Archive for the ‘All Posts’ Category

Boone community comes together to tackle energy waste

Thursday, October 20th, 2016 - posted by Katie Kienbaum
Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil addresses attendees of the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil addresses attendees of the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting.

Last week, the first-ever Boone Energy Stakeholder Meeting brought together stakeholders from across Boone, N.C., to discuss the problem of energy waste in the town and explore possible solutions.

Attendees included Boone Mayor Rennie Brantz, Karla Rusch from Appalachian State University, Phil Trew from the High Country Council of Governments, Jeremy Barnes from Appalachian Mountain Brewery, Tommy Brown from F.A.R.M. Cafe and Appalachian Voices’ North Carolina Energy Savings team.

One of the biggest challenges identified by the stakeholders was the quality of Boone’s existing housing stock. Properties that were built quickly to house Boone’s growing population and Appalachian State University’s students often prioritized expedience and profit over energy efficiency. The design of some properties even encourages energy waste.

Several stakeholders shared stories of students and ASU staff having to open their apartment or office windows during winter to control the room temperature because there was only one thermostat for the entire building. Boone resident Barbara Talman also pointed out that many homes in the area were originally built for summer use only and were therefore not properly insulated. Now, those homes are being lived in all year round, , and the residents are stuck with high energy bills in the winter.

Weatherizing and retrofitting these inefficient buildings is a challenge. The high upfront costs of upgrades are a barrier to improving home energy efficiency, not only in Boone but across the nation. Boone also has a high proportion of renters. Owner-occupied housing accounts for just 20.2 percent of housing units, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Landlords for rental properties are less likely than homeowners to invest in energy efficiency because they don’t pay the electricity bills, or otherwise lack incentive to invest thousands of dollars to improve the energy efficiency of their properties. The programs that do exist to help finance home energy upgrades are often not available to renters. This includes Blue Ridge Electric’s new Energy SAVER Loan Program and the housing rehabilitation programs administered by the High Country Council of Governments.

Even if financing is available for retrofits, finding qualified workers to complete the upgrades can be a headache. Tommy Brown, the volunteer coordinator at F.A.R.M. Cafe and a participant in the Energy SAVER Loan Program, pointed out the lack of local contractors, especially in the heating and cooling sector. Brown received the loan in June, but he is still waiting for work on his home to begin because no contractors are available.

Meeting participants came up with several ways to expand the number of qualified contractors, including improving communication of workforce needs and increasing funding for workforce training. In addition, developing affordable housing in the town of Boone would ensure that the newly trained workforce stays in the region and can help make the town more energy efficient.

The issue of energy efficiency is just one piece of a larger affordable housing puzzle here in Boone. According to Mayor Rennie Brantz, only two town employees live within town limits because the high demand for housing makes finding an affordable place to live nearly impossible. For the same reason, many of the employees at ASU commute to work from outside of Boone. The creation of affordable, non-student housing in town would cut down on energy waste from long commutes and contribute to the development of a sustainable economy.

Another solution proposed at the stakeholder meeting would be for the town government to actively promote energy efficiency. Officials could create something similar to the town’s successful water conservation program that would target energy waste in Boone. Housing ordinances could also be used to mandate certain efficiency measures.

Several participants noted ASU’s longstanding commitment to sustainability and pointed out that there’s an opportunity for the university to collaborate with the Town of Boone to develop efficiency solutions. The students at ASU are also a useful resource. Many students care about environmental issues and could be leveraged to demand energy efficiency upgrades from rental companies. The student rental market is very competitive due to an excess in supply of at least 2,000, so the rental companies would likely respond to student pressure. ASU could even develop a system to rank student rental properties based on how efficient they are to encourage companies to invest in energy upgrades.

Overall, while some key local stakeholders were unable to attend the meeting, Appalachian Voices and the stakeholders who attended agreed that it was a good first step toward identifying comprehensive solutions that could help tackle the problem of energy waste for the Town of Boone. To continue the conversation, Appalachian Voices will be organizing a second meeting in early December to further discuss these solutions.

Do you know someone that should be at these meetings, or are you interested in attending yourself? Contact Rory McIlmoil at 828-262-1500 or to let us know.

Hurricane Matthew flooding elevates coal ash concerns

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016 - posted by amy

Environmental justice groups express solidarity with impacted communities

More than a million tons of coal ash at Duke Energy's H.F. Lee plant along the Neuse River were submerged by flood waters after Hurricane Matthew. Photo by Waterkeeper Alliance.

More than a million tons of coal ash at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee plant along the Neuse River were submerged by flood waters after Hurricane Matthew. Photo on Flickr by Waterkeeper Alliance.

Earlier this month, North Carolina was devastated by the impacts of Hurricane Matthew. Flooding occurred across much of the state, with the hardest impacts felt in the east.

Many of the communities hit the hardest, including lower income communities and communities of color, are those that are the least able to bounce back from such a catastrophic event. And much like they bear the brunt of industrial pollution, these communities are disproportionately suffering from the environmental impacts caused by flooding.

While the flood waters are still receding, we are learning about the impacts left in their wake. Flooding at Duke Energy’s H.F. Lee Plant, near Goldsboro, caused a breach in one of the plant’s cooling ponds. In a separate incident, one of the inactive coal ash basins was overrun, releasing an unknown amount of coal waste into the Neuse River.

It is critical to point out that the ash flowed out of an inactive pond. It underscores the notion that simply capping these sites and leaving them in place is not enough to keep detrimental impacts from occurring in the future. The only way to ensure these sites cause no future harm is to remove the ash from compromised locations, including flood prone areas and place it in either appropriate landfills, or even more promising, recycled into products for the concrete industry which wants and needs Duke Energy’s ash for its production facilities.

Hurricane Matthew reminds us that we are living in a time of less predictable weather patterns and more extreme storms With an eye to the future, we must continue to insist that leaving coal ash in unlined, vulnerable pits is not a solution the problem of pollution.

The North Carolina citizen group Alliance of Carolinians (ACT) Against Coal Ash released the following statement to express solidarity with those impacted by the floods and took a hopeful and determined stance to continue to fight not only against the threat of coal ash, but for all those for whom environmental justice has not been served.

ACT Against Coal Ash Statement on Hurricane Matthew:

The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash stands together in support and solidarity with individuals, families, and communities across Eastern North Carolina devastated by the floods of Hurricane Matthew. The damage caused by this hurricane is compounded by contamination from coal ash, hog farms and other environmental hazards in their impacted communities.

