Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Daile Boulis: One coalfield resident’s journey to action

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } The following is an abridged transcript of a testimonial given by Daile Boulis of Kanawha County, W.Va., about how she became involved in the fight against mountaintop removal coal mining. This speech was delivered at a grassroots policy training held by The Alliance for Appalachia at the Highlander Center on April 9, 2016. It was transcribed by Forrest Gray Yerman.

Daile Boulis

Daile Boulis

I moved to West Virginia about three years ago to help take care of my father-in-law. He has a home he’s lived in since 1963 in a hollow about 10 miles west of Charleston. When I looked on Google Maps to show my friends in Ohio where I live I saw lots of big scraped areas. I went next door to my neighbor and asked, “what is this?”

She said, “oh, that’s Rush Creek Mine, don’t worry about. It’s three miles away.”

But as Rush Creek Mine was working this way, we started hearing more and more booms, and occasionally the houses would shake.

Someone came in and did a pre-blast survey and they didn’t talk to us. We thought, okay, we complained about hearing these booms from this mine getting closer. So they must be doing this to cover their butts, in case we make a claim. What we didn’t know is they had filed for a permit for an extension to this mine.

One day in May I was on Facebook, and I saw that the Charleston Gazette had posted a map of this permit that had just been approved. I’m looking at this map going, “I think that’s my house.” This mine was 2,000 feet from my house and our house is the monitoring well. I’m learning all kinds of stuff here, and I was shocked!

There was an organization posting on Facebook about this article saying, “You need to come help us fight this mine.”

I immediately texted someone from the organization and asked, “where do I have to be and what do I have to do?” And that started my journey. That was the Kanawha Forest Coalition.

This mine, I mean, it’s like they slid it under. And none of us knew anything about it. I don’t check classifieds. Do you? I had no idea that’s the only place they announce them. When they did the public comment period, they did it in a community 30 miles away from us. So we weren’t involved at all. We were told that our property value dropped 50 percent the day the permit was signed.

I’m a social media girl, so I’m out there going, “This isn’t right. How can they do this?” And I’m getting hate mail back saying, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.”

No I can’t, because I can’t sell my house now for anything near enough to move somewhere else. And my father-in-law has been here since 1963. Should he have to move too?

I started going to the Kanawha Forest Coalition meetings and I was mad. I couldn’t understand why my neighbors weren’t mad. My neighbors were kind of mad, but they figured I’m so naive and you can’t fight coal.

The state Department of Environmental Protection office is in Kanawha City. Well I can get to Kanawha City. So my wife and I went down to the DEP office thinking that they were going to stand with us. That that’s what they’re for.

So I walked in and said that I wanted to talk to somebody about this. But they told me, “well that’s not how it’s done.” Then I said that I would not leave until somebody talked to me. So we sat down and waited for somebody to come talk to us.

Eventually, a woman came down and gave us all these forms that we could take home and fill out saying we were against this mine. I said, “This is ridiculous, who can I talk to?” Someone else came out and said, “We’re going to set you up with a meeting. You’re neighbors can come in. We’ll set you up with an informational meeting.”

I can only get two of my neighbors to go to the meeting with me. So it’s my wife and me, and two of our neighbors. And there were twenty-four DEP people. At least half of them have this I’m-supposed-to-be-home-now look on their faces.

We said to them, “Look, this mine is right next door — literally. The only thing that separates it from us is a little road to Kanawha State Forest. There are trailheads that come down from there, and they’re going to be in the radius of fly rock.”

Well, I was told fly rock doesn’t exist, that absolutely nothing is allowed to leave the permit boundary.

I said, “Everyone’s told us we’re going to lose our wells.”

They said, “well, this is an awesome opportunity to get on city water,” at our expense, of course.

I looked at the guy — and mind you this is in May 2014, the water crisis happened in January of the same year — and I asked, “have you forgotten January that fast? Where do you think people went to get water and to take showers and to maybe wash a load of clothes? They came to my house, and the other houses in the holler.” I told them that we already have good water. Why is it okay, why is it just understood that I’m going to lose my water?

But I started this journey, and I saw people at Kanawha Forest Coalition meetings that showed me they were going to do something, that we could fight this. Everybody knows someone who works in the coal industry. I respect that. I understand that. But policies that say that our lives are the cost of doing business, that we’re an acceptable loss, are not OK. What does it take to get you fired up? I get it. You’re downtrodden. You’re tired and exhausted. But somebody has to scream, and stomp their feet, and go do whatever it takes to get their attention.

And this group in particular, the Alliance for Appalachia, has become family for me, and this family, I could contact any one of them and say, “Help me get mad!” Because mad is better than sad, and I’ll leave you with that.

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A good idea is right under your nose

Tuesday, July 12th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Greensboro, N.C. artist and activist Caroline Armijo grew up in Stokes County, N.C., near one of the state’s largest coal ash impoundments. This post originally appeared on Caroline’s website.

