Archive for the ‘All Posts’ Category

Obama pulls the plug on mountaintop removal study

Monday, July 28th, 2014 - posted by thom

Blasting mountains apart sends heavy metals and particulate matter into the air, putting people at risk. So why did the Obama administration pull the plug on research into mountaintop removal’s health impacts?

There are over 20 peer-reviewed scientific studies demonstrating a link between mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia and severe health impacts. Dozens of researchers have found correlations between proximity to mountaintop removal mines and elevated rates of cancer, birth defects, and respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.

For those of you paying attention to the issue, none of this is news.

What should have been news was a groundbreaking study from the U.S. Geological Survey showing a causal link between mountaintop removal mining activities and specific types of air pollution which are causing some of these health problems. USGS researchers had been working on collecting data for the past two years, and according to USGS chemist Bill Orem, the “data is pretty startling.” According to Orem, the data is “compelling enough that a more targeted health study needs to be conducted in these areas.”

But the Obama administration pulled the plug on the research, and did so very quietly, redirecting funding to other work. The Obama administration had an opportunity to do something big to end mountaintop removal, but stopped short.

One of more than 20 previous studies shows people living near the destruction are 50% more likely to die of cancer.

One of more than 20 previous studies shows people living near the destruction are 50% more likely to die of cancer.

You could make the argument that the new study was largely unnecessary. Between the existing health studies and water impact studies, the administration would be entirely justified in placing an immediate moratorium on issuing new mountaintop removal mining permits. But since the administration has not had the spine to take strong actions yet, we need more tools to pressure them to do the right thing. The USGS research would have been an amazing tool for that purpose.

When President Obama first took office, he made a commitment that his agencies would always act on what the science dictated. I guess the way around taking actions, then, is to stop the science from ever being completed.

There’s a MoveOn.org petition asking the president to restore the funding for the research. Please sign and share.

Join us as we defend “Our Water, Our Future”

Monday, July 28th, 2014 - posted by kate

Five years ago, the Obama Administration made a promise to take measures to protect the people, waters, and mountains of Appalachia from the dangerous impacts of mountaintop removal mining.

Well, it’s five years later, and we are done waiting for those safeguards. The toll of coal on water and people in Central Appalachia is increasing, punctuated by the recent coal ash, slurry, and coal-processing chemical spills across our region.

This September, Appalachian Voices is teaming up with other groups from the Alliance for Appalachia to bring Appalachians to the capitol to raise the stakes and endure that our communities are heard as agencies consider several key rule-makings pertaining to water protections. Won’t you join us?

Our Water, Our Future
Washington, D.C.
Sept. 7-8
Register now at iLoveMountains.org

“Mountaintop coal mining,” said former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, “cannot be predicated on the assumption of minimal oversight of its environmental impacts, and its permanent degradation of water quality. Stronger reviews and protections will safeguard the health of local waters, and thousands of acres of watersheds in Appalachia.”

Act now to protect Appalachia’s water. Visit iLoveMountains.org to sign up to attend “Our Water, Our Future.”

Is Obama’s Climate Action Plan on Track?

Friday, July 25th, 2014 - posted by Jeff Feng

“While no single step can reverse the effects of climate change, we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged.” – President Obama, June 2013

President Obama lays out his administration's Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University in June 2013. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

President Obama lays out his administration’s Climate Action Plan at Georgetown University in June 2013. Photo: Whitehouse.gov

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan is pretty clear in establishing that if we don’t act now, our kids will be living on a different planet.

But since the release of his administration’s plan in June 2013, has Obama made strides in developing a clean energy economy and protecting the environment by fighting climate change?

Let’s take a look at his five-pronged approach to acting on climate: deploying clean energy; building a 21st-century transportation sector; cutting energy waste in homes, businesses, and factories; reducing other greenhouse gas emissions; and leading at the federal level.

First up is deploying clean energy. A major part of accomplishing this goal is first looking at power plants, the largest source of carbon pollution in the country. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first announced proposed carbon standards for new power plants in September 2013. Future power plants will have to adhere to these national carbon pollution limits. And just last month, the EPA made history by announcing the first-ever limits on carbon pollution for existing power plants.

Under the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, states are given flexibility to meet individual emissions targets with an overall goal of cutting carbon pollution nationally by 30 percent below 2005 levels. Electricity generated by renewable sources such as wind and solar doubled during Obama’s first term, but the Clean Power Plan needs to continue the momentum. With that in mind, Obama hopes to redouble electricity generated through wind and solar by 2020. Utility-scale renewable energy is becoming more of a reality even with the reasonable, perhaps conservative guidelines of the Clean Energy Plan.