Our alliance was formed and acts to protect and promote our health, the water we drink, the air that we breathe, and the land that sustains us. Hearing each other’s cries about coal ash and its threats to our communities, we’ve become a loud, unified voice for the rights of everyone to live in a healthy community. We are a family and there are times we need to lean on each other. Not all of us are impacted by this particular disaster, but, as in this case, the risk is exacerbated for us who live next to coal ash, whether now or in the future.

North Carolina’s people and elected officials cannot control a hurricane or other natural disaster, but if we heed the proactive pleas and concerns of our citizens, we can control the extent of the damage done. Much more needs to be done to secure coal ash, industrial hog waste and other threats to the health of our communities. Responsible and urgent action must be taken because natural disasters, and even more destructive ones, are happening with more frequency and intensity and will be sure to happen again. We are committed more than ever for permanent and safe solutions that protect all communities from all forms of environmental harm.

Solar and energy efficiency…like peanut butter and jelly

Thursday, October 13th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Special to the Front Porch: Our guest today is Steven Nadel, executive director of American Council on an Energy-Efficient Economy, a key voice in the national conversation about our energy future. Steven’s post first appeared on the ACEEE Blog.

Steven Nadel ACEEE

Solar and energy efficiency need to work together like peanut butter and jelly. Energy efficiency and solar advocates have on occasion butted heads over which option should be implemented in homes and buildings first and how much should be installed before the other is considered. Here at ACEEE we believe that, like market solutions vs. energy efficiency programs, this is a false choice. Both are valuable and can, and should, work together as an integrated solution to create cleaner and cheaper energy. While energy efficiency is just as clean as solar when it comes to emissions, efficiency by itself can’t produce energy for customers looking for a clean energy option, and solar without energy efficiency can’t reach the full extent of its potential.


However, in recent years, some solar companies and some consumers have been employing a solar-first strategy in the residential sector—installing solar systems without paying much attention to energy efficiency. This strategy has been spurred in part by substantial solar tax credits, net-metering rules in place in most states, and the availability of solar financing that reduces or even eliminates the initial purchase price, replacing the up-front cost with monthly payments that extend over many years.

Despite these incentives, it still generally makes sense to implement as much efficiency as possible when installing generation. To look more closely at this issue, we conducted two illustrative analyses. The first compares the cost per kWh produced or saved from solar and energy efficiency when done individually or together. The second compares solar technical potential and residential electricity use, with and without efficiency. We find that when efficiency and solar are implemented in tandem, costs are lower, and solar can meet a larger share of residential loads.

Cost per kWh

For this comparison, we looked at the average cost per kWh produced from a typical solar system today, the average cost per kWh from residential energy efficiency, and the cost per kWh when efficiency and solar are done together. Our results are summarized in the table below. A solar system costs about 17-23 cents per kWh produced (the low-end estimate is based on very sunny Las Vegas, the high-end on Washington, DC). Energy efficiency costs less—about 8 cents per kWh. But when solar and efficiency are combined, the cost is 3-6 cents less per kWh than solar alone. Energy efficiency has a lower cost, and it also reduces the size and cost of the needed solar system. PB&J (solar and efficiency) is less expensive than PB (solar) alone.


This analysis ignores the federal 30% solar tax credit and also ignores utility incentives that are commonly available for energy efficiency measures. If tax credits and incentives are included, the overall result is still generally the same—a combined approach is less expensive per kWh than solar alone. This is just a simple analysis for typical measures and hence is only useful as a rough approximation.

Solar production relative to residential electricity use

For this analysis, we compared estimates of the technical potential for rooftop solar systems in each state (as estimated in a GIS-based analysis by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) with residential electricity use (from the most recent EIA Residential Energy Consumption Survey or RECS). We looked for states where the solar technical potential in the residential sector was at least 50% of current residential consumption, or of residential consumption if energy efficiency were to reduce consumption by an average of 30%.

Our analysis only covers 24 states, as those are the states with detailed data in RECS at the single- or two-state level. Results of our analysis are shown in the map below. With efficiency, 23 out of the 24 states could hit the 50% solar threshold, including six reaching 75% solar (California, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Nevada). Without energy efficiency, only nine of the 24 states could meet at least half of the residential load with rooftop solar. Only in two states (California and Colorado) does solar potential exceed 75% of residential consumption. In other words, solar can meet a much larger proportion of residential loads if efficiency is included.

ACEEE table

This analysis doesn’t include potential growth in electric loads such as from increased use of electric vehicles, or conversion of gas and oil space- and water-heating systems to heat pumps. Details of our analysis, including a case where all gas and oil space-heating systems are converted to heat pumps can be found here. In this alternative case, only two states meet the 50% threshold without efficiency, while 12 states meet the threshold with efficiency.

As with our first analysis, this is a rough analysis that assumes all of the solar potential is achieved and that all homes implement energy efficiency. Also, this simple analysis ignores the fact that some homes can produce more solar power than they use while other homes are not suitable for solar, such as those heavily shaded by trees or that do not face south. This analysis should be considered a yardstick and not a definitive analysis.


Energy efficiency will generally be less expensive per kWh than solar. And by lowering consumption, energy efficiency will stretch the available rooftop solar resource farther, allowing solar to serve a higher percent of residential consumption while also allowing a smaller and less expensive solar system. These are two simple analyses but they make a clear case that jelly (efficiency) is needed to help peanut butter (solar) do its best.

Navigating the Russell Fork

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

Poised to bolster a flagging economy, one river also faces threats from coal mining

Kayakers at race finish

Kayakers gather at the finish of the Lord of the Fork Race on the Russell Fork River. Photo by Gareth Tate.

By Erin Savage

The Russell Fork River, with its steep gorge walls, impressive rapids and tranquil pools, is one of the best-known and most-visited rivers in Central Appalachia.

Like many waterways in the region, human activity has impacted the Russell Fork for well over a hundred years. At times, coal mining has had a significant impact, but so too have natural gas drilling, construction, sewage and trash dumping. In general, the Russell Fork’s water quality has improved over the last few decades, due to efforts by local residents and stronger regulations from state and federal governments.

