Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

The Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding

Friday, April 29th, 2016 - posted by Ridge Graham

Announcing our new Surry-Yadkin electric co-op campaign

Pilot Mountain in Surry County. Photo by Joe Potato / iStockPhoto

Pilot Mountain in Surry County. Photo by Joe Potato / iStockPhoto

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding in western North Carolina.

Throughout 2015, we engaged with communities surrounding our Boone, N.C., office about the widespread benefits of energy efficiency. Now our local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric, is offering the Energy SAVER Loan Program, an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency upgrades. After achieving success in the North Carolina High Country, we are expanding our efforts to additional electric cooperative service territories.

To the east of the Blue Ridge Electric territory is the Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation (EMC). Surry-Yadkin EMC provides utility service to over 27,000 people in the beautiful Yadkin Valley and surrounding areas. This region, nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is known for its agricultural heritage, vineyards and music festivals.

Surry-Yadkin EMC currently offers programs that demonstrate its commitment to energy savings for its members, including rebates on the purchase of energy-efficient heat pumps for home and water heating. While these programs are healthy incentives for those in the market for an upgrade, most families cannot afford the upfront costs of standard efficiency retrofits which average $6,500, according to local weatherization programs.

In Surry, Yadkin and Wilkes counties, which make up more than 80 percent of Surry-Yadkin EMC’s service territory, the median household income is approximately $7,000 less than the North Carolina average and $13,000 less than the national average. To put that in perspective, residents of the area who live in manufactured housing have stated that their energy bills are 25 percent of their monthly income in the winter. More than half of all the housing units in the area are at least thirty years old and likely have common needs for efficiency upgrades.

Members of Surry-Yadkin EMC are in an ideal situation for achieving high energy savings because the area experiences cold winters and hot summers. With proper insulation and air sealing, both heating and air conditioning can be maintained efficiently. If Surry-Yadkin EMC introduces an on-bill financing program, members could save on average over $100 each year on their energy costs while enjoying increased comfort and home health.

Our Energy Savings for Appalachia team has met with community organizations to learn about the need for local residents to lower their energy bills and we’ve met with energy efficient businesses that recognize the benefit that energy savings can provide in job growth and increased local capital. In addition to developing these partnerships, we have presented to local groups about home energy improvements and options their utilities provide with the goal of increasing understanding about energy efficiency and successful programs across the Southeast.

We are hopeful that we can work alongside Surry-Yadkin EMC to provide an accessible program for its members and to cultivate a broad awareness of the need to expand energy efficiency programs throughout the region.

Do you know what energy efficiency options your utility offers? Visit the Energy Savings Action Center to find out! And if you are a Surry-Yadkin EMC member, take action here or contact ridge@appvoices.org to learn about volunteer opportunities.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

No need for more fracked-gas pipelines

Thursday, April 28th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Special to the Front Porch: Our guest today is Cathy Kunkel, an energy analyst with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, and lead author of a new report on the overbuilding of natural gas pipelines in the mid-Atlantic. Kunkel has undergraduate and master’s degrees in physics, was a senior research associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and has testified before regulatory bodies.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 2.08.53 PM

We’ve published a report today that concludes that two natural gas pipelines proposed for construction from West Virginia into Virginia and North Carolina are indicative of a rush toward industry overbuilding.

The study, “Risks Associated With Natural Gas Pipeline Expansion Across Appalachia,” examines the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would traverse West Virginia into eastern Virginia, and the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would cross Virginia and branch deeply into North Carolina. The pipelines combined would run for more than 800 miles and together would cost roughly $9 billion.

There’s a widespread assumption that such pipelines would only be proposed if they were necessary. This assumption is not supported by the facts.

We found that the dynamics of the pipeline business tend toward overbuilding, toward building excess pipeline capacity. Major pipeline companies are competing with each other to build out the best, most well-connected pipeline networks. And utility companies are entering the pipeline space because much of the risk of overbuilding can be pushed off onto captive ratepayers. And natural gas production companies are entering the pipeline business because their core business — drilling -— is underperforming and they are looking for ways to boost revenue and investment value. These kinds of financial considerations on the part of individual companies do not add up to socially rational, prudent long-term planning.

pipeline capacityThe pipeline business is able to attract more capital than is needed—because of the high rates of return that pipeline companies typically earn. Pipeline rates are regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). FERC allows higher rates of return for pipeline companies than it does for electric transmission companies or than state utility commissions typically allow for state-regulated utilities. For example, by policy FERC allows a 14 percent rate of return, while regulated utilities at state public service commissions typically are only allowed in the 10 percent range.

