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FERC’s pipeline review process is broken

Monday, February 20th, 2017 - posted by Peter Anderson

Former chairman adds his voice to public demands for greater scrutiny

As new research refutes industry's pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

As new research refutes industry’s pro-pipeline arguments, former FERC chairman Norman Bay is calling for greater scrutiny of proposed natural gas infrastructure projects.

>> Sign the petition to stop the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today! <<

It’s no secret: oil and gas pipelines have captured the nation’s attention, not to mention the new administration’s. Standing Rock’s resistance to the Dakota Access pipeline continues to put water protection, indigenous rights and environmental justice at the fore of any pipeline discussion. And not so long ago, the Keystone XL pipeline came to symbolize the United States’ willingness to lead (or not) on climate action. Now the Trump administration hopes to revive both.

The Trump administration also hopes to push through the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would transport fracked gas 600 miles from the Marcellus Shale in northern West Virginia through Virginia and into North Carolina. A list of the administration’s top 50 infrastructure priorities leaked in January includes the Atlantic Coast Pipeline at number 20. The document reports the pipeline’s permitting process as “done,” despite the fact that comment periods for some federal and state permits are currently open and no permits have been issued. How’s that for alternative facts?

Pipelines not needed

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the agency with primary authority for permitting interstate gas pipelines, was generally viewed as pipeline-friendly even prior to the Trump era. The agency allows a 14 percent rate of return on investments in pipeline capital, and its environmental reviews typically fall short in analyzing both the need for additional pipelines and the projected climate impacts of new projects (in addition to many other deficiencies).

However, former FERC Chairman Norman Bay offered a surprising call for reform of the agency’s pipeline certificate process when he stepped away at the beginning of February (see the last six pages of this FERC order). Bay criticized the method FERC uses to determine whether or not there is a need for a pipeline. He pointed out that FERC usually looks to precedent agreements between pipeline owners and gas shippers as evidence of need. But this method is flawed.

According to Bay, “focusing on precedent agreements may not take into account a variety of other considerations, including … whether the precedent agreements are largely signed by affiliates.”

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Norman Bay, a former commissioner and chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

In other words, a company applying to build a new pipeline says, “Look, we have subscribers lined up to buy gas from the pipeline, so there must be a need for it.” But a closer examination reveals that the buyer and the seller are both affiliates of the same parent corporation.

This echoes a concern highlighted in a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis published in April 2016. That report found that “in situations in which a pipeline developer contracts with an affiliate company to ship gas through a new pipeline, this is strong evidence that it is doing so because of the financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is a need for the pipeline.”

This report studied the risks of building both the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 300-mile gas pipeline that would also cut through the Appalachian regions of West Virginia and Virginia. It pointed out that for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, five of the six companies contracted to buy gas are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline. Energy behemoths Dominion Resources and Duke Energy have a combined 85 percent ownership stake in the pipeline, and their subsidiary companies have subscribed to 86 percent of the gas shipped. For the Mountain Valley Pipeline, all six of the buyers are affiliates of the companies building the pipeline.

Another report, published in September 2016 by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., studied conservative estimates of future gas demand in Virginia and the Carolinas. It concluded that, even under scenarios where gas use for electricity production is high, existing pipelines have more than enough capacity to provide energy to the region. That is, we can keep the lights on and businesses thriving without ever building the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines.

Climate impacts of gas pipelines

In addition to the needs analysis, Bay also called on FERC to reform its evaluation of climate impacts. In its draft environmental review of the Mountain Valley Pipeline, FERC refused to consider that the pipeline would spur more gas production, enabling more methane leakage along the entire supply chain. Without quantifying them, FERC compared downstream smokestack emissions to global greenhouse gas emissions and concluded that the pipeline’s emissions would merely be a drop in the bucket.

In its draft environmental review for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, FERC did attempt a rough calculation of downstream emissions but again refused to analyze upstream effects or methane leakage. FERC’s review stated that emissions from burning the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s gas would be roughly 29 million metric tons (MMt) per year.

A new briefing published by Oil Change International puts a comparable number on emissions from gas combustion for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, estimating 31 MMt annually. But when you add increased gas production and methane leakage along the supply chain, total emissions more than double, reaching nearly 68 MMt per year. The organization also published a briefing for the Mountain Valley Pipeline, estimating total life-cycle emissions at nearly 90 MMt annually.

To put that in perspective, emissions from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline would be the rough equivalent of adding 20 coal-fired power plants to the grid or putting 14 million more cars on the road. Emissions from the Mountain Valley Pipeline would be like adding 26 coal-fired power plants or putting 19 million more cars on the road.

While Norman Bay defended FERC’s existing climate analysis methods from a legal perspective, he also argued for change. He stated that “in the interests of good government” the agency should analyze downstream impacts and perform lifecycle analysis of greenhouse gas emissions — not just from pipelines — but from the entire Marcellus and Utica gas production region.

Other environmental impacts

Besides bludgeoning our atmosphere with huge amounts of new greenhouse gas pollution, the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines would, of course, threaten thousands of groundwater sources, surface streams and wetlands. Constructing the pipelines would force the permanent removal of trees along their routes, fragmenting habitats and spoiling views from the Appalachian Trail. The projects would threaten human health and safety, especially near powerful compressor stations used to pump gas along the line. They would disproportionately impact lower-income communities, communities of color and Native American communities, threatening important historic and cultural resources.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, Bay did not follow his own advice and revise the way FERC analyzes pipeline need or climate impacts while he led the agency. But here’s how you can do your part:

Mountain Valley Pipeline:

Atlantic Coast Pipeline:

Appalachia is blessed with abundant water — we should protect it

Monday, February 20th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices


Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends urged lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies and state and federal agencies accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.

Of the many actions taken by the Trump administration in recent days, one that is skating by with little notice is an attempt to kill the Stream Protection Rule.

This country has a very real problem with water. In Flint, Mich., many still rely on bottled water as toxic lead pipes have contaminated their municipal water. One of the resources we are most blessed with here in Appalachia is fresh drinking water of the highest quality. We should be taking every possible measure that we can to protect it.

Enacted last year, the Stream Protection Rule is a modest, common sense safeguard to ensure the quality of our streams that are impacted by mountaintop removal mining operations. In Southwest Virginia and across Appalachia, it is common practice for mining companies to bury streams under tons of mining waste.

Streams are also frequently contaminated by heavy metals, and other pollutants discharged from surface mines. The Stream Protection Rule compels mining companies to monitor the water quality of streams they are operating near — waters that many others use for recreation or draw drinking water from — and to address any issues caused by mining.

The Trump administration and congressional Republicans have made it clear that they intend to attack many of the rules and laws that seek to protect the air and water of the United States. Now members of the majority party wish to kill this rule with little debate, using an obscure law known as the Congressional Review Act. We cannot allow that to happen.

As an Appalachian raised in Bristol, with family roots across Southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee, I urge Senators Warner and Kaine to defend the Stream Protection Rule against attacks. Clean water is an incredibly precious and vital resource — one that so many do not enjoy. We must take every effort to protect our water. We must reject any effort to kill the Stream Protection Rule.