Despite better water quality, the Russell Fork faces new threats from potential coal mining. Last year, Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper, submitted an application to the national river advocacy group American Rivers asking that the Russell Fork River be included in their 2016 list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers. In April, the annual list — which highlights 10 at-risk waterways — was announced and the Russell Fork was included and ranked at No. 7.

The river’s listing was due to a proposed surface mine in the Russell Fork headwaters known as the Doe Branch Mine. A portion of the current mine proposal was approved back in 2005, but the mine’s future remains unclear, as do its impacts on the Russell Fork watershed. At a time when the coal industry has seen massive declines and the region is grappling with an uncertain future, opinions regarding the mine vary widely.

More Than Just a River

Part of the Big Sandy River Basin, the Russell Fork begins in Dickenson County, Va., and flows north into Pike County, Ky. It is the main attraction at Breaks Interstate Park, which spans the border between the two states. In the park, the river forms one of the deepest gorges east of the Mississippi and is home to the Big Sandy crayfish, which is listed as “threatened” by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In an area challenged by the economic realities of a declining coal industry, the Russell Fork and Breaks Interstate Park provide a welcome economic boost for the region. In 2015 alone, visitation to Breaks Interstate Park generated $9.95 million in economic impact.

The Russell Fork River is the main attraction of Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles Virginia and Kentucky.

The Russell Fork River is the main attraction of Breaks Interstate Park, which straddles Virginia and Kentucky.

The 52-mile waterway boasts many recreational opportunities, including fishing, swimming and paddling. The Army Corps of Engineers controls the Flannigan Dam, a flood control dam upstream of the sections most commonly used for rafting and kayaking. In the fall, the reservoir is drawn down, creating predictable weekend flows throughout October. These recreational releases attract intermediate and advanced paddlers from around the country. An annual experts-only race through the gorge at the end of October, the Lord of the Fork Race, includes local and international competitors.

Other regional tourism efforts also contribute to new economic impacts in the region. The annual Cloudsplitter ultrarunning race, which travels beside a portion of the Russell Fork and ends in Elkhorn City, Ky., generated $25,000 in new economic impact in 2015 alone, according to a study by Eastern Kentucky University. Other groups in the region are working with the Army Corps of Engineers and their congressional representatives to potentially increase the number of recreational releases from Flannigan Dam.

The Russell Fork has a dedicated following, including local residents and others from surrounding areas in Kentucky and Virginia. For over a decade, the Friends of the Russell Fork, a small but determined group of community members in and around Haysi, Va., have worked to improve the quality of the watershed and promote the river as a vital cultural and economic resource for the area. Under the leadership of Director Gene Counts, a local kayaker and retired public school administrator, Friends of the Russell Fork has worked with other local leaders, school children and visiting AmeriCorps volunteers to clean illegal dump sites and monitor tributary streams for pollution. The organization has provided steady leadership in advancing sustainable environmental practices throughout the watershed.

Map by Jimmy Davidson/Appalachian Voices

Map by Jimmy Davidson/Appalachian Voices

“We work with schools within the watershed, teaching students how to monitor the health of our watershed through hands-on microinvertebrate studies,” says Counts. “I believe engaging young people in our home towns is key to maintaining the health of the Russell Fork.”

In 2011, the organization surveyed more than 200 homes along Russell Fork tributaries for sewage straight pipes and faulty septic systems, providing critical information to state agencies with resources to upgrade the communities’ sewage systems.

The river obtains some additional protections through state and federal programs. In 2010 the state of Virginia designated the Russell Fork a Virginia Scenic River. While the designation does not specifically limit human activity in the river corridor, it does help to increase the influence of local residents’ voices in decisions that may impact the river.

The federal Clean Water Act has also led to improvements in water quality for the Russell Fork and its tributaries through more protective regulations and additional monitoring requirements. The law also requires that states keep a list of impaired waterways and develop pollution management plans for these areas. In 1996, Virginia added Russell Prater Creek, a Russell Fork tributary, to the state’s list. The creek was listed due to its diminished ability to support aquatic life. The state identified two types of pollutants, total suspended solids and total dissolved solids, as the most probable stressors.

Identifying Pollutants

Total Dissolved Solids: substances dissolved in water, including minerals, metals and salts. Common sources include sewage, road salt used in the winter, and heavy metals and minerals exposed through mining and dissolved by rain.

Total Suspended Solids: small solid material floating in the water, such as sediment, plant material and sewage. Common sources include sewage, and debris from construction, logging
and mining.

Total Maximum Daily Load: A TMDL is a pollution budget and management plan developed by states for streams and rivers that do not meet water quality standards. The TMDL identifies which pollutants are causing stream impairment and calculates the maximum amount of each pollutant that a waterway should be able to handle while still meeting water quality standards.

In 2006, the state of Virginia proposed — and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved — a pollution budget, known as a total maximum daily load, for Russell Prater Creek. At that time, there were at least 35 mining facilities discharging pollutants into the tributary. The state identified mining as a major contributor to the creek’s poor health, and developed plans for reducing pollution in the watershed. However, the most recent monitoring data from 2014 and 2015 indicate that the watershed is still exceeding its allowed total dissolved solids wasteload by 1,076,907 kilograms per year — more than twice the target limit established by the state.

The Doe Branch Mine

The Doe Branch mine, as currently proposed, would be one of the newest and largest mines in the Russell Fork headwaters. It began as a plan submitted by Paramont Coal for a 245-acre permit in 2005. At that time, Paramont was owned by Alpha Natural Resources, which was one of the largest coal companies in Central Appalachia and in the country. The mine was also slated to be part of a large highway construction project known as the Coalfields Expressway.

The Coalfields Expressway was originally designed in 2001 as a highway to link U.S. Route 23 in Virginia to Interstates 77 and 64 in West Virginia. Early construction plans were hampered by steep terrain and associated high costs. In 2006, the Virginia Department of Transportation began working with Alpha Natural Resources and another coal company, Pioneer Group, to explore an option where surface coal mines would provide the first steps in constructing the roadbed. The new plan significantly changed the route of the highway so that key mines could be worked into the project, including the Doe Branch mine.

The highway project is controversial — supporters claim it would bring much-needed economic development opportunities to the region, but those opposed to the plan feel it unnecessarily enables additional surface mining and does not adequately consider what is best for nearby communities.

“Road construction in the area could benefit the region, at least through short-term employment, and could motivate new industries to move to the region, but only if the project is well thought out and economically viable,” says Matt Hepler of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards.

