Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Our Energy Savings campaign is heating up in the High Country

Thursday, January 29th, 2015 - posted by rory

Home Energy Contest Demonstrates Strong Need for Energy Efficiency Finance Options

When Appalachian Voices asked Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. (BRE) to help alleviate poverty and support economic development in the North Carolina High Country by developing an on-bill energy efficiency finance program, BRE said, surprisingly, that they weren’t sure that was something that enough members would sign up for.

They offered this response despite the fact that, at the time, we had presented them with seventy letters from BRE members requesting an on-bill finance option (in addition to more than 100 signatures on a petition requesting the same thing).

We decided we would go one step further in demonstrating that demand, so back in October we launched our High Country Home Energy Makeover Contest. Through the contest we solicited enough in donations and sponsorships to be able to pay for upgrading the homes of three BRE members, and we are now able to provide a voice to and tell the stories of members who need help paying for home efficiency upgrades.

The contest turned out to be a huge success, and we announced the three contest winners last Thursday. The home improvements for the three winners will be tailored to their needs based on comprehensive energy audits that were completed over the last week. The work will primarily include insulation and weatherization — two common problems that lead to high energy bills, especially during the winter months — and will be performed by one or more of the five local businesses that sponsored or supported the contest. Those businesses include Blue Ridge Energy Works, LLC, High Country Energy Solutions, Inc., HomEfficient, reNew Home, Inc. and Sunny Day Homes, Inc.

Once the improvements have been performed, in partnership with ResiSpeak, we will monitor and report on the savings generated for each of the winners, thereby demonstrating the impact that even basic efficiency improvements can have in terms of reducing energy bills and improving the quality of life for High Country residents.

Overall, nearly 70 BRE members entered the contest. Key information about household income, energy use and expenses, and basic information about the applicants’ homes was provided. Based on the submitted information, we found that the average applicant spent more than 8 percent of his or her annual income on energy bills over the last year — nearly three times the national average of 2.7 percent. More than a quarter of applicants spent 15 percent or more of their income on energy bills. Such costs are especially burdensome given the average poverty rate of 23 percent in the BRE region.

Now to present the winners! We are so honored to know these folks, and we are even happier to be able to help improve their homes and reduce their energy bills. None of the winners or the other applicants are necessarily impoverished. They are hard-working individuals like Zack Dixon that are having a hard time finding a job. They are parents like Sean Dunlap who lives with his two young children in his dream home, but a home that lacks sufficient insulation or air sealing. And they are a retired couple living on a fixed income, like Vance Woodie and his wife. None of these folks have access to sufficient funds to make the comprehensive energy efficiency improvements needed in their homes. And, beyond the contest, each of our winners could still benefit substantially from an on-bill energy efficiency finance program through BRE, as could thousands of other BRE members that still need help.

Grand Prize Winner: Zack Dixon

Zachary Dixon, left, pictured with Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil.

Zachary Dixon, left, pictured with Appalachian Voices Energy Policy Director Rory McIlmoil.

Zack, a resident of Boone, N.C., heats his house with space heaters, and chronically struggles to pay his electricity bills. Over the last year, Zack spent 11 percent of his income on electricity bills. His power has been cut off by BRE twice this winter when he overdrew his pre-paid account, after which BRE assisted Mr. Dixon with a bill payment from its Operation Round Up program.

While such financial assistance helps many residents keep their homes heated in the winter, it fails to resolve the underlying problems of older or poorly built, drafty houses. For Zack, running the space heaters throughout the day is costly, and doesn’t sufficiently warm his house because of poor insulation in the attic and floors.

“I just don’t want to be freezing anymore,” he said. “There’s been times when I don’t want to get out of bed and be in the cold. It’s been a real big pain, but if I could at least quit stressing about the bills, I’d be happy.” He added, “the most important thing, that I never realized, is how much heat I’ve been losing.”

Zack’s prize will cover insulation for the floors and attic, as well as air sealing throughout the house to lock in heat and reduce his electricity use.

Runner-up: Vance Woodie

Thelma and Vance Woodie with Chuck Perry, program director for North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Thelma and Vance Woodie with Chuck Perry, program director for North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Vance and his wife Thelma have worked hard to modernize their turn-of-the-century home in Sugar Grove, N.C. Once heated by a coal stoker furnace, their house is now heated by an oil furnace, but the old ducts have not been replaced and so they draw cold air from the basement, which also causes problems with air quality in their home.

“I guess that’s why the dust still comes thick in the house,” Vance said. The elderly couple shuts off part of their house in the winter to reduce heating costs, but they still spend 16 percent of their income on energy bills. Responding to winning the contest, Vance said: “We needed something, some kind of help, so we took a chance.”

Runner-up: Sean Dunlap

Sean Dunlap of Sugar Grove, N.C.

Sean Dunlap of Sugar Grove, N.C.