Seeing as it is 2014, Obama also wants to build a 21st-century transportation sector. The EPA and DOT are working to update heavy-duty vehicle fuel efficiency and greenhouse gas standards by March 2016. Implementing standards for heavy duty vehicles would build on the benefits of the fuel economy standards set in 2011, cutting emissions by 270 million metric tons and saving 530 million barrels of oil. Commercial trucks, vans, and buses are the second biggest polluters in the transportation sector, presumably behind passenger vehicles. Speaking of passenger vehicles, fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles now require an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.

It seems like carbon dioxide has stolen the show, but what about other greenhouse gas emissions? What’s being done to stop hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) from doubling by 2020 and tripling by 2030? Who’s working to make sure methane levels that don’t increase to the equivalent of 620 million tons of carbon pollution by 2030 (despite the fact that, since 1990, U.S. methane emissions have dropped by 11 percent)?

HFCs were used to phase out ozone destructive chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and are found in refrigerators and air conditioners. While HFCs do not deplete the ozone layer, they have a high global-warming potential and are sometimes referred to as “super greenhouse gases.” Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is working to ban the most detrimental HFCs and develop suitable replacements.

The federal government’s plan to reduce methane emissions also takes a multifaceted approach. Just last month, the EPA announced its plans to strengthen air pollution standards for new municipal solid waste facilities, the third largest source of methane emissions, by requiring them to capture 13 percent more landfill gas than previously dictated. Under the EPA’s plan, landfills would need to capture two-thirds of methane and air toxin emissions by 2023. To cut methane emissions from agricultural operations, the second largest source of the potent greenhouse gase, the USDA, EPA, and DOE released their “Biogas Roadmap” of voluntary suggestions to implement methane digesters. Apparently using a bottom-up approach in going from lower to higher emitters, the EPA has yet to build on voluntary programs in the oil and gas industry, which is the largest source of methane emissions. Methane regulations may be considered later this year, but would not be finalized until the end of 2016.

On to cutting energy waste in homes, businesses and factories. Ideally, we’d all want energy that’s both reliable and affordable. Groups like Appalachian Voices have demonstrated that energy efficiency is both the cleanest and most cost-effective method to reduce pollution, grow our economy by creating thousands of jobs, and save money for families and businesses.

The Climate Action Plan and the Better Buildings Initiative imagine that commercial and industrial buildings will be 20 percent more efficient by 2020. In Obama’s first term, DOE and HUD helped more than two million homes become energy efficient. The DOE is also finalizing conservation standards for appliances and equipment that would help customers save more. Finally, the USDA recently announced it would allocate approximately $250 million to developing energy efficiency and renewable energy for commercial and residential customers in rural areas.

By virtue of all the stakeholders mentioned above, President Obama believes the federal government must lead the charge towards a cleaner future. Last year, he signed a Presidential Memorandum dictating renewable sources make up 20 percent of the federal government’s electricity by 2020. By working with the U.S. military and other federal agencies, he hopes to lead by example and prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change. The U.S. Geological Survey plans to spend $13.1 million to develop three-dimensional mapping data to respond to weather disasters. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs is allocating $10 million to teach tribes ways to adapt to climate change.

Even with these initiatives, the road to energy efficiency and clean energy won’t be easy. Considering that Obama’s Climate Action Plan was announced just last year, historic work is starting to move the United States to a sustainable and stable environment. It’s a start, but we certainly have miles to go.

What do Duke Energy and a messy teenager have in common?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - posted by amy
Dark gray coal ash permeates the soils along the Dan River. Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Dark gray coal ash permeates the soils along the Dan River. Photo courtesy of Waterkeeper Alliance.

Nearly six months have passed since news of the Dan River coal ash spill first reached the public in North Carolina. Since that time, Duke Energy has been working slowly to vacuum up the large, readily identifiable deposits of coal ash from the approximately 39,000 tons that spilled. Most of the cleanup has been focused close to the location of the broken pipe and near Danville, Va., where sediment was trapped behind the low Schoolfield Dam.

Nearly six months of work, and a staggering six percent has been recovered – staggering for how little that is. Duke and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was overseeing the work, seem satisfied with this recovery rate and have declared the cleanup complete, leaving behind more than 35,000 tons or slightly more than 90 percent of spilled coal ash in the Dan River.

Let’s look at it from another perspective. Say you ask your teenager to clean up his messy bedroom. He picks up a few articles of dirty clothing from the floor and puts them in the laundry, and calls it quits. “That’s it?” you ask.