Caroline Armijo

Caroline Armijo

Last summer, as I was pondering about how to resolve this coal ash situation, I came across these words of wisdom on the bottom of a coffee bag: “A good idea is right under your nose.” I cut it out and placed it on a coal ash ideas collage that has been hanging in my closet for the last year. Granted, the collage is incomplete.

But this recent opinion piece from the Greensboro New & Record, based on a more in-depth report on a coal ash breakthrough, reminds me that perhaps we are that much closer to a solution than we think.

In June 2014, I read an article featuring a professor from North Carolina A&T University who created Eco-Core, a material to be used in submarines because of its exceptional resistance to fire. I kept wondering about the project over the next 18 months. I finally reached out to them in February.

When I first met with Professor Kunigal Shivakumar and Wade Brown, I told them stories of my loved ones from Belews Creek and about the illness and devastation found in all of the communities surrounding coal ash pits. Even though they had been working in the industry for 15 years or longer, they had no idea of these issues. However, they did have a new product, which can be molded and shaped into anything you can dream of! They were looking to create a wide range of marketable products, like chair railings or sound barriers. I loved that the lab reminded me a lot of an art studio. Yet, we had more serious matters at hand than art projects.

I asked if they could start with creating an alternative to the current landfill model. Professor Shivakumar said something beautiful about once you know the truth, you are able to find a solution. And so they started working on a prototype for a coal ash block, which can be created in any size, but ideally a half-ton to a ton. But more importantly, the block can be ground up by manufacturers and reused as technology advances.

From what I have gathered over my years of advocacy, coal ash is safest in a solid state.

FullSizeRender_2-1400x1050

I do not like landfills because they cause a spike in pollution as the ash is excavated and transported long distances via trucks and rail cars. Landfills come with a built-in need for a leachate system that requires monitoring. And landfills are likely to fail, as the bulldozers that install the plastic barrier often puncture it during the installation process. Plus, people really do not have a say as to when these landfills are placed in their communities. Their property values plummet, often followed by a decline in health. At the end of the day, it seems like an extremely expensive solution that still places our people and environment at risk. We can do better.

We demand a better way.

This coal ash block does just that. It eliminates the massive transportation needed to transport the 150 million tons of coal ash (in North Carolina alone) to off-site landfills in an unwelcoming community. The blocks can be made and stored on site. There is no leachate. There is no need for long-term monitoring. Plus the ash, which seems like an overwhelming waste now, can be safely stored for reuse as a valuable resource. It provides both short- and long-term solutions.

One night this spring, I woke up to write down a thought that came to me: We need to save these blocks. One day they will be more valuable than gold. At least one other person believes this is true.

Coal ash is an incredibly complex issue plaguing our world. Yes, the pollution will likely get worse before it gets better. But we know that groundwater quality will improve because of the clean-up happening in South Carolina. I understand that this is just one of multiple approaches that must be made to address this issue. Perhaps wetlands, bioremediation, reuse in the cement industry, and other technologies combined together will result in a solution that will lead to the healing of these spaces and our people. I am open to exploring any and all ideas. My motto is expect the best, get the best. And if it costs less than the current solution (landfills), even better.

This week, we return to DC for Moms Clean Air Force Play-In For Climate Action. This time I am bringing with me a solution inspired by my son’s favorite brand of toys – Lego. Watching him play led to a good idea from right under my nose. (And often under my feet!) As we speak, Lucy is explaining to Oliver that this block is made of coal ash. It’s a pretty simple idea. Even kids get it.

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The importance of being earnest — about energy efficiency

Monday, July 11th, 2016 - posted by interns
Mary Ruble, a Blue Ridge Electric member, discusses efficiency with stakeholders at a community meeting.

Mary Ruble, a Blue Ridge Electric member, discusses efficiency with stakeholders at a community meeting.

The Social, Environmental, and Economic Importance of Energy Efficiency in Appalachia

By Josie Lee Varela

While in the Appalachian region, you may be privileged to see mountains that go on forever, float down winding rivers, feel strong winds that take your breath away, and be awed by the leaves that change from green to gold before the snowfall.

With the changing seasons, what you may not witness is the great increases in energy consumption, in hot or cold weather, that result in high utility costs for Appalachian residents. From Pennsylvania to “sweet home” Alabama, folks are experiencing high utility costs due to seasonal increases in energy demand as well as significant energy waste.

Energy waste can be seen in aging homes or homes that are lacking modern energy efficient appliances. From poor insulation to the type of light bulb used, you can see that energy inefficiency becomes expensive for low- to moderate-income households when, for instance, as much as 40% of household income goes towards paying utility bills in the wintertime as it does for many residing in Appalachia.

Energy use and costs are higher in Appalachia than the national average, so when a high proportion of family income goes towards paying the utility bill, something needs to be done in order to reduce people’s electricity bills through improved home energy efficiency. Investing in energy efficiency can also stimulate economic growth for rural communities, spur networking and relationship building between consumers and electricity providers, and support a clean energy transition while reducing our footprint on the natural resources that keep the wheels of society spinning.