Sean lives with his wife and two children in a 1938 farm house built by his wife’s great-grandfather, making their children the fifth generation to live there. Despite making what energy efficiency improvements they could, there is still a lot to do. Their prize money will cover adding insulation and weatherization the lack of which places their plumbing at risk and results in a cold home in the winter. “We are so excited to find out that we won,” said Mr. Dunlap. “Now our work with Appalachian Voices will continue as we upgrade our house. Their professionalism and expertise has already made a huge difference and now we are able to look forward to making our home more efficient, comfortable and livable for our family.”

The contest was sponsored by the local businesses listed above as well as the Blumenthal Foundation and LifeStore Insurance. The North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance provided home walk-through assessments and energy audits. Appalachian Voices extends our deepest gratitude to each of the businesses and organizations for their support.

If you are a BRE member and would like to show your support for BRE developing an on-bill energy efficiency finance program that could help folks like Zack, Vance and Sean, or are in need of such support yourself, join the Energy Savings for the High Country campaign and sign the petition!

Virginia must guard against Freedom Industries-type spill

Monday, January 26th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } This post by Noah Sachs, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law and co-author of the January 2014 report, “A Strategy to Protect Virginians from Toxic Chemicals,” originally appeared as an op-ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. (Links inserted by Appalachian Voices.)


A year ago, residents of Charleston, W.Va., learned that their entire drinking water supply had become contaminated by MCHM, a toxic chemical used to wash coal. Ten thousand gallons of MCHM had spilled from a corroding storage tank by the Elk River, located a mile upstream of the city’s drinking water intake pipes. As a result of the chemical spill, 300,000 citizens lost their water for more than a week, and hundreds sought emergency care.

That accident alone should have been a wake-up call for Virginians about the need to protect our water supply from chemical spills. But a year later, it seems, we’re acting as if this is all just water under the bridge.

Virginia essentially has no laws on the books to regulate land-based storage of toxic chemicals near rivers. West Virginia enacted comprehensive drinking water protection legislation last April after the spill, and it’s time for Virginia to do the same.

The risks in Virginia are real. In a report I released just after the Charleston spill, I documented dozens of businesses that each store over a million pounds of toxic chemicals right near our major rivers, including the James, Shenandoah and Potomac. There are hundreds of smaller sites, too. The James River Association, in its recent “River at Risk” report, concluded that there are more than 1,100 chemical storage sites in the James River watershed.

Given the lack of regulation, public water suppliers in Virginia are at the mercy of industrial plants upstream to voluntarily monitor their own chemical storage tanks, many of which were built decades ago. But sometimes, as in Charleston, leaks and spills go undetected, and once a chemical contaminates a river, there’s little that drinking water suppliers can do to eliminate the threat. They can’t filter out major contamination, and they have to shut the system down.

Storage of chemicals near rivers isn’t the only problem. The Charleston spill turned out to be just one of three major accidents in 2014 that threatened our region’s water supply.

Last February, 39,000 tons of coal ash from a Duke Energy power plant in North Carolina spilled into the Dan River, putting the drinking water supply for Danville at risk. Then, in April, a train carrying crude oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg. Three of the oil cars on the 105-car train fell into the James River, and one exploded, setting the James on fire.

Luckily, neither of these incidents disrupted drinking water supplies downstream, but if dozens of oil cars on that train had fallen into the river, it likely would have caused the largest oil spill in Virginia history and would have affected drinking water downstream to Henrico and Richmond.

Neither the Clean Water Act nor the Safe Drinking Water Act currently regulates how toxic substances are stored on land, near our waterways. While there are federal penalties on the books for chemical spills, there are essentially no federal standards aimed at prevention.

That means that for now, the General Assembly, the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Health and the Department of Emergency Management must take the lead to protect the public. A bill recently introduced by Sen. John Watkins to establish an advisory committee on water protection and toxic chemicals is a strong start to the process.

Given the events of 2014, it’s clear that drinking water protection in Virginia should be based on three principles:

First, protecting drinking water means we have to protect watersheds. Businesses that store large volumes of toxic chemicals near rivers are creating a risk to the public, and their facilities should be subject to some public oversight.
Second, we need minimum standards for construction, inspection and maintenance of chemical storage tanks. Set-back and secondary containment requirements should be imposed for tanks near source waters.

Third, tank owners should prepare public communication and spill-response plans, in concert with state regulators. Prompt public notification, less than an hour after leak detection, is essential.

In many ways, West Virginia is leading the nation on addressing chemical risks to water supplies. Its new legislation, passed unanimously, requires an annual inspection and inventory of every storage tank in the state, and the state has just issued draft rules on monitoring, secondary containment and leak detection. Each tank owner will be required to implement a spill response plan.

Virginia now needs its own program to address the threat of chemical contamination. It should begin with upgraded standards for chemical storage tanks, which is the area where the state has the most authority.

The accidents in 2014 are a stark reminder of the vulnerability of our drinking water, and we can’t fix the problem by imposing new requirements on water systems alone. We have to look upstream to the real source of the problem. Industries that store toxic chemicals near our waterways are putting Virginians at risk.