Mackay Pierce

Welcome Matt, Terran, Lydia and Mayzie

Sunday, February 19th, 2017 - posted by cat

Appalachian Voices is delighted to welcome these passionate, dedicated, smart individuals to our staff. Matt, Terran and Lydia are all in our Norton office, in Southwest Virginia, and Mayzie is located in our Boone, N.C. office.

matthepler-croppedMatt Hepler — Central Appalachian Water Scientist

Originally from Bath County, Virginia, Matt received his B.A. in geography from Virginia Tech with a concentration in Geographic Information Systems and environmental resources. After working in the GIS field for five years, he spent two years in the master’s program at Appalachian State University, focusing on hydrology. Matt returned to Virginia to work for the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards in Wise County, leading the group’s water program and helping develop litigation strategies against coal companies. He joined Appalachian Voices in 2017, and is based in our Norton office. Matt is a hiker and square dance caller, and loves spending time on the rivers of Central Appalachia
email matt.hepler [at]

terran-croppedTerran Young — Highlander Appalachian Transition Fellow

Our first Highlander fellow, Terran joins the Appalachian Voices team in our Norton office. She is working in collaboration with Southern Appalachian Mountains Stewards (SAMS) and Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN) on a land study project, a continuation of Who Owns Appalachia, a project in the late 1970’s on land ownership in the Appalachian region. A native of Wise County, Virginia, she attended Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, where she studied sociology. Prior to the fellowship, Terran worked in mental health for five years as an advocate and direct support specialist. She is currently studying to become a Master Herbalist and is also a writer/producer for Spaceman Productions.
swvalandstudy [at]

lydiaLydia Graves — Southwest Virginia Solar VISTA

A native Virginia who hails from Bristol, Lydia received her B.S. in Sustainable Development from Appalachian State University. She has worked on local food and sustainable agriculture initiatives with Appalachian Sustainable Development in Abingdon, where she also served on the Sustain Abingdon Commission and helped organize a number of events for the city, including a residential solarize program. At Appalachian Voices, Lydia works on solar development in the Southwest Virginia coalfields as an Americorps VISTA member. She feels deeply connected to her roots in Appalachia and enjoys learning and working on all things connected to its past and future.
lydia [at]

mayzie2Meredith Shelton — Operations and Outreach Coordinator

Meredith, or “Mayzie,” grew up in the intentional community known as The Farm outside Nashville, Tenn. The community works to help insure that all people have access to clean water, sanitation, nutrition and livelihood, a philosophy at the core of her life’s work. Mayzie received a nursing certificate from Caldwell Community College and is also a certified community herbalist. She co-owned an eco-friendly fair trade store in Boone, N.C. More recently, she worked with the non-profit, Go Conscious Earth, in the Democratic Republic of Congo to document and facilitate the installation of five clean water wells that now serve 10,000 people. Mayzie lives on a portion of 165 acres she helped preserve along the Blue Ridge Parkway, where she has raised her three daughters, Lydia, Rory and Charly.

Senate confirms Scott Pruitt to lead EPA

Friday, February 17th, 2017 - posted by brian

A longtime opponent of the agency, Pruitt was sworn in as EPA administrator Friday


As expected, the Senate has confirmed former Oklahoma attorney general and walking conflict of interest Scott Pruitt to be the next administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

If President Trump still plans to cripple the EPA, as he repeatedly promised during his campaign, the man to lead that effort begins work on Monday. Pruitt will be tasked with making the EPA great again by dismantling climate programs and slashing funding for things like the enforcement of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.

The 52 senators, led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who voted “yea” have much to answer for. Today, threats to clean water and air put millions of Americans at risk. We’re also running out of time act decisively on climate change. Putting a climate denier in charge of the federal agency in charge of climate policy is like pouring gasoline on a burning house.

The vote came down along party lines, except for Senators Joe Manchin and Heidi Heitkamp, both of whom are Democrats from coal-producing states. Not coincidentally, both senators also attended President Trump’s signing of a bill to overturn the Stream Protection Rule yesterday. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican to break from her party.

Pruitt disqualified himself from effectively leading the agency long before being nominated by then President-elect Trump. During his seven-year stint as attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA no less than 14 times. Siding with industry in every case, his goal seems to have been sinking as many federal rules as possible — ozone limits, limits on power plant emissions of mercury and carbon dioxide, clean water protections, scenic protections for national parks, to name a few.

Following his nomination, Pruitt caught flak describing himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” on his LinkedIn profile. As of today, a few hours after the confirmation vote, that proud proclamation is still on his page. I checked.

And, really, why would he feel the need to downplay his opposition to the EPA’s mission? He’s received ringing endorsements from members of Congress including the majority leader. “Pruitt is just the candidate we need at the helm of the EPA,” Sen. McConnell said today.

Republican senators heaped praise on Pruitt during his confirmation hearing for his attempts to hamstring the EPA and for being a good baseball player — a quality some Democrats on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee turned on him in calling out his losing record in lawsuits against the EPA.

This also isn’t Pruitt’s first time in the national spotlight. He was the subject of a 2014 investigation that exposed his secretive ties to the oil and gas industry. The investigation famously revealed that, while attorney general, Pruitt took a letter drafted by lawyers for Devon Energy accusing the EPA of overstating the problem of air pollution from natural gas drilling in Oklahoma, changed a few words, slapped it on official letterhead and sent it to the EPA with his signature. “Outstanding!” a Devon Energy lobbyist replied.

The controversy du jour — because every day it’s something new — relates to emails and other documents detailing communications between Pruitt’s office and the oil and gas industry. The day before Pruitt’s confirmation vote, an Oklahoma court ruled in favor of the Center for Media and Democracy and ordered the release of as much as 3,000 emails that would presumably be of interest to senators weighing Pruitt’s confirmation.

In response to this development, Democrats pushed to delay the vote. Nevertheless, Sen. McConnell persisted. When asked why he did not extend debate and wait for the emails to be released, McConnell responded, “Because I choose not to.”

The fact that, unlike the president, Pruitt acknowledges that the decline of coal is not a result of the EPA’s “heavy hand” is of little consolation. He is a staunch proponent of deregulation and consolidation. Now that Congress has signed off on his nominee, Trump will waste no time. The president plans to pay a visit to EPA headquarters next week and sign a package of executive orders that a source told The Hill could “suck the air out of the room.”

Of course, not all is lost. Hundreds of current EPA staff took a moral stand in speaking out against Pruitt, while nearly 800 former agency staff signed onto a letter to McConnell stating that Pruitt’s record suggests he does not “share the vision or agree with the underlying principles of our environmental statutes.” In an interview today, Gina McCarthy, who became Obama’s EPA administrator in 2013, emphasized that most EPA employees are “smart, dedicated, hard-working, mission-driven public servants.”

We should keep in mind who the real protectors are as Pruitt takes his position atop the agency tasked with safeguarding our air and water.

Protect natural resources for Southwest Virginia’s future

Wednesday, February 15th, 2017 - posted by Appalachian Voices

Editors’ Note: Earlier this month, Congress voted to repeal the Stream Protection Rule using a rarely invoked law called the Congressional Review Act. Appalachian Voices’ members and friends rushed to urge lawmakers to defend the rule, which would improve protections for water and public health from mountaintop removal coal mining. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful. But the rule was not our only means of defending Central Appalachian streams. We will continue to hold coal companies, state agencies and the federal government accountable to the laws that protect our natural heritage. We’re thankful to have allies who are willing to share their stories and help us in the fight for clean water. Here is what one of them had to say leading up to the Stream Protection Rule vote.

Ron Short

Ron Short

I was born and raised in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. My father was a coal miner, and without his efforts to send me to school, I would have been a coal miner also. For all my life, the coal economy has ruled this region and its people. Now we are facing the demise of the coal industry, and we must save the valuable natural resources that we have left if we are ever to develop cultural tourism and eco-tourism as important parts of a new economy that works for everyone.

When I was small, one company dumped coal waste into the Pound River and I saw the deadly effects that followed: thousands of dead fish, mink, muskrats, frogs, birds and water so polluted with metals and minerals that for the first time in my life I could not swim in the river. I was 10 years old and it took the river 50 years to heal itself. My father was 90 years old before we could go fishing in the Pound River together again. Sadly, pollution from mining operations is still contaminating our waterways today.

The Stream Protection Rule — the product of nearly a decade of community engagement and scientific and economic studies — is designed to preserve this life-giving resource. Unfortunately, Donald Trump and Republicans in Congress have vowed to kill the Stream Protection Rule using an obscure procedure known as a Congressional Review Act as part of the mad rush to rip the last of the coal out of the ground at any cost.