The tendency towards overbuilding is widely understood in the industry -— executives and analysts talk openly about it -— and FERC’s regulatory process currently misses this dynamic. There is no regional planning process for natural gas pipeline infrastructure in the way that there is for electric transmission lines, for example. FERC looks at pipelines on a project-by-project basis. The agency considers a line necessary if the project developer is able to enter into contracts for the majority of the capacity of the project. What we’ve found in the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley Pipeline cases is that the project developers and the shippers who are entering into contracts with the pipeline are subsidiaries of the same company. So the fact that a pipeline developer is signing a contract with an affiliate is strong evidence that there is financial advantage to the parent company from building the pipeline, but not necessarily that there is an independently established basis for the pipeline need. The private assumptions of individual pipeline developers are not adequately checked against broader standards of the public interest.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 11.08.04 AM

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a good example of this. If it is approved it appears that two separate pipelines will serve the same power plant -– an example of too much pipeline capacity. The Atlantic Coast project is a joint venture with Duke, Dominion, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources having ownership interests and are the developers. The main shippers on the project are subsidiaries of Duke and Dominion — those two companies have contracted for 68 percent of the capacity on the pipeline. Consumers will bear the risk of higher rates if project assumptions do not materialize. The cost of building the pipeline, including the profit for the developers, will be passed through to the shippers of the pipeline who will be able to recover it from their ratepayers through rates established by state public service commissions.

Put another way, the regulatory structure gives Duke and Dominion an incentive to prioritize building their own pipeline rather than using that of another company. If the demand for the capacity along the Atlantic Coast pipeline does not materialize, ratepayers will still be on the hook to pay for that capacity.

It appears that the need for the Atlantic Coast pipeline has been overstated. In its application to FERC, Atlantic Coast asserts that one use of the gas from the pipeline will be for Dominion’s new Brunswick and Greensville natural gas plants. But in its applications to the State Corporation Commission to build those power plants, Dominion asserted that the plants will be fueled from the Transco line. In the case of the Brunswick plant, a spur from the Transco line to the plant has already been built. Without better coordination and planning it appears that two pipelines are being built to supply one power plant. The Atlantic Coast pipeline is a relatively low risk venture for Duke and Dominion, the main project developers. Most of the risk for the project is borne by those utility customers in Virginia and North Carolina.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline has a different risk profile. The Mountain Valley pipeline is a supplier-driven pipeline. The majority-owner of the project is an affiliate of EQT, one of the largest Appalachian shale gas drillers, and the entity that has contracted to ship the largest volume of gas on the pipeline is EQT. We found that the biggest risks of this project stem from the financial weakness of EQT. EQT is not doing badly relative to other Appalachian shale drillers, but the entire sector is in turmoil because of sustained low natural gas prices, which are widely expected to remain low into 2017. EQT’s credit ratings are one notch above junk, and its stock has fallen 26 percent since January 2014. Bankruptcies are widely expected in the natural gas drilling sector this year, and banks are expected to cut back on lending. EQT has diversified into the pipeline business presumably because of the traditionally stable and higher returns to be found in this sector.

Communities along the pipeline route also bear risks that stem from EQT’s financial weakness. EQT does not appear to be a stable, long-term partner for these communities. EQT’s weakened financial position suggests it will adopt only a limited commitment to communities or perhaps be forced to sell its ownership interests to a new company that is not part of current deliberations

To sum up, our study finds that natural gas pipeline infrastructure out of the Marcellus and Utica regions will become overbuilt within the next several years, an outcome recognized by many in the industry itself.

The economic and financial factors that incentivize companies to invest in the development of new natural gas pipelines will not produce a socially rational outcome. Without a coordinated approach to natural gas pipeline planning, as exists for many other types of infrastructure, the FERC cannot make an honest determination of the need for these pipelines. Ratepayers and communities will shoulder much of the costs and risks of the Atlantic Coast and Mountain Valley pipelines, investments of nearly $9 billion that are poised for approval without adequate scrutiny.

The Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding

Monday, April 25th, 2016 - posted by eliza

Announcing our new French Broad electric co-op campaign

Marshall, N.C. on the French Broad River

Marshall, N.C., on the French Broad River

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia program is expanding in western North Carolina.

Throughout 2015, we engaged with communities surrounding our Boone, N.C., office about the widespread benefits of energy efficiency through our Energy Savings for Appalachia campaign. Now our local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric, is offering the Energy SAVER Loan Program, an on-bill financing program for residential energy efficiency upgrades.

After achieving success in the North Carolina High Country, we are expanding our efforts to the service territories of the French Broad Electric Membership Corporation and Surry-Yadkin Electric Membership Corporation.

It is our goal to see all of the electric membership cooperatives (EMC) in Appalachia join other utilities in offering on-bill energy efficiency financing programs. On the coast, Roanoke EMC started up a distinguished program called Upgrade to $ave in 2015, but there are also more established, successful programs in eastern Kentucky and South Carolina. For Appalachian Voices, western North Carolina is our focus for building a movement around affordable energy efficiency for all.

