Archive for the ‘Front Porch Blog’ Category

Don’t drink the water

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy's coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking.

Dozens of North Carolinians living near Duke Energy’s coal plants learned this week that that their well water is unsafe to drink or use for cooking.

Dozens of residents across North Carolina received notices this week telling them not to drink or cook with their well water due to recent tests which show unsafe levels of contaminants that may be associated with coal ash.

As part of North Carolina’s coal ash law enacted last year, Duke Energy is required to test the well water of residents living within 1000 feet of the massive coal ash ponds that dot the state.

For years, the demands of residents in communities next to coal ash ponds and environmental advocates were ignored by Duke and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, despite independent water sampling that showed elevated levels of contaminants. Now, more than a year after the Dan River coal ash spill, water testing results are coming back, giving residents and regulators a clear picture of just how widespread the problem is.

Residents living near 9 of the 14 coal plants across the state have been notified of exceedances of the groundwater standard for concerning metals such as arsenic, chromium, and vanadium. According to DENR, 87 of the 117 wells Duke tested exceeded North Carolina’s groundwater standards for one or more toxic constituents. Some wells also had high levels of constituents that may be naturally occurring in North Carolina soil, such as iron, manganese and pH.

Duke has been quick to latch onto those exceedances as evidence that the contamination is not from their illegally leaking coal ash ponds. But residents who can see coal ash ponds from their yards and have watched Duke’s smokestacks for decades have little doubt why they are now being told “don’t drink the water.”

DENR officials say they will investigate the source of contamination and, if it is linked to coal ash pollution, Duke will be required to provide residents with clean water. But that reassurance is hardly recompense for North Carolinians who may have been unknowingly drinking contaminated water for an unknown amount of time. And until the source is determined, residents will have to foot the bill for bottled water.

Meet Tarence, the newest member of our team!

Friday, April 17th, 2015 - posted by jamie


Appalachian Voices would like to welcome Tarence Ray, the newest member of our team! Serving as our new Central Appalachian Field Coordinator, Tarence will be working in central Appalachia helping expand our Appalachian Water Watch project and working on federal policy to end mountaintop removal coal mining.

Tarence was born in Lubbock, Texas, and was raised in the rural oilfields of southeastern New Mexico. He received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas at Austin. Tarence’s interest in the socio-economic parallels between his home region and the coalfields of central Appalachia brought him to eastern Kentucky in 2012.

Since then, he has served two terms as an AmeriCorps VISTA in Letcher County, Ky., focusing on the connections between water quality, systemic poverty, mine safety, the black lung benefits system and the environmental impacts of coal mining.

Tarence is also a programmer and occasional radio producer at Appalshop’s WMMT-FM in Whitesburg, Ky., and is a contributor to the Center for Rural Strategy’s blog about rural issues, The Daily Yonder. He uses his spare time to research obscure topics, argue about the Civil War, and practice his hand at multiple musical instruments.

Please join us in extending a hearty welcome to Tarence!

POWER+ Plan deserves a warmer welcome

Thursday, April 16th, 2015 - posted by Adam
The Clinch River Farmers Market

The Clinch River Farmers Market

While we here in Appalachia are working overtime to reinvent our economy with the fall of King Coal, you would think that our representatives in D.C. would be eager to pass measures that send much-needed and well-deserved federal aid to help our hard hit coal counties.

But most of the region’s congressmen and senators are staying silent, and those who are going on the record definitely are not stepping up to the plate.

When the POWER+ Plan was announced in February as part of the 2016 budget proposed by the Obama administration, Sen. Mitch McConnell labeled it as “cold comfort.” And Rep. Hal Rogers of Eastern Kentucky responded with a reluctant pledge to “bear it in mind” during upcoming budget deliberations.