Electric co-ops are helping to drive a new American energy future where consumers and utilities work together to improve and expand the services the utilities are providing to Appalachian community members. In 1914, the first electric co-op was established in Tacoma, Washington, a time when rural areas lacked access to electricity. In the 1930’s the federal government financially supported the development of electric co-ops. In turn, community members were encouraged to get involved and many electric co-ops were born, allowing energy equity for more consumers. Availability and support of such programs have been key in improving public well-being and energy savings improvements.

According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, today there are more than 900 electric co-ops serving 42 million people in 47 states. Large coal, gas, and nuclear power plants are the primary energy sources used by most co-ops to provide their customers with electricity. However, more electric co-ops are adapting to a new business model by providing energy efficiency and renewable programs to their members.

One such program is on-bill energy efficiency finance, which, put simply, is a program where the electric service provider pays the upfront costs to improve your home’s energy efficiency. The improvements may include weatherization, insulation, more efficient heating and cooling systems, and potentially solar energy installations. After the upfront costs are paid by the utility, consumers begin to pay a new monthly charge to repay the utility for the efficiency investment.

In some programs, the customer keeps as much as 25% of the energy cost savings while the remaining goes to pay the utility for the financing they provided. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Loan Program has been aiming to benefit rural areas by guaranteeing $60 million in new loans allotted to electric co-ops. The funding should become an incentive to build strong, better on-bill energy efficiency finance and community solar programs.

In a recent article in The Appalachian Voice article, “The Changing Nature of Rural Electric Cooperatives in the 21st Century,” author Rory McIlmoil, Energy Policy Director at Appalachian Voices, talked to Sam Zimmerman, owner of Sunny Day Homes, a Boone-based energy efficiency contractor about on-bill financing for energy efficiency.

“Brought to scale, this program would demonstrate that what helps the environment sometimes helps the economy even more,” Zimmerman said. This economic development is spurred on multiple levels because of increased demand for energy efficiency upgrades and renewable energy installation. This results in more job creation and in more consumer dollars being spent in the local economy.

There has never been a silver bullet in addressing issues that cause environmental, social, and economic degradation. Yet, giving a voice to the people who are being impacted the most seems to be a good start. For example, when Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp. (BRE) said it wanted to hear from members to know if they were truly interested in an energy efficiency on-bill financing program, over 1,000 members signed a letter asking for the program.

BRE recently implemented its Energy Saver Loan Program pilot in response.When electric cooperatives become more aware of their members’ needs as well as becoming more environmentally conscience, positive outcomes will follow once action is taken and programs are jump started.

Does your electricity provider offer on-bill financing or other incentives for energy efficiency? If not, but you’d like a change or you would like to know more about our work, please contact Appalachian Voices at 828-262-1500 or email us.

Making sense of crisis: The West Virginia floods

Wednesday, July 6th, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editor’s note: In this guest post, West Virginia resident and former coordinator of The Alliance for Appalachia Katey Lauer shares her perspective on the aftermath of the floods that devastated several West Virginia counties late last month, and the humanity she has witnessed as communities come together and begin to rebuild. To learn where you can volunteer or donate money and supplies, visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s WV Flood Resources page.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

Photos courtesy of Nate May.

“… My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
So much has been destroyed.
I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

— Adrienne Rich

This might be an article where I tell you how devastating the flood has been. Where I tell you that the flood waters are not water at all. That they are sewage and mud and oil. That they are bits of plastic and metal. I might tell you that it’s four days into flood relief and I can’t get the smell out of my nose or off my skin.

And I might explain how I can’t shake the worst of the stories: how I sat with a grandmother who told me how she climbed to the top of a kitchen stool late Thursday night while the debris rose higher and higher around her ankles then knees then waist.

How I heard about a woman alone in her home in a wheelchair, waters rising up to her neck while her dogs piled onto her lap — all of them screaming. How her family heard her from outside but couldn’t get in.

I might tell you about the kind young man in the town where 17 people died. How he pointed out the mountain where he fled with his mother just after showing me the water line on the carport outside, well above our heads.

But the floods aren’t just about that.

Because this might also be an article about strength through hardship. About that phrase I see on fast food boards and church bulletins: “West Virginia Strong.” And I could tell you how my guess is that that sign is about the families on 5th Street in Rainelle, about the cheerleaders serving up soup beans and cornbread in the Kroger parking lot to anyone who’s hungry, about the volunteers sorting a pile of clothing 20 feet high in an Elkview gym, about the women running the volunteer check point in Clendenin. I could tell you about everyday heroes, but the floods aren’t just about that either.

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Because this article could be about issues: About our failing infrastructure. About climate change. About poverty. About how working-class, rural America is so unseen by the rest of our nation. I could say that.

But then there’s also the way that strangers come together in these moments of crisis. How I hauled heavy, putrid carpet with a dear old friend and a man I’d never met. How I piled water-logged drywall on a pile of building refuse with a man from Florida. How a woman stopped us on the street to give us a warm meal — a woman whose name I didn’t know and who I’d never see again.