Covering much of the French Broad River watershed, French Broad EMC provides electric service to more than 33,000 people across northern Buncombe, Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties in North Carolina and part of Unicoi County in Tennessee. The region is rural and mountainous, bordered by the Appalachian Trail and famous for whitewater rafting and its high peaks.

We see great potential for an on-bill energy efficiency financing program here. French Broad EMC has been offering low-interest on-bill financing for mini-split electric heat pumps, a highly energy-efficient heating system, for the past two years. The success of this program has led to its continuance, which we see as a stable foundation for a larger, more encompassing energy efficiency financing program.

Download our French Broad EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Download our French Broad EMC resource guide to learn more about public and private home energy services and assistance in Madison, Yancey and Mitchell counties.

Over the past few years we have developed strong connections with the kind, hardworking people who serve those in need in the area. We’ve also learned of the high demand for assistance with energy bills in the cold winter months among the area’s residents. In the three counties that make up most of French Broad EMC’s service territory, the median household income is approximately $10,000 less than the North Carolina average and $15,000 less than the national average. Additionally, half of all the housing units in this area are more than 30 years old.

There are thousands of homes and residents in need of energy efficiency improvements, and few programs available to most residents who cannot afford the upfront cost of those improvements. In other words, there exists a gap where many would be supported by an energy efficiency financing program provided by French Broad EMC.

To further Appalachian Voices’ advocacy and education around energy use, I am working on the ground in French Broad EMC’s service territory, generating public dialogue around energy efficiency by talking to the community about how to save money and energy. By helping those who struggle to pay their energy bills and keep their house warm, we hope to raise awareness about the need for a debt-free, on-bill energy efficiency financing program.

Do you know what energy efficiency options your utility offers? Visit the Energy Savings Action Center to find out! And if you are a French Broad EMC member, take action here or contact eliza@appvoices.org to learn about volunteer opportunities.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

How coal ash impacts civil rights

Monday, April 18th, 2016 - posted by sarah

Residents of Walnut Cove have fought to win justice for those who have been harmed by coal ash pollution at the nearby Belews Creek power plant.

Residents of Walnut Cove, N.C., testified about the threats coal ash poses to their community during a hearing organized by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Residents of Walnut Cove, N.C., testified about the threats coal ash poses to their community during a hearing organized by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

March flew by in North Carolina, where coal ash continues to make headlines and the state government continues to make missteps.

Last month, more than 1,500 North Carolinians flocked to the 14 public hearings on coal ash basin closure held by the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality. The turnout was great, the news coverage was thorough, and the oral comments delivered by residents (many of whom live within 1,500 feet of Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds) were pointed and poignant.

Residents commented on a lack of science and data in Duke Energy’s groundwater reports and noted the cozy relationship between Duke, Gov. Pat McCrory and DEQ. They explained why they do not feel safe drinking their well water and demanded that all coal ash sites be made high-priority for cleanup and that no site be capped-in-place. And they shared heart-wrenching stories of family and friends who have passed away or are currently suffering from illnesses associated with exposure to heavy metals.

On the heels of the series of March hearings, the U.S. government added one more critical hearing to North Carolina’s expansive schedule: a hearing on coal ash as it relates to civil rights.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is currently preparing a report for Congress, President Obama, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on coal ash and its impact on civil rights, especially in low-income communities and communities of color. In February, the commission held a hearing in Washington, D.C., where hundreds of coal ash activists and coal ash neighbors from across the country gathered and testified about the impacts coal ash has had on their communities. State advisory committees to the commission also had the opportunity to hold local field hearings, but only two in the nation did, and one of those was in the small town of Walnut Cove, N.C.

This was a big deal for residents of Walnut Cove, who have fought for over three years to make their tragic story known and to win justice for those who have been harmed by Duke’s coal ash pollution at the nearby Belews Creek power plant. In response to the interest in coal ash expressed by the North Carolina Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, the Walnut Cove community showed up in a big way.

Citizens Speak Up

Throughout the day, the Walnut Cove Public Library was packed with local residents and allies. Several community members were featured on the panels, including Tracey Edwards and David Hairston, lifelong residents of Walnut Cove who spoke to their experience of growing up with the coal ash falling like snow and witnessing the alarming rates of illness, especially cancer, and subsequent deaths in their small, rural community.

“Duke Energy promotes poison for profit at the expense of human life,” remarked Edwards. “You can’t drive in any direction from the coal power plant without knowing someone who has cancer.”

“You won’t understand until you’ve lived what we’ve lived and lost what we’ve lost,” Hairston explained. “My only mother is dead, Tracey’s only mother is dead. Who else we gonna lose over the next ten years?”

