worry about coal ash in NC

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 - posted by brian

In the war of words over drinking water health advisories between state employees and the McCrory administration, residents are clear on who they trust

North Carolina state epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from

North Carolina state epidemiologist Megan Davies resigned abruptly this week and accused high-ranking officials of deliberately misleading the public on drinking water safety. Photo from

North Carolina’s state epidemiologist, Megan Davies, abruptly resigned from her position last night, writing in a letter that “I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

The department she is referring to is the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, where she worked for eight years. The administration is that of Gov. Pat McCrory, whose time in office has been tainted by his mishandling of the statewide problem of coal ash pollution.

Davies’ resignation is just the latest development in a public tussle between state employees and the McCrory administration that escalated last week when the transcript of sworn testimony by Dr. Ken Rudo, a toxicologist at DHHS, became public.

Rudo’s testimony raises troubling questions about the role leaders at DHHS and the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality had in downplaying the “Do Not Drink” warnings issued last year to hundreds of families on well water that live near Duke Energy coal ash sites. It also implicates McCrory’s office directly, with Rudo stating that he was called to the governor’s mansion to discuss the warnings and how to ease residents’ concerns about water contamination potentially caused by coal ash.

During his deposition, Rudo told lawyers that members of the McCrory administration wanted to tone down the warnings with language that “would not have been acceptable to me.”

News has happened fast since Rudo’s remarks became public and, when they probably should have played defense, high-ranking officials in the McCrory administration went on the attack.

On Tuesday, McCrory’s chief of staff, Thomas Stith, repeatedly accused Rudo of lying. The next day, the administration released an editorial signed by DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder and Deputy Secretary for Health Services at DHHS, Dr. Randall Williams, that attacked Rudo for reaching “questionable and inconsistent” scientific conclusions and creating “unnecessary fear and confusion among North Carolinians who are concerned about the safety of their drinking water.”

Rudo stood by his deposition following the accusations by McCrory’s office. And, after the editorial, he released through his lawyers a point-by-point rebuttal of Reeder and Williams.

He’s not alone. Davies — who was Rudo’s superior at DHHS — also told lawyers under oath that she did not agree with the decision to lift the “Do Not Drink” warnings. She also stated that representatives of Duke Energy met with DHHS about the health screening levels set for well water and that she believes the department deliberately misled the public.

Based on Davies’ letter of resignation, it is that belief and the deliberately misleading editorial that led her to resign:

“Upon reading the open editorial yesterday evening, I can only conclude that the Department’s leadership is fully aware that this document misinforms the public. I cannot work for a Department and an Administration that deliberately misleads the public.”

So where does all this leave North Carolinians with contaminated drinking water? Exactly where they were before, as distrustful of DEQ and DHHS as they are of their water’s safety.

On Thursday morning, members of the Alliance for Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash held a press conference outside of the governor’s mansion where they defended Rudo and Davies for putting public health first and made it clear who they trust.

Vermicompost: Let earthworms green your kitchen

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Savannah Clemmons

Of more than 4,000 species of worms, only a few are good for composting. Photo by Jimmy Davidson

Of more than 4,000 species of worms, only a few are good for composting. Photo by Jimmy Davidson

When Tracy Myhalyk first learned about vermicomposting in 2002, she was enrolled in an agroecology course as an Appalachian State University graduate student. After a colleague piqued her interest, she set up her own worm bin and began making compost.

Vermicomposting is the practice of feeding worms table scraps and other organic matter in order to obtain a richer soil.

A typical vermicompost bin contains roughly 1,000 worms in a moist, dark habitat made from damp newspaper, cardboard and leaves mixed with fresh organic matter. The worms consume the food scraps and paper items and then produce a nutritious compost made of the worms’ feces, or “castings.”

The compost has a number of uses, most commonly as a fertilizer for household plants and gardens. Vermicomposting recycles household waste into usable material faster than other forms of composting. It is also an aerobic process, which means that odor-blocking oxygen is present during decomposition and prevents foul smells.