Cheating shouldn’t pay

Friday, January 23rd, 2015 - posted by tom
Water flowing from one of the discharge points where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports. Floyd County, Ky.

Water flowing from one of the discharge points where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports. Floyd County, Ky.

For the past four years, as Appalachian Voices and our partners in Kentucky have peeled back layer after layer of wrongdoing by Frasure Creek Mining, we’ve grown increasingly appalled by what the company has gotten away with right under the noses of state regulators.

So it was an important victory late last year when Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled for us in our pending cases against the company and the Kentucky environmental cabinet. One sentence from his ruling said it all:

“When one company so systemically subverts the requirements of law, it not only jeopardizes environmental protection on the affected permits, it creates a regulatory climate in which the cabinet sends the message that cheating pays.”

The Kentucky cabinet has, of course, appealed the ruling, so we have our work cut out for us this year. But the judge’s blunt summation of what happens when regulators fail to do their jobs highlights the importance of our work throughout a region where extractive industries have called the shots for too long.

Here’s a snapshot of the work ahead in 2015.

Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining

  • We will continue working with our partners in Kentucky, and elsewhere in Appalachian mining communities, to hold lax officials and lawbreaking coal companies accountable in court.
  • With just two critical years remaining in the Obama presidency, we have plans to escalate pressure on the administration. Key court decisions last year affirmed the EPA’s authority to crack down on mountaintop removal, and with abundant scientific evidence incriminating the practice, there’s no excuse not to. [ Take action: Tell Obama Appalachian communities are still at risk ]
  • Although the new Congress appears mostly hostile to our issues, we’ll leverage our strong relationships on Capitol Hill to defend against attacks on the EPA and existing environmental protections.
  • In southwest Virginia, we are working with local residents and community groups to advocate for alternatives to the ill-conceived Coalfields Expressway, a mountaintop removal mine disguised as a highway.

Coal ash

  • With a new state law and federal rule on coal ash disposal, 2015 is our chance to make sure Duke Energy and state leaders keep their promises to stop coal ash pollution and permanently close the sites threatening North Carolina communities. [ Follow our "Cleaning Up Coal Ash" campaign ]

Clean Energy and Carbon Pollution

  • As states develop proposals to comply with the federal Clean Power Plan for cutting carbon pollution from power plants, Appalachian Voices is engaging with a broad base of citizens to demand robust energy efficiency and renewable energy initiatives, which would bring tremendous economic benefit to our region.
  • In southwest Virginia, we’ll step up our work to bring much-needed clean energy jobs and economic diversity to an area suffering from its over-dependence on the coal industry.
  • In North Carolina and Virginia, we are opposing the expansion of infrastructure for the natural gas industry, which would endanger communities while prolonging our addiction to dirty fossil fuels and delaying clean energy expansion. We’ll focus particularly on fighting the incursion of fracking into North Carolina.

Energy Savings for Appalachia

  • We’re working closely with Tennessee state officials and electric cooperatives to roll out and promote what could become the largest on-bill financing initiative in the Southeast, an effort we played a lead role in kickstarting.
  • In northwestern North Carolina, we’re educating co-op members about the many benefits of residential energy efficiency, and empowering them to demand that their local co-op provide upfront loans to pay for home improvements.

Decent news for N.C. solar power

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015 - posted by molly

According to a report by Environment North Carolina, the state ranks fourth nationally for installed photovoltaic solar power in 2013.

According to a report by Environment North Carolina, the state ranks fourth nationally for installed photovoltaic solar power in 2013. Solar Panel image from Bigstock

During the last business hours of 2014, the N.C. Utilities Commission issued a decision with big implications for the state’s strong solar industry.

The ruling wasn’t exactly a fireworks display for clean energy, but it does allow solar developers to start the new year on steady footing. On Dec. 31, the commission renewed a set of rules governing the contracts between electric utilities and independent power producers despite objections from North Carolina’s largest utilities.

The order requires that state utilities provide standard contracts for buying electricity from independent producers such as solar companies, methane-to-energy operations and some hydroelectric facilities. According to the order, all qualifying facilities that generate 5 megawatts of power or less are eligible for standard contracts in five,10 or 15-year periods.

Duke Energy and Dominion Power had requested that the Utilities Commission reduce the cutoff for standard contracts to 100 kilowatts and require any power generators over that limit to negotiate custom contracts with the utilities. Solar energy proponents argued that negotiating custom contracts with Duke and Dominion would cripple solar development in the state. Instead, solar advocates had proposed extending the cap from five to 10 megawatts and extending maximum contract terms from 15 to 20 years.

Jim Warren, director of the pro-clean-energy organization NC WARN, expressed disapproval with the Utilities Commission’s decision not to expand the standard contracts to apply to larger solar installations.