Water truly is life! We have more pristine and biologically valuable waters than most places in the world, and we need to protect them for our health, our economic future and our grandchildren. Senators Kaine and Warner, you are our only allies in Washington. Please do not let your colleagues kill the Stream Protection Rule. Killing this rule would produce a short-term political gain for their ilk, but it could create a future that we in Southwest Virginia may never be able to recover from.

Ron Short

Environmental Protections Targeted

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Molly Moore

The Trump administration and 115th Congress quickly began rolling back pro-environment policies. By press time Feb. 2, two weeks into the Trump presidency, executive orders and actions in Congress were already changing the ground rules for environmental protections.

Trump signed 19 presidential directives in his first 10 days, according to USA Today, including an order that requires two regulations be repealed for every new regulation an agency issues.

President Trump also issued orders to revive the Keystone XL Pipeline, fast-track approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline, and expedite environmental review and approval for high-priority infrastructure projects. The proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline is ranked No. 20 on Trump’s list.

In an interview with the Guardian, EPA transition leader and climate change denier Myron Ebell described the president’s plans to review or withdraw climate change education material and reconsider automobile fuel efficiency standards.

He also referenced the president’s campaign statement to abolish or “leave a little bit” of the environmental agency. “It is a goal he has and sometimes it takes a long time to achieve goals,” Ebell told the Guardian. “You can’t abolish the EPA by waving a magic wand.”

Many of Trump’s cabinet nominees were criticized by conservation organizations — perhaps none more than Scott Pruitt, who was nominated to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. As Oklahoma’s attorney general, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times, opposing federal ozone and mercury limits among other programs. During his confirmation hearing, he did not say whether he would recuse himself from involvement in those cases and he voiced doubts about the scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change. William K. Reilly, a Republican who once headed the EPA, said Pruitt “cannot effectively lead the agency.”

Other cabinet nominees skeptical of climate science include Rick Perry, Trump’s pick for energy secretary, and Jeff Sessions, the nominee for attorney general. Ryan Zinke, nominated to lead the Dept. of the Interior, acknowledged that climate change is real but hedged on the role that humans play and expressed favor for continued fossil fuel development on public lands.

Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor with ties to Appalachia, was nominated for secretary of commerce. He was president of International Coal Group during the 2006 Sago Mine disaster, which killed 12 workers, and during the time that roughly 14,000 Clean Water Act violations occurred at the company.

At press time, the full Senate had not voted on confirmation for these men, but Rex Tillerson, who served as CEO of Exxon-Mobil until his nomination, was confirmed as secretary of state.

In response to the administration’s actions, anonymous former and current employees at numerous federal agencies such as national parks, NASA and the EPA created alternative Twitter accounts, not funded by taxpayer dollars, to share environmental news.

Public resistance against a move to sell federal lands also saw some success. In January, House Republicans enacted a rule change that encourages transferring federal land to states. But a House bill that would have sold 3.3 million acres of public lands was withdrawn on Feb. 1 after widespread opposition from hunters, anglers and the conservation community.

The Energy Burden

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

Inefficient housing and financial difficulties can lead to insurmountable energy bills for rural residents

By Lou Murrey

Left, Gerlene Wilmoth surveys the damage to the foundation of their home in Tazewell, Tenn. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Gerlene Wilmoth surveys the damage to the foundation of their home in Tazewell, Tenn. Photo by Lou Murrey.

Gerlene and Ronald Wilmoth of Tazewell, Tenn., had always paid their electric bill on time.

That is, until August of 2015 when Ronald suffered a stroke at the age of 55 that left him unable to use much of the right side of his body and unable to return to his job as a truck driver. Gerlene had to quit her job cleaning homes to take care of her husband. With both of them unable to work, the couple’s monthly income was reduced to just $400 a month to cover all of their expenses.

Their home is drafty and in desperate need of repairs to the roof and foundation, which has led to high electric bills and uncomfortable living conditions. It turns out that $400 a month doesn’t stretch far for residents trying to pay for everyday living expenses on top of medical bills and high utility bills.

Residents in East Tennessee, like in many places across Appalachia, spend a significant portion of their income on energy bills. When federal funding for utility payment assistance and weatherization can’t meet the need, it falls on a small number of local service agencies and churches to fill the gap. Many of these service agencies and churches already struggle to help everyone in their communities who needs it, but with threats to federal funding, they may face an even greater demand. Relief could take the form of energy efficiency programs through the Tennessee Valley Authority and local power companies.

Available Resources

For the first few months following Ronald’s stroke, he and Gerlene received aid from the few service agencies who provide utility bill payment assistance around Claiborne County. First Baptist Church of New Tazewell was able to pay one month. Manna House, a Christian charity that offers one-time bill relief, was able to pay $25 the next, and the Claiborne County Office on Aging was then able to pay for three months’ worth of bills. The Wilmoths also received the maximum available $450 from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program known as LIHEAP, but that only covered two months’ worth of electric bills.

Then came July of 2016, when temperatures in Claiborne County consistently hovered in the low nineties. The heat was relentless, and it got especially bad for Gerlene and Ronald when the heat pump responsible for their air conditioning broke down and temperatures in their home reached 95 degrees, sending Ronald to the hospital for heat exhaustion.

As if the stress of Ronald’s hospitalization wasn’t enough, right as they reached the last little bit of their LIHEAP money, July’s electric bill arrived. Gerlene felt like she’d been socked in the gut. It was the highest one yet, at $225, and not knowing where she was going to turn for help, she started to feel a little panicky. She began making phone calls to just about everyone who had helped her before in the hope that they might be able to help again. This time she had no luck.

 Rust stains indicate  water damage on the side of the Wilmoths’ home. Photo by Lou Murrey

Rust stains indicate water damage on the side of the Wilmoths’ home. Photo by Lou Murrey

“I was totally freaking out,” says Gerlene. “I called so many people, and they wouldn’t have the resources to be able to help, so they would refer me to someone else, and they wouldn’t have the resources either.”

Having seemingly exhausted all of her resources, it felt like there was nowhere to turn for Gerlene. She remembers the terrifying feeling of helplessness.

“I was almost in disbelief,” she says, recalling her reaction at the time. “Like, how are we gonna pay it? They are gonna cut it off. With him being sick in July is when he had the heat exhaustion, and with that and the power bill being so high, how can we pay this? They are going to turn our power off, and we are going to smother in here.”

High Bills, High Need

Of course, churches and service agencies intend to help as many people as possible. But, according to Terry Ramsey at the Claiborne County East Tennessee Human Resource Agency office, they are struggling to keep up with the demand. ETHRA is a regional agency that serves 12 counties, and Ramsey says, “we try to help as many people we can. We go above and beyond.”

The U.S. Department of Energy defines energy burden as the “ratio of energy expenditures to household income.” According to a 2016 study by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy’s study “Lifting the High Energy Burden in America’s Largest Cities: How Energy Efficiency Can Improve Low Income and Underserved Communities,” the energy burden for low-income households is nearly three times higher than that of higher income households.

According to economist Roger Colton, an affordable energy burden for any household in the United States should not exceed 6 percent of a household’s gross income. Colton concluded in his 2015 study of the Home Energy Affordability Gap that low-income families were paying far more than that, depending on where they were in the country.

In East Tennessee, households earning 50 percent below the federal poverty line spend around 30 percent of their income on utilities, according to data from Colton’s firm. Gerlene and Ronald’s energy burden was around 50 percent of their household income.

The ACEEE study found that high energy burdens are primarily caused by inefficiencies in the home such as lack of insulation, leaky roofs, inefficient appliances and improper air sealing. But this is exacerbated by a person’s economic situation, high fixed utility rates and insufficient or inaccessible weatherization and bill assistance programs.

