Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

O’ TVA where art thou?

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016 - posted by Amy Kelly
Photo by Lou Murrey, with Appalachian Voices

Photo by Lou Murrey, with Appalachian Voices

This is a joint blog between Appalachian Voices and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. It is also the first in a series SACE will publish on recent energy efficiency meetings between TVA and community members all across the Tennessee Valley.

Rural community members ask TVA for energy efficiency programs

In the rural reaches of the Tennessee Valley, where farmland bends and dips between hills and rivers, the Tennessee Valley Authority promised in the 1930s to bring a modern era of electricity and jobs. Indeed, the New Deal federal program improved Appalachian and rural life in many ways, making good on those promises.

But it also came with some lasting side effects. With hydro-electricity and dam creation, more than 15,000 families had to move, farms were lost and geographic divisions between families and communities were created. Coal towns boomed and busted, leaving behind strip-mined mountains and stagnant local economies. Here in the rural places that time seems to have forgotten, the local residents have a keen memory for their past.

“History says TVA was there for the public good. If you ask folks now, they would say ‘used to be,’” said Bill McCabe, a resident of Hancock County, Tennessee — which has the second-highest poverty rate in the state.

These days, unaffordable electric bills are having a major impact on countless lives across the Valley. With the arrival of reliable electric service came financial uncertainty for many struggling families, as paying to keep older homes warm or cool that were never designed with energy efficiency in mind has resulted in sky-high and unpredictable power bills in summer and winter months.

Recently, McCabe and a group of other residents joined together around a table with TVA representatives to share their stories and offer suggestions for energy efficiency programs. Thankfully, TVA is currently engaged in discussions through its Energy Efficiency Information Exchange stakeholder planning group about developing new energy efficiency solutions for low-income families. To make sure local communities have a voice in the planning efforts, Southern Alliance for Clean Energy worked with TVA and local partners to help convene five local stakeholder groups across the Valley this month. Appalachian Voices led in organizing the first of these meetings in Claiborne County, Tennessee, on August 12.

The meeting was particularly important because it was the only local stakeholder meeting held in a rural area, and community members who came shared their stories with TVA from a distinctly rural perspective. Their experiences shed light on the unique challenges faced by rural residents and help inform potential new programs that could help reduce energy burdens. As with so many other things in rural Appalachia, there was a general feeling of the community being left behind when it comes to energy efficiency.

Unfortunately, those most in need of help are typically unable to access the home energy efficiency rebate program that TVA now offers, a shortcoming that TVA staff have acknowledged. Currently, customers who want to participate in TVA’s eScore program must first pay for an energy audit and the upfront cost of upgrades, often thousands of dollars. While there are some financing options available, they generally require high credit scores and home ownership.

One solution discussed at the meeting is tariff-based on-bill financing, which doesn’t require credit checks and allows for immediate bill reductions even with a monthly repayment charge added on a bill. Several electric cooperatives in Tennessee are currently considering developing on-bill financing programs, and similar programs have been highly successful in neighboring states such as How$mart Kentucky and Help My House in South Carolina.

Like some at the meeting with TVA, many rural families across the Valley live in older manufactured homes. Often, these homes have little or no insulation, leaky doors and windows, and inefficient space heaters and window air conditioners. And while many have gone to extreme cost-saving measures – a commonly cited practice is to huddle the whole family in one room for heat – families still end up with utility bills costing hundreds of dollars in winter and summer months. That’s a lot of money for most people in Claiborne County, which has a poverty rate of nearly 25%.

Not only are inefficient homes an unnecessary drain on precious financial resources, they are also a serious public health and safety issue. For some meeting participants, respiratory and other illnesses mean that poor indoor air quality and extreme temperatures become a major health risk. For one resident, a broken HVAC unit, which she couldn’t afford to replace, left her husband hospitalized for four days with heat exhaustion. Another resident has to leave her manufactured home during the middle of the day in the summer so her young children won’t get overheated – yet her electric bills are so high she struggles to buy diapers. Some also reported resorting to potentially unsafe methods to heat their homes in the winter, such as using stoves and clothes dryers.

This is an urgent problem that TVA can and should take the lead to solve. In addition to alleviating families’ unaffordable energy bills and potentially unsafe living conditions, new home weatherization programs would bring numerous good-paying jobs to places where they are desperately needed, helping to fulfill TVA’s mission to promote economic development.