“Prior to July hearings, during the hearings, and since the hearings, solar industry companies have made clear that Duke Energy’s practices are already seriously harming them – and that they need regulators to improve contract conditions in order to force Duke to quit stalling large independent solar projects,” he said in a press statement.

Other renewable proponents were encouraged that the state commission didn’t bow to utility pressure to weaken the rules.

“We’re pleased that the Commission rejected attempts by Duke Energy and others to roll back long-standing policies that allow independent solar power producers to compete in a market that is dominated by monopoly utilities,” Katie Ottenweller of the Southern Environmental Law Center commented in a press statement.

The renewable energy industry also requested that the utilities pay more for the energy they buy from independent solar developers to reflect the social and environmental benefits of solar power. In turn, the utilities asked to pay less to reflect the extra cost of connecting independent solar power sites to the grid. The Utilities Commission rejected both requests and ruled that it was premature to change the payment rates.

Ottenweller also noted that the commission left the door open to considering the social and environmental benefits of solar in the economic calculus in the future. “In [the] order, the Commission recognized the potential for solar energy to bring major benefits to North Carolina customers, and signaled a willingness to make utilities pay fair value to independent solar power producers once those benefits are quantified,” she said.

To protect or prosecute polluters?

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015 - posted by eric
Water flowing from one of the discharge points in eastern Kentucky where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports.

Water flowing from one of the discharge points in eastern Kentucky where Frasure Creek Mining was turning in false water monitoring reports.

Last week the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet filed an administrative complaint against Frasure Creek Mining for hundreds of violations of the Clean Water Act at its mines in eastern Kentucky.

The filing comes just days before the end of the 60-day waiting period following an intent to sue letter sent by Appalachian Voices and our partners to Frasure Creek and the cabinet last November. Our notice letter described our discovery that the coal company had falsified pollution records over the course of 2013 and 2014, racking up almost 28,000 violations that state regulators failed to notice.

The cabinet’s filing includes all of the violations identified by Appalachian Voices and our partners. Under the Clean Water Act, the state’s action essentially preempts our ability to pursue a federal lawsuit.

Four years ago, when we first revealed that Frasure Creek had been falsifying records, the cabinet preempted our lawsuit by reaching a settlement with the company without our knowledge or participation. Later we were allowed to intervene in the settlement between the cabinet and Frasure Creek, a right which was upheld by the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Because the cabinet only filed a complaint and not a settlement in the latest case, we do not know how vigorous its enforcement will be. But if past enforcement is any guide, then one could expect it will not be very strong. The cabinet’s earlier enforcement actions against Frasure Creek were so paltry that they were thrown out in a recent court ruling, and were clearly not strong enough to ensure that Frasure Creek was in compliance since the company returned to submitting false water monitoring reports.

We will have to wait and see if the cabinet is going to take its responsibility to protect the people and water of Kentucky from dangerous pollution seriously. In the meantime, Appalachian Voices and our partners will continue to do whatever we can to ensure that Frasure Creek and other polluters are held accountable for their actions.

Appalachian Voices is joined in these efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, Kentucky Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and the Waterkeeper Alliance. The citizens’ groups are represented by Mary Cromer of Appalachian Citizens Law Center, attorney Lauren Waterworth, and the Pace Law School Environmental Litigation Clinic.

Top five energy bills in Virginia (at the moment)

Monday, January 19th, 2015 - posted by hannah

Get ready for a bumpy ride! The Virginia General Assembly started last Wednesday, and the stage is set for an interesting couple of months while legislators tussle over a slew of energy bills–some good, and some very, very bad.

During his State of the Commonwealth speech, Governor McAuliffe communicated the need to diversify our energy mix with carbon-free sources, noting that clean-energy policies lead to job creation and a stronger economy. So, Virginia legislators now have an opportunity to act on the governor’s leadership vision by following through with improvements to the state code. But will they? That’s the big question.

For context, this is the first session since the Environmental Protection Agency released, last June, the draft rule limiting, for the first-time ever, carbon dioxide from America’s power plants. Last year, we defeated a pre-emptive attempt by the Virginia legislature to cripple EPA’s authority on this issue, even before the draft was released. This year, we’re fighting against more dangerous proposals meant to keep Virginia from acting on the standards. But we also see bills that would advance solar energy, helping to close the gap between Virginia and some of our neighboring states.

Things can move fast during session, but as of today, here is the rundown:

SB 740 – This bill is one from the ALEC playbook, and it would derail the process for Virginia to comply with and benefit from the EPA’s Clean Power Plan. The task of planning the implementation of carbon pollution reductions currently rests with Governor McAuliffe’s administration, but this would require General Assembly approval before the plan could be sent to the EPA — which, given the viewpoint of this General Assembly regarding climate change, presents a substantial roadblock for reducing carbon pollution by the EPA’s June 2016 deadline. And if Virginia misses the deadline, it’s all but guaranteed that a federal plan to cut carbon would be imposed on the state, not taking into account direct input from Virginians. Stopping this bill is a priority for Appalachian Voices and our partners.