Lack of home weatherization is definitely a major factor in causing the Wilmoths’ high energy burden. “Where we don’t have the insulation and weatherization it’s too hot in the summer months and too cold in the winter months,” Gerlene says.

“My feet stay cold more than anything where the air comes up through the floor,” she says, reasoning that there can’t be much insulation under the house. In their bedroom there is a grapefruit-sized hole in the floor. She knows there are multiple roof leaks around their home because when it rains, water runs down the walls. Pointing to the kitchen, Gerlene continues, “when it rains, water blows in from the vent above the stove, and water comes in behind the stove.”

The Wilmoths have replaced all the their incandescent lightbulbs with more efficient compact fluorescents, but the major air leaks in the couple’s home resulting from improper sealing around doors and windows, a leaky roof and poor insulation are likely the greatest contributors to their high electric bill.

Where the Wilmoths live, the federal Weatherization Assistance Program is provided by ETHRA. Gerlene and Ronald are on the waiting list for ETHRA’s Weatherization Assistance Program, but the waiting list for Claiborne County alone is around 280 homes. As of November 2016, 2,709 families were on the waiting list for all 12 counties that ETHRA serves.

Steve Bandy, operations director of housing and energy services at ETHRA, reports that despite the long waiting list, the agency only has funding to complete 41 homes in the 2016-2017 budget year. At that rate it would take approximately 66 years to weatherize all the homes — if no new homes were added to the list.

Finding Relief

Part of the reason for the low number of homes being weatherized in East Tennessee is not enough funding.

“More funding would be great, if it was available, you’d be able to help more families,” says Lisa Condrey, ETHRA’s finance director of housing and energy services. “Because 41 families this year is not a whole lot. We serve 12 counties, so in some counties we are only able to serve two or three families.”

The funding ship may have sailed, though. Since 1976, funding for the Weatherization Assistance Program has been provided by the U.S. Department of Energy and has helped over 7 million families in the United States reduce their energy burden through energy efficiency upgrades to their home. On Jan. 19, the political news website The Hill reported that a blueprint of the Trump Administration’s proposed 2017-2018 budget included massive cuts to a number of government agencies, including the U.S. Department of Energy. With the new administration threatening to gut the Department of Energy, the future of the Weatherization Assistance Program is uncertain.

Weatherization improvements such as sealing leaky air ducts, adding insulation and replacing inefficient heating and cooling systems can provide a long-term fix for a high energy burden since they take care of the home inefficiencies that cause high utility bills in the first place.

For people like Gerlene who need help immediately, there is LIHEAP. Funding for LIHEAP comes from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and in Tennessee it is administered by the Tennessee Housing Development Agency through human resource agencies like ETHRA.

When Ronald Wilmoth had his heat exhaustion episode, his cat wouldn’t leave his side until the ambulance arrived.  Photo by Lou Murrey

When Ronald Wilmoth had his heat exhaustion episode, his cat wouldn’t leave his side until the ambulance arrived. Photo by Lou Murrey

LIHEAP is the nation’s largest source of federal funding for utility bill assistance, and it is available to low-income households once in a 12-month period. Kathy Hicks, LIHEAP coordinator for ETHRA, says they receive around 5,500 applications each year from residents in the 12 counties they serve and are able to provide assistance to all of those clients.

The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found that only about 22 percent of people eligible for LIHEAP nationwide apply. Local nonprofit organizations, churches and service agencies are left to fill in the gap, meeting the demand the best they can with the limited resources they have.

In rural areas like Claiborne County, there are only so many places to turn for energy bill payment assistance. In addition, areas served by rural electric cooperatives generally have higher energy burdens due in part to aging homes, higher electricity rates and lower average incomes, according to Rory McIlmoil, energy savings program manager at Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this newspaper.

This means a smaller number of agencies have a large gap to fill. Last year, First Baptist Church in New Tazewell, Tenn., received around 200 calls from people asking for bill assistance.

“We used to provide assistance once every six months but [the demand] was too much. It got to a point that people called every six months, and the church and the team had to come to a decision that we could only do every 12 months, and we only serve people living in Tazewell and New Tazewell,” explains Beverly, the administrative assistant at First Baptist Church, who asked that her last name not be used.

The Wilmoths sealed a door shut to keep air from escaping. Photo by Lou Murrey

The Wilmoths sealed a door shut to keep air from escaping. Photo by Lou Murrey

The demand for utility assistance wasn’t always so high. She explains that the church saw an uptick in demand a couple years ago when the local electric cooperative, Powell Valley Electric, ended their WeCare program, a donation-funded program that paid $50 toward the bill of members in need during the winter months. According to Powell Valley Electric, they ended the program when not enough people were donating to the fund.

Where do people like Gerlene go when they’ve exhausted all the resources available to them? Denise West, director of the Claiborne County Office on Aging, says if someone has already been to First Baptist Church and Manna House, then she sends them back to ETHRA to apply for LIHEAP again. She can also help provide assistance to people over the age of 60 through a client-needs grant from the United Way.

“If we have the resource we’ll help them, but what we can’t do is pay people’s bill month after month after month. You can’t keep doing that, there has to be some kind of change made somewhere,” West says. She worked first-hand with Gerlene to see if they could make that change and find her the help she needed. “When you see people in that shape, first of all you’re angry because it takes so long to get help, and secondly you’re more willing to help them because you know they’ve done everything they can to help themselves,” West says.

Home Improvements

Advocates in the region agree that there does have to be a change made somewhere. While these programs provide emergency assistance, they don’t address the fact that too many people are living in inefficient homes without the money, ability or programs to fix them.

There are programs in Tennessee aside from the Weatherization Assistance Program that can provide energy efficiency upgrades, but the majority of those are in cities. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which is the federally owned energy generator for most of Tennessee and parts of six other states, funded Extreme Energy Makeover programs in Knoxville, Cleveland and Oak Ridge through a 2011 Clean Air Act violation settlement. Though the funding for these programs will end in September 2017, the Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover program will have been able to weatherize 1,200 homes.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

In an August 2016 meeting between TVA staff and low-income stakeholders in Claiborne County, Gerlene and the other community members in attendance wondered why TVA couldn’t replicate the program in the more rural areas of its territory. TVA staff member Michael Scalf told community members at the meeting that while TVA “would love to see the Extreme Energy Makeover valley-wide,” there are already state programs, churches, and nonprofits already doing energy efficiency upgrades and TVA is more interested in how these entities can work better together to provide much needed services.

Increasingly, inclusive on-bill financing for energy efficiency upgrades is being adopted by rural electric cooperatives across the Southeast. An example of an inclusive model for on-bill financing is Pay As You Save, which is tied to the electric meter and would allow people living in rental and multi-family homes to receive energy efficiency upgrades and pay for them through low-interest monthly payments on their electric bill. The energy upgrades not only benefit people by reducing their energy burden and making their home more comfortable, they also lower costs for the utility.

Roanoke Electric Cooperative in Eastern North Carolina launched an on-bill finance program called Upgrade to $ave in early 2015. According to Roanoke, the first 175 participants received an average of more than $6,000 per home in efficiency improvements, including weatherization and new heating and cooling systems. Those homes are saving nearly $500 a year on their electric bills, even after accounting for repaying the utility for the initial investment. Unfortunately, Roanoke’s program is the only one available in the Southeast, outside of Kentucky.

Before the Wilmoths’ electricity could be cut off, they received Ronald’s first disability payment and were able to pay July’s $225 electric bill. Since he started getting disability the couple has not sought help for their electric bills, but they have not had any weatherization done on their home either. Their electric bill has not gone down — in December their bill was $263.

That is money Gerlene has better uses for. “I need tires for my car and can’t get ‘em because the utilities are too high,” she contends. The Wilmoths still find themselves having to decide between being comfortable in their home and having enough money for food and medical bills. “We usually try to keep the heat at 65 in the winter, but where he’s on the blood thinner he freezes to death so we have to turn it up,” she explains, referring to her husband.