As TVA continues working with stakeholders toward new low-income energy efficiency initiatives, it should take care to incorporate the invaluable input from the local communities that are most affected by its decisions. We thank TVA for meeting with these local community members, and we hope that the discussion will help to inform the development of meaningful energy efficiency solutions to serve the entire Tennessee Valley.

At the end of the August 12 meeting, participants were invited to write down their top recommendations for TVA on Post It notes. Here are some of the policy recommendations provided by the meeting participants for TVA to consider:

“Incentives for electric companies to do weatherization programs, pay true value of energy efficiency.”

“Support extreme makeovers for rural homes, send message to distributors to invest in energy efficiency programs, provide funding for LED bulb give away.”

“Implement a community-based committee to set up a program to begin inspection on housing to first find the need within the community. Examine the cost of what it will take to implement this program and then base the cost on the most need.”

“Make the bill the same each month. Make more jobs for the people here in my area. See a need for the people and spend money here on this area. Help companies to move here with jobs.”

“I like the pay-as-you-save project that has been piloted in other states (like Arkansas) where these old houses have been behind the curve, power companies could see long-term benefits in investment. Not just in energy savings but local economies expanding (and new houses, new customers).”

“I think everyone coming together to help as a community and the weatherization program would bring in so much help to a lot of us need, especially low-income families and people living in older homes with large families. God Bless.”

Citizen action leads to closure of KD#2 mountaintop removal mine

Friday, August 26th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Special to the Front Porch: Today we feature a guest post from the Kanawha Forest Coalition, a network of local residents and organizations that formed to fight the KD#2 mountaintop removal coal mine. Pressure from citizens led West Virginia regulators to adopt an especially strict permit for the KD#2 mine, which is adjacent to the Kanawha State Forest. Still, mine operators repeatedly violated their permit and polluted nearby waterways. Citizens repeatedly notified state regulators of the violations, and the state recently ordered a permanent stop to mining.

The KD#2 strip mine next to Kanawha State Forest has been permanently shut down following two years of citizen action.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has ordered a permanent stop to mining on the controversial KD#2 mountaintop removal strip mine adjacent to Kanawha State Forest following two years of action by the Kanawha Forest Coalition.

The KD#2 permit, approved by the DEP in May 2014 over strong community objections and warnings of likely impacts to water quality, allowed for strip mining and explosive blasting within 588 feet of Kanawha State Forest and 1,500 feet of homes in Loudendale, just outside Charleston city limits.

The Kanawha Forest Coalition holds a press conference on Aug. 23. Photo by Joe Solomon

The Kanawha Forest Coalition holds a press conference on Aug. 23. Photo by Joe Solomon

The Consent Order, signed by DEP’s Director of Mining and Reclamation following a year of negotiations with the Coalition and the permit holder, Keystone Industries, states that “No additional mineral removal activities may occur on this permit. Activity is exclusively restricted to actions necessary to achieve phased release of the permit”. Approximately 100 acres of the original 413-acre permit area was mined, but active mining had been temporarily suspended since early 2015, leaving three quarters of the permit area undisturbed.

“This is a victory for the people of West Virginia and a powerful demonstration of the impact citizens can have when we take a stand, stay persistent, and don’t back down,” said Coalition coordinator, Chad Cordell. “Many people thought this strip mine was unstoppable when the permit was issued over two years ago, however we doubled down in our determination to protect our streams, health, and mountains.”

The order stems from a pattern of violations and temporary cessation orders at the mine site over the past two years for drainage and sediment control failures, off-site erosion, failure to monitor water quality at the mine and in an adjacent landowner’s drinking water, and persistent acid mine drainage into tributaries of Davis Creek. The majority of violation notices were initiated based on citizen monitoring data submitted to the DEP by the Coalition.

Map courtesy Kanawha Forest Coalition

Map courtesy Kanawha Forest Coalition

The KD#2 mine was first proposed in 2009. The proposed permit went through several major changes before final approval in 2014, including removal of a proposed valley fill and the creation of buffer zones around streams to avoid the need for a federal “dredge and fill” permit under the Clean Water Act. Even with these changes, the nearby streams have been adversely impacted.