POWER+ directs billions of dollars to Appalachia to help communities whose economies have been left hanging as the bottom drops out of the domestic coal market. Here’s a breakdown of where the money would go:

  • $25 million to the Appalachian Regional Commission for programs that support developing advanced manufacturing, energy efficiency, local food systems, tourism development, and health care.
  • $20 million to retrain workers who have been impacted by closures of coal mines or coal-burning power plants.
  • $6 million to the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA) to coordinate and advance the federal government’s regional innovation efforts. EDA disburses grants to assist economically distressed communities by fostering an environment conducive to job creation and economic growth;
  • $5 million to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Brownfields and Land Revitalization program, specifically to increase funding for communities impacted by power plant closures;
  • $12 million in grants and $85 million in loans to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program directed towards rural communities that have been impacted by coal’s decline (that’s most of Appalachia, by the way).
  • $1 billion over the next five years to the Abandoned Mine Lands program to clean up old, nasty coal mine sites with a focus on redeveloping the land for beneficial post-mine use.
  • $2 billion in tax credits for a technology known as “carbon capture.”

Wait a minute! $2 billion for carbon capture technology? That’s what I said, and just like my list here, it’s at the bottom of the fact sheet released by the White House.

Needless to say, Appalachian Voices and our allies aren’t happy about this last provision, but perhaps it’s needed in order to get the rest of POWER+ through Congress. Given all of the other impressive allocations to worthwhile causes, it might be worth focusing on promoting what’s good and ignoring the bad. Besides, the silver lining is that the plan has pretty tough requirements for power plants to qualify for the tax credits. Given the fact that this technology is still in its infancy (and might stay there forever), it’s uncertain if any of these credits will actually be deployed.

We’ve been talking about the need for a federal investment package like this in Appalachia for years, and it’s never been as critical as it is now. But our leaders have been slow to step up and support this forward-thinking plan.

Appalachian Voices is working with our regional allies right now to deploy a strategy that lifts up POWER+ as an economic jumpstart for the region and pressures our elected officials to stand up for the measure as the 2016 budget moves through Congress.

Live in Virginia? You can help by asking Senators Warner and Kaine to support POWER+.

“MVP” is not a most valued project

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015 - posted by guestbloggers

{ Editor’s Note } Today’s guest to the Front Porch is Tina Badger, a resident of Elliston, Va. and an intern with Appalachian Voices. With a background ranging from water quality monitoring to feeding the hungry, Tina currently focuses on advocacy work in opposing the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Tina Badger

Tina Badger

It’s been nearly six months since the companies behind the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline pre-filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and residents are still unsure about the routes, full impact, and process.

Landowners and residents on and near the alternative routes released in February are just now learning of possible impacts of the 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline if FERC approves the project, proposed by EQT Corp., NextEra Energy and partners under an entity called “MVP LLC.” The 300-mile pipeline, three-and-a-half feet in diameter, would carry natural gas under high pressure from the Marcellus fracking fields, starting in Wetzel County, W.Va., and ending in Pittsylvania County, Va, where it would tie in with another pipeline.

MVP LLC recently held open houses in Monroe County, W.Va. and Craig County, Va., where residents have quickly organized in opposition to the pipeline, joining a line of opposition all along the proposed route. The boards of supervisors in Giles, Craig, Montgomery, and Roanoke counties have all passed resolutions opposing the project, and Roanoke County created a Pipeline Advisory Committee to review the potential benefits and impacts. In W.Va., the Monroe County Board of Health has voiced its opposition as well.

Rally in Blacksburg against the MVP

Rally in Blacksburg against the MVP

All counties along the proposed route are preparing for FERC’s upcoming scoping meetings. At this time, there is no definitive date for these meetings.

Meanwhile, surveying continues along the proposed route and has started on the alternative routes, in spite of landowner opposition. EQT Corp. has brought a lawsuit against 103 landowners in West Virginia who have denied the company access to survey their land. Recently, a subcontractor on the project caused a small brush fire in Franklin County, Va., after discarding a cigarette, and residents are reporting survey stakes that are clearly marked “MVP” in areas that are not on the published corridor maps.

The latest proposed location for the Swann Compressor station, the only compressor station proposed for Virginia, would put it somewhere in or near the Catawba Valley, possibly in the North Fork Historic District. While there is no good location for a compressor station, an historic district in a pastoral rural valley seems especially inappropriate.