Then I could tell you about the ugly parts, about people fighting in sadness in the streets. About that wits-end sort of withdrawal on the face of an older woman. I could say how I wonder where these tons of waste will be shipped and guess that it’s other poor communities that will deal with this new burden. I could tell you about the national guardsman, eyeing me for too long in a shirt tight with the damp.

But the thing that feels closest to the truth is that there is not one story here. In times of crisis, we can look for saviors and goodwill, we look for peeks at what’s best in the human spirit. We can look for a way to make sense of it — to give it a purpose. We can look for the revelation. If you have been touched by this crisis, my guess is you might well have found some of that. But you have likely also found more. I know I have. If these floods have taught me anything, it’s that crisis is not tidy. It is more threads than fabric.

What I mean is that crisis does not make us super-human; it makes us more human. The floods that have washed away homes and possessions and loved ones have also washed away pretense. And at the end of the day, here we are, neighbors and strangers, ankle deep in receding waters, doing our best — in our beauty and our faults — to reconstitute the world.

Visit the West Virginia Citizen Action Group’s Flood Resources page to donate and find other ways to support relief efforts.

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West Virginia files Clean Water Act suit against Kanawha County mine

Wednesday, June 29th, 2016 - posted by willie
Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

Acid mine drainage collects at the KD #2 mine site shortly after the state halted work at the mine. Photo courtesy the Kanawha Forest Coalition

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has brought a lawsuit against Florida-based Keystone Industries over a series of Clean Water Act violations at the controversial KD #2 surface mine.

The 413-acre mountaintop removal mine in southern Kanawha County, W.Va., has been met with much opposition by local residents and others concerned about the mine’s impacts on nearby communities and on Kanawha State Forest, which borders the mine.

The suit, filed on March 9 in the Kanawha County Circuit Court, alleges that runoff from the KD #2 mine contains measurements of aluminum, iron, manganese, selenium, total suspended solids and pH that are in violation of the National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit granted to Keystone Industries under the Clean Water Act. The primary evidence supporting this claim is the company’s own quarterly discharge monitoring reports submitted to the DEP.

The Kanawha Forest Coalition, a grassroots environmental watchdog group comprised of local community members, has conducted water monitoring at the site since shortly after the mine began operating in 2014. Through these efforts, the coalition has identified numerous and persistent regulatory violations, prompting the DEP to issue 40 enforcement actions against the KD #2 mine to date.

“It was shocking to realize that it was through citizen complaints, and not DEP monitoring, that our land was being protected,” said Becky Park, a Kanawha Forest Coalition member from Charleston. “What it boils down to is we are the government. We can’t assume that DEP employees are monitoring permitted mining operations. We have to read the permits, understand the agreements made with mining companies, be willing to use the systems in place to submit complaints, and go to court when the systems fail to stop violators.”

Daile Boulis, who lives in the community of Loudendale immediately adjacent to the KD #2 mine feels similarly.

“From what I understand, this is one of best written permits in the state, and still, there are forty violations in two years? Imagine what the company would be getting away with, without the citizen enforcement and public media exposure? The same thing goes for the DEP,” said Boulis. “The only reason 75-80% of the violations have been enforced and fined is due to pressure from the Kanawha Forest Coalition. When you consider all of the other mines in West Virginia that don’t have a group like Kanawha Forest Coalition working on behalf of the impacted citizens, that’s terrifying! Our lives should not be the cost of doing business in West Virginia.”

By initiating its own suit against Keystone Industries, the DEP has prevented the Kanawha Forest Coalition or other grassroots organizations from filing suit on similar grounds. However, the organization may choose to file as an intervenor in the case, a move that would earn them a seat at the table — but not veto power — in potential future settlement negotiations with Keystone.

Doug Wood, a retired DEP official with 33 years of experience in water resources, is skeptical of his former agency’s motives in bringing this case against Keystone.

“This lawsuit seems to be an attempt to stop advocates from filing their own suits, and an attempt to get a little money to start water pollution treatment when Keystone says, ‘keep the bond, we’re outta here,’” said Wood. “… The DEP seems to be most interested in getting a court settlement so they can say, ‘we solved that problem’ even though the systemic problems that led to this disaster remain unsolved.”

The DEP’s suit against Keystone is expected to go to trial in spring 2017. Meanwhile, the Kanawha Forest Coalition continues to monitor conditions at the mine, regularly testing impacted streams and alerting the DEP of persistent problems.

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An open letter to the North Carolina General Assembly

Monday, June 27th, 2016 - posted by brian

Editor’s note: The following post is an open letter to North Carolina lawmakers from citizens threatened by coal ash pollution across the state that came together last year to form the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Read our recent coverage for more information on where coal ash cleanup stands in the legislature.

Members of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash hold a press conference outside of a public hearing in March.

Members of the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash hold a press conference outside of a public hearing in March.