While she is glad Ronald got his disability money, she is frustrated that their food assistance got reduced to just $15 a month as a result. In January, rains flooded the Wilmoths’ bathroom and bedroom, and they learned that Ronald will be needing heart surgery. Gerlene sighs, “You just can’t get ahead.”

Lou Murrey serves as the OSMRE/VISTA Tennessee Outreach Associate with Appalachian Voices. Learn more about Appalachian Voices’ energy efficiency work at

Extending the Growing Season

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

How Appalachian farmers and gardeners are raising crops through the winter

By Dave Walker

Finding fresh, local food during cold Appalachian winters can be a challenge. “Most folks in our region don’t grow at all in the winter,” says Christopher McKenzie of the nonprofit organization Grow Appalachia. “That limits what’s available and when. We know that families need and like to eat fresh produce year-around, and we want folks to be able to eat out of their garden all year long.”

Work-release inmates help Chris McKenzie build a high tunnel for the Russellville Urban Gardening Center in Russellville, Ky. McKenzie says they were a great group to work with. Photo courtesy of the Bowling Green Daily News

Work-release inmates help Chris McKenzie build a high tunnel for the Russellville Urban Gardening Center in Russellville, Ky. McKenzie says they were a great group to work with. Photo courtesy of the Bowling Green Daily News

Some farmers and backyard gardeners in the region are using season extension strategies to do just that.

Season extension expands growing opportunities by controlling the environment around a plant, allowing more favorable conditions for the plant to thrive. From high tunnels to low tunnels to heated greenhouses to straw bales and cold frames, gardeners and farmers are producing fresh vegetables in Appalachia even in the deepest snow.

Crops like carrots, beets, cabbage, kale and lettuce can be planted earlier in the spring or sustained over the winter. Summer vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers can also be started earlier and be better managed for disease prevention, water use and consistency.

For Grow Appalachia, based in Berea, Ky., four-season growing matters as the group works to end food insecurity in Appalachia. Founded in 2009, the nonprofit organization provides funding and technical assistance to 40 partner sites in more than 50 counties throughout Central Appalachia. In 2015, they helped 4,644 gardeners grow over 580,000 pounds of food.

“We work in this region for a reason,” says McKenzie. “A lot of the counties that we work in are record-setters, nationwide, for joblessness. The exit of the coal economy has made an impact on our region.”

By encouraging Appalachians to grow more of their own food, Grow Appalachia partner sites have been able to introduce market farming as an extra income source for families, teach new generations how to preserve their food, and connect fresh food with community centers, assisted living facilities and hunger relief agencies.

Lengthening the Life of Your Garden

Each season extension strategy is unique to the backyard garden or farm. But several simple methods can go a long way toward enjoying fresh, hyper-local greens in the middle of winter.

Hardy plants — including arugula, cabbage, mustard greens, kale, swiss chard, mâche, miner’s lettuce and turnip greens — can grow well throughout the region unaided or with some simple frost protection. Many of these are sown in the fall for winter eating, but some can be started in December for early spring harvests.

Use row covers to blanket plants and insulate them from the cold. They come as fabric rolls from garden supply companies, and can be cut for the gardener’s bed size and reused each year. By adding more layers, the gardener increases their insulation. Small metal hoops lift the row covers above garden beds and plants, much like a tiny high tunnel or greenhouse.

Straw bale cold frames can be constructed by placing straw bales in a rectangle. By adding a window frame on top, the gardener has made a mini-greenhouse. This simple and inexpensive strategy can be very useful when starting vegetables for the spring. To control temperatures, the gardener can ventilate the cold frame by propping open the window with a stick at different heights.

High Tunnels for Higher Yields

McKenzie’s work with Grow Appalachia focuses on the organization’s social enterprises — businesses that aim to improve communities, not just make a profit. By manufacturing and selling high tunnels alongside certified-organic fertilizers, Grow Appalachia is able to direct profits back into its gardening program.

High tunnels look like greenhouses, but are unheated, and are an increasing trend with gardeners and farmers. Some structures are small, just six feet wide by twelve feet long. Others are much larger, such as 30 feet by 96 feet, with peaked, gothic roofs that allow space for tractors.

These structures enable gardeners to harvest year-round and provide farmers with a market advantage. Over the last several years, Grow Appalachia has built 79 high tunnels for 40 different farms and families in Appalachia, many of whom also participate in Grow Appalachia’s gardening program.

“One of our farmers in Waco, Ky., grows spinach in his high tunnels,” says McKenzie. “He’s able to have fresh spinach in February when no one else has fresh greens. He once told me that he was making better money in February than the height of the summer growing season.”

Grow Appalachia’s initial high tunnel design was flexible in its size and did not require grading the land or pouring concrete. Known as a quonset-style high tunnel, it looks like a series of semi-circular hoops that are short and narrow, without a peaked roof. These smaller high tunnels work well on slopes or in compact growing spaces.

“Later, we worked with the University of Kentucky’s research farm to develop a gothic-style high tunnel that has a peaked roof,” says McKenzie. This allows the high tunnel to be larger and to perform better in harsh weather conditions.

Grow Appalachia works with farmers and gardeners to develop unique high tunnels for each client. The organization receives raw materials such as lumber, galvanized steel, hardware and plastic, and manufactures pre-built kits: galvanized steel tubes are bent, doors are fabricated and holes are drilled. The hoop houses are then delivered by Grow Appalachia, which can also assist with construction and follow-up technical assistance.

While high tunnels constructed with galvanized steel can last a long time, their plastic covers and wood support-sidings have a limited lifetime. Greenhouse-specific plastics are engineered with UV inhibitors, often guaranteed for four years. After that, the plastic begins to discolor and needs to be replaced.

Depending on scale and style, high tunnels vary in price. But for market farmers, support can be found through the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which offers a cost-share program. Grow Appalachia’s high tunnel enterprise meets NRCS standards, and the organization can assist farmers through the cost-share process. The nonprofit also serves as a NRCS technical assistance provider in Southeast Kentucky, helping high tunnel farmers with growing plans, guidance on pests and weeds, and assistance designing irrigation systems.

Grow Appalachia Program Director David  Cooke stands inside a gothic-style high tunnel built for Greenhouse17, a domestic violence shelter outside of Lexington, Ky. Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

Grow Appalachia Program Director David Cooke stands inside a gothic-style high tunnel built for Greenhouse17, a domestic violence shelter outside of Lexington, Ky. Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

“Grow Appalachia has helped us do patchwork on our high tunnels by adding new plastic and building new sides,” says Christina Lane of GreenHouse17 in Lexington, Ky., an advocacy agency committed to ending intimate partner abuse in families and the community. Serving 17 Kentucky counties, seven of which are in Appalachia, GreenHouse17 grows flowers, fruits and vegetables in six high tunnels on its 40-acre farm.

Since 2012, GreenHouse17 has worked with the University of Kentucky and Grow Appalachia to develop its high tunnels. Participants in GreenHouse17’s farm-training program earn stipends and learn the basics of farming and running a small business. Produce is used for meals at the center and sent to the 75 members of the organization’s Community-Supported Agriculture flower program.

“High tunnels are super helpful,” says Jessica Ballard of GreenHouse17. “We’re able to grow winter root vegetables, cabbage and kale while also putting flower seeds in the ground earlier. Our flowers’ stem strength is better and our high-dollar flowers won’t break from the wind and rain.”

Severe weather, though, presents challenges. “Over the past years with interesting weather patterns, we’ve seen a lot of collapses due to snow because folks have sourced them as cheaply as possible or they’re getting a kit from outside the region which may not be built for the snow load,” McKenzie says. “Season extension is an investment, and if you invest in season extension it will pay off. High tunnels have the potential to be a game-changer for farmers, especially where weather can be a challenge.”