“The lessons learned at the KD#2 mine should be a wake-up call to WV residents, lawmakers, and regulators that even the best engineering and the closest scrutiny can’t make strip mining safe for our water, our health, or our communities,” Cordell said. “We now have perpetual pollution, including acid mine drainage, into tributaries of Davis Creek. It should come as no surprise, to the DEP or anyone else, that strip mining pollutes water.”

Under current law, a surface coal mine cannot adversely impact adjacent land or water outside of the permit boundary, nor can it contaminate the water leaving the permit in violation of water quality standards. Applications for surface mines must include information about how the operator will prevent toxic mine discharge. The KD#2 permit application stated that the mine was not anticipated to have the potential for generating acid mine drainage.

Photo courtesy Kanawha Forest Coalition

Photo courtesy Kanawha Forest Coalition

“The legality of strip mining is built on a mountain of false assumptions. To really look closely at the conditions on the ground, as we have, and not the fantasy assumptions on paper, means having to accept that mountaintop removal and other types of strip mining simply cannot be done without irreparable harm to our land, water, and health. It’s up to us to tear down the coal industry’s mountain of lies as effectively as they’ve torn down the mountains of our homeland,” Cordell said. “We sincerely commend the DEP for taking steps to address the many issues at the KD#2 mine, but these are not isolated problems. They are widespread problems inherent in strip mining. This campaign was never about stopping just this one mine. It’s about shining a bright light on the issue of strip mining and showing just how damaging it really is. Many other communities are being hurt by strip mining and both the DEP and our state lawmakers need to acknowledge and act on the reality of strip mining’s widespread impacts.”

The WV DEP website currently lists over twenty other surface mine applications, including the Long Ridge #2 and Center Contour surface mines, which are being actively contested by Coal River Mountain Watch, a Raleigh County based citizens’ group.

Editor’s Note: For more information, visit the Kanawha Forest Coalition’s website at kanawhaforestcoalition.org. You can also read a statement from local activist Daile Boulis on our blog and an article about the mine from the August/September 2014 issue of The Appalachian Voice.

Do-It-Yourself tips for energy efficiency: Heating & Cooling

Friday, August 26th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Adam Sheffield, Appalachian Voices Video and Outreach Assistant

Our new video series offers a variety of easy energy efficiency tips to lower electric bills while reducing energy waste.

energysavings

Let’s face it. When it comes to the weather in Appalachia, we’ve got it all. We have bitter cold winters, soaking wet springs, hot humid summers and chilling autumns. Each of the four seasons comes with gifts as well as a set of energy challenges.

For our neighbors to the south, homes face the challenge of cooling the air in their homes, battling humidity and hot temperatures. To many of our neighbors in the north, heating their homes in the winter is the main goal. But here in Appalachia, our mountain climate has characteristics that require our homes to confront both heat and cold.

While many mountain homes do not have air conditioning units due to Appalachia’s milder summers, some newer homes in the region are being built with AC while others install window units. As for the winter, it is difficult to survive the season in Appalachia without heating your home. Heating methods vary from home to home, with some homes using wood-burning stoves, propane furnaces, kerosene monitors, or electric baseboard heaters instead of central HVAC units.

Regardless of the type of heating system, winter heating costs are a financial burden for many families. Some systems are more expensive than others, and older systems are more costly to use than newer, more energy-efficient models. The point is that we all want to be comfortable during the cold winter months, but we also want to save on our energy costs.

Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for Appalachia promotes programs that help Appalachian residents lower their energy costs. A goal of our campaign is to create a widespread network of support and promote energy efficiency financing programs through electric cooperatives. We are working in western North Carolina and East Tennessee, but we are part of a larger regional and national movement to expand access to affordable home energy efficiency financing for residents of all income levels. Education is a key part of our work, and one way we are helping residents lower their energy costs is by creating and sharing some short Do-It-Yourself videos.

This post’s short video features John Kidda, founder and president of reNew Homes, Inc., in Boone, N.C. In the video, John discusses using programmable thermostats as a way to save on heating and cooling, and the benefits of using one in an Appalachian home. John points out that lower temperature settings — and lower energy use — during the colder winter season are easier to achieve when the home is properly insulated and air leakage is minimized.