To the Members of the N.C. General Assembly:

Since the Dan River coal ash spill in February 2014, seldom has a day passed in North Carolina when coal ash is not in the news; the disposition of coal ash in North Carolina is of vital importance to public health and the environment. Our communities are being profoundly impacted: some of us already living day to day with contaminated water and air, and others are facing new impacts in areas which have been targeted for the disposal of coal ash.

During the summer of 2015, North Carolina communities previously impacted by coal ash, and those currently dealing with new coal ash landfills, joined together with a shared vision and common goal to form the Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash. Believing that the coal ash emergency in North Carolina deserves a real, comprehensive solution that will protect all communities, we crafted the ACT Against Coal Ash unifying principles. A few of the key principles are below, and the full document can be found here.

Please don’t let this short session close without taking action to assure that communities near coal ash sites have safe replacement water supplies as soon as possible, that communities facing new coal ash landfills are protected and that cleanups move forward quickly, with no “capping in place.”

We believe that all people, regardless of race and socio-economic class, have a right to healthy communities, clean water, clean air, and safe food and soil.

We believe that living in close proximity to coal ash infringes on these basic rights.

We demand a transparent process to coal ash cleanup in which Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers are open and honest about the health effects of chemicals found in coal ash, and any plans for disposal or recycling coal ash.

We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to urgently respond to the need to test any water supply well that may have been contaminated by coal ash, not just those within 1,000 feet. The tests must be paid for by Duke and performed by an independent lab using the most sensitive and comprehensive testing methods.

We call on N.C. decision makers to require Duke Energy to pay for independent oversight of the coal ash cleanup process, independent analysis of current coal ash contamination, research by public and private entities to find the best solutions to this problem, and random and unannounced inspections of the coal ash sites by state regulators.

We demand that N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy prioritize worker safety during all phases of coal ash cleanup and site remediation.

We call on N.C. decision makers and Duke Energy to strive for a permanent solution to coal ash that prioritizes community safety. We demand that any coal ash that cannot be safely recycled or processed be stored on Duke Energy property with the company maintaining liability. We will not accept dumping of the ash in other communities or capping-in-place as solutions. We demand that the ash be urgently isolated from ground and surface water at all locations.

We call on Duke Energy and N.C. decision makers to invest in a sustainable, healthy, affordable, and responsible energy future for N.C. that supports the growth of solar, wind energy, and energy efficiency programs, and moves away from coal, natural gas, and other harmful and expensive methods of generating power that poison communities and affect North Carolinians’ quality of life.

As our elected representatives, you have the opportunity — and responsibility — to do what is right for the residents of North Carolina. We call on the General Assembly to make sure no community is left to suffer from coal ash now, or in the future.

Sincerely,

The Alliance of Carolinians Together Against Coal Ash
actagainstcoalash.org

Individual community representatives:

Bobby Jones, representing Down East Coal Ash Coalition, Goldsboro
Caroline Armijo, representing Residents for Coal Ash Cleanup, Belews Creek
Roger Hollis, representing residents near Cliffside / Rogers Energy Complex
Debbie Baker and Amy Brown, representing neighbors of Allen Steam Station
Jeri Cruz-Segarra, representing resident near Asheville Steam Station
John Wagner and Judy Hogan, representing Chatham Citizens Against Coal Ash Dumps
Deborah B. Graham, representing neighbors of Buck Steam Station

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Speaking up for energy savings

Tuesday, June 21st, 2016 - posted by guestbloggers

Editor’s note: This post by Michael Goldberg originally appeared on the website of We Own It, a national network to help electric cooperative members rediscover their role as owners of a democratically-controlled enterprise. The piece focused on the efforts of Appalachian Voices’ Energy Savings for the High Country campaign.

How members of Blue Ridge Electric got their co-op’s attention, and action, on energy efficiency.

Mary Ruble speaks at an Appalachian Voices event to present more than 1,000 signatures from Blue Ridge Electric members supporting access to "on-bill" financing.

Mary Ruble speaks at an Appalachian Voices event to present more than 1,000 signatures from Blue Ridge Electric members supporting access to “on-bill” financing.

“Oh, I don’t think we can do that.”

Mary Ruble says that was the initial response from her electric co-op — Blue Ridge Electric in western North Carolina — to the idea of an “on-bill financing” program to help more members afford home improvements that reduce electricity use and lower bills.

A year later now, Blue Ridge has launched just such a program, called the Energy SAVER loan program. As an on-bill financing program, it aims to better serve co-op members who don’t have the up-front money for weatherization and other efficiency upgrades for their homes, especially those who may not be able to get a traditional bank loan. Members who qualify for the program get a loan for upgrades such as better insulation, air and duct sealing, and improved HVAC systems – with no upfront costs – and then repay over time through a charge on their utility bill. The goal is that the electricity savings generated through the improvements will be greater than the annual repayment, so that there’s a net savings for members.

So how was Blue Ridge convinced?

“Blue Ridge kept telling us they needed to hear from the members,” explains Ruble, a retired librarian and Blue Ridge Electric co-op member in Boone, North Carolina. “So we got over 1,000 signatures from co-op members on a petition. We got publicity. We went to board meetings. We made sure they heard from members.”