Long-time volunteer and activist, Caroline Armijo, who grew up in a neighboring town of Walnut Cove, presented on a panel alongside DEQ Assistant Secretary Tom Reeder. While Reeder praised DEQ and the McCrory administration for their efforts to clean up coal ash in North Carolina, Armijo made it clear that those efforts were not enough. She cited the pervasive illnesses, and the desire among community members to look at solutions that would last longer and be more protective than lined landfills.

The advisory committee members were attentive and moved by the stories and information presented. They were concerned not just about the health impacts of coal ash, but also the associated health care costs and psychological trauma, repeatedly asking community panelists if anyone is helping them in their plight. Committee Member Thealeeta Monet commented on the shameful lack of mental health care available to coal ash neighbors saying, “You cannot be collateral damage without being damaged.”

To the surprise of the audience, committee member Rick Martinez, who has ties to the conservative John Locke Foundation and the McCrory administration, told Duke Energy’s Mike McIntire that he should tell his superiors that the people of Walnut Cove would not accept anything less than full excavation of the coal ash pond. “Tell your management to start budgeting for that eventuality,” Martinez said, “not just here but throughout the state.”

In addition to the scheduled panelists, around 40 additional community members and allies spoke during the open comment section of the hearing. Some speakers had travelled from other North Carolina communities near to Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds, and spoke for both their communities and in solidarity with residents of Walnut Cove. The final speakers of the day were all locals who had lost numerous loved ones to cancer.

Shuntailya Graves, a college student studying to become a biologist brought many in the audience to tears when she listed the cancers that each of her immediate family members have sufferred. Adding to the concerns of health care costs she explained, “My mother was diagnosed with thyroid, ovarian and uterine cancers. She had a full hysterectomy and later was diagnosed with thyroid and brain cancer. She has had nine cancerous brain tumors. Her medicines for a 30-day supply are $1,900. Who is going to pay for that? This all comes from coal ash.”

Vernon Zellers told the commission about losing his wife to brain cancer. The committee chair, Matty Lazo-Chadderton, walked over to give him tissues as he sobbed in front of the crowd. “When am I going to die?” he asked, “Am I next?”

Committee Members Respond

Not only were the committee members clearly moved by the day’s events, but so were the three presidentially appointed members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights who sat in the audience. Because of the excitement felt by everyone in the weeks leading up to the hearing, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ chairman, vice-chair and another commission member all journeyed to Walnut Cove to listen to the day’s speakers. Chairman Martin Castro commented that the Walnut Cove hearing was the most powerful he had ever been to, both in content, community engagement, and emotional persuasiveness.

With tears in her eyes, Commissioner Karen Narasaki told the community members, “You have given life to the policy issues that can get so wonky. You have made it clear that in this case, it is just about common sense.”

Castro told the community that he related strongly with their stories, having grown up in an industrial area in a community that also suffered from high rates of cancer.

“Don’t tell me there is not a correlation,” he remarked. “This is not just a constitutional or public policy issue. This is a real life issue. Know your stories did not go unfelt or unnoticed. There is something wrong with the system and we need to figure out how to change the system.”

“You will have an advocate,” he promised, “not just here, but in Washington.”

The hearing was a blessing for the community of Walnut Cove, and not one person left without feeling the sense of sorrow, hope, love, passion and joy that emanated from the day’s speakers. As we continue to fight for justice for the little town next to Duke Energy’s Belews Creek power plant, we can take solace in the knowledge that when residents, DEQ and Duke each presented their testimonies during a federal hearing, the light of truth shone unmistakably bright upon the everyday people who have lived, lost, and fought a Goliath in the shadow of its smokestacks.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Peabody Energy joins coal bankruptcy club

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 - posted by brian
While the company no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of Peabody Energy’s fall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

While the company no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of Peabody Energy’s downfall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers. Photo via Flickr licensed under Creative Commons.

This week, the world’s largest private-sector coal company filed for bankruptcy and pretty much no one was surprised.

Citing an “unprecedented industry downturn,” St. Louis-based Peabody Energy joined the ranks of Arch Coal, Alpha Natural Resources, Patriot Coal, Walter Energy and dozens of other U.S. coal companies forced to seek bankruptcy protections since 2012.

But Peabody’s production, the depth of its debt and the scale of its liabilities set the bankrupt coal behemoth apart.

The company operates the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Wyoming, the largest coal mine in the country. Last year, that mine alone accounted for 109 million tons of the nearly 900 million tons of coal produced in the U.S.

In order to eventually clean up its mines, Peabody is on the hook for more than $2 billion, but more than half of that amount is secured with “self-bonds,” basically a coal industry IOU conveniently co-signed by the taxpayer. It’s estimated that the company has amassed around $6 billion in debt.