Programmable thermostats have features which allow the homeowner to set the temperature in their home to operate around a schedule. There is no need to leave the air conditioner or heat running while you’re away at work all day. The same can be said about winter settings when you are asleep in bed at night, cuddled under your warm blanket. Why run the heat on high all night long? Program your thermostat to turn the heat on right before your normal wakeup time. Then, set the thermostat to a lower temperature while you’re away from home or headed to bed. Some thermostats can even be adjusted from a mobile device.

Prices range from as low as $50 to over $300. Many programmable thermostats now include instant rebates. By switching to a programmable thermostat, you can lower your energy cost by 10 percent in the first year.

Watch our heating and cooling video and let us know what you think! We will be releasing additional videos in the coming months. If you are interested in learning more, contact me at (828) 262-1500, or by email at adam.sheffield@appVoices.org.

Energy bill acrobatics

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

Balancing the Family Budget with High Electric Bills

Click the arrows to scroll through the slide show. The Schmidts of Tazewell, Tenn. have to keep their home carefully temperature controlled for the health of their son, C.J., who has Down syndrome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Democracy 24/7/365

Sunday, August 21st, 2016 - posted by tom

Each month, Appalachian Voices Executive Director Tom Cormons reflects on issues of importance to our supporters and to the region.

Citizens rally in N.C. to call for clean-up of toxic coal ash pits across the state.

Citizens rally in N.C. to call for clean-up of toxic coal ash pits across the state.

Every time election season rolls around, I reflect anew on the promise of our democracy, built and sustained on the sacrifices and bold vision of so many who went before us. On Election Day, though we enter the voting booth as individuals, we are in fact acting collectively with every other American voter to shape our country’s future.

But our democratic duty need not, and should not, be put on the shelf rest of the year. Each day, we have opportunities to participate; whether it’s speaking before our town council, meeting with our congressional representatives, writing a letter-to-the-editor, attending a rally or signing an online petition, each action represents a voice or idea that would otherwise not be heard.

Indeed, in the face of the moneyed special interests that have hugely disproportionate influence over so many aspects of our lives, joining our voices together into a loud and clear call for positive change is essential.

And it works. Appalachia’s proud history of labor organizing exemplifies this type of citizen engagement — ordinary people banding together to improve the lives of their families and neighbors.

More recently, North Carolinians across the state are uniting to protect their communities from toxic coal ash. Thanks to ongoing citizen pressure following the 2014 Dan River coal ash spill, Duke Energy and state officials have been exposed for their misdeeds, and there is a broad movement to hold them accountable.

In North Carolina’s High Country, the Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. heard their members calling for better financing for home energy efficiency improvements. And in the coal-bearing regions of Appalachia, citizens and local elected officials are urging substantial federal investment to diversify and boost the economy.

Every day, Appalachian Voices takes action to support this citizen engagement. It’s what democracy is all about.

Atlantic Coast Pipeline backers head to North Carolina

Monday, August 15th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

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

Lisa Sorg

Lisa Sorg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 11th, 2016 - posted by brian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Norton’s walk along the river

Monday, August 8th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Dylan Reilly, 2016 Riverwalk Design Assistant at Appalachian Voices and student in the landscape architect master’s program at the University of Maryland

30 area residents provided input during the Riverwalk Design Evening. Photo by Fred Ramey

30 area residents provided input during the Riverwalk Design Evening. Photo by Fred Ramey

In the Southwest Virginia city of Norton, Appalachian Voices is supporting a project that would enhance recreation along the Guest River and clean up an abandoned coal tipple that is both an eyesore and a source of pollution.

In 2008, Norton city officials began to contemplate using their new sewer main right of way for a two-mile multi-use path connecting the downtown with the community of Ramsey. The proposed Riverwalk presented a unique opportunity to encourage Norton residents of all abilities to recreate along the scenic Guest River and to improve pedestrian connectivity.

Groundwork for the Norton Riverwalk project was laid by the City of Norton’s 2010 feasibility study, environmental research from the University of Virginia’s College at Wise and a 2011 conceptual design for an adjacent coal tipple reclamation project completed by Virginia Tech student Nathan Brown.