Everyone is encouraged to continue to submit comments to FERC and to join one of the many groups that have formed to oppose the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

Now is the time to be involved. Stay up to speed with us and local organizers and take every opportunity to be heard.

Mountain protectors try again in N.C.

Friday, April 10th, 2015 - posted by sarah
Photo by Dot Griffith

Photo by Dot Griffith

North Carolina Rep. Pricey Harrison introduced a bill today to phase out North Carolina’s use of mountaintop removal coal. Though the bill is currently untitled, its language mirrors a bill that was introduced in 2007 and 2009 called the “Appalachian Mountains Preservation Act.”

In 2009, Appalachian Voices helped Rep. Harrison launch the bill in Raleigh. The legislation received bipartisan support, and 75 legislators signed onto a letter calling for an end to North Carolina’s use of mountaintop removal coal.

The bill (HB619) acknowledges the extensive cultural and natural value of the Appalachian mountains, and that “coal mining, whether conducted on the earth’s surface or underground, poses significant risks to human health, local communities, the environment, real property, personal property, and wildlife resources.”

North Carolina is still the number one user of mountaintop removal mined coal in the country, with nearly half of its coal coming from mountaintop removal mining operations.

The bill, which requires North Carolina utilities to stop purchasing coal from mountaintop removal sites, is a proactive approach to ending the incredibly destructive mining practice. It would also place a moratorium on building new coal-fired power plants in the state, “to provide economic relief to utility ratepayers during this period of economic recovery,” unless the plant is carbon neutral.

priceyIf you like this idea, please take a minute to write a quick letter-to-the-editor for your local paper and say so. We’ll need a loud chorus of voices supporting the bill.

You can also take a moment to help North Carolina make the switch from coal to clean energy — tell your legislators to support the Energy Freedom Act which would allow independent companies to generate solar electricity and sell it directly to consumers.

Updated 04-17-2015

Two historic homes get some TLC energy

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 - posted by eliza

Sean Dunlap and his wife Lynnea McElreath live in a wood-slat farmhouse in Boone, N.C. built in 1938 by Lynnea’s great-grandfather. They bought the house and moved in eight years ago and have been slowly refurbishing the house ever since. Sean describes living in their drafty house in the wintertime as “frustrating and expensive.”

In January, the DIY couple won $800 worth of energy upgrades in Appalachian Voices’ “High Country Home Energy Contest.” John Kidda, a Boone-area home energy contractor, donated an extensive energy audit so they will have a detailed report to use for future projects. He was astounded to find that Sean and Lynnea’s house leaks air 10 times more than an average home.

“Your house is so drafty,” John said to Lynnea during the energy audit, “that it is overpowering the exhaust fans. I’ve never seen that before.”

Starting a family has halted the couple’s progress on most projects due to a diminished budget and time. “Having an infant in a house that gets really, really cold in the wintertime is an additional stress,” says Sean. They have used extra blankets and space heaters to stay comfortable, but, in part due to education they they received from Appalachian Voices, are aware that energy efficiency is the solution.

When she’s not taking care of her children, Lynnea enjoys researching how to modernize their home, which led her to discover Appalachian Voices’ contest last fall. Sean knew their house was drafty, but was at a loss to stop it. “I don’t think we really understood the causes,” he says.

After working with our Energy Savings for Appalachia team, Sean and Lynnea are finding out what they can do to alleviate the exacerbated “chimney effect” of a leaky house.

They had recently installed a wood-burning furnace in their basement, which decreases their heating costs substantially. Before, their utility bills averaged around $330 a month. The insulation and air-sealing they were awarded will ensure that the heated air stays in their house and the cold air stays out. This results in the Dunlaps using a lot less energy to keep their home warm and comfortable in the winter. The energy audit they received as part of the contest gives them a roadmap for future improvements.

Another couple benefits from energy efficiency

Vance and Thelma Woodie also live in an old home. Their historic home near downtown West Jefferson, N.C. was once heated by a coal-stoker furnace. Coal still litters the basement floor. Vance, a Korean War veteran, bought the home with the help of the G.I. bill. It had a major roof leak and they spent all they had to get it fixed. “Back then we didn’t have nothing; we still don’t have nothing,” says Vance.