While Peabody no longer operates in Central Appalachia, the story of its downfall is similar to those of major Appalachian producers Alpha Natural Resources and Arch Coal. Like those companies, Peabody bet big on overseas demand and took on billions in debt in 2011 when it acquired the Australian producer Macarthur Coal. (Stop me if you’ve heard this one.)

Rather than surging as predicted, demand for steelmaking metallurgical coal plunged. According to a February study by the economic analysis firm Rhodium Group, 93 percent of the decline in the industry’s revenue between 2011 and 2014 was due to a drop in the consumption and cost of metallurgical coal. That hit, combined with competition from natural gas and clean energy at home, eventually became too much to bear.

Central Appalachia also has a lot of first-hand experience with what happens next, especially after Alpha’s and Arch’s bankruptcy proceedings. In recent months, those companies have worked to dodge environmental cleanup liabilities and their obligations to workers past and present. Yet, somewhere, both Alpha and Arch found millions of dollars in bonuses to reward executives. For what? Not jumping ship, essentially.

Based on its past actions, I’m not sure we should expect any different from Peabody. After all, the coal company thought to be “too big to fail” may have gotten there partly by creating companies to fail. Look at what happened to Patriot Coal, a twice-bankrupt company created in 2007 from unionized, Peabody-owned mines in West Virginia and Kentucky and saddled with pension and health care obligations to more than 8,000 retired miners.

In fact, Appalachian citizens may be the least surprised that Peabody has joined the coal industry’s bankruptcy club.

“Here in Kentucky, we’ve known the coal industry has been leaving for 30 years,” said Carl Shoupe, a retired third generation coal miner and member of Kentuckians For The Commonwealth. So Shoupe and others across the region are staying focused on the future.

“Mr. Peabody’s coal train might have hauled away our coal — and the profits along with it — but we Kentuckians are still right here, fighting every day for a bright future and demanding our elected leaders do their job to help us transition to a new economy while keeping our promises to the coal miners who powered this country.”

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Another step toward clean water in Southwest Virginia

Thursday, April 14th, 2016 - posted by Erin
Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Photo by Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards

Appalachian Voices, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards (SAMS) and the Sierra Club recently lodged a settlement addressing several sources of water pollution in Southwest Virginia. The settlement must still be approved by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. If approved, several sources of the toxic pollutant selenium in Wise County, Va., will be cleaned up and the city of Norton, Va., will be one big step closer to cleaning up an abandoned coal-loading facility.

The Case

In 2014, SAMS, the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices, represented by Appalachian Mountain Advocates, filed a legal action against Penn Virginia for violations of the Clean Water Act. In response to our allegations, Penn Virginia filed claims against A&G Coal Corp., a Jim Justice-owned company, claiming the company was responsible for at least some the pollution. A&G operates a mine neighboring the Penn Virginia land identified in the case.

The violations included unlawful discharge of the toxic pollutant selenium into several tributaries of Callahan Creek. The violations were discovered by SAMS through a review of records submitted by A&G Coal to state regulators in Virginia. The reports showed discharges of selenium and sulfate. Both pollutants are harmful to aquatic life. Selenium can be particularly harmful, resulting in fish deformities and reproductive failure.

A two-headed trout deformed from exposure to selenium

The Settlement

If approved, the settlement will resolve this case and results in several important water quality improvements in Southwest Virginia. Under the settlement terms, A&G Coal will treat three seeps currently discharging selenium into the Kelly Branch tributary of Callahan Creek. The settlement also requires the companies to provide $35,000 for the initial cleanup assessment of a nearby abandoned coal processing site in Norton known as Tipple Hill. Once the site has been restored, it could be included in the Norton Guest River Walk project. The Tipple Hill project is supported by the City of Norton, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable.

Moving Forward

This settlement offers our organizations a unique opportunity to resolve pollution from both an active mine and from legacy mining on land owned by a large landholding company. Large swaths of land in Southwest Virginia are owned by companies like Penn Virginia that lease land to timber, coal and gas companies for resource extraction. These landholding companies often escape liability when problems arise from the activities on the land.

Several mechanisms exist for addressing water pollution and other problems associated with coal mining. On active mines, including those undergoing reclamation, the coal company is responsible for monitoring conditions and addressing problems that arise. The state oversees this monitoring to make sure the law is enforced, but a lot of problems still occur.

Problems arising from mines that were closed prior to passage of the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) are eligible for federal Abandoned Mine Land (AML) funding. There is a fairly large amount of money available through the AML reclamation fund, but not enough to cover every problem left over from these pre-SMCRA mines. Mines permitted after the passage of SMCRA include bonds to cover the cost of reclamation should the company fall into bankruptcy. Unfortunately, in many instances, bonding has proved insufficient for proper reclamation, especially as many coal companies go bankrupt in close succession.