The sad truth is the premature ending of the cleanup means the Dan River will forever be sullied by the toxic, dark grey ash that lurks below the surface. Coal ash does not biodegrade. It will remain in the river unless removed.

So, where is the remaining 35,000 tons (130 thousand cubic yards) of ash, and why is it not being removed? One of Duke’s replies has been that such a thin layer exists over such a large area – about 70 miles of river that it’s impractical or nearly impossible to recover. But remember the Kingston, Tenn., disaster that spilled 5.4 million cubic yards (1.4 million tons) of coal ash into the Emory River in 2008? The Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns the Kingston coal-fired power plant, worked for six years on the cleanup. Ultimately, TVA removed 3.5 million cubic yards of ash in a 12-month period, with 85 percent of the ash being removed in 10 months. This fact makes Duke Energy’s six percent in six months an outrage and a failure.

Another argument has been that continued dredging will stir up more contamination. This is the same argument that has been used by polluters in other spill sites as justification to quit work before the work is complete. When GE spilled PCBs in the Hudson River between 1947 and 1977, it declared that the cleanup would destroy the river and dry up the local economy. However, dredging in Plattsburgh, N.Y., reduced PCB contamination by 90 percent, did not disrupt the community, and was deemed a huge success.

Copyright Yinan Chen; photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright Yinan Chen; photo from Wikimedia Commons.


Returning to the teenager’s messy bedroom, you ask why he hasn’t cleaned up the rest of the junk. “Well there’s so much dust and grime, if I pick up anything else, it’ll just get everywhere.”

Would you accept that answer? I didn’t think so. Then why are North Carolinians expected to accept such a pitiful cleanup of one of our most treasured rivers. We have fallen far short of even half-assed. Every excuse from Duke Energy is like the little boy crying wolf. Most of the actions they say cannot be done, have been done in other states, and done successfully. How long before someone calls their bluff?

The coal ash bill currently in conference committee to reconcile the differences between the state Senate and House versions doesn’t have a regulatory backbone or enforcement teeth. It fails to stand up to the toxic threat to our citizens, and instead of providing accountability, it continues to accommodate Duke Energy. It actually helps pave the way to relieve Duke of responsibility for real cleanup at all of its coal ash pits. With so much at stake, so much public outcry, documented contamination and national attention, this bill is simply not good enough.

You wouldn’t let the teenager just walk away from the mess in his room. We should not let Duke, or North Carolina legislators, walk away from the state’s coal ash mess.

Today, Congress has to learn about mountaintop removal

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014 - posted by thom
Appalachian Voices' program director Matt Wasson has been invited to testify on Capitol Hill today.

Appalachian Voices’ program director Matt Wasson has been invited to testify on Capitol Hill today.

Appalachian Voices’ program director Matt Wasson is testifying before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Environment and the Economy today. The hearing, with the crowd-grabbing title, “Modernizing the Business of Environmental Regulation and Protection,” includes a fascinating group of witnesses.

State regulators from Arizona, Arkansas, and Massachusetts will inform the subcommittee about state efforts to incorporate technology in their environmental regulatory endeavors to be more efficient and improve transparency. Bill Kovacs, from the pro-business, anti-regulation group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will speak about the problems of red tape and slow permitting. Our friend and ally, Scott Slesinger, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, will also be testifying, fortunately, and will speak about the importance of technology to providing improved environmental outcomes.

Matt will take this opportunity to talk about mountaintop removal coal mining, coal ash, and the failure of regulators to stop the ongoing crisis in Appalachia.

CDC_Cancer_Set2

Appalachian Voices has been using technology to improve citizen involvement in environmental regulation and policy-making for years. Among many examples, we introduced the Human Cost of Coal, an interactive map emphasizing the correlations between mountaintop removal mining and health and socioeconomic problems in Appalachia

It’s important that Congress not look at technology purely from the standpoint of improved “customer service” for industry. Cutting red tape is important, and providing transparency and clarity for companies is essential to a properly running economy.

But just as important to the economy is real enforcement of environmental laws. From Matt’s written testimony: (His shorter oral testimony can be found here.)

“We caution, however, that an approach that focuses on streamlining environmental permitting at the expense of protecting human health and natural resources would not only risk failure of the very mandate that our regulatory agencies were created to fulfill, but would be economically short-sighted as well. For instance, a few weeks ago, researchers at the US Geologic Survey published a study that found a 50 percent decline in the number of fish species and a two-thirds decline in the total number of fish in streams below mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia’s Guyandotte River drainage. This, combined with the fact that the sportfishing industry creates far more jobs than surface coal mining in all states where mountaintop removal occurs, demonstrates how allowing continued degradation of water quality in order to simplify permitting for coal companies is the very definition of “penny wise and pound foolish.”