SB 741 – Extends tax credits and subsidies for the coal industry from the current end date in 2017 to 2022. A recent study that relies partly on the legislature’s own analysis showed that coal-related activities, including the subsidies, cost Virginia taxpayers $22 million in 2009, and that these incentives for the coal industry do not have any effect on the number of people employed in the industry, which responds much more to external market forces. Given the need for funding elsewhere in the coalfield region, including loans to start businesses and organizations that diversify the economy, the impact of these credits should be closely analyzed in the coming two years before they are renewed. The governor’s proposed budget caps and phases out these credits to help close the budget gap, but the best approach is to use those funds in ways that better serve the coalfield communities.

HB 2205 – The Virginia Coastal Protection Act. With our coastal areas among the most vulnerable in the U.S. to the effects of rising sea levels, this bill helps to address Virginia’s contribution to global warming pollution while raising funds that would in part pay for adaptation measures in oceanfront and low-lying places. By authorizing Virginia to join a multi-state initiative to control greenhouse gas emissions, this bill helps put Virginia on track to take advantage of job-creating carbon-free energy resources, while positioning us to meet the EPA’s carbon standard.

HB 1911 – Analyze the benefits of solar and nix the standby charges (aka, solar tax). This is a straightforward bill to end utilities’ monthly “standby” fees they charge customers with solar systems over 10 kilowatts who deliver solar energy back to the grid. The bill requires that the costs and benefits of having solar power on the grid be determined before such charges can be reinstated. At many times of the year, the energy produced by solar customers is more valuable than the credit they receive, and benefits the utilities enjoy of having that extra solar energy — like avoided costs for having to build new power plants — must be factored in for a fair and comprehensive valuation of distributed solar power.

HB 1636 – Provides for community net-metering for renewable energy projects. Many Virginians see solar as a smart investment but can’t use their own roofs: too much shade, they rent their home, etc. The solution is to subscribe to a community operated facility, allowing residents to share a solar garden or wind turbine. Solar advocates: see also SB 833 / HB 1912 on sizing-up the size of projects eligible for net-metering, and SB 1099 / HB 1725 creating the Virginia Solar Energy Development Authority.

There has never been a better time to get involved and express your views on these issues to your legislators. Now that session has begun, you can speak with their staffers easily by calling their Richmond offices.

We’ll stay in touch with you about ways you can speak up for clean energy solutions, and be sure to attend Virginia Conservation Network Lobby Day on Monday, January 26 for a big day of action!

Well, that was quick

Thursday, January 15th, 2015 - posted by thom
Rep. David Vitter

Sen. David Vitter

The new U.S. Senate couldn’t even make it one week before introducing a horrible bill. The 114th Congress began on January 6, and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) only managed to restrain himself 24 whole hours before introducing legislation to weaken the Clean Water Act.

Sen. Vitter’s bill, S.54, would limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to veto permits for mountaintop removal valley fills. It is our view that valley fills—in which the dirt and rock from blasting the tops off the mountains are dumped into streams and valleys—should not even exist. We’ve got the science to back that up. But Vitter and other coal industry allies in Congress want the fills to continue to be permitted, and want them regulated exclusively by the Army Corps of Engineers, completely removing the EPA from the process.

These coal industry advocates want the Corps in charge not because they think the agency has the same level of water quality expertise as the EPA, but because the Corps does not have the same expertise, and is therefore more likely to just hand out permits that pollute our water.

The big difference between this Congress and last Congress is that bills like S.54 have a chance at passing the Senate. Vitter’s bill is virtually identical to multiple bills that have been introduced in the past, but they didn’t get committee hearings, and never even came up for votes. This year, they probably will.

Thanks to years of hard work by Appalachian Voices and our coalition partners, we have champions in the Senate who will work to stop these dangerous bills from becoming law. Senate Republicans established a precedent over the past eight years that all bills need 60 votes to pass, and the coal industry will have a very difficult time finding 60 senators to vote for more mountaintop removal mining pollution. But we will have a fight on our hands.

President Obama is also expected to use his veto power to stop the worst bills from becoming law. We hope not to depend on vetoes, but if we can’t stop something bad from passing the Senate, the President is our backstop.

Our greatest hope for the next two years is that the White House takes advantage of its veto power and doesn’t let the threat of coal industry bills to prevent strong actions to stop mountaintop removal. Because there’s a lot left to do, and not a lot of time in which to do it.

Fracking and pipelines threaten Appalachia

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015 - posted by cat
Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

Photo courtesy of Terry Wild Stock Photography.

Appalachian Voices is launching new web pages today about efforts to open North Carolina to natural gas fracking and proposals to build massive natural gas pipelines through several Appalachian states. These proposals threaten public health, local communities, and the environment, and also could dramatically impede the growing efforts to shift to cleaner energy across the region.