At High Rocks Educational Corporation in Pocohontas County, W.Va., youth help raise beds of lettuce.  Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

At High Rocks Educational Corporation in Pocohontas County, W.Va., youth help raise beds of lettuce. Photo courtesy Grow Appalachia

At the Laurel County African American Heritage Center in London, Ky., Wayne Riley works with local youth to grow food for community members, an assisted-living center and the county’s jail. Riley grows lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower in the winter and tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and beans in the summer. With plans for two more high tunnels, the Laurel County African American Heritage Center will soon have six through Grow Appalachia’s social enterprise.

Riley prefers smaller high tunnels because they allow him to better rotate crops and control disease within the garden.

“Trying to overlap growing each season in a high tunnel can be hard,” says McKenzie. “With smaller tunnels, you can have one for spring, one for summer, and one for a cover crop. This lends itself to a sustainable production plan.”

Beyond Season Extension

In addition to its high tunnel social enterprise, Grow Appalachia works with partner sites across the region. These community groups collaborate with backyard gardeners, farmers and community gardeners to help produce bountiful harvests. Through six core classes, home gardeners work with these partner sites to plan, plant and maintain their garden while also learning heart-healthy cooking, food preservation and season extension techniques. According to McKenzie, this work has increased the availability of local food in many communities.

“Between season extension and food preservation, folks are eating and selling things out of their garden or farm year-round,” he says.

At the Cowan Creek Community Center in Letcher County, Ky., canning classes sponsored by Grow Appalachia lead to a greater sense of community. “People from all over Letcher County come to learn how to can like their mom or grandma used to do. It brings people from different economic backgrounds and experiences together,” says McKenzie. “In doing so, they’ve formed this interesting community where preconceptions are dropped.”

In Hindman, Ky., the Hindman Settlement School is reviving its agrarian history by experimenting with low tunnels, which are comprised of small hoops over crop beds that are blanketed with row cover.

This winter, the 114-year-old resident settlement school is busy planning for the spring. In February, it will distribute onion sets and pea seeds to more than 50 family gardeners. Many of these gardeners choose to only have a summer garden, but in the last few years Jacob Mack-Boll and Ashton Huxtable of Hindman have seen more and more gardeners continue to grow well into the winter.

“Some participants have been growing their whole lives,” says Mack-Boll. “They might need help tilling, while others have never grown anything before. So it’s a fun connection to have, bridging the gap between a generation ago and today for the folks we work with and the Hindman Settlement School’s history.”

During February, Mack-Boll and Huxtable will work with their area extension office to help gardeners prepare for the season. They will provide soil testing, advice on soil amendments, and will encourage gardeners to keep good long-term records. “We will talk about cover crops and crop rotation to put nutrients back in the soil,” says Mack-Boll.

Their hope is that this work, as well as their promotion of season extension strategies, will lead to a more vibrant and longer-lasting local farmers’ market. “One struggle is that our farmers’ market is just two months long, July and August,” says Mack-Boll. “With more late and early-season crops, we hope that it can run a little longer.”

Expanding the growing season gives farmers, customers and backyard gardeners alike the opportunity to enjoy local food beyond the traditional summer months. That leads to a greater abundance of healthy, fresh options, and the feeling of self-sufficiency that comes from a flourishing winter harvest. u
Dave Walker is the program manager for Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture’s CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training) program in northwestern North Carolina. He also is working with community stakeholders to establish a seed library and a local food policy council.

Winter Greens with Executive Director Tom Cormons

Tom Cormons’ son stands in the family’s four-season backyard garden. Photo by Tom Cormons

Tom Cormons’ son stands in the family’s four-season backyard garden. Photo by Tom Cormons

For Appalachian Voices’ Executive Director Tom Cormons, gardening and self-sufficiency has always been a passion. He grew up eating fresh, wholesome food and wanted to share the experience with his family when he moved to his current home in Charlottesville, Va.
“I read Eliot Coleman’s Four Season Harvest and learned what’s possible through that book,” says Cormons. “He’s up in Maine and grows a tremendous amount of food year-round. If he can do it in Maine, I can do it more modestly in Virginia. One thing that I learned from him is that certain vegetables and varieties are incredibly cold-tolerant.”

In Cormons’ 500-square-foot garden, two of his favorite home-grown cold-season greens are mâche and miner’s lettuce. Mâche, also known as corn salad, is a small leafy green with a nutty flavor. Miner’s lettuce leaves are even smaller. He plants them densely, harvesting them with scissors. Both are incredibly productive in Charlottesville’s 7a hardiness zone, regrowing after each harvest for several successions.

Other vegetables that he regularly grows and harvests throughout the winter are komatsuna, a mild, mustard-like brassica that is fast-growing and can survive the winter with some protection, as well as kale, arugula, and mustard or turnip greens. Cormons also plants lettuce in November or December, which will lead to a strong harvest in late February or early March and produce until July.

To sustain these crops, Cormons uses several layers of floating row cover resting on top of the plants. This may be one or four layers, depending upon the vegetable and the temperature. With heavy snows, he will sweep the snow from the row cover, as it’s resting on top of the plant. “I haven’t needed to use any other strategies,” Cormons says. “I’m always able to get all the salad greens that we can eat through the cold season, as well as a lot of cooking greens.”

“I grow anything my kids are fired up about trying. They are involved every step of the way, from ordering the seeds through the harvest. That’s one of the most wonderful things about it for me,” he says. “It’s really nice to be able to eat greens picked a few minutes before you eat them, year-around.” Cormons also notes that growing greens in the winter is easier and less labor-intensive than summer since there are no weed, pest or water shortage concerns.

Several things to look out for are: one, get things in on time and two, keep an eye on them. “It doesn’t require a lot of energy or time for the luxury of fresh greens,” says Cormons.

Could Concrete Help Get Coal Ash Out of Neighborhoods?

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

Making the Best of a Bad Situation

By Elizabeth E. Payne

By its own estimate, Duke Energy is currently storing nearly 160 million tons of coal ash throughout North Carolina. Finding a way to properly recycle this ash could remove a heavy burden from the communities that live near it.

Coal ash — a byproduct of burning coal for electricity — contains numerous heavy metals that pose health risks to humans, including heart disease, lung disease and certain types of cancer.

Most of Duke Energy’s coal ash is now disposed of in unlined impoundment ponds near the utility’s 14 active and retired coal-fired power plants across North Carolina. In 2015, the state’s environmental agency identified nearly 200 wells near impoundment ponds that contained elevated levels of hexavalent chromium and vanadium, both known carcinogens.

Caroline Armijo speaks about cleaning up coal ash in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Caroline Rutledge Armijo.

Caroline Armijo speaks about cleaning up coal ash in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Caroline Rutledge Armijo.

In response to the disastrous 2014 Dan River spill that contaminated the river with nearly 40,000 tons of coal ash, the state passed the Coal Ash Management Act later that year to oversee the closure and cleanup of these ponds. Last year, an amendment to the law mandated that recycling be part of the closure strategies at three Duke Energy plants.

For Caroline Armijo, who is concerned about the coal ash near her hometown of Walnut Cove, N.C., these recycling projects open the door to thinking about the coal ash impoundments in a different way.

“We have serious issues going on in the world right now,” she says. “You’ve gotta stop thinking about today’s penny [and] really put some brainpower behind these problems. I feel like it can be solved.”

Reusing Coal Ash as Fill

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines beneficial use as “the recycling or reuse of coal ash in lieu of disposal.” Finding another purpose for the ash can keep it out of landfills and impoundment ponds.

In 2015, Duke Energy — one of the largest utilities in the country and by far the largest utility in North Carolina — recycled 63 percent of the coal ash it produced in all its plants nationwide, according to the utility’s figures. But it only recycled 38 percent of the ash it produced in North Carolina.