The House of Representatives has made clear over the past few years that members prefer not to talk about mountaintop removal coal mining. They would rather just lambast the Environmental Protection Agency and the Obama administration for any actions they take to protect the Appalachian people from the ongoing pollution that is destroying forests, streams, mountains and communities.

But today, Appalachian Voices is testifying before Congress. And that means, whether members like it or not, they are going to have to hear about the impacts of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Great News for Clean Water in Virginia!

Friday, July 18th, 2014 - posted by eric

A two-headed trout deformed by selenium pollution.

Last week a federal judge upheld a previous decision requiring a Virginia coal company to get a permit for their discharges of toxic selenium.

Selenium is a mineral that is extremely toxic to fish and other aquatic life at very low levels. It is commonly discharged from many coal mines and coal ash ponds. Even in small amounts, selenium causes deformities, reproductive failure and even death in fish and birds. Even though its toxic effects and prevalence in coal mine discharges are well known, this is the first mine in Virginia that will be required to monitor and obtain a permit for its selenium discharges.

Water testing done by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) revealed that A&G Coal Corporation’s Kelly Branch Surface Mine was discharging selenium in toxic amounts. So in 2012, Appalachian Voices, SAMS and the Sierra Club, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates filed suit against A&G for illegal discharges of selenium.

EPA is currently revising their national standards for selenium. If implemented, their new draft standards will make it more difficult for citizens groups protect streams they care about through legal actions like this one.

A&G Coal Company is owned by billionaire, frequent political campaign contributor and coal baron James Justice.

Last year, a federal judge ruled in our favor and ordered A&G to begin daily selenium monitoring and to apply for a permit from the Commonwealth of Virginia to cover its selenium discharges. A&G appealed that decision with the support of a number of industry groups including the National Mining Association, the Virginia Coal and Energy Alliance, the Virginia Mining Association, the Virginia Mining Issues Group, the American Petroleum Institute and several others. That appeal failed last week.

A&G claimed that their current water discharge permit provided them a “permit shield.” Basically, since they were meeting the terms of their current permit, they were shielded from any liability for other water pollution not included in that permit.

In his decision federal district judge James P. Jones disagreed. The decision states that the validity of a “permit shield” is a two-prong test, requiring that a permittee disclose the presence of the pollutant in its permit application, and that the state agency considers that pollutant. If you fail one prong then you lose the shield. In this case A&G never disclosed the presence of selenium in their permit application, and there is no evidence that Virginia considered selenium pollution, so the company failed both parts of the test. The decision concludes:

To allow the [permit shield] defense in these circumstances would tear a large hole in the [Clean Water Act], whose purpose it is to protect the waters of Appalachia and the nation and their healthfulness, wildlife, and natural beauty.

Hey Duke Energy – Buy a Bigger Dump Truck!

Thursday, July 17th, 2014 - posted by matt

The Perfect Solution to North Carolina’s Coal Ash Crisis

There’s been a lot of controversy about how North Carolina will deal with its coal ash crisis ever since Duke Energy spilled nearly 40,000 tons of toxic coal ash into the Dan River last February. Shortly after the spill, legislative leaders voiced icy determination to pass a bill that would force Duke to quickly clean up its toxic coal ash lagoons and protect the state’s rivers and groundwater from further insults.

The hope that all this tough talk would translate into bold action began to fade last month, however, when the state Senate passed a bill that would allow Duke to use “cap in place” techniques at some (possibly most) of the state’s coal ash lagoons rather than requiring Duke to use the kind of modern landfills that are required for disposing of household garbage.

Then, what little hope remained appeared to be lost in early July when the House passed a bill that would let Duke off the hook on the timelines for even these meager clean-up efforts. Fortunately, the Senate unanimously rejected the House’s anemic bill earlier this week, meaning the differences between the bills will now have to be worked out in a conference committee next week.

But the question remains, how could these tough-talking legislators have been convinced to pursue such a myopic solution to the state’s coal ash woes?

The answer is that Duke’s lobbyists managed to scare legislators by convincing them that it wouldn’t be feasible to move all this coal ash to landfills on a 5, 10, even 15-year timeframe. The centerpiece of their argument is a remarkable analysis [PDF-page 15 in particular] by Duke’s engineers that claims it would take 30 years to move 22 million tons of coal ash at their Marshall Steam Station if a dump truck were to leave every three minutes, 12 hours per day, six days per week.