After a year of composting with worms, Myhalyk set up a booth at the local farmer’s market and began advocating for vermicomposting and selling her one-of-a-kind kits with starter worms. While she no longer makes the kits, they are still a talking point across the area.

“Sometimes, someone will recognize me and say ‘Hey, you gave me worms!’” Myhalyk says.

She has also taught workshops and classes on how to manage worm composting bins, as well as the environmental benefits of vermiculture.

Customizing Compost

Requiring minimal time and resources, vermicomposting can be a simple and efficient way to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. It also allows individuals the chance to experiment with their setup.

Most composters, like Randal Pfleger, use their bins at home to process table waste. He has experience with traditional non-worm composting both at home and in community gardens as the executive director of Grass to Greens, a yard-care service and social enterprise of Bountiful Cities, an urban agricultural and community gardening non-profit based in Asheville, N.C. Pfleger says vermicomposting is best used at home. Small bins can create compost for use in gardens and household plants, or the worms can be used for fishing bait.

As decisions are made regarding the habitat, drainage, water content and harvesting, it is sometimes necessary to have a trial-and-error mentality.

Vermicomposting is faster than composting without worms. Photo by Jimmy Davidson

Vermicomposting is faster than composting without worms. Photo by Jimmy Davidson

For instance, when Pfleger finds it difficult to separate the worms from the compost, he makes use of other natural elements. He finds a sunny spot outdoors and dumps the contents of the worm bin. The solar heat dries the top layer of the compost, causing the worms to retreat inward to the cooler, wetter center of the compost.

Pfleger then separates the compost into smaller, dried-out piles, as the worms continue to retreat from the sun. He is typically left with compost as well as a “worm ball” that goes back into the bin to start the process all over again.

However, some challenges are more difficult. According to Tracy Myhalyk, due to Appalachia’s frigid winters, keeping a compost bin from November to March requires being more vigilant of the temperature and humidity levels around the bin, and storing it in an insulated place such as an indoor kitchen or closet.

Environmental Benefits

In the United States, a quarter of the country’s municipal waste comes from food, yard trimmings or other organic matter that can be composted.

According to North Carolina State University, over 98 percent of food waste gets thrown into landfills where it decomposes and produces methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Landfills account for 20 percent of methane emissions in the United States. And worldwide, it is estimated that landfills emit between 30 to 70 million tons of methane each year, either directly into the atmosphere or into the surrounding soil.

Composting organic waste rather than disposing of it in landfills can significantly reduce methane emissions and diminish an individual’s contribution to climate change.

For Pfleger, worm composting puts waste into perspective and can help people “think about how we generate waste, what we do with it.” The issue of assessing an individual’s contribution to municipal waste, Pfleger jokes, “opens up a big can of worms.

Tips for Vermicomposting

Which worms do I use?
The species Eisenia fetida, or red wigglers, are most commonly used for household compost bins. A typical starter system includes about 1,000 worms. Red wigglers can consume about 25 percent of their body weight each day.

How do I set up the bin?
For a red wiggler habitat, place newspaper, dried leaves, water and other organic material into a plastic bin, and make certain the material has the consistency of a moist sponge. Ensure that the worms have a comfortable temperature of between 60 and 70 degrees. Cut holes in the top of the bin to provide ventilation.

What do I feed the worms?
Worms can eat almost any organic or biodegradable material, including vegetables, paper coffee filters, rinsed eggshells and other table scraps, but meat or dairy products can attract unwanted pests and scavengers. Citrus should also be avoided because it contains the chemical limonene, which is harmful to worms.

How often do I feed the worms?
Red wigglers do not need to be fed on a regular schedule. The more worms that are in a bin, the more frequently food can be added. To avoid a bad odor, make sure that the worms have eaten all of their food before placing more into the bin, and periodically add more newspaper or dried leaves.