They have replaced that furnace with a modern one, but the 80-year-old duct system needs updating. There is even still asbestos tape on the duct that heats their kitchen. They had improved the house little by little each year, but when Vance retired, they could no longer afford upgrades on a fixed income.

Even though they close off part of their second floor during the winter, they still spent an average of 15 percent of their income on utility bills before the awarded retrofit. Chuck Perry, program director for North Carolina Energy Efficiency Alliance, completed a walk-through energy assessment of their house as part of their prize. He identified the duct system as the place where the highest energy impact will be seen. The air loses heat as it travels through the ducts, and even warms the basement, because the duct system is not insulated or sealed. This means that the heater has to work even harder to heat the house to the temperature the Woodies want, resulting in a substantial amount of wasted energy.

He also explained to the Woodies a major air quality problem. One of the air intake vents is in the hand-dug basement, which means their heating system is taking up air, and dust along with it, from the basement to heat and distribute throughout the house. “Oh I notice it,” says Thelma. “When it first comes through I usually put my hand over my nose.”

As runners-up in our “High Country Home Energy Contest,” the Woodies have had their duct system sealed and insulated.

“I know it’ll help a whole lot,” says Vance of the energy upgrades he won. Living in the High Country his whole life, he knows that there will be another cold snap before trout season starts, the first weekend of April. The Energy Savings team will be keeping track of his energy use through a partnership with ResiSpeak, a program that takes weather into account when comparing monthly and annual energy usage.

The Energy Savings team is working with a local electric membership cooperative, Blue Ridge Electric Membership Corp., to explore the development of a utility-implemented program that provides a loan for home energy retrofits. Blue RIdge Electric wants to be sure that any new programs do not cost its members. On-bill financing would increase access to energy efficiency to a service territory with a 23 percent poverty rate.

The contest culled members of Blue Ridge Electric that spend a disproportionate amount of money on their energy bills compared to the whole service territory. The average applicant pays more than double on their energy bills than the average Blue Ridge Electric member, and three times the national energy bill average.

Vance says he would take advantage of an on-bill financing program. “People like me can’t come up with the money when they need it,” Vance says, “It would help a lot of people.”

Check out our High Country Campaign where you can sign on to our petition to Blue Ridge Electric or send a letter of support for energy efficiency and ask Blue Ridge Electric to do more for its members.

Welcome to Congress, Mr. Mooney. Your bill is the worst.

Monday, April 6th, 2015 - posted by thom

mooneAlex Mooney, a freshman representing West Virginia’s 2nd district in the U.S. House of Representatives, introduced a new bill recently, and it’s a doozie. He wants to stop the White House from finalizing the Stream Protection Rule, which would protect streams from mountaintop removal coal mining pollution. The rule, currently being drafted by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) has the potential to be one of the most important steps the White House takes to put an end to mountaintop removal in Appalachia.

This week, Rep. Mooney was interviewed by Taylor Kuykendall of SNL Financial, and talked about the bill.

Everything he said about his bill, the STREAM Act, was nonsense.

In order to pre-empt the president from opening a new front in the war on coal…

(Sigh). Well, that’s not a very promising start.

I introduced the STREAM Act on March 26. The bill would prevent the administration from implementing a new stream buffer zone rule intentionally designed to shut down all surface mining and a significant portion of underground mining in the Appalachian region.

The new rule has not even been released. Not even a draft. That won’t happen for another couple of months. So claims about its intentions or impacts are purely speculative.

Having said that, Appalachian Voices and our allies have spent a good bit of time speaking with OSMRE, and we can say with confidence that the agency’s intention is not to end surfacing mining in Appalachia. That’s basically our goal, and it has been made clear to us that OSMRE does not share that goal with us.

According to a 2012 National Mining Association study, based on leaked information from the administration’s stream buffer rewrite, the new rule from the OSM…could put between 55,150 and 79,870 direct mining jobs at risk.