As the Riverwalk Design Assistant with Appalachian Voices, I’ve been working in close collaboration with other stakeholders this summer to orchestrate a community engagement process that will result in a feasible conceptual design. This rigorous outreach process is helping Norton city leaders inform the public about the Riverwalk and allow area residents to have a substantial impact on the design, while it is still in its most flexible form.

Perspective of a historic coal tipple site reimagined with the addition of a Riverwalk walking and biking trail.

Perspective of a historic coal tipple site reimagined with the addition of a Riverwalk walking and biking trail.

In addition to meeting with local groups such as police, park officials and public health advocates, a large community Design Evening was held on July 7. Participants were divided into three facilitated teams, each team tackling the same design challenge. Teams received three maps for Riverwalk Phase 1, icons of amenities, and sticky notes.

The teams were tasked with determining where amenities like amphitheaters, restrooms and water fountains should go, using the sticky notes to explain their design reasoning and to propose ideas that the icons could not encapsulate. The two-hour Design Evening was a smashing success with 30 participants and great design ideas. The results of the community engagement process and the conceptual plan will be presented to the Norton City Council on Aug. 16.

Project partners are seeking grant funding for the remediation, design and construction of the Norton Riverwalk. A Clean Water Act settlement is paying for an environmental assessment of the site. Appalachian Voices, Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and the Sierra Club were recently plaintiffs in a Clean Water Act lawsuit that resulted in the defendant paying $35,000 for a Supplemental Environmental Project to complete the environmental assessment of the coal tipple site along the proposed Riverwalk. This assessment will be completed by the end of the year, opening the door for the project to continue.

New law puts coal ash progress in NC at risk

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016 - posted by interns
Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.

Amy Brown, a resident of Belmont, N.C., speaks during a public hearing related to the risk ranking of a Duke Energy coal ash site near her home.

By Hannah Petersen

In May, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the final rankings for Duke’s coal ash impoundments in accordance with deadlines set by the Coal Ash Management Act.

Every impoundment in the state was classified as either “high” or “intermediate” risk, meaning the ash would have to be excavated and stored in a lined landfill. After years of attending public hearings and submitting comments to advocate for access to clean water for all North Carolinians, residents finally witnessed DEQ order Duke Energy to clean up all of the coal ash across the state.

For a moment, it appeared that the state had made progress with its coal ash policies. But in the same press release that announced the final rankings, DEQ asked to revisit them in 18 months. This would effectively give Duke time to remediate dam deficiencies and ultimately lead to a lower classification.

Six days after the department announced the rankings, the N.C. General Assembly announced the revision of Senate Bill 71, which would reinstate the Coal Ash Commission that Gov. Pat McCrory shut down in early March and extend deadlines for cleanup. McCrory vetoed the bill and, despite having enough votes to override, both the state House and Senate instead decided to drop the bill and create a new compromise bill at the end of the legislature’s 2016 short session.

A New Coal Ash Law

The rushed introduction, concurrence and signing of House Bill 630 puts at risk many aspects of the progress that residents and environmental groups have made since the introduction of the Coal Ash Management Act in 2014. The new law requires Duke to provide clean water to residents living within half a mile of coal ash impoundments, while leaving the door open for the company to cap coal ash ponds in place.

“If they go through with putting in water lines to our community, that’s a great step in the right direction, but it’s a half a step, it’s not getting all the way there by cleaning up the ash,” said Roger Hollis, a neighbor of Duke Energy’s Cliffside plant in Cleveland County, N.C., in an ACT Against Coal Ash press release.

In exchange for providing clean water, DEQ is required to classify impoundments as “low risk” so long as dam deficiencies are addressed. This classification largely ignores the environmental risks associated with the ash’s presence and simply buries the problem instead of remediating it. As a low-risk impoundment, the law permits capping in place as a closure option, despite the proximity of the impoundment to groundwater.

The new law also pushes back the deadline for when an alternative water source is to be provided to residents near coal ash sites and for when the rankings are considered final to October and November of 2018, respectively. Alongside the deadlines, HB 630 expands DEQ’s authority to grant extensions and variances for Duke Energy’s cleanup timeline.

“It satisfies everyone, because we weren’t a factor anyway,” said Amy Brown, who lives near Duke’s Allen Steam Station in Belmont, N.C. “The lawmakers didn’t include who is going to pay for the water bill, who is going to pay for plumbing, who is going to pay a regulator, and who is going to pay for new piping because we have old homes. No one included all that.”