In many cases, it is difficult to determine exactly how water pollution arose. Many areas around Central Appalachia have been mined underground, surface mined prior to SMCRA, and surface mined after SMCRA. Add gas well drilling to that mix, and it becomes very difficult to pinpoint the individual companies responsible. Many people, including all of us at Appalachian Voices, primarily want to see water problems cleaned up, regardless of who’s responsible. But with limited resources for cleanup, identifying liability can be a critical part of addressing the sources of water pollution.

Moving forward, we’re going to have to identify multiple resources – funding, expertise, and local knowledge – to help us restore Central Appalachia.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Homeowners near mine struggle with blasting damage

Wednesday, April 13th, 2016 - posted by molly

What happened on Pine Creek?

Tuesday, April 12th, 2016 - posted by tarence

Another example of the costs that communities near coal mines pay in ecological, economic and human health.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky.

With support from local residents, the Appalachian Water Watch is responding to coal pollution events like the recent spill along Pine Creek in Letcher County, Ky. Photos by Tarence Ray

A lot of folks have had questions about the recent mine blowout on Pine Creek, in Letcher County, Ky. So we’ve put together an explainer that runs through the facts, the science and the regulatory protocols behind spills like this.

Where is Pine Creek?

Pine Creek is a small creek that flows off Pine Mountain and into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. The point where Pine Creek and the Kentucky River meet is roughly five miles upstream of the municipal drinking water intake that serves Whitesburg, Ky., and the surrounding county.

So what happened?

On Friday, March 18, an auger mine company, Hardshell Tipples, was mining at the head of Pine Creek when they inadvertently drilled into an old underground mine. Water had stored up in the mine over time, slowly increasing in acidity and iron content creating what is called “acid mine drainage.” This water rushed out into a sediment pond when the mine was breached by the auger drill, and the pond overflowed into the creek.

What is acid mine drainage?

Acid mine drainage occurs when water flows over or leaches through minerals and materials with high sulfur content. Many times, as in the case at Pine Creek, the minerals exposed to water contain iron pyrite, also known as “fool’s gold.” The result is orange-colored water, which stains rocks and river beds. Acid mine drainage also very likely contains other metals, such as manganese. (The polluted water/mine drainage that spilled into Pine Creek contained manganese, and we’ll get to those test results momentarily). As is indicated by its name, acid mine drainage is also highly acidic — so don’t touch it.

But if all these things are found in nature, isn’t this simply a natural occurrence?

All of the ingredients for making acid mine drainage are naturally occurring, that much is correct. But what is not natural is the excavation of these minerals and their exposure to air and water. Ask yourself: is there anything natural about a stream that is unable to support wildlife?

In the case of Pine Creek, water had stored up in the old underground mine over time, slowly gaining acidity and various metals. These mountains are porous; therefore water got into the mine in the first place through years and years of rain. When the iron pyrite in the mine was exposed to oxygen in the water (you know, the “O” in H2O), it created a highly acidic substance that was harmful for aquatic life. When the mine was breached, this highly acidic substance got into the creek, and was indeed very harmful to aquatic life.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

A dead turtle on the banks of Pine Creek after the spill.

Got it. So back to what happened. What happened?

Our Appalachian Water Watch team was contacted by a concerned citizen who lives on Pine Creek, and we were able to document the spill as it occurred in real-time. Photos of dead fish and turtles were posted and shared by hundreds of people on Facebook and Twitter. We also spoke to residents on the creek who had been trying to catch minnows that morning. Instead, they had a net full of dead fish.

Officials at the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection initially denied that the spill was responsible for killing wildlife. However, due to public pressure from social media and citizens filing complaints, state officials reversed their findings and determined that over 700 fish were killed as a result of the spill.

The state eventually issued four violations against Hardshell Tipples, and compelled the company to commit to a fish-restocking plan for Pine Creek — a huge victory for clean water advocates and a sign that the state is aware of the public’s concern about how state agencies respond to spills like this.

Was this preventable?

Samples taken on the day after the spill show massive amounts of iron and manganese in the water. State documents obtained by Appalachian Voices and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center show that Hardshell Tipples had been issued multiple violations in the past for discharging high amounts of iron from its permit. However, these violations were considerably lower than the most recent Pine Creek spill, and the pictures show it.

It’s established fact that Hardshell Tipples has been reckless in the past with what it choose to discharge off of the permit. But state documents reveal that the company was also issued a citation in 2002 for failing to submit comprehensive underground mine maps to the state. It might be impossible to determine whether this documented negligence had anything to do with the recent mine blowout; however, it’s safe to say that the company has been a consistently careless operator in a watershed that is both ecologically and aesthetically important to eastern Kentucky.

The mine blowout on Pine Creek was clearly preventable. However, this is not to imply that all incidents of acid mine drainage are preventable. The majority of acid mine drainage problems in Letcher County, for example, are from mining that occurred decades ago, and persist to this day. These legacy problems will likely exist for many more decades, unless action is taken by state and federal government agencies.