The company highlights only three recycling projects on its website, each of which repurposes the coal ash as structural fill. Ash was used as a base underneath parts of the Asheville Airport and is planned for use refilling the Brickhaven and Colon clay mines in Chatham and Lee counties.

For structural fill projects, the ash is placed between liners to limit contamination with the surrounding soil and water. But EPA regulations for coal ash used as structural fill are more lenient than for coal ash buried in a landfill. Citizen and environmental groups have asked N.C. Superior Court Judge Carl Fox to review whether the clay mines that would be filled with coal ash should be considered landfills instead of structural fill. As of press time in early February, his decision has not been announced.

Concrete Facts

Reusing coal ash as structural fill leaves the coal ash unchanged and in a loose form that is more likely to leach toxins when exposed to water.

Using coal ash to make concrete is one way to physically change the coal ash and encapsulate the toxic elements while creating a valuable material.

Concrete is typically made by mixing sand, rock and water with cement — a dry powder often made from burned limestone.

Coal ash stored at Duke Energy’s power plant in Asheville, N.C., was used as structural fill at the city’s airport. Photo © Copyright 2011 Roy Tennant,

Coal ash stored at Duke Energy’s power plant in Asheville, N.C., was used as structural fill at the city’s airport. Photo © Copyright 2011 Roy Tennant,

Because of its chemical properties, coal ash can be substituted for cement when making concrete. Encapsulating the coal ash into a solid state minimizes the risk of contaminants leaching into the surrounding soil, water and air. The resulting concrete is also generally used for non-residential infrastructure projects, which further reduces risks to human health.

“It’s not the perfect solution, but it’s the best solution we have available to remove the ash from communities and to find a beneficial use for it,” says Amy Adams, North Carolina program manager for Appalachian Voices, the publisher of this paper.

Ash from coal-fired power plants can be recycled at two stages. First, it can be used immediately after it has been produced from burning coal at a power plant. This is called production ash.

Coal ash can also be recycled from impoundment ponds or landfills. This ash is more difficult to reuse because it has been mixed with water and contains ash of different types and qualities. It also may have deteriorated over time.

In order to repurpose stored ash it must first be processed, which is what Duke’s facilities at the three new recycling locations would be responsible for.

According to Jimmy Knowles, the vice president of research and market development at The SEFA Group, a company that specializes in marketing coal ash, production ash can be used by the concrete market with less processing and at a lower cost, since only ash that meets industry standards is collected and sold.

Coal ash has been incorporated into concrete for more than 60 years, according to a paper presented at an industry conference in 2005. Coal ash is not required for making concrete, but according to Knowles, when it is added the resulting concrete is more stable, stronger and often less expensive to make than concrete made from limestone-based cement.

“When it’s used in the concrete, not only does it make the concrete better, but it ties up these trace elements, these ‘constituents of concern,’” he says.

“From our perspective, [production] ash is our product. It’s not a pollution,” Knowles says. “It goes back to the ‘One man’s trash is another man’s treasure’ concept. But that’s the way recycling is.”

Location, Location

The 2016 amendment to the Coal Ash Management Act requires Duke Energy to identify three of its North Carolina power plants where processing facilities can be built to prepare coal ash for use in concrete. Each year, each of these sites must provide 300,000 tons of ash that meet industry standards for use in concrete.

Two of the sites — Buck Steam Station in Salisbury, N.C., and H.F. Lee Plant in Goldsboro, N.C. — have already been announced. A third site must be announced by July 1, 2017.

“I just keep saying, ‘Oh my God, this is all that we have asked for.’ After all the years of litigation and controversy, they’re finally going to remove [the coal ash],” Deborah Graham, a community advocate near the Buck Steam Station, told the Charlotte Observer when the deal was announced in October.

Duke Energy has retired both the Buck and Lee power plants, and neither is producing new coal ash. Together these two sites store only 12.6 million tons of the nearly 160 million tons of coal ash in the state. Duke Energy plans to leave the vast majority of the state’s ash in unlined, drained impoundments covered with a liner, a technique known as cap-in-place.

According to Amy Adams, several of Duke’s power plants that continue to produce and store large volumes of ash should be considered for recycling facilities. For example, the Belews Creek Power Station in Stokes County, N.C., stores nearly 20 million tons of ash, and the Roxboro Plant in Person County stores 34.6 million tons of ash.

A coal ash recycling facility.  Courtesy of The SEFA Group.

A coal ash recycling facility. Courtesy of The SEFA Group.

According to a recent study by the Electric Power Research Institute, these two sites generate much of the state’s new production ash and store much of the state’s pond ash on-site. Both the Belews Creek and Roxboro plants already provide production ash to the concrete market. But neither can currently recycle its stored ash.

Henry Batten, president of Concrete Supply Co. in Charlotte, N.C., purchases some of that ash and is a strong advocate for more coal ash recycling. According to Southeast Energy News, his company “consumes about 2.1 to 2.5 million tons of ash annually” in North and South Carolina — and wants to buy more.

Batten sees a market in recycled pond ash. “We would hope that every plant that ever gets capped would eventually allow us, or someone like us, to harvest that ash for reuse in concrete because it’s better – it’s a more sustainable option than leaving it in the impoundments,” he told Southeast Energy News.

The Greenhouse Gas Factor

Burning limestone to make cement creates a significant amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. In 2009, cement manufacturing “was the fourth-largest source of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions,” according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But every ton of production ash — which already lost most of its carbon when the coal was burned for electricity — used in cement reduces the carbon footprint of the resulting concrete by approximately one ton.

Recycled pond ash has a slightly larger carbon footprint, since lingering carbon must be burned off before it can be used in cement. According to Knowles of The SEFA Group, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions gained from recycled pond ash versus traditional cement varies by the quality of the ash, but he estimates that a two-thirds ton reduction can be expected for every ton of recycled ash used.

He acknowledges that carbon dioxide is released when the carbon is removed from the coal ash, but he points to the overall reduction in emissions in the concrete industry when coal ash is used.

From Pond to Concrete

“The only large-scale commercial operation in the U.S. that is currently processing wet ash is the SEFA STAR process,” the Electric Power Research Institute study states. The SEFA Group’s plant in Georgetown, S.C., processes pond ash from the Santee Cooper Winyah Generating Station.

Recycling plants dry the ash to remove moisture, burn off any remaining carbon and process the ash to ensure that it meets industry standards.

According to Knowles, one of SEFA’s large recycling facilities could process up to 500,000 tons of pond ash per year, and even larger facilities could be built. After removing moisture and carbon, each facility could supply between 300,000 and 350,000 tons of ash per year to the concrete market.

Knowles doubts these recycling projects could provide enough financial incentive for utility companies to stop all cap-in-place closures. But “if you dig it up and move it, and put it back in a lined landfill, you haven’t gotten any value out of it,” he says.

Other Options

Reusing coal ash in concrete provides access to a pre-existing and large-scale market. But other technologies are also being developed.
Dr. Kunigal Shivakumar is a professor at North Carolina A&T University, where his research focuses on developing new composite materials that are lightweight and high strength.

Following the Dan River spill, his research took on new urgency. He and his colleagues developed a technique of mixing coal ash with other substances to create a plastic-like composite with many potential uses, including roof tiles, barrier walls or railroad ties.

The composite he has developed could also be formed into large blocks that would safely encase the coal ash for long-term storage.

At right, compounds made of coal ash. Courtesy of Dr. Kunigal Shivakumar, N.C. A&T University.

At right, compounds made of coal ash. Courtesy of Dr. Kunigal Shivakumar, N.C. A&T University.

“Coal ash is not a problematic waste material, it is a resource if we handle it properly,” Shivakumar says. “But it requires an investment.” His team is seeking funding to continue their research.