Over the last decade, the natural gas industry has overwhelmed scores of communities across the country, building miles of new pipelines and erecting huge drilling rigs, sucking up fresh water from creeks and aquifers, and overrunning backroads and town streets with tanker trucks hauling chemicals and waste. Local and state regulations are either nonexistent, or insufficient to cope with the impacts.

As a result, the breakneck growth in the industry poses tremendous risk to public health and the environment. And a growing reliance on natural gas, a fossil fuel, could drastically delay America’s U.S. shift to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources.

Yes, burning natural gas for electricity has lower smokestack emissions of carbon dioxide than burning coal, but it should not be forgotten that the drilling process releases huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Experts say the rise of natural gas as utilities’ fuel of choice runs counter to the carbon reductions we must make to keep climate change in check.

We can’t afford to invest in new natural gas drilling operations, power plants, pipelines or other infrastructure that would lock us into decades of relying on this fossil fuel, while shortchanging cleaner energy. The thing is, every dollar – public or private – invested in expanding natural gas production is one less dollar invested in truly clean, less carbon-intensive sources such as energy efficiency, and wind and solar power. Not only do these energy solutions translate to cleaner air and more protections for our water resources, they create new jobs and tremendous economic opportunity.

Last year, several massive pipelines were proposed generally running from West Virginia through Virginia, and one would go on through North Carolina. Citizens are taking action to oppose the projects out of concern about the impacts to private property, water resources, and some of Virginia’s most treasured historic and natural heritage sites.

And North Carolina recently lifted its long-standing state moratorium on fracking; Under the sway of the industry and its allies, the state has developed regulations that are wholly inadequate to protect communities and the environment. In response, a grassroots movement has sprung up to protect the state’s natural resources and push lawmakers to reinstate the moratorium.

An interview with Christopher Scotton, author of “Secret Wisdom of the Earth”

Thursday, January 8th, 2015 - posted by brian
Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

Christopher Scotton. Photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

By Brian Sewell

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth,” the debut novel by Christopher Scotton released this week, is a coming-of-age story that takes familiar themes — tragedy and the quest to find healing — and explores them with the backdrop of a Central Appalachian community beset by mountaintop removal coal mining.

Set in 1985 in the fictional Medgar, Ky., a richly conceived town full of even richer characters, “Secret Wisdom of the Earth” traces the summer 14-year-old Kevin Gillooly spent at his mother’s childhood home in the mountains, as he comes to grips with the tragic death of his younger brother.

With Kevin as the narrator, Scotton weaves together stories spanning generations of Medgar residents, close friends and unabashed enemies, including many who are struggling with questions of identity and whether or not to abide by the bounds of tradition.

Mountaintop removal, at first, is depicted as a pervasive but rarely-seen evil encroaching on Medgar, with a prideful, blustering coal baron acquiring more and more land surrounding the town. Ultimately, however, it’s the friction created in the small community by mountaintop removal that precipitates a spellbinding story of family, friendship and overcoming the odds that will change Kevin’s life and the town of Medgar forever.

Released on Jan. 6, the ambitious novel is popping up on lists of new and noteworthy titles and editor’s picks. On Jan. 11, Scotton will start a 15-date reading tour, stopping in many cities in Appalachia and across the Southeast.

After reading an early release of the novel, we spoke with Scotton about its heartrending themes, its Appalachian setting and his enduring relationship to the region.

Brian Sewell: You started working on the novel more than a decade ago. Looking back, can you talk about how you initially conceived of the story and went about shaping it into the novel we get to enjoy today?

Christopher Scotton: The kernel of the idea came to me when I was in my twenties. I met a friend’s mother, who was this beautiful women that had this intrinsic sadness about her. I don’t know if you’ve met people like that that have a facade of happiness, but in their unguarded moments you can see that there’s something not quite right. I asked my friend about it and he told me the story of how his older brother died. This was before he was born and his older brother was three and died in the most horrific accident in their front yard that you could possibly imagine, and 30 years later the mom who witnessed it still hadn’t healed. I was so absolutely aghast by that and I knew I had to write a novel about it; how could you ever possibly heal from that?

Now that I’ve become a parent many years later I can understand exactly why she would often look through me when I was talking to her at some place in the past. And now I know why, because you can’t fully heal from something like that. That spurred the idea in my head to write a novel about that awful tragedy and its effect on a family. I wanted to write a coming of age novel so I thought that having Kevin as the narrator, having him recover from that tragedy I figured would make a good story. A parent could never really recover, but maybe a sibling could.

The next question was setting. Do I locate it in the suburbs, where I grew up? When I was in my twenties, I was doing a lot of backpacking, camping and backcountry survival stuff with my college friends and I just fell in love with Appalachia. As I visited the region, I just fell in love with the people and the mountains. It’s such a beautiful place. I went down to eastern Kentucky and realized the paradox of that particular part of Appalachia and thought it would make a good backdrop for Kevin’s story.