From the moment it was made public, though, this analysis seemed a little fishy. Duke consumes 4 or 5 million tons of coal every year at the Marshall plant, but it can’t even move 1 million tons per year of coal ash to a landfill? A back of the envelope calculation indicates it would take only a quarter that much time to move the volume of material Duke was talking about with a U-Haul!

So we took a closer look at Duke’s analysis and discovered an astonishing fact: it is based on the assumption that they could only haul 10 tons of coal ash per load, which is roughly the weight you could pull in a trailer with a Ford F-350 pickup. A light bulb went on in my head… what if Duke used a BIGGER truck to haul all that coal ash?

dump_truck_for_duke

What if, for instance, the company bought a few of those 200-ton rock trucks that mountaintop removal coal companies use to dump waste and debris into stream valleys in Appalachia in order to supply Duke with coal? With that kind of hauling capacity, they could move all the coal ash in the biggest lagoons in the state in a mere 18 months.

Now to be fair, you can’t drive a 200-ton truck on a public road. That means that in the rare cases where there is no place on site to create a landfill it would take longer than 18 months. But even assuming Duke’s lobbyists can’t get an exception to the state’s 40-ton weight limit for light-traffic roads (as apple growers, Christmas tree farmers and many less influential industries in Raleigh have already done), it could still be done three or four times faster than if they were to wear out a Ford F350 pulling one 10-ton trailer at a time.

And just in case you’re concerned about where Duke might possibly acquire such an advanced piece of hardware, rest assured that we checked online and… wow… there are an awful lot of those trucks for sale right here in the great state of North Carolina.

So the final problem to solve is how to pay for Duke’s new dump truck. Now, you might think a $2 million investment in a big old rock truck shouldn’t be a problem for the largest electric utility in the nation, which cleared nearly $3 billion in profits last year. But that’s because you simply don’t understand the mindset of a Duke Energy executive.

The way a Duke executive feels about spending money on hippy-dippy stuff like protecting rivers and drinking water from toxic pollution is a lot like how you or I feel about spending our tax dollars bailing out Wall Street firms whose malfeasance recently crashed the economy.

So here’s our solution: we’ve set up a grassroots fundraising campaign on Crowdrise so that all y’all can help us raise a cool $2 million to buy Duke Energy a shiny new dump truck and, at the same time, ease legislators’ minds about passing a bill that will hold Duke accountable for safely disposing of millions of tons of toxic coal ash.

You’re also invited to a celebration at Duke’s headquarters in Charlotte later this summer where we’ll present them with a check for all of the proceeds. In the unlikely event that Duke refuses the money then we’ll use it to pay for well water testing in communities living near coal ash dumps in North Carolina and to support local groups who are trying to force Duke to clean up the coal ash problem in their neighborhood.

It’s a big win for everyone! Donate today.

Activists gather at “Home of the Brave” on 4th of July

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 - posted by amy
Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices looks over a mountaintop removal mine visible from Kayford Mountain, W.Va. Photo by Lynn Willis.

Amy Adams of Appalachian Voices looks over a mountaintop removal mine visible from Kayford Mountain, W.Va. Photo by Lynn Willis.

It’s the 4th of July, and photographer Lynn Willis and I are traveling the long road along Cabin Creek in West Virginia that leads to the Stanley Heirs Park. Empty coal cars line the roadside, waiting for the next delivery of toxic payload to be delivered into their iron bowels. We pass under a coal chute and the road turns to gravel. Arriving at the park, a scattering of Appalachians, friends, family, musicians, and lovers of mountains are meeting in a small field at the 10th annual Kayford Mountain Music Festival to raise awareness of mountaintop removal coal mining. Just out of sight, the mines surround us, offering silent witness to the gathering here in opposition against them.

According to the National Mining Association, “Mountaintop mining accounts for approximately 45 percent of the entire state’s coal production in West Virginia.” Much of the political and regulatory power is held by large, out-of-state (or even out-of-country) corporations who give themselves monikers like Patriot Coal and Freedom Industries, trying to invoke a sense of pride and American entrepreneurship while subversively implying that being against them would be un-American.

But there is nothing patriotic about what the coal industry does to the land and the people. This is a monarchy, and King Coal rules with an iron fist.

Independence Day weekend, and West Virginia is NOT the land of the free.

This is a land of exploitation, where people are collateral damage, imprisoned by the politics of coal. The blasting away of mountains poisons streams and groundwater, and sometimes even alters the hydrology such that water retreats miles underground and is unreachable. Residents must buy water and carry it home, creating a financial and physical hardship. Water from the tap, if it provides any, may be discolored, have odors, or even more disturbing, may contain contaminants that silently, slowly poison the body.