A lot of effort, but rewarding

Ruble is careful to explain that convincing the executives at her co-op took a lot of work. Members of other electric co-ops may find that the challenges she describes sound familiar: “In the old days our electric co-op used to have big meetings with festivities and music, and food and door prizes,” Ruble says. “Now voting is by proxy. The board meetings are in the middle of the week in the middle of the day, so they’re hard for people to attend. You get three minutes to speak. It can feel intimidating. It can feel like they don’t really want people there.”

Another challenge is that many people don’t think much about electricity. Ruble says that showing the cost of wasted electricity gets people’s attention. “You have to pull people in based on their interests,” Ruble says. “We had a graphic of a house with very few words, just showing the loss of energy – dollars flowing out the window. That gets people’s attention. I went to that first workshop myself to see how I could save.”

In addition to workshops, staff and volunteers with Appalachian Voices talked with co-op members and gathered over 1,000 signatures from members in support of an energy efficiency loan program with on-bill financing. Appalachian Voices also organized a “Home Energy Makeover Contest,” which awarded free home energy upgrades to several residents, as well as public events to raise awareness.

The Blue Ridge program is similar to a no-debt investment program called Upgrade to $ave offered by another NC cooperative, Roanoke Electric Cooperative, which provides on-bill financing through an opt-in tariff rather than a loan. While both of these approaches are opening the doors of opportunity for members, the tariffed terms allow renters to also benefit from a utility’s cost effective investments in energy upgrades. For more information on no-debt energy efficiency, see “How Electric Co-ops Can Save Money for their Members.”

Ruble says that at first she wasn’t sure how she could best help on the effort, but realized that as a retiree she had time to spare to help with tabling at grocery stores and local fairs, and had local connections and contacts she could call on. “It’s inspiring to be involved,” she reflects. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, like extending the program to renters, which is really needed but Blue Ridge hasn’t done so far. But it’s a start. We made progress, and we can make more going forward. An electric co-op is still member-owned,” Ruble adds. “You just have to be tenacious, and stay nice.”

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Coal ash controversy continues in North Carolina

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by interns

By Hannah Petersen

A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality's risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state.

A map showing the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality’s risk classifications for coal ash ponds across the state. Click to enlarge.

UPDATE: As of June 22, North Carolina lawmakers had taken no further action on legislation related to coal ash cleanup in the state.

On May 18, the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality released the rankings for Duke Energy’s coal ash impoundments across the state following 15 public hearings throughout March.

Eight sites are classified “high priority,” meaning the impoundments must be closed and the toxic ash excavated and moved to a lined landfill by 2019. Duke has already agreed to fully excavate these sites. The remaining 25 were ranked intermediate and must be closed and excavated by 2024. It will be Duke’s decision as to whether the intermediate sites’ ash remains on Duke property or is moved to sites such as those in Chatham or Lee counties.

But those rankings could still change. DEQ requested a change to the state law governing coal ash disposal and asked the General Assembly for an 18-month extension during which Duke Energy can take action to remediate issues such as dam deficiencies, one of the key factors leading to the intermediate classifications.

DEQ officials also say that providing water to communities around the impoundments will alleviate drinking water quality concerns, another key factor. Giving Duke 18 months to make these changes would likely cause DEQ to reclassify the sites, opening the door for Duke to cap ponds in place. Citizens living near coal ash sites disagree with DEQ’s suggestion.

“Residents are angered that DEQ is already asking the legislature to consider changing the coal ash law in 18 months, likely creating further delays and loopholes,” according to The Alliance of Carolinians Together (ACT) Against Coal Ash — a coalition of community members directly impacted by the state’s coal ash.

Under the Coal Ash Management Act, an independent commission is required to approve DEQ’s rankings within 60 days. But that commission no longer exists. In March, Gov. McCrory disbanded the state Coal Ash Management Commission after the state Supreme Court found that the commission appointment process encroached on the executive branch’s power.

Citizens waitiing for clean water

On May 24, however, the legislature announced that it was currently revising Senate Bill 71 to reestablish the commission and provide future regulation for coal ash cleanup. Under the current writing of the bill the commission would have seven members, five of whom would be appointed by McCrory. Duke would have to provide water to residents within half a mile of coal ash impoundments. And if the appointed commission does not approve of the rankings within 120 days after recommendations, the rankings would be rejected.

The bill could relieve Duke from the responsibility of excavating coal ash threatening the water quality and harming nearby residents by causing air quality concerns and reducing property values.

Both the state House and Senate have approved the bill, but Gov. McCrory has vetoed it saying that it “weakens environmental protections, delays water connections for well owners, ignores dam safety, hinders efforts to reuse coal ash and violate the state constitution.”

Both the House and the Senate have enough votes to override the veto, but it now appears unlikely that lawmakers will take action.