First, Rep. Mooney is relying on a study produced by coal industry lobbyists. Second, the “leaked information” on which the lobbyists based their analysis was a partial, unpublished section of the draft rule from four years ago. That information has little bearing on the soon-to-be-released draft. Third, and most importantly, the analysis is blatantly wrong in every way.

In 2013, there were around 80,000 coal mining jobs in the U.S. For the Stream Protection Rule to put 79,000 coal mining jobs at risk, it would have to nearly eliminate all coal mining across the country. That’s ludicrous. According to OSMRE Director Joe Pizarchik in a recent Congressional hearing, the job impacts of the rule are expected to be plus or minus a few hundred jobs. And sure, it’s possible Pizarchik is underestimating the impact, but 79,000!? Why would Mooney stoop to promoting such an outrageous claim?

My bill requires the OSM to use existing funds to conduct a study of industry impact and prevents implementation of a new rule for one year after completion of that study to allow for congressional, industry and public review.

Well, at least that part is true. The bill would require OSMRE to conduct a long, drawn-out study about the impacts of the existing 30-year-old regulations before being allowed to implement much needed updates. I’ll also note that Rep. Mooney, like many coal industry advocates, likes to call it “OSM” instead of “OSMRE,” as though the Regulation and Enforcement part of the agency simply doesn’t exist.

It also prevents the OSM from seizing duplicative regulatory jurisdiction from other agencies — namely the EPA, which already has similar regulatory authority under the Clean Water Act. This is particularly significant because the OSM was never intended by statute to be an environmental regulator. It was instead designed to be an agency to monitor and assist in the reclamation of closed surface mines (emphasis mine).

Now he’s just making stuff up. OSMRE is explicitly charged with protecting society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations. The OSMRE staff, have, from the onset, been environmental regulators. That was a key purpose of the surface mining law that created the agency in 1977.

In short, Rep. Mooney has introduced a bill that would stop a rule he’s never seen, have drastically different impacts than he thinks, and would be written and enforced by an agency whose purpose he doesn’t understand. But, hey, maybe it’s just a side project for him?

Preventing the Obama administration’s planned stream buffer rule is my top priority…

Or maybe not.

A first for North Carolina, now open for fracking

Monday, March 23rd, 2015 - posted by sarah
Fracking rig

In the face of widespread public opposition and demand for stronger rules, fracking permits can officially be applied for in North Carolina. Photo by Bob Warhover

March 17 marked the first day in history that North Carolina has been fully open to the oil and gas industry for the dangerous, environmentally destructive practice of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

Despite widespread public opposition, Governor McCrory and state legislators rushed to open the state to drilling, ignoring hundreds of North Carolinians who spoke at public hearings across the state and thousands more that sent written comments requesting stronger rules.

Despite legislators’ promises that the rules would be the strongest in the country, the final package leaves much to be desired. The rules lack any provisions to control air pollution and they do not clarify legal confusion about forced pooling, the controversial process by which landowners are pooled into a drilling unit without their consent.

Adding insult to injury, on March 18, the North Carolina legislature passed its first bill since the session began in January, which declares that it is optional for the state Environmental Management Commission to create rules regulating air emissions from fracking operations. Previously, the Energy Modernization Act, which paved the way for fracking in the state, required that the EMC develop regulations to protect communities from air pollution.

North Carolina has very small shale deposits and it is unclear where they are located and how much they will actually produce. What is known is that the shale deposits in North Carolina are closer to groundwater sources than the shale deposits in other states that have already experienced groundwater contamination from failed fracking well cases. Additionally, there are no facilities in North Carolina that can treat the toxic wastewater produced by drilling and there are currently no pipelines to transport the fracked gas.

Combine North Carolina’s weak rules, unclear picture of gas reserves, and a lack of infrastructure to transport what little gas the state can produce, with dropping gas prices and drilling companies operating in the red, and you can be sure that the only drillers North Carolina is likely to attract are wildcatters.

When multi-billion dollar oil and gas companies can’t even drill safely, it seems unlikely that small-time prospectors will take every precaution to protect groundwater and neighboring communities from harm.