A family cemetery sits on a knoll amidst the destruction of open mines. Photo by Lynn Willis; flight by Southwings.

A family cemetery sits on a knoll amidst the destruction of open mines. Photo by Lynn Willis; flight by Southwings.

The endless blasting sends dust, ash, and coal particles into the air, and shakes nearby houses to their foundations, while heavy trucks and rail cars endlessly transport the prize of coal past once thriving coal communities. What the coal companies call “overburden” – the unwanted soil and rock that used to be the mountain top above the coal seams–is pushed into adjacent valleys and graded into artificial slopes whose shape reminds me of the folded paper fans I use to play with as a child.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 2,000 miles of stream have been buried under valley fill or severely poisoned. With every rain and snow, water washes over the exposed rock, picking up a stew of toxic metals, like selenium, mercury, lead and arsenic, which are carried downstream for miles, killing fish and other aquatic life. This contamination has lead to serious health consequences for people living near mountaintop removal sites. Many of the mining chemicals and byproducts are known carcinogens, such as arsenic. Higher rates of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and birth defects have been reported. Long has King Coal been a cruel ruler.

Independence Day weekend, and West Virginia is undoubtedly the home of the brave.

The Kayford Mountain Stanley Heirs Park is home to one of the heroes of the movement to end mountaintop removal mining, the late Larry Gibson. On stage, the local musicians’ songs echo down the hills, haunting and beautiful. On Friday evening, Patricia Ansley sings a cappella a song in tribute to Larry, and for Larry, and for so many others who passed from this world before the fight was won. The melody unfolded before me in a feeling of loss, and hope. My heart opened and wept with them. Wept for the mountains and people, wept at the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against them both. As Patricia left the stage, desperately trying to keep her own tears at bay, she hugged my neck, mostly I think because I was the closest to her as she exited the stage, but whatever the reason, I found it hard to let go.

What a perfect tribute to those who pioneered and carried this fight until they could carry no more, and a tribute to those dedicated and passionate folks left behind who have picked up and carried the torch. To find the next generation of brave mountaintop-removal fighters, you need look no further than Paul Corbit Brown, Elise Liegel, or the Mullinses, a Kentucky family whose “Breaking Clean Tour” led them up and down the eastern seaboard this summer spreading the truth of the tragedy occurring in Appalachia.

Elise Keaton, with Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, with festival-goers at the 10th annual Kayford Mountain Music Festival. Photo by Lynn Willis.

Elise Keaton, with Keeper of the Mountains Foundation, with festival-goers at the 10th annual Kayford Mountain Music Festival. Photo by Lynn Willis.

Later that evening, Trish Bragg, a pioneer of the movement, reads the thoughts she penned after seeing the Agony of Gaia. Her white hair is highlighted by the glow of the projector screen behind her, a shawl wrapped around her shoulders to keep off the cool mountain evening air. Again, it is hard to contain the emotion and as she wipes away tears in the fading light of July 4th, I feel the heartbreak written in her words. After, we watch the trailer for Moving Mountains, a dramatization of the fight she and others have waged against this devastating form of strip mining. Everyone in the small park is united and silent under the stars of a West Virginian night.

The next morning, Lynn and I join Tom White at the Charleston airport. A volunteer pilot with Southwings, Tom has flown many others over the scenes of mountaintop mining destruction over the years. Initially, I am enthralled with the joy of flying when my eyes are drawn to the unnatural looking patches of light brown in the deep green of forested ridges. And there isn’t just one or two. As far as my eyes will let me see into the horizon, there are more.

We approach one sprawling patch, and as I absorb what I am seeing, the reality of mountaintop removal mining pulls the air from my lungs and collapses my chest in. I
have that panicked feeling, like seeing an animal about to be hit on a highway. It is ugly and terrifying and nearly beyond any description by words alone. As we fly over site after site, it’s like being in an endless car wreck, and I am ready for the flight to end. We land in silence, stunned and disgusted with the truth we had brutally encountered. Returning to Stanley Heirs Park, Lynn and I climb once again the long road with new awareness and a heavier heart.

Everything is at stake for these people — their homes, their water, their food, their health, their very lives hang in the balance of the People vs King Coal. Yet looking around the park, the smiles, warmth, solidarity and camaraderie shine like embers. I see in these faces the flames of the keepers, the sense of pride and determination that have always been their strength. I see true patriotism, loyalty to homeplace and community. I am drawn to their spirit and find myself humbled by the fight they have undertaken.