Both Appalachian Voices and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards oppose the Coalfields Expressway, as the plan currently stands, due to its reliance on surface mining.

Plans for the Doe Branch Mine and the highway have progressed slowly — as of the last state inspection in June 2016, no mining activity had started and no wastewater was being released, though there had been some logging. In 2012, Paramont applied for a permit modification that would expand the mine by an additional 860 acres. The update would increase the total size of the mine to approximately 1,100 acres, fill four additional valleys with excess rock and dirt, and increase the number of wastewater discharge points from three to 14. Five of the new wastewater discharge points would release into Doe Branch and Wolfpen Branch, which feed into Russell Prater Creek, the Russell Fork tributary already impaired by mining-related pollutants.

That same year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued an objection to the company’s request to expand the Doe Branch Mine. The EPA’s objection cited inadequate wastewater permit limits and water quality remediation plans, including the fact that the state did not impose numeric limits on the amount of dissolved solids that could be discharged from the mine’s wastewater outfalls.

The company’s 2011 plan included the construction of 16 wetlands to theoretically reduce both total dissolved solids and total suspended solids in the watershed. However, the EPA stated in its objection that wetlands won’t solve the problem. “We also are unaware of any generally accepted, peer-reviewed literature identifying any geochemical process through which wetlands would remove dissolved, as opposed to suspended solids,” regulators wrote. The agency’s objections still stand in 2016.

Current Developments

In August 2015, Alpha Natural Resources filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bankruptcy was expected and came in a long line of similar bankruptcies filed by other coal mining companies over the last several years. The change slowed but did not halt plans for the Doe Branch Mine.

Alpha’s plan for emergence from bankruptcy was approved by the court in the summer of 2016. The plan involves the formation of two new companies. One is a privately held, smaller Alpha, which will retain most of the Central Appalachian coal mines. The other is Contura Energy, formed by Alpha’s senior lenders, which purchased Alpha’s Wyoming, Pennsylvania and better-performing Central Appalachian mines. Doe Branch is included in the short list of Central Appalachian mines that Contura now owns.

Though Alpha stated earlier this year that its 10-year plan did not include pursuing the Doe Branch Mine, the change in ownership may indicate otherwise. “When Alpha split in two in order to emerge from bankruptcy, it conspicuously loaded all of its valuable assets into Contura, and left the reorganized Alpha with high-liability assets needing to be wound down and reclaimed,” says Sierra Club Staff Attorney Peter Morgan. “Because the Doe Branch Mine went to Contura, it appears clear that the company sees value in the mine and hopes to continue developing it.”


Andria Davis runs a Russell Fork rapid during a release of the Flannigan Dam. Photo by Leland Davis

In August 2016, a new draft water pollution permit was published by the Virginia Division of Mine Land Reclamation, for the mining operator now know as Paramont Contura, LLC. The new draft permit still does not impose numeric limits on the amount of dissolved solids that can be discharged from the Doe Branch Mine.

The following month, the EPA notified the state of a general objection to the new draft permit, because the 2012 specific objection regarding the amount of dissolved solids the mine would generate had not yet been resolved. Though the EPA will review the new draft to determine if it resolves the issues raised in 2012, given the lack of changes, it seems likely that they will continue to object. But if Paramont can address the EPA’s concerns, the company could secure the last remaining permit it needs in order to move forward.

International prices for coal have increased recently, driven by demand for steel-making coal in China, which could increase production in Central Appalachia. The construction of the Coalfields Expressway could also shift the economic calculations in favor of moving forward. The plan not only makes road construction cheaper, but also decreases the costs of permitting and reclamation for Paramont.

Environmental groups and concerned citizens are continuing to track the progress of the Doe Branch Mine. Even if the mine moves forward, it is likely that increased oversight from these stakeholders could lead to more stringent and protective permit requirements.

Though the coal-bearing mountains on either side of the Russell Fork are part of what places it at risk, the river’s stunning surroundings are also a reason for optimism. Between decades of local stewardship and growing national concern for this Appalachian treasure, there is a community of advocates watching out for the Russell Fork.

Learn more and take action at

Celebrating 25 Years with the Affrilachian Poets

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

25 Years of “Making the Invisible Visible”

By Forrest Gray Yerman

Frank X Walker reads from his poetry at the Kentucky Governor’s School of the Arts. Photo by Patrick Mitchell

Frank X Walker reads from his poetry at the Kentucky Governor’s School of the Arts. Photo by Patrick Mitchell

“We are African Americans in Appalachia — Affrilachia,” says fantasy novelist and poet Gerald Coleman in an interview on the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning’s website. “And so,” he continues, “we knew kind of intimately and in a nebulous kind of way who and what we were, but by putting a name to it that kind of solidified it, that formalized it. This is who we are.”

Frank X Walker — the 2013-2014 Kentucky Poet Laureate, 2014 NAACP Image Award winner and author of seven poetry collections — was integral to the emergence of the Affrilachian Poets. In 1991, after reading a dictionary definition of “Appalachian” as “a white native or resident of the Appalachian mountain area,” Walker created the word “Affrilachia” to acknowledge his experience in the region.

During this time, he and a group of friends at the University of Kentucky in Lexington began calling themselves the Affrilachian Poets. After many years of growth and accomplishments, the group is celebrating its 25th anniversary with poetry readings, book publications, road trips and rounds of golf across the region and country.

The word “Affrilachia” is now defined in the Encyclopedia of Appalachia and the New Oxford American Dictionary as acknowledging the historical and contemporary presence of black people in Appalachia. For many in the Affrilachian Poets, the term makes room for more ways of understanding and naming one’s Appalachian identity.

“I don’t think there’s a singular Affrilachian identity, per se,” says Bianca Spriggs, a multi-disciplinary artist and author of five poetry collections. “But I think what it does is it … opens the door for a spectrum of identities to be welcome.”

Indeed, Marta Maria Miranda, president of The Center for Women and Families in Louisville, called herself in pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Arts & Culture, “Cubalachian —Cuban by birth and Appalachian by the grace of God.”