“This bill is the latest attempt by Raleigh politicians to bail out Duke Energy,” said Frank Holleman in a statement for the Southern Environmental Law Center. “Now, after heavy lobbying by Duke Energy, the Raleigh politicians want to reopen the process to try to find a way to let Duke Energy off the hook.”

While the law has been the center of attention for policymakers, it also concerns North Carolinians.

“This is a way for Duke to wiggle out of fixing the problem,” says Doris Smith, a Walnut Cove resident who lives roughly two miles from Duke’s Belews Creek Power Station, which was ranked intermediate. “And providing water does nothing for the pollution. The only solution is to get the ash out of here.”

Last year, more than 300 residents living near Duke Energy coal ash ponds were sent “Do Not Drink” letters from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services informing them of unsafe levels of heavy metals in their well water including hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen. This March, the state agencies rescinded the majority of these letters claiming that further studies revealed the recommendations were overly cautious.

But no well testing or on the ground studies had occurred. DHHS State Epidemiologist Megan Davies revealed during a deposition that the “extensive study” that the letters referenced were actually literature reviews of other state and federal policies for regulating contaminants.

“I know the language of the letter says, ‘after extensive study,’ said Davies. “To me, that doesn’t mean — it just means after reviewing the literature.”

When asked if she thought the letters should have been rescinded, the deposition transcript shows Davies’ response was, “No.”

“They treat us like we are dirt,” said Doris Smith of Walnut Cove. “I know why they don’t want to move the ash, it’s because there is so much of it. But it’s done enough damage.”

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A power play for Virginia’s power plan

Tuesday, June 14th, 2016 - posted by hannah
Citizens signal their support for clean energy at a recent meeting of the Dept. of Environmental Quality's Clean Power Plan stakeholders group,

Citizens signal their support for clean energy at a recent meeting of the Dept. of Environmental Quality’s Clean Power Plan stakeholders group.

The shift to a clean energy economy in Virginia faces many obstacles – extreme mining, extreme drilling, and apparently extreme legislating. Weeks after the 2016 General Assembly’s regular session adjourned, opponents of clean energy progress attacked state climate policy in an unorthodox way: through the budget of the agency tasked with preparing a state plan to cut carbon pollution.

Those budget provisions will take effect July 1, and that’s unfortunate, but it’s not stopping Appalachian Voices and other organizations and clean energy advocates from continuing to push for a transition to wind, solar and energy efficiency.

Let’s take a step back and see how we got here. But first, a quick primer. In August 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency passed the historic Clean Power Plan, the first federal rule to reduce carbon pollution from the nation’s fleet of coal-fired power plants. Based on years of research and public feedback, the rule establishes a series of deadlines, as well as individualized reduction goals for each state, and provides a framework for states to devise their own plan for how to get there on time. The rule was immediately challenged by the fossil fuel industry and their political allies, and earlier this year the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily stayed the rule pending further review.

State government: Checks, balances and the occasional blatant overreach

At stake in this past Virginia legislative session, as it was in the 2015 session, was control over the state plan to implement the federal Clean Power Plan., and whether the General Assembly would wrest that authority away from the governor.

Bills mandating that the legislature approve a state plan prepared by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) were introduced and approved, with highly charged rhetoric and dire claims of skyrocketing utility bills used to justify the power grab. Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed these bills, for the time being preserving his administration’s opportunity to produce a strong carbon reduction plan on time.

Meanwhile, an official stakeholders group convened by DEQ began working through many fiendishly technical areas, from the pros and cons of basing standards on emissions rates versus using an overall statewide cap, or mass-based plan, to the thorny socially oriented questions like how the state plan can yield the most benefit for low-income Virginians and what approaches would yield jobs where they are needed most.

But as it turned out, the struggle to uphold administrative authority over the process was not over, and it continued into the spring when a budget amendment (369#1c) was introduced that would ensure that funds for DEQ to plan state compliance with the Clean Power Plan be withheld. The budgetary tactic was unusual, sidestepping the responsibilities that normally rest with each branch of government. The legislature was becoming involved in a matter delegated to the executive, not ordinarily within its purview, by going after the “purse strings.” This break with tradition may be viewed as a symptomatic part of a larger, multi-issue partisan divide.

Amid murky intricacies of the Constitution of Virginia, Governor McAuliffe did not exercise a full veto of the budget amendment, but rather made a line item edit, striking a reference to using funds “for planning” state implementation of the new standards. The prospect of upholding this fix was slim, requiring 51 votes out of 100 members of the House of Delegates, spelling real trouble for the state’s formal planning process, which was on track to produce a draft outline by early summer 2016. As expected, the amendment language prevailed, revoking DEQ funding as of July 1, 2016, for state planning.

While aiding polluters, CPP stop-work order shortchanges Virginia workers and communities

As energy markets continue to shift, our sources for generating electricity need to diversify, and the change is underway. From the proliferation of solar arrays on Virginia homes and small businesses to mid-size and large projects at data centers and universities, examples bear out the proven economics of renewable energy. According to the Energy Foundation, Virginia has seen an increase in jobs in the solar energy business of 157% since 2012, and this is a field that is immune from outsourcing, like home energy efficiency assessment and retrofitting.