“They presented it in a pretty package. And the outside is, ‘you’re going to get water,’” Brown said. “They didn’t show the inside, which is dirty toxic contaminants that are going to be left in place. They passed this problem onto my children now.”

“The legislature has done what Duke Energy’s lobbyists told it to do, threw thousands of public comments in the trash can, and protected Duke Energy while sacrificing the well-being of North Carolina’s clean water and communities,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, in a written statement.

Duke’s request to block release of deposition

The Southern Environmental Law Center is involved with a variety of lawsuits regarding coal ash across the state. Around the time that the risk rankings were finalized and new bills were being debated, SELC lawyers released transcripts of the depositions of state employees and scientists that they conducted.

In May, SELC released the deposition of Megan Davies, state epidemiologist for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which highlighted the lack of consensus surrounding the “Do Not Drink” letters that had been sent out across the state and later rescinded. In the deposition, Davies admits that she thought the letters should not have been rescinded and that no on-the-ground testing had been done to determine that residents’ well water was safe to drink.

State toxicologist Ken Rudo was deposed in July, but Duke has asked a federal judge to block the release of the deposition. Rudo had expressed skepticism about the rescinding of the “Do Not Drink” letters earlier in July, but Duke claims releasing the deposition publicly infringes upon its right to a free trial.

“How dare you try to stop the public from hearing from a state employee,” said Brown. “This is a man we trust. He gained our trust when he treated us like human beings and called every person to make sure we understood what the ‘Do Not Drink’ letters meant.”

“I want to be able to say that I trust my state,” Brown said. “I want to say that the system didn’t fail us, but at this point I can’t, because they haven’t proven it.”

If I had a hammer…

Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 - posted by Lara Mack

Finding collective power at the “March on the Mansion”

Appalachian Voices' Virginia Field Organizer Lara Mack (l) and friend Amy Cantrell from Harrisonburg.

Appalachian Voices’ Virginia Field Organizer Lara Mack (l) and friend Amy Cantrell from Harrisonburg.

Last Saturday, more than 600 Virginians gathered at the footsteps of Governor McAuliffe’s mansion in Richmond to demand energy justice for all citizens of the Commonwealth. Chartered buses arrived from major cities including Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, Harrisonburg, and Roanoke, as well as rural areas like Nelson County and Montgomery County.

I helped organize the bus from Harrisonburg, where I live, and we started our drive to Richmond with the song If I had a Hammer:

“If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land

And I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land…”

This well-known song was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 in support of social justice efforts of the time. For us, starting with the historical tune was a clear reminder that this march was not just about fracked-gas pipelines, climate change, coal ash, and renewable energy, but also about the stories and struggles of people impacted by corporate power and monied special interests.

Our voices were represented in an open letter, signed by more than 60 organizations, sent to Governor McAuliffe last month. Saturday’s march was the next step; We walked as a part of a legacy for democracy, environmental justice, and the power of community.

The bus arrived and the doors opened to a hazy and hot day on the banks of the James River. The temperature was expected to reach 99 degrees, which meant the day felt more like 104 degrees. We took a group photo before the march (why not get a photo of us before we all wilt?) with our signs and grins and enthusiasm easily seen in the snapshot.

by laraAs other marchers slowly arrived from all corners of the Commonwealth, I saw the crowd of dedicated and concerned citizens grow. Many carried creative signs about the local issue their community was struggling with (my favorite was “NO PIPELINES. Especially [from schools] to prisons”). Though the messages were diverse, the overarching statement was very clear. We know what is best for our communities. We know that we can create a system that can be safe and healthy for all, that doesn’t create sacrifice zones or climate change to meet monolithic electricity production expectations, that doesn’t deny a person’s rights and humanity no matter their race, age, income or sexual orientation, or whether they live in the country or in the city. And the current system is not meeting our needs.

The “March on the Mansion” was a message directed at Governor Terry McAuliffe and our voices rang loud and clear. But as we gathered back on our buses to head home, I realized this gathering was also a reminder to all those in the crowd that we each carry a hammer, a bell, and a song and when we stand as a community together, we can get work done.