Affrilachian Poets at the 25th Anniversary Reading at the Governor’s School of Arts, in Danville, Ky. Top, left to right: Asha French, Makalani Bandele, Bianca Spriggs, Keith Wilson, Mitchell L.H. Douglas and Frank X Walker. Bottom, left to right: Gerald Coleman, Shayla Lawson, Kelly Norman Ellis, Joy Priest and Bernard Clay. Photo by Patrick Mitchell

Affrilachian Poets at the 25th Anniversary Reading at the Governor’s School of Arts, in Danville, Ky. Top, left to right: Asha French, Makalani Bandele, Bianca Spriggs, Keith Wilson, Mitchell L.H. Douglas and Frank X Walker. Bottom, left to right: Gerald Coleman, Shayla Lawson, Kelly Norman Ellis, Joy Priest and Bernard Clay. Photo by Patrick Mitchell

In looking at the majority of the group, however, the Affrilachian Poets are similar to the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement — a predominantly black group of writers.

“Replacing those ‘p’s’ with ‘f’s’ says you are not invisible,” Crystal Wilkinson, author of two short story collections and a novel, said of the word “Affrilachia” in an interview with the Appalachian Journal. “That I was part of something that has such a longevity and such an impact is phenomenal. The poets tour all over the country and the idea that this word Affrilachian is floating around helps combat some of the stereotypes about us. I think that is wonderful.”

Collectively, the group’s 40-plus members have published more than 60 books, including poetry collections, short stories, novels, memoirs, plays, and, most recently, a coloring book. The books range across a spectrum of literary genres and topics. The members have also published widely in literature anthologies and journals such as pluck!, which, in all 13 issues, features work from most of the Affrilachian Poets.

One sign that the group has gained the respect of Appalachia’s literary communities is their presence in many regional anthologies as well as special journal issues dedicated to Frank X Walker. Many Affrilachian Poets have also been published in anthologies of African American literature, including two poems by the late Norman Jordan — long before the group formed — published in the 1970 anthology “The Poetry of the Negro.”

A commitment to education can be seen in the Affrilachian Poets’ presence in universities across the country. Members of the group lead writing workshops with Cave Canem and the Hindman Settlement School, and have taught writing classes in prisons. Walker, who is often referred to as “Professor X,” has received honorary degrees from the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University.

Frank X Walker is a native of Danville, Ky. Photo by Patrick Mitchell

Frank X Walker is a native of Danville, Ky. Photo by Patrick Mitchell

Joy Priest, an up-and-coming poet and masters of fine arts candidate at the University of South Carolina, described the role of activism in her writing. “Oh, that’s major. I would refer to the Affrilachian Poets as activists,” she says. “All of our work is activism by nature, because that’s what making the invisible visible is all about.”

Poets Amanda Johnston and Crystal Good represent the group’s dedication to social activism. Johnston does so in her hashtag poetry and letter writing campaign, #BlackPoetsSpeakOut. And Good serves as the “Social Media Senator for the Digital District of West Virginia,” a position she created to help relay the sentiments expressed by the state’s social media users to political representatives.

If their past and present indicate the future of the Affrilachian Poets, they can be expected to live long and prosper as artists, educators, and activists across the Appalachian region and beyond.

“I would love to do an international tour, and I’d love to have an Affrilachian Press,” Bianca Spriggs says. “Frank would probably say he could see a spaceship with Affrilachia written on the side.”

To learn more visit,

Forrest Gray Yerman, a native of Matney, N.C., received an M.A. in Appalachian Studies from Appalachian State University. He recently moved to Lexington, Ky., and is currently applying to doctoral English programs to further study and understand the Affrilachian literary movement.

Endangered Appalachian Rivers

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne


Since 1984, the national conservation group American Rivers has worked with grassroots conservationists to bring attention to 10 of the nation’s most threatened rivers by compiling the annual America’s Most Endangered Rivers list. To be included in the list, the river must face risks and have a “major decision (that the public can help influence) in the coming year.” Over the years, the list has included several Appalachian rivers. Below are updates on how some of the decisions facing these waterways were resolved. For more information and to view past reports, visit

Coal River — West Virginia

Coal River at Upper Falls. Photo courtesy of National Weather Service

Coal River at Upper Falls. Photo courtesy of National Weather Service

Named No. 9 out of 10 in America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2012 because “the devastating practices of mountaintop removal mining and valley fills that bury and poison headwater streams pose a dire threat to the health of the Coal River and surrounding communities.”

A 2011 decision by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to block the permit for the Spruce No. 1 mine, the largest potential mountaintop removal site threatening the Coal River watershed, was mired in legal challenges when the river was included in the list. But in July 2016, a U.S. Court of Appeals upheld the original decision to not issue a permit for the site.

Gauley River — West Virginia

Gauley River near Summersville Dam. Photo by Ken Thomas / Wikimedia Commons

Gauley River near Summersville Dam. Photo by Ken Thomas / Wikimedia Commons

This 107-mile river is famous among whitewater enthusiasts, particularly for its class IV and V rapids that result from the annual opening of the Summersville Dam floodgates. It was named No. 3 out of 10 in America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2010 because it “is scarred by coal mining impacts and subjected to degradation from ongoing mining activity.”

The listing highlighted the need for more stringent water quality regulations, particularly for conductivity and the pollutant selenium. Conductivity measures the ability of water to pass an electrical current and is used to gauge the presence of pollutants dissolved in the water. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a conductivity guidance, which was delayed by legal battles, but is now in effect. In 2016, the EPA finalized a new criterion for selenium. Read more here.

Holston River — Tennessee

Holston River in Surgoinsville. Photo by Brian Stansberry / Wikimedia Commons

Holston River in Surgoinsville. Photo by Brian Stansberry / Wikimedia Commons

For 274 miles, this river flows from Southwest Virginia into Tennessee where it joins the French Broad River to form the mighty Tennessee River. It was named No. 3 out of 10 in America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2015 because “the river and its communities are threatened by an army ammunition plant that has been contaminating water supplies with toxic chemical pollution for years.”

On Sept. 28, 2015, Tennessee Clean Water Network, the U.S. Department of Defense, and BAE Systems Ordnance Systems, Inc., the contractor that operates the Holston Army Ammunition Plant, reached an agreement to reduce the amount of RDX discharged in the river by 2020. RDX is the toxic and explosive chemical causing the pollution.

For news about the plant’s air pollution permit, read more here.

Potomac River — Virginia

Great Falls on the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

Great Falls on the Potomac River. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

The majestic Potomac flows for 380 miles from West Virginia through Virginia and Washington, D.C., before emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. It was named No. 1 out of 10 in America’s Most Endangered Rivers of 2012 because of agricultural and urban pollution and the threat of congressional rollbacks to the Clean Water Act.