I really didn’t connect mountaintop removal to it right away. I had started writing a story centered in eastern Kentucky. The tragedy was there, I had developed the characters, but I hit a narrative logjam and nothing was connecting. I went down to eastern Kentucky for research again and saw my first mountaintop removal mine and could not believe that this practice was allowed to go on. Once I saw that, it all clicked in; the permanent loss of the mountains in eastern Kentucky became so obviously allegorical to the loss that the main characters feel. Once I connected those two together, the rest of the story flowed so easily.

BS: Tell us about some of the other characters such as Kevin’s grandfather Pops that we really get to know. Did they emanate from the setting itself or personal experiences?

CS: I spent a lot of time in eastern Kentucky just meeting folks and listening to their stories and getting to know them. In small towns throughout Appalachia, you just meet wonderful, quirky, interesting people who you want to write about because they’re so real and interesting. You also meet some awful people, just like everywhere else. You meet wonderful people and awful people in New York City too. There are pockets of beauty and pockets of evil absolutely everywhere. A lot of the town characters that I wrote about are just folks that I observed and met while in Kentucky.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

“Secret Wisdom of the Earth”, the debut novel of Christopher Scotton, is out this week. Cover photo courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.

I didn’t have a grandfather like Pops in my life when I was an adolescent. Pops is the grandfather I wish I had and the grandfather that I hope to become; a kind of amalgamation of those two people. Everyone needs a wise mentor in their life and I didn’t have one growing up. Kevin certainly requires it given the tragedy he’s gone through. Adolescence is hard enough, even in the best of circumstances. But when you’ve gone through something like he’s gone through and layer on the guilt from his father, you need someone who can ground you, and Pops definitely does that for him.

BS: Characters like Pops challenge the simplistic images of Appalachian prevalent in media and pop culture. Could you remark on the different brands of wisdom found in the book?

CS: You could argue that in the novel there are several stereotypical characters; Paul is a gay hairdresser and you can’t get much more stereotypical than that. But the reality is that there are elements of truth in stereotypes and you see that everywhere. One thing that my trips down to eastern Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia really taught me is that, sure, there are stereotypical folks in that region but there are many folks that don’t fit that mold and they’re probably there in equal measure. There is wisdom in both.

Pops is someone who loves the land and has the capacity to listen to the earth. He goes off by himself into the woods and just is, existing in the woods by himself. At times in my life when I have done that, when I’m off camping by myself for a few days, I listen to the earth and appreciate the earth in ways that you can’t from an office or even camping with friends. You gain so much wisdom and appreciation for how complex and interconnected the earth is when you do that.

The people in Appalachia tend to be rich just in and of itself. If a capable writer can create good characters, they can do that in any setting and any plot. Appalachia gave me great material to work with and I’m very thankful for that.

BS: You introduce mountaintop removal from an almost innocent perspective. From Kevin’s perspective it’s this off-in-the-distance, over-a-couple-of-ridgelines thing going on. But as you get deeper into the book and Kevin grows into the community, you get closer and closer to the destruction.

CS: Kevin’s experience with mountaintop removal is very similar to mine. I visited the region, eastern Kentucky specifically, three or four times before I had seen a mountaintop removal mine. I had been camping and backpacking extensively but never come across it. You really don’t see it until you get off-trail. I had no sense of what was going on.

I was down in Williamson, W.Va., and heard an explosion and asked someone what’s going on and they described the blasting. That Sunday, I snuck through a fence and climbed through the woods and came to the edge of the operation and looked over two miles of moonscape. It disgusted me. So Kevin’s experience was very much my experience.

BS: Something the novel does well, considering when it takes place, is looking at mountaintop removal as a human issue and a little-understood emerging threat that’s dividing the communities where it’s taking place.

CS: After I saw the mountaintop removal mine, I probably asked someone, “Do you have any idea what they’re doing up there?” But you talk to someone whose family member works up there, they have a very different perspective. I was struck by how it divided the folks that I talked to. I thought that was a really sad and interesting aspect of it. Those that live near it and have the put up with the devastation often hate it, but some of them have relatives that work in the mines so it really is a sad paradox.

Now the pendulum has swung to where, in towns beset by large mining operations, there seems to be a majority of folks that really don’t want it there. It’s gotten so far out of control and the damage is so well documented by organizations like yours. Certainly in 1985, when the novel takes place, and even in 2000, when I was doing the bulk of the mountaintop removal site work, there was less understanding of the damage.

BS: What’s your relationship to the region after writing “Secret Wisdom of the Earth?”

CS: Calling it a second home wouldn’t be accurate because I don’t visit as much as I would like. But I feel a kinship with eastern Kentucky and with the people there because, without their help and support and endorsement, I couldn’t have created this world in my head to tell Kevin’s story. I feel a tremendous connection to that region and the people. I’m so looking forward to spending time in the region and getting to know it again.

BS: You’re heading back to the region to do a reading soon. Have you gotten a lot of positive feedback from readers in Appalachia?

CS: A lady from a major coal-mining county in Kentucky who told me, “You did this region proud.” That was the best praise I think I’ve gotten — from someone who is from the area and felt I did the region justice, dealing with the region with humanity and with truth.