The main point is that the Pine Creek spill is yet another example of the costs that communities near coal mines have to pay for in terms of ecological, economic and human health.

What do I do if this happens to my creek?

In this case, the quick response of nearby citizens and our team pushed the state to action and prevented the mine waste from affecting Letcher County’s municipal water system. However, in other instances, communities may not be aware of the problem for days, or they may be unable to contact their proper state agencies — especially if the problem begins on a weekend.

In any case, there are several things you can do to get the state to respond:

1. Take photos. Put your photos on social media, and make sure you tag the respective state or federal agencies in your post. Pictures of dead wildlife are especially useful, as they paint a more comprehensive portrait of the affected stream.

You can also send the photos to us through the Appalachian Water Watch Facebook page. If you don’t use social media, make sure you hang on to the photos, and call us immediately at 1-855-7WATERS.

2. Take notes. Make sure you note the date, time, location and any other characteristics of the affected stream. This includes changes in water color, consistency and/or smell. Don’t touch the water unless you’re taking a sample, in which case you should wear gloves.

3. Take a sample. Contact us and we can likely sample the spill within a few hours. If nothing else, purchase a plastic water bottle from your nearby grocery, empty it out, fill it with the contaminated water, and store it on ice until it can be tested. Be sure to wear latex gloves when you grab a sample. The water is likely highly acidic, and could burn your skin. Also, be careful — don’t risk a broken ankle or worse by wading into a fast moving stream just to get a sample. Pictures and notes are often the best course of action.

Don Blankenship sentence “historic,” but not enough

Friday, April 8th, 2016 - posted by brian

Families of killed coal miners and workers put at risk deserve more.

Surrounded by reporters, Tommy Davis stood seething from a potent combination of anger and grief. He was waiting outside the courthouse in Charleston, W.Va., where former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship had just been sentenced to one year in prison — the maximum penalty for his crime.

Davis lost his only brother, a son and a nephew in the 2010 explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine. And while Blankenship wasn’t convicted of directly causing the disaster that killed 29 men, the ensuing investigation led up the company ladder and resulted in multiple convictions, including his own.

The disgraced coal baron was found guilty of conspiring to violate federal mine safety laws last December.

“I miss my family,” Davis says when asked to explain what he is feeling. “He hugged his. All he gets is a year. [The judge] done great — she give him what she could give him. But they need to be stricter, more harsh penalties for people like that who put greed and money over human life.”

Shared widely on social media, the heart-wrenching video of Davis (embedded above) and the coverage of Blankenship’s sentence should shift the public’s focus to the leniency and lacking enforcement of our mine safety laws. Since few observers outside of Blankenship’s defense team and the “Dark Lord of Coal Country” himself would argue the punishment fits his crime, the question then becomes: what punishment would?

It’s not just Davis, of course. Several members of the Upper Big Branch victims’ families, while pleased Blankenship received the strictest sentence possible, shared the feeling that a maximum prison term of just one year was an injustice in itself.

It’s also not just the families of coal miners killed in tragic events too commonly called “accidents” that want the national attention on these preventable disasters channeled to creating true reform. Media outlets ranging from the Charleston Gazette-Mail, which has had excellent and extensive coverage of the trial, to The New York Times editorialized last week about the failure of worker protections, the life-threatening conditions created when they’re not enforced, and the insignificant repercussions after they’re ignored.

An op-ed in the Times called Blankenship’s sentence historic “not because of the law, but in spite of it.”

“The Mine Safety and Health Act, the statute under which Mr. Blankenship was convicted,” the piece continues, “treats the worst criminal violations as mere misdemeanors. The leniency of the available sentence is a failure of the law, not the facts of the case.”

Similarly, the Gazette-Mail called the sentencing “a historic and significant event,” presumably because of the history of deadly coal mine disasters in Appalachia and a significant lack of accountability, which has allowed events like the Upper Big Branch explosion — the deadliest mine disaster in decades — to happen again.

“West Virginia miners — and workers across the country — have died for generations,” the Gazette-Mail editorial reads. “After their deaths, people investigate and report and often pass laws and write rules to keep the same tragedy from being repeated. But those rules cannot work to prevent workplace deaths if they are not followed.”

We’re told it’s at times like these that platitudes and partisanship can be set aside, creating the political space to make much-needed policy changes. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez released a statement calling for action.

“Regrettably, the criminal provisions of the Mine Act are far too weak to truly hold accountable those who put miners’ lives at risk,” said Perez. “This administration continues to support efforts in Congress to strengthen those penalties, and we stand ready to work with members who believe that no worker should lose their life for a paycheck.”

The next day, Sen. Joe Manchin, urged the leaders of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to take up the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, which would strengthen enforcement, penalties and whistleblower protections.