The passage of the 2015 Clean Water Rule clarified which bodies of water are covered under the Clean Water Act in response to challenges in the courts, although congressional efforts to roll back the legislation continue. The main threat facing the Potomac River today is contamination from coal ash impoundments at Dominion Virginia Power’s Possum Point Power Station, according to Dean Naujoks, the Potomac Riverkeeper.

American Kestrel

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

A Winged Predator Fights to Survive

By Dan Bieker

Photo by Cory Chen

Photo by Cory Chen

Nothing signals death to an unwary vole or grasshopper more suddenly than the piercing cry of a kestrel patrolling overhead. Sadly, that once-familiar call echoing over farms and fields is growing ever more silent.

The American kestrel is North America’s smallest falcon and a proud symbol of the country’s rural heritage. Like its cousin the peregrine falcon, kestrels are sleek, agile and incredibly powerful for their size. Compared to most hawks, falcons are speed demons — think of an F16 fighter jet versus a B52 bomber.

All native predators are critical in food chains, and the kestrel is no exception. Unfortunately, this handsome bird of prey is disappearing over much of its range, especially in the northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. Populations in the United States have declined by half since the late 1960s according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, a massive data collection effort overseen by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Reasons for the decline are not fully understood, but culprits include monoculture farms, loss of open areas, competition from European starlings for nest sites and increased pesticide use. The neonicotinoid family of insecticides is especially harmful. Evidence continues to mount on the toxicity of these widespread chemicals to birds and other wildlife. Neonicotinoids also dramatically reduce the quantity and diversity of insects, and kestrels are voracious insect predators.

What You Can Do

• Build and install your own nest box if you have suitable habitat. Other birds that might use the box (and should be welcome) include bluebirds, tree swallows, flickers and screech owls. Starlings and squirrels — no!

• Enhance habitat by preserving brushy areas, keeping old fencerows in place, leaving dead trees standing (where safe) and encouraging native plants.

• Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania has excellent information on kestrel biology and building and erecting your own nest box. Visit

• The American Kestrel Partnership also has information on kestrels and nest boxes, including a video of a female kestrel fighting a starling that is trying to take over her box. Learn more at

Only about the size of a blue jay, kestrels reign terror from above. They patrol over pastures and other open areas, or sit patiently on utility wires, ready to pounce on whatever small critter lands in their sights. Besides voles and grasshoppers, they also prey on mice, moles, shrews, lizards, frogs, snakes and — rarely — small birds.

Kestrels range over most of North America, with northern birds generally more migratory than their southern counterparts. They are primarily denizens of farmland and prefer open areas with short ground cover and scattered trees. Look for them on utility wires or exposed tree branches.

With most raptors it can be difficult to distinguish gender, but not so with kestrels. They are the most colorful of all raptors, with males spouting striking blue-gray wings and females a rich, tawny brown all over.

Cavity nesting is another relatively unique attribute of kestrels. Usually that means that they nest in old woodpecker holes, but kestrels will utilize a wide variety of opportunities, including holes in buildings and even the open ends of pipes on utility towers. Three to five eggs are laid and incubated for a month before hatching. The chicks then spend roughly another month in the nest before fledging.

Fortunately, kestrels take readily to artificial nest boxes, which presents an opportunity for the public to help. Most state wildlife agencies can provide helpful information on how and where to erect kestrel nest boxes. Local bird clubs can also be of assistance. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources maintains a kestrel nest box project on public land.

In the winter of 2014-2015, the Virginia Society of Ornithology began a five-year project to build and install kestrel nest boxes throughout the state. Project volunteers — nicknamed the Kestrel Strike Force — seek out suitable sites, knock on doors to get permission, then erect a box at no charge to the landowner.

The volunteer Kestrel Strike Force provides nest boxes for the falcons in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Virginia Society of Ornithology

The volunteer Kestrel Strike Force provides nest boxes for the falcons in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Virginia Society of Ornithology

Boxes are placed on trees, sides of outbuildings, or, preferably, extended on treated two-by-fours and attached to fence posts. Most are raised about 12 feet above ground and oriented in an east to southeast direction. There is no maintenance involved for the landowner, but they are requested to report any activity in and around the box to the Strike Force, which maintains ongoing records. The project is funded through donations, and all aspects of the endeavor are carried out by volunteers.

To date more than 240 boxes have been erected in 30 Virginia counties. While installing boxes, the Strike Force endures mud, barbed wire, ticks, chiggers and livestock of questionable temperament, but it carries on!

A frequent question asked by those unfamiliar with kestrels is “will they eat my chickens, my cat or my poodle?” Once those fears are allayed, most folks are happy to host a box and take pride in knowing they are helping this fascinating little falcon continue to grace the countryside.

Learn more at

Dan Bieker is an assistant professor of Natural Sciences at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Va., and board member of the Virginia Society of Ornithology.

Monumental Momentum

Friday, October 7th, 2016 - posted by interns

Increased advocacy and a push for presidential action create renewed momentum for the proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of Blue Ridge Outdoors Magazine and is republished here with permission.

By Danielle Taylor

Birthplace of Rivers National Monument advocates Matt Kearns and Adam Swisher journeyed the entire 173 miles of the Elk River by canoe, bike and foot to generate interest among other paddlers for the proposed national monument. Photo by Chad Carpenter / West Virginia Rivers Coalition

Birthplace of Rivers National Monument advocates Matt Kearns and Adam Swisher journeyed the entire 173 miles of the Elk River by canoe, bike and foot to generate interest among other paddlers for the proposed national monument. Photo by Chad Carpenter / West Virginia Rivers Coalition

What will be President Obama’s legacy? The Affordable Care Act? The death of Osama bin Laden? Or perhaps his public lands legacy. President Obama has designated or expanded 27 national monuments and protected more than 550 million acres of public lands and waters, more than any other president.

Unfortunately, only 23 of more than 120 current national monuments are in the East. West Virginia currently has none. However, a group of Mountain State conservation advocates, businesspeople, outdoor recreation enthusiasts and other citizens has organized to secure a federal designation for the proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument.

“There are no landscape-scale national monuments in the East,” says David Lillard, special projects manager with the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. “There’s a need and a worthiness in the East as well.”

Where is the Birthplace of Rivers?