The state DEQ is first charged with ensuring adherence to pollution limits in Virginia. However, the scope of its work has extended to consider the policy impacts of how air and water pollution are reduced, from the cost savings or increases to energy customers to the reliability of the electric grid over time. Perhaps no aspect of the issues that DEQ deals with is more deserving of its attention than the environmental justice implications of these rules.

Areas of Virginia that have been burdened by job loss, disproportionately high energy bills relative to household income, and extractive activities that carry environmental risks deserve immediate attention. While these communities should be directly involved in designing a just and beneficial state carbon-reduction plan, political grandstanding may shut down the planning effort altogether. Leaders that operate by rigid, lock-step dedication to polluting industries are clearly missing opportunities to act in the interest of the people they represent.

DEQ may yet be able to carry out work with similar aims to the Clean Power Plan in the absence of the planning funding. The agency intends to meet new rules for the energy sector, as Director Paylor made clear in remarks made during public stakeholder meetings, and Governor McAuliffe has stated support for this approach and will still have a chance to leave a robust legacy in that regard. But there is uncertainty over Virginia’s ability to have a plan by the EPA deadline. If we fail, a federal plan will be imposed, without the same level of public input in Virginia. In that situation, there will be a greater need than ever for citizens to engage with the administration and with our legislators to pursue a clean energy future in the commonwealth.

Where the Clean Power Plan court case stands

Just as a strong majority of Virginians expects government officials to take meaningful action to address carbon pollution, national polls reflect that the Clean Power Plan is popular – even in states that are suing over the plan. And just as there are opponents in Virginia, including elected officials who put politics over people and use red-herring arguments to justify calling off the planning process, there are opponents who have sued over the EPA’s rule.

The legal challenges were filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which would normally hear it before a panel of only three judges.But the process has been changed for this case, likely due to the significance of the issues involved, and it will now be an en banc hearing with at least nine judges presiding. The court will meet September 27, which sounds like a delay from the previous hearing date of June 2, but since the full court might have asked to review the decision, and prolonged the process anyway, this change may actually streamline the case.

Meanwhile, in Virginia, as the planning funding restrictions draw closer, watch for news in Virginia as to how the McAuliffe administration plans to move forward with Clean Power Plan planning.

Survey says … energy efficiency financing needed in western NC

Monday, June 13th, 2016 - posted by Amber Moodie-Dyer

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Want to learn how to lower your electric bill and make your home more comfortable? Turns out, lots of folks do. Appalachian Voices, in partnership with Resource Media, conducted a Facebook survey last month in parts of Western North Carolina and the results from 300 respondents shed light on values and needs when it comes to energy efficiency in the region.

Respondents included members of four western North Carolina co-ops (Energy United, Surry-Yadkin, French Broad, and Blue Ridge electric cooperatives) and customers of Duke Energy. The vast majority, 89%, reported that they have trouble paying their energy bills.

We know from data available in these areas that tens of thousands of homes are older and drafty, with outdated appliances and heating and cooling systems. Inefficient homes lead to unnecessarily high utility bills and huge energy waste, which has a negative impact on pocket books, health and comfort and our environment.

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Poverty rates in the counties surveyed range from 17% to 23%. But even a family of four earning up to $47,700 a year (twice the poverty level) would struggle to pay high electric bills, and that constitutes almost half of the population in the survey area. So it’s no surprise that 69% said that being able to afford the upfront cost of energy efficiency upgrades was the biggest challenge to improving their homes. Another one-third said taking on debt to make upgrades would be a challenge.

This survey is just one of many indicators of the tremendous unmet demand for financing for energy efficiency upgrades, which would lower bills and make homes more comfortable. Fortunately, a program model exists which would help overcome barriers for families so that they could access financing without taking on personal debt and make much needed improvements on their homes.

Comprehensive on-bill financing is a tool that some electric cooperatives in the South have already implemented with great success. With this type of program, the electric utility pays the upfront costs for home improvements which result in energy savings for most members. The member then repays the utility each month on their bill using a portion of the savings that result from the efficiency improvements. When respondents were asked whether they’d be interested in learning more about this type of opportunity, 80% reported some level of interest.

There are some no-cost and low-cost measures that residents can do on their own to improve home efficiency, and there is help available from social service organizations to assist with home weatherization for some who can’t afford it. But unfortunately, the need far outweighs the resources available.

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On-bill energy efficiency financing is a program that can help meet that need and it’s a win for everyone involved — our environment benefits from reduced reliance on fossil fuels due to a reduction in energy use, residents benefit from more comfortable homes and lower electric bills, and the community benefits from increased economic opportunity with the addition of more jobs to do the home upgrades.

Appalachian Voices continues to work to educate communities about ways to implement energy efficiency measures, and to help electric cooperatives implement comprehensive on-bill financing in Tennessee and North Carolina. If you’d like to send a letter to your utility to ask them to provide energy efficiency financing visit our Energy Savings Action Center.