Food, water, music and fellowship is shared without reserve with everyone at Kayford Music Festival, and many, many stories. Boy, do West Virginians like their stories! A man in his 80s, known to me only as Hoot, tells of the days of a one-room schoolhouse, productive family farms, and a thriving community. Later, I can only find remnants, like the goldfish pond that used to sit below the mine’s clubhouse, now just an overgrown cattail pond, and the once grand clubhouse is just a few foundation bricks in the overgrown woods. Hoot says the days last longer now, because the mountain top that used to block the fading sun no longer exists. He tells of how the family graveyard, once lower than the surrounding peaks, is now one of the highest. He talks of a natural spring that he enjoyed as a youth for drinking and playing in, where as an adult he got his water during lunch breaks…gone, now. The water no longer flows there. Everyone at the festival has had to carry in gallons and gallons of water.

Independence Day weekend, and West Virginians are building towards a new energy independence.

In a valiant, almost defiant move, this year’s Kayford Mountain Festival organizers set out to stage West Virginia’s first 100% solar powered music festival. And they achieved their goal, thanks to the coordination and generous spirit of Mountain View Solar, which provided mobile (and note: rentable!) solar panels to the site. This is a new rebellion, a new freedom, a statement of independence from the coal monarch. Practical and now economically viable, solar power is poised to create a new energy paradigm that has great economic growth potential.

In my home state of North Carolina, solar created over 10,000 jobs in 2012, and that is projected to grow to more than 30,000 jobs by 2030. The types of policies and investments that make this possible could drive the change needed to break King Coal’s stranglehold on Appalachia. The Kayford Mountain Sustainability Project aims to lead the way in that transition.

Lynn and I leave Kayford Mountain with a deep and profound connection to the people and mountains. I think a part of my heart will remain here long after I am separated by miles. Our parting view is of three white crosses on a hill. After all we experienced, it seems a sadly fitting and somehow inspiring image that demands we to continue the fight against the dirty practice of mountaintop removal mining, and demands that the years of coal’s rule end in West Virginia and her people thrive once again.

The Power of Energy Efficiency — Building a Stronger Economy for Appalachia (Part 5)

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014 - posted by rory

{ Editor’s Note } This is the final installment in a five-part series illustrating the need for greater investments in residential energy efficiency as an economic driver in rural Appalachia. In this post, we describe the efforts of Appalachian Voices and our allies in helping Appalachia realize its energy efficiency potential, and highlight some of the successes that have already been achieved.

Energy efficiency might not be the cool kid in the room to most people. That would be solar energy, smug ole solar). Energy efficiency is the smart kid sitting in the back of the room, the one that quietly goes about its work, that gets more done with less effort. It even helps solar succeed, because without energy efficiency, a whole lotta solar energy gets wasted, rendering it less economical compared to the fossil fuel bullies in the room.

But the fact that energy efficiency helps solar with its homework isn’t why it is exciting and important. Energy efficiency provides so many benefits beyond just serving as the cheapest way to meeting our energy demands (approximately 80 percent cheaper than solar). Energy efficiency helps alleviate poverty, creates and sustains local jobs, and promotes local economic development. It makes homes more comfortable and healthy, and reduces the environmental impact associated with our energy use. It also may be the most vital solution to Appalachia’s energy and economic future, as we’ve described in this blog series.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Yeah, solar does almost all of these things (and don’t get me wrong, solar energy is still awesome), but energy efficiency costs a lot less to achieve the same benefits, meaning it can have a much greater impact per dollar. In Appalachia, as in other regions of the U.S. where public and private investment in clean energy is relatively scarce, this is an important consideration, and it’s one of the main reasons why Appalachian Voices initiated our Energy Savings for Appalachia program last year.

Through this campaign, we are actively promoting cost-effective solutions that will help Appalachia realize its energy efficiency potential while maximizing the economic and environmental benefits along the way. And the potential is mind-blowing. A 2009 study on Appalachia’s energy efficiency potential found that an investment of $7 billion in residential efficiency improvements would save Appalachian families nearly $14 billion in energy costs by 2030, reducing the average home’s energy use by more than 15 percent and (based on the employment impact multiplier used in this study) creating more than 100,000 jobs in the process. This illustrates how, for a region made up of largely impoverished communities and families, energy efficiency could provide a significant economic boost and help reverse a long-standing struggle to develop and strengthen local economies in the region.