The proposed national monument centers on the existing 47,815-acre Cranberry Wilderness, which lies within the Monongahela National Forest in east-central West Virginia and drains via the Cranberry and Williams Rivers. To encompass the headwaters of the adjacent Cherry, Gauley, Elk, and Greenbrier Rivers, the monument boundaries strategically include approximately 75,000 additional acres, also within the national forest, in two sections along the Monongahela’s northeastern and southern borders.

The naturally diverse area already attracts hikers, mountain bikers, paddlers, anglers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts. Increased awareness of the area could bring more visitors to the “wild and wonderful” landscape. Protecting the area as a national monument would provide a wide range of benefits for West Virginia, where a West Virginia Rivers Coalition poll showed that 84 percent of voters support the proposal.

Why create a national monument? First, says Lillard, a national monument designation, unlike a national forest, would permanently protect the land from industrial development, a significant step in this fossil fuel-rich state.

Second, this measure would help ensure the purity of the rivers, a critical step given that millions of people downstream depend on them every day for fresh, clean drinking water. Just two and a half years ago, a massive chemical spill into the Elk River polluted more than 300,000 people’s tap water, which highlighted the vital need to protect this resource. Clean headwaters also facilitate positive recreation experiences downstream for fishing and paddling. More than 90 percent of West Virginia’s native trout streams fall within the proposed monument’s borders. And creek boaters flock to the headwaters of these rivers.

The highland forests of the Cranberry Wilderness would retain its high level of protection if the national monument is designated. Photo by Geoff Gallice

The highland forests of the Cranberry Wilderness would retain its high level of protection if the national monument is designated. Photo by Geoff Gallice

Third, says Lillard, a monument designation would help guarantee that any future logging remains at a sustainable level.

Finally, the designation of the monument would significantly boost tourism revenue throughout the area. According to an economic impact study commissioned by the West Virginia Wilderness Coalition, the monument’s designation would create 143 jobs, increase visitor-related spending in communities surrounding the monument by 42 percent, and generate more than $14.5 million in economic output annually. Similarly, land-management research group Headwaters Economics studied the local economies of communities bordering or adjacent to 17 national monuments in the western United States from 1982 to 2011, and they found that jobs grew at four times the rate of similar communities that didn’t have a national monument as a neighbor.

How can it be designated?

National monuments can be created either by a majority congressional vote or by a signed presidential designation under authority of the Antiquities Act. “We’ll take it either way,” says Lillard.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association and the West Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited have also joined in advocating for the monument. And over the past several months, Lillard has witnessed many local community members adjacent to the proposed Birthplace of Rivers site evolve from skeptics to advocates.

The stunning Falls of Hills Creek in the Monongahela National Forest are part of the proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. Photo by Samuel Coleridge

The stunning Falls of Hills Creek in the Monongahela National Forest are part of the proposed Birthplace of Rivers National Monument. Photo by Samuel Coleridge

“There’s been a strong groundswell of local support around the area where the monument would be,” he says. “They’re self-organizing and have local leadership on the ground with more plans to boost community engagement. A number of outdoor and tourism businesses have been rising up and saying they really want this for West Virginia. We even have ‘Birthplace of Rivers info centers’ now. At 14 local shops, they have maps people can take and postcards at the counter.”

In mid-May, Lillard and three Pocahontas County, W.Va., advocates traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with representatives from President Obama’s administration to discuss the Birthplace of Rivers proposal. Upon arrival, they delivered 1,500 letters of support for the monument to the president.

“Around the beginning of this year, the focus of this campaign shifted strongly toward the president,” Lillard explains. “He has indicated there will be more monuments designated. We’ve been meeting with his administration’s monument people for a long time, and they’re very interested.”

A presidential precedent of sorts exists for departing commanders-in-chief to establish 11th-hour public lands on their way out the door. For example, during the first seven years of President Clinton’s two terms in office, he designated one national monument. In his last year, he established 19, with seven of those only becoming official in his last week and a half in the White House.

What happens next?

Although many West Virginians have fully embraced this proposal, others have expressed concerns that the national monument designation might restrict access to the area, especially since the management plan for the landscape wouldn’t be fully developed until after the president or Congress approves the designation. The West Virginia state chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation has expressed concern over the president’s potential use of the Antiquities Act to establish the monument, which in their view would be a federal backdoor that bypasses public approval.

To ease these concerns, Lillard explains that sustaining current levels of access both now and for future generations is one of main motivations guiding the designation push.

“For the most part, we would take the current management plan,” he says. “Our proposal calls for some more restorative forestry, spruce in particular, but most things would continue to be what they are now. We feel like the proposal addresses the concerns, and we welcome anyone to voice their concerns. One of the biggest developments over the past few months has been that many former opponents are now at the table and see how the monument can be good for West Virginia and how they can have a role.”

If designated, the monument would remain under the management of the U.S. Forest Service. In a January 2013 letter to the then-president of the Pocahontas County Commission, U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell wrote that, “Typically, as has been the situation on recent Forest Service monuments, monument designations complement the underlying management plan — which is developed with public input. If hunting and fishing are permitted under the current forest management plan, that would typically continue as a national monument.”

Lillard agrees. “National monument status would allow the Forest Service to continue to manage it. We are not trying to create a national park, and we certainly don’t want to create more wilderness there or exclude people using it currently. What’s there now is what we want to keep. There are other types of protection, and we think this is the highest level of protection available.”

To help increase publicity for the proposed monument, in May paddlers and Birthplace of Rivers advocates Matt Kearns and Adam Swisher spent two weeks journeying from the Elk River’s headwaters in Southern Monongahela National Forest to the mouth of the river in Charleston. Throughout the “Elkspedition,” they shared information about the proposal with everyone they met. On the final day of their adventure more than 100 fellow Birthplace of Rivers advocates joined in for a flotilla escort of the last few miles.

In a blog post, Kearns describes a day where the duo had the river to themselves. “It was great to have such solitude, but the best part of Elkspedition has been meeting so many West Virginians on and along the river,” he says. “We can tell that support for designating Birthplace of Rivers National Monument is strong here.”

Said Swisher afterwards, “As President Obama wraps up his second term, designating this monument would be a significant way to ensure his lasting legacy in the Mountain State.”

Learn more at

Duke Energy’s empire grows with natural gas

Tuesday, October 4th, 2016 - posted by brian
 The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., and Duke Energy is at the forefront of a historic fuel switching trend.