Local Support

For families impacted by the coal ash impoundment ponds, getting the ash cleaned up and ensuring access to clean water remain the highest priority.

Caroline Armijo, who grew up near the Belews Creek Power Station, and is fighting to get the coal ash in that community cleaned up, sees innovative recycling projects as a step in the right direction.

“We could easily be a leader in this, an international leader, in this issue. And I hope that we will be,” she says.

For more information about coal ash recycling in North Carolina, visit

State Politics Across the Region

Friday, February 10th, 2017 - posted by interns

By Elizabeth E. Payne and Molly Moore

While national political headlines might dominate newsstands and newsfeeds, there is also plenty of action happening in state legislatures across the region. Here’s an overview of some of the energy and environmental topics at hand.


Session is expected to run from Jan. 9 through late March or early April.

According to the Georgia Conservancy, an environmental organization, key issues in the 2017 state legislature will include efforts to establish more transparency and environmental protections for any future petroleum pipelines, as well as legislation to protect freshwater sources by enhancing buffer zones.

Conservationists also hope to see passage of the Georgia Outdoor Stewardship Act, which would establish a permanent source of funding for environmental efforts such as establishing buffer zones around military bases and protecting the gopher tortoise, the state’s official reptile.


Session runs from Jan. 3 to March 30

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin began the year by announcing state budget cuts. According to the Courier-Journal, the Energy and Environment Cabinet’s budget will fall 9.7 percent from 2016 to 2018, and that’s on top of a 16-percent cut from 2012 to 2016.

Meanwhile, Bluegrass State legislators have introduced a suite of anti-environmental bills. Among them, H.B. 37 would exempt unmined coal reserves from state and local property taxation — these taxes support the Kentucky Heritage Land and Conservation Fund.

Other bills would make it more difficult for citizens to challenge environmentally harmful land uses, remove the requirement that any nuclear power facilities have a permanent waste disposal plan and make it more difficult for sewer districts to fund green infrastructure. H.B. 165 would restore a coal incentive tax credit that sunsetted for most facilities in 2009.

But there are also several bills that could benefit the state’s natural resources. H.B. 35 would establish public benefit corporations, where the business is accountable not just to shareholders but also to fulfilling a public-interest mission. And H.B. 61 would enhance the share of coal and mineral severance taxes that go to local governments.

The Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition is advocating for passage of the Energy Opportunity Act, which would lead to increased renewable energy and energy efficiency in the commonwealth.


Session runs from Jan. 11 to April 10

Maryland’s Republican governor, Larry Hogan, has outlined a 2017 budget that offers $65 million in environmental investments including workforce training for green jobs, incentives for electric vehicles and efforts to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay.

Yet in 2016 the governor vetoed the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a bill that supporters say would have created jobs by requiring that Maryland derive 25 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2020, instead of the current target of 20 percent by 2022. The Maryland League of Conservation Voters intends to push for a legislative override of the veto in the 2017 session.

North Carolina

Session runs from Jan. 25 through July

At the beginning of 2017, North Carolina welcomed Roy Cooper, the state’s new Democratic governor, and welcomed back its Republican-controlled legislature.

The 2017 legislative session picked up where the December 2016 special session called by then-Governor Pat McCrory left off. In December, legislators limited the power of local election boards and limited the power of the incoming governor. Many of these initiatives are being challenged in court.

Cooper chose Michael Regan to head the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. Regan served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under both the Clinton and G.W. Bush administrations and recently worked with a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

Due to the restrictions on gubernatorial powers imposed by the special session, Regan’s appointment must now be confirmed by the state Senate.
If passed, two bills filed in the House could help smooth the way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. H.B. 3 would add a section to the state’s constitution expanding the situations in which government can apply eminent domain to take private property for public use.

H.B. 10 uses this revised definition to extend eminent domain to infrastructure projects including “facilities related to the distribution of natural gas, and pipelines or mains for the transportation of petroleum products, coal, natural gas, limestone or minerals.”


Session runs from Jan. 3 to late June or July as needed

In December 2016, Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, vetoed a bill passed by the state’s Republican legislature that would have frozen the state’s renewable energy standards. Gov. Kasich had signed off on the freeze in 2014.

The state’s dominant utilities, American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, are also pushing the legislature to change to the way Ohio regulates utilities, in part to help keep AEP’s fleet of older coal-fired power plants profitable.


Session runs from Jan. 3 to June 30

Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, is advocating for a severance tax on natural gas. It’s the third year he’s tried to institute such a tax — earlier efforts were defeated by the legislature’s Republican majority.

Several legislators introduced memos supporting use of the potential new tax revenue for various projects, including pension obligations and low-income utility bill assistance. The state faces a $3 billion budget shortfall, according to the Associated Press.

South Carolina

Session runs from Jan. 10 through June 1

State Sen. Campsen introduced a bill to reauthorize and fund the South Carolina Conservation Bank, a land protection institution that also facilitates public access to these areas. Another of Campsen’s proposals aims to restore certain wetlands.

In the House, Rep. Neal proposed an Environmental Bill of Rights asserting South Carolinians’ rights to clean air and water and allowing local governments to enact environmental protections that are stronger than state standards.

Another House bill, from Rep. Atwater, would allow all regulations to expire after five years unless they meet specific provisions, while a bill from Rep. Pitts would create an industrial hemp agriculture program.


Session runs from Jan. 10 through mid-April

One bill headed for the Senate would amend the tax code for oil and natural gas severance payments in order to provide more resources to impacted communities. If passed, funds could go towards infrastructure, which expands economic opportunities and decreases respiratory ailments caused by dusty roads.

Another Senate bill seeks to expand broadband internet service to underserved rural communities in Tennessee. Gov. Bill Haslam has also proposed a plan to invest $45 million in expanding broadband access over the next three years.

Environmental groups are seeking support for a bill that would expand how families and companies could finance energy upgrades, according to WMOT Radio.
The state’s environmental agency is also planning to privatize portions of Fall Creek Falls State Park.


Session runs from Jan. 11 through late February

Parallel bills introduced in the Virginia House and Senate would encourage pumped hydroelectric storage facilities powered by renewable energy in Southwest Virginia. In facilities of this sort, wind or solar energy would pump water from a reservoir at a lower elevation to one at a higher elevation. That water can then be used for hydroelectric power whenever there is need on the energy grid.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to veto H.B. 2198, which would extend until 2022 tax credits to the coal industry that were set to expire in 2017. S.B. 990 aims to reduce electricity usage in the retail sector.

H.B. 1678 would exempt as “trade secrets” any chemicals and ingredients submitted to the DMME — such as those used in fracking — from requests under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

In the Senate, three bills sponsored by Sen. Frank W. Wagner focus on renewable energy. One bill would create community solar pilot projects in Dominion Virginia Power and Appalachian Power territories. Another bill sets parameters for small-scale generators at agricultural businesses that use renewable energy to sell any excess electricity. A third bill would allow wind and solar facilities up to 150 megawatts to benefit from an easier permitting process.

Read more about Virginia state legislation on the Front Porch Blog.

West Virginia

Session runs from Feb. 8 through April 8

West Virginia’s Democratic governor and coal-mine owner Jim Justice appointed Austin Caperton, another man with deep ties to the coal industry, secretary of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

On Jan. 27, Caperton fired Wendy Radcliff, the department’s environmental advocate. He also fired the department’s communications director.

“This is troublesome news,” Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Radcliff has been the direct line for citizen concerns to help make sure the agency is accountable to the public.”

When the state’s legislature convenes, the West Virginia Mineral Owners Coalition intends to lobby for legislation that would support landowners, such as protecting a landowner’s right to deny access to pipeline surveyors and upholding minimum royalty payments for minerals.

Maintaining water quality standards, promoting energy efficiency upgrades in commercial buildings, and advocating for disclosure of campaign financing are among the legislative priorities of the West Virginia Environmental Council.