This is why Appalachian Voices and many of our allies have dedicated ourselves to promoting strong investment in cost-effective energy efficiency programs in Appalachia. We are working with rural electric cooperatives to develop home energy efficiency finance programs like those we’ve described in this series. We are inspired and joined in this work by our regional partners and allies, which include the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) (Kentucky), the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (North Carolina and Tennessee), Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowement (Tennessee), Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance (SEEA) (regional), Kentuckians for the Commonwealth (Kentucky) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) (North Carolina). Recognizing the need and potential for improving energy efficiency in rural areas, each of these organizations are focused in part on working with the rural electric cooperatives that provide electricity to those communities.

As a result of the efforts of many of these organizations, there have been some key successes, and there is now a growing movement in Appalachia toward the development of financing programs for residential and commercial energy efficiency. Leading the way was MACED, which spearheaded the development of the successful and still-growing How$mart Kentucky program. In North Carolina, EDF helped with the development and launch of a pilot on-bill finance program through Roanoke Electric Cooperative. And just recently, SEEA launched the Southeast Energy Efficiency Finance Network, which aims to facilitate the expansion of public and private investment in energy efficiency throughout the Southeast.

Appalachian Voices' Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil and Tennessee Campaign Coordinator Ann League meet with representatives from Appalachian Electric Cooperative, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, the USDA and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to discuss the creation of a statewide on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil and Tennessee Campaign Coordinator Ann League meet with representatives from Appalachian Electric Cooperative, the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, the USDA and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy to discuss the creation of a statewide on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. Photo credit: David Callis, Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association.

For our part, Appalachian Voices has achieved a high level of success in the 15 months since we launched our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign. As a result of our efforts, the statewide Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association, in partnership with five member cooperatives, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the National Governor’s Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Appalachian Voices, is in the process of designing a small-scale on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency. This is a significant step toward realizing Tennessee’s energy efficiency potential, and we are proud to be partnered with each of these caring and forward-thinking groups that are leading the way.

I could write forever about energy efficiency, Appalachia and the many great things that our partners and allies are doing to advance energy efficiency in the region. But once you get into the realm of naming a series a “pentalogy” (I had to look that up), it’s time to bring it to a close.

So I’ll end this series with one last pitch to you. YOU are the most important piece of this energy efficiency work. While a good number of electric cooperatives and other utilities are doing a lot to help their members and customers lower their energy bills, many are not. So much more could be done, and it likely won’t be unless you get involved. One way to start is by learning more about energy efficiency and programs that your utility could provide by visiting our Energy Savings Action Center. While you’re there, send your utility a letter requesting stronger home energy efficiency programs. But most importantly, get out in your community, talk to your neighbors about how energy efficiency could benefit them, and let your voice be heard! Without you, Appalachia will never achieve it’s energy efficiency potential.

Thanks for reading!

Strip mine highway gets a hard look

Monday, July 14th, 2014 - posted by tom
Image courtesy of the Sierra Club

Image courtesy of the Sierra Club

The Coalfields Expressway as currently proposed is not a classic “road to nowhere” boondoggle, but it is a road to the destruction of mountains, creeks and economic opportunities in Southwest Virginia.

So it was a joyous day in June when we learned that, after many years of collaborative effort by Appalachian Voices and partner groups, and the persistence of countless citizens across the region, federal officials had put the brakes on it.

The move provides a chance for the public to have a voice in developing the best transportation options for Southwest Virginia while ensuring the long-term economic sustainability and natural heritage of the region.

In short, what happened is this. A four-lane highway from Pound, Va., to Beckley, W.V., was planned decades ago, but was never built due to the prohibitive cost. In 2006, the state partnered with the coal company Alpha Natural Resources to “grade” part of the roadbed by strip mining it, saving public funds.

But the project had to be re-routed over enough coal deposits to make it profitable for the company. Not only would the new route destroy three times as much forest land and stream miles, it also skirted many town centers, threatening to harm the local economy rather than help it (read more on the project’s history). Despite the major change, the Virginia Department of Transportation only conducted a cursory study of the impacts.

Working shoulder-to-shoulder with local citizens, Appalachian Voices and partner groups called for a full environmental impact study as required by federal law. And we pulled out all the stops. We met with the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the McAuliffe Administration. We spoke before the Commonwealth Transportation Board. We rallied outside of Alpha’s headquarters in Abingdon and FHWA headquarters in Washington, D.C. By the end, more than 85,000 people spoke out through comments to public officials.

The June decision by the FHWA will require a thorough study of the community and environmental impacts of the project and re-opens the process to full public involvement. But the fight isn’t over. Appalachian Voices remains committed to working with local citizens to ensure the law is followed, the process is transparent, that voices are heard, and most importantly, that the best choice is made.