“I believe we have a responsibility to do everything we can in Congress to ensure that a tragedy like this never happens again,” Manchin wrote.

But the same bill has stalled in previous sessions of Congress and, according to the website govtrack.us, it has about a 2 percent chance of being enacted this time around. Meanwhile, the coal industry is finding success weakening mine safety laws at the state level in a dubious and dangerous attempt to slow job losses (read: vanishing profit margins).

Last month, for example, a Kentucky Senate panel approved a bill to eliminate state inspections of mines on the 40th anniversary of an explosion in Letcher County, Ky., that killed 26, the deadliest coal mine disaster in Appalachia after 1970 — until Upper Big Branch.

“The mine safety laws, it is said with good reason, are written in coal miners’ blood,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby wrote in a memo to the judge who sentenced Blankenship. For that reason, Americans that live far beyond Appalachia’s borders should be outraged.

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

From inside Appalachia, a look at WGN’s “Outsiders”

Friday, April 8th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Exclusive to the Front Porch: Award-winning author Ron Rash, known for his distinctly Appalachian voice as a poet, novelist and essayist, offers this reflection on WGN original series, Outsiders, about a clan of Kentucky natives living deep in the hills, and well outside of society.

Photo by Ulf Andersen.

Photo by Ulf Andersen.

So meet the Farrells (get it, feral), who live atop a mountain in southern Appalachia. It is 2016 elsewhere in America, but the Farrell tribe (who number between twenty and two hundred depending on which episode you watch) is living a lifestyle that is a bit retro, say by about two thousand years. They clothe themselves in animal pelts, walk barefoot, and do their internecine “feuding” with clubs.

There is no need to worry about any instances of micro-aggressions in this show. Five minutes into the premiere, we are assured that these mountain folks are nothing but a bunch of incestuous “retard hillbilly animals,” which the next scene confirms. We meet the Farrells at a clan-wide hoedown where everyone is at least a cousin and hell-bent on keeping it that way, openly fornicating when not swilling moonshine or brawling. No stereotype is overlooked: everyone is illiterate except for one heretic who left for some book-larning; Indoor plumbing? Are you kidding, these folks don’t have electricity except for a generator, whose sole purpose appears to be powering a screeching electric guitar. Otherwise, it’s candles and wood stoves. In the first three episodes, we get hexings, attempted matricide, fingers chopped off for violating tribal law, a Viking-like raid of the local Wal-Mart, and language that makes the bad guys in Deliverance sound like Rhodes Scholars. No one plants anything but marijuana and the only hunting is for “furrinurs’ unlucky enough to get these folks riled up. So where does the food come from? I’m expecting a later episode to reveal why Ferrell and cannibal sound so similar.

Assuming reviewers if not TV executives would find such outrageously grotesque depictions disturbing if not reprehensible, I checked their responses to Outsiders. That the show might even be remotely offensive went unmentioned. If anything, three of the four reviewers found the idea that such people existed in Appalachia plausible. Variety praised the show’s ability to depict “a strong sense of place in the wilds of a still-untamed pocket of America.” The Washington Post found it “artfully conceived” although acknowledging parts of the show were ridiculous “{e}ven if rooted in some anthropological research.” The New York Times also found the show cartoonish, though cautioning “Maybe there really are Kentucky hill clans who act like the staff at Medieval Times, but the best efforts of the actors in Outsiders can’t make the Farrells credible.” The L.A. Times gave Outsiders a largely positive review, although noting during a publicity event for the show that a reporter “asked if some of the characters might be werewolves.”

It’s all in good fun, I can imagine the writers and producers saying, and I myself have had some laughs while discussing the show with fellow Appalachians. But I also think of the national outrage when residents of Flint had to drink bottled water for weeks because their own supply was polluted, yet there is no national outrage that in parts of Appalachia the water has been undrinkable for years. Appalachia has always given more to this country than has been given back, especially its natural resources and in times of war, as we’ve recently witnessed, its children. The region is diverse, and many areas are doing well, but for those that are not, might a show focused on “retard hillbilly animals” make it easier for America to ignore the region’s needs? I’m not advocating the show being banned or boycotted. I would even encourage people to watch Outsiders, but with one caveat: if this show were about any other minority group, would you find it nearly as entertaining?

Stay informed by subscribing to the Front Porch Blog.

Ron Rash is the author of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Finalist and New YorkTimes bestselling novel Serena, in addition to five other novels, including One Foot in Eden, Saints at the River, The World Made Straight, and Above the Waterfall; five collections of poems; and six collections of stories, among them Burning Bright, which won the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, Chemistry and Other Stories, which was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/Faulkner Award, and most recently, Something Rich and Strange. Twice the recipient of the O.Henry Prize, he teaches at Western Carolina University. His latest novel The Risen will be out in September from Ecco.