Though the moratorium on fracking has been lifted, communities and environmental organizations across the state are prepared to continue fighting. We’ll be watching the Department of Energy Mineral and Land Resources closely for any applications to create a drilling unit or for a drilling permit. If a permit is applied for, we’ll be ready to fight it.

Learn more about the risks of fracking and stay up to date by signing up for “Frack Updates” from Frack Free N.C.

Although industry gets fined, citizens still pay the price

Friday, March 20th, 2015 - posted by tom

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

Belews Creek Power Plant by Avery Locklear

Belews Creek Power Plant, photo by Avery Locklear

The crimes of companies that mine and burn coal come with high costs that can’t always be measured in dollars and cents. But that doesn’t mean wrongdoers shouldn’t be held accountable or forced to pay the price.

Dan RiverMajor polluters in our region are starting to see the consequences of their crimes catch up to them. Last month, Duke Energy announced it reached a $102 million plea agreement with federal prosecutors to resolve charges stemming from its coal ash pollution in North Carolina. Those fines cannot be passed on to customers, meaning Duke and its shareholders will take the hit.

But, it’s the communities surrounding Duke’s leaking coal ash sites that have been paying for years, in undrinkable water, air pollution, worry and concern, and illness. The problem might have been avoided had North Carolina’s regulators taken seriously the coal ash pollution or citizens’ urgings to address it.

fc-mtrA similarly troubling story is unfolding in eastern Kentucky, where citizen groups have faced off with the coal industry and the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. There, too, regulators for years ignored corporate misconduct — this time in the form of blatantly falsified water quality reports that covered up pollution from mountaintop removal sites — leading Appalachian Voices and our partners to file suit.

These stories and many others in our region point to the ways that pollution negatively impacts communities at every stage of coal’s life cycle. But more importantly, they underscore the exceedingly important role citizens play in environmental protection.

When regulators don’t enforce essential protections, it’s no surprise that profit-driven companies feel free to disregard the law, cutting corners while paying little attention to the people their actions put at risk. And ultimately, citizens are forced to pay with priceless commodities like their health and well-being.

Citizen efforts to hold polluters accountable may not always end in a guilty plea, when we can say that justice has been served. But, we know when looking at the coal ash-lined banks of the Dan River or a polluted stream beneath a mountaintop removal mine in Kentucky that crimes have been committed, and that someone will have to pay.

Two passionate organizers join the team

Thursday, March 19th, 2015 - posted by jamie

We’re delighted to welcome two exciting new members to the Appalachian Voices family, Adam Wells and Amy Kelly!

Adam Wells
Adam Wells joins us from Wise County, Va., where he’ll be working to bring clean energy and other economic opportunities to the area as our Economic Diversification Campaign Coordinator. Adam first walked through the doors of Appalachian Voices as a volunteer while working on his undergraduate degree at Appalachian State University.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Adam moved to Wise County, Va., to live on the land his family has inhabited for five generations. As outreach coordinator for Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, and later as a field organizer for the Sierra Club, Adam dug deep into the movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining in Southwest Virginia. He also worked for a time as a wilderness therapy field guide, and in 2013 joined the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable, focusing on the Guest River in Wise County.

Adam still lives on his family farm in Wise County with his wife and their dog, where they enjoy spending time in the beautiful mountains of Southwest Virginia, especially on rivers.

Amy Kelly
Also new to the team is Amy Kelly, our Tennessee Energy Savings Outreach Coordinator. She’ll be working with local residents to save money and create opportunities by growing energy efficiency programs.

With familial ties in Tennessee since the 18th century and a renowned moonshiner as her great-grandfather, Amy has strong roots in Appalachia. Spending five years as a community organizer with Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment in Tennessee, and recently pursuing community economic development models that raise people’s voices to direct their own future, Amy has dedicated her career to aiding the region’s people in discovering their own power. She believes that the people of Appalachia can become leaders in energy innovation by harnessing their historic self-reliance and ingenuity.

Amy received a bachelor of arts in Sociology from Maryville College and is completing a master’s degree in Community Development from an award-winning, multi-state, human science program, GPIDEA. Amy also enjoys exploring the world with her beloved daughter and husband.

Please join us in extending a hearty welcome to them both!