A silver lining in EPA’s Coal Ash Rule

Thursday, January 8th, 2015 - posted by amy

epa coal ash ruleIt took six years, two costly spills, and a lawsuit, but last month, the Environmental Protection Agency finally issued the first-ever federal standards for the disposal of coal ash. It didn’t wow us, there were no ticker tape parades, and the status quo of corporate sway over rulemaking left us with a rule that lacks brawn and relies on industry “self-implementing,” without action from any federal or state agency.

But the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities Rule does have a little brain, and it gave us something solid to work with going forward with, which is better than the nothing we had before. The journey of a 1,000 miles starts with a single step, someone once said. The new rule is just that, a first step. It didn’t resolve the issues, but it did move us one step forward, technically speaking, this is progress.

Here’s what the new federal coal ash rule does:

  • Defines coal ash as non-hazardous, as was expected, rather than hazardous waste . Coal ash will now be treated at least as stringently as household and commercial waste. Before this rule, your household garbage of coffee grinds, paper, and banana peels were better regulated;
  • Sets location restrictions for new, existing, and expanding coal ash impoundments and landfills, such as outside of wetlands, above the uppermost aquifer, and unstable areas such as seismic zones. Coal ash disposal units that don’t meet these restrictions must demonstrate they can still meet water quality standards through engineering, or be closed;
  • Requires new or expanding impoundments to be lined, and new or expanding landfills to have liners and leachate collection systems;
  • Requires a monitoring and control plan for fugitive dust for each site;
  • Establishes criteria for ensuring structural integrity of disposal units, and requires routine structural assessments. If a unit cannot meet the minimum safety standards, it must close;
  • Defines filling in surface mines (clay, coal, sand, etc.) with coal ash as solid waste disposal, not as a “beneficial use” of coal ash. This distinction means any mine-fill site must meet the new landfill standards, including having a liner and leachate collection system;
  • Requires groundwater monitoring systems to be installed within 30 months at all coal ash disposal locations. This will begin the process of obtaining data to assess where contamination has occurred;
  • Requires closure of unlined units where monitoring shows significant exceedance of groundwater standards. Since many clean water advocates, academics, and citizens have already obtained a wealth of data from independent testing showing contamination at many sites, it seems only a matter of time before we can prove how many currently unlined sites should be either closed or lined;
  • Requires that coal ash unit owners–mostly electric utilities like Duke Energy and Dominion Power — make all monitoring data and reports publicly available and maintained on a public website. This is perhaps the “silvery-est” lining, giving citizens the information they need to make sure sites are implementing requirements (monitor your local site from the comfort of your living room!); and
  • Provides an avenue for citizens to bring a federal lawsuit against companies that don’t meet the minimal federal standards.

Now, let’s take a look at what the federal coal ash rule most notably does not do:

  • Require states to adopt or implement these standards;
  • Require federal enforcement of the rule;
  • Guarantee regulatory oversight by requiring a state or federal permit program;
  • Call for an end to the use of surface impoundments for coal ash disposal;
  • Require existing impoundments to be retrofitted with liners (unless groundwater contamination is proven); and
  • Define closure such that de-watering and “cap-in-place” –methods that fail to fully protect public health and the environment — are prohibited.

In North Carolina, the Coal Ash Management Act, passed last year, meets and in some way exceeds the new federal rule, including limiting the cap-in-place option only to sites deemed low-priority, instead of being an option at all facilities. It also prohibits any new surface impoundments. As long as the incoming N.C. General Assembly does not propose changes to weaken the current law, North Carolinians will have a few extra protections not available to residents of other states — with the exception of South Carolina, where all electric utilities there are currently in the process of removing coal ash from their unlined pits and moving it to safe lined, storage.

For non-Carolinian states, there is a much harder row to plow in getting meaningful clean-up of coal ash waste sites. But the good news is the new groundwater monitoring and public disclosure requirements should result in data proving contamination at a plethora of sites–provided, of course, that companies are honest and report accurately, and assuming they “self implement” the requirements in the first place. Surface or groundwater contamination has already been documented in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and Delaware, to name a few states. We know, therefore, that contamination is very likely happening at more sites, we just have to obtain the proof.

If facilities fail to “self-implement” the rule, states do have the ability to bring a federal lawsuit against them. It would seem that even the EPA finds this action unlikely, however, humorously mentioning such state action as a parenthetical side note in its discussion of rule implementation. However, the EPA repeatedly notes that citizens provide a “crucial role in the implementation and enforcement” of this kind of environmental law, and that part of the agency’s requirement to make the data and reports available on a public website was to assist citizens. The EPA will also be offering outreach and education to citizens and groups so they understand their role in compliance.

We must rise to the EPA’s challenge to help implement and enforce the rule. The EPA basically said, “Here’s the rule, you folks enforce it.”

Thanks, EPA, we most certainly will!