It’s both a sign of the times and a warning of things to come. Duke Energy’s purchase of Piedmont Natural Gas was finalized this week after North Carolina utility regulators signed off on the deal.

Duke executives say the $4.9 billion acquisition will bolster the company’s position in the natural gas sector by tripling its existing base of 525,000 gas customers and expanding its footprint into Tennessee. Their cheerful announcement also casts natural gas in a familiar light — as the clean, climate-friendly fuel of the future.

“This combination provides clear benefits to our customers and the environment as we continue to expand our use of low-cost and clean natural gas and invest in pipelines,” Duke Energy CEO Lynn Good said in a statement.

These days, terms like “clean” and “low-cost” come standard with efforts to tout the environmental and economic benefits of natural gas relative to other energy sources. By now, they should also set off alarm bells.

One of the nation’s largest electric providers, Duke has brought four natural gas-fired power plants online in North Carolina since 2011 to replace shuttered coal-fired capacity. Earlier this year, the company received expedited approval of plans to convert a fifth, its Asheville plant, from coal to gas.

A similar story is playing out in other states where Duke operates. Florida, which ranks third in solar potential but 14th in installed capacity, relies on gas to meet two-thirds of its electricity demand. Duke subsidiary Progress Energy operates several gas-fired facilities in the Sunshine State, including the 1,912-megawatt Hines Energy Complex.

Other large investor-owned utilities aren’t far behind. Florida Power & Light, also among the nation’s largest electric utilities, and Duke are partners in the controversial $3.2 billion Sabal Trail Pipeline, which will stretch nearly 500 miles from Alabama to central Florida.

Duke based its decision to purchase the Charlotte-based Piedmont on sustained market trends that forecast a continued expansion of natural gas’ role in the nation’s energy mix. The pivot toward gas is especially pronounced in the eastern U.S., with Duke at the forefront of a historic fuel switch.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011.

Earlier this year, Duke received expedited approval of plans to convert its Asheville plant from coal to gas, the fifth plant to switch fuels since 2011. Click to enlarge.

And the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Duke’s most recent long-term resource plan proposes constructing three plants that would add nearly 2,500 megawatts of gas-fired generation in the Carolinas. The plan also calls for multiplying installed solar capacity threefold by 2031, but says solar’s “limited ability to meet peak demand conditions” makes more gas generation essential to ensure reliability.

“A thoughtful transition is what we are seeking, not a headlong rush to dependency on any one fuel,” Duke’s director of integrated resource planning, Glen Snider, told the Charlotte Business Journal.

Fair enough. Duke often claims credit for diversifying its portfolio ahead of the curve, although North Carolina’s renewable energy standard and tax credits for renewables have played a considerable role. But today, the company’s large stake in the $5 billion proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline threatens to counteract that thoughtful transition. If the 550-mile pipeline is built, Duke’s gas-burning power plants would be among its primary users.

Continuing to invest in massive pipelines designed to last decades could result in stranded assets, costly liabilities created when capital-intensive projects like pipelines or power plants are forced to retire before the end of their economic usefulness. This is especially true if the United States plans to do its part to meet international climate goals.

“We’ve been building gas power plants like crazy for the last 10 years,” Lorne Stockman, the author of a report on gas infrastructure for the group Oil Change International told Utility Dive. “I don’t see anyone really sitting down and saying how many more can we build if we are really going to make this transition.”

Replacing existing gas capacity with renewables may be unlikely in the near-term. But that doesn’t make the long-term planning decisions being made today any less problematic, because they foreshadow an energy future that experts are urging us to avoid.

What do electric co-ops have to do with economic justice?

Wednesday, September 28th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Josie Lee Varela

WeOwnIt is a pro-member, pro-democracy organization that aims to build the foundation for a fair and just economic system.

WeOwnIt is a pro-member, pro-democracy organization that aims to build the foundation for a fair and just economic system.

As a graduate student living in Boone, N.C., working two jobs while keeping up with school work is not out of the norm for me. And I know I am not alone. Working one or more jobs is not out of the norm for most people I know.

Why is it that so many of our friends and family members work multiple jobs to provide for themselves and their families? Could it be due to an economic system that has failed to generate equitable benefits for all citizens? Possibly. Drew DeSilver, a senior writer for the Pew Research Center, published an informative article of the data behind wage and income inequality in the United States. The numbers are eye opening to say the least.

As DeSilver’s article notes, income inequality in the United States is at its highest since 1928, according to researcher and professor Emmanual Saez at The University of California-Berkeley. Additionally, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found in a 2011 study that after accounting for taxes and transfers on national market incomes, the United States ranked second for income inequality in the 31 nations of the OECD, with Chile in first. According to DeSilver’s research, “median black household income was 59 percent of median white income in 2011” while in the 1960s, black household income was 55 percent of median white household income. In other words, the disparity has remained virtually the same for the past five decades.

Income inequality exists across income classes as well. The Appalachian region, for instance, has been characterized by pervasive economic distress for those who fall in the “lower-income” category. High energy costs and a lack of economic opportunity for folks in Appalachia are linked to income and wealth gaps seen across the country. What can be done to turn the problem of economic disparity around?

Our current economic system, though it may seem like it, is not set in stone. More cooperative economies are our chance to adapt and overcome the current failures of our system. The International Co-operative Alliance describes a cooperative as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise.” Electric, consumer and worker co-ops, employee-owned companies and credit unions have been examples of new building blocks for an economic system that works for a majority of the people. While many cooperatives and advocates for cooperative economies exist in communities throughout the country, one new organization is taking that effort national.

The nonprofit WeOwnIt initiative was created in 2015. The initiative is meant to create a national network for cooperative members of all sectors to have the rights, education and tools to implement organizing practices. WeOwnIt is aiming for economic reform through the support and membership of organizations and individuals in order to reach communities’ common economic, social, and cultural needs.

Through strategies that combine planning expertise, organizational networking, targeted outreach and online organizing tools, WeOwnIt is a pro-member, pro-democracy organization that aims to build a new foundation for a fair economic system. This year, WeOwnIt is concentrating its efforts towards electric co-ops. Credit unions and the food co-op sector will also be a focus. To address social, economic, and environmental disparities, the WeOwnIt initiative has begun taking the first crucial steps toward a just and sustainable world, where members’ voices are heard loud and clear.

Learn more about the WeOwnIt initiative on their website.